Long-term travel comes with its fair share of hardships, yet more often than not it’s the physical challenges which tend to attract primary attention. ‘Don’t you get tired of travelling non-stop?’ Chris and I are frequently asked, or ‘Don’t you miss your bed/lounge/shower when you’re living in a tent for so long?’ Truth be told yes, I do miss all those things at times; but the privation of physical comforts are nothing compared to the misery I suffer, at times, compliments of the intangible emotional drawbacks of long term travel.
When you choose to pack your life in a proverbial rucksack and set off to discover the world, you’ll soon find that this choice comes with an incredible amount of side-effects you neither predicted nor desired. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom! Yes, you’re bound to suffer from bouts of loneliness, homesickness, guilt, frustration, isolation, detachment, abandonment, loss of purpose, boredom, reverse culture-shock and every other emotion under the sun, yet you’ll eventually realize that you’d have a much bigger problem on your hands if you didn’t feel any of the above. Moreover, the kind of resilience, self-discovery and independence you’ll gain will (if you’re lucky) far outweigh any negative consequences.
Considering how incredibly personal this conundrum is, I’d never arrogantly assume I could help any potential wanderer deal with his/her emotional issues. Mostly, that’s because the downsides are determined by how they travel: if they’re solo wanderers or as part of a couple, if they move on swiftly or stay put for an extended period of time and, of course, if they journey has an envisaged end-date. Every traveller will, at some stage, find the solution that’s right for them.
Before Chris and I met, I’d been on the road for 4 years and Chris for 13. Over the last 4 years of together-travel, we’ve also found our ideal travel style which helps us keep our sanity and emotional well-being in check. Much of it has to do with three main factors: we travel very slowly, we work a third of the time, and we go to great efforts in keeping our friend/family connections alive.
So next time you see me on Facebook frantically liking, commenting and posting…please don’t tell me that I should be ‘out there smelling the roses’ rather than ‘wasting’ precious time online. You may not realize just how intentional and utterly precious it actually is for me.
After all…along with the moments of enlightenment, discovery and amazement, we’re also dealing with some intensely distressing stuff out here.
Believe it or not, I’ve met plenty of long-term travellers who suffer from homesickness, even if they have no fixed abode, no family and no particular home-country. This may sound totally weird, I know, but the kind of homesickness one feels when travelling is inherently different to the sort suffered by people who work or holiday away from home for a short time.
On the road, ‘home’ can mean a plethora of things: it means roots, familiarity, stability and consistency. It means being surrounded by people who look like you, think like you and share the same morals as you. It means being part of a community, belonging to a pack and being able to predict how others will act, respond and interact.
I miss my family and friends, yet thanks to modern technology I’m able to keep my most precious connections alive. Yet what I crave most is to be able to turn on a TV and see familiar faces on the news and understand what they’re going on about. It may sound trivial, yet it reflects the sort of detachment and isolation one feels when spending an extended amount of time in a foreign country.
When entering a new country for the first time, Chris and I are constantly on edge, in observation mode and trying desperately to work out how things are done there. Is it acceptable for us to kiss in public, or even hold hands? Is it OK to say we’re not religious…or don’t want kids? Are we going to get judged or scolded? Can we discuss local politics? How should we behave and talk? Are our home countries liked or disliked there? You can’t even begin to understand how incredibly tiresome and utterly boring this can get. Seriously.
Nowadays, the first thing we do when we enter arrive in a new country is to find a suitable and safe campsite and stay put for a week. Next…we slowly and gingerly start interacting with locals. Between shared cups of coffee, chai, vodka or raki we start to build a picture of the real country (as opposed to the media-fed one) and begin to understand how we may best fit in. What we are doing, essentially, is building a brand new temporary home-feeling. Yet again.
The too-constant farewells
Ironically enough, the perennial making of new friends is both the worst and best part of long-term travel. Just when you make that special click with someone, that instant soul connections, either you or them will move onwards. The parting can be as heart-wrenching as the elation of the first chat.
It therefore comes as no surprise (to me at least) that the most intense desperation I’ve ever felt was when I got in my big blue truck and said good-bye to Chris after only 24 hours of meeting him in Malawi. I knew, deep in my heart, that the chances we’d ever meet again were so immensely remote, that for a mere second I wished I’d never met him to begin with. I was totally heart-broken. Pretty sad stuff, yet this is not restricted to love-partners alone.
I’ve met some truly amazing people over the years; the kind I would have loved to get to know better; yet the connection was broken all too soon. Yes, there’s always FB and email, but they work mostly with people with whom you have an established relationship. The constant meeting/parting drama can get so frustrating and depressing that, at times, one tends to retreat into one’s own shell and simply refuses to meet new people. What’s the point? Why bother? Those are the sorts of thoughts which pop into your head and, as hard as they may be to deal with, eventually you do. You build some (more) resilience, put a smile on your face and (for the millionth time) start telling your story to the 10th person at camp who asked ‘So…what on earth are you doing here?’
Because, as Chris wrote on his first-ever love-letter to me: “I’m infinitely happier to have met you, even if for a single day…than not at all.”
And he was bloody right too.
Long-term travel has an uncanny way of wearing you out, inch by inch. This isn’t jet lag or physical tiredness I’m talking about, but rather emotional exhaustion. Because there can be too much of a good thing.
Apathy due to being consistently exposed to sensory overload is one of the biggest dangers of perennial travelling. Mostly, because by the time you say ‘enough is enough’ you risk missing something extraordinary that’s right in front of your nose.
I distinctly remember, after our 3-month stint in Egypt, felling so sick and tired of anything remotely ancient and historically important. I said to Chris: ‘If I see another 2,000 year old shard of pottery I’m going to scream!’ and I seriously meant it. We were taking a guided tour of some museum or other, and the guide was enthusiastically telling us how the ancient Egyptians used terracotta urns to store rain water. My instinctive reaction was to tell her that every single ancient civilization in the world did the exact same thing, so could she possibly tell me something I didn’t already know? That’s when I knew it was time to take a break. This was travel exhaustion rearing its ugly, unfriendly and arrogant head.
After your 1000th museum, 100th lion and 10th waterfall, it’s not at all surprising that you begin to feel a little jaded. Take it easy and pace yourself; this is about the best piece of advice I can give.
Nowadays, Chris and I are experts at doing precisely this. We don’t visit every single ancient site we encounter, but pick and choose ones which tickle our fancy most. We make sure they’re spread out over a country so we can enjoy a few days of riding and bush camping in between and, whatever happens, we don’t force ourselves into ‘sightseeing’ if we’re not in the mood. We also know our time-tolerance-limit. In a major city that’s about 4 hours…any longer and we know the crowds, traffic, smog and noise have the potential to sour our mood. We go in, enjoy and make sure we have plenty of downtime both before and after to truly appreciate it.
A friend once told me that I must be insane to travel for as long as I have. I often think that this is not only helpful, but rather essential; if you’re not insane before you set off on a long journey, you certainly will be after just a few months.
The emotional contradictions you start developing in your mind can drive one to despair. You love it but you hate it. Everything that is.
You want to go home, but just for a day…you love being alone but miss company…you love meeting new people but wish you could spend time with old friends…you loathe entering a new country but can’t wait to. You want to stay put for a while, then get itchy feet after a week. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!
Sorry to disappoint, but there is no solution to this, at least none that we have discovered yet. The only ray of hope I can give to new travellers is that this is one of the MANY wonderful conundrums you’ll get used to soon enough. We’re a mixed up, screwed up bunch who know life is not perfect…and neither are we. Embrace it and accept it; it’s all good!
Loss of purpose
This is quite a peculiar emotion and one which seems to afflict travellers at about the 2-year mark of an indefinite journey. By the time you get into your 3rd year of bus hopping, border crossing, ancient site viewing and new-food tasting you start to wonder what the heck you’re doing it for. You learn and learn and learn and, at one point, you ask yourself a pertinent question.
Curiosity is what drives most of us to live as we do, yet even this is an emotion which ebbs and flows. Some days you’re just less curious than others; these are the days when you feel like you don’t actually have a purpose. Personally, I believe this comes from the societal pressures of living and striving for material goals, rather than metaphorical ones. We work because we can buy things at the end of the month, we build a house so we can live in it and we have children so we can watch them grow up and leave something of us behind.
What do you have to show for your travels? An open mind, a wider knowledge base and, perhaps, a little more tolerance? Not exactly things you can flash about in public are they? But they’re just as important and, if you don’t give into temptation and pack it all in, you’ll start appreciating them infinitely. By the time you struggle through this stumbling block you may well be towards the end of your 2nd year of travel. This, in my humble opinion, will be the biggest learning curve of all. This is the mid-life crisis of long-term travellers!
Once I got over my version of this hurdle I felt like a huge boulder had been lifted off my shoulders. In retrospect, this is when my journey of ‘self-discovery’ ended and my real enjoyment of the world began. I’ve not questioned my motives since and stopped putting pressure on myself to do things because I felt I had to. I travel because it satisfies my soul and makes me happy. The moment it no longer does I will stop, no matter where I am. Simple.
Speak to any long-term traveller and ask them which emotion they loathe the most. More often than not, they’ll answer with boredom. How on earth can one get bored travelling? Easy done pet!
Travel for a month or two and you’ll feel life is just too short, time is limited and days far too brief. Travel for a year or two and you’ll find there’s actually something missing in your daily routine. Once the pressure of seeing and doing it all in a short period of time is off the table, and once you consider all the above-mentioned factors, you’ll have a lot of free time on your hands. Finding or creating a project has many incredible benefits. It combats boredom, apathy, the famed loss of purpose and gives your life a sense of stability and structure too.
Whether it’s writing a blog or a book or studying something remotely, all long-term travellers will at one stage or another put their extra time to good, constructive, use. The amount of travel books and blogs out there is testament to this fact. Trust me when I tell you the primary goal for this was the writer’s benefit, not that of the already over-flowing book market!
Travel: the ruthless friend filter
Travel has the potential to change you, at the very core, more than any other pursuit. No matter how old you are or ‘set in your ways’ you feel, coming into contact with new cultures, mentalities, beliefs and lifestyles, and dealing with strong emotional turmoils, will irrevocably change your view of the world and your place in it. It can change your personality in ways which will make you unrecognisable to your old friends and your family back home. You won’t realize this, of course; not until you return home for a visit or to settle down.
What happens to long-term travellers when they return home is often referred to as reverse culture-shock….when the reality, notions and customs of your own home will seem totally foreign to you. Moreover, you will no longer recognize yourself in the company of family and friends. You used to spend hours and days on end chatting to them, drinking copious amounts of coffee and sharing gossip till the wee hours of the morning. Spend a few years abroad however, and you may find this a challenge.
I have read about this more often than I care to admit, yet I disagree wholeheartedly with the conclusions many travellers make. They erroneously state, to put it crudely, that once you get home you will mysteriously find your friends to be boring and uninteresting, compared to the usual people you meet on the road. This is utterly unfair and totally illogical. Ask some of these friends, and they may say they find YOU incredibly boring and narrow-minded. After all, all you do is talk about your travels!
Personally, what I believe happens is a natural and rather obvious consequence of living an inherently different life to those of the friends you left behind. They may not know much about the world as you see it, but you’ll know nothing of the stresses of ‘normal’ life, of the struggles of raising children, paying mortgages, dealing with retrenchments, office problems or family issues. To put it simply, you’ve just been out of the loop too long. What you find, perhaps, is that you no longer have much in common with the same friends you’ve been pining over for the last few years. This is the most poignant irony of all.
Travel can act as a ruthless friend filter, and the sooner you accept this the better you will feel in the long run. Not everyone’s able to keep connections going (it is very much a two-way street), not everyone likes to write and, frustrating to say the least, some friends don’t feel like boring you with their every day issues, even though these are by far the most important to share. You cannot possibly expect to just pick up friendships where you left them off, if you’ve both been spending the last few years doing drastically different things. You will undoubtedly find your friendships and relationships irrevocably changed and that is something you’ll accept with time.
On an excellent note, you’ll now be more than apt at making new friends! You’ve certainly been doing it for long enough. More importantly, know that if you share an incredible love and history with one of your life-long friends, finding common ground again to pick up the pieces and rebuild your friendship will not be impossible.
I may not know much about raising children or stressing out over company restructuring, yet I’m certainly willing to hear and learn all about them. I love my friends, so in essence I want to know everything about their lives. If the feeling is mutual, I suspect we’ll eventually be back to sitting up till late drinking, chatting and laughing the way we’ve always done.
It should be blatantly obvious now, that no matter how good travelling is (and it really is), it also coughs up some of the hardest, most challenging and most miserable moments you’ll probably ever encounter. But when all is said and done, bursting out of your comfort zone and getting a few of these hardships under your belt will do wonders for your self-esteem and seriously help you channel your most hard-assed self to deal with all the challenges life will undoubtedly throw your way.
You may get homesick, travel sick and new-friend sick, yet you’ll also be exposed to more incredible moments than you can possibly imagine.
Should you come across a hapless wanderer, don’t think them weird!
Long-term travellers are free of barriers, walls and restrictions. They make instantly reliable friends because they know how important loyalty and honesty is; they’ll not judge you in any way, because they know how heart-breaking it is to be judged; they’ll pour their most heartfelt confessions to you, because they crave human closeness and intimacy.
Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that they’re not cherishing it all…the good and the bad.
They still wouldn’t have it any other way.