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Many of us have taken planes, and have gone to exotic places outside of where we grew up and live. Be it a backpacking trip to India, a short weekend holiday spent in Bali, or a work-related trip to Johannesburg, the act of going somewhere outside of our personal zone of familiarity and comfort is often seen as an opportunity offering some form of inner transformation.

Indeed, the act of exposing ourselves to the foreign and unknown can evoke a plethora of new feelings in us. Sometimes, this experience leads us to new perspective, or even new decisions about ourselves and our lives.

Don’t be mistaken though, not all journeys that we take will lead us to a new self at the end of the road.

More often than not, we return home as the same person as we were before, just with a few more stories to tell and a few more memories to reminisce about during our mundane 9-to-5 job.

So, you may ask, what differentiates a trip that leaves us unchanged, from a travel experience that can potentially transform us from the inside out? How can I make my travels mean more? How do I get more out of them?

Well, there is no one way to achieve it, that’s for sure. We are all different individuals, from different backgrounds and with our own interpretation of the world.

Having said so, we are all similar in so many ways too. A genuine smile, a simple greeting, or an act of kindness may be all it takes for two persons separated by their backgrounds and languages to relate and connect with each other.

Hear someone out. Listen to their story.

To travel is not just to see and to experience, but also to listen. I think many people missed out on that, and therefore, on a great learning opportunity. To listen is to try to empathise, to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

By listening to the stories of the strangers we meet on the roads, about their lives, about their view of what’s happening in the world, about their dreams for the future, we gain not just the knowledge and viewpoint of another human being, but also learn of the value and validity of our own pre-existing views and beliefs.

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
— Maya Angelou

That’s how we gain human perspective I think — not by looking at the endless Himalayan mountain range, or the ebb and flow of the sea by the beach. You’ll never know, sometimes it’s the most unexpected persons who impart us with the most valuable lessons in life.

Also, tell your story.

I often hear people say that they travel to feel free again. They explained that traveling helps them escape temporarily from the realities back at home — their old problems, burdens and responsibilities.
True enough, being in a foreign land where nobody knows anything about you does have its unique liberating quality. You can be anybody, and you can be nobody. There, I think, is where you find your most authentic self, and then be it.

“… sometimes one feels freer speaking to a stranger than to people one knows. Why is that? Probably because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as he wishes to think we are.”
— Carlos Ruiz Zafón

How do you start? Well, relax. Don’t overthink it. Instead, try to enjoy the process of letting go of your insecurities, your fears and inhibitions. What better ways to get things off your chest than to confide in a stranger whom you know you’ll never meet again? There! You just save yourself a costly trip to a therapist.

Jokes aside, it does take time and a few tries before you learn to open yourself up, not just to strangers, but to the world as a whole. But trust me, once you’ve reached that point, you will begin to see the world in a more fearless and unprejudiced manner.

Last but not least, leave your mark.

Make your travel different and more meaningful by contributing to the local cause. And no, I’m not talking about volunteering here. Neither am I talking about donating old clothes, books and stuff that people might not really need.

By contributing, I mean helping locals who want to help themselves. By aiding them in creating a positive outcome that is both tangible and sustainable. That’s what I think a real positive impact entails. That’s how we truly help.

Some local businesses may be starting up or in the process of renovation and need some funding. One easy way to get in touch with these people — the entrepreneurs, designers or small business owners living/working in the area you’re traveling to — is through online crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which have thousands of projects coming in from all across the globe.

To skip the hassle of searching through the tons of projects which may not be relevant to your needs, you can also try TravelStarter, a travel-specific crowdfunding platform with a growing array of travel and tourism business projects from different parts of the world.

Want to help a Croatian instructor rebuild his sailing boat and be rewarded with a sailing course? Or help a New Zealander living in the Philippines rebuild his Con-Fusion Cafe after typhoon Yolanda destroyed the restaurant? Or are you headed down to San Diego anytime soon? Help a new B&B at Pacific Beach in their funding raising efforts to refurnish the hostel. For a contribution of $80, you will be rewarded with a two-night stay, a three-hour whale watching tour and also a brewery tour!

With the help of platforms like TravelStarter, travelers are encouraged and enabled to engage in more locally instigated experiences.

That’s not only a good way to help somebody, it’s probably the best way to make a local friend too. Definitely an experience that’s worth more than what you fork out of your pocket.

At the end of the day, or at the end of your life, you will realise that it’s not the places you have seen, the crazy adventures you have gone through, or the pictures that you have taken that matters the most.
It’s the people that you have met along the way — those whom you have helped, those whom you have loved, those whose lives you have touched — that really mean the most. They are what made you a true traveler of life.

Lastly, always remember:

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”
— Tim Cahill


This article originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.

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