Saturday, October 20, 2012

Anxious and travel

We're all prone to lying to ourselves sometimes to avoid uncomfortable or unpopular truths.

I reckon there is a massive myth around the way we travel. Few people ever admit to not enjoying a holiday - it’s sacrilege.

Each year over the last six years I’ve taken three-to-five weeks leave and gone on adventure, almost always overseas. Every time I’ve suffered a bout of depression and anxiety at some point for a variety of reasons – one time so bad I was painfully close to flying home a week early – but I always returned home with a smile and revelled in the photos and stories of a wonderful adventure. I do love travelling; I had just never found the right way for me. But I think I’ve cracked it.

Right now I’m in a Munich hotel, with about 24 hours left of a three-week journey through Germany and Eastern Europe, and this time I can genuinely say has been a fantastic trip; easily the most enjoyable yet. I’m not gonna lie, it hasn’t all been easy, but it’s the first time I’ve consistently forgotten what day it is; the first time I haven’t struggled to occupy my mind when travelling alone; the first time I haven’t started counting down days in anticipation of getting home (though I am now ready). Never before have I been able to so completely forget about home and my comfort zone for such long periods of time.

There are a few reasons. Partly it’s just being in a better place mentally. These trips have always been somewhat of a benchmark of where I am really at in my management of anxiety. I think I’ve kept doing it because I like challenging myself, or I’m a maniacal optimist.

But I’ve learnt from previous mistakes. This time I did things differently. I did it the way that worked for me, not how other people do it.

I mixed things up.

I started with a bang at Oktoberfest with friends, one of the craziest experiences I’ve had and one we’ll be talking about to the point of boredom for those who weren’t there as long as we hang out.

I then spent a week or so on my own. I knew I needed some relaxation, downtime and my own space on this trip. That meant taking things a bit slower that I have in the past and slashing my list of places to visit so I could enjoy those I did and relax as well as get out amongst it. In that time I splashed out and stayed in hotels. I can afford it and the trip was short enough that the extra cost was worth maintaining my sanity by paying to have my own space with the basic luxuries.

One of the lies I’ve told myself while travelling is that people always have fun in hostels - that I’ll meet people and we’ll be friends and maybe I’ll even hook up with someone and it’ll be awesome. Maybe it’s true for confident extroverts but I’m socially stunted when it comes to meeting people, lack the energy to engage with strangers, hate small talk and have had few conversations in the many hostels I’ve stayed in, let alone made friends. In fact, once I start to feel mental fatigue and the downs of travel – detachment, isolation, boredom – hostels suffocate me. I feel like there’s already friendships established so why would they want me talking to them (talking to people in the lobby these days means interrupting them while they’re checking the Facebook on the free wi-fi anyway)and I don’t sleep well from paranoia about snoring and pissing people off. I don’t want to have to flee my base to get the space I need.

I realised if I want to relax, I needed my own comfortable space. It’s not the cool or youthful way to travel, but fuck me, it worked a treat. And I was quite happy being anti-social for a week, especially while I dealt with the mind explosion that is Berlin. It also allowed me to address the single most important element in keeping my head – getting plenty of rest.

In that time I also made sure I had things to keep me occupied in my downtime that weren’t Facebook, or the internet in general. Previously I’ve thought the way to stave off boredom and anxiety was to keep a busy itinerary. But I think, for me, it’s just the opposite. Take time, and have time to myself where I have things to do. Sightseeing is the main activity, but you can’t feel guilty taking a break from it. It should be an experience not a distraction. Don’t drive yourself nuts getting to all the sights listed in Lonely Planet because you feel like you should. See what interests you. Spend a few hours reading or writing or just people watching in a bar and soaking up the vibe of a city. Whatever.

I didn’t want to spend two weeks on my own, and I know I need a bit of force to mingle with strangers, so I signed up for a tour for the following week. One that was long enough to actually get to know people, but not too long that it wore me down. In 2009 when I was ready to pay whatever it took to fly home early, the saving grace was a four-day tour of the Canadian Rockies. It got me out of my own head after a couple of weeks mentally isolated in hostels racking up a massive phone bill looking to Facebook for human connection and made me actually interact with real people.

Once past that awkward initial stage I’m a social animal. I made up for my lack of getting-to-know-you skills by never shying away from activity, especially involving that social lubricant, alcohol. After a few days you realise a few cool people actually like you and you wonder why you doubt yourself so much, because really you are pretty fucking awesome.

Now it’s over and I’m missing a bunch of random strangers who happened to pick the same tour as me that I’d never met a little over a week ago. People I had deep and diverse conversation with that I wouldn’t have with family or work colleagues, and many of whom I’ll likely never see again. I don’t have the stomach to do that over and over for a few months. At least Facebook makes it easier to either stay friends or gently slip away. 

Maybe there are lessons here for others, I don’t know. A lot of people get stressed out when they travel, much more than they’ll admit. Do be confined by how others define the experience of travel. Find your own way. It should be a fun, joyous thing. But as little as it’s ever spoken, there’s a lot of stress that can come with travel.

Modern tourists get caught up worrying about schedules and itineraries. We visit tourist sites because they’re tourist sites, take their photos and leave, not actually really enjoying it. We race from city to city to say they’ve been there so they can partake in masturbatory conversations about the best city in the world (I personally think its Berlin). Even though my travels have been largely based on it, I don’t think three or less days does any city justice, even Canberra. We see places through a camera lens, desperately trying to capture a moment for fear of forgetting it - or so it can be relayed to others (not possible unless you’re a mega creative photographer) - rather than actually immersing ourselves in it with all our senses and soaking up the atmosphere, which a camera can’t do.

Travelling alone makes you more prone to taking too many photos because you want to share all the little interesting moments with someone. I actually find it relieving when places don’t allow photos because I take it in without thinking about the camera.

I don’t care that I didn’t experience an onslaught of cities through booze-wearied Contiki eyes. Better to experience a few places properly than visit a lot briefly.

I’m not bothered that I never spent my youth travelling and/or working in Europe as seems to have become a rite-of-passage for many young Aussies. It’s great for some, it’s not for everyone and it’s sure as hell not an automatic ticket to maturity or worldliness. I know people who never left Australia that are more world-wise than others who’ve been to 20 countries. 

Travel is a fantastic learning experience though. It offers a chance to get outside your comfort zone and away from the daily grind, see different cultures, meet new and diverse people, gain perspective, learn about life and reflect on your own. Do it your own way and learn from the inevitable – sometimes painful, sometimes fun, sometimes hilarious – mistakes and it’s one of life’s greatest activities.

I’ve learnt a lot every time, and no less on this trip time, about myself and this crazy, messed up world and time I randomly find myself in.

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