Photo Credit: Julia Borque
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How to Have a Meaningful Travel Experience

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Alex Biddle

We travel to have meaningful experiences: to explore, learn, be inspired, and grow. Traveling with depth has always been a top priority on Dragons programs, and since the pandemic hit, we’ve been asking ourselves how do we continue to have meaningful experiences in this new climate. Sidenote: before traveling anytime, we always asked ourselves, “Can we travel safely and responsibly?” 

While most international borders remained closed in 2020 and early 2021, we focused our energies on domestic travel. We ran programs that offered new opportunities to engage with the beautiful landscapes of the Western US while learning about pressing issues such as immigration, climate change, food sovereignty, and indigenous rights. 

We learned that students had so much to learn from domestic travel programs, which ended up being one of Dragons silver linings from the struggles of the pandemic. In 2021, we began to travel internationally again, and the feedback we received from students confirmed our belief that we can still create meaningful ways to travel, even during uncertain times. 

2021 Student Alumni shared their reflections with us on how their travel experiences this past year were meaningful for them. Check out their stories here: 

Sally Thomas, Rio Grande Semester, Spring 2021:

Photo credit: Sally Thomas

After nearly a year in quarantine and virtual learning, I enrolled in the Rio Grande Semester for the Spring of 2021 to find a safe way to pursue a hands-on learning experience. Within days of arriving in El Paso for orientation, it became clear that I had made a decision that would not only introduce me to truly incredible people and places but also that would entirely change my way of looking at the world and my place within it. 

On the final day of orientation before the departure for our first trek, our instructor led us in a Ko’a, a traditional Bolivian ceremony performed on the first Friday of each month. By presenting offerings over a fire, participants demonstrate their appreciation for the earth and thank it for its continual support and ability to sustain our lives.

During the ceremony, I looked around the campfire at my fellow students and instructors, complete strangers to me merely four days before, now all united by our commitment to restoring our relationship to land and our curiosity about what would come next for us. Days later, after we set up our tents above a wash in Big Bend Ranch State Park, we received our negative COVID test results, and standing in one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever seen, I finally hugged my new friends. 

In the following nine weeks, our semester reminded me daily of the sacred nature of the human relationship with others and with land. During the pandemic, we collectively realized the vitality of connection in our lives when it was no longer available to us. This realization made each conversation, each hug, and each mile on our treks significantly more meaningful. My deeper appreciation for the interdependence of all life — and my understanding of how much sweeter life is in the presence of others — is the greatest gift my semester gave me.


Julia Bourque, Colorado River Basin, Summer 2021:

Photo credit: Julia Borque

In July of 2021 I traveled with Where There Be Dragons on the Colorado River Basin trip. That was probably one of the best things that has happened to me, and I believe that it was more impactful because the world is in the middle of the COVID- 19 pandemic. For starters, it was very refreshing to be someplace new than within my hometown. Second, once I warmed up to everyone, and got to know everyone pretty well, it was amazing to meet other people from all over the country, especially since I’d been in a little bubble for so long.

Interacting with people had been tough during the school year because of virtual learning, so it felt good to interact with people in person once again. 

All of my group was vaccinated, so we were able to interact with each other without masks. When we were interacting with other people, or if we went inside, we were always instructed to have a mask with us for when we would need it. But for most of the time, we were outside with just the group, so it wasn’t really necessary. Because of that, it made it feel like everything was “normal” for once, and I was very happy on this trip.


Mariner Headrick, Spirit of the Andes, Summer 2021

Photo credit: Mariner Headrick

Yes, I have traveled during the pandemic yet never during the true height of it. I was living in Madrid, Spain when the first wave hit and it hit pretty hard in Europe. The borders were shut down along with any and all flights to different countries. This wasn’t originally a Spain mandated quarantine however all the neighboring countries or popular tourist destinations all shut down for Spaniards or those coming from Spain so my family and I were trapped.

However, after 100+ days stuck in an apartment, my sister and I got the first flight back to the states and stayed with my grandparents until my mom and brother could leave. It was an interesting experience traveling alone in an empty airport but I can’t say it was a bad experience. After all my family arrived in Minnesota, we traveled quite a bit around the US since the quarantine and restrictions were much more relaxed there. My original Dragon’s trip was to Nepal, but the pandemic prevented it. However, I did get to travel around the states and this summer I got to go to Bolivia, which is still somewhat restricted due to the pandemic. 

Being a kid living in a foreign country, my family values travel a lot and believes that experiencing is the best way to learn. I think more than ever before it is meaningful to travel since now we are able to see not only the impact tourism has on places around the world but we also get to experience a much more exciting reception. People are now more intrigued to find out and explore after being prevented for so long, that drive and pursuit of knowledge will only strengthen the world since strength and acceptance will only come through learning and understanding different cultures, traditions and methods of thinking. Despite being in a pandemic, there are still safe ways to travel and be respectful of other countries’ wishes. 

Ruby Papavassiliu, The Good Life, Summer 2021

Photo Credit, Simon Hart, The Good Life instructor

This past summer I traveled with Dragons for the Lake Superior program. After being cooped up in the house, in the same state, zoom meeting after zoom meeting, my mind and body needed a new environment. A time to disconnect with electronics and reconnect with new people while learning about a new area. I was grateful enough to discover Dragons before covid and I knew I still wanted to immerse myself in it during the summer.

When I arrived at Potters Farm there was this sense of freedom, liberation, I was able to let go and reconnect with those around me. I was with a new community who I quickly grew close with and from that we were able to offer support to each other in an odd time of traveling. We respected each other’s wishes when it came to being in close contact with each other, even though we were a pod. There’s a mutual understanding that some people have more boundaries now and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Even going outside to public spaces, although the mask mandate might’ve been different, we recognized that we were a big group and to respect those around us we wore our masks. Because of that I felt so much happiness and there was nothing that dampened my spirits. I was just so glad to be around people, away from my computer and the zoom meetings. There was a hunger within me to absorb the world around me and those who lived in it.

My favorite memory was in the middle of the trip, when I was doing my ISP, Independent Study Project, I chose ceramics. I’ve done ceramics before but I used a wheel, this time I was doing it with a slab of clay. While we were in the studio we wore a mask, and that didn’t tear me down at all, I was just happy to be learning about something that I love in a new way from a new person.

After the first day of ceramics I was so so so happy, the connection I, along with others, had built with the woman who was teaching us was so positive. I expressed it as a grandma spending time with her grandkids, there was such a bright energy I remember feeling that day. Something I hadn’t felt since being cooped up in my room.

Once again I felt so grateful to be away from what I knew, be given a chance to explore new areas, learn from new people, create art, and rejuvenate the energy that was stripped away from me. Although I was still in America and it wasn’t a big trip, it was euphoric.

For more travel stories like this, check out The Yak Board. If you’re ready to start planning your next adventure, head here to explore Summer and Gap Year Programs

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