Machines beep. Green and yellow lines wiggle up and down on monitors. My father’s glazy gaze meets us from where he’s nestled in a web of tubes filled with bodily fluids that run the same red, green and yellow. When we ask him how he’s feeling he gives a waxen grin. “No more pain. But the colors keep changing.” The painkillers seem to be working, then.
Even though it’s weird to hear my 70-year-old father giggle like a schoolgirl, it’s better than last night. Then he’d told us it hurt so much he wished he could kill himself. That’s not something you want to hear anybody say; let alone your father.
It was good we came. Even if you do feel absolutely powerless as you sit there, your presence does make a difference. I know. He told me so. That’s quite something for my dad, who showed affection in my younger years with a leg pat or a hair tussle and a smile. To have him take your hand and voice his appreciation means something.
Yes, even if he’s high as a kite.
Of course, it does mean some readjusting. I’ve been floating around Latin America for a couple of years now. Before that, it was the beaches of Asia. To be thrust back into the environment where I grew up is strange, to say the least.
The other side
A lot of ink has been spilled to help people start their trips. There are guides for every continent, country, and lifestyle. Fewer words have been written on those bitter-sweet feelings that accompany the other end of such journeys.
I get why. A guide like that probably wouldn’t sell many copies. After all, when you’re on the road you don’t want to think about that part of it.
Still, you should. For though I’ve experienced a lot of culture shocks, there is none bigger than the one of coming home. And if you’re not prepared for that, it wipes the floor with you. I remember coming home from a trip some years ago. I was unprepared and it left me shell shocked. It took me almost a year to recover.
In the Book Vagabonding, Rolf Pots does spend a chapter on it. In it, he shares an email from Jason Galapo where he discusses meeting old friends. “When I recounted how I got into a fight with a Javanese transvestite, swam with barracuda, or ate spicy dog with rice, they’d get a glazed look in their eyes… ‘Wow,’ they’d say with weak enthusiasm. Then they’d tell me about what happened at the local pub and how they’d hooked up with Sally from college again.”
A friend told me something similar. “The non-nomads have no idea wtf we are doing and/or hope we will become ‘normal’ again. But that’s not happening. I’m not going ‘home’ (that term doesn’t even exist in my vocabulary anymore).”
I thought the same. I would only ever visit. I managed to hold on to that right up until that call from my father asking me to come home for a while. How could I say no to that? It had been two years since I’d last graced their doorstep and he was ill. So I went and was thrust back into a world I thought left behind. Suddenly they expect you to be part of their community again.
And that’s hard.
But it did give me a first-row seat into the psyche of the non-nomadic friends and family. (My parents are not among them, by the way. They were almost as nomadic as I was in their day).
The non-nomads have no idea
As a traveler, you don’t just leave footprints on the road. It leaves its prints all over you as well. You’re changed by it. It teaches you how you can stay and go, everywhere is within reach, and ‘home’ is a fungible concept.
Your perspective of the world is equally affected. You stop being only German, American or Japanese. Instead, you become a part of a global community. It is not just that you realize you can live everywhere, but that people already do. These places you visit are real. The people who live there have real dreams, fears, and ambitions.
But that’s not how most non-travelers see the world.
For them, the world isn’t thousands of places only separated by a plane, train or car ride. Instead, they see only two – ‘here’ and ‘out there’. Nor is the border between the two some vague line in the sand. There is a wall with a draw bridge and machine gun turrets.
Sure, that drawbridge sometimes comes down so they can venture out for a few weeks in that mysterious time called ‘vacation’. Those moments aren’t travel, however. In fact, they’re about as far away from that as you can get.
This is because they view the experience in a fundamentally different way. It isn’t real. It’s more like Disneyworld – an escape. The rules no longer apply. That’s why so many tourists act like idiots. As these places aren’t a part of their real lives, their actions there don’t have real world consequences. And so they do things that back home they wouldn’t dream of doing. Like get stupid drunk in places they don’t know, have unprotected sex or drive without helmets. And that while those places have more robberies, STDs, and accidents.
It also makes it impossible for them to understand how we live.
Some drawn out vacation
Since for them the world ‘out there’ isn’t real then what we’re doing must be an escape from reality. It’s a multi-year vacation, where we laugh and frolic through life without a care in the world. And can we really blame them for holding that view? Since they don’t have a lot of time to travel, that’s what they do when they do.
Vacations are their pause button on life.
The only experience they have with going away for longer is the Hollywood happy ending. The hero makes the big score, retires to some tropical beach and sips cocktails for the rest of their days. Roll credits.
They’re not invited to think beyond that, so they don’t. They don’t wonder what the hero will do when he’s alcohol dependent, has developed a melanoma and the last rain storm washed the bar away.
They don’t get when you’ve moved abroad life goes on. That you sometimes still wake up with a headache, worry about money, and (like I’ve discussed before) your problems don’t magically melt away.
In other words, there is a massive gap between you and them.
At best they don’t understand you. At worst they resent your stories. They think your boasting. Of course, you’re not. You’re just trying to share these incredible experiences. You were transformed. You rediscovered yourself. Now you’re trying to share so that they might as well. But they don’t see it that way. Because deep down, they don’t believe that the lessons you learned ‘out there’ are applicable ‘here’.
This means you can’t talk about what happened. That’s problematic. For what you’ve gone through has become a part of you. If they refuse to acknowledge that then in effect they refuse to acknowledge you.
So you have to accept the people that knew us best suddenly don’t know us at all. The community that used to embrace us no longer understands us. What’s worse, they’re not even aware they don’t. They’ve still got a version of you in their minds and they’re barely aware that it is outdated.
After all, while you were away their lives – and by extension they – stayed the same. This makes it hard for them to accept other people might have been transformed in that time. So they treat you as if you’re still the same person; completely unaware that by doing so they suffocate you.
That leaves you feeling isolated. Your enthusiasm for coming back home slips away. The trip you went on starts taking on dream-like qualities. It begins to fray at the edges and you either find yourself falling back into old habits or abandoning those old friends. Quite a few travelers actually end up becoming depressed.
So what can you do?
Brace yourself for what is coming
When you first return, you might experience an initial honeymoon phase. People will have time for you and your stories – though they might prefer the adventures to the lessons. Then for them, the novelty will wear off and they’ll return back to their own lives and expect you to return to yours.
This is when it will get harder. This is when you’ll start to feel isolated and disconnected. So prepare for that. There is evidence writing about such experiences can help you process the emotions you’re feeling better. So you can try that. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be award-winning stuff. Sure, you can worry about readability and engagement, but you don’t need to. It’s more about the process than what you put down on paper.
Or you can also get in touch with other travelers that you know and share with them. Most will understand where you’re coming from and might be able to help. After all, you’re not unique in this. It’s a well-known phenomenon.
If you don’t actually know any travelers back home, find some. Facebook groups and other similar platforms are great for that. In that case look for ‘your city’ expats, or some variation thereof. Pretty much every city has at least a small group. And there you can arrange a meet up with expats or travelers returned home.
My advice is to start looking already when you’re still on the road. Then you’ll still be full of energy. When you come home, you’ll be busy with other stuff like catching up with friends, getting over jetlag, and (god forbid) finding a job. That will sap your enthusiasm. So will that feeling of isolation afterward. And once you’re in a funk it can be hard to lift yourself out again.
So do some preliminary searches beforehand.
Don’t be disappointed by the people back home
Not everybody should travel. I didn’t believe that when I started out, but I changed my mind after seeing how much some people hate it. They just don’t have the right personalities to be digital nomads or long term travelers. Some are not open to new experiences. Others don’t feel comfortable without a clearly outlined schedule.
Besides, if every John, Dick, and Harry decided to go traveling, imagine the harm it would cause. Everywhere would end up over-exploited and every beautiful place would bear the marks of this stampede. We’d have nowhere left to go and nobody left to meet when we got there.
So cut those homebodies some slack.
Also, avoid that holier-than-thou feeling. For the moment you feel superior all you’ve proven is that you’re not. The biggest lesson we can learn while we travel is that it’s all relative. Every culture has its strengths and weaknesses. Every way to live has its virtues and its vices. It’s not about better or worse. It’s about appreciating places and people for who they are.
So make sure you don’t only do that with the people you meet in foreign climes, but also with the people back home.
And sure, you might never get to share that part of your personality where you talk about far away places. Instead, you’ll get to talk about things long past – like childhood and high school. That’s something you’ll never be able to do with your traveling friends.
Start planning the next trip
My father looks like he’s going to be fine. By the time I got to this conclusion, he’s already hobbling around his hospital room and asking when he can return. That means it is now time for me to start applying the final piece of advice I’m going to give you. Where will I go next?
Thinking about where you’ll head off to next is a fantastic way to get over the traveling blues. There are so many choices and options. So why not try a few of them out in your mind today? It’s cheap and anticipation has been shown to be almost as good as the real thing. What’s more, you’ll be better prepared for when you do go out again. You’ll know where to go and what to do when you get there.
So start finding blogs and sites to follow today. Why not start here?