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The happiness of travel: It's a two-way thing

By Alice B-B

My godfather, the late and great explorer, author and ardent conservationist Mark Shand, gave me wondrous gifts. My excited little fingers would unwrap pearls from India or treasures from Bali. But the best presents of all, were his stories. Having disappeared for months, Mark would return with thrilling tales of man-eating dragons in Komodo, a narrow escape from headhunters up the Irian Jaya; or the new Indian lady-love in his life…

An elephant called Tara. She became the subject of his bestselling book Travels On My Elephant and the inspiration for his charity, Elephant Family, protecting these magnificent beasts and safeguarding essential migratory corridors in India. Better than any fairytale, Mark filled my head with dreams, my pockets with travel money and my heart with longing for adventures of my own.

There’s the excitement of visiting somewhere new, meeting different people, exploring unfamiliar cultures, smelling unusual smells, tasting exotic food, pushing myself to do things out of my comfort zone.

Every chapter of a new quest brings me happiness: from plotting a trip – whether it’s to the Cotswolds in Oxfordshire or the empty quarter in Oman, finding somewhere unusual to stay, buying the gear needed to escape urban life and be in the wild, and knowing that I’ll have the chance to reconnect with nature and rediscover the intuition to trust the earth and her ancient ways. Then there’s the buzz in the moment: of being somewhere new, meeting different people, exploring unfamiliar cultures, crazy smells, exotic food, pushing me out of my comfort zone. (It’s proven that doing new things opens up neural pathways that keep our minds young, fresh and active – tick!) and once home, the after-effect: a bank of experiences that can be plugged in, to replay the wonder, adrenaline or peace of travels past. Some of my ‘greatest hits’ include cruising over the Wadi Rum in a hot air balloon at sunrise, spotting pink dolphins in the Colombian amazon at sunset, night diving with manta rays in the Maldives.

It’s been proven that doing new things opens up the neural pathways that keep our minds young, fresh and active.

But the more I explore the wonders of the world, the more I realise the overwhelming joy of travel is not simply about consuming the experience. That’s too selfish and greedy. It’s also about trying to give back. Now, wherever I go, I try to unearth a local charity, NGO or conservationist and help give a voice to their endeavours. Recently I was at Islas Secas, a new island hideaway in Panama, where the ISF (Islas Secas Foundation) supports marine research, including the ongoing study of two distinct humpback whale populations (from the Arctic and the Antarctic) who extraordinarily both migrate to this very spot in the Pacific Ocean. But possibly the most exceptional experience was a day spent on Nonsuch Island in Bermuda, assisting Jeremy Madeiros, who has dedicated his life to protecting the cahow – a seabird thought to be extinct until the 1950s.

Travel has the power to change us emotionally. But as Mark Shand demonstrated with his efforts to save the Asian elephant and its territories, as travellers we have the power to create change environmentally. It’s this element of responsibility that has become an inexorable part of how travel makes me happy.