Eco-Immersion: Maximizing The Opportunity

The key to eco-immersion is somehow connecting with a network of folks who live and work in compelling areas and getting a fast-tracked, authentic exposure to their home, centering on their culture.
10/29/2012 11:02 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

I grew up in the '60s with parents whose idea of a vacation was to board a train from Philadelphia to San Francisco and head straight to the John Muir trail in the Sierras for two weeks of backpacking and solitude. We rarely encountered others. Few families vacationed that way back then. I was fascinated by the opportunity to really explore on my own while immersed in a vast chunk of spectacular nature. I was also struck by the absence of obvious cultural elements and what living in such a place was like.

During a career of teaching biology, no doubt influenced by such early experiences, I continued to put together my own wilderness adventures with family, friends and eventually students.

I am passionate about what I call eco-immersion. This is not ecotourism, which has been a trend for a while now. Most ecotourism is just tourism to wilderness areas where the experience is about the thrill, the spectacle and the adventure of exploring the surrounding nature -- always a pretty sure thing.

However, more is possible for those interested in learning and challenging themselves to get more out of the opportunity. Consider oikos, root word of eco, Greek for home. Not just house, but home and all the relationships implied. The key to eco-immersion is somehow connecting with a network of folks who live and work in compelling areas and getting a fast-tracked, authentic exposure to their home, centering on their culture. Normally it might take an extended period of time in one place to forge the relationships necessary to explore the deeper fabric of a local culture. Some semester abroad programs afford such opportunities. For those who only have a week or two, whether a school or family, however, what is possible? As more schools are starting to understand the value of having students experientially learn, particularly in different cultures, the challenge is to leverage the experience beyond the intrigue of the destination or the thrill of a set of activities.

The challenge of helping students and families go "beyond a vacation" to truly experience a foreign country's culture, customs and natural biology in a global context -- an eco-immersion -- fueled my desire to found my own educational travel company, Chill Expeditions. We have the honor of bringing students and families from across the country to exotic locales such as Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Belize and Andalucᅢᆳa, Spain where we connect them with an extraordinary network of local innovators to fully immerse in each unique culture and spectacular setting. It's a journey that leaves travelers with a global perspective and inspires a renewed sense of social responsibility towards all people and the planet.

Eco-immersion is an approach that significantly accelerates the deep connections and learning that might happen in a semester abroad program or sabbatical. The key is having a network of local folks who are engaged in really interesting work and who excel at sharing their passion with others, particularly students and lifelong learners. Finding a guide who can weave together all the elements -- particularly each local's story and the associated activities they engage visitors in -- into a coherent, seamless experience is essential. The best guides stimulate an active, exploratory experience rather than just downloading information as so many do. It is surprising how few student travel experiences fully leverage their opportunity. Being someplace foreign is still good enough for many travelers and providers. Of course that is the foundation, but there are people out there who really understand how to leverage a traveler's time in a foreign place to the max, way beyond what most can imagine. What matters is how quickly and thoroughly the visitor can be immersed in that web of connected locals.

Another way of looking at the opportunity is to ponder the notion of both living in your hometown like a tourist and traveling in a foreign place like a local. Consider that many of us take for granted or never bother to explore what is right in front of us at home. "That's for visitors!" On the other hand, most tourists do the obvious and rarely engage authentically. The possibility of merging approaches is intriguing. Imagine being guided around a foreign place by a favorite uncle who knows everybody and everything and can provide great context, knowing you. This is what I call eco-immersion. In the absence of an uncle in every destination, having a great guide who has the same knowledge and network is what it is all about. It is astonishing how much of a transformation can occur, particularly in a young person, in only 10 days or two weeks when every element of an experience is intentional and cumulative in effect and affect. Not your ordinary vacation or even educational travel.

My eyes were opened when, as a traveler who did all his own planning for family trips, I decided to try something different. We never would have joined a tour bus trip or even used a guided tour to explore a tourist site such as Pompeii -- we always read up and took our own path. However, when actually arriving with my family at Pompeii and seeing the hoards of tourists streaming from buses and heading to banners designating the large group tours in a myriad of languages, we almost turned around to head for the beach.

Then a charming, disarmingly frank Brit approached and queried if we wanted a custom tour with him. He guaranteed a very different path, far from the crowds, reaching places most would never see, with crazy stories along the way. He had been doing this for years, loved it and seemed clever and fun. Saying yes was one of the wisest travel decisions I ever made -- we had a ball and learned so much! His fee was a bargain.

This got me thinking about finding his equivalent wherever we go, even in wilderness areas like the Sierras of my youth. Those early forays there, a passion for teaching and meeting people I consider visionary in their approach to life has propelled me to learn more about getting the most out of a relatively short time when travelling. There is an explosion of interest now in family travel of this nature, which takes the concept of even those Sierra trips to a whole other level much less the traditional family vacation. Many families are eager to explore what is possible beyond a vacation -- they are ready for eco-immersion.

It is clear as well in education that given the information explosion, and the disconnect between classroom and reality, experiential education is more and more critical. Authentic, richly contextual experiences, particularly in very different settings, help clarify a young person's ability to discern what is most important to her back at home and what this might ultimately mean for the rest of her life.

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