Last summer I met three of my best friends at the beach in the south of Spain called Zahara de los Atunes, an old tuna fishermen’s town now frequented by Spaniards in the know. We played in the ocean, lounged on the beach, jogged along the beautiful Andalucian coast, and indulged in lengthy meals of gazpacho, seafood and paella. This trip was all about leisure, relaxation and escape. Memorable? Absolutely. Transformative? Not in the least.
Last weekend I joined three others to explore the underbelly of my own hometown: the Tenderloin district in San Francisco–located in the heart of the city and frequented mostly by the poor, disenfranchised and homeless. But like at the Spanish beach town, it was a local, Milton, who brought me here. Milton lives in a local shelter in the Tenderloin and is an advocate for others living without. He walked us through a day in the life of someone living on the streets, lacing our experience with personal anecdotes and deep knowledge of the history, politics and economics of homelessness in San Francisco. He showed us where he serves meals to others, where children receive support and social services, the strategic locations (hint: near the steps of City Hall) to find an outdoor place to sleep, and finally, the shelter where he lives.
When I speak to people about travel experiences in the abstract, the conversation first goes to snorkeling in Hawaii or eating gelato in Italy (both amazing experiences, to be sure). But when I ask people to about their personal travel stories, they recount the experiences that are not only memorable, but transformative and resonant: exploring Angkor Wat with a local tuk-tuk driver supporting his family on $10/week, joining strangers for a local home-cooked meal by an amateur chef, or spending a week in a Bedouin camp in Jordan.
This kind of travel is what travel writer Tony Hiss calls Deep Travel, that feeling that sneaks up on you when you’re in motion, suspended from thoughts of reaching a destination. This experience is not informed or enhanced by infinity pools or 1000 thread-count sheets, but by losing oneself, even momentarily, in the moment of motion and discovery.
On the surface, there is little to be desired about experiencing poverty on the San Francisco streets alongside someone who is living it day-today. Yet, when I reflect on the travel experiences in my life that have most moved me, inspired me and made me feel a strong sense of connection to the world around me, none of them look so appealing at glance: riding a train for two days to spend a week without plumbing on a desolate Hopi reservation; spending five days in the Sahara with nothing more than the clothes on my back and a wool blanket; sleeping on a tiny cot in a stranger’s house in Tallahassee.
And this is what rests at the heart of Vayable: experiences that put us in motion, that give us a strong feeling of connection to the world around us, and that resonate beyond that single moment of pain or pleasure.
To book the homeless experience on Vayable: http://www.vayable.com/experiences/318-spend-a-day-homeless ** All proceeds go to the homeless.