Long-term travel is a challenge for anyone, no matter how right the decision is for them. Being homesick isn’t a sign of failure or not being cut out for a travel life, it just shows you’re human.
You might meet a friend for life when travelling, but they’re more likely to be “single-serving friends.” People there at the right time and the right place, but who don’t carry into your future.
It’s a Casablanca “We’ll always have Paris” kinda deal. There are places I now recall and a person’s face comes to mind. They helped make it magic for a moment in time, but will they be a contact for years to come? Good question.
Lonely in a Crowd
With that fleeting friendship and travel comes an isolation and loneliness that’s hard to define. It’s not like you’re shackled in some lonely mountain camp, no humans for miles. It’s the opposite. You’re incredibly immersed in life, surrounded by experiences and meaningful moments – but most belong to other people. Often you’re a spectator to other people’s lives — both as you travel, and through social media with loved ones at home. Seldom are you actually a part of the happening.
Travelling is like being in an suspended state above a world that doesn’t need you for it to function. We’re irrelevant as we travel. The world goes on without us, whether we join it or not. It’s amazing to get to be that spectator, but that “irrelevant cog in the wheel of life” feeling can gnaw at us.
It’s important, then, to remember that everything comes to an end, even this chapter of travel. Few people ever get to experience prolonged journeys of devouring the world. Don’t let a bit of homesickness and isolation spoil this adventure for you. It’s okay to push people and obligations out of your mind if it’s what gets you through.
Here are truths and methods I adhere to in battling homesickness:
Family Photos Can Be a Bad Trigger
Yes, you love your family as much as I do, but if your first reaction is heartbreak when you see family photos because you’re so far from home, that’s a problem. Don’t make them your wallpaper or lock-screen image.
Instead, choose an amazing photo from your adventure that reminds you of how incredible this experience is. For me, it was a photo of a beach in Portugal that made me realize how fortunate I was to have this chance, and I promised myself then that nothing would cause me to blow it. Nine months later, it’s still my lockscreen. Even if my niece is a cutie-patootie.
Keepsakes Can Save You Sometimes
Have personal mementos with you that you can turn to in needy moments. I have three. One is my trusty plush sasquatch, Quaatchi. When the Paris attacks happened last November, Quatchi was squished to death and soaked with tears in my homesickness. Second is my dead mother’s passport, which travels with me in my backpack. Now she’s taking the adventures she always wanted. The third is a wallet-sized photo of my Mom and Dad from before they were married, when their lives were ahead of them. Dad’s still alive, but he’d kill to be on my adventure, and every new place I visit is somewhere else he can brag about to his Bingo buddies.
Comfort Food = Mm, Mm, Good!
Remember: You have NOTHING to prove. Are you tired of ethnic cuisine in the country you’re in? Will another bowl of Pho in Ho Chi Minh be the straw on the homesick camel’s back? Is schnitzel and spaetzle all getting to be too much? It’s really okay to Google for a Burger King or go all out for an Italian restaurant. Whatever it takes to make you feel like you’re not so far away – do that. And screw your friends back home who mock you for eating a hamburger in Mexico or Chinese in Croatia. Why should you only allowed comfort foods when you’re at home? Right now, you have no home. Last night I ate the entire package of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese that made me gasp when I saw it in a Mexican grocery store. Eating it felt like a BIG HUG.
DON’T JUDGE ME.
Culture Can Take You Home
Many big cities have English-language movies. Lots of countries use subtitles in their language with the English audio intact. (Beware: This means any scenes subtitled in the English version will be changed to the language of the country you’re in. Like the Chinese scientist scene in The Martian was titled in English for my friends at home. When I saw it in Zagreb, they had Croatian subtitles over that Chinese sequence.)
Checking out movies or seeing bands can be a great way to break the funk.
Love music? Create an email account for all the bands you’ve ever loved – sign up to all their mailing lists and keep an eye on where they’ll be. Maybe you’ll catch Florence + The Machine in Dusseldorf. Or perhaps you’ll catch the Foo Fighters in France. Who knows? It’s a fun side thing to do and I bet you won’t be homesick when you’re bragging that you’ve met new Foo Fans on the Riviera!
Hostels Mean Community
When you’re really hitting a funky stretch and don’t want to be alone anymore, find a well-regarded hostel to stay in for 2-3 nights. Some sites rate hostels for everything from cleanliness to “party factor” and community. Look for really social hostels with great common areas that allow for mingling. Don’t bring a book to the common area and don’t wear headphones. Make sure it’s obvious you’re open to engagement. If you’ve got flexibility with your travels, maybe you’ll connect with folks open to you tagging along for a bit. Or maybe three days in a hostel will remind you why you love to travel alone. It goes both ways.
Reach Out on Social Media
Let friends and family know you’re feeling a bit homesick. Tell them you need encouragement to stick it through. Don’t be embarrassed to admit it. You’d be surprised how many travellers know exactly how you feel – even people who’ve never been away more than a month.
Maybe they’ll tell you stories, or prop you up, or send photos, or video call you. If you’re in a particularly rough stretch, consider making video-chat dates with a number of people in your life. Plan ahead for Facetime or Skype calls, one a night for a few days. It’ll give you something to look forward to and will break up the monotony of all-by-myselfness.
Often, when I’m in the dumps, just getting out and wandering somewhere will remind me of how lucky I am. I will wander the city then find a café and write for awhile. Being in that moment and tapping into the gratitude for having that opportunity can jar you out of a funk. And if that fails, there’s always chocolate.
Plan More Travel
It sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes the expectation and anticipation of planning The Next Chapter can really lift you. The research, the possibility, the unexpected chances – they’re very powerful emotions to channel. Go with it. Don’t be afraid of going down the travel rabbithole. Go ask Alice how she likes diving into an unknown rabbithole of travel. Be like Alice. (Pro tip: The red pill makes you small.)
Bust Out the Fat Pants and Netflix
You could just be burned out. Guess what? It’s okay to decide to take a couple extra weeks in a safe, non-spectacular city for nothingness. Hole up inside with easy meals, a Netflix series, and bedhead. Recharge your batteries. Apologize to no one. Don’t take the guilt from anyone on social media life wondering why you’re not seeing All The Things/Doing All The Places. Chill, Winston. You have more travel ahead of you and your body needs a break. Maybe your brain needs to process all the awesome you’ve encountered and file it away before you can cram more awesome in. That’s all right. Make space for more awesome!
“Once In a Lifetime” Usually Really is “Once”
I’m in my 40s, older than the average long-term traveller tends to be, and I’m here to tell you: This is a rare, amazing opportunity. You may never have this chance again. It sounds cliché, but real life does intervene and whatever plans you think you have for the future, they’re no guarantees. Don’t let that homesick feeling win.
All my 19-year-old life-planning was for naught. My life went in directions I never saw coming. As ill fortune interceded, my dreams of Tuscany and Morocco evaporated. My dream adventures became more and more unlikely until I sold everything to chase them at 42. If your luck detours at all, it can come with mounting debt and challenges you can’t fathom. If so, travel may be out of reach for years, or maybe forever.
Do not let this time go by. Stop. Netflix, read, or sleep for days, if recharging is needed. But don’t give up. See this dream through. Change locations if you hate it. Do everything to suck the marrow from this chance.
Homesickness is okay. Embrace it. Cry a little. Awesome will return. The world’ll be right outside your door again tomorrow.