Four big lessons I learned from four years of long-term travel.
Today marks four years since I hit the road to try out this long-term travel thing.
For the record, I had literally no idea I would travel for so long when I packed up those two backpacks in the Netherlands back in 2016. My loose plan was to travel for a year or so with my then-boyfriend until we ran out of money, then find jobs in warm—most probably Southeast Asian—climates.
… but my plans never happen as planned.
I traveled for more than a year on my savings. I broke up with that boyfriend. Oh, and I figured out how to make money while traveling through travel blogging, freelancing, and selling foot photos on the internet. Just kidding… unless you legitimately want to buy photos of my feet in which case LET’S TALK! Income > dignity.
Traveling overseas to find yourself is bollocks in my opinion—how the hell are you supposed to learn about the depths of your soul while struggling to float in a sea of foreignness?—but I won’t deny I’ve learned a thousand and one life lessons on the road. Some are simple in scope (hand sanitizer each day keeps the diarrhea away), others less so. Here’s what I’ve learned from years of full-time travel.
Four important lessons I learned from four years of full-time travel
1. You can’t see everything. Give no f@%ks.
When I first started traveling, I wanted to see EEEEVERYTHING. I headed to a new place every two or three days. Zipped around entire countries in one month or less. I oohed and ahhed and snapped too many photos of every marginally impressive thing I encountered.
But those days are over. These days, I could easily spend a month in one place without ever setting foot in a tourist site.
As days blend into weeks and months and years, Top Ten Must Sees lose their charm. In Thailand it’s “temple fatigue”, in Uzbekistan there’s “tile fatigue”: the feeling when you’ve seen too many temples or mosques or churches or iron busts of Lenin and you could not give any less f@%ks about seeing more. What was once exciting becomes underwhelming.
People who make you feel bad about your choices are the actual problem. Home folks insist you’re ~*SO LUCKY*~ to see all these things, then you feel guilt for not caring. Others remind you of all the things you haven’t seen that you ~*ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE*~ or else did you really even visit?
Screw them. Do what makes you happy.
Nowadays, my ideal outings involve walking streets at sunrise to enjoy silence and golden light. Eating ice creams while watching people take horrible vacation selfies in awkward locations. Reading particularly absurd Google Maps reviews. Meeting locals for coffee and whiling the day away talking about anything and everything.
None of these could go on a TripAdvisor Top 10 list, but who cares? I travel the way I want to, not the way other people tell me to.
2. You’re privileged AF. It’s only bad if you ignore it.
Long-term travel is not accessible for anyone and everyone; this club is Privileged People Only. You can try arguing, but you gonna lose.
To travel internationally at all, you need a passport, which many people do not have. Maybe they can’t read, can’t afford one, have never needed one, are forbidden from getting one, or don’t have access to systems to apply for one. Heck, only 42% of people in my own country, the big, bad, wealthy US of A, have passports.
Even if you do have a passport, you need visas. Money for tickets and accommodation and food. Time to travel in some capacity. Language to communicate. Familial freedom or permissions in some cases. Health to physically be able to do so.
That’s a lot, right?
Sure, people break norms. Some travel without money. Others with weak passports find countries that will let them in. Travelers fight families for their freedom all the time.
Still, they’re privileged.
Travelers without money are usually from wealthy Western countries who have financial security nets at home. Travelers with weak passports are often elites in their own country, wealthy enough to consider recreational travel. People fight their families, but many times their family is well educated or well off enough to sustain themselves if one of their children leaves to travel the world.
And you know what? That’s okay.
As long as we admit it, we can come to terms with it. And, more importantly, find ways to use our privilege to uplift those who aren’t as privileged.
I used to get defensive about my privilege. I’m not a trust fund baby! I’m actually a broke backpacker without a home and I pay for all my travels myself and my parents still harp on me to go back to America to get a real person job. Acknowledge my struggle!
Now I know better. I have two extremely powerful passports, a good education, no debt, plus technical, life, and language skills to keep me afloat pretty much anywhere. Instead of going on the defense, I now ask: How can I use these to have a positive impact on the world?
I’m still figuring that last bit out, of course. I try to encourage and practice responsible tourism and support women’s empowerment, but there’s always more to learn. Nevertheless, purpose has replaced guilt.
3. It’s okay to take breaks.
Spend enough time on the road, and you’ll learn traveler culture is often a never-ending my-dick-is-bigger-than-yours contest.
How many countries have you been to? I’ve been to 398,221,039 if you count the territories!
You took the bus? That’s cool but I hitchhiked here from the Galapagos Islands on the backs of sea turtles.
I’ve been on the road for 13 years living only on whiskey, cigarettes, and organic honey I collected with nomads in the Himalayas.
No matter what you do, there is always someone who did something more extreme or traveled longer or visited more places you’ve never heard of. Most travelers are perfectly pleasant, but there’s always a loud ego or two who feels the need to one up everyone in the room.
Honestly? They got to me. The more off the beaten track I traveled, the more pressure I felt from the hardcore travelers I met. Gone were the casual vacationers and backpackers, in were the adventurous souls whose lives were inextricable from the road.
In the early years I felt like an impostor, too wet behind the ears to associate with such worldly folk. I needed to travel farther and longer and crazier and never stop if I wanted to be like these guys.
Becoming an ~*influencer*~ didn’t help. I felt the need to show a strong face to my followers, too. There were times when I wanted to slow down and do nothing or go somewhere just to hang out and relax and maybe visit a friend or two… but I felt like that was cheating.
… but again I realized: who cares?
That’s great that you hitchhiked on sea turtles. I like taking the bus because it stops for snacks and I can listen to music and avoid human interaction for a bit.
Cool that you live on cigarettes and honey. I like cookies and buying salads occasionally because I think I’ll probably die of scurvy if I don’t. (I’ll take some of that whiskey, though.)
Wonderful that you’ve traveled for an impossible number of millennia. I’m actually going to go visit some friends and family for a bit because I miss them and I’m tired of dealing with douches like you all the time.
There’s still a niggling feeling of guilt or weakness every time I spend more than a few days visiting an “easy” Western country, but I’m cooler with it now than I ever was before.
4. Long-term travel is lonely.
Forget parasites ravaging my bowels, nearly dying of altitude sickness, and being harassed and assaulted on the reg. The hardest part of all my long-term travel is loneliness.
I’m not talking loneliness in the night when you’re in a dingy room on your own in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do but Netflix. This loneliness is much bigger.
See, the experiences you have while traveling are extraordinary. Your perspectives change. Your understanding of the world changes. You change.
Everyone else at home? Not so much.
These changes isolate you. Though family and friends may have shallow interest in your adventures, they probably can’t relate. Most of my friends and family don’t want to hear anything more than a gripping near-death tale or two… if even. When you return home—or settle somewhere where travelers are few and far between—it’s like your vast treasure chest of experiences simply evaporates into thin air.
No one actually cares about what you’ve seen and how it’s changed you. You are alone in your experiences.
I feel overwhelmingly lonely and isolated whenever I visit friends and family living “normal” lives in the United States and Europe. I’m a cultural pariah, disconnected for too long from the worlds they exist in to fully relate to them; the reverse is also true. Going back “home” to visit people is like waking up from a magical dream: vivid as it was, no one really wants to hear about it.
Does this mean I’m doomed to be lonely forever? Maybe. Perhaps I need to make a better effort to surround myself with travelers. Or maybe I need to stop fixating on the distances between myself and those living “normal” lives, and instead find ways to build bridges between them.
What I do know: regardless of how lonely or pressured or exhausting travel may be at times, I wouldn’t trade all of the experiences I’ve had for anything else in the world.
Want more on the reality of long-term travel? Here’s what it was like to go through reverse culture shock when visiting “home”.