(Which might sound like an exercise in futility given that I moved to New Delhi two days ago, but let’s start at the start.)
I’m a sucker for a clean slate, a new beginning. It’s the appeal of going alone to places where no one knows me, hoarding beautiful notebooks that I daren’t write into lest I ruin them, and making New Year’s resolutions that I’ve usually forgotten about by the time I’ve gotten over my hangover on the 1st of January.
But this year’s biggest resolution has been lurking in the back of my mind for a long while and has so far made it seven days past New Year’s eve unscathed:
This year I will travel less.
This is for a number of reasons, some very practical – like the fact that burnout is no fun, even when brought on by fun things – and some straying slightly into soul-searching territory.
First, let me say that I know what you’re probably thinking: when it comes to first world problems that no one wants to hear about “I’ve travelled too much in the past couple of years” must be right at the top of the list. I hear you.
But here’s the thing: long-term travel is not the same as a holiday and my peripatetic life, while deeply fulfilling, comes with some downsides that don’t necessarily make it onto my Instagram feed.
Evolutionarily speaking being a stranger in a new environment was an undesirable and dangerous position to be in, and travelling large distances was a taxing undertaking important for finding sustenance and safety, or to fulfil a religious obligation. It was a rare eccentric/outcast/criminal who took it upon himself to stay on the move just for the sake of it. Nowadays, as travel has become easier than ever for a privileged fraction of humanity, there is less immediate danger in it and more potential for exploration, indulgence and learning.
Yet the fact remains – travel puts a great deal of strain on one’s body, mind, relationships and environment.
Despite my undeniable and well-documented love of travel I am not entirely convinced by the current narrative being shoved down our throats by the travel/tourism/lifestyle industry: a life set against foreign backdrops as the magic bullet that insantly makes you a better, more interesting and more shaggable person.
Travel, nowadays thoroughly integrated into consumerist culture and roughly defined as moving one’s body from one nation-state to another in an Instagram-pleasing fashion, is one of many life experiences that have been packaged and sold to us as “indispensable” to the modern experience. (For further examples see: going to college, monogamous romantic relationships, having children, being photographed while striking yoga poses on beaches and/or mountains. All potentially wonderful and fulfilling – or at least good for your flexibility – but not for everyone, not always, and not without a certain degree of difficulty and sacrifice.)
We can split hairs all we want about the supposed difference between tourists, travellers and adventurers, but the former two are just semantics now and true adventurers have been very few and far in-between since roughly the Victorian period and certainly since the advent of Google Maps.
So having become increasingly disillusioned by what constitutes travel these days I’ve spent a lot of time ruminating on what I find so worthwhile in this endeavour that I am continually drawn to it regardless.
(We’re wading deep into soul-searching territory here, so bear with me. I promise we’ll move on to more practical concerns soon.)
Here is what I consider the core of travel: The willingness to be uncomfortable and open to the unknown on the off-chance that it proves to be worthwhile. To welcome boredom. The willingness to be a stranger, to ask stupid questions, to listen to answers that you don’t agree with, to sometimes feel lonely in your lack of understanding. To seek a connection where at first there is none. To at times feel utterly dislocated in joy or excitement or sadness and not dull it with chatter. To be mindful. To see how the world lives, how different the rites and rituals, how same the underlying motivations. To see the world from every angle and feel responsible for it, even when it’s overwhelming.
All this is easier, of course, when an unfamiliar place yanks you from everything you thought you knew, but strictly speaking the geographical aspect is an option, not a necessity. And it can sometimes be a distraction – the exhausting physicality of travel and an over-abundance of unreflected change can make it very hard to stay open and daring and curious. Lately I sometimes catch myself performing the physical act of travel even as my mind slips and trails behind, unwilling to play along any longer, making the entire endeavour profoundly meaningless according to the rambling definition above.
Of course travelling less is not the same as not travelling at all – In trying to reassess my views on the topic I simply want to make sure that travel can remain a sustainable and integral part of my life for decades to come, and to find the fine line between my desire to travel and my compulsion to do so.
I’ve inherited my travel-filled life much in the way I’ve inherited a good set of teeth – sure, I’m very glad to have them and like to think that I’ve contributed my part, but the fact of the matter is that much of it was out of my hands.
I travelled throughout my childhood, worked odd jobs and saved money through high school, and left for Asia a couple of months after turning eighteen for a year of solo travel.
Thinking about it now I don’t recall ever having decided to travel, it’s just that it never occurred to me to stay.
To a large degree we are shaped by what we do, and we love to do that we are good at. I find the thought of not leaving, of simply staying put and accepting that I will never be able to see everything, talk to everybody, or understand more than roughly 0,5% of the human experience far more unsettling than the thought of having to get on the first flight to Burundi right now, and I’m not even entirely sure where Burundi is.
Or at least, I used to. Yet three days ago, when it was time to get on yet another flight and move to Delhi, I wanted to hide under the bed and sneak in another week at home.
By this point I’ve been in pretty constant motion for well over two years. After completing my bachelor’s degree in Berlin I spawned this blog and spent 16 months travelling more or less overland from Iran to Indonesia, from where I returned to Europe because I was offered a spot in the aptly-named Global Studies master’s programme.
Berlin, my second home and beloved accomplice during my undergrad studies, is a city of quick change and hard landings that attracts itinerant strays from far and wide. Most of my friends have outgrown its grubby streets and endless nights and moved on while I was gone, but luckily my studies came pre-equipped with a brand new batch of classmates. Still processing my notes and photos from Asia while studying full-time I moved apartments or rooms every three weeks, unable to find a place for longer. The four-month semester flew by, and after a quick holiday in Slovenia I was on a flight to Buenos Aires for my second semester.
I was excited to spend some time in Latin America, a continent I hadn’t visited since my childhood and that I did not know much about. Not wanting to waste the five months I had there I spent the precious little free time I had between classes, Spanish courses and endless commutes exploring the city and travelling to other parts of the country as much as possible. For the last couple of weeks of the semester practically every waking hour was devoted to typing endless pages of academic analysis, proposals, summaries and papers, trying to wrap up my requirements a couple of weeks early. On the last day of class I finished my last report around midnight – my parents had arrived a couple of days before – and by the next morning I and my long-suffering boyfriend moved out of our apartment, got in a car with my parents and went on a 7,000 kilometre road-trip around Patagonia for three weeks. Add to that a ridiculously long flight home and a hefty time difference and it’s hardly surprising that I got sick practically the moment I landed, spending my first week at home as a snotty feverish mess sleeping 13 hours a day.
I’ve written about travel burnout before but it seems that I never learn. While I’ve got this mindfulness thing down in theory I’ve not had much luck translating it into practice – I’m a chronic sufferer of FOMO and naturally averse to what the cool kids might call “chilling out”, usually preferring to run ahead at full speed until my body goes on strike.
But there are other aspects to being over-travelled that are far more insidious and cannot be fixed with a week-long slumber. The problem with constant change, stimulation and excitement is that it leaves very little room for original thought. In the past two years I’ve experienced, seen and learned more than my fair share, but while I’ve constantly been soaking up ever-new impressions, ideas and opinions I’ve barely taken time to process them, to make my own connections and raise new questions.
Which brings me to the second problem – mental fatigue. Everything is starting to bleed together in my mind. I catch myself constantly comparing my surroundings to things I’ve seen before – Patagonia with the Gobi Desert, the Andes with the Himalaya, Argentinian empanadas with Indian samosas – with the present always falling short. Not because it’s less beautiful or worthwhile or interesting, but because I am less interested. I’m oversaturated with the newness of the world.
I similarly find myself increasingly reluctant to meet new people. Over the past couple of years I have shared cheerful banter, tedious small-talk and deep intricate conversations with more people than I could possibly count. While a couple of them have become dear friends and changed me for the better most of them quickly receded into memory and the forgotten corners of my Facebook friend list. I have vague acquaintances and friends-of-friends all over the world, but in constantly trying to keep up with new people I struggle to maintain contact with the handful of people who are truly important in my life. Luckily my best friend is an independent lady who doesn’t mind me dropping off the radar for months at a time, but I have missed many important moments in my friends’ and families’ lives on account of going AWOL.
But admittedly, and selfishly, one of my greatest frustrations has been my apparent inability to strike a balance between travelling and writing, the latter increasingly what gives meaning and form to what would otherwise be aimless wanderings. Since I don’t want to pursue a career in academia even my anthropology degree has so far proven most valuable in teaching me to look where others don’t, to ask questions and to do more research than a casual traveller would ever consider humane.
At the beginning I worried that I would have nothing to write about if I didn’t travel more and consequently went on many a wild goose chase on the off-chance of finding a story (some worked out better than others). But in the past year I’ve been increasingly frustrated by an overabundance of things to write coupled with a severe lack of time and energy to do it in. For every story I’ve written there are ten more that I haven’t, simply because there has never been enough time to mull over my impressions, let them hang out for a while, unhurried, and make meaning of them.
(There is a story from Kyrgyzstan that has been sitting on my computer for a year and a half now. I have a great first paragraph and enough notes to suspect I could finish it, but never enough time to return back to those days spent on the banks of Son Kul lake. It keeps me up at night more often than I’d like to admit.)
Crucially, my decision to dial back on travel for a year is not because I’m “growing up” or starting a “real life”, an accusation usually made by people who equate growing up with an endless barrage of joyless responsibilities and whose jaunts abroad are always short enough to constitute a fun escape from whatever they consider “real life”. Growing up and real life are things I’m very much looking forward to, but I also suspect that they mean something slightly different to me.
My dad turned 60 last year. This year he spent about a month riding his motorbike around Morocco, then came over to Argentina with my mum to explore Patagonia with me and swing by Bolivia and Chile after I’d flown home. In 2017 he’ll be spending five months riding his motorbike across central Asia to India, and the year after that it’s time to take the motorbike over to Colombia. At least that’s the current plan, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d be packing for Mars by the end of next summer.
Which gets to the core of why I’m trying to reassess this whole travel thing – I want to make sure that when I turn sixty I’ll still be as excited by the world as he is. If I want travel to remain an integral part of my life, which I do, I need to learn to pace myself, to get bored so there’s space again for excitement, and to make a home I can return to.
While in Delhi I am more or less absolved of further travel – this is notoriously the most demanding semester of my studies so free time will be non-existent and there is little I could do on short weekend trips that I haven’t already seen during my Indian extravaganza last year. On the bright side, the JNU campus is pretty much the nicest part of Delhi, so I want to take advantage of living there and turn my academic-overachiever dial up to 11 this semester. It was harder to give up the idea of overlanding from Iran to Slovenia after my Indian semester – Armenia and the Balkans will have to wait a little bit longer.
So this is my resolution: I’ll be returning home after my time in Delhi is over at the end of May. For the first time in years I’ll spend a month and a half in Slovenia – maybe two, why not go crazy?? There’s a good chance that by the time my birthday comes around in early July I’ll already be busy plotting and scheming and raring to go somewhere, anywhere. And perhaps I will, but probably not. I think it wouldn’t kill me if I tried to get a bit bored every now and then. And besides, the more I see of the world the more I can appreciate what a beautiful country I come from. Maybe it’s time to play explorer in my own back yard. Go for multi-day hikes, swim in lakes, try out the cycling trails and look for stories closer to home before I have to return to Berlin in October.
Who knows – this just might be a New Year’s resolution I’ll try to keep.
Fair winds and following seas,