Let me treat you to a little snippet from my old personal journal, dramatically written (please don’t judge me) in the Atlanta airport just before I took my first international flight ever:
“One hour until I board the metal box that will take me across the Atlantic. It’s not the flying that makes me nervous, it’s – I don’t know what it is. But I’m trembling, ever so slightly, just enough to feel out of control.
The truth is that I’m scared of what this semester might hold. Not the change, but the transition – those are the roughest part of any growth. And that is something that I have to face on my own. No one else can give me what I need for this. No one else can tell me it’s going to be okay, because this time I have to make it okay. There’s no support network. I am the support network, if that counts. I won’t know anyone, and I won’t know anything at first, and that’s going to have to be okay.
The difference between adventures in the movies and adventures in real life is the quiet, boring, behind-the-scenes contemplation. The hours spent in airports thinking about what you’re leaving behind, and what you’ll encounter, and how it all makes you feel. The movies don’t tell you that adventure is really hard before you’ve even started it. Which actually makes me feel better, because I know that once I’m moving all the white noise fears will be swept away by the real noise around me.
The fear is what makes this feel so good. Lean in. Remember how hard you worked for this. Know that you can do this on your own. Trust that you are enough.”
I felt really silly at the time, but in hindsight I was absolutely right to be nervous about diving into a new country for half a year. Setting myself up to experience discomfort, to feel lost or homesick, or just to plain screw up meant that when those things happened, I didn’t have to panic. It was just part of my travelling experience.
Now, that doesn’t mean any of the bad stuff feels better – during a particularly rough patch I remember feigning illness to hide in my room and binge Netflix all day, only to develop actual food poisoning the next week. But I don’t think that the bad parts “ruined” my experience, or made it a less quality adventure. A lot of them were actually educational! I know now that I don’t like travelling in large groups because it makes me hate everyone around me (except Reyna). I also know that living with regular street harassment and objectification has a significant negative impact on my body image, so in the future I can practice more active self care in those environments.
It’s unrealistic to expect travelling to be this magical unicorn experience where you’re always happy because you’re just supposed to be. Travellers are just people – we have bad days and good days, just in different places, and learning how to adapt and cope on the go is a skill set of its own. It’s dangerous to pretend that you don’t need that skill set, and it’s equally useful to try and start building it from the beginning.
‘Meaningful personal growth,’ that holy grail of contemporary travel, doesn’t usually happen during pretty sunsets and delicious dinners. It happens during the horrible uphill climb where you thought maybe you were going to fall and die, and also during the food poisoning episode where you were absolutely convinced that you would die and swore never to buy street pomegranates again. So without further ado, here are my top three tips for coping when travelling gets stressful!
(Disclaimer: They won’t help with the food poisoning, so get ready to ride that one out.)
1. Be honest with yourself
With all the hype surrounding travel, it’s easy to feel like you’re supposed to be having fun – but don’t feel pressured to pretend that you’re having the time of your life all day, every day. Let yourself recognize that something doesn’t feel right, and then ask why. Are you tired, hungry, or homesick? Do you actually enjoy the things you’ve been doing? Check in with yourself on a regular basis.
2. Trust your ability to adapt
When you’re travelling for the first time, you might realize that the itinerary you planned isn’t actually your style. You don’t have to force yourself to cram things into your agenda just to check them off someone else’s list. If you suddenly realize that you hate hiking abroad exactly as much as you hate hiking at home, then quit hiking and do something else. While I’ll always advocate for giving both new and old experiences a fair chance to surprise you, there’s not much value in forcing yourself to do something because it’s “must-see.” You get to decide what’s must-see and must-try on your travels, and (as budget and booked flights allow) you get to change that list as you go.
3. Take a step back
Relax somewhere pretty, go for a run, take a nap – do whatever you would do to calm yourself down at home. You might be a traveller, but you still have physical and emotional limits, and that’s okay. For example, I know that I’m really prone to getting stressed and overwhelmed when I’m surrounded by other people all the time. One of the reasons that Reyna and I are great travel companions is because we’re good at giving each other regular alone time to decompress and recharge. If you’re travelling for a really long time, it’s easy enough to do this, but it can be really worthwhile even if you only have a little time to spend in a place.
Don’t burn out, and do take care of yourself!