The End of the Road? Life After Long-Term Travel05 November 2015
Something strange has happened recently; something I never thought would happen. I’ve lost my enthusiasm for travel.
This surprises me, because I’d always assumed that the travel bug (in my case it was more like a full-blown stage-4 terminal travel tumour) was a chronic condition, like tinnitus or arthritis – you can’t cure it, just manage it and accept it and hope that it doesn’t interfere too much with your regular life.
Or maybe it’s like herpes, in that once you’ve caught it it never truly goes away, just hides under your skin waiting to flare up again at an inopportune moment.
Or maybe it’s like a heroin addiction, in that it costs a lot of money, tears you away from your family, and the next hit can never fully satisfy, but it’s inspired a helluva lot of great music.
Whatever the case, after nearly three years on the road, my symptoms have subsided. Whether this is a full recovery or temporary remission, it’s too early to say, but I just don’t feel like moving around anymore.
Partly this is because I’ve found a great city (Barcelona) that I really love and that I see no reason to leave. But the truth is I was already feeling this way before I got here. My original plan had been to spend the summer in Spain, then find somewhere to settle down for a while (maybe even – shock, horror! – move back to England), but now that I’m here, I’ve realised that Barcelona meets every criteria I have for that somewhere, so in Spain I’m staying. A year ago, I dreamed of continuing my travels for the rest of my life and never stopping the world tour. Now, my feelings have somehow been completely reversed, and the thought of moving cities or countries yet again completely fails to inspire me.
Please don’t mistake any of this for a complaint. The 33 months (and counting) that I’ve spent outside the UK truly have been fantastic, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I’ve lived in five countries, visited another nine, filled an entire passport with stamps, learned three new languages, taken forty-six flights, drunk in hundreds of bars, motorbiked thousands of miles, worked from a million cafés, started one job, quit the same, started one business, been in one car crash, spent three nights in hospital (unrelated to the car crash), collected a zillion funny stories and fond memories, and, of course, made more new friends than I can count, which is the most important thing of all. It’s been intense.
I could go on at length about all the many benefits of travel – adventure, fun, growth, appreciating other cultures (not to mention your own), “broadening your horizons” and other such clichés, but you probably don’t need to be told them. Suffice to say that, in a very real way, I have become the person I am in the last 1000ish days. I have no regrets, and if I could do it all again the only change I’d make would be to start sooner.
But, like everything else in life, the benefits of travel have a point of diminishing returns, and I passed that point a while ago. There are some things – many things – that you can only get by spending a long time in one place, and I’m tired of not having them. It’s time to plant some roots and build a life for myself that’s tied to one specific location; in other words, to become a bit more like a normal person.
I’ll admit that this gives me somewhat of an identity crisis. For basically my entire adult life, travel has been at or near the top of my list of priorities, and I’ve built it into every long-term plan and vision I’ve ever made. It’s only recently that I realise that this might not have been the healthiest obsession. Travel is fun, but it’s hardly an achievement. Who cares how many countries a person has visited in their life? No-one ever changed the world by collecting enough frequent flyer miles. What matters is what you do once you get off the plane.
I’ve been in Barcelona for a few months, and I still feel like I only just got here. I can’t imagine leaving now when I’m just getting started. It takes a long time to truly settle into a place, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no shortcuts. I know a lot of people in the digital nomad / lifestyle design / location-independent lifestyle entrepreneur / (insert your favourite cringeworthy neologism here) scene would disagree, and claim that with a bit of practice you can squeeze all the juice out of a new city in a matter of months, but I’m not convinced. I suspect that they’re just kidding themselves. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and creating a real life (not to mention a social circle) for yourself in a wholly new location can’t be done within the confines of a 90-day tourist visa, no matter how much shallow fun you try to pack in in the short-term.
I guess there are parallels with romance. Being single has its benefits, as do dating around, “playing the field”, and chasing a bunch of different girls (or guys, if that’s what you’re into), but there’s a reason why almost everybody eventually settles down with just one partner, or wants to. Flitting around from date to date, or from location to location, can be a lot of fun, but in the long-term it’s hardly the most satisfying way to live (for most people). Depth beats breadth.
(And as much as I’ve been an evangelist for Southeast Asia, the truth is that its biggest selling point has always just been that it’s easy. It’s a cheap, laid-back, low-pressure place to live, which is great, and I got a huge amount personally out of the year and a half I spent living in Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, but it should go without saying that the easy option is rarely the best option for long-term growth and fulfilment. Not to mention that there are many, many things about the Western world – politically, culturally, economically, and more – that I didn’t appreciate until I left, and now that I’m back I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Every now and then I catch myself thinking “maybe I should move back to Vietnam” – but then I realise that that’s just the path of least resistance, which is no sensible way to make major life decisions. I’m sure I’ll be back to Asia to visit, but I’m thoroughly done with living there. Diminishing returns, folks.)
So, providing Nigel Farage doesn’t get his way and fuck up my ability to stay long-term in the EU, it looks like I’m in Spain for the foreseeable future. I’m sure I’ll be travelling again at some point – there are still plenty of places I want to see and things I want to do out there in the big wide world – but it’s not a priority anymore. Let the next chapter begin.