Spend five minutes on the Internet, and you can find any number of blogs and websites encouraging would-be travelers to take the leap, and head out on their own great adventure.
These sites often take the tone of cheerleader, brightly examining every argument against long-term travel – financial, professional, familial, or simple fear – and explaining why these arguments can be overcome with planning and logic.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve benefited greatly from many of these sites in finding my own inspiration! In fact I credit Nomadic Matt and his book, “How To Travel The World on $50 A Day”, as many others do, with providing a simple road map to make this journey happen financially.
Some of these blogs also discuss the real hazards of travel. Pickpockets and thieves, unsafe food, disease, environmental dangers, and greedy hucksters who prey on tourists worldwide are just some of these genuine threats to travelers’ well-being. But even these can be prevented, to some extent, by awareness.
Having been on the road for just over 2 months, however, I have discovered there is another side to solo long-term traveling that not only do these blogs not cover, their cheerful, optimistic tone would often seem to imply it doesn’t even exist. But it does.
In fact, I feel the emotional realities of this form of adventure are far more complicated than travel blogs and their hopeful branding make it seem.
I call these issues “The Dark Side of Long Term Travel.” Or, if you prefer something less dramatic, The Hidden Psychological Costs of Traveling.
This is going to be a new series, my first, that outlines these costs, and this very real “dark side,” in detail.
Why write about this? Because I believe the dark side of life is best embraced, not avoided. It is all too tempting to flee from pain or discomfort, to shove it away and say, “Eh, it’s all good.” I could write volumes on this topic, and volumes have been written on it. But it’s not “all good.”
Denying the dark, difficult, painful side of life denies an entire equal half of our experience as humans. By looking at these experiences honestly – as I tried to do in my recent post “On Heartbreak” – we gain the opportunity to learn valuable or even priceless things about ourselves that would otherwise remain hidden.
This is how we grow. This is how we change. By confronting our inner demons – which are often far scarier than anything external – we become stronger, and develop true courage. This courage empowers us to become the people we most want to be, and are called to be, and that the world most needs today.
I will try not to post too many memes on this site, but this sums it up so well:
I speak from experience. Fighting these inner battles has led me here today, and I’m not alone.
With regard to travel specifically, acknowledging the “dark side” of this experience humanizes it, brings it down from the lofty level of fantasy to a reality that can be approached and understood as a relatable human experience.
I think it humanizes me, as well, and paints a more honest picture of me as a real guy living a real life with its own set of advantages and struggles, like anyone else. As much as I’d love to imagine myself as a world-conquering hero, the reality is more complex. I’m grateful for that fact.
Because I don’t want to be Indiana Jones. I want to be Will Spencer. Only one of these men is real.
I like to think that you knowing this fact helps reaffirm that I am, more or less, not so different from the guy who left.
Before I dive in, I just want to say, of course it makes that sense blogs and websites wouldn’t discuss these topics. What dreamer wants to read about how inwardly-difficult traveling is? It’s hard enough to overcome the external logistical challenges, if only mentally. Why would someone want to hear about the unavoidable inner emotional challenges?
Further, aren’t travelers blessed enough? Why complain?
And who wants to visit a downer blog, anyway? Many globetrotters make a living on their blogs. Sad stories means fewer clicks, less ad revenue, less prestige, etc.
Valid questions, but first, feelings are feelings. Telling someone, “You’re wrong for feeling that way,” has never actually changed someone’s feelings. And denying feelings serves literally no one. Self-censorship is the beginning of the death of inner truth.
Forewarned is also forearmed, as they say. Had I known about these challenges, I could have avoided some of the very real suffering they’ve caused as I’ve learned along the way, and tried to carve out these sensations from the flow of my overall experience.
Finally, and most importantly, I’m not here to sell you anything. There are no “buy” buttons anywhere on this site, no affiliate links to travel companies, no Google ads. There’s nothing wrong with having those, insofar as it doesn’t compromise content.
But as this is my little corner of the Internet, I intend to be truthful about my experience, if only because it helps me understand what I’m going through as I venture further into the unknown.
I hope it helps you too.
THE HIDDEN COSTS, PART I: LONELINESS
Of all the hidden costs I’ll outline, this is the most often mentioned online. But I’ve never found it to be well-explained. The idea seems to be that obviously everyone knows what loneliness is (like, DUH), so it doesn’t need to be defined.
As it turns out, though, I’m not quite sure what that word means. So let’s break it down.
Here’s what Google says:
– sadness because one has no friends or company
– the fact of being without companions; solitariness
I have a similar connotation of loneliness. To me, “loneliness” means sitting in my room alone, feeling mildly sad, and longing for a connection with a person (any person) who isn’t there. The most obvious feature of this loneliness is physical distance.
This is definitely not the sort of loneliness I have experienced on the road! With the exception of the past 2 weeks, when I’ve been staying in private rooms, solo budget travel is 110% people. People people people.
I’m talking bunk beds in dorms, sometimes up to 10 beds in a room. Shared bathrooms. Communal breakfasts. Group tours. Crowds. A new group of strangers in every city, and practically every night.
A couple beers later, any one of those strangers can become a helpful but still-anonymous source for valuable information, or a “Where have you been all my life?” friend. I’ve experienced both.
So in that way, it’s not that I lack for company. It’s literally everywhere, even when I don’t really want it.
And it’s not even that I lack for deep connection. It’s more rare, but it is and has been present. Thankfully. 🙂
And yet, loneliness has been an inescapable feature of this journey, as it has for many of the most sensitive travelers I’ve interacted with.
THE NATURE OF LONELINESS
So what is the loneliness about? For me, the answer is simple:
Travel relationships are transient. As deep as any conversation or connection goes in the moment, there is still the creeping knowledge that tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, one or both of us will be gone. Facebook and WhatsApp are great tools, to be sure. But with limited actual face-time, the ability for any two people to form a genuinely-deep, loving relationship is also limited.
In this context, what do I mean by “love”, though? I don’t mean sex and romance, which I’ll cover in a future post.
It’s the feeling that your happiness is bound up with my happiness. Your sadness my sadness. My victories are yours, as are my joys. And vice versa.
If I soar, we share the wings. If I fall, I can borrow your parachute. And in silence, we still speak. Because in every moment I spend with my friends and loved ones, their presence reminds me of every moment I have spent with them.
When we love each other we become, at least a little bit, one.
THE TIME PARADOX
Loving relationships require one key thing: time. Which happens to be the one thing travelers, paradoxically, don’t have.
Wait… what? It would seem we have all the time in the world, right? No- or low-effort jobs, endless leisure, limitless possibility.
In practice, limitless possibility means there’s always another horizon. And the horizon is the actual goal! I have met very few travelers who want to, or can, travel forever. At some point, all travelers want to, or have to, put down roots.
That means the time to enjoy this experience of travel is actually not as infinite as it may seem. There’s a big world to see, endless new experiences to have, and innumerable places to visit, even in a single city. Why stay in one town or country when I can visit three, or five?
So the chance to form deep, loving relationships is limited, because the clear incentive is to move on, to see and do as much as reasonably possible – which masks its own hidden cost, which I’ll cover in a future part – before time inevitably runs out. Even if that time can be measured in years.
“THE GREAT RIVER”
A helpful image I like to keep in mind is of boats on a Great River, each traveler in his or her own vessel. We float on our individual currents, which may carry us close enough to hold hands, or even embrace for a time. But we must always be attentive to the current, urging us on to the next destination.
My current may not be yours. And even if we share a current today, or for several months, tomorrow we may not.
In that is the knowledge, however subtle, that we must go. That is the way of life, and in travel even more so. Even if we travelers never speak about it at bars or cafés, I know we all know it. The deepest, most meaningful connection is quietly understood to be insufficient reason to stay, if one feels called.
Then that precious face-to-face time, the root of the richest relationships, must begin the search for a digital surrogate, to varying degrees of satisfaction.
Impermanence sits at every table, and drinks in every cheery toast. It’s part of the experience, and I think we all deal with it differently.
ALL THAT WE LEAVE BEHIND
For a week or two, this reality was no big deal for me. I think I even romanticized it a bit. It’s hard not to. Novelty has its own certain thrill!
But after a month, a subtle feeling of inner lack, borne out of a necessary superficiality, began to emerge and grow.
Finally, just shy of two months, I became fully aware that all I wanted was someone to sit in front of me and feel real love for me, not to mention someone whom I could feel real, unabashed love FOR.
Because in San Francisco, as I saw so clearly at my going away party, I was immersed in love. Friends, family, colleagues, and partners current and former, surrounded me. I was swimming in, and giving, a sea of love. Not just at the party but every day, from people like this:
I took all this love, and I left it behind. I CHOSE to leave it behind, to exchange the full and present daily feeling of it, for the Great Unknown. For adventure.
THE HIDDEN COSTS
That is why I call this series “The Hidden Psychological Costs of Traveling.” Because in addition to putting down my credit card to buy a plane ticket here, I put down that daily feeling of loving and being loved, from more people than I can count or show in photos.
That is a cost I have paid to be doing this. It’s a cost that everyone who travels for long periods of time pays when putting on a pack, whether they realize it or not. I think most eventually do.
Yes there is Skype, VoIP, Facetime, and more. Yes, email. Yes, Facebook.
But a face on a screen or a voice on a speaker can never replace the feel of a hug, the sound of laughter at a dinner table over a 3rd (or 4th… or 5th!) glass of wine, or the relaxed air that comes on a weekend or holiday afternoon when there’s nothing to do, nowhere to be, but together.
This is the nature of the loneliness I have felt, the feeling of loving and being loved in return, genuinely, for who I am, and for the full body of my self and story.
Yes, a physical space in my life that was once occupied by family and friends is now filled with… pretty much everything else. There are moments where that is quite a fantastic feeling, indeed!
And yet I am also reminded that the whole world cannot replace the people I love, and who love me.
OUT OF THE DARKNESS…
Having grasped this truth, which took me way longer than I expected, I accept this loneliness now as a cost of this experience. It’s one that I have paid, and continue to pay, every step of the way.
On days when the cost is high, and I’m feeling the loneliness acutely, I could head home. I could choose not to pay that price.
But instead I try to sit with it when it comes up. Like paying a recurring bill, I try to work through it, and accept it as an unavoidable facet of the journey, one that’s shared with just about everyone I meet.
I say it’s a “hidden” cost, because in all the travel blogs I’ve read, the word “love” is hardly mentioned. It would seem as if each backpacker truly carries everything he or she needs on their back, when in fact that’s not true.
Yes, I think that’s how we want to portray ourselves. We want to seem strong, confident, like we have-it-all together, and that we’re the heroes film, books, and television make us out to be. We want to inspire. Heck, I want to inspire!
There is a component of truth to that, because adventurers since time immemorial have chosen to pay costs that others can’t or won’t, to have experiences others never will. There’s a heroic component to that choice, and to sticking with it in the face of adversity.
But while outside, it may look and seem heroic, on the inside, at least for me, it doesn’t always feel so.
So as I prepare to check out of my hostel, and pay my bill for that, at the same time I’m paying this inner “bill” of loneliness, with this blog, with my photos, with my journal, and sometimes even with tears. Not every day, but sometimes.
That’s one cost to this adventure.
AND INTO THE LIGHT
But at least now it’s not so hidden anymore.
By going into this dark place, into this sadness, and letting it move in and through me, I learned about myself, about my family and friends, about loving and being loved, and how deeply important that process is – and how it also lives in balance with many other things key to my growth and prosperity as an individual.
Having brought that knowledge out of the dark and into the light, now it fuels me. I get it. I savor it as a part of my new life.
I’m not running or hiding from this pain when it comes up, like I was before. I understand it, why it exists, the purpose it serves, what it’s trying to teach me, how to be strong in the face of it, and how to accept it and myself, until it passes.
I can speak with it, you might say. And I’ve learned to listen. Which is good, because I have so much further to go.
While I can’t carry everything in my pack, I get to carry that knowledge and wisdom to the next adventure, to the next traveler, to the world, to you.
And for the rest of my life.
In future editions of this series, I look forward to sharing more of these Hidden Costs, and my responses to them.
[UPDATE: Click to read Part 2 of this series, “When It All Goes Wrong.”]
This post is dedicated to my cousin Charlie, pictured here with his wife Corina.
I miss you, buddy. Until the day our journeys bring us together again.