Wednesday, June 11, 2014

In Search of the Self With Soma Journeys

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open,” India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said.

Wandering with open eyes is something that comes naturally to Cristy Elmendorp. The 30-year-old was born in Jakarta to Dutch-Indonesian parents, moved to the Netherlands with her family at just six months old, and grew up between Europe and Asia, later studying in Amsterdam and London.

These days, Elmendorp is based in Bangkok and is the managing director of Soma Journeys, a platform that facilitates travel to cultures and environments that encourage and inspire new ways of thinking and being.

Before Soma Journeys, Elmendorp worked at a Thai cable TV station.

“I hosted five programs that were targeted to an English-speaking audience,” she says. “Part of my role was to interview experts in the hospitality sector, which eventually led me to start my own PR and marketing company, called Visual Works. In 2005, I was given the opportunity to work with an educationally oriented travel company called Rare Journeys, where we led trips, pilgrimages and travel seminars in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan and Myanmar. After several years of extensive traveling, my view on travel had shifted and I was drawn to a way of travel that was as much an inner journey as well as an outer one and where one could get in touch with the soul of a place and its people.”

This is when Elmendorp first thought about creating Soma Journeys, as she wanted to build something that would help others reconnect to nature, experience new cultures, and at the same time have enough space to reflect and time for an inner discovery.

“I started traveling at a very young age and I always found it to be a source of fresh ideas and new perspectives,” Elmendorp says. “I always had a deep love for the more remote areas that offer a way of life that is often hard to find in today’s modern world. There is a different rhythm in these areas which is more natural to me. Through Soma Journeys, I intend on sharing a journey that explores places and subjects that both engage the mind and delight the senses while at the same time gently guide travelers through new and unfamiliar terrain.”

Soma Journeys currently organizes journeys and expeditions to Tibet, Mongolia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Bhutan, Borneo and parts of China, while for next year, Elmendorp hopes to add India, Japan and Sri Lanka to the list. Later this year, between Sept. 2 and 24, Soma Journeys will take travelers to Mount Kailash in western Tibet — right to the geographical and mystical heart of the sacred mountain while experiencing Tibet’s Buddhist and pre-Buddhist traditions.

“Mount Kailash lies in the high plateaus of the Ngari region in western Tibet and is held by multiple faiths to be the meeting place of Heaven and Earth,” Elmendorp explains. “One of the most ancient pilgrimage destinations on the planet, every 12 years in the Tibetan Horse Year [2014] the spiritual merit of circumambulating this holy mountain is held to multiply exponentially. A single circuit around Mount Kailash is held to equal 13 rounds completed in any other year, thus granting pilgrims access to the mountain’s fabled, and normally forbidden, Inner Sanctuary.”

Depending on the destination and theme, she adds, the number of travelers in a group is usually between six and 15 guests, coming from all over the world. The average travelers are in their mid-40s, but there are always exceptions.

“We also had parents bring their young teens with them, up to single travelers in their late 60s,” Elmendorp recalls. “While often the people that join our one-off adventures normally travel independently, they see the advantage of joining Soma’s signature journeys because they can travel with other like-minded individuals from a variety of professional backgrounds. It also enables them to see places, experience intimate personal encounters with exceptional individuals, and benefit from a refined luxury and services of experienced expedition leaders at a reduced expense through sharing it with other travelers in the group.”

Each year, Soma Journeys organizes a few trips with fixed departure dates, always offering new destinations. But Elmendorp doesn’t stop there.

“Besides our one-off adventures, we offer tailor-made experiences,” she says, “whether you want to visit the eagle hunters of Mongolia on horseback, hike through the pristine landscapes of the magical Kingdom of Bhutan, or sail across the coast of Indonesia and visit the Komodo dragons.”

To be able to give travelers an unforgettable and amazing experience, Elmendorp puts a great emphasis on preparation.

“All of the experiences I offer are based on my own extensive on-the-ground research and I am always searching for the finest lodgings that offer comfort while at the same time are a reflection of the local environment,” she says.

While Elmendorp has made the travel industry her home, and has certainly seen some of the most beautiful spots on Earth, there are still many more places that she personally wants to explore.

“I would love to travel throughout South America, Papua New Guinea and Japan,” she says.

“I feel that travel and exposure to other cultures develops broader cross-cultural understanding and tolerance of divergent beliefs. It is human nature to fear what we do not understand, and travel provides the most effective bridge toward a deeper understanding of both others, and ultimately ourselves.”

Seeing that Elmendorp has practically been traveling the world since she first moved from Indonesia to the Netherlands, it must be hard to choose one journey as a favorite — but there is indeed one incident she always remembers.

“I will never forget the complete peace and connectedness that I felt while hiking over a 15,000-foot pass between Nepal and Tibet,” Elmendorp recalls. “We had been trekking for six days to reach the Tibetan border and the last day was going to be particularly long so we had started at dawn. As we made our ascent toward the pass, a blizzard came from nowhere and I remember not being able to see more than a meter in front of me.

“All I could do was tell myself to simply put one foot in front of the other and not to think about how much further we still had to go. When we finally reached the top of the pass, the storm had subsided and I felt an inner peace and silence well up within me. I do not know if part of it was simply relief that I had made it to the top, but I do know that whenever I am sad or I feel off-center I can revisit that space of complete serenity.”

Of course, Indonesia, the country of her birth, remains special to Elmendorp.

“I love the diversity that Indonesia offers and I spent several months traveling throughout Java, Sulawesi and the Sunda islands exploring new routes,” she says. “I find that Indonesia is a country that is so rich in diversity, volcanic landscapes, and an eclectic range of ethnicities, dialects, flavors, and religious practices that to me traveling through Indonesia is like going on a journey through a multi-sensory world.”

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