02/09/2011 10:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Transforming Every Day Tasks Through Travel

Recently, I heard a story of a yoga master who sought the secrets of attaining enlightenment. The yoga master asked her teacher for guidance, and in response, the teacher advised her to work toward mastering 3 things: cooking, cleaning, and gardening. By conscientiously participating in seemingly unimportant tasks of daily living, over time, the yoga master saw glimpses of the ever illusive enlightenment. As a world traveler, educator, and researcher, I have seen firsthand how ordinary tasks, like cooking and sharing a meal, can provide us with eyes that more readily see the extra-ordinary.

In 2003 I spent 6 months living in Mongolia, conducting research on sustainable tourism. During my time there I took part in a project where tourists, like me, came to work alongside Mongolians, and where Mongolians came to work alongside tourists. Our shared mission was to restore one of Mongolia's most important cultural icons, Baldan Baraivan, a three-hundred year old monastery that had been destroyed in the soviet era. As travelers, we had literally crossed the world to view the endless landscapes, work hard on the temple restoration project, and make meaningful connections. Despite our shared intentions and boundless energy, language limitations and cultural differences seemed to create an impenetrable wall between us, so by the time we all sat down to dinner we were so tired of trying to connect that we gravitated toward others who shared our background and our language: tourists with tourists, Mongolians with Mongolians. Our goal of cultural connection was, at that point, better in theory than in practice.

It was during a surprising moment of simplicity that we all came together in what one Mongolian described as the way we "put everyone on the same level." After a day of work, the hungry and weary travelers flocked to the kitchen. Our evening meal of dumplings was still being prepared by the Mongolian cooks and when we crowded into the kitchen to help, something magical happened. I certainly felt a burgeoning excitement as we took our first steps in learning a skill long-since mastered by all Mongolian men and women: the art of making dumplings. The Mongolians shared in the excitement too, and they were thrilled to teach this basic and deeply rooted cultural activity. While they could place dollops of vegetables or meat into the soft dough and effortlessly fold them into beautiful braided sculptures, we travelers created what I will graciously call "wadded balls of overflowing filling." Over time, practice provided many of us the skill to make passable dumplings, a feat which was met with endless praise in Mongolian and in English. The laughter and joking that accompanied our learning made even the ugliest dumplings worth the effort. Making dumplings was more than a culinary breakthrough, it was really a breakthrough in creating meaningful connection between two groups. Cooking and eating together allowed all of us, Mongolians and travelers alike, to share our difference but to do so on common ground. One tourist reflected:

Making dumplings yesterday was one of the best experiences in my life... Being side-by-side, being taught something, just learning so intimately through un-guided proximity to people from another culture...being shown how to do something. It was rewarding, just to participate in a common place activity.

What I took away from this experience was that a move from spectator to participant may well be as important to meaningful, sustainable travel as monitoring our carbon footprint, spending money locally, and treading lightly. A conscientious, participatory vacation provides experiences that are meaningful to us as travelers partly because they are meaningful to the communities we visit. Early in our stay, one of the travelers described a "tourist" as "...someone who comes to a place and looks around, maybe takes a couple of pictures but doesn't really do anything with the community." Within a week he had re-framed this view, "...I feel like we are involved with the community, helping to build the community. We are eating their food, we are interacting with them on a person-to-person level." This change was not just on the part of the tourists, as one Mongolian explained, "Before I had almost no interactions [with the tourists]. Here I cook with foreign people. I eat meals with them. I laugh when they laugh. I smile with them. Before [this experience] I prepared barbecue for foreign people, I put the table-cloth on the ground, and set plates and forks like in a restaurant. I was a service man and they were a customer." By sharing in the tasks of everyday living, both groups felt a deeper connection.

I don't know if cooking, eating, cleaning, really are the basic steps to personal enlightenment but I do believe that they are at the very heart of connecting to communities that we visit. It is in the act of our most basic daily activities that we may find entirely new insight into ourselves and to others. One of the participants at the monastery project described the experience by saying, "I have learned that people are people. Everyone has the same essential love of family, everyone eats, everyone laughs."