In Malawi I had my first battle with travel burnout. It wouldn't be my last.
Lying under a bed net in Malawi's sweltering heat with a cold, wet towel on my bare stomach, my face was a mess of tears. The silent air conditioner served only ornamental purposes. In the darkness its knobs became eyes, watching my every move, my futile efforts to cool down, taking pleasure as I winced whenever one of the tiny, pink, pus filled blisters that covered my body - compliments of a whopping case of prickly heat - spontaneously burst.
It was over 10 years ago, but I'll never forget my worst day of travel burnout - a horrible combination of homesickness, culture shock, and sheer exhaustion. And pus. Lots of pus.
People often sneer when they hear the words 'travel burnout' and offer disparaging comments such as "Must be soooooo hard to be traveling all the time" or "Poor you, with your first world problems". But the truth is that anyone can experience burnout from any activity or circumstance.
No person is fully immune from feeling lonely, overwhelmed, frustrated, or isolated. And unlike burnout from work, family stress, or a stalled creative project, travel burnout comes with geographic, cultural, and linguistic isolation which even the most optimistic traveler would find difficult to cope with. You are separated from your support system, you lack control over your environment, and you may even face a serious conflict in your values and ethics.
I suspect that fast paced trips are even more susceptible to burnout than a slower style of travel. City hopping can be exhilarating but also overwhelming. The excitement of a new hotel each night doesn't always mask the loss of community; the sense of place that comes when you stay in the same neighbourhood for a few days. With more extremely fast paced travel planed, I'm trying to learn from the past and prepare for a balanced, healthy, happy trip. Here's are my top three tips for keeping sane on the road.
Shift the sand and shake the dead weight.
There is a great passage in Ann Jones' book Looking for Lovedu - a fantastic account of an overland 'Cape to Cairo' journey of a lifetime" - which describes having a 'scrub out' day after a sandstorm rendered her dingy jeep even more uninhabitable. Every last thing got taken out and the pitiful jeep was scrubbed clean. Gear was washed out and resorted. Supplies were inventoried and materials reorganized. A seemingly endless supply of sand was returned to the earth.
I find scrub out days to be hugely cathartic. Aside from the practical benefits of having all your clothing clean and supplies restocked, it can actually be soothing to do familiar, routine domestic tasks. Drop some dead weight from your pack, be it of the physical or emotional variety. Solve some lingering problems - fix that broken strap or vanquish that lingering stain. Enjoy a bottle of wine, put on your favourite music, and have some quiet time. Then reward yourself by reading Jones' book. No piece of travel writing has stayed with me longer.
We are preparing ahead by focusing on throw away packing (pretty much exactly as it sounds - ditching packed clothing as you go. Here's why we love it), planning ahead to stay at hostels with laundry facilities, and generally trying to build quiet time into our days.
Defeat the dreaded day 3.
My husband Ryan likes to joke that I always get burned out on Day 3 of a trip, no matter if it's for 5 days or 5 weeks. I think by Day 3, the adrenaline of departure has started to die down and the fatigue has caught up.
I'm so predictable that we now automatically schedule in some downtime on Day 3 - a nicer hotel, some chill out time in a bookstore, some comfort food. Beating burnout doesn't necessarily have to involve a full on retreat from travel. You can simply slow down the pace and give yourself a bit of time to breathe. (And if you're inspired to do a scrub out day as seen above, why not combine the two?)
Give yourself a big upgrade - or downgrade.
Guess what - being a miserable traveler doesn't make you a more authentic traveler. And you are not a bad person or a cheater to your tribe if you leave your hovel for a 5 star hotel for a night (or even for a week). There are going to be times during your trip when the best medicine for burnout is a bit of pampering - a deep soaker bathtub, a king sized bed in an air-conditioned room, the joys of room service. On the night of my epic burnout in Malawi, I kept imaging myself checking into a suite at a Hilton in London and ordering chocolate ice cream via room service. I never got the chance to do so, but it was a mighty soothing image to meditate on.
On the other hand, if you've been spending a lot of time in private rooms in hotels, inns, and guest homes, spend a few nights in a hostel dorm. You'll save some major money and will enjoy days of new connections with upbeat travellers who are eager to join forces for meals, drinks, and excursions. Let someone else figure out the bus route or taxi negotiations and be content to let someone else choose the restaurant. Give your mind a break and your heart a boost.
Sometimes travel has ups and down. So what?
Who said travel has to be perfect? Not us! For every day with a gorgeous sunset (like the one above!) there are plenty that are tinged in blue. I'm more about having it gloriously, imperfectly real. That's where the true memories and transitions take place. And while I would never want to revisit those pus filled days in Malawi, it was part of a life changing trip. It would not have been the same without the ups and downs. Learning to take care of yourself during travel burnout - or any environment - is always a valuable lesson that makes you stronger for the next trip.
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In Pursuit of Imperfect Pictures
Our Most Moving Roadtrip
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PS - This post was published in the Stockholm central train station awaiting an overnight train to Lapland - no burnout on this trip yet!