There is a dream that many people share. This is the dream of travelling the world and seeing everything that is has to offer. Ideally, this would be without any background responsibilities – one would focus on the experiences, and that’s it.
For some people, this dream comes true. They find themselves with the means and opportunity to travel as they please and take full advantage of it. They go from place to place, always seeking out new experiences.
On the surface, this may seem like a great way to live. And in many ways, it is. Floating around the world, experiencing all the different things, meeting new people, being obvious to the usual mundane aspects of life such as mortgage payments, work meetings, and the same humdrum experience that staying put in one place can create. But there are also downsides to this constant travel.
While I haven’t been living this precise version of the dream, as I have always been working my entire professional life, I have travelled the world and seen more than most people.
Even when I haven’t been travelling, I’ve still managed to be on the move. I’ve lived in 22 different houses and apartments, which equates to moving house every 17 months of my life.
While I’ve touched on some of these ideas in my essay “being Cityless”, today I wanted to explore the negative side of being a world traveller.
Unlike what is portrayed on social media, travelling is not solely made up of exotic beaches, parties, drinks, interesting food, meeting new people, and exciting capitals, museums, and cultures.
It is also airport delays, large amounts of paperwork (especially during Covid times), the frustration of not being understood when you don’t speak the local language, struggles to eat healthy food, isolation and being lonely, and a lack of meaningful relationships.
And depending on where in the world you travel, you need to constantly keep an eye on your possessions as well as your personal safety. You can become an easy target for numerous petty scams and serious crimes when you are not a local.
Let me tell you a few.
Around 12 years ago, I flew from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Hanoi, Vietnam. I was on a one-month trip with my brother; this was our first time in Asia. I had read of an interesting and rather sophisticated scam. The taxis from the airport would ask you where you were going, and at the time, there were not that many hostels in the city, so everyone would go to one of a handful of ones available. This caused me to repeatedly bump into the same groups of travellers in different cities and countries, which was rather interesting.
Instead of taking you to the hostel you had booked, the taxi would take you to a different hostel with the same name, but often in a slightly different area of the city. You would then stop there, and check-in, and be none the wiser. Before the proliferation of smartphones, it was more difficult to orient oneself on the fly in a new city. At the end of your stay, you would be hit by numerous additional charges, and there would be little you could do about it.
Being aware of this, I was trying to follow our taxi’s route from the airport to the city using a handheld map, and I realised that we were going to the wrong area. I believe that we were in the middle of this scam, and we informed the driver that he was wrong and promptly turned around and took us to the right hostel.
While this was a small incident, and I managed to extricate myself quite easily, I would not be so lucky on future trips. I was overcharged for a camel ride in a small fishing village in Morocco, where the owner of the camels quoted me a total for the ride, but when I came back insisted that this was the total per person, and so I owned him double the initial fee. This wasn’t down to linguistic confusion because I was with someone from Morocco. Instead of causing a scene, we paid up.
My camera was stolen out of my room in the jungle in the Dominican Republic, and I never figured out how that happened, and the management of the hotel didn’t seem to really care.
In Cartagena, Colombia, armed men kidnapped me from the street and taken outside of the city. Later, I managed to put up enough resistance and jump out of a moving car — I suffered a significant amount of bruising, but fortunately, I only lost material possessions and not my life.
In each of these cases, I was shaken but not deterred from travelling. I continued to explore the world and had some amazing experiences. But each of these incidents also made me more cautious, and weary.
And so, these are a few escalating examples of what can happen when you travel, but this is not the issue with travelling. I want to introduce to you the idea of the “Curse of the Traveler”, which is more about the true price of travelling and seeing everything that the world has to offer.
This is especially true if you are doing it full-time instead of just temporarily and then going back to your normal life.
Two key problems are part of the curse:
- Hedonic Adaptation to the World.
- Relationships and distance.
Let’s tackle the first problem first. The great thing about travelling full time is seeing many of the amazing things the world has to offer. You begin to discover what you like and what you dislike. For instance, while I lived in London for 12 years of my life, I then later discovered that I prefer smaller cities or even villages to large urban centres. And the more places you discover, the more you find that appeal to you, but the problem is that the things that appeal to you are not in one place.
You might like the tranquillity and stunning architecture of Florence but love the hustle and bustle of many parts of Asia, and the warmth of the people in Latin America. The trouble is that you can never have everything in one place, and so you are always on the move, trying to find the next best thing. And even if you do find somewhere that has everything you want, you know that it won’t last forever and eventually, you will get restless and want to leave again.
As you build your understanding of what you like, each new place you visit has a smaller and smaller percentage of the things you love.
The more you see, the less you can enjoy.
For instance, I’ve been lucky enough to see the Pyramids, Angkor Watt, and the Great Wall of China. Whenever I go to visit an ancient ruin or monument in a new country, it is difficult to stop myself from comparing it to my previous experiences, seeing some of the ancient wonders of the world.
And so one drives on, looking for the right place.
Not the perfect place, as we know this is not possible, but something that is acceptable and feels right.
The curse is that the longer you spend looking and the more you experience, the less likely you are to find a place that you will be able to settle.
The reason why I call this the “Hedonic Adaptation to the World” is that there is an apt comparison to the idea of the Hedonic Treadmill, which states that no matter how much effort you put into fulfilling your desires, you’ll always replace them with new ones.
It’s the same with travel.
The more you do it, the more you see, and the more your understanding of what you want changes. This is not to say that you will never be content, but the chances of finding a place that completely satisfies all of your wants and needs are getting smaller and smaller the more you travel.
The second part of the curse is related to building meaningful and long-lasting relationships when you are always on the move. The longer you travel, the more likely you will meet highly interesting and profoundly varied individuals. But, your time will always be cut short, because you will be moving on, while they cannot travel with you. This makes it difficult to spend the time required to cultivate the relationships to a meaningful level. This reminds me of the idea of “single serving friends’ from Fight Club, the idea that when you travel, everything comes in single serving packages, including the people you meet.
The further you get from home, the more pronounced this effect will be. It’s one thing to meet someone new in your hometown and quite another to meet someone new in a country on the other side of the world. The former can easily become a long-term friend, while the latter is much more likely only to be a short-term acquaintance.
You can make friends for a night, or even a few weeks, but it is very difficult to find people you will want to keep in touch with for years to come. The problem is that as you move on, so do they, and the chances of your paths crossing again get slimmer and slimmer.
If you are single, dating becomes almost pointless because the inevitable goodbye is never pleasant. But you will still do it and build a list of bittersweet endings.
And so you keep travelling because perhaps there is someone, somewhere, who will make you stay. But, the longer you travel, and the more people you meet, the less likely that is to happen.
The Curse Of the Traveler does not mean that one shouldn’t travel, but one just needs to be aware that there is a price to seeing the world and being on the move. The rich tapestry of life that it builds will be stained with a touch of loneliness, nostalgia and sadness.
How does one escape the Curve of the Traveler? I do not know this, but I’ll keep travelling until I find out.