Photo by: bingham_becky.
I used to be crazily superstitious. I wouldn’t walk under ladders, I’d salute magpies (damn things never saluted back) and Friday 13 was a flat-out reason to stay in bed (were it not for the fact I was aged 13 at the height of my superstitious years and didn’t have the autonomy to choose not to go to school).
Fortunately, like most teenage fads, my superstitions receded to nothing as I entered adulthood and the Indiana part of Jo actively seeks out ladders to walk under, just to disprove the point. So, the idea of 365 days with the number 13 in the year didn’t phase me…or did it, perhaps a little bit.
The thing is, 2013 has been my worst travel year so far. I did many great things and had many great experiences, but overall a large part of me will be relieved when the clock takes us into 2014.
Knowing this post was coming, I put together a summary of the highlights and the Best of the Blog in 2013 – because I wanted to express my gratitude and acknowledge that there were plenty of highlights to my traveling year (that secret beach in El Nido springs most to mind) and they deserve celebrating. But lying under the surface of 2013 has been a rather personal struggle, and one that is ongoing. It wouldn’t be real for me to pretend that my traveling life exist in a vacuum. As beautiful as that beach in El Nido was, it was a one-off highlight hidden amidst months of travel burn out.
So, this year I’m going to do a rather honest review of my year – how I did on my Travel Wish List 2013, as well as my fears, failures and why 2013 was my worst travel year yet.
My first trip of the year took me to Africa, a continent that was high on my Travel Wish List for 2013. With time in the Gambia and Senegal, and the first touch of sun on my skin for the year, it was, in many ways, the best way to start 2013…except, my trip was overshadowed by two factors.
First, the trip didn’t take place until the end of March. The first three months of the year I’d been grounded in the UK waiting on a date to go to court. Yes, you read that right. For the past 18 months I’d been in the throes of an acrimonious divorce, with proceedings culminating in 2013. Of course, getting divorced is rarely high on anybody’s fun list and the fact that I was rooted to the UK pending the outcome (this wasn’t a simple paper signing exercise) made it worse. The additional fact that it took a further six months of paper work and more wrangling to get the final details solved, followed me throughout much 2013. I don’t intend to dwell on the proceedings, save to say that when my bottom hit the beach in March, I was already peaking at emotional exhaustion.
Enter problem two – the unreasonable client. Everyone who works in the service industry has them. Hell, I’ve probably even been one. But this client came into my life at the point I needed the hassle least. My plan for Africa was rare – I was going to switching off for the first time in years. It was a nice idea…that didn’t happen. Despite approval of my work before I left, my client changed his mind the second I landed. Cue: the rest of my trip spent searching for wi-fi to take instructions and complete several revisions on an urgent timeframe for two pieces I have still not been paid for (oh, the freelance lifestyle). It’s not a working relationship I will pursue. I just wish I’d had that foresight back in March and reclaimed my much-needed relaxation time instead.
After months of standing still in the UK, I had a backlog of wanderlust stored up in my system so I was back in the UK for a matter of weeks before I launched into what promised to be the biggest trip of my year. First, to Japan then on to destinations unknown in Asia. Both were on my Travel Wish List 2013, so I was doing well.
Japan was perhaps the biggest highlight of my 2013 travels. It was a trip I had planned with my dad back in 2011, just before the tsunami hit. After a lot of heart wrenching discussions about whether to go or not to go, we changed our plans (the potential nuclear melt down being the deciding factor), and hit Cuba and Mexico instead but with a promise to make the Japan trip happen some other time. In April 2013, we made good on our promise and I promptly fell in love with the country, its people, the sights and the food…oh, the food (I still dream of the Kobe beef).
Back into my traveling stride, I thought the wrongs of the beginning of the year were finally being set right, and then it hit me. Travel burn out.
Within days of arriving in Manila, I started to experience the familiar trappings of travel overload. I’d lost my desire to explore, I spent days wandering idle around the air-conditioned Mall of Asia, the food didn’t excite and I spent hours lying on my bed in a windowless room in Puerto Princessa playing Candy Crush. Yes, you also read that right.
Many people I meet tell me how lucky I am to live the traveling life that I do and over 99% of the time I would agree with them, but lying on my child-size cot in the Philippines, I didn’t feel lucky at all…which made me feel even worse. Fighting off my ungrateful feelings and struggling to evaporate the travel “whatevers”, I took myself to Vietnam, the country that had first sparked my wanderlust. If Vietnam couldn’t shake my travel blues, then perhaps no place could.
Little by little, pho by pho, I started to get back into my traveling groove but it felt like the Travel Gods were against me at every turn. Screwed up visas, flights, stomach sickness, bed bug epidemics and, obviously, a snake in my room (?!), I battled one travel challenge after another. It was my second bout of travel burn out since I set off in 2010, both times having occurred in Asia, leaving me with the feeling that perhaps this continent isn’t for me. The first time I suffered for about 10 days, but this time the burn out seemed to set in more permanently, following me for months. When I had tried all that there was to try, I did the most sensible thing in the circumstances, I stopped fighting my feelings, I gave up and I headed home.
The second I committed to re-route my ticket, my wanderlust returned. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be on the road, I just wanted to be on the road somewhere else. A quick consultation with my Travel Wish List and I found the answer. I’d spend a month in Europe. Italy in particular – I’d visited Florence years before, but never taken the time to properly explore the art and sights. This time I’d do it slower, with my only other agenda items being the food. Gelato and European summer – it was the perfect antidote to my burn out.
I repacked my bag (completing the downsize task I’d set myself for the year) and for a month I travelled through Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Rome, down the Amalfi Coast and on to Naples. Stomach sickness hit me one last time, but I otherwise seemed to have left my travel blues behind in Asia. Things were definitely looking up.
The Life Admin of A Digital Nomad
My travel plans for 2013 extended only to August 3rd when my lovely mum turned 65. I was back in the UK just in the nick of time. But as the last sip of bubbles slipped out of my glass and down my throat, I knew it was time to face the music. With my divorce finally wrapping up and having successfully outrun three years’ worth of life admin, I knew that I had to put a hold on my travels for at least a few months and deal with all of those things I’d so poorly neglected while I’d been skipping around the world living out my dreams.
Being a digital nomad is a fun theory and most of the time it is fun in practice. However, when I set off on my adventures in 2010, I had every intention of coming home, re-entering the legal workforce, finding somewhere to live and riding out my time until retirement, when I’d probably go traveling again. Thankfully, things haven’t worked out that way. But I’d also stored up a logistical headache. With storage costs at £130 a month, a rental property I’d barely been managing from afar, an ever decreasing set of savings, and the practical complexities like tax, domicile, healthcare and insurance to deal with, I had to spend time dealing with the dullness of life admin.
Personal affairs can become somewhat complex when you step out of mainstream life and the fact I’d saved all of this ‘fun’ for one stint at the back-end of what had already been a hell of a stressful year, it’s no surprise that I hit misery fairly quickly. Stuck between a self-imposed travel ban and a complete lack of motivation to deal with the life admin that was keeping me in the UK, I spent the start of Autumn in life limbo.
The Wild Card of No Traveling Plans
By the end of September I was going out of my mind with life admin tedium. I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel (apparently it take more than a week to sort through a lifetime of possessions and sell them on eBay). But then a different opportunity arose. I applied to and was accepted into a programme called BlogHouse, a workshop run by Navigate Media to coach up and coming bloggers in the art of all things bloggy. It wasn’t travel as such (I justified to myself). It was work. I didn’t need to think too hard before I packed a bag and flew off to Ireland.
It was the best decision of my year and what followed was one opportunity after another. Immediately after BlogHouse, I travelled to Dublin to TBEX, the travel blogging industry’s biggest conference, which in turn prompted an invitation to TBDI, a blogging event attached to Italy’s biggest travel trade show and, later, on to WTM, another travel event in London (I suspect there is a long adhered to travel law that requires these events to feature an acronym).
At those conferences, I met a whole network of amazing travellers and writers. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people who were just like me, and I was beyond excited. These people understood the pains of monitoring Google Analytics, dealing with malfunctioning WordPress plugins and didn’t flinch when I responded “It’s complicated” when asked where I lived. Destinations, travel planning problems and future trip dreams were common conversations and my travel burn out suddenly felt very far away.
But, in the back of my mind was a nagging guilt. My self-imposed travel ban wasn’t going so well. In under two months I had traveled to Dublin, Bansha, Dublin, Milan, Rimini, Bologna, Milan, London, Milan, Urbino and Milan (I really like Milan!). I have no regrets about swinging with the momentum when opportunity called because, ultimately, it took me on a trip to one of the most beautiful corners of Italy I may not have otherwise discovered. But in the meantime, my to-do list remained largely un-done.
What for 2014: hopes and fears
Photo by whatleydude.
As 2013 draws to a close, I hold at the forefront of my mind a great amount of gratitude for the traveling I was able to do this year. And, I know from experience that in no time at all I will look back on 2013 and only remember the good times (although I will probably always remember the snake). But most of all, I’m looking forward to a fresh start.
I’m in the process of working on my Travel Wish List for 2014, and I do this with a fairly large degree of fear. This year has been a significant transition in my life. In selling my possessions and turning my back (for now?) on the option of putting down roots, I’ve made the biggest commitment to date to life as a digital nomad. And the fact that I have done this in the face of one of the worst bouts of travel burn out I’ve ever experienced has honestly scared the hell out of me.
Right now, I’ve just suffered a bed-ridden bout of winter flu, I’m tired in my bones and the idea of picking up my bag makes me want to bolt for a duvet and hide under it. A feeling that flies in the face of my decision to sell everything and go global. I know in my heart that I can’t go back. To a cubicle. To a static location. Having experienced the excitement of the world and the flexibility and freedom my new way of life offers, I know that I can’t stand still. But equally, I’m worried – what it I can’t go forward either? What if my travel burn out makes a return? What if my wanderlust doesn’t seize me in the way it has before? Travel is different these days as I try (and often fail) to balance work and play, the latter often giving way to the former.
These are challenges I will have to face in 2014. Life on the road is one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. But it isn’t always easy and to pretend that is it offers a life comprised solely of rainbows and butterflies would be deceitful. That said, I do believe that you need the bad in order to fully appreciate the good and while my plans for next year may be so loose as to be non-existent, I do have one overarching plan that should see me good – to never stop trying to fill my life with fun.
Wishing you all a very happy New Year. Here’s to 2014 and whatever it may bring us.