What is Transformative Travel?

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Words and Photos by Featured Guest Blogger Michelle Della Giovanna

“You’re crazy!” It’s a sentence I’ve heard a million times.

Sometimes it’s mixed with, “You’re brave,” but usually it comes down to the same question: “Why?” Why do I do the things that I do?

Whether it’s eating bugs in Cambodia, sitting in silence with monks in Thailand, or jumping off a bridge in Nepal, the question is always the same. To be honest, sometimes even I don’t know why. In a broad sense, I know it’s because I want to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I honestly believe that the only way to fail at something is to come out of the experience the same way that you went in.

what is transformative travel?

When I started my one-year journey around Southeast Asia, I was looking to “find myself,” but I didn’t really know what that meant. Finding oneself is a silly way to look at it. I mean, you’re right here! Rather, I like to think of it as getting to know myself. What do I like? What don’t I like? What can I accomplish beyond my wildest dreams, and what are my limits? The world offers so many crazy and wonderful experiences where you are completely outside of your comfort zone. Those are the moments when I find the most clarity. And transformative travel is exactly that.

Below I’ve compiled the experiences that had the deepest impact on me and altered the way I see life.

completing a 10-day silent retreat in thailand

Describing a silent retreat as “mentally challenging” is an understatement. You’re put in uncomfortable living conditions, surrounded by strangers, and told to sit silently and think of nothing for days. You wake up early and only eat two meals, but all of that is necessary because once you strip away all of the comforts and isolate yourself from the world, you can truly dive deeper into yourself. There were days when I literally closed my eyes and screamed into the depths of my soul. There were days when I stared at ants for hours. There were even days where I laughed and felt pure joy. My emotions were erratic and my mind reeled, but when I came out of my retreat I understood so much about myself.

After pacing back and forth for hours, I learned the importance of a single step. I learned to breathe in a way that can calm me down no matter how irrational I am. I learned to deal with the emotions that I usually suppress. Mostly, I learned how to open up my heart and let love in. I learned to let go of fear and embrace life and everything it has to offer. My ten-day silent retreat changed me in ways I can’t even begin to explain.

summiting a volcano in indonesia

Nothing will help you find your inner strength quite like trekking a volcano. I know what you’re thinking. I must mean “physical strength” but no, I mean inner strength. It’s hard to believe, but most of trekking is mental. On my way up Mt. Rinjani, I wanted nothing more than to give up. My heart was racing, and my breath was so fast that I felt like I couldn’t breathe. The cold temperatures and brutal wind threatened to push me over the edge. The muscles in my leg ached excruciatingly. Every step I took sent me sliding backwards. But physical limits are small. All of those things made me want to give up, but none of them actually forced me to.

Reaching the summit of a mountain was almost indescribable. Tears formed in my eyes. Every inch of me was too tired to move, but I’d made it. I’d done the impossible. I was stronger than I knew. My mind carried me further than I ever thought it could. Every single step took determination and will. Every meter up threatened to end me. Looking out at the view from the summit was one of the proudest moments of my life. For a few minutes, I got to walk above the clouds.

failing at scuba diving in indonesia

For some, scuba diving is a magical experience; however, it was a little different for me.

It showed me my limits and reminded me to keep my expectations in check. After following several bloggers who raved about being deep in the ocean, I knew I would love it. It was a teachable moment for me because my expectations were so high, and I was so positive I’d succeed, that a reality check was bound to happen. It never occurred to me that scuba diving would be hard or scary. My ego was a little out of control.

For me, being under the water was never relaxing or peaceful. It felt like constant anxiety. My mind couldn’t stop calculating how fast I could swim to the surface in case of an emergency. My breath was a constant struggle. My mask kept filling with water. Every time I tried to clear it I choked, forcing me to swim to the surface too fast. I couldn’t accept that I didn’t like scuba diving, because I felt like I had to.

By day three, acceptance had washed over me (literally). I was so thankful to have tried diving, but I knew it was something I didn’t yearn to do again. Writing my experience down taught me humility. I wasn’t going to be good at everything, and I wouldn’t love everything I tried, and that was okay.

bungee jumping in nepal

I should start by saying that I am terrified of heights. In fact, I’m so terrified of heights that I had trouble just walking across the bridge that I was meant to jump off of. The only thing going through my mind repeatedly was, “why am I here?”

Amazingly enough, I had an answer. The simple reason was that I wanted to overcome my fear of heights, but it was much deeper than that. I wanted to look death in the face and say, “it’s okay.” I wanted to stop pretending to be immortal. What better way to see how truly impermanent we are then to stand on a ledge 525ft (160m) high and jump?

As I approached the platform, my mind raced. My heart was pounding out of my chest. My arms were shaking as I held them out to my sides, forming a “t.” My chest felt tight, and I could barely breathe. I slowly moved toward the edge, continuing to stare straight ahead, avoiding looking down. When I arrived, pure panic set in. “What was I doing here?” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I exhaled and opened them. In that small moment, I felt crystal clear. My mind was calm, and my heart rate settled. The bungee master counted to three, and I jumped.

learning yoga in new york city

Not all transformative experiences need to be extreme. Taking yoga classes in New York City was also outside of my comfort zone. Sitting in a room surrounded by model-like women, all bending and twisting elegantly in ways that I couldn’t, was beyond intimidating. I would mess up the poses and compare myself to those around me.

It wasn’t until after a week or two of doing yoga every day that I discovered something. Yoga wasn’t about looking good or impressing people. It wasn’t about doing the coolest poses or comparing yourself to others. It was about understanding your body and what it was capable of. It was about knowing your strengths and weaknesses and then pushing yourself little by little to be better. To be stronger. It was about accepting your body. It was about loving yourself. Yoga taught me how beautiful I am. It showed me that my body has done everything with me, and I should love it unconditionally.

Pushing myself to try new things has opened my mind and my heart. It’s taught me things about myself that I never would have discovered sitting in the comfort of my home. If someone had told me a few years ago that I’d be spending weeks surrounded by monks in silence or jumping off the 9th highest bungee in the world, I would have laughed at them. Now, having done it, I can’t imagine my life without these experiences. They’ve shaped me into a better person with a deeper understanding of life and of myself.

author bio

Michelle ditched the hustle and bustle of New York City life, strapped on a backpack and started to travel through Asia. Read about what it’s like to trade five inch stilettos for squat toilets at Full Time Explorer. Or, check out the ongoing list of new experiences she’s tried under her “What It’s Like” category.

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