I had just finished a long road-trip along the west coast of the USA, and now I had a private room for one month in an incredibly friendly party hostel in sunny San Diego. Surrounded by the kind of people with whom I usually love to spend time, with total freedom to do anything I wanted, I should have had the time of my life. Instead, I felt lonely, isolated, and terribly unhappy.
Most of the time travelling is a wonderful experience. But everyone who travels for long enough has periods of loneliness — sometimes against all rationality. So what can you do when it happens?
1. It’s okay to feel down sometimes
Unfortunately, there’s a stigma attached to feeling down when you’re on the road. We’re living the dream, right? And if we’re not enjoying it, then maybe we’re just a bit spoiled.
But humans are complicated: whether we feel happy, sad, angry, motivated or lazy all depend largely on what has happened in our immediate past and what we expect to happen in the immediate future; the same event in a different context can make us feel any number of emotions. So even though most people view travelling as an intensely enjoyable and rewarding activity, it’s nearly impossible to feel that way consistently over long periods of time.
The good news is that the difficult times create the context for more enjoyable times afterwards. Meeting new friends is all the sweeter after a period of loneliness. And all the best stories come from the worst travel experiences. Once you accept that negative emotions are a normal part of travelling, it is much easier to deal with them when they come along.
2. Combine social activities with time for yourself
Travellers are notoriously social, and it’s easy to use the countless pub crawls, club nights, and other hostel activities to distract yourself from negative emotions. Unfortunately, excessive alcohol and a rapid turnover of friendly faces is rarely a good solution; the worst place to feel lonely is in the middle of a crowd.
If you’re travelling because you want to find yourself, you’re going to have to spend some time by yourself.
While most people focus on the social aspects of travel, your time on the road is also a valuable opportunity for introspection. Who are you? When you’re in a new country, amongst new people, entirely free of the constraints of your everyday life and identity, it’s often not such an easy question to answer. But it’s definitely one worth exploring.
Don’t mistake introspection for total isolation, however. As Christopher MacCandless famously discovered, “Happiness is only real when shared”. And if you’re having trouble making friends, there are plenty of social networking apps for travellers — including Outbound — which make it easy to connect with other travellers on the road.
3. Identify the source of your troubles
Dwelling on your problems is rarely an effective route to finding a solution — but making an effort to understand how you feel and why you might feel that way is an important part of self-growth, which is probably one of the reasons you’re travelling in the first place.
One of the advantages of travel is that you experience the same general patterns over and over in a short time frame. You arrive in a new place, you meet new friends, you have a variety of new experiences, and then you have to say goodbye to everything and everyone — often permanently.
After a while, you’ll begin to recognise the events that trigger negative emotions in you. Whether it’s nervousness about arriving in a new place, shyness when making friends, or sadness when leaving everything behind to start again — once you’ve identified their source, you can begin to manage your feelings. For example, I know that I lose momentum after three or four weeks of staying in one place, so I time my travels so that I move on after about that period of time.
4. Make use of your support network
Even though you might be a long way from home, your friends and family are only ever as far away as the nearest internet connection. In all of human history, it’s never been easier to contact the people who love you for emotional support.
Of course, everyone wants to feel like a pioneer, courageous and independent, as we trot around the globe, but the truth is that human beings thrive best when we maintain close social connections — and sometimes it’s not enough to confide in a person whose only relationship to you is eating dinner together two nights in a row.
However, take care. It’s natural for your friends and family to tempt you into returning home when you’re going through a rough patch. Every situation is different, but my personal rule is to refuse to end any trip on a low note. No matter how bad it gets, I hold on until it’s good again — and some of my best adventures have come after my worst experiences.
5. Change your circumstances
It’s often quoted that “the definition of stupidity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result”. Unfortunately, when you’re travelling, it isn’t always obvious when you’ve fallen into a pattern of doing the same thing repeatedly. After all, you’re in different places with different people aren’t you?
Maybe so, but you might still be having the same general experiences — hostel-hopping is particularly bad for this. If you can’t shake your mood, shake up your circumstances. Go camping or couch-surfing instead of staying in a hostel. Hitch-hike or take a road-trip. Replace the endless tourist traps with volunteer work for a few weeks. Stop spending money or spend a lot of money in a short time. There are many different ways to travel — try something new.
My four weeks in San Diego were a failure. Despite the best efforts of the staff and my hostel-mates, I had totally failed to take advantage of what should have been ideal circumstances for a good time. I needed to try something new. I took a bus north and started to volunteer on a remote ranch near the Oregon border. Gone was the steady stream of new faces, the nightly parties, and the freedom to do whatever I wanted. Instead I had 6am starts and daily labour alongside a small close-knit community.
And, strangely enough, my funk disappeared in a matter of days.
ABOUT: Christopher Drifter is a 24-year-old traveller from the UK. He has taken several major trips across North America and Europe, covering more than 13,000km via public transport, borrowed vehicles and hitch-hiking. He is the author of Rules of Thumb: How to Hitch-Hike and Live on the Road, which is available as a free PDF, on Kindle and in paperback.