Taking a break from the political posts that have been my focus the past couple of months, I wanted to finally finish my 3-part series for those interested in a trip around the world, or at least a long-term trip abroad.
To recap the first two installments:
Part 1: The First Steps (Start research; Formulate the big picture of the trip; Look for specific opportunities; Begin making necessary arrangements)
Part 2: What to Bring (including tech items, non-tech items, and clothing)
This installment is focused on what to expect when you actually prepare to leave and then during and after the trip.
Let’s be honest. The most exciting part of any big vacation or adventure is the anticipation leading up to it. Once you’ve made all the necessary arrangements, and you have all your gear ready, those last few days and weeks, you will likely be a bundle of different emotions, both positive, such as enthusiasm and hope, and negative such as anxiety and nervousness. Perhaps you might want to schedule some fun events and activities with your friends and families that you won’t be seeing for a long time.
Obviously, the specific mental, physical, and emotional aspects that you will encounter will depend upon the circumstances of your trip. There will be vast differences between if you are doing this trip alone or with a friend, a significant other, or a group for the majority of the time. Your goals on the trip will have an impact. Depending on the places you visit, your language, culture, religion, gender, sexual identity, and race can all have an impact on your mental, physical, and emotional welfare during this adventure. I will be writing from my perspective of a long term trip as a white, straight, American male going through many different countries and cultures on my own through the majority of the journey.
In those last few weeks and days before you leave, try to get yourself in as good health as possible. Get plenty of rest and take care of yourself, you don’t want to spend the first couple of weeks struggling with jet lag, exhaustion, and/or an illness. I actually ended up with bad cold & flu symptoms only a few weeks before my trip, and it caused additional stress while I was trying to take care of those final preparations.
Before and throughout the trip, getting as much rest is going to be critical for a few reasons. Depending on your travel budget, lodgings, and transportation plans, sleep can be a precious commodity. The only time in my life I have ever thoroughly fantasized about murder was a snorer with horrible sleep apnea in a hostel dorm room; the thought of smothering him with a pillow was a consistent companion throughout the sleepless night. Taking advantage of overnight busses and trains can be wonderfully efficient, giving you a chance to sleep while you travel to your next destination. However, be aware that it will not be quality sleep. So prepare yourself for the fact that you might need to take it easy when you first arrive at that destination, and might need a good night’s rest in a real bed before doing major activities there.
Here is one such example from my trip. I started out leaving the small Moroccan city I was staying at late one night to go to the airport in Agadir, to catch an early morning flight to Munich. I then spent the day walking around Munich. That evening, I had a short flight to Amsterdam, and then went out on the town that night into the early morning. Then had another early flight from Amsterdam, through Kiev, to Beijing, arriving at 2 AM local time. I then went through customs and arrived at my hotel at around 5 AM, and had scheduled a full day tour of Beijing, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall, starting at about 8 AM. (I was only in Beijing for one day and was going to be heading to Zhengzhou the next day.) When I got back to the hotel that evening, I had every intention of going out somewhere in Beijing that night, but my body had had enough. It had been more than 72 hours since I had slept in a bed, and I was feeling pretty rough. It wasn’t just tiredness, I was worried I might be getting a little sick. The comfortable king-sized bed had me in a tight grasp from early evening through the morning.
As part of the packing list in my last post, I mentioned a travel first aid kit. You should make sure this includes some basic medications for colds, headaches, and stomach bugs. Given the constantly changing climates you’ll be passing through, sitting in cramped quarters on planes and busses, eating different foods, and possible differences in hygiene where you are, it is almost a certainty that you will get sick in one way or another during your trip. Consider yourself lucky if it’s only a minor cold or food poisoning that only lasts a few days. When this happens, just accept it and get as much rest as possible to recover. Don’t try to force yourself to do something you’re not actually up to doing, just because you want to do as much as possible. Unless it’s an absolute can’t miss, like your assigned time to go up to Machu Picchu or something like that, you should just skip it and try to do it another day. There will be other times to check out that market or take that day trip. If you don’t rest, it will take you even longer to recover, ruining even more of your travels and that’s assuming the illness doesn’t turn into something worse. It’s best just to let it run its course, and then get on with your adventure.
As I said, for the vast majority of my trip I was on my own. I am sure there are going to be some different stressors if you are traveling with one or more other people. Personality quirks, different ideas for plans and activities, and general disagreements always come up in personal relationships. In a travelling situation, with additional influences and being less likely to have a comfortable area to retreat to and calm down, these can become more intense. Therefore, it is important to make sure you and your travelling companion(s) have already done some fairly long trips together and have good conflict-resolution skills.
One situation to be aware of that is probably more applicable to solo travelers, but can still affect someone with travelling companion(s), is a lot of short-term intense-feeling friendships. Perhaps when you stay in a place for an extended time or go on a multi-day activity with a group of new people, at times you will make strong connections with some people. This is similar to when you were a kid and would go to a sleepaway camp or something similar for a few days or maybe longer. Often, you would connect with one or more of the other children and form a fast friendship. Then at the end of your time together, it would feel like you have known each other for a long time and spent so much time together, but it also went by way too fast, and now you have to say goodbye. Throughout a long journey like this, it is likely you find yourself in those positions fairly regularly. The intensity of those emotions can take a toll, and there were definitely a few times during my travels where I would become melancholy for a couple of days after having to say farewell to a kindred spirit that shared part of this journey with me.
Relatedly, for solo travelers, loneliness can be an issue. If you are considering doing this trip solo, you better have already done some solo travel of shorter duration. For many years, I have often gone out camping by myself. I remember once telling someone about doing so, and she replied that she felt she would go crazy if she had to be almost completely alone like that for an extended period of time. Therefore, if you would like to do such a journey solo, work yourself up to it with short excursions of a few days completely by yourself. Just like so much else, mental preparation will be key.
Throughout the trip, there will be numerous setbacks and things that don’t go according to plan. It is critical that you learn to roll with it, even if you need a few minutes, hours, or a day to have a slight melt-down first. One of the critical steps to helping with this is having a backup plan in mind. This includes, having critical spare items, as I mentioned in an earlier post. That way if your phone or wallet is lost or stolen (or an ATM eats your debit card) while you are in transit, you won’t be completely in a lurch, and can still function with your spares while taking care of getting replacements. Bad things are going to happen, accept that and prepare yourself. That way, when they do happen, they are easier to bounce back from. And remember, many of those setbacks and inconveniences, end up becoming fun travel stories eventually, like not being able to board a plane because you misread the visa requirements and need to spend 18 hours in the airport for the next flight or losing a sandal in Antarctica while doing a polar plunge or having to rearrange your travel to stay in Kenya for two additional weeks while getting a new passport.
As I mentioned earlier, the most exciting and happiest part of a trip is before you even leave. And this will be true for each new destination along your continuing journey. Each new city or country will have it’s own pleasures that you can’t wait to discover.
However, reality rarely measures up to what we’ve built up in our hands. Sometimes it does, and sometimes the experience even surpasses the expectations. But in all honesty, we usually don’t even realize that until after the fact. It is easy to be a little disappointed and become bogged down in the frustration of mundane struggles, losing sight of the adventure you are having. There isn’t much you can do to prevent this, it is just part of human nature. The best you can do is be aware of it and try to enjoy the moment as best you can.
Ideally, as you go through an experience like this, it will broaden your experiences and perspectives. Engage with locals and try to learn from them. Accept the fact that you might discover some uncomfortable truths about yourself or your prior worldview. It is all part of growth. These different perspectives, along with the flexibility and problem-solving skills you will need to utilize through the struggles of travelling, will serve you well in future endeavors. So try to view all positive and negative interactions and all successes and setbacks as unique learning experiences that you can benefit from for the rest of your life.
I was fortunate in that due to my reading up on long-term travel before my trip, I was already somewhat prepared for this next part.
At the end of the trip, whether it be as it is nearing the end or after it is complete and you are back home, it is very common to experience some emotional turmoil. It might be a bit of depression or just a wistful melancholy. This can happen for a few different reasons. It is likely that throughout the trip, the next step of the trip was your primary focus in life. Now, suddenly, that’s over and you have to find a new focus. It could be because you’ve just gone through an intense experience that probably few of your family and friends every have, so you’re trying to process what you did and you’re doing that alone. It might simply be a matter of all good things come to an end. My tumult hit me about a week or so after I finished my trip, and it lasted about two or three days where I really didn’t want to get out of bed. I think my feelings were mostly because of the first reason I mentioned, needing to find a new focus.
This is yet another part of the adventure that you should just accept and be ready to deal with. It would be good to perhaps identify some kind of a support network, maybe some friends and family have done something similar, and you can talk about the struggle of reacclimating with them. Or else, since it is common and temporary, just give yourself some time to feel these emotions and let them run their course while you readjust.
At the end of the day, a long-term adventure like this, whether it be around the world, or hiking the Appalachian Trail, or backpacking through Europe, is going to be a life shaping experience. As such, there are going to be many different impacts on you, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Know they are coming, and just like the rest of your journey, enjoy the ride!