Traveller about to embark on a journey.

Compassionate travel: How to actually go in peace

The choices we make, whether at home or elsewhere, tell a story without words. While travelling, our actions are opportunities to build relationships, or to put up walls. Sometimes we do the latter without realizing it. 

Practicing compassion for someone else’s suffering can feel like the right approach. But being empathetic when another person’s situation is misunderstood, or experienced in an unfamiliar context, can lead to misunderstandings. 

You can be a compassionate traveler on unfamiliar ground, but it takes a bit of work. I’ll be sharing some awareness tools to help you tell stories that strengthen the bonds between our human family. 

Why compassion is important now more than ever  

It’s been a tough year. We’ve seen how polarizing views pull people, communities, and nations apart. Events of colonization, genocide, and racism are complex with layers of history. All of that complexity is bubbling to the surface. And at the centre of these injustices are misunderstandings, narrow focus, and a lack of care for one another. 

Compassion asks us to surrender our rigid agendas so that we can see human connection instead of separateness. Focusing on similarities can dismantle “us versus them” thinking. And travel happens to be the perfect environment to practice the path of understanding. 

How can you become a more compassionate traveler? 

If you’re looking for a step-by-step guide, you won’t find one. Becoming a compassionate traveler comes from the heart. Although there is no exhaustive list to check off, there are key areas that can be guideposts as you reflect on the impact words or actions may have.

Do your pre-work

Pre-work can be the difference between an enriching trip or an unsettling one. How people behave in your neighbourhood can be dissimilar, even considered rude, in other places. Researching the customs lets you know how to stay, see, and eat. A simple Google search can prepare you to navigate potentially sensitive topics with a compassionate mindset. 

Include these in your trip research.

  • What do people wear normally, at the beach or pool? Just because wearing a bikini is commonplace at home it may not be elsewhere. Many locals on tropical islands around the world exercise modesty. 
  • What are the tipping customs? Tipping is generally accepted worldwide, but the amount varies country to country.
  • What are the main religions? Religion influences culture and societies. Understanding a country’s religious voice can give insight on social behaviours. 
  • What are the main language(s) spoken? Learning a few common words and phrases shows interest and care.
  • What are the country’s rules? Chewing gum in Singapore is not common because selling it is illegal. Abiding the law is a minimum standard that shows you respect the people and place.

Get equipped to navigate foreign interactions by learning the customs, traditions, and perspectives of the destination you’re visiting.

Walk a mile in their shoes

“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” – anonymous. 

Take, for example, Tak Bat,  a longstanding alms-giving ceremony in Laos. Buddhist monks walk throughout the village in the early morning meditating and collecting carefully prepared food donations for sustenance. 

  • One may immediately think to give money as an offering. But in this ancient spiritual practice, placing money in a bowl would contaminate the food.
  • Many vendors sell packaged rice to offer as alms, however, the food is often old and not prepared free of impurities, physically and spiritually. 
  • Heavy items like water bottles seem kind, but the weight becomes a burden as the monks travel by foot for many miles. 

What may seem like harmless actions could make another feel uncomfortable or disrespected. 

“Walking a mile in their shoes” means you imagine or learn about different people and their circumstances; why they are doing what they are doing. Think about the purpose behind actions, how health, upbringing, culture, education, and other socio economic factors can influence unique societies. 

To try this, place yourself in the following examples. How would you feel?

Imagine yourself as:

  • An impoverished family selling food on the streets with tourists snapping photos of you 
  • A monk peacefully meditating at a quiet temple while a group of people are speaking loudly
  • A marginalized youth being filmed to portray the roughness of an area 
  • A woman who covers her body in modesty due to religious beliefs standing next to visitors wearing revealing clothes

The events may differ, but the rules of empathy remain the same anywhere in the world. It’s easy to make judgments or ignore other’s needs when self-focused. We have so much knowledge within ourselves, but when we stop and consider the experiences of another we all learn. 

“I Come in Peace”

In many sci-fi movies the visitor, whether it’s an extraterrestrial landing on Earth or a human arriving on a foreign planet, will say they come in peace. Arriving guns blazing, pointing out errors with an air to change what already exists immediately builds walls that hinder communication.

In someone else’s country, remember you are always a visitor. You wouldn’t walk into someone’s home and start bad mouthing the art on their walls. Why would it be any different traveling?

As a visitor, you experience a snapshot of the destination. Whether you spend 7 days or 7 months in a place, before you arrived there were centuries of history that shaped the people, beliefs, and landscape. The present moment you’re witnessing is only the tip of an iceberg, and even that tip is seen through your filtered lens. 

We don’t have to fully grasp all the influences that make a place unique (or uncomfortable), but we can create compassionate space for the things we may not understand.

I recall a time my husband and I rode a train in Sri Lanka. The train ride from Kandy to Ella is renowned for its picturesque views. We arrived at the station a few hours early to ensure we got tickets and good seats. As one of the first to arrive, I was pleased that our plan worked. 

Passengers continued to funnel onto the platform in droves. I was beginning to wonder how we’d all fit. When the train docked it was every person for themselves. Even with all the preparation, I honestly thought I was going to be left behind! 

Although we made it on, the first few hours riding the train was spent crammed like sardines and me standing with a view of my husband’s armpit. 

Sure, boarding trains in Canada, my first home, is more systematic and comfort-focused, but Sri Lanka operates in its own way. Seats eventually opened up,we got a seat and even shared snacks with a local family while admiring gorgeous tea plantations and mountain scapes. It was the fondest memory of our trip!

Many layers of influences and values mould a culture. There is beauty in this. Instead of imparting your knowledge, by silently observing and drawing from your own inner wisdom, you learn something new about the scenario and yourself.

Altruism sets our own desires aside, but it doesn’t mean you have to be a saint. Missteps can, and will happen from time to time. But at the heart of it, we all want to be cared for, recognized, and understood. And it takes each of us to make the effort to bring that recognition into fruition. So what story will you tell?

Michelle Villarosa
Michelle Villarosa
Being an explorer is my way of life. Anywhere in the world, discoveries in nature, community and spirit bring me joy and light. You’ll find me in self-care rituals, cherishing the dance between birds and trees, dreaming of creative possibilities, or playing fetch with my cat Winslow and nursing my newly adopted pup Rosemary. The human spirit inspires me. It invites me to share my purpose of uplifting others. That’s why, with my intrepid husband who equally reaches for his stars, I’m taking the leap to create a wellness space on the magical island of Siargao, Philippines. Deep breath. Let’s go!

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