I’m just back from more than three months in Asia – three months of hostels and wooden bungalows, airports and busses, beaches and cities, adventure and exhaustion. I am grateful for the experience I had and glad that I have done it. However, I had to learn that long-term travelling is not for everyone, as I sometimes struggled with feelings of uneasiness that I had not expected when I planned this trip, which was my longest so far. I don’t want to sound like I’m whining – life is not always just rainbows and unicorns, and when you make travelling your lifestyle, it isn’t neither. I know many people who went for longer and crazier trips than I did without experiencing the down sides or getting tired of it. However, here I’d like to tell you for which “downsides” you should be prepared when you go long-term travelling.
Knowing the Downsides Helps Avoiding Them
First of all: I’m not a negative person. Even when I’m miserable I still try to focus on what I can learn from it and what I can do to get better as soon as possible. Thus, I’m not writing this article to whine about the not so easy moments of a backpacking trip. I’m writing this to let you know which physical and emotional challenges you might experience. I’m not even saying, you will experience them. Everyone is different. It was just around six weeks that I was travelling like a backpacker, and this was the time I experienced the following. However, I know people, who did the same for more than six months and were feeling fine; I guess I’m just more sensitive than others. The rest of my time in Asia didn’t feel that much like travelling. During my yoga teacher training I just lived in Goa for a month, also during the month I spent in Bali I was more hanging out, working here, relaxing there, than actually travelling. Thus, during these two months I was fine. Other digital nomads like Aleks, whom I met at the Bali Spirit Festival, agree that spending at least one month at the same place is a good way to stay grounded and avoid the following “problems”.
1. Eating healthy is difficult
For me, eating is one of the biggest pleasures in life, and therefore one of the most important aspects of travelling. I love trying new dishes and experiencing the local food. However, I care a lot about eating healthy, which can sometimes be difficult while travelling. Of course, there are always ways to eat healthy. When I travelled through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam with my best friend, we spent a lot of time on ferries and busses and always brought some nuts and fruit for the trip, so we wouldn’t have to eat the sugary and greasy snacks that were the only thing available during the trips. However, during long-term travels you end up eating in restaurants most of the time (in South East Asia very few hotels have the possibility to cook). Thus, even if you try to make healthy choices eating out, you never know how much sugar, additives and fat will end up in your food. Many times, I tried to explain that I don’t want any sugar or milk in my fruit juice and they still put sugar and milk in it. This problem does not appear everywhere; Bali is full of amazing whole-food restaurants and in the mountains in Sapa, Vietnam, we didn’t even have the choice of not eating healthy cause the hill people only have access to fresh and healthy food.
2. Bad sleep
On long-term travels, especially when you move a lot from place to place, many people feel their body “revolting” a little. Everyone has a body part that is particularly sensitive and the traveller lifestyle often challenges this body part and you develop whatever is typical for you – be it stomach issues, back pain, a chronically stuffed nose or a variety of skin problems. Responsible are, of course, a lot of climate changes, air pollution and food you are not used to, but I mainly blame irregular sleeping patterns. You might have to get up in the middle of the night or arrive in your hostel very late, depending on the times of your bus, train or flight. You have to get up early for trekking or sightseeing trips or stay out late when checking out the night life of your current location. You might not sleep well because you have to spend the night on a bus or because your roommate in the dorm is snoring so loudly that not even earplugs help. I think irregular sleeping patterns and bad sleep are pretty much unavoidable during backpacking trips. And depending on how sensitive you are, this can mess up your hormones and immune system pretty badly. By trying to eat as healthy as possible and sticking to a regular sleeping pattern when staying at a place for longer, I was able to reduce the side effects to a minimum and not getting seriously sick, but I wasn’t able to avoid a variety of little health issues that are not a big deal when I’m at home. So be prepared that whatever is your “buzzer organ” might react to the travel stress and maybe bring some of your proven remedies to keep it on a minimum.
3. Organisational Effort
On a long-term backpacking trip you won’t just lie on the beach or walk through cities and landscapes enjoying the atmosphere. Actually, you will find yourself spending a lot of time with things you didn’t think that would take so much time. Most backpackers didn’t book all flights of their trip from home already, so looking for busses, flights and other ways to get around, finding accommodations and applying visas will be an organisational effort you might spend quiet a lot of time with. But also daily life things that are fast and easy at home can be an organisational effort when you move from place to place a lot. Especially when you’re in hot countries and travelling with light luggage, you often have to find a laundry service and also make sure to get your things washed and dried before you travel to the next place (luckily this part was easy for me on my travels in Asia, as there are laundrettes pretty much everywhere and they are usually cheap and fast). As you “live on the road” during a trip of several month, also your stock of daily life products such as toiletries won’t last for the whole time and you will have to find a way to purchase products that meet your standards. This is usually quite easy in touristy areas. However, in places with less tourists in Asia it can be, for example, surprisingly hard to find a sunscreen that doesn’t contain skin whitener – and as a fair skinned European you don’t want to lose your tediously acquired tan immediately, do you?
4. Stress and Exhaustion
You know that sweet excitement that won’t let you sleep the night before a trip? And the sweet exhaustion that makes you sleep like a baby the first night after just arriving at your holiday location? You like it? Me too. And now imagine having this feeling several times a week for more than two months. You might still like it. Or get less excited because you got used to it. But it’s also obvious that at a certain point, it might be too much for your mind and body and there might appear a deep exhaustion. When I reached that point, I started to question everything, even the idea of travelling itself. Is it really worth all the stress just to see another beach, jungle, city? (It probably is, but there were some moments in which I highly doubted that.) However, slowing down your travel speed, doing less and staying at the same (quiet) place for a while can sooth this feeling. That’s what we did once in a while. Still now, after being back in Germany for a few weeks now, I still sometimes feel that I’m not fully recovered from my “holiday”. Sure, my body got over the jetlag, but my mind hasn’t processed all the new impressions yet.
5. Feeling rootless
Since I quit my office job last October to become a freelancer, I got a little taste of what it’s like to be a digital nomad. I have been fascinated with that concept for a long time and thought I should at least give it a try. Indeed, it’s so liberating to be able to work from wherever my laptop and wifi is. And I often thought “fuck yeah” when I sat in a coffee shop with view to Balinese rice fields sipping a fresh coconut while working to make money. However, I realised that living like this was a nice adventure, but living that this for a long time wouldn’t make me happy. I love travelling, but I also need to know where my roots are (I have that tendency of losing grip – in India I learned that according to Ayurvedic philosophy that is called “Vata”). During my time in Asia I wasn’t sure where my roots are, as I didn’t have a home to come back to. At that time, I was already planning to settle in Berlin, as that free room in my best friend’s apartment was already reserved for me. However, I knew that I would still have to go through this process of settling, so while travelling I was kind of rootless. And this made me feel lost, very lost. Not to know where my roots are almost made me not recognise myself anymore.
6. Weakened Ability to Perceive Impressions
I think this is the aspect I got most upset about. During the last weeks of my time in Asia I just wasn’t really able anymore to enjoy, to perceive, to feel what I saw and experienced – which was, as my mind told me and my soul wasn’t able to feel – astonishingly beautiful. Waking up in a beach bungalow with view to clear turquoise water in Thailand. Seeing the sun set behind the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Trekking through mountains and rice fields in Vietnam. I was waiting for something to happen, to touch me, to make me feel the joy and gratefulness I was supposed to feel for the opportunity to experience all this, an opportunity I might not have again. But it didn’t happen, at least not in the intensity I was hoping to feel it. Instead, I just couldn’t wait to go back to Germany and huddle myself in bed with a book, or doing simple things like going for a walk with my parents or meeting friends for brunch.
The Good Thing About It: You Learn to Appreciate What You Have
Before I went to Asia for three and a half months, I was convinced that I don’t even have a home. But being far away from Europe for a long time, I realised that I do, and I felt homesick. Well, I do have a physical home now sharing an apartment with two lovely women in Berlin. But I also realised that I have a spiritual home, and that is, on the one hand, Western Europe and, on the other hand, wherever my beloved friends and family are. Therefore, I still don’t regret having done my time in Asia the way I have done it. Maybe within the next weeks and months I will realise that the experience I made did touch my soul, even if I didn’t feel it right away. And what I know already: It made me appreciate what I already had, maybe for the first time realise what I already had: A home, a place where I belong.