It’s an escape, and something more, folks
Occasionally I hear this sort of question from people when talking about my current trip of seven months in South America: “But isn’t this just an escape for you?”
Escape from what, I begin asking myself, feeling instantly self-conscious and nervous. A city I didn’t quite fit into? Perhaps. A job market that no longer suited me? Yeah, probably. Life post-divorce? Certainly. The cold and dark of Minnesota winter? Hell, yeah! (Question: Shouldn’t I try to escape those things?)
The truth is, the first few times I heard someone ask me whether I’m “just escaping”, it stung, because it was subtly critical of a decision I’d made. That is, the decision to follow through with a dream I’ve had since college, or even before then: to travel long-term around the world and to live abroad.
I can see why others might think of my trip as an escape, and it has been a distraction in some respects—but a very helpful and transformative one. Transitioning from married life into a new and single life post-divorce, one marred by too many moments of raw loneliness and awkward, sometimes painful dating experiences (I’d never dated before getting married), has been surprisingly challenging. Spending time improving my Spanish and considering different ways to teach English abroad has been a superb way for me to indulge myself and my career, and get my mind off of divorce, and the fact that I feel old for the career stage I’m in. Traveling has allowed me to fill my mind with new faces, experiences, and triumphs, and let go of some less-than-pleasant memories and rigid, negative beliefs that I’ve wasted a portion of my life.
Patronization is alive and well
While I can’t speak for everyone; there are those who are traveling a long time, five+ months, who think and feel a similar vibe as I do. Traveling long-term can be the beginning of something radically new in your life. Would this still considered an “escape”? Or a healthy life choice?
Recently I asked my friend Najet if people back in France, where she is from, considered her lifestyle abroad as a form of escapism. She said yes.
Even Nomadic Matt–one of the most popular travel bloggers around–has faced the “escapism” branding. As he explains it in this wonderful post, people accuse him of running away from being an adult.
I get the sense that perhaps people saying that I am “escaping” may also wish they could do what I am doing. But more often I believe that people who say this simply don’t quite understand the purpose of long-term travel—they are more comfortable at home.
They believe that whatever happened to me, my job, my Minneapolis life, must have been so awful that I now need to “escape.” This was the general discussion I had with Najet—this idea that we are escaping something in our respective homes by traveling for months, and living abroad. At this point, a sense of patronization begins to creep in. And the realization that I am not doing what I “should” be doing.
To that I shrug (somewhat wearily). I’m used to being patronized. I’m a woman who grew up in a conservative small town in Minnesota. I’ve had family members tell me I’ll come around to being more politically conservative someday because what I think now is wrong—I’m young (and therefore silly). I’ve had religiously inclined friends express concerns over my lack of faith in my adult years, explaining that if I have kids (which I may not have—which is, of course, another aspect that is “wrong” with me) I’ll probably want to attend church again, and that really, there is no sense in the world without a God. (Therefore I have no sense).
I actively work toward trusting my intuition and intellect—and it seems to me that what path I’m on now is the one most fulfilling to me. It’s true, it’s not the road that makes sense to most people from my world; those who work hard to support their families, show up in offices every day and provide services that I depend on and for which I’m grateful–banking, tech support, education, and the like.
There certainly is a tradeoff for this kind of nomadic existence, whether it lasts a few months or years: financial instability, smelly clothes, illness on the road, just a backpack to call my home. I do not have gadgets, a house, children, pets, a kitchen…all those things which give us wonderful learning, comforts and joy. And yet, I couldn’t feel more content with this phase in my life.
And I’d encourage everyone to give it a try.
Go! Go! Go!
To bring this back around to the topic of traveling: I’d encourage everyone to think of long-term travel as an exploration and a transition period—a time to think and reflect on who you are, and what you really want to do. That’s what this journey has done for me. And it needs to be long—really, really long—because after only one month you haven’t changed, you’ve been on vacation; after three months, when you’ve gotten sick or your heart is broken by that person “back home” (this is a very common trend, my friends—even happened to Che while on his motorcycle journey), when you’re uncomfortable by all these strong emotions and foreign foods and bad water that sends you to the toilet every ten minutes; when all this makes you want so badly to return to the place you came from (but needed to leave, for whatever reason)—that is when you must keep on going.
You’ll want to return to comfort but you can’t, it’s only a mirage at this point. After five months you adjust to the new self, the moody but buoyant adolescent emerging through the experiences you’ve endured and enjoyed. You’ll reflect proudly on the triumphs you, and only you have brought upon yourself.
As Cheryl Strayed wrote in “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar,” if you feel the need to go, GO! (She said this in various forms, and once I get the page numbers, I will share them! Or, Meg Egg, if you happen can find the pages, I’d be grateful; or even better, I highly recommend everyone read this book).
You must get outside of your current reality, which is perhaps suffocating you in ways you can’t understand—and won’t understand, until you are out of it.
If you travel for all these reasons, this is not escape. In a way, it’s a full-on confrontation. When I lay in the jungle for two weeks without Wi-fi, I confronted all the junk rolling around in my psyche. There were so many opportunities for me to consider who I was, and whether everything I’d done in my life had been a mistake—I’d hardly consider this escapism.
For some, long-term travel, or living abroad for a while will give clarity and reason to go right back to what they were doing. Perhaps they will know exactly what it is they need to tweak, a change they couldn’t see before, when they were stuck in their daily rhythms. And for others, like myself, it will give the strength to keep walking into a new life, the one we’ve had in our dreams far too long.
So then, is traveling for seven months considered the Grand Escape? As in, on March 13th, 2019, will it be my time to return to “reality”? Sure. I’m escaping into new realms, new ideas, new dreams—and a new location to call home. I’m discovering realities that utilize my love for language, offer places to live in sunshine and jungle year-round, and give me a sense of meaning. It doesn’t matter where you end up living, in the US, or Colombia, or China—what matters is that you feel you have the ability to change your life, to escape that old one. For me, travelling has always been the key.
PS: Thank you Jenne and Matt, for allowing me to finish this blog in your wonderful home in Dourados, Brazil, and use your excellent Wifi. You and your family abroad have been an inspiration for me, and a restful haven.
Jenne and Cici in Bonito, Brazil. We are Escape Artists! (You can too, in whatever way you want to be).