Five tricks for staying sane as a long-term nomad

A little more than a month into my Grand World Tour, and I’m still utterly thrilled by it. My sense of time is all skewed—it feels as though I’ve been away from my “home” and the people I love so much longer, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve been living in México for a month. I’ve been absorbing, learning, and changing so much, and I don’t think I have, for even a single moment, yet regretted my decision to undertake this grand venture.

It’s pretty intense what I’m doing, and I often find myself overly emotional—not in a negative or positive way really, but I think it’s my way of processing the general instability of this way of life. Everything around me is either constantly in flux or constantly unfamiliar, and it would be easy to become unbalanced by it.

One month in, here are my tricks for staying sane. Nine months (and two or three more continents) in, I’m checking back with this, to see how much of it stays the same.

1. Realize that sometimes a day will be a wash.

Some days, you’ll be sick. Some days, you’ll be tired and jetlagged. Some days, you’ll be melancholy and homesick. I struggled with this with my recent trip to México City—I was only there for eight days, and I wanted to absorb as much of the city as I possibly could. It’s fascinating, chaotic, and a challenge to comprehend, and I castigated myself for being asleep or working at ten am. I should have been out exploring! Then I realized that running myself down just doesn’t work long-term. I’m not on holiday for a week, I’m living my life in a foreign place. Not every day will be productive work-wise, and not every day will be revelatory travel-wise. Some days will be neither. That’s okay.

Colonia Roma
Some days, you get totally lost for hours, because all the streets in Mexico City go in circles and have six different names. But then you accidentally bump into beautiful old buildings covered in graffiti, and everything works out.

2. Stay in touch.

My biggest fear is loneliness. This is my first time travelling for more than five weeks by myself, and I know that I’ll miss the social structures, and the people I care about, more than anything. Luckily, the internet is a magical thing, and it affords me roughly a thousand different ways to keep in contact with people. So I use Facebook and Twitter more than I would normally. I send texts to my litttle sister via WhatsApp. I send emails and make phone calls. I had a Skype date with my roommate, in which we both drank wine, talked, and made faces at one another for two hours. I send stories written on the back of postcards. Keeping in touch with the people who made my “stable” life so rewarding (and in fact were pretty much the reason I stayed in Halifax as long as I did between trips) goes a long way to keeping me sane and bridging the old life with the new. When everything around you changes, you change immeasurably too. Keeping grips on your alternate self helps you realize the things that remain constant and true throughout, and help you to be more assured of who you are, even when sometimes it feels as though everything’s been torn out from under you.

3. Make new friends.

While it’s important to stay in touch, if I didn’t make new friends, I’d be horrifically lonely and homesick. This was the biggest mistake I made in Argentina, when I wasn’t travelling alone, and it contributed greatly to the deterioration of my relationship with my travel companion, as well as my own sense of self.

I didn’t make friends with a baby jaguar, but I really wish I had.

I tend towards being a hermit. I’m a bit of a misanthrope to begin with, and I work by myself all day, so it’s easy to spend a day in which I don’t talk to anyone. So I’ve actively been working against that, knowing that while yes, sometimes I just need time and space away from humans, but more often it’s healthy for me to meet new people and make new connections. I live with a roommate, I couchsurf a lot again, and I make it a rule to generally say “yes” when someone asks if I want to go out. As a result, I’ve met a ton of awesome, intelligent, varied people, and I’ve learned more about the culture and hidden undercurrents of this country than I ever would have if I’d isolated myself. Sure, sometimes I end up stuck at a party where everyone’s speaking Spanish and I feel lost and uncomfortable, but most of the time I find myself having a great time, making new friends, and learning new things. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a more valuable part of travel than seeing pyramids.

4. Focus on the little things.

I find, the more I travel, the less I care for typical touristy things. Sure, lots of these things are famous attractions for a reason, but I no longer beat myself up if I miss one or two (or sixteen, depending on the place). Usually, the guidebook attractions are swarming with people (this becomes especially true in Europe), and, while impressive, can feel like a one-hit-wonder. It’s nice to see, but then it’s over. I’ve seen so many tourists storm through an attraction, taking photos every two seconds, not stopping to consider anything or even look at the thing they’re photographing so enthusiastically. (Watch people in the Vatican if you don’t believe me.) It feels empty.

Really gorgeous graffiti in Colonia Roma. As much as I like museums and such, I think outdoor art installations (whether “legal” or not) are far more interesting. Art should be contextual and integrated into daily life. México City is full of great museums, but I liked the series of coffee cups installed outside the museum better.

I’m finding more value in taking a six-hour walk through a city, getting lost and finding interesting signs, buildings, or things happening. I’ve discovered that I love urban parks of all shapes and sizes and beautiful, multi-level bookstores (I’ve been to #4 and #6!). I really enjoy finding a perfect little café to work away my day in. Long-term travel isn’t so much about the awe-inspiring or the impressive as it is about the everyday.

5. Remain flexible.

This is, above all, my most important rule when travelling, living, or navigating relationships. Things will always fail in unexpected ways, especially when you’re in constant motion. You need to be super-flexible in order to make it work. Every time I embark on another long strange trip, I change the rules up, adjusting the formula until I hit on something that works.

If you want stability, stay home. If you want adventure, learn to adapt.

This doesn’t properly capture the chaos of Mexico City, but imagine that there are a few million people jammed into tiny streets overflowing with street vendors and old buildings. I’ve left the orderly world I lived in behind; there’s no room for rigidity here!