Interview with acclaimed traveler Shannon O'Donnell
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By: ITHP | April 4, 2015
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If you're thinking about going abroad to a new country chances are Shannon O'Donnell has been there. A speaker, writer, acclaimed traveler and founder of the popular travel site, "A Little Adrift, with over 20,000 members, she has done it all. ITHP had the treat of interviewing Shannon about her time abroad. After reading you might find a spark of inspiration to break out of your comfort zone and start planning your next big adventure. Enjoy.
What kind of advice would you offer a person who has a strong desire to travel abroad but fear is holding them back? Is traveling abroad as dangerous as the media portrays?
The media has successfully painted huge swathes of the as un-travelable, and yet when I am on the ground traveling these countries I have found a very different situation. While there are some very real dangers in parts of the world, it is blown out of proportion by the media, and is usually coupled by our own lack of strong geography knowledge. Many countries are quite large just like our home country, and an isolated issue in one area does not always indicate a broader issue. I find it’s best to read bloggers local to the regions you want to travel to get a better read on what it’s like.
Also, I often find that the type of fear is very specific to each individual, and though safety is a huge one, those fears include health and food safety, communication fears (how will they understand me), and host of issues that—like the media situation—rarely pan out on the ground. I addressed many of these fears, including traveling as a solo female, in this post.
What would you say to the domestic traveler who complains that international travel is too expensive? How can we make traveling abroad affordable for those on a budget? Is it really even that expensive if done right?
Travel is expensive all things considered, I won’t pretend that it’s not a significant investment—it is—but I often find that it’s a perception issue too. You could travel to many places for two weeks for the price of a state-of-the art flat screen TV. Now, you wouldn’t have that flat screen, and you may have to put away money for a year or more to save for that trip, but it’s actually doable if you value that experience more than the filling our lives. And research bears out that those experiences are the things a good life are made of, so I find it important to realize that for many people above the poverty line, there are pieces of our lives we could reprioritize to pay for travel.
And once you’re convinced you should take that trip, yes!, there are certainly ways to make it more affordable. The sharing economy has helped, sites like Airbnb can make stays overseas more comfortable and affordable. Consider unconventional destinations—Europe downright expensive—but you could have an amazing vacation and see beautiful culture and history in somewhere closer like Central America.
You've been all over the world and met all kinds of people from a variety of backgrounds. Have you noticed any patterns in populations that appear to have a high level of happiness? Is wealth the key to happiness or have you noticed happy communities in impoverished areas as well?
Happiness exists at every part of the wealth spectrum; it’s in the human nature to seek out the best of each current situation. That’s not to say however, that impoverished areas should be idealized. Alongside this blissful happiness visible in the children in developing countries, there can also reside astonishing levels of disease, suffering, and pain. To a certain level, wealth does increase happiness, and can take a happy but struggling poor family and give them the access to healthcare, schooling for their children, and dignified work. So, in that way, wealth for them can lift some of the low points—it lessens the seesaw of emotions for impoverished.
I’ve found actually that wealth is only a small part of the equation, but areas with a high level of community and communal support are doing pretty well. That’s something I see lessening and lacking in many Western cultures; we are moving toward very closed off societies in fenced yards and isolated suburbs. However in developing countries, in many Eastern European countries, and even in places like France, they retain this community openness—I call it the “sidewalk culture”—that tends to increase the support system for everyone in the community and correlate with everyone’s well-being.
What are the pros and cons of traveling alone abroad? Is this something you'd recommend to most healthy adults?
There’s this great episode of On Being with the author of Alone Together, and my favorite thought from it is this: “If you don't teach your children to be alone, they'll only always know how to be lonely.” This same thought holds true with adults. Technology today has taught us to be totally caught up in connecting with others every minute of the day. Smartphones gave birth to a phenomenon where we can share every moment of our lives with others, pushing updates to Facebook or Instagram on a whim. Or texting a loved one throughout a gorgeous beachside sunset.
Traveling alone gave me a natural way to combat that even before I could identify I needed it. Though it’s easy to stay connected on the road, traveling solo also pushes you up against your comfort zones and boundaries in ways that can’t always be alleviated with a Tweet, a status update, or a shared conversation with a travel buddy. You have to live through the moments alone, work through them in unfamiliar territory, in another language and an entirely different culture—all with the wits you were given. You have to learn how to be you in a range of circumstances, and how to be you day in and day out of days and weeks on the road. It’s possible to learn these lessons in everyday life, but traveling solo is like a bootcamp on learning to accept solitude and learn more about yourself along the way.
National Geographic awarded you with the 2013 traveler of the year award. Can you describe what about your travels stood out that led to your recognition?
National Geographic featured me as one of their Travelers of the Year for my work promoting grassroots travel as a way of connecting across cultures. So often when we travel we look at the destination as a checkbox, but my work focuses on teaching people who want to create meaningful connections overseas how they can craft travel experiences that have a positive impact on their lives, as well as the lives of the communities they visit.
Specifically, they liked that I was attacking this subject with passion and purpose—I wrote a book, launched a website dedicated to the topic, and I regularly speak at colleges and across the U.S. about the topic. I really believe travel can be transformative, but it’s not travel itself that transforms us, it’s the attitudes we take with us and our openness to learn and connect across cultures and boundaries that direct correlate to the transformative power of our travels.
Do you have any memories of a specific moment abroad that changed how you viewed the world forever?
These past more than six years on the road have been filled with some of the most inspiring people in the world. And it’s not always the big stories that stick out for me, but the smaller moments in the journey where a short piece of advice from a grandmother in Laos combined with my own life’s experiences made profound connections. I feel incredibly lucky to have made my life’s work talking to people from all over the world and sharing their stories with a wider audience.
You write about the importance of volunteering abroad. What sparked this passion?
I began volunteering in high school and continued the practice into my adult life. Before I left to travel, I decided to take my volunteer focus from back home and make a commitment to finding unique ways to be of service to the communities I traveled through along my journey. And while that has meant volunteering many times over the past six years, this time on the road also ignited my love for social enterprise and supporting local economies through grassroots tourism.
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