Travel and Personal Growth: Gail Shore Of Cultural Jambalaya On Why & How Traveling Can Help Us Become Better Human Beings

An interview with Maria Angelova


Traveling encourages us to embrace our curiosity, one of our greatest human qualities. Stretching outside our comfort zone also can help us find our spiritual path, one that provides ethical principles and moral guidance.

Thankfully, the world is open for travel once again. Traveling can broaden our horizons and make space for people to become more open-minded. How can travel give us the opportunity for personal growth? What are some ways that travel can help us become better human beings? As a part of our series about “How Traveling Can Help Us Become Better Human Beings”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gail Shore.

Gail Shore has traveled the globe for decades photographing and documenting experiences about some of the world’s most fascinating, exotic and misunderstood places. Her solo trips would eventually take her through five decades and nearly 100 countries, including to destinations as intriguing and unfamiliar as North Korea, Iran, the Amazon, and even Timbuktu. Her recent memoir, Opening My Cultural Lens, is the account of her lifetime on the road. Gail also founded Cultural Jambalaya, an educational nonprofit that brings the world into the classroom with free videos to improve global awareness and cross-cultural understanding.

Born in Milwaukee, Gail has lived her adult life in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Today, she resides on a quiet lake in northwest Wisconsin.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in the 50s and 60s in Milwaukee, at a time that offered girls few career choices, none of which appealed to me. I dedicated my recent book, Opening My Cultural Lens, to: “Everyone who encouraged and supported me throughout my life except my guidance counselor who told me I should be a secretary or a housewife.” Those were not my favorite years. It was a challenging time for girls and I just didn’t know where I fit.

In addition, there was no diversity in my blue-collar, working-class community. The only person of color in my high school was our foreign exchange student. But my life was about to change forever when I landed a job working for a small airline — a job that not only provided a paycheck, but, more importantly, offered travel benefits: inexpensive tickets whose value would turn out to be incalculable. I couldn’t rub two nickels together, but I was having fun cracking open a strange new world. Soon, these trips included travel out of the country. This airline job was my introduction to global travel, which has irreversibly changed my life.

I have lived my adult life in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Today, I reside on a quiet lake in northwest Wisconsin.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I actually have two careers, my public relations business and my cultural education nonprofit. I spent 20 years in the airline business, starting out at 19 years old as a young reservationist and working my way into management, eventually joining the PR department. My boss and PR director, Red Tyler, became my mentor. He encouraged and supported me, which ultimately prepared me to open my own PR shop, which I have run since 1989.

As I mentioned, when I joined the airline, I was offered travel benefits, which felt like an extended hand to an open map. The more I traveled, the more fascinated I became with cultural travel, which dramatically transformed this Midwestern girl into a curious adult who couldn’t wait to see what each new day might bring. My other career, a nonprofit called Cultural Jambalaya, was formed to share my global experiences and photographs with educators to broaden world views of students. Today I serve as Cultural Jambalaya’s executive director.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Without question my airline PR director was the person who influenced my public relations career. In addition, my friends and colleagues for decades have provided a keen and sincere interest in my cultural adventures, which led to the founding of my nonprofit. But my sister, Jean, is the person who has been at my side through all these years, supporting my thoughts and plans, and helping turn those dreams into reality.

It has been said that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?

My mistakes are too many to name. When you get to be my age, they just add up! However, the funniest mistakes I’ve made have happened in countries whose cultural traditions and religions were unfamiliar to me. Cultural faux pas, I call them, innocently and naively not understanding a local practice, then stepping right in the middle of a blunder. As I think about them, most were in the Middle East but dare I leave out Asia, Africa and Latin America. Five decades to nearly 100 countries have not yet landed me in jail but they make good stories — too long to describe here, but all shared in my book. The lessons learned include having a better understanding of cultural nuances, although that’s easier said than done. Sometimes I would learn from my mistakes or missteps when it was too late.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Anthony Bourdain, the extraordinary travel documentarian said: “Everyone should come here. Everyone should see how complicated, how deeply troubled, and yet at the same time, beautiful and awesome the world can be. Everyone should experience, even as the clouds gather, what’s at stake, what could be lost, what’s still here.” To me, his comments describe how critical it is to learn as much as we can about the world and each other, including our differences as well as our similarities.

And, as President Jimmy Carter profoundly said, “We must adjust to changing times and still hold on to unchanging principles.” That speaks for itself.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

My ongoing work with Cultural Jambalaya produces cultural educational videos that bring the world into the classroom with free multimedia content and lesson plans that improve global awareness and cross-cultural understanding. The videos, viewed by hundreds of thousands of students around the world, are designed to spark imagination and to encourage critical thinking as they learn about the cultures and individuals in each episode.

Secondly, my book Opening My Cultural Lens is a memoir of my life on the road. It is a celebration of diversity and a reminder that people everywhere are more alike than we may think. I try to share examples of our human experience that can break down stereotypes and cultural barriers. I hope the book can open other people’s cultural lenses and challenge their personal beliefs and perceptions.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview about travel and personal growth. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or personal experience, why do you think travel can lead to personal growth? Can you share a story?

Having grown up in a non-diverse community, my view of the world was geographically and culturally limited. In addition, I was an unfocused student and had no dreams for my future. I did attempt to go to college — with no recommended major or path in mind — but left early with no better understanding of what I wanted to do. I didn’t recognize the opportunities available to me in those days, nor do I recall any sense of direction or advice from my teachers. So, of course, I failed to connect with my studies and did not do well. Those were not my favorite years. I just didn’t know where I fit. But luck was around the corner when I joined the airline and began to travel abroad.

Twenty years later, after leaving the airline, my globe trekking was far from over. In fact, it had just begun. I continued to be intrigued by places that are culturally distinct, destinations that are fascinating, exotic and misunderstood.

I travel alone, though always with a local guide for safety and access. My journeys include faraway places that most people would likely never visit and some locations they might struggle to find on a map. That’s what makes them interesting.

As my solo trips progressed, my wanderlust, which began as my own personal window and mirror, was growing into something much broader. Something transformational was happening; I was turning passion into purpose and setting a place for myself at a new table.

A recent survey from Psychology Today showed that over 80% of participants found that travel helped them with problem-solving or decision-making. Why do you think this is true for so many people?

When we travel, we often experience a place we’ve never visited. Even with the help of a travel agent we must make plans, and sometimes those plans and expectations can change or can become disrupted. A flight delay or cancellation, or an illness can throw a monkey wrench into our schedules. And sometimes a new opportunity is presented that requires a change in plans. In any event, the more we travel, the more we learn how to deal with those hiccups without panic. Experience also prepares us for possible pitfalls, if not danger. What happens if we lose our passport, cell phone, luggage or money? Experience teaches us how to locate and contact authorities, if necessary. Finally, we learn ways to communicate with those who do not speak our native language. I am asked all the time if I speak other languages. My answer is yes; I am fluent in pantomime.

Solving problems and making better decisions on the road can also greatly improve those abilities when we get back home. Employers are always seeking staff and talent that have these skills. In addition, people that have better problem-solving and decision-making abilities, including friends and family, are frankly easier to be around.

Do you think travel enhances our mindfulness, optimism, or sense of gratitude? How? Can you please explain with an example or story?

My experiences have forever changed my life. I’ve photographed countless World Heritage sites and wonders of the world: mountains from the Himalayas to the Andes; The Red Sea, Yellow Sea and Black Sea; and rivers including the Yangtze, Sepik, Ganges and Mekong. I’ve captured sunrises at Mount Everest and Mt. Fuji, as well as in expansive deserts such as the Sahara and Gobi, where, from the tops of dunes, I watched it rise. I’ve shot sunsets at the Perito Moreno Glacier and the Great Rift Valley.

My jaw drops every time I see the miracles of nature: Bengal tigers in India, blue-footed boobies in the Galápagos, mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Magellanic penguins in Chile, black rhinos and Africa’s Great Wildebeest Migration. And then — oh, man — holding in my arms a precious baby panda in China.

Observing unique religious ceremonies and activities has enriched my own spirituality. I’ve been blessed by Buddhist monks, Hindu monks and Muslim imams; I’ve participated in traditional healing ceremonies with shamans and medicine men. I’ve witnessed Jewish rituals at the Western Wall, the Christian penitent of magdarame in the Philippines, Hindu weddings in India, Ramadan throughout the Middle East and spiritual festivals around the world.

Certainly, the rarest trip was an extraordinary peek inside North Korea, where I crossed the DMZ and sat in official Democratic People’s Republic of Korea government seats to watch the unforgettable Mass Games. I’ve drunk vodka with members of the KGB, tea with the Tuareg, schnapps with a headman in Ghana and chicha with a whole lot of village chiefs in the Amazon.

Many adventures have introduced me to native cultures. In Myanmar, I spent several days in the mountains photographing the remarkable Chin women who tattoo their faces, then danced with an isolated tribe that had not seen a westerner since before World War II. On the border of Angola, I photographed the fascinating Himba women who cover their skin with red ochre, and in remote Papua New Guinea, I shared a meal with an indigenous family who had never touched the hand of a white person. And I’ve treasured random acts of kindness and unexpected hospitality from strangers everywhere I’ve gone.

I’ve been followed and surveilled in Iran, Turkmenistan, Myanmar, North Korea and most probably, in other places when I was not even aware it was going on. The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve learned about some of the most horrifying atrocities in human history, such as the Holocaust, South Africa’s Apartheid, Cambodia’s Killing Fields, Laos’ Secret War which attempted to exterminate Hmong people, Africa’s horrifying slave trade, brutal civil wars and unspeakable genocides. And I got a little bit too close to being a victim of terrorism in Mali.

I have benefited from so many of our planet’s incredible gifts and have met the most unforgettable people. Yet, it’s what those strangers have taught me that has opened my own aperture and given my life more texture, more meaning. These cultural experiences have collectively changed me from an indifferent young girl into a curious global citizen.

Surely not everyone who travels automatically becomes an exemplar of human decency. What are a few reasons why some people completely miss out on the growth opportunities that travel can offer?

While not having the time and money to travel are certainly at the top of most lists. But I would add fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of discomfort. Fear of the unfamiliar. Fear is a powerful reason for not stepping outside our comfort zone. Even if we are unadventurous or even bored, we feel more comfortable in a familiar and safe environment.

On the other hand, many people would love to travel but work, kids and a myriad of other reasons prevent them from ever doing it. More often than not, others have big plans to travel when they retire. Sadly, I know too many whose health or finances prevent them from fulfilling those dreams. One piece of advice I give younger people is don’t look back on your life and say the five worse words: I wish I would have. Do it now before life gets in the way.

Thank you for that. Now for our main question; What are your “5 Habits You Should Develop In Order Make Travel Into An Opportunity For Personal Growth?”

Travel not only provides an opportunity for personal growth, it helps us become better human beings.

• Traveling encourages us to embrace our curiosity, one of our greatest human qualities. Stretching outside our comfort zone also can help us find our spiritual path, one that provides ethical principles and moral guidance.

• Traveling helps us understand that religions and spiritualities around the world are based on the same principle, The Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. Inarguable and simple.

• Traveling allows us to meet intriguing people and experience incredible things. Each new discovery can challenge our assumptions and personal beliefs and can help to dismantle our biases. Opening our hearts and minds to a diverse world will profoundly influence who we want to be and who we can become, all the while increasing our confidence and self-worth.

• Traveling helps us understand that happiness comes from family, faith and community. Many people who live within the most basic, modest means don’t need all the stuff that we think makes us happy. And, as we learn about other cultures and meet new people, perhaps we can better define — and measure — happiness. And, while we all may look, dress, speak or pray differently, people everywhere are more alike than we are different. Understanding this is the path to compassion and empathy.

• Traveling helps us understand we must never, ever take for granted our freedom and liberty, which are imperative to dignity and fundamental to joy.

From your experience, does travel have a negative impact on personal growth too? Is there a downside to travel?

Travel can certainly be challenging but I don’t think it has a negative impact on personal growth. Traveling helps us gather experience, knowledge, humility and maturity. It creates memories and opens our hearts and minds. Yes, travel is expensive and can quickly dig into a savings account, but I look at it differently. For decades, I’ve saved and invested as much as possible into exploring locations whose fragile cultures and environments are at risk. Using the word invested is quite intentional. Over the years, by investing my time and savings into global adventures, the returns have influenced my life beyond measure.

I happen to travel alone, though with a guide for safety and for access. I literally trust my guides with my life, especially if uncertainty or danger is looming. Yet, one downside to solo travel is that it sometimes can be lonely. There are numerous occasions when I have an awesome experience that I cannot wait to share with family and friends. Long after other people carried mobile phones, I did not. Nor did I bring my laptop. I used these excursions as an opportunity to unplug. Early on, to communicate with people back home, I’d search for a fax machine. Later, I’d hunt down an Internet café to send messages to my sister. She’d typically receive calls and emails from family and friends wondering if I was still alive or if I had been arrested yet, so I always let her know that I was okay.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)

I have had the honor to have gotten to know President Carter. He is the epitome of decency and integrity — the highest example of what we expect from a person of authority. Our world desperately needs those who lead with kindness, respect and compassion … and with love. My admiration for him knows no end. He inspires me. He is my personal hero. He also helps me believe that anything is possible. For the same reasons, I would also love to have a chat with President Obama and the Dalai Lama. (Tell them I’m free anytime!)

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers, especially educators, can follow my work through Cultural Jambalaya Our volunteer-based nonprofit aims to break down cultural barriers by promoting understanding and respect for all people. We produce award-winning videos that teachers use in the classroom to broaden world views of their students. Our one-of-a-kind educational videos are free, and feature images and narratives from across the globe.

In addition, readers can order my book, Opening My Cultural Lens, which chronicles my solo trips through five decades and nearly 100 countries, including to destinations as intriguing and unfamiliar as North Korea, Iran, the Amazon, and even Timbuktu. The memoir is an account of my lifetime on the road, featuring more than 350 of my photos. The book, which is available at and, explores traditions, rituals, and cultures of some of the world’s most remote and fascinating populations.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at To schedule a free consultation, click here.



Maria Angelova, CEO of Rebellious Intl.
Authority Magazine

Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl.