When Travel No Longer Works For You

I am writing this on a plane, heading home from my first trip abroad since the pandemic. It has been more than two years. A long time for somebody who wouldn’t go three months without changing location.

Before boarding, I had a look at my ex-girlfriend’s travel blog. I didn’t read it while we were traveling together. Why did I go there now?

Remembrance of Travels Past

Since I reflected a lot about past travels, I wanted to learn more about my memories. I want to better understand my experience, my relationship to the act of traveling. I also pondered what role visiting foreign places should play in the future.

When Barcelona did not turn out as expected, I initially wanted to blame the place. That’s why I immediately oriented myself towards other locations. Perhaps Cuba is better. Why not go to the Canary Islands? Surely things would be different there.

But then I turned my eye inward, or more specifically, backwards. I felt most attracted to the idea of going home. No longer did Barcelona appear to problem. Maybe the problem was travel in general.

It dawned on me that I might be over the whole category of experiences. Something that has previously brought me joy and meaning no longer has the same effect.

In a third step of reflection, I looked back as far as six years ago. I was backpacking through Asia with my girlfriend.

For a long time, I have glorified this period in my head. I also always sensed that such a period could not be repeated. There was something lighthearted and magical about these months. They can never be reproduced.

Traveling Then Versus Now

I wasn’t as comfort-seeking back then. I also wasn’t as introverted. Or was I?

I do remember being irritated a lot. I also wanted to sleep early a lot. I recall being exhausted from days spent in a foreign culture, the heat, the discomfort. 

Today I find it difficult to detach from the future.

How could I long-term travel without wondering about my career? I would worry about my health more. I wouldn’t be nearly as open about trying new foods.

Repeating the these years in Asia with today’s limitations, a lot of the fun and freedom would be lost.

I want an internet connection, a calm place, and a regular routine to study. Good luck making that work in combination while being on a motorcycle trip through Vietnam.

I don’t want to eat any food that has been fried in cheap oil, no gluten, no aggressive spices, and definitely nothing that has been sitting on a shelf in the sun for several hours.

And even if the actual food wouldn’t bother me, the guilt about putting it in my body would. 

It is easy to glorify past times, to see only positive memories.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. After all, we will forever be able to feed off our adventurous past. Why ruin them by being objective?

False Memories Lead to Melancholic Dreams

Memory becomes problematic if it falsely informs future action.

If I planned a trip based on my memory of how I felt during similar travels, that wouldn’t be good. If I escaped the present moment into a false memory of a better life, that wouldn’t be good either.

But recently I have been dreaming about the future a lot; melancholic dreaming about repeating past experiences.

I thought about South Korea and how I would love to hang out there with my girlfriend and eat all day.

I dreamed about Taiwan and its friendly people. I recalled the feeling I had at the time, the excitement I experienced when browsing the local night markets.

I also thought back to Thailand and its beaches, how nice it would be to hang out in a bungalow by the water all day.

My dreams are based on what I remember of my previous trips to these places. But the truth is, it cannot have all been that nice.

It was exciting. But it’s easy to forget the negative experiences.

Traveling Really Wasn’t All That Fun

The air pollution in almost all of the larger cities was horrible. The noise and heat way uncomfortable.

I remember being annoyed by the smog over Taichung. I went on a hike and could only see as far as 200 meters ahead. It was terrible to move around in traffic while going through Bali, Jakarta, and other major cities in SEA.

The heat was very uncomfortable and tiring a lot of the time. You felt constantly tired and exhausted.

The food, while extremely tasty, caused almost permanent stomache-upset. Occasionally, it even caused a big upset.

Being constantly harassed to buy things, always being on the lookout for scammers, being on-guard constantly wasn’t my favourite travel experience.

I used to be extremely exhausted during midday, needing my Vietnamese coffee, not being able to nap or to get a break from the noisy environment.

There was several crises of meaning during which I felt useless and unproductive and worried about the future. Just like now, I was seeking to experience a feeling of context, of which I had almost nothing at the time. 

More than once did I felt like going home (in Vietnam and Korea and Thailand). But I actually ended up traveling more because I wasn’t ready to let go of it.

I was constantly thinking about food, having nothing else to look forward to than the next meal.

I was always worried about money and afraid of not saving enough of it.

I didn’t have regular contact with friends or maintained the deep connections that I cultivate now.

I had no silence, no real possibility to retreat into myself.

We weren’t actually doing anything with our time, producing nothing. It was mostly a lifestyle of consumption.