A difficulty in repeated long-term travel

Wing over Egypt

Cairo, Egypt

Stability and control: that’s the role of an aircraft spoiler. As your jet prepares to land, the spoiler may rise to decrease lift, increasing the rate at which the aircraft descends or slowing the speed of the aircraft down. The Wright brothers would have been impressed.

For the long-term traveler, however, the spoiler, when viewed through a window, can represent the very opposite: instability and a lack of control. As you watch it rise and then feel the aircraft slow, you know your journey is moments away, which is to say that your voluntary letting go of a certain amount of stability and control (this is part of what it means to travel) is about to become very real. Of course, part of the joy and excitement of travel is precisely this letting go.

But it can also be part of the pain.

I took this picture last week as I began what may be a five or six-month trip to the Middle East to photograph and work on a couple story ideas. My vagabonding these days is work related, and it is often full of both pain and joy, depending on where I’m at and what I’m witnessing. But I’ve noticed as i’ve gotten older that no matter where I’m going, I leave home not only with a sense of anticipation (though to be honest i don’t always feel much anticipation when I’m on the plane), I also leave with a sadness. The sadness is rooted in all that I’m leaving behind, and the things that will change without me while I’m gone — birth, death, and relationships to name a few. This is part of why during the first few days of an extended journey I often feel depresssed, a kindred spirit with Tom Hanks as he finds himself on that deserted island in Castaway. If you’re gone too long too often, you may struggle with identity.

And so when that spoiler raises and I put my seat back into the upright position, I ask the question: When might long-term travel, at least to the solo traveler, become a detriment to life more than an asset? I will always be an ardent proponent of long-term journeys. I’ll also, however, always be honest, and tell you that they can come at a real cost.

As always, your own thoughts and experiences are very welcomed in the comment section.

11 Responses to “A difficulty in repeated long-term travel”

  1. yael Says:

    you will love egypt, but i know exactly what you mean. i’m pretty young but well-traveled, and i just came back from a trip to india. i was so depressed for the first few days–i felt alone and homesick for the first time that i can remember. i really think it’s a part of growing up and actually enjoying the place where you live and not just escaping it.

    however, you will get your sea legs after a few days/weeks, and then you’ll catch that travel bug again!

  2. Keith Says:

    Excellent post and timely for me. I’m planning a series of one month trips over the next couple of years, while my wife remains at home. It’s a very real concern that the impact of these trips on my personal life could be damaging. Who can say? You simply have to believe in your own strength to make it a success.

  3. Karol Gajda Says:

    Wow! Joel, this is a great piece of writing. It really hits home with me because I’ve been wondering if long-term solo travel might be a detriment some day. I don’t feel like that at all at this point. I absolutely love not having an “official” home base. I’ve basically been without one since Sept 1 of last year. What I finally came up with is that worrying about the future is fruitless. Who knows what will happen tomorrow or next week or next year? Today, right this minute, I’m loving life. That’s all that really matters.

  4. brian Says:

    I doubt there’s a pat answer for everyone, but I know for myself if I’m traveling for a positive goal, i.e. learning a new language, exploring an unknown culture, etc. then my traveling is healthy. If I’m running from something (like my family in 1994 or the pressures of adult life – and that was last week) then I’m merely attemting a geograhpic cure for my larger problems. This never works of course, since everywhere you go you bring yourself with you.

  5. Sandy Salle Says:

    What an insightful post. As an African safari travel agent I travel to Africa quite often for long periods of time. Your article resonates with me because at some point, you do begin to lose sight of who you are when you do long-term travel for so long. I think it’s extremely important to have a place to call home, where you can sit and reflect on your trip and how it has impacted your life. But too much travel, not to mention long-term travel, needs a buffer zone. And that’s your home.

    I look forward to reading more of your insightful posts.

  6. Dogson Says:

    Hey Rolf–

    I met you at a travel writing workshop at the paris american academy back in 05, and I’ve been traveling continuously ever since. It’s definitely refreshing to hear your thoughts on this issue, I’m definitely feeling that too. Travel is profound, indeed has become a kind of addiction and a lifestyle for me, but it’s also very alienating. I find that people in my life, including my oldest friends, interpret my lifestyle as escapist and don’t really connect with me like they used to. I don’t know if it’s jealousy, or disdain at my lack of participation in ordinary society, or just total incomprehension, but it’s very sad and definitely an issue I struggle with when I visit people in my homeland.

  7. Andrea Says:

    This is a great post and I can definitely relate to what you are saying. I’ve never had much of a “home base” because no family members or close friends live in the place where I spent the first 17 years of my life. I’ve always been nomadic but still kept in touch with the people who were important to me. But when I left my home country to move across the world, I lost a few people who I always thought would be my friends. Perhaps they thought it was now too much of an effort to keep in touch.

    Leaving your home country or town for extended periods seems an act of betrayal or disloyalty. Some people can’t or don’t want to deal with it. I couldn’t imagine leaving my fiance for long periods of time so I don’t have any experience with that kind of separation, but I do know that my true friends are still in touch with me. We make efforts to visit each other and communicate with each other, no matter what the distance is. It sounds cliche, but I’m thankful that being a traveller has shown me who those people are in my life.

  8. jill Says:

    Yes, yes. And yes. To the post and the comments both.

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  10. Luke Hogan Says:

    What a great post. That rumble of the spoilers on the descent is always a great thing to feel because it signifies the end of the flight and the beginning of a new experience. I never thought about it in this way though–the sign that you are about to give up the safety and comfort of the familiar for the unknowns of the road.

    I just left my job as a regional airline pilot in large part because of the toll it took on my personal life. Even being gone four days a week can make it extremely difficult to maintain friendships and relationships. Travel involves a trade off like everything else though. I suppose those of us who have friends and partners who are willing to let us follow are dreams might just be able to have it both ways!