I know that I said just a few weeks ago I was done with this blog, but a friend (let’s call him “Tom”) and fellow long-term solo traveler recently sent me a message which I and many other travelers and backpackers have struggled with as well. This is what he told me (I have condensed it a bit):
Long-term traveling means having to constantly meet new people only to say goodbye soon after. I’ve become socially exhausted trying to stay in touch with the friends I’ve made. There are so many awesome people I don’t want to lose contact with. I’ve almost cried about it a couple times. But as I become a lifestyle traveler with no end in sight it’s something I have to accept but still can’t deal with. How do you deal with it? … I’m in between hosts today, not from Couchsurfing, but from Okcupid. That’s a whole story on its own. I have talked to other long-term travelers about [becoming socially exhausted] and their response was to just accept it.
[Hooking up] is a huge part of the problem. I’ve had so many close sex/dating partners, but having to say “see you later”, and talking to them as if I will eventually see them later [is depressing]. I’m trying to stay in touch with several and it’s overwhelming. I’m probably leading on a few of them just in case I decide to go visit them again. It feels a little shitty but at the same time I want to stay in touch with these awesome people I met.
Even when I try to stay in one place by living and working at hostels that’s just as bad with guests constantly coming and going. I can’t deal with this; I need a break from the constant stream of people. So strange. I first had sex at age 23 and [in the past three years] I’ve had sex with over 20 people, and climbing. On the bright side of all this is that my social and emotional intelligence has skyrocketed beyond my wildest expectations.
The worst assumption you can make if you are feeling lonely or depressed while backpacking is that it’s a normal feeling and that you should “just accept it.”
It’s one thing to accept having depression; it’s another thing to accept the root cause of this depression, which you make by choice (ie, traveling around the world, constantly making new acquaintances and friends wherever you go). You can argue all you want, but no one makes you live this life. You could choose to live in one place (I’ll get back to that later).
Like Tom, I became a very different person after traveling than the person I was — you can read more about my thoughts on that here and here — and at the beginning of my very first trip three years ago I could have never imagined the ease at which I would befriend strangers or find myself in bed with women (I have to hand it to Tom for being quite the Don Juan).
After a prolonged period of this life, even the deepest-entrenched insecurities we have about ourselves with other people will vanish (Tom has several behavior disorders, and while he’s not “cured,” he has learned tremendously how to cope with them).
Wherever we go, people are fascinated to hear our stories. A common insecurity I carried about my former life, looking back on it from the position as an adventurous devil-may-care soul with a backpack and nothing else, is that I was a bit boring and colorless. What sort of conversation could I ever have with people at a bar, or Couchsurfing hosts I was staying with, about my past life?
Travel was the answer to this insecurity: it was cool, it was fun, it was interesting. The look of envy and awe in people’s eyes when I would nonchalantly describe how I felt Berlin was the best city in the world to party in, or the nomadic music festival I went to in the middle of the Moroccan Saharra (and the hijinks that accompanied it) was a drug. Naturally, my confidence was higher than it had ever been. Tom, I, and every other person who has spent an extended time on the road has certainly felt that high, and it becomes a factor — sometimes unconscious, sometimes openly acknowledged — in keeping us stuck in that life.
It’s a tremendous feeling, to have the world at your disposal — a luxury, I should mention, that not everyone is so fortunate to have, whether for reasons of wealth or the simple injustice of being born in a country such as Pakistan, whose passport is one of the most limited in terms of visa-free travel.
But eventually, that depressing feeling sets in. While I didn’t understand it at the time, I felt it heavily when I was in Morocco and in Copenhagen — both places which I enjoyed immensely and look back with much fondness.
It’s a mark of how extraordinary the act of travel is, that even in the midst of loneliness or bona fide depression, we can still open our eyes and marvel at the places we are in (I’m not alone in thinking this — here’s the account of a girl with depression who had the time of her life in Peru).
Backpackers get depressed, and backpackers feel lonely, because they have reached the pinnacle and yet the bottom from traveling for so long: you’ve met too many goddamn amazing people, and it’s impossible to be close to all of them.
You become lonely from traveling when you have stretched yourself too thin, socially speaking. After overcoming the insecurities you used to have about yourself — not smoothe with members of the opposite sex (or whoever you prefer), shy with strangers, nothing interesting to tell people about yourself, a boring job, a boring life, etc — you have exercised to the breaking point your social skills. And the truth is, it gets tiresome.
The conversations that you had at the beginning of your trip with strangers you had just met at a bar — holy shit, I’ve never met someone from Australia before! —were exciting merely because of the novelty of having them. That’s what drives people to travel in the first place: it’s exciting to meet people from all over the world. It’s radically fulfilling to hookup with pretty girls, possibly wooing them in a language that’s not even your mother tongue. Not all the Couchsurfers I have stayed with, or all the fellow backpackers I met fall into this category, but a good number of them have shared with me, as Tom did, that they were a bit socially awkward before, or didn’t have many friends keeping them at home (do you think they would be as inclined to travel if they did? I don’t think so).
Nomadic Matt, a popular travel blogger, is refreshingly honest about the initial excitement of meeting new people turning into a bit of a drag. He writes in a post titled “The Downside to Long Term Travel”:
One of the best things about traveling is all the people you meet. But one of the worst things about traveling is also all the people you meet. After years of hellos and goodbyes, you can become numb to it all. Sometimes, I just don’t want to meet anyone. You develop a sense of detachment. Why should you open yourself up again just to say another goodbye?
Tom, you asked how I deal with this feeling, and the answer I have is the one I’ve put into practice for more than a year, before I had even come home from my first long trip, when I met two wonderful fellow travelers and stayed with them for five weeks on a farm in Normandy — and in the process we became friends (and still are!) instead of merely acquaintances for a brief period of time.
You don’t have to stop traveling, but you should stay put a bit more. Work on building relationships with people — genuine relationships, not just for a few days and then “see you later.” As tempting as it is to rely on Okcupid and Tinder for a place to stay (and I know that since you’re on a tight budget, that seems like a huge win-win), don’t throw yourself into brief romantic encounters if you know they’re hurting you (not to mention the fact that you’re leading some of these girls on, which is hurtful).
While you still have so much of the world to explore — as do I — now that you have made wonderful friendships with people in the places you have visited, you might consider traveling back to see them, rather than moving on to new places. If you don’t spend quality time with the friends you already made, the bonds you have with them will dissolve. I realized this on my return trip to Europe at the end of last year and made a point of visiting friends from my first trip, rather than going on to explore completely new places and meet new people (naturally, I still met some awesome folks in the process). Both of us have more than enough friends to last us a lifetime — now the important part is to consolidate those friendships and make them last.
You will find that as you slow down, not only will you establish deeper relationships with the places you visit, you will also have stabler and better relationships with the people you meet. Being depressed about having too many friends or lovers does not have to be an inevitability of traveling. You just have to adapt your travels to the wonderful and enviable circumstances you find yourself in.
And don’t forget — my advice for revisiting old friends applies to me too! I hope this helps, Tom.