Most often on my travels I meet people who are wandering the globe for a few weeks, a few months, or even a year. Occasionally, I come across someone who has been traveling for 5 years. No matter what the time frame, we all have something in common. We all have loved ones “back home” who worry about us.
I try my best while I am away to be in contact with my friends and family back home often. Some travelers get irritated at how often their family expect to hear from them. My recommendation is: throw them a bone. They love you, and care and worry – and we are much better off being loved than not. But despite my best efforts, they still worry.
But it isn’t only the worry. For some it can be just downright hard to understand what we are doing, or why we are doing it. I can say with my own experience that some of my loved ones are more understanding than others about my global explorations.
On one hand I would like to write a post offering advice for how to explain this need to your loved ones. On the other hand I would like to write this post in an effort to ask for advice on how to do the same. And on a third hand (that would come in handy if I could grow – but also creepy) I would like to write this to my family and friends in hopes of helping them “get it”.
Choosing to travel for any extended period of time is, for that period, a lifestyle choice. Those of us who do it each have our own personal reasons for making that choice. Need or desire to experience something “different”, educational curiosities, cultural curiosities, learning another language, pushing personal limits, learning about yourself, leaving behind negative situations, and sometimes just avoiding life for a while are all relevant reasons people choose to do this.
And I want North American’s in particular to realize that this is not unusual. The USA culture doesn’t really tell nomads that their lifestyle is “acceptable”. People who grow up in the states are traditionally taught that there is one right way to live. Study hard, and then get a job and work hard in order to obtain the “American Dream”. This is great. There is nothing wrong with this plan. But it doesn’t leave much room for exploring other possible lifestyles. Not only is backpacking a lifestyle, but it also allows you to experience so many other lifestyles and options and opportunities. If I grew up in Australia or Israel, it would actually be encouraged by my peers and family to take 6 months, or even a year or two of my life to explore the world before “settling down”. But being from the states, doing this type of traveling is unusual and terrifies people.
So that is all being pretty general, right? – Now I will get a little more personal. I want to talk about why I am choosing this lifestyle for the time being.
First of all, I think deep down this is something I have always wanted. Since I was much younger, I have always been a bit in awe of people who have spent any period of their lives living a nomadic lifestyle. I found myself both admiring, and envious of people who were well travelled. I had this underlying feeling that these were people who somehow understood the world better than I could. There is some insatiable appetite for exploration that is rooted at my core. To ignore it would be to do myself a great disservice.
But for those of you who know me, you know it’s not that simple. You aren’t only worried about my general safety while I am away. You are also worried about my mental and emotional well-being.
This is a legitimate concern from the outside looking in. I chose to do this a time when my life was very unstable. I had just lost my mother, my long-term boyfriend, and given up a well-paying full time job all in a very short time period. Obviously I was confused, lost and depressed – there’s really no way around that.
I know that traveling looks like running away. But I want to insist that it’s not. I don’t miss my mom any less by being away, and I can’t avoid grief – no matter where on the planet I am. As for my ex, I admired him deeply for his own travel experiences “with a backpack”. I later learned that everything he ever told me was a lie. And that was when I realized, I don’t want to keep admiring other people and being envious of them for their experiences. Instead of admiring someone else’s lie I want to make it my own personal truth. Maybe that’s a bit spiteful – but it’s a healthy spite that has led me to do great things for myself. The only person I need to admire is myself, so I want to take on a concerted effort to obtain those qualities that I admire. Being worldly, well-travelled, and experiencing lots of cultures are admirable qualities for me.
And as for not working – well, when is a better time to do this? The next time I have a full-time, 9-5 job with 2 weeks vacation and 5 sick-days I won’t be free like I am now. I won’t have the ability to do this. I have no kids I need to make it home for at the end of the day at this point in my life – so now is the time. I realize this isn’t for everyone. But I can honestly say that I felt like a bird in a cage at my last full time job – and I needed this freedom as much as I need oxygen to breathe. Traveling is not running away. My problems are all still right there with me. Traveling, if anything, is running to my truest self.
With that said, I can’t deny that a small part of it has been a bit of avoidance. There are things I couldn’t deal with right away. Before I left, I was so unbelievably overwhelmed by the thought of dealing with my mother’s estate. Aside from the obvious emotionally draining nature of the work at hand, there are also so many details and minutia to deal with. My mind was so jumbled with these details, which were second in my mind to simply accepting that I no longer recognized my life. Not only did I lose my mom, but my home life was turned upside-down too. My instinct was to just “get out”. I don’t think I was emotionally equipped to handle the “business” parts of what needed to be handled months ago. That’s just honesty.
But after being away, I feel better. Time has passed. I have new perspective. And that comes from both time, and traveling. I don’t have all the answers, by any stretch of the imagination. I’m still lost. But now I feel more prepared and more capable of handling these difficult tasks. And that’s a really significant change. I want to start getting things done and putting tasks behind me so that I can start moving forward with my life and focusing on other, brighter things. It will still be a painful process, but at least now I feel capable. And now I am back in the states for a while with the intention of dealing with what needs to be done, and then I want to keep traveling – and that doesn’t feel like avoidance to me.
I also have to accept that some of my choices are just not going to be understandable to everyone. And sometimes that is difficult for me to accept. I wish I could say “I don’t care what people think”, but I’m not a sassy teenager and I have a lot of loved ones. I can’t help but care. I hate that people back home worry about me so much, but am grateful to be loved. And I hate even more that some of them may negatively judge my decisions and actions. But at the end of the day, I have to do what feels right for me. I guess the most I can hope for is that my friends and family can try to accept that I see the world through a different pair of glasses. Maybe someday they might come to realize that this time period in my life is so much deeper and more intrinsic for me than “running away and avoiding life”.
I am learning so many new things about the world and about myself. I know without doubt that I will never regret taking this time to explore. This is making my life richer in so many ways, and it’s helping me heal.
I would encourage anyone and everyone who has the same internal voracious need for exploration to give themselves time in their lives to do some serious extended travel. You only have things to gain. People backpack and travel in so many different ways. Some wander on extreme budgets by riding bicycles across continents and sleeping in tents. Some pick up odd jobs while they are away. Other’s save money for years in order to quit a job and travel for as long as possible. “Digital Nomad” is now a term for people who have figured out ways to make a living entirely online, allowing them to wander from country to country and continent to continent. If you feel the same need, then find a way to do it that works for you!