Some thoughts on travelling, “coming home”, building a life and what happens as free-spirited travellers start to get older.
Type “travel ruins your life” or something similar into Google, and you’ll find a whole list
of articles that claim that travelling has ruined their authors’ ability to live a normal existence. They’re mostly written tongue-in-cheek, coming to the conclusion that yes, travelling means you will never again be able to return to “normal” life, to dull office jobs and conversations about the weather with old friends, but that this destruction of the status quo is ultimately a positive thing that you will be the richer for.
The internet is overflowing with articles and blogs enthusing about how travel will enrich your life and make you a better person, to the point where those who can’t afford to jet off around the world might feel bad about themselves. But recently, the question of whether travelling is actually somehow destructive for your long-term happiness and growth has come up a few times, so before you sell everything you own to backpack around the globe, here’s something to consider.
While plenty of ‘travellers’ have spent years in their new homes, planting roots and building lives, others – well into their 40s – continue to leap from country to country, earning just enough money to hop to the next destination. The other week, I met someone who told me that he was going to travel to every single recognised country in the world, spending anywhere from a week to a few months in each one. I asked him what his plan was for after that.
“Then I’ll kill myself,” he said, deadpan. I searched for a trace of irony on his face but couldn’t find one. I laughed nervously, sipped my drink and reminded him that sometimes quality is more important than quantity; you can learn so much more about the world by immersing yourself in a new culture than by viewing the globe as a check-list. Crossing off a country simply because you’ve spent a couple of days in it means you miss out on so many deep, rich experiences. And do people really think that borders – often arbitrarily drawn by colonialists – somehow encapsulate entirely discrete and homogenous cultures?
I asked another person, who was adopting a similar globe-hopping approach, whether he ever found it difficult to establish or maintain deep emotional connections when he was moving about so much.
“That’s why I do this,” he smiled, “to avoid them.”
Instead of admiration at his free spirit, I just felt sad for him. It left me wondering; of course travel can be a great amount of fun, and it teaches you things about yourself and the world around you that you would never get from a book. Through travelling and living abroad I have learnt not only about cultures, histories, and languages, and met amazing people; I have also become far more resilient, adaptable, and minimalistic than I ever thought I could be. I can now move countries with only the luggage I can carry on my back and in my hands, navigate places in which I can’t speak the language, and approach new people in a way that I never could have done before. But does travel also somehow stunt your growth in other ways?
“I fear,” one friend recently said to me, “that I’ve come back home, ten years later, and I’m still exactly the same person I was when I left… while all my friends have ten years of real life experience under their belts.”
Often we argue that what we see when travelling the world looks far more like “real life” than the way people live back home; when you compare agricultural struggle in rural Laos to cushy drive-through convenience in the States it’s easy to feel that most of us live in a bubble, and that calling office cubicles and paying council tax ‘real life’ just feels insulting. But then, I think about people from my hometown who have struggled to raise children, cared for sick relatives, struggled through difficult marriages, faced the harsh realities of poverty, faced bereavement and tragedy. I think of my grandparents and all the rich life experiences they had without leaving the country they were born in. They surely know what ‘real life’ looks like. Travel is promoted as a way to experience the real world, yet there are many who seem to skim across the surface, almost as if they’re walking over hot coals – never staying still long enough to feel the pain.
Travellers can be quite elitist; we tend to look down on those who don’t travel as being boring, foolish or ignorant. What we often overlook is that those who stay put might not only amass a wealth of life experience, positive and negative, but also build foundations for their future. Among many travellers I’ve met, there doesn’t seem to be a long-term plan – other than travelling until the money runs out, or – for those who are teaching or freelancing – “work ‘til I drop”. While I feel suffocated by the thought of being tied into a rent contract or a job that I can’t leave when things get unpleasant, I can’t help but feel a stronger need to have a base or an anchor somewhere as I hurtle towards 30.
I look at friends who have spent their 20’s climbing the career ladder, saving money, investing in things, paying into pensions, maybe even buying property (although I don’t know anybody in the UK who has done that without help from family members), building families, and sometimes I think… was I being childish and just trying to avoid scary adult responsibilities? Have I messed it up? Am I going to end up broke and alone because I was bored?
We don’t often talk about loneliness among travellers, and when you’re constantly
meeting new people it’s easy to dismiss the idea. While travelling, your Facebook friends list becomes an ever-growing collection of people you don’t really remember. The people I turn to in times of crisis are still the same old, reliable friends from back home, from before my travelling days. But old connections become harder to maintain. Travellers know the feeling of going home armed with photos and stories of their exciting adventures, only to be met with polite smiles, glazed-over eyes, and a swift shift of the conversation to old school friends and updates about their kids. It’s hard to maintain strong connections when people seem to care so little about some of your most formative experiences. As well as losing a lot of the things in common that bound you, you might also find that your political views have perhaps swung far from those of your friends and family.
Connections you make while travelling tend to burn like napalm; fast, intense, best friends within days but you know, deep down, you probably won’t really stay in touch unless you happen to be in the same place again. When I try to connect with people who haven’t travelled, they tend to freak out and misinterpret my intentions; most people require you to slowly get to know them, earning their trust bit by bit, gently easing your way into their inner circle. When you move country every few months, you don’t have time for that. In that way, I feel travelling has ruined my ability to get close to anyone who isn’t a fellow traveller.
As well as relationships, there’s career and money to think about. When I first returned to the UK, I was asked at a job interview how they could know I wasn’t going to up and leave within a year, as I seemed to get bored of being in one place after a year or so. I claimed that my wandering days were over and I was ready to settle down. I was gone within a year.
It is hard to gain enough experience or skill in one area when you’re always moving around, and while some employers might be impressed by your resilience and sense of adventure, travelling millennials are a dime a dozen nowadays and even a year in Japan doesn’t sound very interesting. Mind you; I read somewhere that these days most people don’t follow a career ladder so much as a crazy paving path, which I hope is true because my CV is a patchwork of seemingly disconnected ventures.
I enjoyed some aspects of the jobs I had in the UK (2013-2015) but eventually the working conditions, zero-hour contracts and lack of employee-friendly laws got to me. It’s hard to compare who I am now to who I might have been if I had never travelled. I knew that there were other options. I knew I didn’t have to stay, to put up with being miserable in order to have just enough money to scrape rent and bills, whereas the non-travelling version of me might not have been able to see that and would have told herself that putting up with this kind of thing was just a normal part of growing up and necessary if I wanted to earn enough to actually save anything.
But I’ve met people who programme, write, translate, transcribe, and design logos from anywhere with a decent Internet connection, while being able to fund their travels around the world – often commanding Western prices and living in places with very low overheads. I do this myself; teaching on Skype is great, and in Romania I only needed to work an hour or two a day to be able to live well. And that’s the thing – once you’ve seen what’s out there, can you ever really go back? I’ve been able to save money and have a far better quality of life in other countries than back home, but in another world I would have never found that out.
I’ve mostly talked about country-hoppers; of course, many build a life outside their home countries. You can often take skills from home, which can just include being a native English speaker, to a place where they will be rarer and more valued and command salaries far above the local minimum wage. You might find that your new country has more
favourable labour laws, cleaner air, friendlier people. Some eventually return to their home countries, but I’ve met a lot of people who tried to do this and experienced extreme reverse culture shock and often, after a couple of years, returned back to the other country again.
So, what’s the take-home here? If you’re planning on doing a lot of travelling, without building up career experience, saving money or working on nurturing relationships, just be prepared for the fact that when you return you might feel horribly lonely, “behind” in life and a little like an outcast. Of course, if you’re not too focused on security and stability this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing – just be aware that the older you get, the more you might start to want anchors and structure, and the more you might start to feel anxious about where you’re going to end up.
Then again, I think about people who spent their entire lives saving up, working in jobs that stifled them, plugging away at careers they didn’t really want because it felt like the right thing to do. Never living because they were always planning for their futures, for retirement or for their children. And yet, for reasons out of their control, they were forced to leave everything behind, flee their countries and live in hellish conditions. If not refugees, think about people whose homes have been destroyed by flooding, people who die young, people who work so hard that they make themselves ill from stress. You can spend your whole life living for a future that doesn’t materialise, and at the end of the day the only thing you can really hold onto is the person that you are. Your own resilience, resourcefulness and skills; and, hopefully, the connections that you’ve made.
As I watch the Pound plummet and incompetent Eton graduates sell off my country to their friends, climate scientists repeatedly warning us that we have passed the point of no return, and the gradual spread of right-wing extremist sentiment, I don’t feel great swathes of trust that life will always go on as we know it now. Yet we pressure each other to live as if the status quo will never change. And if it all does go horribly wrong, would you rather be someone with a lot of money, a good CV and a nice house, or a minimalist with allies all over the world and an ability to adapt to new situations quickly? This is something that only you can decide, and as with most things, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle ground.