Transformative travel: Readers' tales of trips that changed their lives

While most New Year's resolutions fall as flat as a day-old glass of Champagne, those that revolve around travel can have a more lasting influence — not only on travelers, but on those they encounter along the way. USA TODAY asked readers to share a life-changing journey. The responses may inspire your own trip in 2009. Bon voyage!

Volunteering changed her world

It was the eve of 1999, and I made three New Year's resolutions. I can't remember two of them, but the third resolution was to do something I was always afraid of doing — taking a vacation by myself.

Sitting alone on a beach seemed lonely, so I applied with Global Volunteers to work in a day-care center for indigent, handicapped kids in Quito, Ecuador. I packed my bags — alone — that July.

The entire course of my life changed after those two weeks. For the first time in my life, I felt useful — and realized that each of us is born with an inherent desire to serve. If each of us can tap into what type of service we are born to do, we will clear space in our life to do it — and ultimately leave this world better than when we found it.

Since then, I have done much to sustain and promote that belief. In 2002, I developed, produced and hosted a public-access television show for Fairfax County, Va., called Get Out and Give Back that aired for 18 months, featuring volunteers from various non-profits in the greater Washington, D.C., area. In January 2005, I began writing a blog and newspaper column called "Get Out and Give Back" (, where I encourage readers to find their service passion.

— Jane Hess Collins, Alexandria, Va.

Orphans gave him gift of perspective

My wife, Jan, and I were part of a 26-person team committed to helping a small orphanage on the outskirts of Cape Haitian, Haiti. It was the first time we had been outside the USA. I had no idea of the need; after all, the evening news doesn't provide the smells and gravity of being in a Third World country.

We were at the orphanage for nine days. We built an outhouse. I helped a well driller in Sainte-Suzanne put in the first freshwater well in the history of the small mountain village. We carried a dying man with AIDS to a local American nurse in the middle of the night.

We had hoped to make a difference for the kids, but there was so little we could provide.

Sunday morning, all the children put on their best clothes and make their way to a local church. The same kids who have one meal a day of rice and peas, who sleep on concrete or broken-down bunks, who have no mother, no father, and no apparent future — these kids were singing in four-part harmony: "We've got so much, so much, so much, so much to be thankful for! We've got each other to be thankful for. We got our Jesus to be thankful for. We've got so much, so much, so much, so much to be thankful for!"

It has been 22 years since we made that trip. I see myself, my family, my country and my life completely different. Even the simplest things have a new perspective. I made no impact on the children of Cape Haitian, Haiti, but they sure changed me with a single song.

— Roger Dean, Canton, Ga.

He was in over his head — and loving it

I learned scuba diving at the request of my daughter Philipa when I was 60 years old and fell in love with it. As a thank you, I invited her on a cage dive to see great white sharks at the Pacific island of Guadalupe, Mexico, with Standing in the cage, I saw my first shark swimming by, so close that I could almost touch him. I was 64 years then and I never imagined how this trip would give my life a totally different direction.

When I sold my ranch in upstate New York a couple years later, I started to book dive trips where sharks were included. My first shark dive without a cage was in the Bahamas. Jumping into the ocean, knowing that there were at least a dozen Caribbean reef sharks down there, was a bit weird. But I jumped in anyway.

The sharks were inquisitive but never aggressive. I fell in love with those beautiful, amazing and highly developed animals. I started to read every book I could find and started my own website, I am now an avid shark protector and am now on the Board of Trustees of the Shark Research Institute in Princeton, N.J. I give presentations about sharks in schools and colleges to tell as many young people about the importance of sharks in our oceans.

After 120 shark dives, I am still in love with sharks and take every opportunity I get to dive with them.

— Jupp Kerckerinck zur Borg, Millbrook, N.Y.

A wish upon a starry night comes true

I will never forget the moment I stepped on the sand of Wailua Beach in Kauai. It was night, the air was balmy and smelled like gardenias. There were so many stars, it seemed we were really on the edge of the universe.

It was a welcome respite from the Utah winter cold, where my father battled pancreatic cancer and I was in the middle of a painful custody battle for my 4-year-old daughter. I remember thinking what a miracle it would be to one day live in such a place.

Several years later, after my father passed away and I obtained full custody of Kate, I got a call from a recruiter looking for a medical social worker in Kauai. The memory of standing on the beach gave me the courage to sell all of our things and pack up a few suitcases. We now live moments from that same beach, caring for our cats, chickens and each other.

That journey gave me hope for a better life and a wish that finally came true.

— Ingrid Maria Middleton, Kapaa, Hawaii

A visit to Switzerland melts his heart

While traveling in 1993, I went to Neufchatel, Switzerland, with a friend to visit a family that had hosted foreign exchange students. The house was a nestled in some beautiful rolling hills outside of the city, situated among farmhouses. The family welcomed us with Champagne from the region and showed us where to ditch our backpacks.

Around 6 a.m., the father tapped on my bedroom door to ask if I would help him get the morning milk from the local dairy. We loaded four empty milk pails onto our bikes and pedaled to the city center. There, we dipped the pails into the vat filled with the day's warm milk and headed back to the house. I rode as steady as I could not to spill a drop, the steam rising from the pails.

The next night, I watched as the family prepared the fondue for the night. The smell of garlic, cheese, spices, wine and homemade baked bread filled the air. The eight of us sat around the table and I took my long fondue fork and skewered a piece of fresh rye bread and dipped it into the cheese. I spun the melted cheese around the fork and dipped it into one of the many spices and put it into my mouth. As a non-cheese lover, I was transformed. The blended tastes of nutty Gruyère, Swiss and Emmenthaler made each bite an explosion of flavor that I had been missing out on for years.

A few years and a new bride later brought me back to Switzerland. We ate all the cheese and chocolate fondue Lucerne had to offer and wished that somewhere back in Kansas City where we lived, there was a place that we could continue our passion for fondue. In 2001, three years after our Lucerne trip, we opened a Melting Pot fondue restaurant, where I work to this day.

— Greg Hughes, Overland Park, Kan.

A walk bridges the gap between past and present

I was born and raised in Twinsburg, Ohio, in a segregated neighborhood, although I attended an integrated school. My parents were both from Alabama, and we would visit relatives in Selma during our summer vacation — until 1965, because of the civil rights unrest. I was 12 years old then and always wondered what we would have seen if we had gone.

Fast-forward to 1989. My father and mother had divorced, and he returned to Selma to take care of his elderly aunt, Aunt Abbie, the daughter of a former slave. I came to Selma to help. During my two-month stay, I crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge — the site of the "Bloody Sunday Massacre" — several times a day.

One day, I decided to get out of my car and to walk in the footsteps of those marchers who had been beaten and trampled by horses on their way to Montgomery. As I walked across the bridge, I was "overcome" by some unseen/unheard spirit that brought tears to my eyes. I "heard" voices that seemed to be telling me to do "something" in my life to make a difference.

I returned to Ohio and ran for public office. I returned to Selma in 1997 to take care of Aunt Abbie, who lived to be 112 years old. After my aunt's death, I became involved in the HIV/AIDS issue and will likely spend the rest of my life addressing this problem.

My walk on the Edmund Pettus Bridge changed my life for the better and I am so proud to be called a community activist. My journey to Selma was indeed a road that I was predestined to take.

— Hubert Brandon, Mobile, Ala.

U.K. visit opens a host of opportunities

In 1982, I called my travel agent and told him to book our family of three to Hawaii. He suggested the British Isles instead.

Once there, we rented a car and began to tour the countryside. Almost immediately we began to see signs for bed and breakfasts. Never having seen any in America, we weren't quite sure what it meant. For almost three weeks, we spent each night in a different bed and breakfast.

By the third night, our son Michael suggested that we do our own bed and breakfast. He had taken the guest books to bed and was fascinated with the different countries represented on the pages. "There are people who have come from Kenya, New Zealand, Australia, all over the world. We can have these experiences, too."

His suggestion began to take root. We watched our host and hostess very closely. Michael paid attention to the innkeeper's children if there were any.

Had we gone to Hawaii in 1982 instead of the British Isles, I am quite certain we wouldn't be where we are right now: owners of Chestnut Hill on the Delaware. I cannot tell you what a joy it has been to be an innkeeper. I truly feel blessed every day of my life. I love what I do, greeting guests from all over the world, to enjoy the Delaware River Valley and sign our guest books.

— Linda Castagna, Milford, N.J.

Readers, has a trip changed your life? Share your stories of transformative travel below.