How it really is to live the dream
Traveling doesn´t have only good sides. Especially if you are – like me – alone on the road for a long time.There is a price to pay for it. Positive falsified representations of a travelers life can be found on Facebook and Instagram too often. Only the staged, happy moments are shown, yearnings aroused with beach selfies and sunsets, giving the impression of living the dream of a globetrotter is always perfect and simple.
The following is a (very personal) introspective. It is not about crying out my heart, but to show what negative consequences years and years of a nomadic lifestyle can have.
Part two: The bad sides and the things I miss
Alone or lonely?
“Are you alone?” Is probably one of the questions I´m asked most often. “Nah, I have my bike with me.” , I joke, but in many cultures there is a great lack of understanding for doing something alone or even wanting to be alone. For me, it is something normal and something I also appreciate. Even before this trip, I was very independent and also liked to spend time only with myself. And being alone doesn´t mean being lonely.
“Aren´t you lonely after such a long time?”, other travelers ask me. “Sometimes, but that’s part of the journey.”, is my standard answer.
There was no time to be lonely in the first years. I have never been longer than eight weeks in one country (except India) and almost never spent more than ten days in the same place. Most days I spent on the bike. Those times were exciting, so many things happened every day, I met so many people and had so many nice encounters. I didn´t think of my family and friends. Being away for a few months, or even a year or two, is not so long.
I was satisfied with the many short interactions lasting only a few minutes or a day or a little longer. I enjoyed this anonymity that nobody knows you and how they don´t know anything about you.
But I felt like a stranger many times. Except for a few countries east of Germany, everyone can see that you are from somewhere else. At the latest, when the crowds grew bigger and bigger in Pakistan and India, they admired me and my bike. But I also became more and more aware of this notion that “I’m not from here.” It became more and more difficult to be alone and to avoid these sometimes stressful situations. In India, I was often happy to spend the night in a hotel, just closing the door behind me and having my own room – without any curious observers.
But loneliness? Not then, or at least not as often or as burdensome. But in recent years, the moments have become more frequent and an analysis of the situation makes it clear why:
Loneliness has many faces
We humans are social beings. We are designed to live together and to share our lives. Every person needs a certain amount of exchange, love, and social contacts. People need other people, not just for reasons of survival. Even nomads live in family groups and don´t move around solo. The stories of the lonely Hermit in his cave may sound great, but few people seem to be suitable for such a life, at least not without paying a permanent price. Even studies prove that people are less happy and much more susceptible to diseases when they don´t have sufficient social interaction.
Travelers, especially in Asian countries, are constantly surrounded by people and have many social encounters, but these are usually very short and superficial due to time constraints and language barriers. As a traveling cyclist, far away from the tourist trail, it sometimes would take weeks to meet another foreigner or tourist to have a conversation in English or German again. It’s hard to express yourself when nobody understands you and you don´t get input because you don´t understand the others. In the long run, this leads to a feeling of isolation.
It is often the case here in South America too. As long as my Spanish is not good enough to have or at least understand real, deeper conversations, I often disconnect internally in the presence of others. I zone out because I don´t understand anything anyway or it is to hard to follow. I´m tired of not being able to express myself fully and effortlessly. I´m often consumed with my thoughts and I’m only physically present. Then I usually withdraw myself from the social situation to be alone.
When I´m alone in nature, I don´t feel so lonely and I´m usually quite content. But in the presence of other people, to whom I can´t build a proper connection, or in big cities where I don´t know anyone, loneliness comes up more often.
Friends and family
“Friends can be made anywhere!” I always say. Especially as a cyclist this is easy, because you get attention everywhere you go. You arouse interest, and apparently you are rarely perceived as a threat. Because of this, It’s easy to get in contact with people and to make friends. But these friendships are often short-lived and superficial and just last until I continue cycling. Even if I´m still in contact with people whom I‘ve encountered with a truly deep friendship, it requires having to spend time together to have shared experiences and memories. Often, only the first step for a friendship is made. If I´m not going to meet the person another time, the contact will be lost. But sometimes it works out and I meet someone again and spend more time with them. And so a few deep friendships have emerged, which will probably last for a lifetime.
And then there are the old friends, from home. After a few years on the road, I´m only in touch with a few in loose email contact. Stand-by friends I call those. When we meet again everything will be like it used to be (hopefully) . Until then everyone walks (or cycles) their own way.
When traveling, I´m almost never surrounded by good friends; the people who know me well, who understand me, who can advise me, who can comfort me, who laugh and cry with me, whom I can speak openly and don´t have to pretend anything, are simply never there.
I’m on my own.
Keeping in touch without Facebook is difficult these days. There are even people who don´t use email anymore. I‘ve had a smartphone for almost three years now and use WhatsApp, so I hear about missed weddings and get baby photos sent. I can see a little bit how my friend’s lives unfold.
“Family? It’s not that important!” I thought that for a long time. I thought, “I’ve spent enough time with them in my life.” But after a few years traveling, the perspective has changed. Family is incredibly important. These are the people who support me, who have known me since birth, who accept me as I am no matter what. With these people I spent most of my life with and these people I haven´t seen for six years.
Well, I met my parents and one of my brothers in Indonesia three years ago, so it’s not that long. But I don´t take part in their life, except for a few photos in the WhatsApp family group or to send a few photos on my part. Yet that is hardly a substitute for direct contact. My family relationships may as well be in stand-by mode.
I’m on my own again.
“Homesickness – I don´t know. I´m immune to that,“ I always thought. While for some travelers homesickness sets in after a few weeks away from home, it took me a couple of years to really get homesick. Apart from a few moments when I was ill, e.g. with dengue fever in Cambodia (link), or with food poisoning in India, wishing nothing more than to be at home with my mum taking care of me, I never really wanted to go home. Even at Christmas, it was okay for me to be somewhere else to celebrate with other people, with a different family. But that too has changed in the last year. More and more often I imagine what it would be like to be at home with my parents, in the house where I grew up. I wonder about walking through the streets of my small hometown to let childhood memories awake. To be in places and among people who are very familiar to me, instead of constantly meeting new people and having to find my way around new places. At night my siblings appear in my dreams and during the day my thoughts wander into the future again and again. I make up conversations in my head that I might have when I’m back home. Real longing sometimes comes up and I wonder what actually stops me from returning home right now.
“How is it with the love?” is a question that is often asked more cautiously, but it´s justified. “My bike is my girlfriend,” is another one of those standard answers, but of course for this article that is not enough. I have to speak a bit more personally.
First of all, it requires a definition of love or at least the meaning of longings and desires (or even needs) that every human being has. The craving to be loved, respected and accepted, to be understood. The longing for closeness, warmth, and affection. The desire for intimacy, for physical closeness, kissing, caresses, up to the desire to sleep with someone – to connect on this most intimate physical level. The longing to give love. For emotional balance. The longing for togetherness. For a partner in life. Or the desire to want to sleep with many different partners (which is certainly not just a male desire).
However, whatever the longings and desires may be, it is clear that everyone needs love and affection, that this is one of the essential energies of life. It is more like a necessity in life than an optional thing.
But to fulfil theses longings it doesn´t need a long relationship. If you are open for each other you can create intimacy in a short amount of time. You can learn to love someone without missing, without jealousy and without attachment. But that is easier said than done.
Lovesickness there is as well
For a long time my strategy was not to fall in love, at least not too much. Easier said than done. Love doesn´t go through the head but through the heart, and the heart feels what it wants.
Of course I felt in love but I would rather kept a little distance and not get involved completely with someone, trying to control the love. My freedom is important to me and it is often easier on my own. Also, the fear of being hurt plays a role because love is always connected with pain for me.
The urge to travel further was always stronger and more important. The longer I stayed with someone, the more painful and difficult was the separation. The missing, and the doubts if my decision to leave was right. The sometimes uncomfortable knowledge that for me as a traveler it might be more easy than for the girl who stays in her normal surroundings. The lonely evenings in my tent, craving for being with my last love and at the same time knowing that I probably will never see her again.
So my relationships over the last six years have always been short-lived, ranging from a few days to two months. And yet, or just because of the short duration, they were very intense. I was always in this initial phase of falling in love. The other is still new and interesting and exotic, and one does not know one another well enough. Hormones suppress all doubts of the other and they lull you into the love-rush.
I´m convinced that the models “one partner for life” and “only one partner at the same time” are for many people not the right ones. It is rather a romanticized ideal concept. I know that you can love several people at the same time and that here is no perfect person who can meet all the needs one has. Divorce rates and the normality of cheating speak for themselves.
But what if I really want to make a firmer and longer relationship? How do I deal with this after a couple of weeks when the first storm of love is weakened, the habit sets in, when my desire for change, for something new (rather a new one), drives me on, making the partner even seem unattractive? I have not learned to deal with this in recent years.
Search or escape?
A journey is often a search for something or an escape from something, or a mixture of both as it is for me. This restlessness, this feeling of wanting to move on, to continue, which, at the beginning of the journey often got me after only two days of rest or, at the latest, a week, can be very useful. Especially if you want to across whole continents by bicycle.
But it can also have negative aspects, especially if you are never satisfied where you are right now. You are always chasing the next destination, the next attraction, the next country. When things get boring too fast, you are always in need of change with new circumstances and bigger challenges. The world seems too big and you think you have to see everything. When one always want to go further, to visit more and more places and countries, one never has the feeling of arrival. Then you should stop and reflect why you are traveling at all. What are you running away from? What are you looking for? Is it just about ticking off destinations, countries and experiences or is it more about the way? About living right here, right now?
Traveling makes you tired
If you feel like you’ve seen it all before, know the whole country, when you can´t be impressed anymore or start comparing things “The temples in the other city were much nicer than these!“, “This beach is nothing at all compared to the beaches on the other island!” Or if you have no more desire for new things, if you have reached a supersaturation, it´s called a travel burnout, which every traveler gets who is traveling for long time. The only thing that helps is to take a break, to take it easy.
When I arrived in Australia after traveling for two and a half years, I pedaled alone through the lonely outback for three months. After that it was time for a break. No longer enthusiastic and receptive to new things and lonely from the lack of social contacts, I spent four months in Adelaide. A loving family took me into their home like their own son. Also I made a friend for life and she introduced me to each of her friends and provided me with enough social contacts.
Later, I spent some more months in Melbourne in Crunchytown in a crowded crazy couchsurfing community house where feelings of loneliness and isolation couldn´t possibly materialize. Also in New Zealand, I took it easy and stayed in one place for half a year, more specifically in the Crows Nest, another traveler community. At some point, it’s always time for a break. The longer I travel, the slower I travel, and the longer and more often I stay in certain places, the deeper connections I make.
The egocentric loner
Although the human being is a social being, it is also very self-centered. If you spend a lot of time alone, not only is there a danger of becoming lonely but there is also the danger of becoming selfish or self-centered. If you are traveling alone, you only have to make decisions for yourself. You are only responsible for yourself and you only have to think about yourself. There are not many compromises to make or no waiting for anyone, you are your own boss.
I’m used to these things, so sometimes I find it hard not to get impatient with others or in group situations. Alone it may be easier, but not necessarily better. Also, the more time you spend alone, the danger of becoming a little weird increases. And I’m not talking about talking to yourself here, that’s something that I still regard as quite normal.
Alienation from home
“Dropout”, “Hippie”, “Globetrotter” – that’s what people sometimes call me or I call myself for the sake of simplicity without really liking these labels. Traveling changes you – no question – and it expands your horizon. It shows you a new perspective in life and your own potential.
In the first years I could still imagine living one day relatively “normal“. That means living in a mainstream, capitalistic society with a full-time job. Living my life the way school and society prepared me for.
Today I know that I don´t want to go back there. Less and less I understand how people can work so much and (in my view) perceive the world so unconsciously. The understanding for people who are not satisfied with their work life nor their daily life, but who don´t make a change, decreases. The understanding of their (sometimes ridiculous) everyday problems and worries decreases and I find it more difficult to put myself in their position. Not that I feel better or smarter, this is not about arrogance – this is because my experiences and circumstances in recent years have been so fundamentally different that a kind of alienation has occurred. A simple life without big financial worries, without obligations and most of the time freely decidable is already very different than the life of an average German. In addition, all the time I spent in recent years with similar thinking, similar living people: travelers, alternatives, hippies, freaks, rainbow family… This can lead to feel like in a parallel society or even a parallel world and can increase the distance to other people. In the worst cases, even condemning and demarcating thoughts emerge: “They still eat so much meat – do they know nothing about climate change?” Or “Do they still not understand that the latest smartphone doesn´t necessarily make them happier?”
By then you can not only speak of alienation but also of a position of arrogance, which is to be corrected.
Well, alienation works in both directions. It only depends on the perspective. I often see other people as alienated from nature, from themselves and from life in general, and other people see me as alienated from their normal life and their reality.
After such a long time on the road and the change of perspectives and views, I often wonder how it will be when I return to my old environment, ie friends and family in Germany. How will I react and how will the people who may not have changed so much? Will there be confrontations? Will I adapt or won´t I fit in there anymore?
What I miss
For a long time, I did not know how to answer the question about the things I miss. After six years of traveling, it is easier for me to find an answer.
I miss being surrounded by people who know me well and whom I know well. I miss being with my family, with my parents and siblings, and getting to know my new niece. I miss talking to old friends and hanging out together. I miss being a part of their life.
I miss the feeling of security and being safe, which gives you a place that you know well. The area, the town, the house where I grew up.
I miss having a permanent home. My own space with my own little kingdom.
I miss social relationships that last longer than just a few days and which are more profound than pure acquaintances.
I miss being in an environment where I´m not the stranger, where I´m not noticed and not special and important. Where people treat me like any other.
I miss being a part of something. Not just living in my own life, my own journey, but sharing my life with others. To live in a community, to create something lasting. To have a longterm project or a mission and to positively affect my immediate surroundings and the world.
Life is change
For a year now I have been feeling the negative effects more than ever before. That doesn´t mean that I ´m tired of traveling or that I am tortured by loneliness and homesickness. But it does mean that something fundamental is changing. My way of living and traveling has been totally fulfilling in the last few years and was exactly what I wanted to do, but now there is a time of change and reorientation. In which direction exactly we will see, but I feel that it is time to take a break from traveling. In my home country in Germany.
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