Long-Term Travel: 6 Tips for Mental Health

First, a quick note: I’m posting over at Turtleduck Press this week, talking about the “ooh, shiny!” of gardening and what happens when the initial obsession wears off.

Second, this is a travel post week. If you haven’t noticed, I’m alternating travel posts and general life posts on Wednesdays. Mondays are still for books and other media, and sometimes you get a bonus on Fridays with WANAFriday posts.

Last time we talked about planning for a long-term trip. This week, I’m moving on to what happens when you’re out there.

Your intrepid correspondent in the Malaysian jungle

Your intrepid correspondent in the Malaysian jungle

Long-term travel might sound like a dream come true, and in many ways it is. But it’s also exhausting, like running a marathon (er, not that I’ve done that…). If you’re travelling with a companion, you’ll want to avoid murdering each other. If you’re travelling alone, you’ll cope with loneliness at some point.

Here’s how we dealt with these challenges.

1. Have an idea of your travel style before you start…

Auto-rickshaw in Agra, India

Auto-rickshaw in Agra, India

For example:

  • We knew we didn’t want to go hostelling — been there, done that, wanted a room and preferably a shower to ourselves — but we didn’t need an international hotel chain to feel comfortable. We didn’t know at first where between those two extremes we would fall.
  • We knew we were okay with cheap-to-midrange restaurants, but wanted to avoid street food for the most part.
  • We wanted to take public or cheap transportation, but in relative comfort — in India that meant trains and auto-rickshaws rather than buses.
  • We identified the sorts of activities and sights we were most interested in — mainly seeing temples, forts, and other old buildings, but also some light adventure tourism and hiking, and just soaking up the feel of a place.

2. …But adjust your plans and standards as you go.

Breakfast area for our guesthouse in Kuala Lumpur

Breakfast area for our guesthouse in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

In Malaysia, our first guesthouse was a super friendly, family-run place…where the AC ran only at night, showers were shared (and out on the balcony!), and breakfast was DIY cereal. In India, our second guesthouse was another super friendly place in a historic home…where our 950-rupee ($20) room was right behind reception, so we could hear loud conversations for 16 hours a day, plus the attached bathroom was in a closet under the stairs, and the rooftop restaurant made all the construction noises from the back sound even louder.

In both cases, we decided to raise our rates a little and get a bit more comfort next time. (For this reason, we didn’t pre-book all of our accommodation.) We still stayed in family-run guesthouses that were a little rough around the edges, but that was part of the fun. We ended up paying about $30 a night (for two people) in Malaysia and Thailand, and $20-30 a night in India.

Conversely, by the end of our India and Nepal stint, I found myself getting a lot more comfortable with public squat toilets than I ever imagined I would. Turns out they are scary and gross, but nothing I couldn’t deal with.

Remember you’re in a very different country and culture. Practise being flexible!

3. Pace yourself…

Amer Fort near Jaipur. Amazing? Yes. But after six of them in a row? Maybe a little less amazing.

Amer Fort near Jaipur, India. Amazing? Yes. But after six forts like this in three weeks? Maybe a little less amazing.

If you’re measuring your travel in months rather than weeks, you can’t expect to see four sights every day and a new city every two days…you’ll burn yourself out! So mix heavy sightseeing days with quiet days, especially:

  • when you first get to a country — give yourself around 5 days to orient yourself in your first location, do a little sightseeing, and get used to the unique challenges of that country
  • after you’ve been doing a lot of sightseeing — give yourself at least 1 day of downtime
  • after you’ve been travelling for a while — give yourself 3-7 days of just vegging out in relative comfort

4. …And don’t try to see everything.

Six weeks in India might sound like a lot of time, but trust me, it’s not. You can’t see everything in a country. You probably can’t even see all the sights in a given city without burning yourself out after three cities. (Ask me how I know.)

So don’t try. See what you can, see what you’re interested in, see what you have time and energy for. It’s okay to let the rest go.

5. Know yourself and your needs…

Bukit Bintang 2

Open-air restaurant area in Kuala Lumpur — fascinating, delicious, and overwhelming

My travelling companion and I are both introverts, and Asia can be an assault on the senses (sometimes all five of them at once). We found we needed a lot of downtime (see #3). We also needed quiet spaces and solitude — another reason we didn’t want to go hostelling. So we spent a fair amount of time in our hotel rooms, on our respective netbooks. This confused people sometimes, but we were a lot saner for it. We even spent a few days apart, doing separate things.

On the other hand, when I went to Norway and later Ireland as a solo traveller, I got very lonely sometimes — even though I loved how liberating it felt (and yes, even though I’m an introvert). So if you’re travelling alone, you might need to seek out people. Hostelling is a great way to do this because there are lots of solo travellers. You’ll always meet people in the mornings and/or evenings. Sometimes you’ll even find travelling companions for part of your trip.

And yes, paying attention to your needs might mean you buy a hamburger once in a while because you miss Western food. That’s okay too.

6. …But stretch your comfort zone.

Deep-fried tofu in Bangkok -- yes, we ate street food after all!

Deep-fried tofu in Bangkok, Thailand — yes, we ate street food after all!

What is travelling for, if not for getting out of your comfortable routine and being open to new experiences — really living? Of course you’ll want to keep safety in mind. But being unsafe and being uncomfortable are not the same thing. Do try the squat toilets…or try the street food…or try haggling…or try ziplining. (We did all of those things — click through to read more.) Maybe you’ll love it!

You’re still going to be exhausted and overwhelmed and homesick at various points. That’s part of travelling, too. But if you follow these tips, you’ll enjoy yourself more and be less stressed.

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21 responses to “Long-Term Travel: 6 Tips for Mental Health

  1. Love these tips! It certainly can be very tiring but awesome at the same time.

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. Gingamusings, thanks for the kind words! “Tiring but awesome” is a good way of putting it. πŸ™‚

  3. Great tips, Siri! I totally agree with all of them, even for shorter trips. The longest I’ve been traveling for was three weeks and we covered a lot of cities in Europe during that time. I was glad I built in a few mellow days, but in retrospect, I would have cut out one of the cities and spent more time exploring the others.

  4. Yeah, I agree with all of this. It’s especially important to pace yourself – taking a down day sitting in a cafe or similar makes ALL the difference! And there are always laundry days; the key is to accept them for what they are and not fret that it’s ‘wasting time’!

    I chuckled when you said ‘try a squat toilet’ – because sometimes there simply isn’t an option! Ditto drop toilets in places like Nepal. Ugh. Talk about outside the comfort zone. I’ve never had so many toilet discussions as when travelling in Nepal. πŸ™‚

  5. Great tips. Tried squat toilets twice. Never again unless on a wilderness journey. And I agree about the hotel thing — don’t go the cheap route just to go the cheap route. If you’re not rested, the trip can go down the drain fast. Liked that you did it in a list. I need to get back to list posts.

  6. Tami, it’s tough to go against the urge to see everything because this might be your only chance, but totally worth it! I agree, even three-week trips need downtime built in.

    Ellen, good point about the toilets, especially in Nepal! Maybe I should have said “accept the squat toilets”. πŸ˜‰

    Julie, as you can tell, I have trouble doing lists without massive rambling! But it still helps to organize one’s thoughts and visually break up the post.

  7. Good photos! One of the things I’ve run across (oddly, in a book on introverts) is to also not go to the tourist places. Sometimes the most interesting things are not the big tourist areas. When people come to Washington, DC, I always take them to the George Washington Masonic Temple in Alexandria. It’s not high on the tourist list, but everyone finds it a fascinating place to go because of the history with the first president.

  8. Linda, thanks for the compliment! Great tip, too. I’m actually planning a post on a related topic. Some of the most fun we had was (a) finding lesser-known sights and (b) not sightseeing at all, but just wandering around.

  9. There’s so much common sense here. I don’t travel much, but will hang on to your guidelines to make things more manageable when I do.

  10. Thank you, Liv! Common sense can be hard to remember when you’re out there, so good on you for thinking ahead.

  11. Some great advice here. I think my first trip to Norway might’ve started out more smoothly if I’d been more aware of some of these things.

  12. Mike, it took me a lot of trial, error, and practice to get to this point!

  13. I’m sure. I know I learned a lot just on my first trip that helped me out on the other two I made over there πŸ™‚

  14. Man, we were only at Disney World a week, but we had to learn this lesson! Each day we got to the parks a little later, or willingly left a little earlier, and on the last day we didn’t go to a park–just took off for the ocean. We really wanted to go, but another draw was that we’d spend an hour each way sitting in a car not having to walk anywhere!

  15. KD, I can well imagine that after a week at Disney World, you’d want a break and a different kind of sightseeing!

  16. Great advice! If I am ever able to travel like I would like to, I’ll take it πŸ™‚

  17. Kim, always best to be prepared! Though as others have mentioned, the same tips apply to short-term and closer-to-home travel, too. πŸ˜‰

  18. I traveled with one person who was a five-star backpacker while I was a five-star hotel princess. We compromised and did no-star hostels on one trip, but never again for me! Your tips about not trying to see everything are good. You can make yourself crazy by running around to see everything, then miss the quaint things that happen right in front of you as you race by.

  19. Janice, yes, travel compatability is so important! On a recent family trip we had an epic battle between the early birds and the night owls. Tricky to navigate for sure.

  20. Your experience shines through here. And I definitely agree with getting lonely. *nod*

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