Excepting a brief boat ride on the Sault St. Marie and a Disney cruise to Nassau, the first time I left American soil, it was 1998, and I was an 18 year old clown evangelist. It was a church mission trip to Lima, Peru, and we were going to spend a week sharing the gospel with the Latin world through the universal language of whatever is happening here:
We'd spent months preparing, but our careers were short lived, because the first time we put on our makeup the street kids we were supposed to be entertaining cried and ran away. Some tried to hit us, some froze in terror. None were drawn up into spiritual rapture.
The choice to travel the world as a clown evangelist, it seemed, was a grave mistake.
I'm not proud of any of this, but I can say that we learned from our mistakes. We cut our losses, put away the costumes, and spent the rest of our week in inner city Lima painting a deaf school and listening to stories from families living in a leper colony. We all vowed to never speak of it again, and I'm breaking a blood oath by posting this here. (That last sentence is the only part of this story that isn't true.)
Adventure travel that's learned from its mistakes
I tell you this because 1) when you have a story about Peruvian clown evangelism, you can't let it go to waste, but more importantly 2) it's a prime example of adventure travel gone wrong.
Personally, I have to admit that the term "adventure travel" itself makes me cringe a bit because it triggers so many problematic mental images. If I'm in a historical state of mind, I see a British guy in a safari helmet forcing locals to carry his crap through the jungle while he searches for ruins to plunder and pretends to "discover" places where people have been living for thousands of years. If I'm picturing modern adventure travel, it's backpackers harassing wildlife in New Zealand or getting drunk after their kayak trip in Cabo. Whatever the merits of the happy hour at Senor Frogs, it's just not our jam.
Admittedly enough, in our years of travel, we've gone on our share of tours that were marketed as "adventures", and they haven't been all bad: we met some really hardcore people "volcano boarding" in Nicaragua, and "100% Aventura" will always be one of my favorite inside jokes because of a zipline tour we took with friends in Costa Rica, which I'm going to keep to myself in the spirit of inside jokes. But really, in those contexts, "adventure" just translated as "cheap thrill".
Like clown evangelism, compared with the adventure experiences that we know are possible, that kind of definition just seems wrong, wrong, wrong. So as we've decided to delve into the "adventure travel" business, we've had to define the concept for ourselves in a way that seems more accurate to our experience.
Boldly Went defines "Adventure"
For us, adventure has been 100 mile mountain runs, multi-day river excursions, local bus rides through places where we don't speak the language, 15,000 foot peaks, unexpectedly wandering into llama sacrifices, calving glaciers, and erupting volcanoes. It's been human connections that have changed our career paths and physical challenges that have redefined our sense of what is personally possible.
And so, as we define it, adventure is:
1: Something you work for. You really need to have trained, researched, learned a new language or skill, suffered or sacrificed, gotten deeply uncomfortable in the process, or worked hard to get there. Doesn't mean it's not fun. Just that it's not easy.
2: Transformative. It's an experience that changes you, teaches you something about the world, impacts your relationships and outlook, and that you won't forget. Bonus points if it also impacts the world in a positive way.
3: Beautiful. It happens somewhere spectacular, or connects you with other human beings in a deep way. It's an experience of overcoming a challenge or living out a dream, or it moves you. It makes you laugh, cry or hurl.
4: Responsible. It doesn't count as an adventure if it's exploitation. If other people, or the ecosystem, are harmed in the GoPro'ing of your outing, you're an ass, not an adventurer. If the locals don't benefit in some way from your having been there, it's problematic.
Putting all of those things together is a challenge, which means that a real adventure is also rare.
Our big idea: giving you an in with the locals.
At our events and on our podcast people tell adventure stories to share inspiration, but as a business and community we want to go beyond inspiration to also help people make adventures actually happen.
While there's no true shortcut to real adventure as we think of it, and you can't sell it in a canned tour, as we've traveled we've realized that there are ways to make it more accessible. And that's what our newly launched and constantly developing Navigator Network is aimed at.
All over the world, we've realized that there's nothing more valuable - and often more difficult to come by if you don't speak the language - than local connections, and local beta. So, we're working with locals to connect travelers looking for real adventure with the cool people in cool places doing cool things. They're the people in their communities that know where you should go, know who you should go with, and can help you plan your adventures or go along with you. And by connecting with them, paying a price that they set for their services, you can be sure that you're putting money directly into the economies of the places you're adventuring in and leaving communities better than when you left.
We already have navigators signed up in our hometown of Seattle, Nepal, and Guatemala, where we're particularly excited about our partnership in San Pedro la Laguna on Lake Atitlan. Javier (pictured above) is our hookup, and we initially met him when he was our Spanish teacher in early 2016. We learned that he also runs a small non-profit called Trek for Kids that provides livable wage guiding jobs to locals and donates money to send local kids to high school and college. Only 20% of kids in their area graduate high school, but they're currently making education possible for 7 students from small communities around Lake Atitlan. Javier is just the kind of guy we think you'll want to meet, and we hope you'll get in contact with him through our Navigator page to start planning a trekking trip on the hills and volcanoes around Atitlan. (Pro tip: he's also super well connected, so can likely help if you're interested in trail running, kayaking or other types of adventure near Lake Atitlan as well. He can also teach you Spanish, Mayan culture, and grills a mean chicken. And you can donate directly to Trek for Kids through their page, hyperlinked above.)
We're relying largely on referrals and personal connections to build this network, so if you're interested in being a navigator in your area - or if you know someone in any part of the world that you'd trust to make real adventure possible - contact us!
Also, I'm a little rusty, but if anyone needs a clown I'm still secretly keeping the dream alive.