Off the road: Why I quit traveling after 5 years as a nomad

Burning out, growing down, and looking in.

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Fran Rodriguez, Holy Night 

It’s kind of taboo to complain about traveling the world for a living. How freakin’ millennial of you to write a blog post about how getting paid to travel the world is hard. There are so many starving and helpless children, corrupt and irresponsible leaders and innocent turtles being strangled to death by plastic, and you’re unhappy that travel is your full-time life??

Don’t get me wrong — buying that one-way ticket to Peru in 2012 and vagabonding around the world for the last 5 years was the best thing I’ve ever done and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I’ve been extremely fortunate to forge a career that’s allowed me to do what I love, explore the world and build a community with others who do the same. But as with any lifestyle choice, it has its ups and downs.

On the road, the highs are extremely high and the lows are extremely low, and there’s a whole lot of waiting in lines and sitting on planes with stinky people and screaming babies in between. I’ve been careful to keep my discontent under wraps and I have many friends who also stay silent because we know your reaction would be akin to that gagging eye roll you make when actors complain that they only made $46 million on a movie. Don’t be so goddamn extra, J-Law.

Early onset burnout

The thing with long-term travel is that it is all-consuming. And when you’re 5 years on the road, traveling is no longer just a hobby; it literally becomes you.You are challenged physically by new smells, new sounds, different climates, water, and foods that have your body constantly on the defensive and on the rebound. You are mentally pushed to your limits by new languages, strange social norms, cultural isolation, loneliness and heartbreak. Your intrinsic fight-or-flight instincts are constantly activated and you’re riding an adrenaline rollercoaster with each new surrounding environment, encounter or acquaintance.

Now throw in a full-time job on top of this and you get another fun dimension of daily battles. Between the breathtaking workspaces around the world and being a slave to the almighty wifi password and foreign internet speeds, your workday teeters somewhere between “I can’t believe this is my life!” and a violent temper tantrum of frustration and helplessness only worthy of a 5 year old. The concept of “work-life balance” just becomes a gooey work-life peanut butter smoothie that tastes great the first few hundred times, but then it starts to clog your arteries and you can’t decide if you even still like peanut butter or not, but you just keep drinking it anyway.

And the final icing on the cake is at the end of the day when you finally steal a moment of quiet and you realize how lonely it can be surrounded by so many people. You meet the most interesting and amazing people but they come into your life just as fast as they (or you) go. You have many friends scattered around the world, but never all in the same place. For every 50 A/S/L conversations, you get only a handful of truly deep and meaningful connections, only to say goodbye everyone all the same. At a certain point, the prettiest places in the world start to feel empty and repetitive — just another desktop wallpaper with friendly tourists sipping mai tais on infinite loop. At a certain point, a mundane grocery run with a wanted companion becomes infinitely more appealing than a picture-perfect romantic retreat for one.

I’m not trying to throw myself a pity party here. This is all to say that burn out on the road is inevitable. The glitz and glamour of travel eventually become normalized and you realize that we are all, on one path or another, searching for the same things — stability, connection, community, acceptance and love.I’m sure there are some people who can live nomadically on the road forever, but I have yet to meet one. If you happen to know one, I’d love to chat.

Desperate addiction, familiar affliction

I’ve had to come to terms with the mildly terrifying fact that I am an addict. I over-stimulate myself with experiences, over-inject myself with new information, and over-socialize myself to the point of exhaustion. In the pursuit of constantly outdoing myself with just more, I’m guilty of neglecting myself of the space to reflect, refocus and realign. And the result is a fragmented mind — a mosaic of unfinished thoughts, unanswered questions, unexplored feelings, undefined relationships, and uncertain direction. I was living at a ridiculous pace (completely by my own choosing) that only allowed for the collection of data, but not the time or tools for analysis.

I’ve experienced emotions that I’m sure there are no words for. I have felt my heart fill and drain in ways I didn’t know an organ was capable of. I sometimes question my own memory and how certain people and places can leave such an visceral scar, but at the same time just feel like a figment of my imagination. As time passes, my older memories start to lose potency and begin to feel more like something from the twilight zone. The only evidence of their occurrence are the lingering shadowy feelings of nostalgia, love, loss, elation and longing that are seared in my mind and can be triggered by the most random sight, smell or sound.

Sometimes, completely out of the blue, it all gets so overwhelming that I just start crying. Not necessarily because I’m sad, or feeling any definitive emotion in particular. I suspect it’s just a physical manifestation of being swept up by waves of feels and my brain isn’t equipped to deal with it. So the best it can come up with is to squirt some salt water out of my eyeballs. Darwin would be so proud.

Laying roots, growing down

Somehow, sometime not long ago, I instinctively knew it was time to just stop. Kind of like solving a Wheel of Fortune puzzle — slowly at first, letter by letter, and then all at once. For longer than I should’ve allowed, I was not taking care of myself physically, mentally, or emotionally. It was getting to the point where was continuing down this path only because it was scarier to quit than to continue. This routine of dragging myself through the motions just became the norm, as everything, with time, eventually does.

So I made the decision to stop traveling and attempt the impossible of staying put. I unpacked my suitcase. I quit a dream job that wasn’t serving me anymore. I stopped searching for “take me anywhere” one-way tickets. I made peace with giving up the alternative life I had worked so hard to carve out for myself. It was both the hardest and most obvious decision I’ve ever made. Growth happens expansively in all directions and I’ve accepted that I am at a period of my life where I‘ve grown enough to the left, right, up and diagonal. I now need to slow down, stay put, and make it green where I water it. I need to start growing down.

As with anything that is the “right thing to do”, it is much easier said than done. For all my adult life, I was a traveller and in a way, that is really all I know how to be. My identity was wrapped up in an ethos of freedom, independence, curiosity, spontaneity, and flexibility. But what I considered my strengths on the road don’t necessarily translate to the sedentary life. Knowing random metric conversions and how to say hi and thank you in a dozen languages doesn’t really help me survive in the “real world”. How I communicate with strangers, how I present myself in society, and how I squeeze my life story into a digestible and socially acceptable box must all be relearned.

But even more difficult than the mental hurdles will be rebuilding my life on a practical level. That means making new friends, exploring new interests and finding new weekend activities that don’t involve hopping on a plane. That means making a commitment to one city, one apartment, and one nuclear community. That also means buying normal-sized bottles of shampoo and olive oil and possibly even…furniture. It means learning to wrangle the constant urge to pack up and leave with the slightest discomfort or scent of new adventure. If only they made a nicotine or halfway house for travel cessation, hey?

Inner space explorer

Ariana Huffington says that life is a dance between making things happen and letting things happen”. I have been an Olympic pro at making things happen but not so stellar at letting things happen. It might be a symptom of the an inflated sense of agency, but actively letting things happen is also just a terrifying act of surrender, regardless. At least we have pretty boy Ashton Kutcher’s reassuring words: “As long as you’re uncomfortable, it means you’re growing.”

The irony is real because traveling, in its nature, is uncomfortable at best. But the discomfort and growth that come as a result of travel are both by choice and control. At least that’s what I tell myself. Being uncomfortable because you’re taking the passenger seat to life is a whole different ballgame that I’m not very experienced in.

But I am feeling the call of a mission that requires me to trust the process and be okay with letting the cards fall as they may. It’s a new mission to be present and intentional in everything I do, instead of just checking off experiences like notches on my belt. I am craving quieter moments instead of extreme adventures; simple pleasures instead of gluttonous thrills; and reserving time to hear my own voice instead of constantly filling my space with noise from others. It’s a slower, less glamorous calling than life on the road, but it is one that I hope will be even more rewarding.

The greatest lessons gained from travel usually come to light long after the trip is over. They come when you can step back, look at the bigger picture and start connecting the dots. I’ve seen so much, learned so much, and experienced so much over the years that it’s time to start on my bigger picture. Like any artist, I will put in the patience to purposefully practice, tweak and iterate my life craft until I feel it’s a proper representation of my story. I will build roots, grow down, and look within as I begin the next great adventure: my inner space odyssey.

This piece was originally published on Medium

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