FOMO vs. YOLO: The highs and lows of full-time travel

October 29, 2019

The nurse is cleaning the deep gash in my knee as I watch a gecko scurry down the wall, past the suture kit on the table beside me. If you’re going to get stitches for the first time, why not in a one-room “hospital” in the middle of a jungle? And such are the joys of full-time travel.

It’s been over four years since I left on what I thought would be a four-month backpacking trip around the world. Seventy countries, five hospital visits, who knows how many hostels, one new career, innumerable sleepless nights and just as many new friends… but trying to quantify the highs and lows I’ve experienced is tricky.

When people find out I’m a writer who travels full-time, they immediately connect it to their idea of a “dream life.” Don’t get me wrong; I love bringing my laptop to the beach and working, wine in hand, as the sun sets behind palm trees. What I don’t love? Waking up the next day to a humidity- and sand-filled computer that doesn’t want to work when the nearest computer repair shop is four hours away by sardine-packed train up the coast of Sri Lanka.

This lifestyle has its ups and downs just like everything else.

The Highs

1. Seeing beautiful things

There was that time I watched the marble slowly change from a light blush to a neon orange to a bright, pearly white, as the sunrise reflected off the Taj Mahal.

Or that time I woke up and unzipped my tent to be greeted by the glassy surface of a Norwegian fjord, stretching for miles below towering mountains, no humans or buildings to be seen.

There have been tons of these stunning sights, and whether I seek them out or discover them en route, they’re the most obvious highlights. I’ll never tire of seeing this planet at all her best angles, whether that’s from above the clouds on a Colombian mountaintop or on a kangaroo-filled headland in Australia.

Travelling Full Time  and Discovering New Places

2. Learning neat stuff

(Nerd Alert.) I can’t get enough of the information I learn while travelling—like being able to say ‘thank you’ in a ton of different languages (in Lithuanian it sounds like ‘Achoo!’)—and the random historical facts I’ve picked up along the way. Did you know there are ruins on the island of Gozo in Malta that are 400 years older than the Pyramids?

3. Experiencing cool things

Paragliding in Medellin, bungee jumping in South Africa, snorkeling in Bali, lantern festivals in Thailand. The experiences I’ve had travelling—whether they’re adventure-based, spiritual-based or anything else—these are the “highs” I travel for. The fact that they tend to occur with hostelmates I’ve only known for a day or two is just a bonus.

Full Time Travelling Experiences

4. Meeting dope people

Humans are so cool. Like really, truly, mind-blowingly amazing. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been offered help in times of need, or how many people have been willing to spend a bit of time giving me advice to make sure I experience their home country to the fullest. 

I once landed in Muscat, Oman, for a day-long layover after a sleepless overnight flight. Asking the first airport employee I saw where to catch the bus to the city, I was informed that there is no “bus to the city.” Instead, he found me a ride with a friend whose shift was ending soon.

His friend, Alex, ended up giving me a full tour of Muscat, taking me to the best local restaurants, renting us jet skis and answering all my questions about Oman, without letting me touch my wallet, before he personally escorted me through airport security at the end of the day. Just before I left, I told him he should answer his phone that had been ringing off the hook. “I’ll call them back,” he assured me. “It’s just my family wanting to wish me a happy birthday.” WHAT.

The Lows

1. I need a nap… a long, long nap

“Wow, four years… aren’t you tired?” I’m frequently asked, usually by other travellers who are feeling the strain of travelling for a few weeks or months. The answer is yes. I’m freaking exhausted.

Travelling is draining. Physically of course: sleeping in different beds every night, long bus/train/plane journeys, questionable food and water quality.

But you don’t realize how mentally exhausting it is.

At any given point on the road I have a million thoughts running through my head: What time is check out? How do I get to the airport? Do I have directions to my hostel downloaded for my next destination? Can I drink the tap water? How do you say hello in this language? Where’s my passport? Wait, seriously, where is my passport?

Full Time Travelling Can Be Exhausting

2. Losing stuf

Your phone, your wallet, your passport… these are the things you triple-check anytime you’re on-the-move because losing any of them abroad will quickly turn your life into a logistical nightmare. Yup, I’ve been there.

3. Getting sick sucks… Getting sick in third-world countries *really* sucks

I once flew from Albania to Estonia while very (very, very) ill because I needed to go to a proper hospital and that was surprisingly the fastest/cheapest/easiest way to do it. I went on to spend days alone in hospitals in Estonia, Latvia and Ireland over the course of weeks, frequently without the ability to communicate with the staff.

Another time, drinking out of a stream in the mountains of South America for five days gave me a fun little parasite called Giardia.

I also spent a two-day journey from the Philippines to the United States in a delirious, fever-ridden state from what I’d later find out was salmonella and shigella.

My left leg is now home to a gnarly burn scar from a hot scooter pipe in Sri Lanka.

Being sick sucks. Being sick and alone sucks even more. Being sick, alone and in a foreign country without great medical care? The worst.

Full Time Travelling And Getting Sick

4. Being involuntarily unplugged

The struggle with wifi is real for everyone who travels full-time.

That feeling of disconnect is sometimes actually one of my favorite parts of travel. You don’t have to make a conscious effort to turn off your phone, you just need to leave the vicinity of whatever wifi you’re connected to and voila! You’re unplugged for a while.

But the lack of connectivity can also be a huge problem. With a crappy internet connection and work deadlines, sometimes you need to resign yourself to the fact that something that should take one hour is going to take three.

On a personal level, staying in touch with loved ones is tricky when you’re reliant on the internet. And those tricky time zones limit your window to speak during the day. I’ve really pissed people off by unexpectedly losing connectivity for days on end without a forewarning (sorry, mom).

5. Missing out (on the important stuff)

Beyond the time zone woes that ultimately leave you feeling like you’re on a totally different wavelength from loved ones, I’ve lost count of how many “regretfully decline” boxes I’ve ticked on wedding invitations. And it really hits hard seeing my family and friends gathered together at baby showers or engagement parties, holding a loved one’s new baby, having fun at bachelorette parties…

Full Time Travelling Missing People

All in all, I remember sitting in that hospital room, gecko by my side, awaiting my stitches and feeling grateful (of all things). They’re not called “Thai tattoos” for nothing. Everyone has to drive a scooter for the first time to a waterfall with their new hostel mates at some point, right?

The lows do blow occasionally. It’s certainly not a lifestyle for everyone. Sometimes (okay, only rarely) I find myself envious of people I meet in hostels that have their own space and established routine to go back to once their weeks-long or months-long trips are over.

But the sacrifices are worth it to me—ten times over. Every lifestyle has its ups and downs, and the magical places, people, and things that go along with the nomad life make the stitches and FOMO worth it for me.

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