In today’s Why We Travel, I interview Lee Thompson, co-founder of Flash Pack. For 14-years, Lee worked as a photojournalist and had the opportunity to travel the globe and discover hidden parts of the world that tourists don’t normally see. From war zones to major sporting events, He’s now visited over 100 countries. In 2012, he met Radha Vyas, and they instantly connected over their shared love of travel. But they were both frustrated by the lack of appealing options for people their age to travel and meet like-minded people. This sparked an idea, and in 2014, they launched Flash Pack – the only group travel company that connects solo travelers in their 30s and 40s on adventures across the world.
Describe your first transformative travel experience.
I didn’t really start traveling until I was in my late 20s, and initially, this was for work. As a photojournalist, I was regularly sent on assignments around the world, but it was my first assignment in Africa that, upon reflection, was the moment travel changed me.
We were in Malawi and it was completely different from anything I’d experienced before. We went way off any tourist trail and right into rural Africa. We didn’t see another tourist for over a week. From that moment on I fell in love with Africa, and travel. We drove along dusty roads for hours each day and everything I saw was so inspiring, from the people to the music. It was emotional and it fuelled my passion for photography. During that trip, I capture some of the best photos I’ve ever taken to this day.
After I returned, I took almost every job I could get my hands on that would enable me to see another part of the world and my happy place became the window seat of a plane as I pushed myself to go to places that were more remote and unique.
One of the most memorable jobs I did was in India. Shortly after Slumdog Millionaire was released, we traveled to India to try and photograph the children that starred in the film. We had been told they were living in the slums outside Mumbai, but all the locals warned us not to go because of how dangerous it could be. I went at sunrise and was welcomed with open arms. The community was incredible. I was invited into people’s homes, they made me tea and introduced me to the children that starred in the movie. It was one of those moments where you experience just how kind humanity can be and can connect with people on a deeper level. I am still obsessed with India, and I’ve been back to explore the country many times since.
Why is travel important to you personally?
During my work abroad, I realized that my job was becoming an immersive education. I had never paid much attention in history or geography or religious studies in school, but I found myself on these adventures and I was learning all the time, and enjoying it too. Traveling with work showed me that travel has so much more to offer than memories, photos and passport stamps. It shapes you as a person and teaches you things you didn’t know about the world, or yourself. Whether I’m traveling for work, or for myself, I use it as an opportunity to learn.
How do you prefer to travel?
I didn’t travel much when I was younger. I never did a gap year or any sort of backpacking in my late teens or early twenties. My experiences came from journalism assignments. They took me far from the tourist trails and to places most people never think to go, and whilst the days were often tough, they were always rewarding. During the evening, we were usually hosted in beautiful and unique local hotels which provided a moment of calm to reflect on the day and think about everything I’d seen, heard, smelled, and experienced.
This way of traveling has stayed with me and shaped the way we’ve built our business. Authentic travel experiences that immerse you in a country, take you out of your comfort zone, but without sacrificing the home comforts and a few of the luxuries you want when you’re on holiday.
What tips do you have for travelers to make their experiences more meaningful?
Travel is a very trend-led industry. Destinations fall in and out of favor. My advice would be, don’t always believe the hype. Try to travel to places that are out of favor and in destinations that might seem scary or remote. Of course, it’s important to always research where you’re going and stay safe, but the most meaningful experiences are the ones I was most apprehensive about.
Meeting people along the way is incredibly important too. Ensure you’re respectful, but make the time to meet locals and other travelers. Not only is this a good way to stay safe, but you never know who you might meet or where someone’s recommendation might take you. Be open to their advice and be prepared to share yours.
Lastly, aim to travel as sustainably as possible, and look for companies that help support sustainable travel. There’s no denying that the world that we operate in comes with some major ethical baggage. Last year we launched the Flash Pack Foundation which has five key pledges, from reducing plastic bottle waste to becoming carbon neutral as a business. It’s not enough to simply look on and shake our heads, we each have a responsibility to be active participants in changing the way we travel
What are your favorite travel-related books, movies, paintings, poems, songs, etc.?
I love the way Gregory David Roberts describes India in Shantaram. From the smell when you get off the plane to the warmth of the people around you. He becomes obsessed with Indian culture, and that was incredibly relatable for me. It’s the only time I’ve ever read anything that really describes how I feel about a country. When it comes to travel songs, it has to be Toto Africa, for obvious reasons. I can just play that song over and over when I’m away.
Travel shaped my life. My job as a photographer drove my passion for travel, and since then, I’ve turned that passion into a business. That’s the beauty of it. Travel allows you to expand your horizons and explore your passion through the lens of a new culture and geography. If you give enough of yourself to each experience, you can take pretty much anything from it.