‘A true seeker could not accept any teachings, not if he sincerely wished to find something. But he who had found, could give his approval to every path, every goal; nothing separated him from all of the other thousands who lived in eternity, who breathed the Divine.’ Hermann Hesse
After 13 years of conventional education, this quote was the most important thing I read. It resonated within me unlike most of the things I was taught in school. Funnily enough, it wasn’t something that my teacher had ever stressed any importance on. It comes from the novel ‘Siddhartha’ and I read it during my sophomore year World Religion’s class. I had spent most of my education being told that I wasn’t looking at things the right way, that I had to conform to the educational system that had been set in place, that everybody but me knew what was best for me.
To me, it seemed as if public school education had this obscure ideology that nobody could define, but somehow it was important that every student met the same goal through the same path.
How else would they get into college, get a job, and live some picturesque American life? Since this was something I didn’t want for myself, I became the kid who in one of my teacher’s words ‘would be fired from McDonalds at the age of forty because you are too stupid to work a fry machine’. After dropping out of high school, getting sent to an alternative education boarding school, and spending a year in college not understanding what I was even doing there, I found my path: it was travel.
Fast forward to 2004. I was finishing my freshman year at Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona. I was studying culture and religion at the time and as wonderful a school as Prescott is, I did not feel fulfilled. I became disinterested in my classes as we were always discussing the world as if we understood it, even though none of us had ever explored it. I decided it was time for me to begin exploring.
It started with a summer trip to Thailand. I spent most of my time in small villages as the only foreigner. I had no idea that Thailand was a huge tourist destination until a few weeks into my trip when I passed through Khaosan Road. Those first six weeks in Thailand opened up something inside me that I had only perceived vaguely before. It was an insatiable thirst to experience the world on my own terms: through travel.
Upon returning to Prescott I began searching for ways to get back to Asia. I wanted to go back to Thailand, but I also wanted to go everywhere. India was on the top of my list. After talking to my career counselor at school who had helped me my freshman year when I felt my education and life was lacking direction, he suggested a program called The Institute For Village Studies. The program would bring me through more villages in Thailand for two weeks and India for five. After that, I’d have the rest of the spring and summer to travel.
Upon speaking with the director of the program, I knew that this was the right trip for me. The director was a lifelong traveler and became the greatest teacher I ever had. On that first trip, I designed my own curriculum and studied holistic health in Asia, Tibetan Tantra, and received a service work internship working with hill-tribes in Thailand and Tibetan refugees in India. After three days in India, I told my director that I needed to find a way to spend the rest of my studies in Asia.
It turned out there was a distanced learning program at my school designed for people with families or full time jobs that still wanted to receive college credit. Students would develop their own curriculum and seek experts in different fields to be their academic mentors during their studies. I proposed to my school that I would do that program while traveling the world and they accepted me.
I was responsible for my whole education. I chose every course I took and developed my syllabus and assignments for everything I did. A whole new world opened up to me because I decided to take control of opening it. During my studies, I developed courses such as Cultural and Religious Pilgrimages where I studied the concept of travel as a sort of pilgrimage. I traveled to pilgrimage sites in India and Bhutan and learned the theory, but also experienced what pilgrimage meant for myself. My Indian music course had me watching concerts in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh while comparing the difference in musical styles and taking tabla lessons in Pushkar. My Thai culture and language courses had me in villages in northern Thailand where nobody spoke English and the only way to get around was to speak Thai. I learned more in a month than I learned in three years of Spanish before.
For my senior project, I traveled with my brother from Madrid to Bangkok by train, bus, and hitchhiking. I did a cultural and religious survey of the land we traveled and designed one other course entitled the Mongolian Nomad where we would stay with nomads across the country and learn about their way of life. My brother Justin had just graduated college and was working on his own film project. I ended up graduating with a concentration entitled Experiential Cultural and Regional Studies with an Emphasis On Religion and Spirituality. During my studies, I worked as a translator and guide for Village Studies every winter.
It’s been four years since I graduated college and I’m still following my path by running Off The Path Travel with my brother. That Herman Hesse quote is as true as it ever was for me. It has also taught me something invaluable as a tour guide. The greatest thing a leader can do is to teach people to lead themselves. I’ll never tell a person what path they should take. Only they can decide that for themselves. The best I can do is to help them gain the tools to find their own path on their terms.
Alex Martin is Co-Owner of Off The Path Travel,which offers authentic responsible itineraries throughout Asia. Intimate small group tours and specialized itineraries take travelers beyond the boundaries of tourism into the homes, lives and cultures of Asia. From India to Thailand and Mongolia, Off The Path Travel uses local guides to create relationships and experiences that transcend the anticipated. You can follow Alex on Twitter @otptravel, find him on Facebook or email him at alex@otptravel [dot] com.