Each endeavor evokes a plethora of emotions in a nomad, but the first time you take the leap alone, it can be its own unique journey. From the moment you entertain the idea, manage to squeeze everything into your backpack, arrive at your destination, to when you land back home, the range of emotions you experience is unimaginable.
This was especially true of my trip to Uganda. I mentally packed my bags weeks in advance, got all the necessary and “just in case” immunizations, started a blog, geared all my University essays to topics pertaining to Uganda, watched The Last King of Scotland, had meaningful goodbye talks with loved ones, and embarrassingly even came to terms with my own death (I was admittedly a little over paranoid). The excitement, paranoia, anxiety, and hopefulness I felt were beyond overwhelming. Uganda was all I thought about for weeks before or after my return.
Traveling can take you on an unparalleled emotional rollercoaster that looks something like this:
1. The Dream is Planted
First it is like a distant dream, maybe a bucket list item you write down and hang on your wall as a constant motivator and reminder of what you must accomplish. You think about it often, but it is not realistic because you have responsibilities (e.g. school, work, bills, an apartment lease, or a relationship). Even so, you check flights from time to time and bookmark the webpage.
2. The Possibility Blossoms
The clouds clear, and it begins to seem like a real possibility. You have a break at school, vacation time saved up, you get an automated email alert that the cost of the flight dropped, a friend sends you a link to an interesting volunteer opportunity, or you get out of your relationship. The stars seem to align to make your trip happen (or maybe you just scrounge up the courage to make the necessary changes in your life).
3. The Commitment is Made
You take the plunge after way too many hours spent researching flights, and you nervously punch in your credit card number and press submit. Immediately after this you make a Facebook status (e.g. “Flights officially booked, so excited for my trip!”), partially to confirm to yourself that it’s real and maybe to brag a little.
4. Obsession Sets In
You become obsessed with all things revolving around your trip. You start making mental checklists of things you need to do and bring while you are at work, in the shower, in bed, out with friends, even in your dreams. You check the weather forecast months in advance, even though you’ll never get an accurate depiction of the climate. You get overly excited when you meet new people from that place or even remotely near it. You buy a lonely planet guidebook and add a phrasebook in the local language to your shopping cart while you’re at it (because there is a discount if you buy both). You bore your friends to death talking about it.
5. Doubt Creeps Up
You start to doubt your ability to travel alone, and half-heartedly invite friends and family members to tag along (“You should just quit your job and come with me”). But really deep down, you want it and need it to be alone to prove to yourself that you can do it. You remind yourself that when you traveled with people in the past, you missed out on cool activities because your travel mates were more interested in seeing the exhibit at the art museum then taking on the grade 5 river rapids.
6. Remembering Responsibilities
You tie up loose ends. You clean your room because you know the last thing you want to come back to is a mess on top of the returning blues. You actually pack, and then repack. You have a goodbye dinner with your friends and realize you will miss them, but you are not meant to be in one place for too long. You’ve subsequently adapted to saying hi and bye without experiencing the full range of emotions that used to be tied to those words.
7. The Anxdom (an odd blend of anxiety and freedom) Overwhelms You
You embark on the longest part of the journey- getting there. You are overwhelmed with anxiety because you are so close yet so far. You taxi to the airport, wait in the check in line, go through customs, wait in the security line, and then finally (almost inevitably with one or two hiccups in between) you get to your gate and you wait some more. Then you board your plane and try your best to sleep, read, watch a movie, pace the aisles, but you can’t focus on anything but your excitement and nervousness. Then you get a glimpse of the landscape out the window and everything else fades, because you’ve never felt so alive.
8. The Honeymoon
You begin to get your bearings. So much is like how you expected, and yet the things you didn’t even consider are so different. It all comes together to become your new happy place. It’s like one sweeping and epic love affair. Everything you see, every meal you consume, every smile you exchange, you fall in love a little more. You wonder why it took you so long to get there, how you lived without this place, you imagine your life there long-term, and you begin brainstorming ways to extend your trip.
9. Homesickness Silently Haunts You
Depending on how long you are there, you start to feel homesick ever so slightly. But in a good way that keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t allow you to get too comfortable and forces you to appreciate each moment.
10. Super Friendships Bloom
You cross paths with like-minded people and connect on a meaningful level. You make friends at hyper speed because you’re all away from your support systems and are on the same wavelength. These people become your new family, and they make traveling alone not so lonely.
11. Torn Between Two Homes
You dread your inevitable return home, but you are admittedly excited for your bed and reliable warm showers and a stocked fridge. You have grown into a better version of yourself and you become accustomed to the social norms. You have changed, yet there is a part of you and your past that your new friends will never know or understand.
12. Reflection and Nostalgia Become Your Bitter-Sweet Companions
You make the journey home sorting through hundreds of photos, memories, and thoughts. You already miss it, and who you were there. You replay each moment like a highlight reel in your head. You try to stay positive and remind yourself that you’ll always have your memories and Skype and Facebook to keep in touch with new friends.
13. The Outsider Effect
You arrive back to a place that no longer feels comfortable. You don’t feel at home when you lay in your bed, take a shower, walk down the street, or eat dinner with your friends. Everything just seems a little off, and you spend a lot of time in your room. You feel confused and lost as you realize you left a part of yourself behind and you’ll never feel completely whole again. You upload photos, recap your journey in a final blog post, develop the perfect way to tell each story; all to ease the hole left in your heart. The uncertainty of when you’ll have the opportunity to go back and if it will be the same when you do lingers.
14. Regaining Normalcy
The journey becomes a distant memory and fades into a collage of images of times you once had, as the responsibilities of reality sink in and the normalcy of your daily routine reemerges. Normal never felt quite so boring until now.
15. Dreaming Becomes Your New Reality
You start back at stage one, because you are hooked. You know the beauty that is awaiting on every mountain top, the purity in the smiles of the locals you meet, the bliss in every bite of exotic food you taste, and the sense of home you feel all the while. You have experienced the magic of traveling and the possibilities the world contains and you can never be fully satisfied without its warm embrace again.
Anna is an optimist with pessimistic tendencies who enjoys making a short story long, her coffee black, and watching Friends re-runs. These days you can catch her in her natural habitats wandering through forest roads in her van, hiking to a waterfall or glacial lake, and learning about off-grid living the hard way.