Chapter 3: The Blank Spaces on the Map

Why I Almost Decided to Come Home Early from My Carefree Backpacking Trip

I wrote this October 27, 2015, when I was on the brink of buying a plane ticket back home.  I didn’t end up buying it, not because the reasoning I give below isn’t valid, but rather because I couldn’t imagine what I would be doing at home that would be more worthwhile than what I’m doing here.  I decided to post this anyway because travel is not just a string of picturesque moments in exotic places.  Like any other lifestyle, it comes with its own complications.

I’m writing this because I want to remember how I feel right now–and how I’ve felt for the past two months.  I don’t want to look back at my beautiful pictures of places most people I know will never see and question my decision.  I want to tell my future self that this is the right decision, and no amount of hanging on until the next sunset, the next city, the next culture would fulfill my dreams.

From the very start, something was off about my trip.  At first, I thought it was the clash of mine and my sister’s travel styles.  Then, I thought it was because I was unfairly comparing a completely different region to what I love about Latin America.  Or maybe it was because Europe was so dang expensive.  Or the feeling that every picture I took had been taken millions of times before.

By the time I moved on to Morocco, things should have been better.  The culture is radically different from anything I’ve ever experienced, and I went from paying $30 for a Parisian hostel bed one night to paying $5 for a Moroccan one the next.  I met a different class of travelers; rather than recent graduates hitting up the tourist pubs of Europe on a tight schedule, they were fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants people who genuinely enjoy soaking up the culture and sun.

The novelty of a new country wore off after a couple of days and it became a chore again to present an always-happy/active persona to the strangers I find myself constantly surrounded by.  I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not getting anywhere or forming any meaningful connections.

DSCF2319I’m going to make an unfair comparison with my year-long study abroad in Costa Rica, but I believe it is entirely valid.  This kind of travel is like having a lot of hookups after a loving long-term relationship.  In Costa Rica, it took some time, but I gradually fell in love as I got to know more of its quirks, learned to speak its language, and invested in living, learning, and loving there.  Backpacking feels like one meaningless hookup after another as I hop from country to country, barely learning to say “thank you” in the local language before I go.  Sure, some countries are more exciting than others and there are highlight moments, but when it’s all over, it didn’t really mean anything, and I don’t know any of them in the intimate manner I knew Costa Rica, or in a more general sense, Latin America.  I could stay in one place, maybe work on a farm, but even one or two months is nothing compared to what I’ve had before.  Something like that is at the same time too much commitment, and not enough.

Compound that with the post-grad disorientation, and I feel lost.  I quickly realized that taking a year off before grad school was a mistake and at the last-minute coordinated turning in a scholarship application with my mom and professor from overseas.  That was complicated, and I don’t want to continue trying to do grad school prep in that manner.  The official reason I’ll give for going home is to submit applications on time–a perfectly respectable and mature justification.  But between you and me, dear readers, it’s much more complicated than that.

Backpacking is a legitimate lifestyle, but know that it isn’t for everyone.  I’ve met people who love it: people who have fallen in love with someone across cultures, people who go around teaching yoga in all corners of the spherical world, people who are truly nomadic, people who have found a way to carve out a life with only a backpack.  I thought I could do it. I don’t mind cold showers, a limited wardrobe, crowded unair-conditioned buses, cultural confusion, strange foods, or 18-bed dorms with triple bunks.  I wouldn’t mind the discomforts of the road if I had a home base, or at least a purpose.  I don’t want life to be about collecting experiences, as if I’m checking off a list.  For me, life is in that which takes a long time to develop: relationships, connections, intimate knowledge of a land.  As much as I hate planning and am wary of commitment, I’m becoming more convinced that both are crucial to seeing the depth of life.

(Added Oct. 30)  I will never travel like this again.  I will never again have absolutely no obligations or responsibilities.  I’m going to take this one day at a time and save the planning and evaluating for later.  I’m here, so might as well ride out the wave.


8 thoughts on “Why I Almost Decided to Come Home Early from My Carefree Backpacking Trip

  1. I get what you mean. Sometimes..there is such a thing as too much travelling i guess. When it should be about getting excited about a new place..instead it just become like a chore of item you ticked off your list .

  2. I get what you mean. I tried doing backpacking after graduating college and it just felt… weirdly meaningless. Yeah, kind of like random hookups after a long meaningful relationship.

    Now the rule is I have to stay in a location for at least a week (max 3 weeks) – just… living. Trying to get a glimpse into what it would be like if I actually lived there. Working on farms, travelling on boats, fishing, holing up in a different coffee shop/cafe every day to work while meeting strangers. I enjoy that SO much more.

    PS – good luck on grad school applications!

    1. Exactly–I’ve finally stayed somewhere for a week and I’m starting to feel like myself again. It’s nice to know the lay of the land and have the leisure to lounge around a bit. And thanks! I’ll probably need that luck!

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