I hate to say it, but someone should. Sometimes travel isn’t enough.
I know I have made travel, and the discussion of how anyone can do it, one of the central themes of the last 15 years of my life. And the world of magazines, blogs, and Twitter encourage me daily to maintain that. My identity dictates my focus.
But I also can see when travel, and the addictive pursuit of it, overtakes lives. The lessons one learns by traveling can be life-changing: the similarities between all people, the vast inequalities between societies, the deep psychic simplicity of rituals.
However, there comes a point when many people don’t give their own lives an opportunity to incorporate these profound discoveries of wisdom.
I can always spot the traveler who has been too long on the road. They linger for too many hours in the hostel common room. They surf too long on Facebook. Their eyes may gradually glaze over when confronted with a long list of potential new experiences to tackle tomorrow. They go slowly.
In short, they often show the same symptoms as someone who hasn’t been on the road long enough. For both groups, their inner voices are actually back home. The conscience knows what ambition does not, and if there is one thing that nearly every society has taught me, it’s that the natural state of most human lives is not conquest but ritual. And without the ritual of a daily life for comparison, the things one learns through travel would have far less meaning beyond mere curiosity.
I myself first felt this feeling of travel malaise when I was nearing the end of a nearly two-year backpacking trip. I was in Wellington, New Zealand, a city I have since returned to and come to adore. It was a Friday night, and everyone else in the hostel — nearly all of them had been on the road for only a few months — was going out on the town. But I found myself resisting. I wanted to stay in and read a book instead.
I heard myself say, “But what if I meet someone I actually like? I can’t have them. I’m leaving town soon.”
It was the first time I felt that the exposure to something new was not going to be enough. It was a rupture in my travel worldview.
I know now that it was a sign that after all of my meaningful discoveries, my heart was telling me that it was time to give meaning to the meaning.
Many travelers get that feeling, but many of them override it by seeking another destination with more discoveries. That works for a while because learning is never a waste. But they find the voice keeps gnawing, and as it does, it nibbles away at their resolve to remain in perpetual motion. Sometimes they start going back to the places they loved the first time around, not realizing that impulse could be a surrogate for building a ritual life of their own. Some of them head back out with a girlfriend or boyfriend, which may be why the world is crawling with traveling couples.
I had my Wellington realization more than a decade ago. Of course it didn’t stop my travels. But it altered how I approached them. I still go to new places, but increasingly, I find myself gravitating to places filled with people I care about, or to spots that I know to be my personal lodestones. Having seen nearly 100 countries, I now find myself reinvesting my explorations by learning and loving a few chosen places more deeply. More importantly, I invest in my true life back home.
Because of my recent apartment building fire, I have found myself needing to pass time outside of my home. My first impulse, being a career traveler, was to head to Thailand or Edinburgh or to spend some time writing in Tulbagh, South Africa, where one of my friends from past travels runs the sublime Cape Dutch Quarters retreat.
Although travel has always been like a companion in my life, I couldn’t pull the tigger this time. I have a book I want to write and other projects I want to see grow. This time, rather than unplug and absorb, I felt the psychic need to feed my learnings back into my ritual life. I will return to the road sometime. But right now, I feel like it’s not my purpose to discover, but to create.
Some travelers confuse this shift as a message that they have grown out of the need to travel. That’s not the case. The rewards of travel are not a function of age. After all, we have all been out there with old timers with more zest for exploration than the alcoholic Gap Year kid in the bunk above you. They can be, however, a function of where you are in your life.
I used to look at those Gap Year kids, those listless Australians gulping non-stop rum shots to impress girls and loitering for months in a single hostel without much resolve to pick themselves up and resume their lives. When I began traveling, I envied their open-ended itineraries. But after I felt my emotional rupture in Wellington, I saw some of them as avoiding the inevitable and necessary emotional connection to themselves. A new phrase came to my head:
“If you don’t put down roots, you can never grow.”
For many of us, this is why we travel. We travel to enrich the soil of our lives back home. But the lure of learning, paired with the emotional intensity of meeting fantastic people and having to condense the arc of a relationship into a few days, can be so seductive, so addictive, that we forget.