Written by Fidgit
Daniel pedaled up as we walked along the Pan-american Highway in southern Colombia. We spent a day traveling side by side along an open stretch of road, he riding his brakes, us walking at a strong pace. It would have been broiling in the sun but the day was mercifully cloudy and the company and conversation was grand enough to push us over the 50 km mark by dusk.
He mentioned having heard of us on his ride around the world, back around Asia. He had found it interesting that we were walking and glanced at our social media. “When I saw that you planned to pedal Central America I thought, ‘cheaters.’ I guess that was back when I was still in my ‘Proving It’ phase,” he chuckled.
Daniel was referring to our discussion regarding stages a long traveler goes through. It seems whether adventure cyclist, hiker, hitch-hiker, or even living as an expat, whatever your medium, long term travelers have a lot in common.
For one, we all want durable equipment which serves multiple uses. For example, ADV motorcycle rider Ron and I both carry Tupperware which we keep accessible for leftovers. The lid also makes a great little cutting board. You want your equipment to be what you hope to be: resilient and adaptable. If not, neither are gonna survive the whittling of the journey.
Another commonality is the stages of development. When you are out there and at it for years, the ebb and flow of spirit and thoughts follow a similar pattern. Like with most things, the timeline will differ according to the individual and circumstances, but the process is generally the same. I cannot speak for all of us, but based on conversations, I know I’m not alone in experiencing this. So here I will share mine, then I am interested to hear from you:
A) Whether this resonates
B) Your mode of travel
As he spoke about his own beginning into long travel, Daniel said, “I would listen to them, the ones out for two years and more and think, ‘they are crazy’ and now, I have been going for 2.5 years; I am a crazy one, but for me it is normal now.”
So, what does the process of making crazy into your normal look like?
Phase 1- The Breaking in
The first weeks – This stage is uncomfortable and invigorating.
Physically, your body is adjusting. A new diet, new climate, new everything. As an athlete you begin to beat your body into shape. Specifically as hikers, now is the time of blisters, bruises and sore muscles. As a traveler you are figuring out the basics, how to get from point A to point B, and how to get food.
It is also quite romantic. Again, everything is new! Each sunrise or sunset is the most vibrant you have seen. Everything is meaningful and exciting. You finally see the world from a new perspective and find it illuminating as every conversation reveals new perspectives your home culture completely missed. The world is full of wonder. You will remember this experience for the rest of your life.
Phase 2 – Proving yourself
Month 1-6 or 9 – You know what you are doing and how you are doing it.
You can get around, develop a routine outside of the routine, learn tips and tricks and how to wield your tools. You are embracing the challenge. You are a fount of information and more than enthusiastic to share. The best restaurants, when to go to the marketplace, what apps a traveler simply must have. You begin to sense your experience is growing into something powerful and you are proud of this. You will sit up late into the night pontificating with other travelers, recommending books and secret little cafes and hikes to get away from the crowds. You realize that you can actually do this thing, you can make it on your own! Knowing this changes you.
Somewhere toward the end of this phase comes the first round of doldrums. It may be mental, physical, or (usually) both. The story of a hiker friend suffering from malaria in Africa and having a cloud of flies explode out of the communal outhouse hole toward his weakened form comes to mind. You don’t have the support system on hand which you do at home. You miss certain foods or ways of doing things. You see that the world is not that big; we are just that small. The glamour wears off; it’s a good time for any reasonable person to head home.
Phase 3- Finding your Force
Month 9 or 12 to 16 or 18 – You have realized you can survive most any challenge. The doldrums taught you that. Obviously, you are some sort of hard head to still be out here. Now comes a time of metamorphosis. Some of the big lessons of this phase are how to allocate your energies, let go of expectations, and adapt plans.
Your journey takes a turn, some sort of challenge which necessitates a change which your “Proving Yourself” self would consider a betrayal or cheat. But your new self? Her identity does not come from precepts of the journey; it now roots to somewhere deeper. It is solid yet intangible.
In this phase, you may withdraw somewhat. Our friend Sam has been an expat living in Bariloche for years, and she explained that she and her partner don’t usually engage with the fresher expats, because people move through so quickly, it just isn’t worth the energy. You may find yourself listening to stories and advice rather than giving it. You don’t bother to tell people about your journey much because you know most of them will only hear what they want to anyway, and you are content to allow them that.
You know things must change, or they break. You may lose your purpose, which sounds scary, but does not mean you have lost your drive. I would say in this phase you come into touch with a deeper flow (or maybe I have to tell myself that since I am still out here . . . ). Things do not wow or thrill you the way they do on shorter journeys. You can be pleased, impressed, frustrated, all of the sensations, but your well is deeper now, so the surface level of excitement does not fluctuate as much.
You realize you have become an expert at things you never expected, like balancing an entire lunch on the lid of a Tupperware, or negotiating prices with a vendor, or navigating a packed market to get to the one item you want at the stall at the back corner. This is not an experience, you are not changed, you are becoming something else entirely.
Phase 4- The Darkness
Month 16 or 18 to 20 or 24 – This is another round of the doldrums, only, deeper. This phase comes close to depression or an existential crisis. You are shaken to your core and maybe you sort of shut down, wondering who and why you are. Where you might once have thought of quitting, at this point forging forward is easiest, because it is what you know how to do. Going home would be uncomfortable.
Also, if you are on an athletic endeavor, your body has become accustomed to the levels of serotonin or endorphins released by your chosen activity, so there aren’t the exercise-induced highs anymore. You are just a body. Doing a thing. The insignificance is overwhelming and comforting.
You aren’t a big thinker anymore either. You are a tiny thinker. This phase is when clinging to identity of self finally becomes so painful, you just let go. In letting go, you encounter the root of your humanity. Rather than scorning routines as boring, you embrace them as that which makes you human: get up, do the thing, lay down. It is all the same and all that matters is what you notice on the way and even that is fleeting; the only time in which a moment exists is right now. Pictures aren’t going to make it real, and you will never occupy this space again. So you . . .
. . . Pause to smell a sunset, watch the reel of a landscape slipping past, revel in an exchange with others of your ilk, get excited about finding a perfect cardboard box with strips of tape you can reuse, imbibe deeply when a farmer gives you a bit of coconut and some fresh water, greet a bug as an equal. You realize the somberness, the heavy aspect of it, is faded. You just are what you are and you do what you do. It flows, and in this you find gratitude.
Also, somewhere along the way, you have realized the only voices which matter are yours and that of Mother Nature. What others think your journey is or ought to be have no bearing whatsoever on your life, beyond what power you give them.
Actually, now that I write it out, these stages of waking seem to follow the pattern of a human life in general…
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