The long, mad travel adventure is over. So what did I learn?
Fiona Hyde on the challenges of coming home after long-term travel
Fiona Hyde enjoys some solitary time in Luang Prabang, Laos
As they say, when it’s all over, we still have to clean up. A lot has been written about the various challenges involved in long-term travel. Before you step on the plane there’s a wealth of search engine results about about what to pack and what routes to follow. And when you’re on the road itself, there’s a glut of information on what tourist traps to skip and how to deal with disasters or dengue.
Much, much less (if anything at all) is written about is the reality of packing up that battered, manky old backpack one last time and coming home when all is said and done, the party very much over.
Heading off solo to go where the wind took me on another continent was a huge leap of faith into the big blue unknown – and funnily enough, deciding to come home again felt surprisingly similar. The anticipation, excitement and dread of heading home was familiar precisely because it was the same weird mixture of feelings I had before legging it in the first place.
Faced with the idea of returning to your old life and picking up where you left off again, you suddenly understand with much sharper clarity why you’ve met so many dreadlocked expats along your journey who totally balked at the idea and instead stuck around working in backpacker hostels and dingy dive bars, all in an effort to prolong the rude slap of reality that booking a return ticket delivers.
Coming home from a long stretch abroad has a note of finality, and human nature dictates that at the end of something, we can’t help but take stock. Just like we’re seemingly all hard-wired to make New Year resolutions, the end of a big trip tends to trigger in us a need to catalogue and rate everything, to make a bit of sense of our actions and experiences in retrospect. “What have I learned?” “How was it?” “Where was the best place?” “What went wrong?”
Looking back, my trip across Asia was littered with as many lows and middles as it was highs, and that’s okay. I experienced some bad travel burnout and exhaustion in Hanoi, where I stopped to spend 11 days and wait for the Vietnamese new year holiday of Tet (and all the disruption that comes with it) to pass. And luckily, as the holiday chaos lifted, so did my burnout. The lesson there? Taking breaks is invaluable when you’re spending that long on the road. Relentless movement doesn’t really work long-term.
Another challenge was a protracted period of intense isolation while on the long, slow road through central Laos. As I made my way, I experienced a new, deep kind of solitude without an end point. It was something I found very difficult at the time, but ultimately now I wouldn’t change.
And that’s the thing – in the end, what you remember when you come home is that you got through hard times spent alone: you’re here, stronger for it all. While I wouldn’t want to go through that again, I’m happy I did once because now I have more faith in myself to withstand the internal heavy weather a long time spent alone in unfamiliar places brings. This time last year I wouldn’t have thought it possible or myself capable.
Outside of all the Instagram-worthy scenery and tipsy fire shows on the beach, one very undersung element of long-term solo travel is that it simply affords you the time to think. Life at home is full-on day to day with work and life commitments, weekends busy, errands and chores listed to be checked off. We tend to have precious little time to step back and try to see the bigger picture. In a way, getting the opportunity to turn away from that felt like rebooting.
And of course, spending a long period of time outside Ireland makes you realise what you truly miss – the ease of conversation with strangers you get in Dublin, meet-ups with old friends a mere text away, the easy short-hand you have with family that means you never have to really explain yourself. (And of course cheddar cheese, which is thin on the ground in southeast Asia, let me tell you.)
So if you have the opportunity to press reset (or even pause) on your life and do some travelling, I think you’ll feel the benefit of it, even if it’s not all plain sailing. Because even when you get lost in a bedlam city, can’t speak the language, or wind up at the side of a dirt road somewhere covered in dust after a 13-hour bus journey, the fact that you got home safe and sound on the other side does make it all worthwhile.
Even if it does also mean that the mad adventure is finally over.
Fiona Hyde quit her job and life in Ireland in 2018 to go travelling. This is her final column on her long road home