A positive outcome of this generation’s willingness to talk more openly about mental health has been the sharing of tactics used to increase one’s happiness. A well-documented strategy to having work-life balance is travel. Whether it’s joining a group trip to a new region, WWOOFing on a farm in the middle of Australia, studying abroad in Japan for a semester, meeting up with an internet penpal, or visiting a pink cafe for the ‘gram, exploring other countries is an important form of self-care.

In an attempt to see a new part of the world and work on giving myself an increase of dopamine, I joined Contiki’s Israel and Jordan Uncovered group tour. The friendly community I encountered on this journey boosted my mood to a level I hadn’t felt in a long time due to depression and anxiety. It was through this experience that I proved to myself that group travel can actually be good for your mental health.

The big sick

Booking a solo trip used to give me an adrenaline rush. If no one could get their life together enough to go with me, why would I wait around for them? Through my flight deals finesse, I saw a good amount of the world on my own and proudly gave myself the “badass, solo female traveler” title.

After a few years into my unaccompanied adventures, “life” happened. And in this case, “life” meant getting diagnosed with leukocytoclastic vasculitis, an autoimmune disease that changed so much of how I viewed myself as a healthy individual. As I sat in bed and Googled what could possibly be wrong with me, my mind went into overdrive and I worried about my future. These feelings pushed me into a dark place that I couldn’t seem to shake like I had my previous bouts with depression. I suddenly felt more alone than ever before and closed myself off to the world.

It took a year of feeling bad for myself and doing the most basic self-care before I realized more must be done to heal. My disease went into remission, but I still had the fear it could suddenly come back. I tried to travel solo to take my mind off of how I was feeling, but it didn’t work. I felt so lonely, anxious, and exhausted when I had no one there to lift me up with positive energy.

Traveling alone had been something I used to enjoy so much. It hurt to think that I would be betraying my independent spirit by giving in to the company of others. But I had closed myself off to people for too long, and I decided that I was ready to open up to connections.

Step one, wanting to change

Contiki, a tour company, recently added an adventure to Israel and Jordan, which felt like the perfect setting to see how I’d do with being a social human being again. These were two countries I had always wanted to visit and I felt that a group setting would make them more comfortable to experience.

Upon arrival, I was nervous. Nervous that I wasn’t ready yet to be surrounded by new people. As an introvert, my natural state is to withdraw from a crowd. This would be a test of how I could handle my reignited passion for life again that involved the crucial ingredient of other people.

Day one was the first chance to try out my new mission. I was extremely jet-lagged and my instinct was to return to my room and sleep. But my inner voice told me to push through. And I am quite happy I did. We took the tram from our hotel in Jerusalem to Mahane Yehuda Market for a nightcap. We were all tired and hot, but wandered around the lively local scene, taking in the smells of baklava and mint hookah smoke that filled the air. A live band playing Israeli music caught our attention and we stopped to take in the moment.

It became clear to me that group travel could be far more enriching than going alone. I fell into effortless friendships with the group so quickly. We were initially brought together because of our love for travel, but we were also curious about these two countries in the Middle East. Most of us hadn’t traveled to these locations yet, so we were all anticipating the itinerary.

Setting off through our historical tour

Our tour officially began in Jerusalem. Walking through the cobbled streets of the Jaffa Gate into the Old City united us with a melting pot of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian cultures. We got a chance to haggle in the souks, witnessed the supposed spot where Jesus was laid to rest, and ate the crispiest falafel from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Hummus Lina. Visiting all of these spots gave us a moment to share with each other our belief systems and brought us closer together in our first few days.

As someone who grew up as the odd one out, a big part of me was scared that I would become a loner on the trip. However, I was delighted to find out that this wouldn’t be the case. We stuck together, knowing this would create a safer and more joyful experience. This renewed a lot of my faith in people and helped me realize that there’s beauty in togetherness. This was especially evident as we trekked through the long paths of Petra and had each other’s backs (and Instagram shots) at every turn.

We headed further south in Jordan to reach Wadi Rum. This desert is famous for being a filming location for many movies, including Lawrence of Arabia, The Martian, and Rogue One. We split into smaller groups and hopped onto 4×4 trucks to take off into the red sand and rock formations. We remarked on this alien landscape and reveled in the history of the area. It was the best way to end our short time in the country before heading back to the Israel border.

Rest and relaxation with new friends

After many days in the deserts of Jordan, it was good to get some time to relax. Our first stop was right across the border in the Las Vegas-like, resort town of Eilat. We took a cruise out into the Red Sea where Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia intersect. I’m not usually one to jump off of a boat, but with the positive encouragement of my new friends, I took a literal leap and plunged into the water below. On our way to Tel Aviv, we stopped at the Dead Sea. We all giggled at the odd floating sensation and stayed buoyant until accidentally getting salt in our eyes and having to flee to the showers.

We approached Tel Aviv and it all started to hit us that our trip was almost over. We only had two more days to spend time together before departing for home. This metropolitan, modern city ended up being a great place to enjoy our final days. For the ocean lovers, the beach provided a great place to relax. For those into culture, we were able to do a tour of the famous street art around the city. To see a bit of the original Tel Aviv, we cycled on the local bike share over to Old Jaffa to see the port and flea market. The foodie scene is alive and well in the city, with tasty pita sandwich eateries such as Miznon, curated by celebrity chef Eyal Shani.

Being around good people can be a cure

The tour came to an end and I was able to do a mental health check-in to see how I had done. The past week and a half had brought me such joy and clarity of mind. I felt so much of my previous biases melting away and my social anxiety diminishing. Something as simple as going on a group trip with strangers made me feel better than I had in years. The kindness and kinship shown to me by the people on this Contiki tour gave me peace of mind in my previously clouded brain.

I left the Middle East knowing that I could move forward with my life and confident that I had healed a lot by spending time around positive people. The community I was seeking when I went on this tour exceeded my expectations and my solo travel obsession has officially been overridden by the need for connection that comes with joining a group tour.

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