Truth: I spent most of my days wallowing in Bagan. Bagan, with its thousand temples, horse-drawn carriages and dusty roads. Bagan, a city I’ve dreamt for so long, so much that I was ready to fall head over heels in love with it.
I arrived at my hostel at 5AM, where a dreadlocked manager told me I’ll have to wait for the lunchtime check in. I spent the past eight or so hours traveling from Yangon and while the VIP bus I booked was comfortable and clean, I definitely wanted a shower and a long nap. I ended up sitting in the hostel lobby, caught between watching the rain and trying to get some work done while the hostel slowly woke up to a cold Bagan morning.
And it stayed that way for me. Cold. Yes, the temperature was hitting insanity but I felt cold on the inside.
There was a deep-seated loneliness that chained me to my dorm bed most of the time. When I did venture out, I wandered the ancient temples thinking how alone and small I really felt. I had a hard time processing it that I was constantly whining to my family the things that were going wrong: the terrible weather, the overpriced food, the snobbish people at my hostel, my missing pair of flipflops. Anything and everything that I normally will have patience for ticked me off. I just couldn’t shrug the way I was feeling, even if I wanted to shut it off. What’s even weirder, I began craving an intense and genuine connection, something that will perhaps ground me and remind me of the good stuff. When I couldn’t find that in any person and in any place in Bagan, the loneliness and frustration just consumed me.
I scribbled on my journal one afternoon:
I can’t believe how I went all the way here, choosing to travel solo in a country I’ve dreamt for so long, and now all I want is companionship.
There were couples and groups of friends everywhere I turned and there I was, flying solo. I never really minded that fact before, since I’m a keener and better traveler when I’m on my own. I don’t even really go out of my way befriending people at my hostel and I never take offers to go out, keeping to myself and politely declining lunch dates and sightseeing activities. I keep my walls up, but I stay civil and somewhat friendly, exchanging tips and stories. One of my friends said it well after I explained to her that I ended up not making any lasting connections: You didn’t travel to make friends anyway.
I didn’t. It wasn’t part of my goals and it wasn’t my style. I’m an introvert and I’ve always preferred alone time rather than hanging out with people. Dealing with strangers and trying to make quick friends gets tiring instead of exciting.
But there I was in Bagan, feeling alone and sorry for myself.
Two months later I’m in Indonesia, the last stop of my backpacking trip. I made plans on staying in Ubud for culture and food and in Seminyak for shopping and the beach. This time, it wasn’t loneliness that left me chained to my room: it was fear.
Bali kept being tagged as paradise but it just didn’t read to me that way. Everything was being shoved at me every five steps or so: taxi rides, tours, souvenirs, food. I even had locals offer me drugs at two different occasions, both during daytime and on a busy street. I had to deal with catcalls, men with no concept of personal space and one random marriage proposal from a taxi driver who stalked me halfway a street.
Don’t get me wrong, Bali is beautiful. I know I’ll still write about the highlights of that part of the trip, no matter how short the list will be when compared to other cities I’ve been to. There will eventually be a travel guide on Ubud and Seminyak, a post or two on some of the memorable things I’ve seen and done. Maybe it will be about the kind family who hosted me in their guesthouse and the locals in the market who doted on me, or about how I watched a stunning performance of a Balinese dance and how I saw a traditional ceremony unfold in Ubud.
But Bali wasn’t for me. I couldn’t find my travel mojo because I felt like a prey every time I stepped out of my room. Constantly dealing with fear left me paranoid and while I wanted to shove it all behind me, I just couldn’t. I wanted to love Bali, I really did, but for the most part it was far from paradise and far from the pages of Eat, Pray, Love.
I know now that it’s absolutely normal to feel lonely when traveling. It’s also okay to dislike a destination and crave for home. It’s not being acknowledged all the time, but it happens more than you realize. It’s easy to fake constant happiness online – I was guilty of this for the entire Bagan and Bali leg of my trip – but it’s not easy faking it in real life.
Loneliness and fear on the road go hand in hand with vulnerability, something that is part of the traveling. See, you need to be open to people and experiences, both the good and the bad, in order for you to fully appreciate what traveling can offer to you.
So what do you need to do when that gets a little too much for you?
Take time off if you need to. There’s nothing wrong in slowing down or choosing to take a day just for yourself. The reality is there will be highs and lows even when you’re traveling. Being away from home sometimes even makes that harder for some people and there’s just no sense in avoiding that.
I guess what I’m saying is, you need to honor how you’re feeling. You need to listen to yourself and you need to do what needs to be done for you to get out of that rut. Most people don’t know it until they’re living the reality, but the combination of exploring new experiences, meeting strangers and dealing with bouts of fatigue, anxiety and homesickness can eat you up. It can get overwhelming, which will eventually lead to travel burn out.
So do yourself a favor and rest. Take a break and recharge your travel batteries for awhile. You’ll thank yourself when you get out of your hibernation and find that you have more energy to immerse yourself in your new destination.
Have you ever dealt with something like this on the road? What did you do to get out of that funk?