Before I set off round the world in June 2018 I wrote the blog post Nomadville to share what I’d learned and experienced during ten years of travels in my work vacations. I was excited to finally be in the position to live my dream of travelling full-time but also nervous/terrified about what might lie ahead and concerned about how I would manage my Fibromyalgia whilst on the road. Over six months on, I am still travelling – I’m writing this from Guatemala – and intend to continue for as long as I am happy and in good enough health to do so. The journey so far, from London to Guatemala, has had its highs and lows and as we are now in a new year, I thought it was time for a post to reflect on the last six months to perhaps give those who are thinking of pursuing their dream of long-term travel this year an idea of what they may be letting themselves in for…
WHAT I’VE LOVED
- Having the freedom to go wherever I wanted when I wanted.
- Being able to be flexible with my plans and not restricted by work schedules – I will often extend my stay if I really like a place.
- A stress-free life – my only daily decisions tend to be what do I want to do that day and what do I want to eat.
- Meeting some fabulous people who I have shared genuine connections with and will be friends for life (see above pic).
- Having some unforgettable experiences – seeing the hot air balloons at sunrise in Cappadocia, hiking Pacaya Volcano, staying in the Banksy Hotel in the West Bank, watching quick-footed sensual dancers strut to live bands in Cuba, paying my respects at Auschwitz etc.
- Learning about different cultures, eating local food, and learning new languages.
WHAT I’VE NOT ENJOYED
- Some truly rubbish dorm mates. There are people who think it is OK to not silence their phone, to press the snooze button multiple times, to have loud conversations or use a hairdryer in the room when others are sleeping, to take up all of the space, to ignore people they are sharing a room with, to repack their bag in the early hours, to have noisy sex despite dorm mates being in the room… the list goes on. The selfishness of others never fails to astound me.
- Exhaustion. Long-term travelling is not the same as being on permanent holiday and it can get exhausting travelling from place to place, not always getting enough sleep especially if you always stay in dorms to keep the cost down. To combat this I get a private room every few weeks to catch up on sleep and try to stay in places for longer than three or four nights to give myself some rest time. Having fibromyalgia means I have to make self-care a priority and I avoid travelling through the night as I don’t sleep and lack of sleep can trigger a flare up.
- Being ill on the road. Getting ill when you are travelling really sucks. It can be hard to get the medication you might need to get better and difficult to properly recuperate when going from place to place. It can also make you feel quite low and lonely. When I developed bronchitis in Banff it took me weeks to get over it and made travelling a struggle. Luckily I was able to buy antibiotics over the counter in Mexico and I eventually made a complete recovery.
- When things go wrong. Despite being cautious about when I use my bank card abroad, my debit card was ripped off when I was in Jordan and I was not able to get the money back as I use a banking app rather than a standard bank account. You will lose things when travelling and things will be taken from you. A girl I met recently was unfortunately robbed of her phone and purse when counting down to the new year in Antigua as she had let her guard down momentarily. Another traveller I know of was robbed when getting off a bus late at night in San Miguel de Allende and his hand was injured with a machete. Sh*t will happen. Your resilience will help you cope and other travellers can be very supportive when things go wrong.
- Unwanted male attention – it is what it is. The worst incident was being called a b*tch by a young local man as I walked around Amman, Jordan, despite minding my own business and being dressed very modestly. Most attention has been complimentary though and I just say thank you and don’t engage in conversation. If I want to explore a place undisturbed I will put headphones in but not play music. People think you are listening to music so they leave you alone but not listening to anything actually means you can pay attention and take in what is going on around you in peace.
I was chatting to a fellow traveller recently and she said that there are loads of travel blogs out there but no one ever writes about the dark side of travelling. She explained that everything she reads tends to glamorise long-term travelling and make places seem more exciting than they are. She made a good point. Unless you are fortunate to be staying in luxury accommodation during your travels, there is nothing glamorous about living life on the road. I live out of a medium-sized wheelie suitcase. I try to do laundry once a week but it can be tricky in some places and hand-washing is not always possible so I sometimes end up wearing things far longer than I would have done in the ‘real world’. Hot showers are a luxury and I have gotten used to having cold showers. I am a smellier and less put-together version of my old self. When I set off, in my toiletries bag I had a day and night moisturiser, cleanser and toner to remove make up and eye cream. Now I have a pack of face wipes and a tub of Nivea. It’s easier to travel with less and quite liberating to not worry so much about my appearance. In my old life as a teacher in Dubai I never would have left the house without putting on foundation, eye liner and mascara. These days I usually bumble around with just a slick of mascara applied. Long-term travelling strips away all the unnecessary stuff, makes you realise what’s important and what’s not, and that’s a positive.
What did my travel buddy mean by the dark side of travelling? Well, she meant some of the things I mentioned in my ‘What I’ve Not Enjoyed’ list. The difficulties and the downers. The endless round of ‘Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?’ conversations can get mind-numbingly repetitive. Sometimes I just can’t be bothered and don’t always feel like being sociable. When I’m in that mood I keep myself to myself and watch a movie, write or listen to music. It can be hard work spending time with people you don’t click with but at the very least you can be polite. The tough ones are the cling ons who want to spend all of their time with you but you’re not feeling it. I’ve had a few of those during my journey. I don’t like being impolite so I tend to do the typical British thing of being non-committal, e.g. ‘sounds good but I’m not sure of my plans yet…’ and hope they take the hint. One of the things she meant was the competitiveness that some travellers seem to feel – they like to boast about the places they’ve been and make you feel inferior when you say you haven’t been there yet. There is a thin line between giving other travellers tips and advice and being a smug know-it-all. I think the worst ones are the wannabe Instagram influencers. My Instagram account is essentially a hobby – I love sharing the pictures I’ve enjoyed taking and try to convey a sense of the places I visit – but there are some travellers who are so obsessed with getting the perfect Instagram pictures they forget to actually ‘be present’ in the place they’re visiting. I have heard of travellers doing activities that they didn’t want to do just to get a cool Instagram picture. Each to their own I guess. When you are travelling for a long-time you can get a bit over it – church and temple fatigue is common – which makes travellers sound ungrateful but you can get spoilt seeing so many amazing sites as you travel the world. Travelling at a slower pace and making an effort to digitally detox periodically can help with that. Ultimately travelling can be whatever experience you want it to be and people go on round the world adventures for all sorts of reasons.
When I set off round the world I was looking to mend a broken heart. Walking away from someone you love because you know the relationship is damaging you is akin to setting off with your feet in opposite directions; contradictory impulses need to be reconciled in order to move forward and travel has given me distance and clarity, enabling me to process my memories/emotions and put the past behind me. Bruised by a tough couple of years, my mantra became ‘healthy body, healthy mind, healthy soul’. Before I went travelling I was the sort of person who liked to plan everything and be in control. At the start of the trip I would book accommodation for the month ahead, to feel secure, but now I am happy to book a few days at a time. I’m enjoying living a more flexible life and I am more relaxed and spontaneous these days. Six months on, I am not the same person I was. Any anger I felt about particular people and situations that had made my old life toxic diminished months back and it all feels like a different lifetime ago now. I entered 2019 with peace, gratitude, pride in myself for how I coped with the radical changes of 2018, and a stronger sense of who I am, my values and beliefs, and what I want out of life.
People often ask me what it’s like travelling with a chronic medical condition. Fibromyalgia generally makes life more difficult on a daily basis so it’s not easy managing it on the road. Since coming off Lyrica in May 2018 I haven’t taken any medication except for Ibuprofen when I need it for pain management. I try to make sure I get enough sleep and take rest breaks and rest days when needed. Two years ago I was struggling to get out of bed and maintain a normal life so I am amazed at just how much I am able to do – for example, horse-riding in Viñales and hiking. Sometimes though I pay a price for pushing myself. I fell over in Mexico City when I went out sight-seeing on a day I was feeling wobbly – which was instant karma for laughing at a guy I’d seen fall over days before and his trousers had fallen down, exposing his arse to the world. Poor guy. After a day of bike-riding in Valladolid I had lower back pain for three weeks afterwards which made it difficult to sit for long periods so I think bikes and I have now parted ways. I get excruciating pain in my left shoulder and arm when I’m over-tired but other than that, I’m doing good. I generally know my limits and don’t give in to peer pressure. If I don’t feel up to going out partying then I don’t. When in Antigua, lots of travellers told me I should do the overnight volcano hike to Acatenango but after doing the Pacaya day hike I knew the longer hike was going to be too much for me. I don’t like not being able to do everything I would like to but that’s life with Fibro. I’m grateful for my current state of good health and daily self-care means I am living a quality life that would have been unthinkable for me a few years ago. If you have a chronic illness too, don’t let that put you off going travelling. If you really want to do it, you will find a way and may find that being away from the stresses of work, relationship or family pressures etc, improves your health, like it did for me.
If you are thinking of taking the plunge and travelling long-term this year, then do it! It’s not always easy but the rewards are great. You learn so much about yourself, other cultures, and the world; you will be changed in ways you cannot anticipate – hopefully becoming more open-minded, compassionate and tolerant along the way. Travel makes you braver, takes you out of your comfort zone, and you get to try/do things you may not ordinarily consider. There have certainly been lots of positives for me and travel life seems to suit me. In 2019 my travel journey continues and I wish everyone who reads this all the best for the year ahead.
Take care, Lisa.
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