The Emotional Toll of Long-Term Travel

I very rarely write articles that explore the negative effects of travel. And if I did, would anybody want to read it? Wouldn’t we all rather read about the top 10 beaches in Southeast Asia or the 5 must-see sights of Colombia? Travel has been an important part of my life for a while now and I wouldn’t change that for the world. But, travel isn’t all Instagram photos and beach parties. Sometimes it can make you feel even worse than watching an entire burrito slip from your hands and fall to the floor (R.I.P). Heartache.

Long-term travel can be one of the best things you ever choose to do and please don’t think I’m advocating against it. It broadens your horizons and teaches you just as much about yourself as it does about the places you visit. Yet, for all its benefits, travelling takes an emotional toll on you. You might not consider yourself a particularly emotional person – someone who doesn’t get attached to people or places easily. I thought I was too. But, nobody is immune to this side of travelling.

I want everyone in the world to see everything in the world. That’s why I started this website in the first place – to inspire people to see and do incredible things. But, I also want everyone to proceed with caution and to embark on their adventures with their eyes wide open. Travelling the world might seem like living the dream, and in some respects it is. New places, faces and… races? (not sure about that rhyme…) everyday and all kinds of amazing things to see and eat. What could be bad about that? Well, let me run through some of the emotional issues I’ve had on the road. Don’t let them stop you from travelling, just be aware that they exist and will probably happen to you.

Go and see lovely things but don’t be naïve

Saying Goodbye

This is the first emotional moment you will have on your adventure and it will happen before you even board the plane. Unlike going on holiday, long-term travel is a complete upheaval. You quit your job, sell some of your stuff, move the rest of your stuff into your parents’ house and leave everybody you know and love for an indefinite amount of time. Of course, your excitement always trumps your sadness or apprehension but this is still a difficult process. But, of everything I am going to write about, this initial goodbye is one of the least stressful because you have the thrill of what’s to come ahead of you.

Bye Mum

Saying Goodbye pt. 2

Just like saying goodbye when you first leave home, saying goodbye while you are on the road is really hard. In my opinion it is even harder than your initial goodbyes. Why? The answer is simple. When you said goodbye to your mates back home you knew that when you came back they would all still be there. They would still be playing football on Thursdays and getting wasted on Fridays. Nothing much would change in your absence. When you say goodbye to people you meet whilst travelling, you say goodbye forever. Of the hundreds of people I have met on the road I have only ever kept in touch with one. Sure for the first few weeks after parting you might whatsapp back and forth a bit but when the realisation sinks in that you won’t see each other again, it quickly dwindles.

In Central America I travelled with two girls from London. I also lived in London. We made grand plans about meeting up for drinks back home and hanging out and guess what? I haven’t seen either of them since. Surely that was just laziness? I could’ve messaged them, hopped on the tube, had a beer etc. But it doesn’t work like that. It’s hard to explain but for me, and I’m sure for many others, home life and travel life are two separate things. Those girls were great while we were travelling but would we have got on as well in the context of London? What if we didn’t? Then my beautiful memories of them would be tainted by a far less enjoyable experience with them in London. What’s more, we didn’t need each other in London – we all had our actual friends to hang out with.

My point is this: every now and then you will meet someone who you will stay in touch with forever but that is not the norm. And, that’s fine! If you tried to stay in regular contact with everyone you had ever been friends with it would consume your entire life. You can have really intense relationships for a very short amount of time and then both go your separate ways and that’s ok. No matter how much you tell each other you will stay in touch, it rarely actually happens. This is what makes saying goodbye to people on the road so damn hard.

Best friends for a couple months and never to be seen again

Leaving a Place

Whether you stay for a few days or a few months, there will be some places that capture your heart. This can be for a number of reasons. It could be the people you met there, the feelings you experienced there or the things you did there. Whatever the case, this can make leaving really hard because you know you will almost definitely never be there again.

In 2013 one of my travel stops was Gili Trawangan. For anyone else, this island is just a party island full of bars and drunk tourists. For me it was a bit different. I was there with a boyfriend and it was nearing the end of our 3 month trip through SE Asia. One evening, we sat under the stars on the beach and had a heart to heart about what would happen when we got home. I was moving to France a few weeks after we got back and he was going back to university and there was going to be a lot of distance between us. We talked for hours, arm in arm in the sand, laughing, crying and worrying about the future.

No-one else has that same experience of Gili Trawangan, which makes it even harder. You’ve got no-one to reminisce with – especially if you then break up with that boyfriend, but let’s not digress. Certain places have a certain significance to certain people (thesaurus app won’t open) and if somewhere has enchanted you then it is hard to break away from its spell. Simply know this, while the time you spent there was beautiful and perfect, it wouldn’t be as good if you went back. It’s called diminished returns – like when they make a sequel to a great film and it inevitably turns out shit (Taken 2, I’m looking at you). But, of course this causes another problem…

For one evening, Gili Trawangan was the best place on earth

Nostalgia

Nostalgia is one of the toughest emotional problems of them all. Longing for the past but knowing that you will never get it back. This is a killer. Rather than being wistful for a former place or person, nostalgia, in my opinion, is more about wanting to get back a specific sentiment or situation. It often comes in the form of “will I ever be that happy again?” and is really hard to conquer. Of course you will be happy again, probably more so, but in the immediate aftermath of leaving what you thought was paradise found, it is tricky to believe that with conviction.

There is no cure for nostalgia. It comes part and parcel with travelling and it’s somthing you just have to get used to. Remember that there are plenty more things to come. If you are continuing your travels, you will find new places that will offer you new experiences. If you’re going home then you have a whole new life to look forward to. I have lived in Cusco, Peru for the past 5 months and I will be leaving in 3 weeks and I know it’s going to be tough. I’m already feeling nostalgic for it and I haven’t even left yet. The only way not to feel nostalgic is to have a really rubbish time I guess. Probably not worth it.

I already miss Cusco

FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

This is definitely not a term I learnt from my little sisters and is absolutely something I already knew because I’m hip and cool. Anyway it perfectly describes how you sometimes feel travelling. I deleted my Snapchat long ago because it really sucked watching people having fun without me. Facebook and Instagram still hit me sometimes but I’m gradually caring less and less about what I see. It’s hard missing out on birthdays, family gatherings, parties etc. especially when you see all the photos on Facebook and no-one is even crying over the fact that you’re not there. Although one time my friends printed off a photo of me and stuck it to the wall of the party.

Just remember, for every one exciting event that happens back home, you will have at least 10 better experiences on the road. If you’re not then you’re travelling wrong and you should have a sit down and try to work out what has made you so boring. Your friends might party at the weekends but the rest of the time they are either working or watching Sharknado on Netflix and wondering why their life is like this. Probably. FOMO is part of the emotional toll of long term travel but don’t let it get you down. If you really can’t cope with seeing people being happy without you, delete all of your social media accounts.

They’re all going to be there when you get back

Missing Home Comforts

After months of staying in hostels and airbnbs you really start to long for the comfort of your own bed. We take our home comforts for granted while we have them but when you’re on the road you really start to appreciate them. Not only do I miss my bed when I travel but I miss my kitchen. Eating out every day can get boring and expensive and sometimes you just want to cook something yourself. Only trouble is there’s a strong chance you can’t get the right ingredients where you are and you have to buy literally everything you need. At home I always have oil, salt, spices, garlic etc. When you cook on the road you don’t just have these things lying around, which makes cooking a bit of a faff and not much cheaper than eating out.

I cannot tell you how many times I have longed for a good old English fry up, a nice cup of tea and a packet of digestives since I’ve been living in Peru (and in fact everywhere else I’ve ever been). Just keep telling yourself how good it will be when you finally go home and get to eat all the lovely stuff you’ve been missing.

This isn’t really an emotional issue but food is basically my second favourite thing after watching people fall over whilst texting and walking – so this is an issue for me.

Sweet baby Jesus how I miss you

Losing Your Sense of Purpose

It is very easy to lose yourself when you spend a long time travelling. You can spend months floating through some exotic land and then reality can hit you like a brick to the face. All of a sudden, waterfalls and lagoons become uninteresting and you start to panic about the future. What are you going to do when you finally go home? Are you wasting your time travelling when you could be gaining employable skills? Are you going to be stuck in some shitty job, always pining for adventure?

We get told all the time how important it is to get a foot on that elusive career ladder. If you take a year out of work it will look bad on your CV and you’ll have to start over again when you eventually come home. Sure, if you decide to travel for a year or two the people who didn’t will have more work experience than you when you re-join the work force. They might even be earning a bit more than you. But, who has had a better time? With the retirement age moving ever farther away, chances are we will all be working until we’re 95 anyway so why not enjoy the freedom we have whilst we are young. As a wise friend said to me “once you start adulting, it is very hard to stop adulting”.

So enjoy this time away from the rat-race because you are going to spend the next half a century of your life in it. Enjoy being care-free and make the most of everything that is thrown your way. Take tango lessons in Argentina, eat a cricket in Cambodia, swim with sharks in South Africa. Whatever. Enjoy it all because it won’t last forever. When you go back home you can focus on creating a fulfilling life and building a career but right now that is a problem for future you.

Thinking about the bigger things in life from the comfort of Pablo Escobar’s burnt out mansion

Loneliness

Ok, this is the last one on my miserable list of everything that can make you an emotional wreck whilst travelling. Whether you travel alone or with friends, loneliness can still hit you. I think its a cumulative effect of constantly meeting and leaving people – forming really strong relationships with people for a week or two and then never seeing them again. This can make you feel very lonely. Your friends back home are getting on with their lives without you and the friends you make on the go are only ever temporary. Sometimes you just want the intimacy that comes with having a best friend.

Relationships are also pretty tricky if you’re constantly on the road. If you are already in a relationship with someone back home then it might be easier but I really don’t recommend staying together if one of you plans on leaving for a year. That’s my personal opinion. Long-distance relationships never seem to work and tend to make people unhappy from what I’ve seen. You either taint your whole trip by constantly missing your significant other or at least one of you ends up cheating. It’s not worth it. Better set off completely unencumbered so you can be as free as possible while you travel.

But, being single comes with its share of problems too. Most single travellers usually end up having flings and hook-ups while they traverse the globe and while this is fun at the time, it can leave you feeling a bit empty afterwards. Another night, another face, another disappointing hook-up with someone you barely know. It can leave you longing for a boyfriend or girlfriend or simply someone who cares about whether you finish or not, which, of course, you can’t have because you’re never in one place long enough.

This all sounds a bit doom and gloom but there is a silver lining. I’ve actually found that being alone can actually be good for you. I’ve always been the boyfriend type but since being single and on the road I have learnt a lot about myself. I have found that I can enjoy my own company and I don’t need someone else, like I thought I did. Loneliness can be tough but I think it is important and makes you a much stronger and more independent person (I’m aware how painfully cliché this sounds but whatever, I’m 2500 words in and it’s 2am).

Travelling alone means an album full of selfies

To conclude, travel is shit and you’re going to be miserable the whole time.

 

PSYCH.

Travelling is the best thing ever and you should 100% do it. Just don’t expect it to be amazing all the time. The emotional toll is real and can seriously get you feeling down. It can even cause you to question the whole thing. Remember: it is all great life experience. Every high and every low will teach you something. Relax and enjoy the ride, this is the best time of your life.

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