In conversing with people about our trip, I’ve noticed a certain unrealistic, false perception of what long-term travel is about. People have called our trip “a year off” or “a vacation;” “I’m jealous” has been a frequent comment, as well.

Attempting to dispel the romantic notions of long-term travel (not to whine, mind you), writers across the travel blogosphere occasionally highlight the negative aspects of travel (see examples from Nomadic Matt, Goats on the Road, Art of Adventuring, and So Many Places).

Filtered Instagram photos, cheerful Facebook updates, and awestruck blog posts fail to tell the whole story.

Traveling isn’t all rose-and-lavender sunsets, amazing street food, and horizon-expanding adventures. In fact, traveling long-term can be a real pain the ass, sometimes all too literally. It isn’t an accident, as Pico Iyer has pointed out, that the words travel and travail have the same root.

Let’s take a tour of the dark side of traveling.

Traveling is a pain

Take a 12-hour overnight bus ride across Bolivian high plains on unpaved roads, with no heat or an onboard restroom. Sleep on a lumpy mattress on the floor of a bamboo hut on the coast of Thailand while inches-long jungle insects crawl across the bathroom walls. Walk through the soupy air of Havana feeling sweat gush from crevices you didn’t know existed on your body.

Dark side of traveling

Not a friend. Khao Sok National Park, Thailand.

The trip introduced me to a host of physical discomforts. Transportation was just the most obvious one. Sometimes even staying in one place was tough. Every new bed required adjustment. Every new cuisine challenged my guts. I only got sick three times on the trip (in Holland and twice in Peru) but on each occasion my body was being turned inside out and I just about had enough of being on the road.

My mind experienced discomforts on the road, too.

At home-home in Portland, Oregon, or Košice, Slovakia, everything is familiar: I know places and how to get there, I speak the language, I recognize people and can anticipate their behaviors.

On the road every day I had to figure something else out, learn a lesson, adjust. Every new currency taxed my math skills. Every new language tested my memory. Every new city demanded I learn its layout and how to get around (I’d never felt as disoriented as when, in the Southern Hemisphere, the noon sun hung in the north). Every new culture begs to be discovered, digested, processed, adjusted to. My brain worked overtime to process all the information—the sights, the smells, the tastes, the sounds, the sheer there-ness of everything—coming my way.

While experiencing new places and cultures is part of why I travel, I was also constantly out of my element, outside my comfort zone.

Dark side of traveling

Looks like bliss. Is a rest. On a field of salt. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

I often managed to discount discomforts as an indelible part of travel or even to dismiss them as the price to pay for the journey. But eventually the disrupted sleeping patterns, overworked digestive tract, and overstimulated senses always added up and caught up with me. Whether you call it travel fatigue or burnout exhaustion is a prominent resident of the dark side of traveling.

Traveling hurts the soul

Mental discomforts of traveling are a matter of perception and, with some experience, relatively easy to handle. Moral considerations are on a whole another level.

In many places, including Istanbul, Arequipa, Cusco, and Havana, I felt like a walking dollar sign. I had to shield myself from tout ambushes, ward off beggars (often children), or steel myself against scammers. Being a target of this sort went beyond discomfort.

I won’t dispute the disparity between even my modest travel budget and incomes of people in developing countries. But to be targeted for the money I used for the trip that I earned it with years of hard work felt discomfiting.

Dark side of traveling

A fishing boat crew ready for the day’s work at Nathon Pier, Koh Samui, Thailand.

While touts, beggars, and scammers are relatively easy to defend against mentally, witnessing poverty first hand truly affects the soul.

My home country, Slovakia, ranks 41st among countries by GDP per capita, and 42nd on UN’s Human Development Index, whereas my adopted country, the U.S., ranks 6th and 8th, respectively. That isn’t to say I have not seen poverty in either country but on the trip I witnessed extremes of my experience (and I didn’t even go to India or African countries).

One method of dealing with the disparity is to think, as I’ve heard expressed numerous times, that “they may be poor but they’re content.” This line of thinking is problematic because it would relieve me from the responsibility to act and perpetuates the status quo. The stance I adopt is

  1. I cannot solve all the world’s problems or help each and every person I encounter.
  2. The way I can (and do) help is to report on what I saw back home and support organizations that help people in need.

While this relieves some of the soul-hurt, it still sometimes feels like a cop-out. The truth is, some amount of soul-hurt is part and parcel of traveling. The furthest reaches of the dark side of traveling are just part of the landscape.

Traveling is lonely

“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, and though he was right, traveling gets lonely after a while. I traveled with the best travel partner possible, Lindsay, yet still there were occasions when I felt isolated and forlorn, indeed like an island (the worse was to feel like an island when I was on an actual island). This had nothing to do with Lindsay and everything to do with me and the vagaries of long-term travel.

Gallivanting around the world, I was, by definition, away from the people I knew: family and friends. I felt, as the song goes, “like a motherless child, long way from home.”

Many times while traveling I felt uprooted. This was different than the uprootedness I had experienced as an immigrant: as a newcomer to the U.S., I was settling down in a single place. On the road it always took a while to get accustomed to a new place. A new city would take several days, if not weeks, to begin feeling like home. Yet I never got to enjoy the new home for long because soon I was moving to the next one.

Dark side of traveling - Kamari Beach, Santorini, Greece, Oct 2013

Walking on the edge of a volcano, Kamari Beach, Santorini, Greece.

Traveling as a couple helped mitigate loneliness. It was amazing to give and get support to one another, especially in tough situations like sickness or difficult adjustments.

But there’s a reason so many travelers find themselves on the road.

Not having a day job, not having to to commute or work around the house, opened for me a vast new space for musing and contemplation, about the world and my life in it. And I had to do all that thinking alone. Sometimes the things I found weren’t pretty; once again I was on my own dealing with that.

Nothing could have ever brought me to myself as much as travel did, driving home the point I am with me all the time, with fewer distractions (e.g. work) to prevent me from denial or from avoiding to deal with issues.

Many people travel to find new friends. As an introvert, I don’t make friends easily. As a realist, I recognize that most human contact with other travelers is fleeting and superficial. To be sure, I did make friends on this trip. But no matter how many people I spoke with or even befriended, in the end, when it was time to say goodbye, I was on my own again.

Traveling ruins beauty

A friend I met on my travels once told me about the ABC Syndrome. He could no longer visit churches because they gave him the Another Bloody Church affliction (temple burnout falls into the same category).

The syndrome goes well beyond houses of worship. On previous trips as well as on this recent one, I saw so many churches, temples, markets, cemeteries, forests, mountains, and so on, they all started to blend in.

Seeing so many beautiful, spectacular things also deflated my sense of beauty. Once I saw the Grand Canyon, it was hard to marvel at Valle de la Luna. Once I saw the Vatican, it was hard to get excited about a church. Once I saw Salar de Uyuni, all the other salt flats will be pale imitations. I exaggerate only slightly.

The natural solution would be to revel in every place, not in comparison with others experienced before it, but rather in and of itself. In some moments, though, I felt as though my experience in the moment fell flat. Thus emotionally flattened, I’d seek the next thing to rekindle the profound awe I had felt when staring in the face of sheer beauty for the first time.

Dark side of traveling - Ratchaprapra Dam, Khao Sok National Park, Thailand, Jan 2014

Meh. Ratchaprapra Dam, Khao Sok National Park, Thailand.

Come to the dark side of travel

Acknowledging and embracing the dark side of traveling makes traveling a bit easier. I travel because I seek to experience something different from the comforts of my home. I travel to challenge myself, to meet new people, to learn about other cultures. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Have you experienced the dark side of traveling?

49 Responses

  1. Pamm

    Hi,

    I do recognize that travel can be a pain as I have found myself in a few dicey situations. But I, like you, created them for myself. If you don’t like 12 hour bus rides and questionable hotel rooms, why did you make those arrangements for yourself and select that hotel room? I have a 30 hour “flight” coming up, which will be a pain, but I chose that instead of breaking up my trip. I can hardly complain about something (well, I could actually), that I planned and accepted.

    You mention the challenge of the constant changes. Perhaps you would be happier at home instead of taxing yourself with currency conversions and the like. This sort of thing is part and parcel with foreign travel. Or maybe travel around the US or Slovakia would be easier? You are choosing to change places with such frequency that maybe you would be happier if you stayed in the same place for a little while longer, and “took a break? Downtime is important while traveling, too. 🙂

    For many years I found myself a “target” for beggars and the like – I had natural white blond hair, and I stood out whether I wanted to or not. I did my best to hide my hair and to blend in. Of course that was not always possible so I just dealt with it. In Istanbul, Quito, Thailand, and so many other places, I would have a little private chat with the people at my hotel. As a woman traveling alone, those sorts of things are even more challenging than traveling as a man or as a couple. During that conversation at the hotel, I would ask a female desk clerk for a variety of phrases in the local language. “Leave me alone” (polite and pointed), “I don’t want to buy anything”, etc, were the phrases I used – and they worked! I still remember the kid who was trying to sell me postcards in Istanbul walking away, repeating over and over, my phrase of “I don’t want to buy anything” in a sing-song voice. It made me smile, and, obviously, still does. Phrases and the lack of eye contact worked wonders. I would also try to dress as inconspicuously as possible – to the point of buying a cheap local shopping bag and carrying my stuff in it. I never carry a day pack as it marks someone as a tourist.

    People wanting what you have is common the world over and is not exclusive to travel. It is hardly hurtful if you see that it is not personal. Have you not envied someone staying in a hotel without a lumpy mattress? It isn’t personal is it? You just don’t have the cultural wherewithal to go to that person and ask them to spring for your hotel room. 🙂

    Facing the poverty and the human condition of places other than first world countries is quite disconcerting and can be terribly upsetting. I don’t have a solution for you other than to not travel to those locations. But that rather defeats the purpose of traveling.

    To me, the dark side of travel are the hassles of things out of my control. Flight cancellations that have you arriving after you are supposed to be moving on to the next place, vehicle breakdowns in the middle of nowhere in Tibet with no help in site (when you have altitude sickness, In “both directions”), the sometimes inevitable needing to stay five feet from a toilet for a few days, no matter how careful you are, your ears not equalizing during the 18 hour flight home from Australia, or your ride home, from a trip like that, being delayed when you are so exhausted you can’t see straight, etc.

    Travel fatigue and over stimulation can take its toll and we can get cranky. That is when I take a day or two off to hang in my hotel room to read or relax. There is no shame in that as everyone needs a day off every so often. 🙂

    I am looking forward to reading Part II. I wish you happy traveling!

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Pamm. Absolutely it’s my choice to travel and I take responsibility for the consequences of that choice. I was hoping to get across what the challenges of traveling are, not to complain or even offer solutions, which are, as you point out, sometimes all too obvious.

      It isn’t always possible to avoid or predict the bad stuff that’s going to happen on the road. The Bolivian bus company promised a certain on-board standard but failed to deliver. The lumpy bed isn’t immediately obvious from the picture on the booking website. I can’t control who approaches me on the street or what the socioeconomic situation of the place I’m visiting is. It’s just like you wrote, “the dark side of travel are the hassles of things out of my control.”

      Reply
  2. kelsey

    This is fascinating. I haven’t traveled much myself for financial reasons, but also the reasons above (getting tired, discomfort, illness, the difficulties of being on the road). Thank you for sharing an insight into the not-so-pretty.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      The thing is, even the negatives of traveling won’t dissuade this traveler from going out into the world again. I’m already saving for the next trip!

      Reply
  3. Bill Volckening

    What an amazing journey. Better you than I, though. Planes, trains and busses are not built for people my size, 6’4″ tall. I have to fly first class to avoid injuring myself, LOL! Good thing I love Portland and Oregon. A drive to the coast for a day is just my cup of tea. 🙂

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Glad to be blazing the path, Bill. Even at 5’10” I sometimes felt tall, whether on local buses in Southeast Asia or in hostel beds in South America. It does feel good to be back in Oregon for a while.

      Reply
  4. Melinda

    This is a great post…it is easy to put on a good face when telling people about our travels, but it can be tiring and stressful as well (but all worth it!)

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Thanks, Melinda. That’s exactly why I wrote this post (part two is coming up on Monday). Go on Facebook and look at travelers’ updates, say, and you’d think travel is all peaches and cream. We don’t like to talk about the dark side for fear people would say we’re just complaining about something few do. The truth is, as you say, there are downsides, just like with everything else.

      Reply
  5. Meg Rulli

    This was such a refreshing article Peter – Thanks for sharing! I’m glad someone stepped up to the plate on this topic. Traveling the world long-term is beautiful, yet chaotic… and it certainly is a lot different than people back home perceive it to be. I wouldn’t change our 12-month RTW trip for the world (pun intended!), but it was definitely tough at times – I will not miss the 22 hour bus rides in South America or getting E.coli in Cusco days before our Inca Trail trek!!!

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Thanks, Meg. I’m with you. I would never say about our trip, “I shouldn’t have done this.” The dark side is the price we all pay to travel, and though I’ll gladly pay up I won’t miss it one bit.

      I got sick in Cusco, too, the day before the train ride up to Machu Picchu. I almost didn’t go. What is it about that place?

      Reply
  6. Rhonda

    You are so right!!! We, too, still have friends refer to that 14mth’ “vacation” we took and, while it was 100% better than being at work in the 9 to 5, it is not all romance, and paradise. Uncomfortable transportation, uncomfortable beds, bugs, heat… it’s all wearing. And then there are the travel days!! Apparently the commenter Pam has a different budget than I do, as a thrifty RTW backpacker, often there weren’t a lot of choices for “making a different decision”. But, to each his own. I just love that the internet as connected all of us with the same mindset… at least we know YOU understand it wasn’t just like a week long vacation to a resort in Mexico!

    Reply
    • Pamm

      Hi Rhonda,

      You can’t be (though I am sure someone could) more thrifty than me, and trust me, there have been some hotels that, well………were not pleasant, shall we say. My $11 per night one on Nathan Road in Hong Kong was the latest in a series of challenging experiences. And of course, there was a huge cold snap – 25 degrees – with wind driven rain which made everything impossible to do (other than getting on a bus and just riding it to the end of the line and back again). That meant I spent most of the week in said hotel room. It had a mural of ice burgs along the entire wall of the room – to further the ‘cold’ theme.

      I am glad Peter has brought this up, as travel isn’t always easy or pleasant. I can cope with an awful lot (and have) and when the hassles get strung together, it is beyond awful. I think everyone has a bad experience every so often, and for those of us who travel more often, then those experiences are more numerous.

      And people need to realize that travel, while sounding exotic and exciting, isn’t always much fun. Taking the train across Russia was fantastic, but I tore the rotator cuff in my left shoulder, so getting on and off the train was a huge issue as I didn’t have much use of my arm, the person in the next cabin snored so loudly that if you were in the cabin at the other end of the train car, you still couldn’t sleep, you couldn’t use the toilet when the train was in a station, and it often was, more than once in the middle of the night, which wakes you up and nature calls, and…..well, you get the picture.

      I have always worked very very hard at maintaining my sense of humor with the mantra of “If it makes a good story, this hassle is worth it”. And most of my best stories have evolved from such discomfort and hassle. There was one time it didn’t because everything so bad for the entire time, I couldn’t keep track of it.

      But aren’t we all lucky that we have been able to do this? Everyday life at home is not always so pleasant either, but we all cope. We just cope at “home” instead of at an interesting foreign destination.

      I think Peter’s article is a good reminder that just because you are going on “vacation” doesn’t mean that things will be perfect.

      Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      I do understand, yes, I do, Rhonda. I still can’t look at quiche or dishes with corn in them, for example. Travel is a lifestyle, not a vacation – I think it’s hard to understand if you don’t have the experience. I was hoping to shed some light on it for that reason.

      Reply
  7. Marlynn @UrbanBlissLife

    I really love this post and I am glad more people are talking about the full realities of travel, not just the filtered pretty Instagram depictions. I wish more family travel bloggers would write about this as well. My husband and I love traveling, but all of the logistics and pains are doubled now that we’re traveling with young kids. Traveling for us is twice as much “work” now but the rewards are totally worth it — the lessons and memories we all get in return. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Thank you, Marlynn. We met and know of (follow on their blogs) several traveling families. Having no children, I can’t even imagine how they do it!

      Reply
  8. aubrie legault

    Definitely sounds like some painful things but look at all those stories you have to share and unique encounters. Some of the painful things at the time end up making the “best” memories. It would be very heart breaking to see the despair in other humans. 🙁 …On a happier note the photo of you laying on the desert/sand ground is amazing.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      It’s true, Aubrey. These days I tell those bad stories with a laugh. The caption of the salt flat photo should have said it’s Lindsay on it, not me.

      Reply
  9. Kathrin

    Beautifully written, and heartfelt, Peter. Bravo. I love reading this from you because, knowing you guys, I know it is honest, not whining. You don’t tell folks NOT to travel, you just tell them the truths that don’t go up on Facebook or in blogs.

    I found myself nodding and laughing in agreement through most of it. But, like you and Meg (above), I wouldn’t change the past year for the world!

    Reply
  10. Nathan

    Peter, Great article! You are very clear, I do not hear you giving excuses or asking for how to avoid the darker side of travel.
    It feels like I too, keep having to explain to people who comment on how lucky we are for our year long vacation… As you know luck has little to do with it it is planing, saving, and above all lifestyle choices that allowed us to make the last year a wonderful experience for ourselves and our two boys.
    Re-entry is looming for us and it is both exciting and bittersweet. I can’t wait to read part 2.
    (By the way, I recognize that spider from Khao Sok, we named him!)

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Thanks, Nathan. One of my mottos is, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” I hear the “you are lucky” comment a lot, too. While I, indeed, am lucky to have been born and to live in a place that provides opportunities to travel long-term, I had to work hard to make it happen (it took Lindsay and I years to save for the trip). Then you return (happy transition to you all!) and you realize that yes, it’s a lifestyle, not a vacation.

      What’s the spider’s name?

      Reply
  11. Simone

    Agree with all of them, part one and two. As we gear up to head back to the US after 13 months of travel I know we will hear a lot of “must be nice to have a year vacation”. Longterm travel is definitely work, way more than we anticipated!

    Reply
  12. kelsey

    the ABC affliction is interesting! that’s what living in hawaii did to me but it was ATB – another tropical beach!

    Reply
  13. Pech

    I think [it] is particularly hard because once you’ve experienced something similar, it does seem to make seeing it again a little less spectacular. I haven’t traveled as far and well as you, but I remember just being amazed at the colors of the rocks at the Grand Canyon, slot canyons, and on my first 2 visits to Sedona. Now when I see them- meh. Not as excited. Same thing with waterfalls- after visiting many in Oregon and in New York, some smaller waterfalls just don’t seem like the reward at the end of the hike. I know I shouldn’t be comparing and just enjoying the journey itself, but instead I think I’m trying to find new, different kind of wonders to visit.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      It’s almost as if when seeing or experiencing something you need to empty your memory bank in order to see it with fresh eyes. It’s a good exercise.

      Reply
  14. Pech

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts, which I agree with. I don’t think there’s any way to avoid them as they are a reality of travel, but it’s great to talk about them openly and make sure you PLAN for them- to plan for having some rest after being cramped in tight travel quarters for a day, to know ahead of time that there will those less fortunate so I might dress more appropriately, maybe have some change, or at least a phrase to communicate that I can’t help, so I’m prepared to make less eye contact with everyone around me, etc.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      “Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance,” said somebody smarter than I. My thinking was it would be helpful for would-be travelers to know the other side of realizing their dream of traveling long-term.

      Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Were it that easy all the time, Melinda. Especially when you undertake a long trip, sometimes you just have to tough it out and wait for the feeling to pass.

      Reply
  15. Adelina // Pack Me To

    I’ve definitely fallen under the ABC syndrome a couple of times especially when living in Europe. You’re right in saying that you need to take them in individual and not compare.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      The ABC Syndrome is hard to avoid in Europe, what with centuries of church-building. It’s good to take a break and take them one by one, or just do your research and visit the really interesting ones.

      Reply
  16. Erin

    Really great post. It’s nice to read something about the realities of traveling, especially when you see so much highlighted on social media that just portrays all the positives. Not to say there aren’t positives obviously, but I definitely agree with you on the physical and emotional challenges that also come with traveling. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Thank you, Erin. It’s tough to talk about the downsides of traveling on Facebook or Twitter or whatever, without coming across as a whiner. Long form rules in this regard.

      Reply
  17. Erin

    Great post. We are currently planning a trip to Asia and have noticed nearly everywhere has temples. At this point it sounds really fun but I will not be surprised at all when we get to the one where we just don’t want to see another temple! It is definitely interesting seeing how expectations and attitudes change traveling.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Thanks, Erin. When you see any non-Christian temple for the first or second or tenth time, it’s a deep experience. After a while, the ABT Syndrome kicks in, and you have to get selective. I look forward to following along and finding out about your experiences in Asia.

      Reply
  18. John

    I can completely relate with a lot of the unfortunate “dark sides” you’ve mentioned: the touts, the long bus rides, sleepless nights, the ABC syndrome, the adjusting to new norms, constantly having to learn every day, and the endless bucket of other challenges which has now become our daily lives. It can be absolutely draining! But as you put it “I wouldn’t have it any other way” also.

    In my mind, I often relate to travel as a sport or a game. This is a game I truly love. Getting ripped off, missing a flight connection, or becoming hopelessly lost in a foreign land; I equate to losing a game. Like in football, soccer, baseball or any sport losing a game feels awful. On the other hand, experiencing an amazing remote site, personally connecting with a local, or scoring a ridiculous discount on accommodation can feel like huge wins in the game of travel. Over the course of a “season” (a year, a trip, or other length of time) I’ve found our “wins” always outweigh our “losses.” The dark side you speak of has now become an annoying part of our lives. But win or lose, overall we’re really having a fun time playing the game of travel.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      That’s an interesting way to put it, traveling as a game. Here’s to staying over .500!

      Reply
  19. Della

    I really enjoyed this post! Thank you! I’ve found that people seem to be of two minds. When we talk with some people about our long term travel they seem to only think of the difficulties and being uncomfortable. I’m always the one to say that it’s worth it! On the other hand, there are times when traveling becomes difficult for all the reasons you mentioned and I want to share the frustrations, but many people call me selfish or a complainer because I am fortunate enough to have made long term travel happen for myself! It is definitely a narrow line.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Thanks for stopping by, Della. I say, know your audience. What some people may consider whining others may think of as realism. Besides, you are fortunate to travel because you probably most definitely worked hard to make it happen.

      Reply
  20. Arnie

    My wife and I are not long term world travelers, in fact, your comment about about income disparity is a major reason that will not happen as my wife was so upset with the difference that Mexico was too much for her.

    On to your observation of ABC, it’s true they all begin to look the same and it is hard to get excited by just another church or cathedral, but… Every once in awhile you run across one in some small town that has a special something about it. I think that is why we still enjoy travel in our 60’s.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      World travel does require a thicker skin, Arnie, no doubt about it. But then there are moments you describe, when you come across something special, and it’s all worth the trouble.

      Reply

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