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Psychology of Long Term Travel

OAXACA, Mexico- The most difficult art of travel is perhaps nothing more than being able to move through places, cultures, and people in serial succession for many years on end and remain sane. Many travelers cannot handle this — they either go home or end up in India trying to convince you that their name [...]

OAXACA, Mexico- The most difficult art of travel is perhaps nothing more than being able to move through places, cultures, and people in serial succession for many years on end and remain sane. Many travelers cannot handle this — they either go home or end up in India trying to convince you that their name is Catharsis and that they just lost their spiritual virginity while hallucinating apparitions of  floating Geneshes or some other such nonsense. In point, living a life that is not tied down to a place, a group of people, a family, and being in an ever shifting environment allows the sense of self identity drift and wane — it is easy to become lost and end up renamed Catharsis.

I have met many travelers who have gone off the deep end. When I meet a long term traveler I know that this person is either very psychologically and emotionally strong and solid in their skin or there is something wrong with them (and I should get away fast). It is an odd thing for someone to want to drift without social bearings as a lifestyle, and doing so often makes or breaks a person.

The traveling life is not an ordinary option in any culture. Even nomadic or other migratory groups travel in packs and their members can maintain a sense of social place with each stop. It is my impression that the human animal, in general, has severe migratory urges but is also not inherently prepared to make good on this of their own accord.

[adsense]This is perhaps the great contradiction of travel: the urge to move coupled by the psychological and emotional need for regular companionship, love, and a sense of place within a community. People have an urge to travel but they have a NEED for other people. Taking one at the expense of the other is often to leave the self with an internal imbalance.

I have great admiration for the emotionally self sufficient traveler, I have no respect for the broken man on the road.

A traveler needs to be solid in their personage, the myth of themselves, to remain sane. On the open road there is no one else to hold your nuts and bolts together but yourself. Successfully doing so is perhaps the most difficult challenge of the traveling life.

Getting to places is easy. I don’t care how far flung the destination or arduous the road the challenges cannot compare to the inner battle of emotional and psychological self-sufficiency when traveling solo. A traveler can leave any place, but they can never leave himself — and it is this entity that they need to keep packed together, solid.

The power of a community is that it can keep each member true to how the group knows them to be. More than anything, “culture” is the gang practice of enforcing certain patterns of behavior. “The nail that sticks out gets pounded back in,” runs a quote of Mao, and this is often how communities keep their members in tact. Humans are psychologically social animals, we have grown to depend on a community for our inner well being. The community is often an ingredient of the glue which holds its individual members together.

I can remember one time in the midst of some standard USA teenage identity crisis I did or said something which provoked my best friend Erik to turn to me and simply say, “That doesn’t become you.” These small words tied me back down to my base pattern of behavior, it made me get off the stage and stop acting, it pinned me back to “myself,” or at least my community’s idea of who I was.

That doesn’t become you.

A traveler often does not have someone to remind them of this. A traveler, in a very real sense, is off the cultural grid, they are social free radicals: they do not need to be accountable for their actions, if things get hot they just leave, when they arrive in a new town nobody knows how they acted in the previous one. This is the liberty which, I feel, is partially responsible for people becoming hooked on travel, the force that makes it difficult to go home. Home means having a social box, a place, people telling you what does and doesn’t become you. After experiencing life outside of this structure it is difficult to go back in.

In point, someone that I meet on the road could never say to me, “that doesn’t become you,” because they don’t know me. I am, in essence, a new man in each town. It is my own responsibility to know what becomes “me.”

Wade with his childhood friend

But knowing “me” is perhaps the key to keeping me sane, to keeping me on the Path, not losing the plot. In travel, you either sink or swim: you solidify your character or you rename yourself Catharsis. It is easy to become a derelict on the road: who is there to stop you?

If you screw half the planet in travel who would be the wiser? If you steal who is going to know enough to label you a thief? If you lie who can fact check you? Nobody.

When people say that travel makes them feel free, I do not interpret this as meaning the ability to move from place to place on a whim but as meaning that they are free to act outside the bounds of their character, to not need to conform to their self created, community enforced, patterns of self — there is nobody around you keep you inside your character’s box, nobody to proofread your script — you are improvising your life. This, I suppose, is liberty.

Personal liberty is one of the gems of travel, though sometimes too much liberty grows to feel empty. Liberty often means, “an absence of.” Liberty in travel means an absence of a daily schedule, of a fixed social place, social restriction, sexual bounds, a shared history, an absence of work, of a lasting reputation, of romantic relationships, and the forces that tie you down to a single place on the globe. This absence of restriction feels good, this actualization of liberty is often addictive, but too much absence can leave behind an empty shuck of a human — an empty vessel.

But liberty does not always need to be pushed to extremes to be reveled in. Many people appreciate the open doors on their cages from the inside. I eventually found myself limiting my liberties of my own accord: I gave myself a daily schedule, daily work, projects, relationships, and, eventually, a family. And these actions were, perhaps, key for me to maintain sanity on the road. To act within the cage of your socialization, your acculturation, when there is no gatekeeper to keep you on the inside is the hallmark of becoming solid in your personage. To remained cultured outside of the bounds of your culture is one of the arts of travel.

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There is a reason why solo travel is used as a coming of age ritual in many cultures. The Australian Aborigines had their walk about, Buddhist monks wander on pilgrimage, the Amish encourage their teenagers to temporarily leave the fold to evaluate themselves and if they want to return to the community. A person who acts the way they do out of social compulsion is a time bomb waiting to explode. The key in culture is not to mimic the rote lessons of your upbringing, but to test them and believe in them enough to pass on to subsequent generations. Travel is the test of becoming solid in your socialization from outside of its bounds. Travel is a test, a way to cut away your cultural fat to see what is left. What remains is you. All too often, travelers travel themselves home, they become solid in themselves, or they fall to pieces. This is one of the greatest psychological benefits of travel.

Long term travel is a litmus test: it either makes the mind or breaks it.

The successful traveler often becomes a cultural amphibian: raised breathing water for a life breathing air. They are able to move between locales, cultures, and people and remain emotionally and psychologically intact, constant, solid: the frog still knows that the pond is home.

Filed under: Travel Philosophy, Travel Psychology

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3421 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

18 comments… add one

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  • mike crosby March 24, 2011, 11:15 am

    That was profound Wade. I believe excellent writing is taking what is in the subconscious and wrapping it in coherent thought.

    Thank you for that. And for Wade’s readers, recently I asked Wade to help me on creating a webpage. We emailed each other back and forth with ideas. After we got really serious, I emailed Wade, “how much are you going to charge me?”. Wade emailed back “just give a donation”. Here’s someone I’ll probably never meet, is on the other side of the planet, and he dealt me with total integrity.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 24, 2011, 12:39 pm

      Thanks for this, Mike,

      And for my readers, I will have you know that Mike offered me a job and paid me more than graciously for it. He has proven to be someone who fully puts his heart into what he does, whether that is fixing air conditioners or helping out a money strapped webmaster by overpaying him many times for the work he did. Thanks, Mike, it was truly appreciated. If you ever need to know anything about running that site, just let me know.

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  • David William March 24, 2011, 3:45 pm

    wow. this was amazing. thank you for this post. i think i will be referencing this in the future. im planning a long trip in the future and i agree, it is a litmus test. i hope i do well. i just recently compiled a list of my goals and one of them that is really valuable to me is this: listen more. talk less.

    thanks for the post!

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  • Dave from The Longest Way Home March 25, 2011, 3:21 am

    Some good on the ground facts there Wade.
    Just today I ran into a North America traveling for decades. Guy is fruity as a fruit loop. The whole long shaggy beard, talking to himself, listens to music while tapping or singing away.

    Ultimately harmless, but I don’t really want to converse with him as I now the routine. The world is my enemy, I do not sleep.

    Or else he’s go a big stash of something somewhere, or it’s long since worn off and this is what’s left.

    On the flip side I see many, many new travelers unleashing scary figures to what long term travel is.

    People claiming 10/11/15/20/ heck even 5 years of “non-stop” or long-term travel. Meanwhile for several months they go home to Mommy’s house and get baby fed for a few weeks or months.

    I can tell you know these types tick me off. Perpetual travelers that go home. Some of these types stay home for years, but somehow when they start traveling again, the amass years from no where.

    I think this new marketing or ego type of traveler needs to move into the equation at some stage. As, simply, con-men.

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    • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell March 25, 2011, 7:11 am

      Dave. Agreed, alot of fakes / flakes / dickheads out there who talk up them travels but even “perpetual travelers that go home” – like me, need to do so to reassess their lives and reconnect with family and their origins to stay grounded and see if travel is still their thing. A few weeks or months, whatever; I do this every few years, it’s great but then I have to get back to my real life on the road or I really get bored by societal norms and the same scenery.

      Remember: One of America’s travel / road trip icons, Jack Kerouac – was a real return-home Mummy’s boy, but it didn’t lessen his exploits (at least not in the general public perception).

      Regards – Michael

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 25, 2011, 9:38 am

      Haha, yes, good description of a typecast that can be found all over the world: the lost traveler. Sometimes trying to live free is enough to wear a person out.

      It is my impression that most all long term travelers who still maintain contact with their families and friends visit them on occasion. I just spent two weeks with my parents and another two with my sister — both who just bought new homes in new places. It is not my impression that Long term travel means that you need to sever the bonds between who you were and where you came from. Rather, I believe that this running contact with a group of people on this planet is part of the glue that can keep a person together, sane, happy, emotionally in-tact, and something which keeps them from not becoming an old washed up hippie humming to himself, without a true friend in the world.

      Though yes, there is some abuse of the “perpetual traveler” term. It is a marketing ploy. A three month visit home is not really traveling anymore. Three month rule.

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  • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell March 25, 2011, 6:51 am

    Wade – great insights. For me, personally, as a long-term traveler – I travel cos of constant curiosity of the world – yeah, I also do feel very free from society yet always remain the same person to everyone, everywhere; no face or facade, no lies nor hype, no serious-wrong-doing to anyone as this is simply, my nature / DNA.

    When I return home for a visit every few years – I am an outsider (beyond my family) to the point that no one knows me. A stranger in my own home city; like traveling, so I am a mystery to anyone who once knew me in New Zealand also, all those years ago.

    As for losing it … not me. Shit, I remain as crazy as the day I was born.

    My only wish on this journey to nowhere is that I could find a real partner to share the amazing crazy world of travel … But meantime, I remain happy, alone – mixing when necessary; can’t have everything in life, I suppose.

    the candy trail … travel adventures – a nomad across the planet, since 1988

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 25, 2011, 9:49 am

      MRP,

      It is interesting how some character types crave travel, the sense of independence it brings, and savors it, while others it seems to break. Some travelers seem to be chameleons who seem to shape shift to match their social environment while others are firmly and brashly themselves who blaze a trail for nobody else to follow.

      It is my impression that the second group does far better traveling. I have yet to meet a solid minded long term traveler who blended into their surroundings, who tried to mimicked the culture they are in. No way, travelers are big bulging sore thumbs sticking out in the world as being fully and completely — perhaps indefinably — themselves.

      I like reading your site as it shows someone walking a path that seems to strangely run perpendicular to everyone else’s. You seem sanely crazy to me, if that makes any sense for long term travel haha.

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  • Jasmine March 25, 2011, 9:07 am

    What an awesome essay. I was well aware that my thoughts, actions, and personality were influenced by those around me, and this is part of the chain that I wanted to break. It’s been a pleasure for me to evolve into what I recognize as my authentic self and remain the same person throughout the world and in whatever company I keep. You’re right, so much freedom can be a dangerous trap for chameleon types who lose themselves in the process – but who is more fun to be than the true self?

    Isabelle Eberhardt sums this up perfectly: http://jasminewanders.com/2009/11/favorite-travel-quote/

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  • FruuGal March 26, 2011, 9:17 pm

    Wonderfully written and a joy to read.

    You have enriched so many lives with your writing. I hope that in the future your writing will prove to enrich you as much!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 27, 2011, 9:48 am

      Thanks FruuGal,

      This is much appreciated. Someday we will make the tuning knob hit the giggling pin and bring in a decent income off of this. Thanks for all your support over the years.

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  • FruuGal March 27, 2011, 3:00 pm

    I would love to see you be rewarded for your integrity and hard work.

    This is a newspaper article about a DIY author who sold her book to ebooks for 99cents and it sold over 100,000 copies. She researched what books were selling and worked on several at a time. Just wanted to write. It can be done.

    http://tinyurl.com/DIYwriter

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 28, 2011, 9:57 am

      Thanks FruuGal,

      That is an interesting story. Now if only working around the world with a family was popular haha. Naw, I think I can sell a decent amount of books — when I finally finish it haha. Thanks!

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  • Aliza Aseltine March 31, 2012, 1:09 am

    Well wrote Wade,

    I’m fairly new to traveling (6 months) on the road and can relate to some of these concepts, but others seem a little far out still. I hope your perception of a long-time RTW traveler isn’t one whose harden, jaded, unresponcive to new information/stimulation, and all around the exact opposite of the inital ideals and passion that drove him to travel in the first place. I belive balance is in order for anything to flow properly (not TOO much blending in/ect.)

    Also, on the idea of being free. I belive alot of people travel for alot of different reasons. I know for me I’ve had a best friend since I was 3, and were close as can be- not to mention my entire life growing up i’ve had best friends.. so to me it’s not a social liberation (and defently not a moral-liberation, it’s true we can become a theif in every society and run away from it; but WHERE does that get us?! I feel as if it’s almost completly counterproductive to the Global Citizen, if you will, mindset) (That was a rediculously long side note! haha). I travel for expansion of my paradigms to expand my mind, to see new things/meet new people/come back and value what I have/ and just GO ADVENTURE! [:

    If you would, do you have any comments back? [: I never respond so much to a post but.. wth [: Def. an insightful post though!

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    • Wade Shepard April 6, 2012, 6:06 am

      It’s my impression that if a traveler became jaded and disinterested that they would go home. This is often the state of people eight months into long distance backpacking trips. But for those who keep traveling year after year travel holds (or so I believe it must) a key to something that really satisfies them, the gear that keeps them going, wondering. I have yet to put my finger on it, but there is a certain type of character that travels for 6,7,10,20 years on end. I am unsure if long term travel just appeals to this type of individual or if they are molded this way by the road, but many travelers who have been going for years and years have a lot in common personality wise.

      One thing that I have noticed about long term travelers is that they (we) are pretty intolerant people. Myself included. Once you know that can leave or improve just about any situation you find yourself in it becomes a little difficult to tolerate BS or annoyances. Sedentary people in the conventional workforce are those that need tolerance. Can you imagine having to work next to someone everyday that you despise or a boss that you hate? I can’t fathom it. I would be fired on day one haha. That’s were nearly 13 years of travel has got me haha. Sure, travel destroys superficial intolerance but long term travel creates a certain brand of deep intolerance as you begin to realize what you like and what you don’t, how you like to live and how you don’t, and, most importantly, perhaps, that you have the power to change your situation on call.

      Don’t know if this has anything to do with your comment, but that’s just what it made me think about haha.

      Wish you well on your travels.

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  • Aliza Aseltine March 31, 2012, 1:13 am

    “The key in culture is not to mimic the rote lessons of your upbringing, but to test them and believe in them enough to pass on to subsequent generations. Travel is the test of becoming solid in your socialization from outside of its bounds. Travel is a test, a way to cut away your cultural fat to see what is left. What remains is you. ”

    This part is really key, missed it the first time around!

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    • Wade Shepard April 6, 2012, 5:53 am

      Thanks for the feedback, much appreciated!

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  • Aliza aseltine April 6, 2012, 4:24 pm

    Thanks that does.. ESP. The superficial vs deeper types of tolerance. I know that coming home from my first six months people have wanted to start conversation about the most mundane ridiculous things that i think could have been discussed in a few sentences and I’ve had that “this is really irrelevant” feel. So I def, get you on the superficial cut away process that helps us to function more efficiently.. And as for a deep well.. Of course. Thanks for the write back sharing these thoughts are so hard with people I know because they truly dont know the mindset your working with.. Much appreciate!

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