Travel is, on the surface, about motion. About going to new places, and revisiting old ones. About leaving behind familiar things (food, faces, words) and throwing yourself into the new. Of leaving behind the comfort of routine, of knowing how to do simple things like take a hot shower, pay for a bus ticket, order a morning coffee with milk.
Especially when on a shorter trip, that uprooting of routine and wandering a new place with the wondering eyes of an outsider is the point of the journey. Get out of that sea of grey cubicles where you sit in meetings to plan for another meeting, out of the gym routine that you drag yourself through, the same dinner at the same corner restaurant and that usual bottle of wine on the table.
Long-term travel has turned out differently for me. As an American used to my paltry vacation allowance, I’ve never taken more than a week of holiday at a time, and I can count even those short jaunts on my fingers. But in my typical all-or-nothing style, I’ve managed to launch myself into 52 full weeks of travel with no other agenda.
I am nearly halfway through this year of exploration, and so some of the thrill of that newness has worn off. I’ve been on more exotic bus rides and trains through the Alps and figured out more toilets and slept in new and exciting conveyances than I can count. New foods, new coffee orders (I find a deep pleasure in figuring out how I like my coffee in each new place), new local customs like the Lao habit of gesturing with fingers pointed down or the head shake that means yes in Bulgaria, these have become part of a new routine.
Anything becomes routine if you do it for long enough.
Sometimes it gets tiring, in a way that different from the numbing boredom of the cubicle life but no less stressful for that. Sleeping in two, three, even four new beds a week, in rooms often filled with 1-15 strangers, crammed in buses on the verge of breakdown or a ferry that looks like it probably won’t sink today, at least, having a deep chat over toast and tea with a stranger you instantly connect with and will never see again… it all contributes to a feeling of same same but different as the Thai saying goes.
So what do you do when the new normal wears on you? You stay put physically and move inwardly instead.
I’ve settled myself on the southern Thai island of Koh Phangan for two weeks, hoping to find new depths in the clear and shallow waters here.
The rhythm of my days here is ordered and quiet: up early for some gentle yoga at a healing center around the corner in a yoga shala over the beach, a long stretch lounging in a vegan cafe sipping coffee with coconut milk and lingering over a smoothie bowl and a book or a blog post, an afternoon nap in the heat, a float in the crystal waters until it’s time for dinner as the sun sets over the beach.
I’m not sightseeing, partly because whew I’ve done a lot of that and partly because taxis are exorbitant and scooter-riding is especially dangerous here (every other person seems to be sporting a recent wound or an old scar from a tumble).
And it’s been clarifying to have time to sit with my naked thoughts instead of planning more moves, more days, more motion that often serves to distract me from what’s going on under the surface. Some of what surfaces is pleasant: the sounds and smells of the sea bring back so many powerful memories of home and family and happiness for me. The smell of low tide on the Back Shore of my dad’s hometown, sailboats silhouetted again the rosy pink of sunset like they do at cocktail hour on my grandma’s porch.
Some of it is harder, buried purposefully by my pain-avoidant mind that loves to be distracted with the next destination. But that’s where the growth lies too. Combined with my clear and sober mind, with all the mindful yoga and meditation, this shit is not what I’d like to be thinking about on a tropical beach but it’s been powerful to realize I can actually handle it, acknowledge it without sinking to the bottom like a tourist-laden ferry boat in a monsoon.
But why spend my time in paradise doing this? Couldn’t you do this at home, with your support system and an unlimited supply of waffles (my most-missed food)?
Part of that beautiful motion of travel is that it clears out all the comforts and easy fallbacks and noise around you, and leaves you with stillness and space if you’re wise enough to go looking for them. There’s no throwing yourself into work or endless dinner parties with friends or late night calls to ex-boyfriends when you feel low.
If you sit still, quietly, open to what comes in a place with beauty and serenity, it can change you. It should change you. And if you’re very lucky, it will.