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How to Get the Most From Long-Term Travel Abroad

(The following is part 2 of a 2-part series which explores in practical terms the requirements, joys, and the tribulations of traveling and living long-term on the road overseas and doing so in an adventurous manner.)

Long-term slow travel: Watching a sunrise on seashore in Vietnam.

There is something hopelessly romantic about the idea of becoming a modern-day nomad. Who among travel aficionados would not swap a short vacation and a looming return flight for the ability to wake up each day in a new location? Goodbye cubicle, hello freedom. 

While it is true that existing as a hobo can be hugely freeing and rewarding, giving up familiar surroundings and routines for a life on the move can be a more difficult transition than it first appears. There are a host of practical and emotional aspects to consider. 

Slow Travel is the Best Way to Relax

Once you have made the decision to go, saved your money, quit your job and hit the road (and doing all of this is no small achievement in itself), the first thing to learn is how to relax. “But I know how to relax already!” you might be thinking. 

Sure, you know how to put your feet up and watch a movie after work, or maybe lay on the beach for a few days, but how will you do with unlimited time on your hands? Many of us have been taught to work to deadlines and targets from school days onwards. Even on vacation there is always something planned — a tour leaving in an hour, a hotel booked for that night, etc. To find yourself in a foreign country, realizing that you have months of largely unstructured time ahead of you, can be a very strange feeling indeed.

The temptation is to do what you have always done: fill your time with detailed sightseeing itineraries. You might also find your mind obsessing over stresses from the life you have left behind, such as a difficult job. Our experience is that it is best to resist both of these tendencies in favor of living in the moment and relearning that it is ok to do nothing, or at least very little. Aim for the spirit expressed by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, when he said: “A good traveler has no fixed plan and is not intent on arriving.”

Allow space each day for the less tangible rewards of nomadic travel such as daydreaming and reading all those books you never found the time to read before. Take in a few of sights, but also enjoy the simpler pleasures like lingering in a cafe or feeding the birds. If the average tourist breezes through a capital city in a few days, you might want a week.

A more relaxed attitude is important to avoid travel burnout and it will serve you well when things do not go as planned. When you do not get that visa you were counting on, or you make a wrong turn on the road, you will just accept that this is part of the adventure and adapt your trip accordingly.  

Such a worldview also leaves you in a good position to accept opportunities that tend to come up when you spend time in one place. You would hate to turn down a dinner invitation with a local family just because you'd already bought a train ticket to the next city. 

Good Communication is a Key to Travel

Becoming a good communicator should be next on your agenda. Like learning how to relax, you might think you are already in the clear, but it is one thing to connect with folks at home (who share your language and culture) and quite another to hit it off with people in a foreign country who may do things that appear to you to be rude, aggressive, or simply strange. 

Learning to communicate with others abroad is crucial because you are more likely than the average traveler to find yourself surrounded by dozens of curious people, all tossing questions at you in a strange language, and with no translator to clear up any confusion. Even if you are not ambushed by inquisitive locals in a remote village, your interaction skills will be put to use bartering in the market, searching for a hotel, or chatting in the neighborhood pub.  

If you cannot communicate, you will quickly find yourself descending into frustration. The key to mastering this art is not necessarily connected to knowing the local language (although that never hurts, and learning at least 10-20 words in each language is a great idea), but rather about using your body to convey ideas and feelings to the people around you. Using body language takes time and practice but once you get it right, it works like magic. You may avoid uncomfortable silences and open the door to some unique and unforgettable travel experiences, like being invited into a private home or being taken on a tour of the local area.

One of the best communicators I have had the pleasure of meeting was a deaf and mute Belarusian man traveling the globe on his motorcycle. He could not speak a word in any language, but with his hands and a few props like a world map, Vladimir explained everything concerning his trip, including how he was put in jail in Cuba for overstaying a visa, how he hated sleeping in a tent, and what it was like to ride in the rain. 

Much of becoming a master at conveying your thoughts involves imagining you are a mime or playing a game of charades. How can you use your hands to describe what you need or want? Watch how the locals do it and you will soon see many hand gestures in use in everyday life which vary from region to region. This is the ultimate exercise in creativity. Do not forget to smile as you attempt to bridge the cultural and linguistic gap. If people feel your intentions are good, they are more likely to engage with you.

Just one caveat: even the best communicators will find it difficult to get beyond basic concepts like where you are from and where you are going without some element of shared language or additional help. Bringing along a picture book, or photos from home will ease the strain on both sides. You will not regret learning those 10-20 crucial words or translating a letter about yourself and your journey into the local language.

Find a Challenge as You Travel

As you learn to master the art of relaxing and communication, the next stage to be wary of is restlessness. When this symptom shows up, you will have long since adapted to taking things slowly and will still be enjoying your trip. Yet at the same time, you will need something more to keep your mind occupied – something beyond the daily adventures of the road, which now seem slightly routine. When these feelings sound familiar, it is time to find a challenge. 

The task you take on could be anything from starting work on your travel memoirs, volunteering with a charity, taking up a part-time job, or beginning a project that will prepare you for your return home and future travels. 

At the end of the day, it does not really matter what you choose to do. The only important thing is that you find something to keep yourself engaged and excited rather than slipping into the apathetic and cynical way of thinking that can sometimes plague long-term travelers. 

Returning Home

After months or years of exploring, the day will eventually come when your wanderlust wanes entirely and you start to dream of coming home. Only a small minority of people stay on the move indefinitely, no longer tempted by the desire to be closer to family, to have a slightly more stable life, or to rebuild travel funds. 

Listen to these inner feelings when they appear, even though returning home can be daunting – especially when going back means working hard to get set up in a new house and a new job. Continuing on for too long can make it hard for you to ever settle down. One former nomad related how he had spent six years globetrotting. Nearly a decade after his trip ended, he still found it hard to stay in one place, form long-term relationships, or hold down a job.

When you do return, brace yourself for a sense that no one understands you or that you do not really belong anymore to the place you once called home. It is not surprising that you should suffer this reverse culture shock since long-term travel is almost always a deeply changing experience. You are very unlikely to come back as the same person who left. 

Peter Gostelow, a Briton who spent 3 years cycling from Japan to Britain, describes the feeling of finishing his trip: 

“Initially coming home was great; the euphoria of returning, cycling all that way without any assistance and seeing friends and family. After a few months I started to feel depressed and questioning what I would do with my life now. Would I get back on the bike or do something more conventional like teaching, developing a career or studying? The hardest thing is telling people who don't know you what you've done with your life and then going about answering the 'why' questions before they brand you a bit strange.”

One way to help ease your way through this period comes down to finding a challenge. Having a project to work on when you return will keep you active and get you through the re-entry process as you sort out your longer-term plans. If you are stuck for inspiration, think about what you have learned during your trip and how you could use this in your community. Could you make presentations about your travels to schools or groups? Could you start a business that caught your eye abroad yet does not exist at home? 

Above all, give yourself time. Easing yourself into the nomadic mindset was a slow process and there is no reason why you should feel instantly at home as soon as you step off that plane. While it is important to keep busy, you do not need to fix everything in stone right away. Use your newfound confidence and sense of yourself to wait for the right opportunity that will keep you happy — and perhaps fund your next nomadic adventure — in the years to come. 

For More Information on Long-Term Travel — Great blog full of very informative posts by one who has traveled and lived abroad in a financially sustainable way — location independent and largely digitally — since 2007. See her many fine articles on long-term travel related to the subject on the Transitions Abroad website.

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