The Unglamorous Side of Being a World Traveler
“I wish I could travel all the time – it seems like a dream come true!“
I read something along these lines on Quora the other day, and all I could think while reading it is that while travel is one of the most worthwhile things I've done in my life, travelling ALL THE TIME is actually… sometimes… a bit of a nightmare.
Today marks the end of over 9 months of non-stop, intensive travel and I'm exhausted. I've been looking forward to this day of being able to sleep in one bed, shower in the same shower, and have the same living space (for at least a few consecutive weeks), for months!
So no, travelling all the time is not the wonderful life people dream it up to be, and it's one that I'm very glad to be finished with for quite a while. Now I'm back to slow travel mode, which in my opinion is the best way to do it. And now that I have the time to write again, I would love to share this weird new experience with you all, and hopefully show you some things about settled life that I've really missed during my intensive travels, and that you should remember to appreciate if you are one of the many people leading a settled life.
That's right, there are a lot of great things about a settled life that you may be taking for granted! Today, let me show you the side of constant travel that glamorous accounts of it (and my instagram photos) never clue you into.
Check-out, rush, travel, check-in, rush, collapse, rinse and repeat
We have been on the road all year long, travelling Japan at first, and then promoting language learning by encouraging people in person, while promoting my Harper-Collins published book. Since people live in many cities, I had a lot of places to visit! We've done pretty much all major cities across the UK & Ireland, some stops in mainland Europe and then spent all summer covering 25 American states and 3 Canadian provinces.
When you have a purpose on your trip, everything else takes a second-seat. Maybe you travel to take nice photos, or to sightsee. Maybe you have lots of friends to meet, or parties/festivals to attend. In my case, this year was exclusively to meet struggling and aspiring language learners and try to give them some inspiration. Bookstores gave me venues to do this.
Since this was the purpose in each city, I wouldn't really have time to do anything else. In America especially, we've usually had 3-6 hour drives between cities, which already takes huge chunks of time out of the day.
The “routine” Lauren and I have had for months has been to wake up, find whatever food we can for breakfast, sometimes not eating until the afternoon, rush to check out and usually only have time to drop our stuff in the car (rather than pack it properly so things would be easier to find), have an incredibly boring long drive (with Christian rock or country music as the only stations a lot of the time), arrive just in time for a book signing (GPS or not, problems while travelling will arise), where I'd rush in and likely be hungry and tired but have to put that aside because many people there have themselves driven hours for that meet-up. Then I give a presentation and answer questions to satisfy up to 100 people at a time (here's how typical book signings went), then find whatever food is nearby, then check in to somewhere else, then collapse in bed.
Having that routine for a couple of days would be annoying, weeks would be exhausting, but we've had it for months and are done.
Wonderful things settled people take for granted
One of the rare times Lauren and I got to break our routine this year was in Portland, OR. We joined in on a yoga world record, and of course it was a lot of fun. These are the snapshots you see intensive travellers like me posting to Facebook or Instagram… not the many hours of sitting in cars or not having clean laundry.
While such snapshots may look like travel is a non-stop adventure, they tend to be outnumbered by more and more frustrating moments the faster you travel.
We've gotten jealous of many things that settled people take for granted that we miss like:
- Having friends you know and can rely on to meet up with
- Knowing the area you live in, and where good food is
- Better yet, eating home-cooked food, or even being able to buy perishables
- Being a “regular” and not being a stranger to everyone you meet
- Waking up in the morning and not knowing for a few moments where you are or what language you should be speaking
- Being a part of clubs, sports teams, meet-up groups, singing groups, having consistent access to yoga or dance classes
- Not having to check in and out of your home (temporary as it may be) on a daily basis.
- If you're tired, then knowing that this thing called a “weekend” is coming up where you can catch up on sleep… or at least unwind with something you know you can find easily
- Basic things that you need or even like suddenly becoming an uncertainty, like finding good wifi, vegetarian food, coffee, drinking water, a comfy bed, a quiet place to work
- The ability to know with relative certainty how your day is going to look, and to plan around that
- The time and means to take a shower, do laundry, get a haircut, repair a broken device, Skype or write to friends and family, go to a supermarket, and even to just stop and read a book for more than 10 minutes
- Being able to receive mail and packages
- Feeling at home and like you belong somewhere and are not just a passer through with superficial knowledge of your surroundings.
You can't always be “on” – you have to take a break from appreciating where you are
Plus, being a tourist every day is just not the ideal way to live your life. The novelty of being somewhere new and meeting new people wears off quickly, and you start to crave aspects of settled life, and try to use whatever time you can to get a glimpse of aspects of what you have been missing- like sitting on a sofa and reading a book- which of course takes time away from exploring where you are. I would have loved to have seen more sights in great cities like Nashville and Chicago… in theory. But during the few days I had there, what I really wanted to do in my few hours of spare time was go home and maybe wind down with some Breaking Bad.
I remember when I hosted Couchsurfers in Prague – a small group on a break from college. They had been on a 2-month Euro trip and Prague was one of their last stops. Prague is of course an amazing city with culture, architecture, fascinating people and a wonderful city centre to explore. I asked them what they did when they got home from the first day out and they said that they hung out in a Starbucks and went to the cinema to see Transformers!
At the time I was really disappointed in them to have wasted their chance in this city, but realistically they had seen so many “old buildings” over 8 weeks that all the sights started to blend together and they couldn't appreciate them any more. They had spent months walking around cobble stone streets and had been worn out. They just wanted a piece of home.
On my own trip, people have asked me what I saw in Kentucky, if I've explored Tennessee, if I've sampled the food in South Carolina, or if I took the time for a quick day trip to see something wonderful in Illinois. Sometimes we could fit in some sightseeing, but many times my answer was a very boring “We finally found a laundromat and cleaned our clothes!” or “I took the whole day to catch up on my email backlog” – things that simply have to get done eventually, and if you travel all the time then you will be wasting the opportunity to be in somewhere interesting when you have to catch up on essentials.
The day-to-day stuff like having a doctor's visit, catching up on family photos on Facebook (or Whatsapp), or anything I've listed above – people just take these things for granted. But ultimately, there are highs and lows to any lifestyle.
Rapid travel is expensive
One of the biggest disadvantages of a fast travel lifestyle though is the cost.
This has been the most expensive year of my life, with petrol/gas money (in America, public transport is the worst I've seen in any first-world country, so car rental is essential), single night stays, eating out way too often (we prefer to eat in and cook, but if you have a 6 hour drive in Florida heat, you can't quite store food in the car…).
As well as the speed, the choice of countries for me this year was among the worst you can possibly pick if you don't want your wallet to hurt; Japan, the UK and America are really not so budget-travel friendly compared to other places!
I've had month-long intensive travels through countries like Italy and India and it's set me back dramatically less. Even so, rapid travel expenses are one reason why many people think travel in general is not affordable. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The highs and lows
This year has been a rollercoaster of experiences, with many crazy fun adventures, with a lot of very long, dull drives, meeting old friends, making a few new ones, and staying in more places than I can ever remember.
Here is a behind-the-scenes look at some of my lower moments from the last 8 months of non-stop travel:
- Eating pizza every day for longer than I want to admit.
During one leg of the trip, we were so busy and in desperate need to catch up on work, that when we had the chance to stay in one place for several days, we didn't leave the house and lived off delivery pizzas. I'm not proud. In this place, I had so little time I didn't even make the time to find an alternative plug for the coffee maker and it stayed on the floor!
- “Recycling” dirty clothes
And going several days without a shower or shaving, more than once, due to lack of time from needing to hit the road.
- Logistical nightmares
About three times, I drove toward the venue for a book signing, eagerly ready to encourage language learners, and been told by the book store that they “forgot” I was coming, had no place for me to talk to people, and had none of my books on hand. Don't worry, though, after that happened the first time, I always carried extra books in the car 😉
- Getting stranded and explaining myself to the law
In Japan, when we arrived at our temporary accommodation, we could not get in and ended up lying on the ground in the hall in the winter at 11pm. Then we had the police arrive and ask me to give a statement… in broken Japanese.
- Forgetting to account for jetlag
I had the genius (?) idea of arriving from Tokyo into L.A. with 16 hours jetlag, then hopping in a car and driving 8 hours a day for 3 days in a row all the way to Texas. To say that I was grumpy doesn't begin to cover it.
- Discovering work disasters in the middle of a book signing
On one of the most intensive travel days with hours of driving, I had a splitting headache, but put all my energy into encouraging a very enthusiastic crowd who showed up for a signing. When I took 2 minutes to myself to splash my face with water and check my email, I saw that my site was down AND someone was spoofing my email address (both are now fixed though!) However, when people get spammed they can reply with pretty cruel words, whether you actually spammed them or not, and I had to sift several hundred venomous emails out of my inbox over the next days.
- That time I went deaf
In Germany, I went partially deaf in both ears and I had to scramble to find a doctor. The crappy one I went to told me I needed surgery if I ever wanted to hear again. I was, you might imagine, upset. Luckily a second opinion in America found that it was just an allergic reaction, gave me some pills, and I was fine a few days later. Phew!
- Feeling constantly a mess
I only travel with 23kg of stuff, but I haven't been able to fully unpack my bag for months (Why unpack fully if you are only staying for a night or two?) – everything just gets thrown into the bag, and then I keep wishing I could unpack and arrange my things to be able to find smaller items easier. I've re-purchased wires and other electronics I thought I had lost only to find them a week later in the depths of my bag!
- Killing 47 cockroaches
This actually happened during my book launch! We had been waiting months for a 3-week stay in Austin, Texas for the SxSW festival last March, where I launched my book. We arrived and within 5 minutes discovered a massive cockroach infestation. I had to kill and dispose of forty seven roaches. Our bags stayed packed and on top of the sofas for the entire stay and we couldn't use the kitchen or hang out in the living room. We were trapped there, since you can't get last-minute accommodation during the SxSW festival that would be convenient without paying over 10k.
THIS is a more accurate description of what constant travel really looks like. A lot of chaos, a lot of unexpected changes to your itinerary, and occasionally some cockroaches.
But don't get me wrong. I remember all the time that I am a very lucky guy indeed that I get to lead the life I do, and I'm very happy to share with you some of the great times I've had during these 8 months of intensive travel:
- Spending a friends weekend off in Las Vegas with Steve, Matt, Liam, Sean and several others. One definite advantage to touring the states was getting to meetup with friends who live in all its different corners!
- Meeting Lauren's family in Maryland and going tubing on the same lake they'd go to as a family when she was a child. I was the only one in the group who could not be knocked off of the tube at full-speed 😀
- Meeting so many language learners and hearing their inspirational stories and kind words. While some events went less than ideally, the vast majority of my book signings were standing room only, with very warm receptions by bookstore staff, and amazing experiences that I feel honoured to have participated in. I got to see my book and all this hard work pay off, as it became an international best seller and was on shelves in even random bookstores I walked into.
- Eating new foods I'd never tried like Cuban food, southern biscuits (very different from European biscuits) and simply all the days when we weren't in a hurry, and Lauren and I just hung out and explored.
- Some amazing media and TV appearances like on RTE , Bloomberg, BBC and on ABC's Daytime
- Going to Harry Potter world in Universal Studios, and drinking a butter beer!
- Hanging out with Tim Doner, him taking me to his favourite bookstore (Strand) and randomly seeing over a dozen copies of my book featured very prominently! Seeing this in a prominent bookstore in New York City was a big deal for me.
- Beautiful scenery. America can be really beautiful. On a very long drive one day, the dullness of the drive changed when a storm was brewing ahead of me. The sunset against the clouds formed a gorgeous orange tint and then lightning struck between the clouds (not down to the ground). It was quite a sight.
In any lifestyle you will have highs and lows. I think the unpredictability of a travel lifestyle brings in way more avenues for variation, and as such you'll have more of both. Being in new places gives you the chance to live new experiences.
But in my opinion, there is one way to make it lean way more towards positive experiences than negative ones:
The only travel lifestyle I'd recommend
While this post may seem like a negative view on travel, as many of you know, I've been on the road for over 11 years and have learned so much from this amazing opportunity. The last 9 months however have been unique in that I've been moving every other day all year long, with just a couple of rare stays lasting an entire week or two.
This is in stark contrast to the majority of the decade before this where I would stay in the one place for 3 months, living in the same accommodation and getting to know the one city, people and language well.
I generally consider myself a “slow traveller”, and this is the kind of travel I recommend. I've lived in 23 countries over the last 11 years – this isn't a huge number considering the amount of time spent travelling, but it has given me really good time in each country.
To me, three month stays are in the “Goldilock's zone” of not too short a time in a country as to get sick of travel, and not too long in a country as to not need to worry about visas and to get enough time to really feel like you've seen it, while still being mobile enough to experience multiple countries.
Remember to appreciate the charms of settled life
Despite the struggles of the fast-travel lifestyle I'm ready to leave behind, I really do always keep things in perspective and recognize that I'm lucky to have the life I do, no matter how many days it's been since I've washed my clothes.
And I would suggest to you to do the same.
I hear all the time, “Benny, you're living the dream life!” … but to be honest, in a lot ways this year, I have been jealous of YOU living a settled life! It's true! So don't take for granted that you get to have a “regular” breakfast place, or a weekly trivia night, or friends down the street you can call on a random Tuesday to go out for an orange juice. I look forward to that being part of my adventure some day!
For the next years though, Lauren and I are back into slow-travel mode and staying in places for weeks or months at a time. I'll always be travelling, even if eventually I have the same base for several months each year. This constant travel thing isn't for me though!
I'm glad I got to see so many places in the last 9 months, but now we are ready to unpack our bags, really feel at home, catch up on a huge list of errands, launch a new look to this site (more on that later!), go dancing, and I'll be able to explore Cajun French too! I'm also glad to report that there are no cockroaches in our place in New Orleans 🙂