Things Travelers Never Tell You: When Travel Bites
I heard someone splash into the pool outside. Laughter, 90’s music, and the smell of pot drifted in through the windowpane. I could hear the giggles of twenty-something girls as they flirted with the single studs in sunglasses. Friends bonded over beers and talk of their daily adventures. The humidity and light rain made my loose curls stick to my forehead. This was Cairns.
It was dark in the room but I liked it that way. Direct sunlight was unfitting of my mood. I shifted the ice pack on my ankle, trying to balance my leg on the ladder of the bunk bed. I looked at my phone hoping a text would magically appear.
I stared at it, willing a connection to someone, anyone, who could tell me things were going to be okay. I put it down and covered my face with a pillow, trying to stifle what had been obvious to me for the past few hours: Sometimes solo travel SUCKS.
Not even a week into my trip and I managed to pull a muscle or pinch a nerve in my foot while walking (yes, I am just that talented). I had pushed through it, unwilling to let a little soreness stop me from exploring Australia but I was now paying for it in spades. Unable to walk around or put weight on the foot, I was bedridden in Northern Australia. This was all sorts of crappy for many reasons…
- I was spending money I didn’t have on things I didn’t think I’d need (extra aspirin, shuttle rides, massages, taxi cabs, ankle braces, etc.)
- I had a limited amount of time in Cairns. I had only one specific reason for being in this city (to go diving in the Great Barrier Reef). I was deathly afraid of having come all this way to have to scrap my mission due to injury or poor timing.
- I was a solo traveler in a backpacker’s world. There were no ice machines, no first-aid, and no-one to help me get around. If I needed ice for my foot I braved the pain and hoofed it to the store around the block. That was all there was to it.
- I really didn’t know what I did to myself. Was this a temporary injury or would I be on crutches for the next six weeks? And how was I going to front the money for such an expense if it was necessary?
- Because I was trying to ‘rest’ and I had nothing good to say, I wasn’t saying anything at all. I gave up on socializing when I got to Cairns; I couldn’t keep it together long enough. I felt very alone.
The thought rolled around in my head, crashing into my ears like a wave over and over… I was alone.
My chest started to tighten again. I felt the back of my throat catch and the tears building in the corners of my eyes. I couldn’t decide which hurt more, my foot or my heart.
I sucked in a bumpy breath, absorbing the feeling of failure. What kind of traveler got so down while on an adventure? I was a short boat ride away from one of the most beautiful natural wonders of the world and I hated it. I missed the familiar. So much for being a seasoned nomadic traveler.
To make the situation more stressful, my bank had given me nothing but problems since arriving in Australia. Even after going in and talking to the manager, informing them of my travels and destinations, my card was getting denied. I was calling the fraud company multiple times a day, trying to explain to them that I was in fact the one trying to use my card. They told me it was my bank’s problem and that according to their system my card should be active. My bank kept telling me it was the fraud company’s problem and that they were not the ones denying the card. No-one could fix it and no-one seemed to care enough to help me find a solution. So I continued to pay astronomical rates to cry to the representatives of each company and not be able to make purchases.
I had resolved just to pull money out of an ATM and go from there, but eventually my bank started denying me access to my money even with a pin number. And of course, it was a weekend and my bank was closed. Now I was stuck Down Under, injured with no money, and no idea when I’d have access to my funds again. Just the thought of it made me burst into tears again. This was not what I had signed up for.
What was worse was that I was mentally beating myself up. I was so angry with myself for feeling so homesick and being emotionally unstable. I took great pride in my easy-going and adventurous spirit. This was not the kind of person I wanted to be but I didn’t know how to pull myself out.
The thoughts continued to rear and crash into the forefront of my mind: I am injured. I am scared. I am stressed. I am alone.
I wondered if other travelers felt this way. Why was it that the other travel bloggers I knew never talked about their travel lows? Did they just not have these problems? Did they not want to think about it? Or did they also think it was just them?
All of the other girls in my bunk were on their journeys with friends. Would I be feeling this way if I was traveling with someone? Would this be different if I was staying in an actual hotel? I’d quickly learned the backpacker world is not kind to handicapped adventurers.
I shifted the bag of ice to the other side of my foot. Even though I rationally know this would one day just be a bad dream, I couldn’t seem to convince my emotions fully. I also knew in the scheme of things, my problems were not that bad. But I felt extremely vulnerable and was scared to death it was coming off that way. If this was the Serengeti I’d be the sick little antelope that was eaten first. I wanted to survive but I didn’t know if I knew how.
I pulled out a pen and a pad of paper. The only thing I could think of was to write… To devise a plan and try and help future backpackers in this situation.
So I started brainstorming… How was I going to get past this? What was I learning that would allow me to start enjoying this adventure again?
Things Travelers Never Tell You: Overcoming the Not-So-Fun Adventures
1. Stop fighting your challenges. Ride the horse in the direction it’s going. This is often the hardest but most crucial act. You have to accept your situation. You don’t have to like it, but you can’t spend time trying to fight against the reality. That will only waste energy and time. It is what it is, regardless of how much it sucks. You can feel sorry for yourself and cry and pout and whatever you need to do to get past the anger and sadness. But after you’re done doing that, know that there are things occurring in the universe that you may not be privy to. Trust that this is right and that you’ll get through it. Float on.
2. Forgive yourself for being frustrated, sad, upset, and angry. Being kind to yourself is crucial in these moments but not an easy feat. The tendency instead is to tell ourselves to buck up and stuff away our feelings. But this is only a temporary (and potentially dangerous) solution. We need to be able to experience these feelings of disappointment and fear in order to move past them.
And give yourself credit where credit is due. The low points of travel can be very disheartening and make you feel unbelievably vulnerable. You’re allowed to feel how you feel. So accept your feelings and allow yourself to experience them. Then you can pick up and move forward.
3. Remember life doesn’t stop just because you’re traveling. There seems to be this misnomer that life is supposed to go swimmingly while abroad. When it doesn’t, travelers take it personally. But that’s the funny thing about life: it continues regardless of where you are. And in all seriousness, your situation while traveling may not be comfortable but at least it’s different. You’re having a new adventure and you’re obviously supposed to be learning something from this. All you can do is try to remember that you are not a victim. You’re a player in the game so play it smart.
4. Recognize that you have an opportunity to really test and evaluate your strengths and weaknesses in this moment. I love travel so much because it forces reflection in the mirror of truth almost every step of the way. It makes you be very honest with yourself and others about where you are mentally. Sometimes this can be a harsh pill to swallow but it can also be beautiful. We tend to gloss over these apparent truths in our daily environment because we have so many distractions to create noise and don’t need to face these realities to move forward. But travel is a test of determination, acceptance, and self discovery. Take this opportunity to figure out where you are and how you can grow.
5. Know that while you are traveling and facing these challenges alone, you can’t overcome them alone. As a solo female traveler, I do not like having to depend on others for anything. But in challenging situations, my choices are limited. Finding allies, friends, and people to support you through your journey is crucial. Having a support system back home is great, but that 8,000 mile gap can feel pretty wide. There’s something psychologically satisfying about having someone to talk to in person who can literally give you a shoulder to cry on.
Be honest and open to those you meet about what you’re struggling with and what you need help with. It’s amazing how generous, kind, and compassionate people can be. The reality is that even if they’ve never been in your shoes, everyone understands feelings of loneliness and helplessness… especially travelers. So just hang on and speak up. Help is on the way.
I clicked the lid back on my pen and looked at what I wrote. Help is on the way. I sighed.
The ice was melting. I was hungry.
I wrapped my ankle, bracing for the next moment. I took a deep breath and stepped out into the easy-going atmosphere of Cairns, trying to push past my homesickness and fear. All I could do was hope tomorrow would be better.
I stopped halfway through the door frame, realizing there was one thing I’d forgotten. Always always always smile.
I draped a precarious smile over my face, trying to let the muscle memory take over. After a few seconds it settled comfortably and I was feeling better. With that I continued on my way, one hobbled step at a time.
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