The Darker side of Travelling

Travelling is one of my great passions. I’ve always been one for adventure, and travelling makes me feel like I have purpose and that I’m really “living”. It also distracts me from daily stresses, my undiagnosed seasonal affective disorder, the general monotony of regular life, and the intrusive thoughts that quietly remind me I’ll never truly be successful or fulfilled.

In the blogosphere, travelling is largely regarded as a journey of self discovery, a way to find yourself, with the people you meet along the way and the local culture largely a backdrop to the travellers one-man show. This is natural; after all, the traveller can only blog about his own experiences, and can’t presume to know what life is really like in the places he lands. Inevitably, the travel blogger will project his own interpretations onto situations, and draw his own conclusions from what he sees.

The problem is, we want people to see the best of us, and the best of our experiences. We exaggerate the positives, add filters to the photographs, write at length about an awesome diving trip and say nothing about how isolating it can be when you can’t speak the language.

I’m not saying every travel blog should become a whiny laundry list of all the crap things that happen on the road but equally, we need to give a more full, accurate portrayal of how it feels on the journey – warts and all.

Hanging out with my now-nephew in Sabah

Here are some of the things I struggled with while travelling:

Worries become more acute the further you are from home

I had a bit of anxiety for a while before I went travelling in Asia. It wasn’t too bad until I landed in Sabah. It was then that everything I had worried about came flooding into my mind, more pronounced and acute than before. I had imagined that my travels would be a “fresh start”, that I would forget about my previous stresses, but the distance and exotic locale forced my concerns into sharper focus. There are worse places in the world to be stressed, but I would advise any traveller to bear in mind that a radical geographical change won’t make your worries disappear.

Language barriers can be hugely isolating

If you are traveling alone for all or parts of your journey and are not staying in places with other travellers or backpackers, the language barrier can be hugely isolating. Even when locals speak English, they will naturally speak, for the most part, in their mother tongue. The effort of communication can be really difficult, and while you may know a few core words and phrases, you will miss jokes, anecdotes, and huge chunks of conversation. For this reason, I often felt left out amongst locals at dinners and get-togethers in Malaysia, never mind that I have a huge roman nose and my skin is the colour of sour cream, which brings me to my next point.

People will take advantage in areas where you stick out like a sore thumb

There have been places where I’ve had very little problems with being cheated/exploited as a traveller (Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Brunei, the U.S., Western Europe) and other places where it’s almost unavoidable (Thailand, the Philippines). Acknowledging how much of a target you are is your best defence against being cheated, including avoiding eye contact, keeping your head down & saying “No Thankyou” as often as possible in market settings. Many travel blogs encourage you to be open and friendly, but this is a huge no-no with people selling stuff you don’t want (themselves included, in some cases). As soon as you engage – even if this is to say “no” in a polite way – you are on the hook and will be hounded for the next few minutes. This becomes very exhausting very fast. People in some of the places you visit will be very poor, and you are very rich by virtue of being a Westerner who is travelling. Therefore, some people will see you as a walking pound/euro/dollar sign, and you can’t blame them for that.

When I first travelled, I had no idea to the extent at which I was seen as “a rich foreigner”, and ended up sad and exhausted at the end of each day with the constant negotiations, scams and hard-selling.

You are just a wealthy foreigner to a lot of people. Acknowledge this (please, don’t try to explain to people that you’re actually poor because you have a huge student loan debt), and be aware in situations where this could work to your disadvantage.

Relationships will be tested

If you travel with a friend or partner, your relationship will likely experience some strains and tensions. You are both in unfamiliar territory outside your comfort zone. You may have different interests and ideas on what constitutes a “decent” place to stay. You may have different expectations when you arrive. You are probably fatigued from all the travel, never mind the risk of the above points already darkening your mood. Know your limits and your partners. For example, are you willing to stay in a shared dormitory? Are you both okay taking a bus for 12hrs instead of a 1hr flight to save money?

My partner lost patience with me more than once because of point 1: I was anxious, over-analysing past mistakes, having a “quarter life crisis” and so at times was quiet and withdrawn as a result. This had a domino effect on other decisions like what to eat and where to go, putting a strain on the relationship. Luckily, my funk eventually lifted, but I imagine it would have been easier if I hadn’t built so much expectation into what the trip could do for me and my wellbeing.

You are an Outsider

This ties in with some of my previous points, but an awful lot of people believe they will become a local if they live like one or do a homestay for a couple of weeks. I stayed in Malaysia (with my Malaysian family) for nine months, and accepting that I would always be an outsider was actually really liberating. I couldn’t change my skin colour or my accent or my awkward turns of phrase, so no matter what I did, I would never be able to blend in. I loved the life and the people there but understood that my different upbringing and experience limited how deeply I could relate to their lives and struggles. It’s all good and well to share an Instagram of you grinning with the locals in cultural dress, but this won’t make you one of them. Acknowledging your different lives and experiences leads to a deeper, more profound understanding.

The darker elements of travelling should not stop you from going out and seeing the world. Infact, thinking and talking about these can help you to be prepared and have a fuller, more profound experience on the journey.

One thought

  1. Such an interesting and inspiring post. As someone who travels more than 100 days a year, I’m totally used to the downsights of traveling. It’s definitely not all beautiful and shiny. Yet, that’s exactly what I remember and that will stick to my mind. Neverhteless, I always try to write accurate about places and experiences, so others know about all the downsides of a hotel, city, …

    Liked by 1 person

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