Travel blogs, social media posts, photo captions, in-person conversations; whenever we talk about travel, it seems like we always choose to only focus on the good.
We take off on adventures and later glorify our experiences, portraying them as amazing and magical from start to finish. This sort of romanticisation doesn’t do justice to the difficult and uncomfortable nature of travel. We too often neglect to share our experience in its entirety, only selectively choosing to recognize the existence of anything undesirable. I am undeniably guilty of it; but now, I hope to acknowledge the truth as best I can.
Travel is hard. Not the decision to go or finding the opportunity, but the act itself. It’s intense, exhausting, and both mentally and emotionally draining. It bombards you with challenges, many of which you genuinely don’t feel you can overcome. However, ask us about our trip and it’s the highlights and successes that you will hear all about.
We tend not to mention the doubts and insecurities that plague us before we leave; the ball of fear in the pit of our stomach that tries to convince us that we’ve made a terrible mistake; or the heartache of saying goodbye over and over again.
We gloss over the crippling homesickness and the intensely confronting culture shock. We dismiss the alienation and loneliness that you feel from being so far away from everything that you know. All of that is forgotten, while the rest of the experience is lauded as the epitome of what travel is. While we may brag about how rewarding our experiences are, those rewards usually come at a price. It’s a price I am more than willing to pay, but one that must be acknowledged.
We do occasionally talk about the challenges we face while abroad, but usually only in terms of what we’ve gained from them. While this IS a part of the truth, we need to recognise the often devastating lows we may have had to endure in order to later grow from such experiences. Perhaps a bit more honesty in the way we talk about our adventures would better prepare travellers for the journey ahead; especially so for those who haven’t travelled before.
Being more candid would certainly help normalise the storm of confronting emotion that inevitably envelopes you before you leave. We’d be able to recognise this pre-travel anxiety for what it is, and know that it’s totally normal. We’d also be more mentally prepared to take on the difficult challenges with the confidence of knowing that in the end, we’ll get through them just as others have.
It would be comforting to realise that everyone experiences these things, and we’d have the reassurance of knowing that travel isn’t always supposed to be glamorous. Pretending that those darker moments were somehow enjoyable is a little insane. I’d much rather recount precisely what happened and exactly the way it made me feel, and be able to look back and truly appreciate how far I’ve come since.
For me, one of the hardest parts about living in a new country is trying to build some sort of social structure. It’s the little things that we usually don’t pay attention to that are nevertheless vital in making you feel at home. Developing regular friendships, settling into comfortable habits, finding favourite food places to frequent and local haunts where you feel welcome; all the personal touches in an unfamiliar environment. It’s exceptionally tough to have to rebuild it all from scratch. Although I’ve become much better at it with time, it’s something that I really struggled with when I went on exchange to England.
At first, it was the little things bothered me; feeling lost because I didn’t know how much things were supposed to cost, or not knowing where to get good cheap comfort food. (I was devastated to find that the fish and chips in Exeter were not only dry and grey, but also crazy expensive. Such a let down!).
But it ran much deeper than that. As time went on, I often felt like there wasn’t anyone I interacted with that later wanted to spend more time with me. Even amongst other internationals, I regularly felt alienated and very lonely. I wondered what I could possibly do differently to make people want to be around me more often, because being myself felt like it would never be enough. I felt enormously lost for a very long time, and couldn’t work out how to change that.
It all turned out OK in the end. I made a few good friends, felt more at home each day, and ended up travelling with some amazing people. A lot of my fears were laid to rest.
It was, quite frankly, not a pleasant process. I went through a lot of intense emotion, and began to face some tough realities. It forced me to admit that I was going through a lot of the same difficulties at home, and that I definitely wasn’t as happy as I wanted to be. I was confronted with the realisation that, for the large part, the problem lay squarely with me. I couldn’t spend my time blaming the world when in reality, there were so many things about me that needed to change, or had to improve. I had to accept that there was no magical fix to any of my issues.
It’s important to me that I acknowledge the true nature of what I went through. There was no montage of gaining friends or popularity, and certainly no magical moment of clarity; just a whole lot of introspection. I’m never going to pretend that it was something I’d want to experience again, but I am genuinely glad I had to go through it. The quality of my relationships are all the better for it, and I’ve learned new ways to take care of myself that don’t rely on the presence of others. Looking back at it candidly helps me to understand what happened, and how I’ve grown from it. It make me less likely to make the same mistakes again.
At the same time, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that travelling will inevitably lead to unspeakable horrors that you will barely survive. I simply aim to accept reality, and look at it all as honestly and authentically as possible. This means giving due credit to the rewarding and uplifting, as well as the difficult and challenging, as they are both core parts of the travel experience.
That may be part of why we tend to talk about travel in the glowing light that we do. We romanticise not because we want to pretend that the difficult parts don’t exist, but because surviving those challenges becomes a positive in itself. They turn out to be something that you look back on with pride and contentment. When we reminisce, the magnitude of positives that we’ve experienced simply eclipse the negatives. Those are things that are dying to be shared with the world, along with all the positive emotions they bring with them.
Even when sharing my experiences in this article, I can’t help but give it all a rosy glow. But with absolutely no exaggeration, I genuinely cannot think of anything I recommend more highly in life than travelling. It has helped shape me into someone that I am happy to be, but both the challenges and the pleasures have been vital to this personal journey.
I really hope to one day see a little more honesty and openness in the way we travellers talk about our adventures. From the amazing experiences that blow your mind, to the tough times that shape you as a person; I think it’s time we start to tell the story of travel in all its imperfect glory.