The hardest part of the travel life isn’t going to new, unfamiliar places, it’s leaving those you know best.
“The romantic- that was what I wanted. I hungered for the romance of the sea, and foreign ports, and foreign smiles. I wanted to follow the prow of a ship, any ship, and sail away, perhaps to China, perhaps to Spain, perhaps to the South Sea Isles, there to do nothing all day but lie on a surf-swept beach and fling monkeys at the coconuts.”
“Let those who wish have their respectability- I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous, and the romantic.”
I would read these Halliburton quotes when I was young and believe in them unquestioningly. “Yeah, that’s the life I’m going to live,” I’d pretty much say to myself. When I did start living this life I would read quotes like these whenever the road would get lonely or burdensome or mundane, whenever I needed to give myself a little pep talk to slip my boots back on, shoulder my pack, and head on to the next town. Though a rather adolescent maneuver, it worked. I would read these quotes and say, “Yeah, that’s right, there is an entire world before me today, and something is going to happen.” I would then go out, go somewhere, and make something happen.
The thought of traveling somewhere new revs up some well worn, domineering neuron circuit in my mind that boils over in a prolonged burst of electric impulses. Looking at a map sends this tingling sensation down through my limbs, and triggers a feeling that I can only simply interpret as “good.” Maybe alcoholics get this feeling holding up their first glass of the day, perhaps drug addicts feel this way when clutching a newly purchased bag of dope. I don’t believe my affliction can be classified as an addiction, but it is what keeps my mind stimulated, it is what I obsess over each day, it’s something that I will give up almost everything else to keep doing.
At the onset of this affliction I could only see what was in front of me. I only saw the romance, the mischief, the open roads. Now, 15 years in and I am beginning to understand what I’ve left behind, what I’ve really sacrificed to get to where I am.
Time is the traveler’s currency. Time buys experiences, it buys places, it buys memories, it buys lessons, knowledge, and wisdom. Travelers’ conversations revolve around time: How much time were you there for? How long have you been traveling? How many hours did it take to get there? How long did you have to save to afford this trip? I’ve been wanting to go there forever! How much time do you have before you go home? Time is what we revel in. It’s what we deal in. Decisions in travel are often decisions in time economics: where and how we spend our precious hours, minutes, and seconds . . .
But time invested in travel is time that you can never get back to do something else — or to be with other people.
As I continue traveling, investing my time into observing new places and experiencing new things — ever becoming a slightly richer vagabond — the poorer I’m becoming as a son, a brother, and an uncle. There is no need to think of this in your first decade of travel, but once you get up to 15, 20, 30 years on the road it’s going to become clear what you’re giving up back home. To put it bluntly, the people you care about are going to get old and die. The people you grew up with are going to go on without you. The people that you used to share the most intricate details of your life with are eventually going to stop notifying you of even big events and changes. You will miss successive Christmases, myriad birthdays, multiple New Year Eves. Your likeness will start to drop out of your family and friends’ photo galleries, and the bonds of mutual experience will begin to break down and disintegrate. Your opinions and advice will start to matter less and less, as the people who once consulted you now confide in others.
Your concepts of the people you grew up with and the place you were raised in may seem somewhat fixed in your mind, but on the ground they are always changing. A year or two isn’t enough to gauge this progression, but after 15 years you realize what you’ve missed. I remember carrying my first nephew around a supermarket a couple of days after he was born. He’s 8 years old now, shooting birds with a .22 for kicks. I remember picking up my adopted Chinese sister from the hand off point in Changsha in 2006. She was a baby then, she’s some kind of gymnast now, bouncing around doing back flips. I can remember my sister being an un-amused high school student when I first left home. She’s now the school psychologist for an entire district in western Montana. My mother and father sold the house I grew up in and moved to the other, more upscale side of the city. They are grandparents many times over, and are getting older.
While I’ve always tried to make yearly visits home, my concept of the progression of time is like lining up snapshots rather than a continual stream of memories. I’ve checked in, I’ve check out, but I can’t claim to have ever really played much of a part in the onward roll of life that has occurred since I first left. I’m a tourist in my own home, staring at my own family as curiously as I do indians in some hilltop village.
Travel is a lethargic disappearing act. You don’t vanish from the stage in an abracadabra puff of smoke, but you vanish from your community’s minds and lives gradually. “Your people” will always remember who you are but they will have no idea what you’ve become and how you really got there — and this sentiment will be mutual. Your family won’t forget about you, they will still rush over and pile up in front of the webcam each time you appear on Skype, but you are no longer an essential part of their daily existence. You’re on the outside looking in, the blurry, pixelated face on the computer screen.
You can think that by traveling you’re leaving your community behind, but the desertion is mutual: they’re leaving you in the dust, too, albeit a little more figuratively. You’re going to think that because they’re in the same place they’re static, but they’re not. Long term, perpetual travel turns you into a social non-essential. You are not a part of any group, are not really a member of any society. People stop relying on you, they stop depending on you, they don’t need your assistance to keep their lives going, you’re not an essential gear driving their collective machine. You’ve given up your place in the pack, you’ve forfeited your social role.
There is another side of the perpetual travel lifestyle. It’s not a dark side, it’s just the other side. Travel, living abroad, is the best way for me to live that I know of, but it’s not all stomping through flowery meadows and gawking at slender damsels. All lifestyles are give and take. I take the excitement of movement, the first hand knowledge of large swaths of the planet, and the freewill to go where I please; I give up the time that I could otherwise have been experiencing life with “my people.”
As I walk out of my family’s home, again, I pay the inherent toll of the travel life, but those first heavy-heart laden steps away quickly become light, excited steps towards somewhere else.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
February 2, 2015, 7:58 pm
I left all that I knew over a month ago, now in Ajijic and will be headed south from here. What you wrote was exactly how I am feeling… thanks for that.. as I know that this is the life for me but some days you just feel sad.