Soul trek: How travel and spirituality can intersect

I whip my hand away from the boat’s splintered wooden edge as another vessel gently collides with it, jostling for space on the river.

Before us on the banks of the Ganges, the evening Aarti ceremony is taking place in a haze of thick, billowing incense. This ancient ritual offers respect and, thanks to the holy river, is the most sacred pilgrimage site in the world for Hindus and Jains.

Varanasi dhobis- Photo by Sarah Chamberlain

The jangle of bells rings out across the water as performers raise multi-tiered candelabras above their heads in synchronized patterns. The flames of hundreds of tiny candles flicker like ecstatic dancers in the evening breeze.

Moments before, as we glided along the river toward the ceremony, our boat rower, Raju, told us the story of the Ganges with wide-eyed reverence. He spoke of Lord Shiva, the Creator of the whole universe, and of the river being the hair of the Almighty One.

Varanasi boats- Photo by Sarah Chamberlain

Raju, a short, stocky man with dark eyes and red betel nut-stained teeth, told us that we could ask the Mother Ganga for anything and if it were right, she would provide. I closed my eyes, searching within myself for what I wanted.

‘Meaning’ was the answer that came from a place deep within me, surprising me by the clarity with which I knew, in that moment, was the one thing missing from my life.

I had traveled to India with my boyfriend to celebrate my 30th birthday in the holy city of Varanasi, a place synonymous with death and dying because of the cremations that take place on the banks of the river. While some people had thought it a strange destination to celebrate a milestone, I found it a fitting place to farewell my 20s. It was the beginning of a soul trek.

Varanasi boat- Photo by Sarah Chamberlain

Drawn to the forward motion of zigzagging the globe, I’d worked as a flight attendant for an Australian airline since I graduated university, but a decade of jetlag, night shifts and the hedonistic lifestyle of partying around the world had eventually taken its toll, leading me to reassess my choices.

I was blessed in many ways, but felt like I was waiting for my life to truly begin. I was constantly striving toward the next thing but had begun to feel unfulfilled by my high- paced lifestyle. I wasn’t enjoying my job with the airline anymore and it seemed I was just working to pay my mortgage without ever stopping to ask myself what I actually wanted.

We walk along the ghats by the river the following morning as men in loincloths perform religious acts of puja and female pilgrims excitedly dunk themselves in the blessed river, draped in elaborate, brightly colored saris. Morning yoga instruction blares through a loud speaker from an ashram, encouraging its devotees to follow along.

Yoga high- Photo by Sarah Chamberlain

Dhobis twist purple sheets high above their heads, bringing them down on large flat stones with a loud “whack!” to remove the grime.

Watching these people go about their morning rituals in one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in the world gives me a humbling sense of being a tiny speck in the grand scheme of life.

“Varanasi is the most alive place I’ve ever been,” I think, watching as a body wrapped in white cloth is placed on a pile of tawny wood and slowly engulfed by flames.

Sleeping while awake

Six months later, I am on retreat at a secluded resort on the Indonesian island of Bali. For five days we meditate and practice light yoga in tropical gardens overlooking the North Bali Sea. I find it challenging to sit with my thoughts for so long.

One evening, our group gathers in the meditation hall to share what we are discovering as a result of our practice. Chanting from a religious ceremony in a nearby village serenades the intimate gathering. They are deep, soulful words I don’t understand but somehow recognize. The melodious songs that drift into the resort every evening after dark remind me I’m not the only one seeking spiritual renewal.

1_Aarti Ceremony, Varanasi - Photo by Marisol Paleaz-Leong

Even though the retreat has been challenging for me, I am relishing the new experience and can feel a change stirring within me. I know there is more to life than working a job that no longer fulfills me in order to pay my bills. I have created a life I thought would make me happy, but has left me feeling empty. I want more experiences like this, where I can develop a relationship with my soul.

Our group sits in a circle around a fuchsia and gold floral mandala complete with flickering tea light candles. I stare into the mandala and search for the words to sum up how I feel. I suddenly blurt out, “I feel like I’ve been asleep and have woken up in someone else’s life.”

3_Aarti Ceremony, Varanasi - Photo by Marisol Paleaz-Leong

Several months later, the universe answers my call for change. The company I work for offers voluntary redundancies in an attempt to cut back staff. My boyfriend and I decide it is time to follow our hearts and embark on a journey of long-term travel. We’ve both lived the sort of life society deems successful with steady jobs, cars and a mortgage but neither of us feel like we are living the life we’re meant to.

While I don’t know exactly what I want, I dream of a life filled with connection, creativity and adventure. We both love to travel and in fact, our times abroad have always been our happiest. While it seems like a pipe dream to create a life on the road, we want to try.

We save as much as we can by working overtime and taking on extra jobs. We sell our home, our cars and almost all our possessions, save for a few sentimental objects. The monumental task of unloading that which tethers us to one place, is more stressful than I anticipate and fear pervades my every move. The day we board a plane to Phnom Penh with a one-way ticket each and a small backpack filled with clothes, a laptop and a camera, I have to pinch myself that it is finally happening.

I am filled with the trepidation of stepping into the unknown, but also a sense of freedom of which I have never experienced before.

Risk Versus bliss

That day was three years ago. Since then, I’ve studied meditation with monks in northern Thailand, visited Tibetan Buddhist temples in Western China, and witnessed Shamanic rituals in Guatemala.

Tibetan temple- Photo by Sarah Chamberlain

We’ve lived in Playa del Carmen, Mexico – a vibrant town on the Caribbean coast where I learned to slow down due to its laid back, ‘manana’ lifestyle. The Riviera Maya plays host to an array of yoga classes, meditation workshops and other healing modalities. Adding to that, its proximity to ancient Mayan sites and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world make it a popular destination for spiritual seekers. In Mexico I’ve skydived, snorkelled with whale sharks and volunteered in the local community – things I would never have experienced had I not taken the risk to follow my bliss.

Over the course of this journey I have learned to balance ‘doing’ with ‘being’ and have developed a regular meditation practice which helps me stay present and connected. Cultivating a connection with my true self, rather than trying to fit the mold of what society expects has now become paramount for me. I am no longer waiting for my life to start because I finally feel like it is a true expression of who I am.

Buddha statue in Thailand- Photo by Sarah Chamberlain

I now try to encourage others to ‘travel within’ and connect with themselves as a path to fulfilment. In August I’m returning to Bali to coordinate a meditation and yoga retreat at the same resort I experienced my moment of clarity over four years ago.

I truly believe there is no limit to the extraordinary life we can create when we listen to what our soul desires. My hope is that more people will connect with their true selves and live a life that is an expression of who they really are, utilizing their unique talents and gifts.

My boyfriend and I are still happily nomadic with no plans of stopping, and yet, I have discovered a sense of stillness within the motion. While international exploration still fuels me, self-discovery continues to lead me home.

Sarah Oaxaca - Photo by Sarah Chamberlain

Bio: Sarah Chamberlain is a nomadic writer, traveler and dreamer from Perth, Western Australia. She lives a ‘free range life,’ traveling the globe slowly and mindfully, encouraging others to discover the beauty of their imperfect journey and to connect with their true selves. Find details on her Return to Wholeness meditation retreat in Bali, August 23-29, and follow her travels at 


*Images by Sarah Chamberlain

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