Four years of full-time travel, four important lessons

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.

Female traveler drunk with men in Georgia

From that time I almost died from drowning in my own vomit in Georgia, the first stop on my long term travels. Thanks chacha, I hope my liver never has to process you ever again.

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.

What is it like to travel long-term? I'm a solo female traveler who's been traveling full-time for four years. Click through for some lessons I've learned from my life of travel. #Travel #FemaleTravel #Backpacking #SoloTravel

Four important lessons I learned from four years of full-time travel

1. You can’t see everything. Give no [email protected]%ks.

Female traveler in Iran

In Iran, I missed plenty of big ticket sights because of (then) steep entrance fees. On the other hand, I got to visit all kinds of off the beaten track places. Ya win some, ya lose some.

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 [email protected]%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.

Trekking to Gangotri

Indians are particularly bad about the OMGUDIDN’TVISITWHATAREUEVENDOING?! Ironic, since their country has far more places to visit than any one person could do in a lifetime… like this epic trek to the start of the Ganges river.

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.

With a family in Dhaka, Bangladesh

A family I met while traveling in Bangladesh. I have the privilege of the time, money, and passport power to travel their country for fun, then leave when I’m done. They don’t.

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.

Rich female traveler tossing money in Iran

I don’t make that much money blogging, but I’m still privileged in many ways others aren’t.

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.

Female traveler watching sunrise in West Quoddy Head, Maine, United States of America

Going on a weekend break to Lubec, Maine with my family was easy, straightforward, and comfortable; far from my usual travel style. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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.

Motorbiking in Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan

Learning to ride a motorbike in Pakistan—and the subsequent solo adventures I had—was challenging, but also the most rewarding experience I’ve had in the last couple of years. Yet to many hardcore travelers, learning to motorbike is standard procedure.

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.

Alone at northern Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia

On my own in the wild marshes on the north shore of Lake Baikal in Siberia, Russia

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.

Girl looking at fields in the United States

Going back to the United States doesn’t feel like going home any more, even when friends are around. The hard part is: I have no idea where my home is now.

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”.

 

What is it like to travel long-term? I'm a solo female traveler who's been traveling full-time for four years. Click through for some lessons I've learned from my life of travel. #Travel #FemaleTravel #Backpacking #SoloTravel

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Alex Reynolds

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

23 thoughts on “Four years of full-time travel, four important lessons

    Joy says:

    Build those bridges! I don’t know the best way for you. Maybe bring someone on an adventure with you every now and then so you have more shared adventures than solo ones. Maybe it will be an understanding of how those friends and family know you instead of the gaps they don’t understand. Anyway I am for building the bridge.

    I like your positive outlook and your suggestions! I do think it would be healthy to share adventures more often—I get a bit caught up in solo travel sometimes, but it’s often just as fun to share experiences 🙂 Cheers for pushing me in the right direction, lady!

    Michelle says:

    “No one actually cares about what you’ve seen and how it’s changed you.”
    On the contrary! These introspective posts are some of my favorites of yours, even compared the wild and crazy stories. I can’t be the only one.
    Keep it up, the honesty and sharing and confidence to take the breaks and give no f***s when you need to.

    Clearly I need to find more people like you in my real life! I only know a handful, alas. Thanks for your encouragement, and never fear, no f*cks will be given 😉

    Jacob Laboissonniere says:

    Amazing post, Alex!

    Loved this line – “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.”

    I’ve totally feel that way when I get home too. I find my self being unable to even bring up half of the places I’ve been, just because I don’t want to get into the explaining that “yes, I went to Pakistan/Afghanistan and didn’t die” conversation. It gets draining after you’ve explained it a couple of times.

    And yeah, accepting the fact that I’ll never see the whole world took a while. During my first big solo trip, I always thought that visiting every country was the ultimate “travel achievement”. Nowadays, I couldn’t care less if I end up seeing every country before I die. Sure, it’d cool to see all those countries, but it’s also pretty damn cool to spend months exploring rural China or trekking in Pakistan.

    I’ve noticed an increasing number of Instagrammers aiming to be the “Youngest X to visit every country in the world”. Maybe I’m jaded, but I don’t see any value in that achievement.

    I’m on the same page as you, as usual! It’s too difficult to get past the “yes, you actually can travel to these places you know and no, I didn’t die” phase of conversation, so why bother?

    As for visiting every country in the world… seems like too much effort for not enough time, ha! I can get behind the dude trying to visit them all without flying (damned impressive, that), but I can’t say I want any more than to visit every continent. Because, you know, Antarctica. Much more interesting to deep dive into a few countries than have a shallow taste of many.

    Yogesh Kardile says:

    Namaste Alex ,

    Your article is really wonderful and I can related with a few points so feels a bit personal. I have read your past blogposts as well.
    After certain time when we received so much from this beautiful world should give back something without expecting from it. And I am sure you must have done it. I recommend you a book by Swami Vivekananda ‘ Complete book on Yoga ‘ . This is available on Amazon. It will surely help you. This is one of the simplest yet powerful book I have ever read. The outlook towards self and the world changes with simple truths.

    My best wishes for your travels. Keep inspiring.

    Thank you for the book recommendation! I’ll check it out. I would like to learn a bit more about yoga from something other than white Western women, so your recommendation is extra appreciated 🙂

    Andy says:

    Loved reading your post. Poignant but true. As a traveler myself, I have my own share of the four topics that you have mentioned, especially the last one. It’s incredibly refreshing to watch sunsets elsewhere in the world. But it is incredibly difficult to experience it alone.

    Regards from Beijing.

    Melancholy, but true. There’s a power to shared experiences that many of us are missing out on, for sure. Cheers from Belgium.

    Pat Kelly says:

    I so appreciate your insights…it’s so hard to explain these feelings and thoughts to dear friends and family…surely, no one will feel sorry for me! Not that I need them to…but…it is nice to feel understood…thanks…sometimes misery can use a little, short-term company…then enough!! Where to next?? 🤔

    Hahaha, that’s how I think, too! But it’s still good to know that other people are having similar thoughts 🙂

    Timezone Junkies says:

    This resonates a lot with us even though we travel full-time as a couple we still feel isolated and lonely very often.

    Totally agree with the privileged section, we are incredibly fortunate to have the possibility of travelling almost wherever we want when many of the world’s population can’t even get a passport.
    We feel particularly bad when we need to explain to less privileged people that we travel full-time. We feel really spoilt.

    We feel exactly like you, we earn really little money and travel on a tight budget but we are still super privileged and it is our choice to live like this.

    Thanks for writing this post. We truly relate to all 4 lessons learnt.

    I know what you mean about explaining full-time travel to people who could never achieve such a thing… serious guilt pangs there. But what can we do? I do still find that many people grossly overestimate how much long-term travel costs/how much money some long-term travelers have.

    Pratik Goel says:

    I can relate so much to that introspective thoughts you had. It was one of the best articles that I read in recent times that gave me answers to so many questions arising within me.
    I loved your Pakistan Stories. I never knew Gilgit region is that beautiful. Hope to see you sometime back in India soon.

    And I hope to return soon! Thanks for taking the time to share all of your thoughts 🙂

    Maja says:

    Stumbled across this post when Nomadic Matt shared it and I’ve got some serious binge-reading to do on your blog!! I haven’t really traveled long-term (3 months is the longest for me), but as someone who travels a lot I still related to a lot of what you wrote. The jarring reality of going home, the guilt you feel from how privileged you are to be traveling in the first place, and all those “oh but haven’t you done THIS? I have!” convos aren’t easy. Thanks for sharing and happy travels! 🙂

    Many of us have these feelings, whether we’re traveling for 3 months or 3 years! There’s definitely a power to knowing we’re not alone 🙂 Thank you for reading and taking the time to share a bit of your own experience!

    Kayla says:

    You are women empowerment!!!! Reading this entry is vulnerable in every way but badass to say the very least! You are inspiring and your perspective is true and for that I thank you. I have felt those lonely times, where only stunning IG post create some kind of temporary intrigue, but in the end, I am always grateful for those moments as many do not know that feeling of pure lonely self. I think it’s healthy.
    I send cheers to your many more silent sunrise walks wherever you may be through the many upcoming years of travel!

    Aw shucks, thanks! It’s true, loneliness hits hard… but it’s still worth the weight. Here’s to sunrise walks, healthy contemplation, and more adventures to come 🙂

    Kerrie says:

    What a great article! So glad I’ve found you… Very inspiring.

    I’m very glad you liked it!

    Avantika Chaturvedi says:

    Loved how I could manage to let out a small chuckle every now and then when reading this thought provoking piece! But “You are alone in your experiences.” That one hit hard.

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