Backpacking, long term travel

Have You Hit the Travel Wall?

It’s Monday morning, and people all over the world are dragging themselves out of bed for yet another week of work. I’m sure more than a few people will spend some of their day wishing they were somewhere other than at their desks. Some may even spend a few minutes looking for an idyllic beach screen shot to refresh their desktop background with… you get the point. We spend a lot of our time dreaming of getting away, but if you’ve ever traveled for an extended period of time, you may realize that the desire to return home can eventually be as strong as the initial desire was to get away.

Travel is, and should be, enjoyable. You’ve worked hard for that around-the-world ticket. You’ve left jobs to enable enough time away. You’ve said goodbye to family, friends, and significant others so you can realize this dream. But what happens when you’re in a place where cringe-worthy moments seem to outnumber the breathtaking ones?
Chances are you’ve hit the travel wall.
A number of odd things start to happen as you approach this wall. You may start to realize that things which initially intrigued you about a place start to annoy you and become just so… well, foreign.
Many little things begin to hit a nerve. The temple across the street that replays the same chanting music non-stop becomes the bane of your afternoon existence. The man who stands on the corner of Bogyoke Aung San and Sule Pagoda Roads, who asks you everyday if you need to change money, book a ticket, and then slyly and suggestively says, “you want massage?” has a knack of seeking you out in a crowd of hundreds.
You start to crave the comforts of home – you’d kill for a clean shower where you don’t have to wear your flip flops, you have washed your clothes in the sink so many times you forget what washing machine settings are. Street stall dinners of noodles and rice start to get repetitive, and you’d pretty much give anything for a piece of toast and a real cup of coffee (not a Nescafe). You opt out of the wake up call for sunrise at the temple or mountaintop because a lie-in sounds more appealing, and you jump for joy when you open the door to a bathroom and there’s a western toilet.
SO, What can you do to avoid said wall?
I’m sure the person who says they can travel forever is out there. I used to say this too, but I’ve learned through frequent long stints overseas that the perfect amount of time away for me is four months. This is four months of moving around. By this point in time, I am more than ready to rest, process, decompress and empty the contents of my pack and stay put for a bit.
But to avoid hitting the wall altogether, build in rest days. If you’re a planner, add these “days off” into your itinerary. I remember planning a six week backpacking trip with my best friend following high school graduation. I mapped out the itinerary and sent it to a few older and wiser travelers, most of who responded asking me if I wanted to enjoy any of that trip. Traveling everyday without any days off is setting yourself up for backpacker burnout.
And after burning out, you will wonder what you truly saw. Fully immerse yourself in a few places, instead of skimming the surface of the whole lot. Aside from rest days, planning a journey that enables you to see a few places in depth, instead of simply breezing through every city in ten countries will leave you with more energy and a deeper appreciation for what you have seen. If you’re spending a day or two in each place before catching your overnight bus to the next city and hitting repeat, you will no doubt wear out more quickly and look back with feelings of regret for not slowing down and savoring the journey. (This applies to any length of trip.)
Have a plan you can stray from. I love a rough plan or framework, but what’s the saying?… “Even the best laid plans…” Things will come up. You will fall in love with a place, or a person that you want to continue your journey with. You may really not like a place, or a person you have been traveling with… Be flexible and don’t put pressure on yourself to see and do absolutely everything Lonely Planet recommends. And if your priorities are different than those of your quickly forming backpacking posse, break away. It’s okay, and sometimes more rewarding, to go it alone.
Build in a few little luxuries for yourself. There’s nothing like a little bit of pampering on the road. Book yourself a massage, head out to the international restaurant and have a burger and fries, throw away the old traveling pants you’ve been wearing for four years and hit up the local market for a posh, new pair. If your budget will stretch, book yourself one or two nights at a real hotel- not a dorm or guest house, but somewhere you can take a bath and then lay in bed and watch TV.  (These are things I used to consider against the Backpacking Bible’s Code of Ethics, but I’ve hit the wall a couple of times now, and I think a few cheats are OK. Just NO MCDONALD’S…EVER!)
Plan your route strategically. On my first trip around the world, I started with India. My energy levels were high and my mind was open and I was so eager to hit the road. Culture shock was welcomed and I embraced every new experience and even welcomed the crazier, more adventurous ones. Overnight buses breaking down, homestays in remote tribal villages, stories of tummy bugs hitting at the most inopportune times- they were all just part of the ‘experience.’ But after five broken down buses in a row during your fourteenth week of travel, it can become a bit trying. So, if possible, plan travel to developing countries at the beginning of your trip, saving the beach bungalow in Bali for when you need some serious down time.
But if you’ve already hit the wall, here are some tips on how to recharge on the road and still savor the rest of your trip.
Take a break from your break. After I had seen all I wanted to in Burma, I returned to Yangon and holed up in a $10 a night guesthouse for over a week. And I didn’t do a whole lot. There was a day where I sat in a European cafe for 7 hours, editing photos and writing. I didn’t feel guilty about this. The coffee was excellent, the tunes were good and the AC brought me back to life within minutes. I interspersed my escape with cultural excursions too. But the three-hour tour on the Yangon Circular train was followed by a trip to Union Bar, for a nice glass of vino, or two.
Go somewhere easy. That’s right. Head to that idyllic Thai beach.
Stay there for a while. Find a cheap room and sit on that beach, drink from coconuts, read a book, and rest. Sign up for a yoga or meditation course, or don’t.

If all else fails, it’s alright to admit defeat and head home. No, you haven’t failed. I recently cut a trip short by two weeks and traveled home early to spend my first Thanksgiving in five years with my family. Alright, it’s not the same as eating Apple Pie at 3,500 meters up on the Annapurna Circuit, sampling Aquavit in Denmark while visiting an old travel companion, or cooking up a Thanksgiving feast “Down Under” with new dive buddies. But it is a perfect time to relax, rest and process the past five months… and most importantly began planning the next adventure.

I hope everyone had a Happy (and restful) Thanksgiving wherever in the world you spent it!

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