Returning Home after Long Term Travel

by Kirsty Gordge

It’s a tough one, returning home from an extended trip overseas. 10 months in Europe; 88 beds in a year; travellers’ exhaustion. It couldn’t be more different than leaving.

Everyone gets so excited for their trips away: the packing, the planning, the organising. The anticipation of new experiences and being drawn into something that you, yourself, have chosen. The long journey ahead. The road less travelled.

I’m no different. Two weeks away from flying to Vietnam and I’m stoked about the official VISA document on my bedside table at home. It’s hard not to jump up and down once you’ve got that fiddly, detailed, bureaucratic box ticked. The start of my next trip, and my leaving, is now undeniably imminent.

But I’d bet a plate of Southland cheese rolls that nine out of ten travellers do not consider at this point – when they’re zipping up their bag for the hundredth time, checking their passport and farewelling family at the airport – the very moment they will return.

In that initial airport moment, there is only the future; long, bright, and ahead.

Unwritten. Indeterminable. Exhilarating.

But like every good glass of cold beer, it comes to an end. Like everything, ever, must.

It doesn’t matter where you’ve been, what you’ve done, or how you’ve grown; the place you left beckons you back and scoops you up in its arms once again. Then it’s all joy, relief, laughs, nostalgia, and disbelief.

Then there’s the awkward time-travel part.

The part where you think you’re in a different world or a parallel universe to the one that you left. During your months away, time has stretched out for you; the hours seem like days, the days weeks and even the minutes are noticeable.

Some days you might have rolled off your rickety bottom bunk and out the hostel door only to return sixteen whole hours and a lifetime of experience later. Every time you dropped back onto that precious piece of horizontal foam you were much wiser and older than you were in the morning and you counted your lucky stars you made it back there to your safe haven. Your safe haven – that old pillow in the corner of a room you’d never seen before. It became the common denominator of three wild days, signalling ‘home’ until you whisked yourself away again.

And now that you’re properly home, with reliable hot showers available at all times, one steady WiFi connection and a fridge full of food that isn’t wrapped in plastic bags and labelled with unfamiliar names and departure dates – it feels different.

Is it a question of deserving? What one deserves? Or is it more the fear of returning to your old ways, your old life, and all the lessons you learned going to waste…?

You’ve been there, you’ve done that, and you know what it’s like to go without. You don’t want to take things for granted now that you know what a lucky life you were born into. Realising how privileged your whole existence is changes a person. But often you can only be most aware of this while you are consistently on the road, going without. Without the comfort of your own zone, without your security blanket, and miles away from anyone who loves you.

Because the truth is, humans are incredibly adaptable. And whether we like it or not, adapt to our surroundings, we will.

Adults get used to commuting; children get used to school; winter turns to summer. Similarly, travellers get used to new water, cuisines, currency and timetabling. We will, relentlessly, adapt. The action is simply evolutionary, whether for better or for worse.

Coming home from a long, nomadic lifestyle after being comfortable with being uncomfortable, is so bittersweet. We don’t want to build up comfort zones once we know how exhilarating it is to live outside them. We don’t want to stand under that hot shower head without grinning from ear to ear in sheer happiness and gratitude. And we don’t want to sink back into those grinding daily routines and join the band of workplace colleagues that moan about their lives.

This is when we realise that we might have time-travelled. While your months away have felt like personal years, the months for everyone else at home have just been months. It’s difficult to talk about; the depths of time cannot be crossed with a few quick catch-ups. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that while you were off having midnight sweats and loneliness breakdowns and climbing literal mountains at 4am, your friends and colleagues haven’t even managed to climb those metaphorical mountains they set out at the start of the year to do.

It’s hard to re-join the tribe when the tribe cannot join you. But alas, we too will adapt back into the lifestyles that surround us. For better or for worse.

Maybe that’s why so many nomads stay nomadic. It goes against our nature to live such an unstable existence away from home but it goes against our nature even more to first reach a deeper understanding of life, and then turn back the clock to be your same old self, living the same old life as everyone else.

The only resolution may be in trying to combine the two. Realising how to consciously live one’s life with all the understandings and depth of a long-term traveller on the road – but in a normal society with friends and kitchen utensils and Thursday night Pilates. Adapting to both situations. A homely routine with a worldly-wise ever-ready semi-nomad living inside who doesn’t feel the need to escape in order to be fed.

But that will have to wait. Right now, I’m off to Vietnam.

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