By Darmon Richter.
People go travelling for all sorts of different reasons. I was having a coffee with a travel blogger friend not so long ago, and he was talking about a conference he’d just got back from. It was an industry thing, a huge international meeting of tour operators, hoteliers, travel guides and bloggers.
“All those famous travel bloggers,” he told me, “with the websites that get tens of thousands of hits every day – none of them just do it because they love it. They’re all running from something.”
My friend proceeded to run through a list of examples, various influential bloggers that he’d met: one of them had a divorced wife and an estranged family back home in the United States; another couldn’t bear to come out as gay to her friends and parents, and felt more comfortable being ‘herself’ on the other side of the planet. And so the list went on.
It struck me as a pessimistic outlook, to assume that everyone was simply running away from something; but it got me thinking about my own travels, and the personal demons that might have played a role in setting me on my path.
Four years and two months ago, I packed my bags and left the United Kingdom behind. Since then I’ve visited more than 50 countries. I’ve hitchhiked across the Kazakh steppe, I’ve crawled through sewers in Australia, I’ve explored vodou shrines in the Caribbean and I’ve seen the inside of a Russian police cell.
Other times I’ve been lazy. I’ve got comfortable, rented apartments and made a home-away-from-home; but it has always been in places that are new, foreign and very different from where I come from. Right this minute, if I want to go down to the shop and buy milk I have to do it in a language that won’t come out of my mouth without a fight.
Some people talk about mentally preparing themselves for long-term travel: the slow process of saving up money, thinning down possessions and getting to grips with the massive undertaking ahead. I never went through any of that, though – I simply went on holiday and didn’t come back.
It’s worth noting that at the time I’d just had the worst year of my life. I worked an awful, dead-end job that used none of my qualifications and barely paid enough to cover my rent; a close family member had been diagnosed with bowel cancer; I’d just been through a particularly unpleasant break-up, and then, on top of all else, I woke one morning to find an eviction note tucked under the door of my flat.
So, yes – it’s probably fair to say that I was running from something.
But travel is an incredibly distracting pastime. There’s no better way to take your mind off negative thoughts than by changing literally everything around you: immersing yourself in a sea of new sensations. In those early months of long-term travel I found that the more adventurous I was, the less I thought about the bad stuff. I would even go out of my way to court danger, and at times I was reckless: venturing into conflict zones, free-climbing derelict skyscrapers.
But while I was travelling, a funny thing happened to me… eventually I just stopped caring about my own personal problems. When I finally slowed down enough to think back on the year behind me, it was like peeling off a plaster to find the wound had healed. I no longer cared about the things that had already happened, and I didn’t feel stressed by the things I couldn’t change. I had seen a glimpse of just how big the world was; and in comparison, my personal dramas didn’t really seem that big of a deal.
That sense of perspective, the strange relief of acknowledging one’s own relative insignificance, is something that I’d recommend to anyone. Travel can be incredibly therapeutic; although it isn’t always easy. It changes you and in a way, it makes you lonelier – you’ll make hundreds of new friends on the road, but that means hundreds of goodbyes. Of course you exchange email addresses but you know that most of them you’ll never see again. Meanwhile, your oldest friends will gradually have less and less in common with you.
Is it still worth it? Of course it is, and if I could offer any advice to someone who wants to get into long-term travel as a lifestyle, then it’s this: don’t overthink it.
Coping with long-term travel is all about finding a state of fluidity, of flux, of moving with one’s surroundings and adapting to them – rather than being beaten down by one ill-fated plan after another. By all means, set targets and goals and deadlines for yourself… just don’t take any of them too seriously. Rigidity makes you brittle, and if you’re brittle you’ll never last out there.
Stop over-planning things, and be prepared to think on your feet. Embrace humiliation. Consider discomfort an education. Most problems aren’t as big as they first appear. Don’t overthink it.
And while you’re at it, ditch the selfie stick. Narcissism is anathema to personal development, and you’ll miss out on all of the transformative power of travel if you spend your trip obsessing over what you look like.
You shouldn’t be afraid of strangers either. Sure, some of them will occasionally try to rob you… but the vast majority are absolutely lovely. One thing I’ve learned is that wherever you go, human beings are basically the same everywhere. We all need water and warmth; we all eat and sleep and love and shit, and so the things you need – the things you actually, truly need – are going to be available wherever there are humans.
Relax. You’ll be alright.
Just get out there, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and see what happens. Who knows, you might come back a better person… or maybe, you’ll never come back at all.
Darmon Richter is a freelance writer & photographer; an experienced urban explorer & self-confessed dark tourist. www.thebohemianblog.com
The Cuban was taken by…Darmon Richter