The dangers of long-term travel

The pandemic being at the center of our lives this year has been a harsh blow for the travel industry. I know many people who meant to set out into the world for the trip of their lifetime.

Having just returned to Germany from my ten years abroad, I’d have to lie if I were to say I had a problem with the lack of travel options this year. I’ve been feeling pretty exhausted from the constant moving and am happy to have a temporary home. With a lot of time on hand, I’ve been thinking about the travel lifestyle a lot. It had been my desired way of life for so many years, yet I have started to feel a little shift in my thinking.

Traveling and living abroad is always portrayed as a life in paradise. Digital nomad, working from a little beach hut? Van life, your home always with you? A backpack, a tent, you. Working at many international locations. Doesn’t that sound like a dream?

I would’ve highly agreed to all of that, and a part of me still does. However, I think there are some aspects that most people don’t talk about. 

I’m mainly referring to the perpetual expats here who continuously change locations.

Having been one myself, I have noticed some of the darker sides of traveling long-term.

  1. You lose a sense of belonging.

Where is my home? Where do I belong to? These are such fundamental questions in life, and most people will ponder this question at one or more points in life. Perpetual travelers will top the list for sure. Bumping from country to country every few months of years, going through the whole motions of adapting to a new culture through the highs and lows, you eventually wonder which place is the one that you really are ‘a part of’. 

2. ‘I am traveling to find myself’ (or not?)

The number one statement I’ve heard (and said myself). Without a doubt, through this constant moving, you will grow in many ways. But let me suggest that your growth will also stunt in others. Every new place you move to, you will start from scratch again. You will hustle to find a place to live, a job to make a living, friends to make life worth living, and simply make sense of life in the country as it is. This process always starts from zero. No matter how often you’ve moved, you’ll still have to run through the same motions all over again. And there comes the time when you decide that this is not the country you want to spend the rest of your life at and you move on to start this process all over again.. Having the chance for a new start can be rejuvenating, but you never cross a certain threshold of depth and commitment in your life.

3. Your career might suffer

Depending on what career path you’re in, being abroad for too long might backfire on your resume. International experience can really set you apart from other candidates, both in a positive and a negative way. Your language skills might be through the roof, but your employment history might look quite jumbled up. You most likely lack depth in any work field, which can play a greater importance the older you get. Employers might doubt your commitment to a position, knowing that, on average, you stayed at a job for just a year or two.

4. Your perception of achievement and experiencing new things might be skewed

I remember how ‘accomplished’ I felt in traveling. Checking off endless places, thousands of kilometers on your back, all the new people you met, cultures you’ve experienced… life felt moving fast. Being in the same place, with life not moving quite at that pace can feel dull and uninspiring. Learning to focus on the small things and appreciating the steadiness in which life can move can feel like a massive challenge upon returning to the ‘normal word’.

This also applies to going on short trips or vacations after long-term traveling.

Having seen some of the world’s top sights, you’re subconsciously raising the bar for what is worth seeing and can’t help but be underwhelmed by many places that might be worth seeing to people in the local area. You might feel underwhelmed by the options that present yourself back home. The one way to get around this is to focus on the people you’re with or on the relaxation/exercise factor that this trip gives you rather than the destination itself.

5. You’ll find it difficult to have long conversations that do not involve your life abroad and traveling

My sister had to tell me to shut up starting every sentence with ‘In Japan’ or ‘At Rupanco’ (a volunteering placement). You will feel so into this topic that you won’t notice that after a certain time, you’re annoying people by this. There are for sure moments where you can shine (tip: become a teacher and go off-topic sometimes – your students will love you for it), but after having heard what life is like in XYZ country for the 50th time, you will reach a limit in most people. 

On the opposite end, you might have completely missed what’s been going on ‘at home,’ regarding the news, politics, cultural changes etc and find it hard to hold conversations about current issues. I’ve found that as a visitor to a foreign country, people don’t expect you to know what’s happening right now, but in your home country, this ‘rule’ does not apply. Most people will expect you to be somewhat up-to-date (and really, you can completely miss out on this information if you’re not actively keeping up with it from a distance). The way I currently perceive Germany is the way I remember it from 11 years ago when I left. Whatever has changed in society in those years has completely passed by me.

6. You are missing out on years in the lives of those close to you

I was always aware of this one, but once you’re back for a while, it still hits you. It starts with seeing your friends at a different stage in life than when you had left them. Many will be married with kids by the time you finish yet another round-the-world-trip. Your parents will age. Other people will move on in life, not having space for you anymore. People might not even be alive anymore by the time you return. I would book this under the category ‘compromise you know you’re taking,’ yet it is one not to overlook




Do I regret the years I’ve spent abroad? Absolutely not! All I’m hoping was to add to the rosy image of long-term traveling and show a side that’s not talked about very much. I’m not sure how this world will be affected by the pandemic’s long-term effects, but I’m hoping that people can see that every lifestyle has its pros and cons and is also not for everyone forever. I, for once, am grateful not to be traveling in these times, and I am trying to make the most of being in my home country.

Long-term travel insights applied back in ‘normal life’- blog series

So I’m having a lot of time writing these days which, I cannot say is a bad thing.

I finally get the chance to do something that’s been on my mind for a while. 

Finishing my 14-month trip through South-America, I had struggled to understand who I was, now that I finished my journey.

In the first two months of this year, I saw myself as a failure and deception. I saw myself, who had spent over a decade realizing the lifestyle of her dreams – living abroad permanently and then suddenly found herself in her home country with no idea where to go. I had planned to move elsewhere in Europe, but I suddenly felt uninspired to do so. I didn’t feel inspired to live the life I had lived. I did not recognize the person I impersonated in Germany. I could not believe that the self-knowledge I had aquired through so much personal work during those 14 months seemed to have stayed behind in South-America. Everyday life seemed to have caught up with me and Germany seemed to bring back the me I had tried leaving behind over a decade ago. I started to think that the way I felt about life and myself while traveling was only because I was set in the backpacking scene, among free-spirited people and little responsiblity. I wondered, whether I would be able to incorporate anything that I had learned into my new and somewhat ‘normal life’ or whether I should dump all of those new beliefs as they felt as if they belonged into a different lifestyle.


It took me a while to overcome my frustration and confusion. Eventually, I decided that I should not ignore these experiences and find out how to reconcile them with my life now.

So, I decided to look at each of my ‘long and reflective’ Facebook posts (that I had published at the time on my private profile) and analyze how I think about those thoughts now and whether I can, will or do apply them to my current life. In a way I want to prove to myself and others that though the backpacker lifestyle might have something of an ‘escape from the real world’, there are ways to reconcile the two.

I’m not sure totally sure what I’m going to find out along this journey, but I hope you will enjoy going on it with me!

Part one will be my reflection on not wearing make-up anymore. I stopped with it about 1.5 weeks into my trip. I had started in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and then moved on to volunteer on a farm.

You can read it here – Accepting myself without make-up

What 14 months in South-America taught me

I spent 14 months in 2018 and 2019 traveling around the whole continent.

Having ended that trip a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to do a little reflection on what lessons I learned from traveling through these countries. I am glad that I had so many opportunities to live with host families and locals who’ve given me an authentic look into their life.

In no particular order:

Patience

Calling myself a patient person might still be an exaggeration. But there is something about things taking more time, whether that is the bus ride, your friends arriving for a party, the queue at the supermarket or the repairman that was supposed to fix your internet and shows up a week later. It has taught me that life will get things done when it thinks they should get taken care of, not when you personally believe it should be done.

I’m not going to lie, I celebrated the speed of German cashiers when I came back, but I hope this experience will leave a trace of ‘patience’ in me in our fast-paced, ‘time-efficient’ world.


Unusual ways to fix things

This was something I first smirked at, and later highly appreciated. I encountered so many situations where something broke, and instead of quickly proclaiming – ‘That’s it we need to buy a new one,’ I saw people going at lengths and with great creativity to repair things. From what I saw, I got the feeling that people care a lot more about keeping an item functioning and in a good state than simply replacing it with a new one.

Making things from scratch

I’ve always been a person who liked to make food from scratch. I find the ready-made meals and other products full of ingredients I don’t want to put into my body. There are times though when I’m happy to simply get something from the deli, something to take out from the supermarket. That wasn’t the case in most countries in South-America. In most countries, except for Brazil – and surprisingly – Paraguay, there weren’t any deli sections, and you had to make all food from scratch (unless you went out to eat, of course, or went for fast food).

I learned how to make legumes from scratch, having previously mainly purchased them in a cooked form, mostly canned (I really never learned to make them except for lentils before…).

Haggling

This is something I used to absolutely hate! I remember being in Asia for the first time, 10 years ago, and I realized that you had to haggle to get the item for the price you ‘should be paying.’ It was agonizing for me, and I felt ‘betrayed’ and ‘ripped off. These days I’m almost assuming that through a friendly chat, I might be able to get a better price for something, and I’m proud when I manage. I have seen how you can find prices that are fair for both sides, so I now take it as it is (when it’s applicable in a country, of course).

Small talk

Small talk – something I will probably never completely get used to. I can definitely hold a bit of small talk; however, the German in me will always think that it’s so inefficient and not necessary.  I really had to force myself at times, when instead of merely paying and leaving a place, people wanted to chat for a second and ask me questions, make some comments about the weather/what I was purchasing, etc.… I wouldn’t say that I love it, but I have accepted how it can be part of some cultures and that in order to appreciate this culture one might have to work a little on their small talk skills 😉


Being careful of reviews

The last year taught me to be wary of reviews. I always really believed in rating and reviews for restaurants, tours, etc.… and in a way, I still do. However, I realized how a lot of businesses give their customers incentives to leave them with good reviews. Many walking tours I went to, for example, would urge us, in the end, to leave them a rating on TripAdvisor. I was on a tour where we were brought into an office, given wifi, and promised a keychain if we wrote a review right there on the spot. Talking about customers’ honest and unbiased reviews here…

Also, you really have to be careful of people who give you travel advice. Most people do want to see the same things more or less, but you still have different tastes after all. If someone tells me that I absolutely have to visit a city because it’s great and then I find out it’s because it’s great for shopping and nightlife, two things I’m not super interested in, then I’ll not take that review too seriously.  

The importance of family connection

Family time. People here are big on their family gatherings, being with the family as much as possible, even if it means just dropping by for a few minutes to say hi and have a quick chat.

I’ve been brought to bus stations several times after workaways with the whole family standing there, seeing me off. Young adults still live with their parents if there are not married, and it seems very normal. Sundays are for meeting up with your family, having a BBQ, chatting, catching up on the latest gossip…

People were always shocked when they heard about how little I see my family. Also, compared to their families, our extended family would not constantly spend time together as many people live in different places scattered around the country.

I don’t feel homesick most of the time, but it was interesting for me to see how close families can be and how much they depend on each other. Personally, I like how independent I am, and most of the time, I don’t need support from my family, but it taught me that that is not the case for everyone, and it helped me to understand where people are coming from a little better.


Nature can provide you with so many helpful resources

Another thing that especially my workaways (work-exchanges) have told me is that nature provides you with so much more that you could even think of.

At one of my workaway, I learned that there are so many edible plants that we are not aware of, and that could enrich our nutrient intake at no cost (because people see them as weeds, flowers, or grass). When I was in the Amazon, I went on a hike through the forest, and we were shown a tremendous number of different trees and shrubs that had medicinal, nutritious, constructional value (up to ants that smelled like an insect repellant!)


You don’t always have to fly to cover large distances

Flying between South-American countries is expensive. Domestic flights not so much, but still, how could you resist the cheap bus prices as a backpacker?! Where I was agonizing about an 8h bus ride before that feels like peanuts right now. Once you’ve done 20h in a bus and survived, everything else feels ‘fast.’ 

I’m also glad that I can travel without having to pollute the environment so much. My dad had always told me from a very young age (before this was all over the internet), that flying is very bad for the environment.  Therefore I really tried to limit the flights I took over the last year, knowing that I could go by bus to pretty much any place (without cities in the Amazon, that you HAVE to fly to (Iquitos, Peru; Leticia, Colombia; Tabatinga, Brazil..)


I found gratitude for having grown up in a country where recycling is the norm.

I have spent many months walking around areas where I felt that recycling and not throwing trash on the ground/into the river/ocean was not totally ingrained in people’s heads (though I definitely noticed efforts in certain places to educate people!).

This was very upsetting for me, but I also found gratitude that I grew up in an area where I was aware of these issues from a young age. I am proud that I was taught to take a reusable bag with me to a store, always politely refusing the plastic bag that my groceries were supposed to be bagged into. In South-America, I would try and always bring my own water bottle and reject all the single-use plastic cups that were offered to me (I would instead fill up my bottle with water, even at parties, BBQs – I did not want to support the trash!). I always told park rangers who would point out that we were not to throw trash on the ground that I would NEVER think of doing that. It was a given for me to either take my own trash with me and dispose of it later or to take it to a trash can (really not a given in most countries in South-America, sadly…). 

Realising the necessity to speak a foreign language

Whenever I asked Brazilians whether they spoke Spanish pretty much, everyone said ‘no.’ To me, this was shocking as pretty much half of the continent, and 90% of the countries on it speak Spanish. So why wouldn’t people learn it?!

I realized it was about (not) seeing the necessity of learning it. I do feel as if in Europe or at least in Germany, people are more aware of the fact that speaking another foreign language might help them in their future than on other continents. My idea is that we see the need more as there are so many different languages on the European continent. As soon as you start spending your holidays outside your own country, meaning maybe just a few hours’ drive away you’d wish you spoke French, Italian…. Or at least English.

I do think many people realize the need to know English; however, I was surprised that that was the sole focus.



Lastly, I wanted to say that I have felt a lot more shifts in my mindset, and I am going to write more about that once I have acknowledged them fully and seen them manifest outside of my travel lifestyle.

Edit: I’m currently writing on a travel insights series, reflecting on my old (elaborate) Facebook posts and what these thoughts mean to me back in ‘normal life’. You can find the first post here or an overview here.

My buy-nothing-principle – minimalism when traveling

After having written about my ‘money hacks when traveling‘ I wanted to elaborate on something that helped me a lot in saving myself money. As I wrote in my previous post, I find it useful not to buy too many souvenirs. I actually made that a principle over the last year, thus this post.

I’ve been a pretty non-materialistic person most of my life. I’ve never cared much for brands or the latest trends, but things still accumulated when I had the space to store them and went shopping for ‘fun’.

This changed once I started moving from country to country (living, studying, working) and I was sort of forced into minimalism. Packing bags and moving apartments every few months reminded me of the fact that I had so many things that I didn’t really need, i.e. trinkets I bought because they ‘looked nice’, clothes I got because they ‘were on sale’. And then I had to say goodbye to about 2/3 of my things every time I moved (side note: Shipping boxes around the world is very expensive and will make you think twice about what to keep).

I had backpacked in Australia, my first long-term destination and remember ending up with a good 5 kilograms more in my bag when I came back (and a huge box that made its way back to Germany by boat over the course of three months – the cheapest option but also the slowest). 

When I backpacked in Asia for 2 months in 2014 I proudly started with 7 kg in my backpack and came back with 12. 

And now? I’ve been on the road for over 13 months and implemented a new principle. The buy-nothing (or to be exact: buy-absolutely-nothing-unless-you-really-need-it-) principle. That means I’m not spending a lot of time at markets anymore. I usually hardly glance at things (because then you’re immediately urged into buying them by sellers). I don’t go into any clothing stores ‘just for fun to have a look’. I don’t shop when I’m bored.

And I bought exactly 2 pairs of earrings that I didn’t really need in this time (but I guess every rule has an exception).

So I guess some people would say ‘How could you pass on that awesome alpaca sweater or scarf and all those handmade unique souvenirs?’ First of all, most things you can find are usually mass-produced and not as unique as you’d think. Second of all, I don’t want to carry around mountains of souvenirs for an indefinite amount of time. And third, give this a try: When you see something that looks nice to you and you want to buy it in the spur of a moment, give yourself a day. If you don’t remember it anymore then did you really want or need it?


Also, you can avoid the temptation by passing by all those souvenir-shops and simply keeping your eye on life on the street and in the city instead of the artisan goods 😉

I had a nice chat with a Venezuelan jewelry seller who talked to me while I was sitting in a park in Cusco. When he approached me, I told him straight-away I wasn’t going to buy anything as a matter of principle and also avoided looking at what he sold. This actually turned into a conversation as he was interested in hearing me say how physical objects are not adding much to my life and that not spending money on them was helping me with my own budget whilst traveling. Wondering, whether I should have bought something just to support him, he actually mentioned that there were enough tourists in Cusco who still loved to buy jewelry and I was happy he respected my principle.

I think it’s smartest to buy souvenirs right before you’re ready to go home. Like this, you have a ‘shopping date’ where you can go crazy if you feel like it, use all your left-over cash and fill your backpack until you can’t put anything else in 🙂

Also, I am aware that this idea works best when you’re traveling as you’re almost forced to do this. However I hope to be able to continue with this mindset once I have a ‘temporary or permanent’ home again. I am expecting this to be harder to follow through with but I’m going to be mindful about the possible purchasing urge.

It feels really liberating to not own that much. Fewer things, less trouble!