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10 Life-Changing Travel Experiences

There are few things that have the potential to be as life-changing as travel. Whether we’re going to a neighboring state or traveling half-way around the world, travel gives us a chance to see how other people live and what’s meaningful to them. Every trip changes us in some small way, but other trips have a greater impact. Some trips give us an opportunity for personal growth and self-reflection. Some let us reconnect with our loved ones and nature. Others educate us about political situations, religion, and people on other continents. We’ve reflected on our decades of travel and decided to share 10 of our most life-changing travel moments that have transformed us in some way.

Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, South  Korea

Japan and South Korea – 1991

Lance’s first foreign travel experience threw him in the deep-end. Forget going to London. No, at the age of 13, his parents packed up the car, drove him from Colorado to Los Angeles and put him on a plane for two months in Japan and South Korea. Lance’s parents are big travelers and have always valued those experiences for him. So, at the first chance, they shipped him off for a summer. He went with a group from Boy Scouts, but didn’t know another soul.

In retrospect, sending a lively and inquisitive 13-year-old halfway around the world on his own was a bold choice. There were numerous adventures and misadventures along the way (many that he has never told his parents about). Getting lost on the Tokyo subway and ending up in the Red Light District was one of them.

The Boudhanath Stupa with flags in Kathmandu, Nepal

Nepal – 1997

In college, Lance had the chance to study in Nepal. He had taken a course in biomechanics and the professor would be leading a trip to Nepal to study high-altitude physiology, so this was literally the chance of a lifetime: study abroad and the ability to do research. But Lance was excited to study his Buddhist studies in the birthplace of Buddha. That was the plan, anyway.

Unfortunately, it was the early days of an insurgent civil war. Much of his time in Nepal was spent under martial law, dodging the military and trying to stay safe. In retrospect, it would have been a good idea to come home, but he stuck it out.

Living in Nepal gave him a chance to see aspects of tourism that were sometimes unpleasant—in particular, sex tourism and instability in the tourism sector. It was rough times for the Nepalese people. Despite these problems, they treated him like family and welcomed him into their homes.

Tower, courtyard, and building at Christ Church at Oxford University

Oxford, England – 1998

The summer between my junior and senior years of high school brought the opportunity to study for a month in Oxford, England. By that time, I was certain that I wanted to leave Dallas to attend college in New York, but I had never been away from home for more than a week. My mom thought I needed a dry run. So in July, I packed up what I wore in the summer in Texas where it was regularly over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and headed for England. Where it was 65 degrees. Travel lesson number 1: research the weather.

I spent the next month learning to fend for myself. There was no one to get me up on time or do my laundry. I had to manage my own money (not so well) and deal with the consequences if I missed breakfast in the dining hall.

Quad anc building at Pembroke College of Oxford University

I also met new people from around the US, some of whom are still my friends today. Together, we visited the literary haunts of Oxford – the places where Lewis Carroll crafted the stories of his Alice and J.R.R. Tolkien imagined Bilbo Baggins. We walked through the spot that inspired the dining hall at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts (before anyone knew Harry). We cruised the Thames, watched so much Shakespeare, ate new foods, learned new things, and kept ourselves alive without our parents for a month. It was a lesson in the transformative power of meeting different people, seeing different places, and breaking out of your comfort zone.

Marble fountain with gods and animal figures, the Trevi Fountain

Italy – 2007

In 2007, we both had jobs that kept us busy at least 50 hours per week on top of regular business trips, and Lance was knee-deep in coursework for his MBA. Plus, we had recently gotten married and bought a house and a car. We didn’t have a lot of extra funds, and time was more than limited with only two weeks’ vacation. Even though we wanted to travel personally, it didn’t seem realistic. But then we were almost forced to change. Lance had an opportunity to study abroad in Italy as part of his MBA program. Suddenly, fun travel was required! And there was no way he was leaving me at home.

Colorful walls and dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy

In addition to school work – which included jaunts to Lake Como, a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory, and a fabulous winery – we took time to fall in love with Italy. We explored the canals of Venice and got lost in the winding streets. We walked in the rain in Florence and hiked up the bell tower for a beautiful view of the clay rooftops. We drank wine in Rome, studied every detail of the Colosseum, and threw coins in the Trevi Fountain. It was utter magic.

That trip ignited our passion for Italy, but it also reignited our passion for travel beyond work. It made us realize that if we put the date on the calendar and committed ourselves to making it happen, exploring the world was possible. This blog was born just a year later. Truly a life-changing travel experience.

Minaret of the Grand Mosque in Muscat seen through an arch

Oman – 2009

When Lance suggested that we visit Oman in early 2009, I thought he had lost his mind. At that point, no one we knew had been, I had no idea where to even look for it on a map, and I couldn’t imagine what we would do there. I also wasn’t 100 percent sure how safe it was or whether we would be accepted because I knew absolutely nothing about the place. But I went along for the ride anyway. Literally. We took a bus.

Ancient fort with towers on the coast of Oman

In my mind, Oman was nearly a blank slate. What we found there was enlightening. The country was in transition. The sultan was working to open Oman further to Western tourists and to maintain strong relationships with governments around the world, from Iran to the US and the UK. A Muslim country with an absolute monarchy, Oman is also home to Starbucks and entertaining hookah bars and pristine beaches on the Gulf of Oman (adjacent to the Persian Gulf)—things that originally seemed like contradictions to me but actually co-exist quite happily.

Visiting the Grand Mosque in Muscat was both my first experience visiting a mosque and still the only time I’ve needed to cover nearly every inch of skin to do so. It was the first time we had a server in an international hotel be surprised that we were American because Americans didn’t really visit. It was the first time we had a local tour guide proud to show off his country and also be quite honest about the religious and political challenges in the region. It was the first time I’d really had my mind blown by travel and the realization that a place which initially seemed so “foreign” and unknown could be perfectly beautiful and welcoming.

Four giant carvings of a pharaoh out of rock at Abu Simbel in Egypt

Egypt – 2011

Traveling to Egypt was amazing for so many reasons. From hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings to sailing on the Nile, every experience was better than the one before. We stood—dwarfed—by carvings three stories tall and 2000 years old. We ate dinner with a Nubian family and roamed the markets looking for anything that could come close to commemorating the trip. And we did it with my mom and sister in tow, in honor of my mom’s 60th birthday.

Relief carvings of Egyptian gods on a wall

For all of these remarkable experiences, though, we were nearly alone. It was only five months after the January 25th Revolution when Hosni Mubarak was removed from office. We watched the Arab Spring become an Arab summer, and there were few other tourists, many people being dissuaded from a visit by the overall lack of stability of the region. And yet we learned so very much from being in the country at that time.

Leading up to the trip, we became more attuned to the political situation in North Africa and the Middle East, watching live streaming reports of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Once in the country, we saw the space that had been occupied by millions, including our own tour guide, and learned more about daily life in Egypt during Mubarak’s reign and in the few days since he left office.

We also saw the desperation of the people whose livelihoods depended on tourism, even though in retrospect, it was only the early days of the tourism slowdown. In every way, we came away from the trip as more understanding and better citizens of the world.

Rainbow over basalt columns of Giant's Causeway and the ocean

Ireland and Northern Ireland – 2013

Every relationship has its ups and downs. And we were going through one of those down periods when an opportunity arose to attend several workshops in Ireland.

Taking the trip was one of the best decisions we’ve made. In addition to the workshops, we spent 10 days exploring Ireland and Northern Ireland. We visited Celtic ruins near Dublin, stayed in several amazing castles, and tested out some of the famous Irish breweries and distilleries. We drove north to Belfast and Derry where we were enlightened by the tragic stories behind The Troubles murals in each of those cities. We also drove part of the breathtaking Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal. In all, we breathed in the beauty and peace of Ireland’s stunning landscape.

Ruins of chapel wall and tower at the Rock of Cashel

Our journey to Ireland got us out of our daily routine, which was exactly what we needed at the time. The workshops we attended reconnected us with our travel community and helped us to improve many of the things we do here on the website. But more than that, it reminded us of our mutual love of adventure and exploring new things.

Elephant in South Africa

South Africa and Zambia – 2014

Our visit to South Africa and Zambia in 2014 was the trip of a lifetime. More than a year of planning and a lifetime of dreaming went into making the adventure happen, and the reality was better than we ever could have expected.

View of Cape Town and bay from above

Visiting Africa was an opportunity to see things that we’d only previously seen in movies. Having an elephant stare at us inquisitively only 10 feet from our jeep, getting drenched at Victoria Falls, and visiting the penguins along the Cape Point Route are only a couple of highlights in a trip that was filled with highlights. Surrounded by elephants, lions, and rhinos, we were quickly reminded of the awesome power of the earth’s creatures and how vulnerable we can be as humans in the wild. And at the same time, humans have wrecked such havoc on these animals and their habitats.

These experiences made us much more attuned to wildlife issues than we had been in the past, especially when we learned the story behind riding elephants. We also realized how little we knew about the different countries and people of Africa—what distinguishes South Africa from Zambia or Zimbabwe or anywhere else in Sub-Saharan Africa. We can’t wait to go back to find out more.

Close up of red Sally Lightfoot Crab on black rock

Galapagos Islands – 2015

Stepping foot in the Galapagos Islands is like stepping back in time thousands of years. Of the 20 islands of the Galapagos (13 major and 7 minor), only 4 are inhabited, so most of places we visited, there were absolutely no signs of humans.

The landscapes were full of volcanic rock and the massive evidence of lava flows. Cacti peaked up from crevices in the rock and different colors of moss, algae, and small trees dotted the surfaces of the islands. Many of the animals here—from bright red, puffed up frigate birds to fur seals lazing in the sun—had no fear of humans. In most places, the animals ruled completely. It’s impossible to visit a place like this without gaining a new sense of appreciation for “unspoiled wilderness” and the animals that live there.

Boats and harborside restaurants in Cassis, France

Provence, France – 2015

Provence was a trip of firsts for me. It was my first solo trip, my first time trying out Airbnb, my first time driving in Europe (that’s always been Lance’s job), and my first time to the South of France. Traveling alone when you’ve always traveled with a partner can certainly be a life-changing travel experience. Suddenly, I was responsible for absolutely everything! And when—like me—you’re prone to getting lost and leaving important items at home, that responsibility can seem a bit daunting.

Peach and yellow buildings in Aix-en-Provence, France

There were a few amusing moments like when I had to Google how to use the stove…and the washing machine. And there were a few challenging moments like when I got on the train going the wrong way and couldn’t get off for a half-hour. But mostly, there were amazing moments. I strolled through countless local markets, relaxed in the Provencal sun, and saw dozens of Roman ruins. I drove through the Cotes du Rhone and cruised the calanques of Cassis. And I became a better and more confident traveler for doing it all on my own.

Photo of Korea by Laszlo Ilyes (CC by 2.0). No changes made.

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Nadezhda Wagner

Monday 2nd of May 2016

Those are some really cool experiences that you've had! I'm bookmarking this post and re-reading it later :)

Cheers, N.

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