The Unbearable Lightness of Being an Instagrammer

I was sitting in a conference, listening to an Instagrammer talk with pride about influence.

The example she gave? A follower had sent her a photo of her going to the exact same spot that she went and taking the exact same photo – down to the hand jauntily placed atop a straw hat – with a similar whimsical caption to boot.

She talked about how her followers have told her that they don’t even care to read about a place — they just want the picture. And that, as someone who’s always loved the written word, is a bit sad.

If you went to the Maldives and didn’t stunt for the ‘gram, did it even happen?

But she’s not wrong. A full 40% of millennials say they travel first and foremost for Instagrammability. I certainly can’t fault anyone for taking photos of their trips or themselves. But it’s the prioritization of Instagrammability over the other more rewarding aspects of travel that makes me sad.

Getting the photo shouldn’t displace seeing the destination itself. My best travel moments are often about chance happenings – special people I’ve met along the way, near-disasters narrowly avoided by kind strangers, fortuitously stumbling upon a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that ends up blowing my mind. But that isn’t what I show on my Instagram.

Is this carefree enough?

The problem with this set of priorities is that often, we go to a place with a picture already in our mind. This forecloses the openness to chance that I feel should be the very heart of travel. If we value Instagrammability over all else, I feel like we’re at greater risk of being disappointed. My dress isn’t as nice as hers, the shadows are all wrong, why does my ass look like that? 

Not the mention, I think we encourage a really unattainable version of travel: whimsical, problem-free, curated perfection. No wonder Instagram is considered by psychologists to be the worst form of social media for mental health.

Let’s take Morocco as an example of one of Instagram’s darlings. There’s no doubting that Morocco is one of the most photogenic countries I’ve traveled to: it’s pretty much Instagram crack. I see the same barrage of photos: cute outfits with a Blue City backdrop, camels winding paths through the Sahara as the sun sets, ornate doors left and right.

Sahara desert in Morocco
Desert vibes *sparkle emoji*

But I remember what a struggle traveling as a female in Morocco was for me: the constant sexualizing comments, how locals refused to give directions (in English or French) in hopes of squeezing a buck out of me, the uncomfortable night in the Sahara where I woke up to my guide just inches from my face while I slept, when I felt dangerously close to the situation approaching sexual assault.

And then I think of all the whimsical photos taken in the same places where I struggled so hard with no context given. While I don’t doubt that people can have – and have had – different, very positive experiences in Morocco, I also am fairly confident that their photos don’t tell the whole story.

Mine didn’t. It wasn’t until I sat down and poured my heart out to my blog that I felt like I had actually told the true story of Morocco, good and bad. But someone looking at my photos would have thought that everything was just magical.

I’m writing this from Canggu, Bali — which is undeniably beautiful. But I can’t help but notice how what used to be a sleepy seaside village is now basically an Instagram playground. Add a colorful wall with a dreamy saying and bam — busy every day. Add a swing, and bam — Instagrammable. I’ve literally been told at one restaurant here, before I had even looked at the menu, that I need to spend a minimum amount to take photographs. I fully intended to order a meal (and I did), but this experience really rubbed me the wrong way. 

You better like this photo, cuz it cost me 100,000 rupiah.

That’s why I think that the vast majority of Instagrammers, myself included, encourage a really unattainable version of travel. Valuing photographability rather than its other merits – its history, its culture, its potential for adventure, its food, its people – encourages a disengaged and potentially irresponsible form of travel.

It seems everyone wants to be a travel Instagrammer these days — and with paid campaigns focusing so heavily on Instagram, it’s not surprising. But the result of this is that I’ve really noticed the blurring of the line between fashion and travel, especially for female bloggers.

Wait, you mean this isn’t what Instagram wants?

Half the Instagram shots I see of women seem to be just as equally about the dress as the destination. The location almost seems to be a backdrop for their lithe bodies or beautiful clothes. Meanwhile, male Instagrammers never seem to dress up for their photos. They’re allowed to just be landscape photographers… or in many cases, they frequently feature female models who look way better in hiking clothes than any mere mortal can ever hope to look.

I’m pretty sure you’ll never see a dude carrying a change of clothes so they can have the perfect look atop a mountain they’ve just climbed, but that seems to be par for the course for female bloggers. Not only is this annoying as fuck, it also places an expectation and an undue financial burden on female Instagrammers to keep buying new “Instagram-friendly” clothes to complement the destination.

Needs more maxi dress.

I’ve literally seen Instagrammers change into dresses on a bus then hike through muddy hills for half an hour in a maxi dress. Granted, their photos were beautiful, but it seems to be a ridiculous double standard which places an undue burden on women. Not only do we have to go to cool places, but we have to look beautiful, have perfectly tousled hair, and a stunning dress (bonus points if it’s backless) to get that perfect Instagram shot. Framing a shot that you are in is simply more work, especially if you are traveling sans Instagram husband and need to frame the shot yourself with a tripod and remote. Which is fine if that is the photo you want to achieve, but I just think it’s unfair and harmful to women that this is the norm rather than the exception.

In case this comes across as someone trying to seem holier than thou, I’m just as complicit. I’ve found myself tapping to save things to my collections, hoping to replicate a cool photo. I’ve hesitated to post shots I loved that I knew would flounder on Instagram, like portraits of tobacco farmers in Cuba. I’ve found myself buying cut-out back dresses just because I know that will make my looking-away-dreamily photos just a bit better. I may or may not own a straw hat.

Straw hat, check. Off the shoulder romper, check. Now all I’m missing is a watch facing on the inside of my wrist.

Instagram is great for inspiration and discovery, don’t get me wrong. But beyond just the way it messes with our minds, I also worry that it creates an unsustainable future for travel. Take Norway’s Trolltunga, for example. The Insta-fame of this natural wonder has ballooned its annual visitors from 1,000 to 100,00 – literally, a 100x increase in a mere five years.

Other sights are similarly grappling with how to handle the impact of the Instagram generation. Zion National Park, Barcelona, Lake Louise — they’re all wondering how to handle the influx of tourism and bad behavior (littering, poor hike preparation, dangerous posing) that social media is bringing.

Confession: I bought this bright coral bikini as soon as I got invited to Maldives, just because I knew it’d be fire against that turquoise water.

Sometimes, scrolling through Instagram feels a bit like Groundhog Day. Cinque Terre. Mykonos. Marrakech. A Daniel Wellington watch. Iceland. A smoothie bowl.  The Maldives. A manicured hand cradling some latte art. And repeat.

These photos are usually presented without context — captions often seem lifted just straight from a never-ending Word document of wanderlust quotes.

I can attest that no matter how beautiful an Instagram feed looks, travel is full of ups and downs. And for those of us who call ourselves bloggers, I feel we have a responsibility to represent travel honestly and accurately – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and that the atlas has more pages than the “Explore” feature of Instagram would suggest.

10 Things I Learned About Myself After a Year of (Mostly) Solo Travel

When you’re your only travel companion, you can’t help but get a little introspective. Staring out of a bus window, half-listening to a podcast, contemplating my life and the many turns it’s taken to bring me here… That’s kind of been my default look the past year.

June 28th will make one year I’ve been on the road solo, with a few breaks and some travel with friends scattered in between. To celebrate making it through 12 months, here are 10 things I’ve learned about the wacky bitch who’s been keeping me company all of these days.

For an anxious person, I’m surprisingly unflappable

I know, it’s kind of an oxymoron, right? I’ve learned that my anxiety works on the macro scale. When I am unhappy with large aspects of my life – a job I’ve outgrown, a city I’ve grown tired of – I wake up in the mornings breathless and terrified. Those mornings I’d have to swallow a pill and breathe deeply to keep myself from escalating to full-on panic, just to go about my day.

But the little things that add up when you travel, I can take surprisingly in stride. Lost my luggage with precisely every item of clothing I own in it? Regroup, go to a diner for breakfast, and get tips on the best thrift stores in town. Stuck in a small village in Albania in the rain with no bus on the way? Guess I better start hitchhiking.

That said, hostel life often brings out the worst in me

I’m about to directly contradict myself — because above all, I’ve learned that I contradict myself regularly. To quote my boy Walt Whitman, Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

As much as I just congratulated myself for outrunning my anxiety… hostels really bring out the worst in me. Awkward social situations are one of my biggest anxiety triggers, and I’m a massive introvert who thrives off alone time. While I used to love staying in hostels, I’ve realized that I can only live such a public, shared life for so long before I start to go a little crazy when solo traveling.

Part of it is that I need to work from home a fair bit and hostels make crappy environments for that. But mostly, I get tired of having the same dull conversation time and again, and tired of making excuses not go out drinking profusely for the nth night in a row.

Also, I’ve gotten a little spoiled.

I’m no longer the youngest person in the room

Perhaps related to my blah, hostels stance is the fact that I’ve finally realized that I’m aging. Bear with me here:

I moved to New York and went to college when I was 17, the youngest person in my class by a good year or so. When I started my job in the Department of Education at 21, I was easily the youngest teacher there, and continued to be for the five years I worked there.

I got used to always being surrounded by people older than me. Frankly, it made me feel like I had time to figure out my life.

Now I feel like I’m always surrounded by young’uns who are just starting out their 20s, and I can’t help but be wrenched with envy. I find myself wondering about how if I hadn’t become a teacher and had gone into travel blogging earlier, if I’d be more successful. If I wouldn’t be alone if I had made better choices in romantic partners over the years. Basically, if I had the wisdom I have now without all the pesky business of, y’know, actually attaining it.

I actually like the beach

I never was much of a beach person – the result of many a third degree sunburn and hating the way I looked in a swimsuit.

After finally learning that I need to reapply sunscreen a jillion times and seek shade between noon and 2, I’ve finally developed a tan for the first time in my life and don’t burn quite so easily. I’ve also made peace with the size of my thighs and am finally wearing age-appropriate bathing suits instead of the grandma-inspired bottoms that even the Mormon church would approve of.

As much as I say I want to travel slower, I never do

I’m of the opinion that clinical FOMO should be added to the DSM, whenever they see fit to revise it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sworn that I’m going to choose a base and start establishing a healthy work-life-travel balance…. only to find myself staring at a ticket confirmation page to a brand new country just days later.

While I’ll never be one of those superhuman travel bloggers who are in a new country every couple of days, I haven’t been able to stay in one spot longer than two weeks (Little Corn Island, you tried to tame me).

There are so many countries I want to tick off my bucket list, cities I want to wander, mountains I want to climb. So to settle down and pick just one city — even if just for a few months — seems nigh impossible.

I’ve challenged myself to pick a city in Eastern Europe for one month to live in this August, when I’ll need to get out of Schengen so as not to overstay my visa. Sofia, Belgrade, and Bucharest are all vying for the honor.

I have a hard time with routines and self-care

This is probably related to my FOMO-induced restlessness, but even when I’m back at home, self-care is a struggle. A regular sleep schedule…. HAHAHA what’s that? Exercising regularly? Unless you consider digesting donuts exercise, which I do, go away. Sometimes even the simplest things like filling up my old lady pill box with my pills and vitamins for the week seems like a task plucked from the annals of Hercules.

And don’t get me started on my taxes (actually, no please do).

As much as I say I’m a cynic, I’m a big old softie at heart

For some reason, I’ve always thought of myself as a pessimistic person. I blame the Q train.

But getting to know myself better, I’m learning that while I may get irritated about indignities like manspreading, body odor, and showtime, I’m pretty optimistic about the world writ large. The people I’ve met on my travels have, with few exceptions, gone above and beyond to help me and welcome me everywhere I go. And I can only respond to that with love and gratitude.

But I still love animals more than people

I can’t count the number of times I stopped whatever I was doing to coo over the animal in front of me, whether it was a dog, cat, horse, donkey…. Even the mangiest-looking of dogs (I’m thinking of you, Taco, the ugliest dog in all of Guatemala) were not spared my effusive love.

Being around animals centers me and makes me calm, forcing me to press pause on whatever thoughts I have buzzing around my head to enjoy the peace of a quick, stolen snuggle.

I’ve learned to relinquish control

Part of why I think traveling has been good for my anxiety is that I’ve learned that I can’t control everything. I used to be such a micromanager, planning every future event to the letter. Now that it’s impossible to predict what any given day will be like, I have the latitude to let go a little.

While at first that made me a bit panicky and hard to travel with (many thanks to my dear friend Kristine for managing to put up with my high strung antics) I’ve started to master the subtle art of not giving a fuck.

Writing is what I’m meant to do

Not that I think I’m especially good at it… nor do I think I’m exceptionally bad. I just know that nothing fills me with more purpose than sitting down and finally putting everything that’s been churning around this little brain of mine on paper. Nothing fills me with more happiness than when a reader reaches out to say they’ve connected with my words.

Starting from when I annexed my aunt’s computer at the tender age of six to write a story about a car running out of gas in the middle of a desert, I knew I wanted to be a writer. In college I lived and breathed it, taking poetry and fiction workshops with some of the greats, even conquering my fear of public speaking to perform at poetry readings.

But once I started teaching, the daily emotional labor of the job beat the creativity out of me. I stopped writing for nearly five years. This blog, humble as it may be, has brought me back in touch with that. And that is perhaps what I’m most grateful for in this new crazy life I’ve created for myself.

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What I've learned from a year of solo female travel: tips, photos, and musings after traveling Europe, Central America, and the USA

Why I’m Breaking Up With Backpacking

When I quit my job to travel full-time, I kind of imagined that I would be a backpacker for the rest of my life. I know, I know: how naïve can a girl get?

The truth is, I think it appealed to me so much because I skipped from youth to adulthood a little too quickly. When I graduated, lack of employment options for English graduates pushed me into a field I never expected or frankly even wanted: teaching special education.

Suddenly, I was responsible for shaping all these little lives – at the age of 21 – although I could barely take care of myself. The weight of it was heavy, but I felt like it the only way to keep living out my New York City dream.

As I traveled on my school holidays, I met a breed of people I never met before: carefree backpackers seeing the world for months at a time. I decided then and there, after a life-changing trip abroad to Southeast Asia (yes I know, how basic of me), that that was what wanted I wanted to be.

Girls with umbrellas in Myanmar

Fast forward two years later, and I’m realizing just how much greener the grass was from that side. I may have missed the boat to be a backpacker. The truth is, as I near 30, backpacking no longer holds the same allure it used to. Maybe because I’m secretly an old. I often turn down invites to go partying because actually, I’d rather lay in bed at 10 PM watching the Walking Dead before winding down the night with a nice, soothing podcast. I actually strongly considered packing my onesie in my backpack before realizing how utterly ridiculous that was.

Or maybe because backpacking tires out this closet introvert. I hate having the same tired conversation: “where are you from?”, “how long are you traveling for?” and hate myself for not being socially creative enough to break outside of that, either.

Maybe because if I have to hear someone in their early 20s say in with shaman-like seriousness that they decided to “live for experiences and not things” again, I may very well lose what’s left of my mind. Partly because I’m aware that that is me, too, and I hate that my special snowflake badge is being tarnished.

But more than anything, I’m realizing that I have finite reserves of energy. Who I am at the beginning of a months-long backpacking trip does not really resemble the person at the end of it. In the beginning of a trip, I’m so excited for all the adventures that await me that I’m constantly planning and moving, making the most of every moment. By the end, I’m planting myself in one location for as long as I can, desperate to catch my breath.

I think I may finally be ready to say goodbye to backpacking.

This isn’t to say that I’m throwing my backpack into a bonfire and becoming a checked-suitcase, cruise-ship traveler. Just that I’m slowly realizing that it’s not healthy for me to live a life of constant movement.

Another thing I miss when I backpack is my friendships. Everyone always told me that when you travel alone – you’re never really alone, because you’re making friends everywhere you go. The first part is true; the second, not so much.

The truth is, I can count on one hand the people I’m still in touch with who I met in hostels, out of the hundreds or maybe thousands of names I’ve learned and promptly forgotten. While those friendships are special to me and will always be, I crave more stability in my life.

When I say I’m breaking up with backpacking, I’m not trying to say I’ll never stay in a hostel again: far from it. Sometimes it’s the best option when you’re traveling solo or in an expensive country. But I am admitting I am no longer capable of these months-long schleps around the world.

As an anxious person who struggles with bouts of depression, I’m learning that the stress of having to be “on” all the time isn’t worth the benefits of backpacking. I’m chronically exhausted, easily frustrated, and always behind on my work. While I may get to check more countries off my list, I’m often too tired near the end of my trips to truly experience them.

So what does that mean for me and this blog?

I’ll be slowing down my travels, interspersing some shorter stays with long-term rentals in AirBnbs. I’m planning on spending an extended period of time in Budapest and perhaps another non-Schengen country, as I have to keep an eye on my 90-day allowance. I’m hoping this’ll give me what I need to employ better self-care, self-love, and figure out what my direction is when I’m traveling.

But most of all, I want to know where the fuck my phone charger is for a change.

The Real Reason Why I’m Always Traveling

When updating a friend from home about my travel adventures, she remarked that it’s like I’m a whole different person when I travel. I go over the events of the last month in my head: getting my SCUBA certification, spending a week on a tiny island in the Caribbean with virtually no wifi, boarding down an active volcano, camping atop another one a few hundred meters away from its smoking crater…. and I realize she’s entirely right. New-York-me would have never done most of these things.

I intend no deceit – I feel I live honestly, as much as I can. But when I travel, I feel liberated from my conceptions of myself. I’m not just someone who hates to talk to strangers, to get wet or sweaty, or to look like a fool. I’m anything I want to be.

In my day to day, non-travel life, I know I can be a bit negative. Honestly, this is partly realistic — the world we live in is shitty, and with Trump at the helm, getting shittier by the day. But with respect to me personally, my negativity is a self-limiting exercise.

I hate clubs – so I don’t go out. I hate socializing with strangers – so I don’t go to that party where maybe I only know one person. I hate sunburns – so I rarely go to the beach. I hate looking like an idiot – so I don’t try that new fitness class I’ve been thinking of.

For me, what’s so intoxicating about travel is this unrelenting permission to be myself at my most bare. Stripped of my context, I’m forced to reckon with in-the-moment decisions that show me my mettle. My fortitude. And when I experience these moments, I realize I am so much more than the words I describe myself with in my head in my weakest moments.

I realize how permeable my identity is – and how this is a good thing. I can reinvent myself as often as I like because I don’t have to answer to anyone for my fickleness. For all anyone else knows, I’m a bar-chatting, beach bunny, volcano boarding champion.

As someone who suffers from mental illness, I often place so many expectations on myself based on past failures. I think of the days when I had trouble even going to work because my anxiety was so severe it felt like lead in my lungs. I think about the days where even as I knew how much fresh air would revitalize me, the thought of putting on my human suit was so overbearing that I stayed inside, letting day pass into night without ever seeing the sun.

But when I have no context, no prior experience to link it to, I’m somehow able to override that anxious channel in my brain. I’m able to say, nope, not interested. I’m not just an anxious person who hates X and Y and would never in her life Z. I’m the girl who starts conversations in bars. I’m the girl who climbs volcanoes.

In the back of my head, I know that the girl who hates every single stranger on the subway and the girl who trusts strangers enough to bond instantly over a furtive smile are one in the same. But they feel so separate sometimes that it’s hard to reconcile that they’re both equally me.

One day, I do hope that I can keep travel-me even when I’m not moving. That I can override my self-defeating, self-defining tendencies even when I dare slow down. For now, travel is almost a form of therapy – repeated exposure to situations that would normally paralyze me. And now I move through them, languid, often not even afraid.

But when removed from this contextless context, I remember that I am afraid. I think of all the ways in which I define myself in relation to what I can’t do, don’t do, won’t do. I forget that I once did all those things with ease, and that they brought me great joy. The real challenge is to merge the two. To get a bit meta here – the challenge is to eternally arrive into myself, even as I stand still.

Backpacking and the Art of Losing

The art of losing isn’t hard to master; 
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster. 

When my entire life fits into a backpack, I notice everything that disappears. A phone charger left behind one hungover morning, a razor left in a hostel shower, a favorite pair of headphones tucked between the seats of a bus and forgotten in a hurry. Each loss is acutely felt. At first, I get annoyed with myself, cursing myself for another five or ten unnecessary dollars spent, thinking of how that could buy me another beachside beer or roadside dinner. Then I give in and accept the transitory nature of things. After all, the audacity of thinking we can own things is the root of all suffering.

 

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Soon, I accept the transitory nature of time, too. I get hopelessly lost and amble through a city with no street signs, backpack straps cutting into my shoulders. I wait at a bus station that I’m not sure is a bus station but I’m told is a bus station. One time I find myself on a bus stopped on a Montenegrin highway for five hours for no discernible reason. At times like these, I feel a flash of anger materialize as a red flush in my cheeks. And then I breathe out, cool and blue.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster. 

Half the names I’m told leave my mind before I’ve even had a chance to make an effort to remember them. People’s stories will run together: this one (what’s Canada’s name again?) quit their job to work on an organic farm in Thailand, or was it become a yoga teacher in India, or an English teacher in Korea? I answer the same three questions over and over again. I recite the list of places I’ve been over and over again. I have no idea where I’m going, over and over again. I’m from California, over and over again. Next. Each time, the conversation means a little less than before. But I still feel a wash of warmth come over me each time, the pleasant buzz of a temporary connection.

 

besalu girona

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or 
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

But eventually all the losing gets to me. I miss the most mundane of things: the way my own duvet feels against bare skin, how easily my stove lights, how easy it is to buy groceries in my own language. Sometimes I find myself standing outside of a KFC staring in, basking in the red glow, imagining ordering a bucket of chicken thighs. I haven’t eaten there in five or maybe ten years but it still feels so damn familiar, like a distant relative’s home.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

Then there’s the gut punch feeling when you leave a place or a person you weren’t ready to leave. Even though I have no onward ticket, no external thing pushing me forward, my own feet move me forward, often in spite of myself. After all, what if the next place is better? I can always go back.

 

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture 
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

And then there’s the suspicion you begin to have that home is wherever you aren’t. There’s the paradox that even though you’re seeing more of the world than any sane person can ever hope to see, you’re still acutely aware of how much you’ll never experience. There’s the realization that even though you may tell yourself — “I can always go back” —  you can’t always do that. Because your obsession with not losing this one chance you have to live will once again draw you inexorably towards the unseen.

Note: Poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”

Solo Traveling with Depression: Learning When to Say “Enough”

I have a theory that solo travel accelerates everything. Without other human constants to stabilize you, you experience everything more starkly: both more harshly and more beautifully. Your challenges are more Sisyphean; your successes, more revelatory. For someone like me, who has long battled mental illness, traveling with depression makes this even more true.

My four and a half months of constant travel – three of them solo – accelerated the pace of my life on an epic scale. I did things I’d never dreamed I’d do. I climbed the highest mountain in Montenegro, rode camels through the Sahara Desert, hitchhiked through Albania, and had conversations in six different languages with varying degrees of success.

Years ago, If you told me I'd have summitted a mountain, I'd have laughed in your face.
Years ago, if you told me I’d have summited a 8,000 foot mountain, I’d have laughed in your face.

I met people from all walks of life. From the happiest octogenarian in Trebinje, Bosnia who poured rakija after rakija for me to the lady in Berat, Albania who led me hand-in-hand up a cliff’s edge to the castle, I had so many touching moments with incredible, unforgettable people.

Even the shitty people I met along the way taught me something about myself: about my resilience and stubbornness, about my dogged belief that despite the bad apples, the world is still filled with good people, and that it’s worth fighting for.

I’ve always been a fairly resilient person, but after months of non-stop travel, my resilience began to flag as the familiar dark cloud of depression has appeared on the horizon. There were days in Rome where, after hours of motivating myself, I left the hostel only to walk around in a daze, feeling like I might fall asleep on my own two feet just while navigating the city.

I stayed up until 5 am, slept until 1, then berated myself for having wasted the day as the sun loomed low on the horizon just as I was leaving for the first time that day. I burst into tears when I accidentally skipped someone in line at an Indonesian takeaway restaurant in Amsterdam. When Trump was elected, I couldn’t even leave the Copenhagen apartment I was staying in, because I was sobbing for hours.

On my last day of my trip, I couldn't even go out and explore Copenhagen.
On my last day of my trip, I couldn’t even go out and explore this gorgeous city.

But here, to speak of my present, I need to go back to my past.

I was first put on antidepressants at age 18, after a nervous breakdown in my first year of college that nearly ended in me dropping out of NYU and moving home. I’d alternate between nights so full of anxiety it felt like my bed was full of needles and I couldn’t sleep, and depression so gripping that even getting juice from the bodega 30 meters from my apartment felt impossible.

After seeking treatment, life started to get better. Once my antidepressant began working, anxiety seemed to be my main challenge. It’s such a physical, visceral sensation: that choking feeling, the coiling stomach, the alienation you feel from your own brain.

But depression is so much harder to suss out. How many days does a bad mood need to last for it to be depression? How many times a day can I smile before I can’t quantify that as a depressed day? How many hours a day do I need to sleep restlessly to qualify as a depressed person? Anxiety is clear: the physicality obvious, painfully so. But depression is murky, questionable, to the point where even you question how much you deserve help.

Sometimes, even days when you find yourself smiling make you feel like a fake.
The most infuriating thing about depression is the way it makes you question your own lived experience.

Years later, having rebounded well from this episode, I made the decision to go off antidepressants rather abruptly and without the assistance of medical professionals, which — as anyone who knows anything will tell you — is stupid as fuck.

I remember standing on the train platform of the J train in Bushwick, Brooklyn, as I got my first brain zap. It felt as if someone opened an enormous door in the middle of a wind tunnel, opening a portal between my ears. The world — all of it — felt like it passed through my two eardrums. And I was scared. What the fuck had I been on that made me feel like this?

I redoubled my commitment to stay off of antidepressants. After all – something that makes me feel like that can’t possibly be good for me. The brain zaps gradually decreased, and for a time, I felt quite okay. When things started to go awry yet again about a year later, I placed the blame squarely on external sources. My dating life sucked. My roommate was terrible. The job I just started was incredibly stressful.

For years, I dealt with it, thinking it was part of life. For four long years, I took nothing but the occasional anti-anxiety pill when my reality felt too much to bear and the only thing I could do to calm myself was lie down, face-down, and breathe.

I thought that quitting my job and getting out of the city that I had grown to hate would fix me. I thought that what I was suffering was purely situational, that traveling would cure my anxiety and depression. So, I planned my exit strategy. I sold all my stuff, gave notice to my job, and set off to travel, like all the blogs told me I should.

For a while, I truly was living my dream. Anxiety and depression were dots on the horizon. I met every challenge with moxie and determination and improvised wildly. I chatted with every stranger, challenged myself, and threw myself into this new life. And god, was I really happy.

Traveling is what I want to be doing. Travel animates me and endlessly fascinates me. It brings me in touch with my best and truest self. Routine is what gets me down. Routine is what kills me. But the last month or so, I was stuck traveling with depression, which is barely traveling at all. It’s survival mode. I’d make deals with myself to urge myself out of the room, escaping only for a few blocks before the world felt oppressive and heavy and I’d retreat to my room or dorm. That? That wasn’t travel.

When the daily act of feeding myself - literally my favorite thing in the world - felt like a burden, I knew I needed a change.
When the daily act of feeding myself – literally my favorite thing in the world – felt like a burden, I knew I needed a change.

It’s not travel that causes depression for me. I was still suffering when I was a teacher in NYC. Except I was too busy with paperwork, with calming and trying to teach disabled kids, with the day-in-day-out bullshit of the job. When surrounded by chaos, it was so easy to forget that I was depressed – I was too busy focusing on everyone else because I had to.

Not to sound dramatic, but with the kind of kids I worked with – the kind who’d dart out of the doors and off into the city if you batted an eye the wrong way – lives were literally on the line. It was only when I’d go home and sink into bed and feel myself give in to the void – that’s when I would I remember I was suffering.

But when depression rears its head and you’re traveling solo, you have no distractions. You have time. You are your own company. You feel every feeling acutely. When you are traveling alone, your mood becomes your traveling companions. And let me tell you… anxiety and depression make terrible travel buddies.

Finally, I said – enough. I found a cheap flight back to California a month early – thank you Norwegian Air for being absurdly and improbably cheap and for having direct flights to Oakland. So now I’m back home, working with a psychiatrist to help me get my medications sorted, to get healthy routines in place so I can stay healthy and fit while I travel, and treat myself with the self-love that I always tell others to have – but often forget for myself.

Luckily I have this adorable pup at my side to get me through.
Luckily I have this adorable pup at my side to get me through.

I know that I’ll be able to beat this. I’m a phoenix. I’ve emerged from worse.

At heart, even in the throes of depression, I am filled with a deep, immense, abiding love for myself. I know I have value. I know I still have lessons to teach and even more to learn. I know that I can still bring joy to others, and that others have put smiles on my face so wide they’ve hurt. I have more stories I want to tell. These fingers are just getting started.

“I am a series of small victories and huge defeats and I am as amazed as any other that I have gotten from here to there.” – Charles Bukowski

Travel is a Privilege

Sorgue River

My last post was all about how I afford to travel. Everything I wrote in there is true. But here’s the other, just as honest, truth: I could not be traveling the world right now without my parents and their hard work.

This is not to say that my parents fund my travels. Aside from holidays and occasionally treating me to things when I visit home, my parents don’t give me a dime. And that’s as it should be. I’m 26 years old and I’ve lived away from home for nearly ten years. I’m more than capable of providing for myself. If I travel, I damn well shouldn’t be asking them to pay for it.

They did, however, give me the greatest gift American parents can give their son or daughter: my college education. Aside from the meager scholarship NYU dangled in front of me to try to make me forget how ridiculously expensive it still was, they were the ones who paid in full for my education. Unlike most Americans, I have no crushing debt to pay off. That alone is an incredible privilege.

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Life Off the Path: Month 1 Recap

 A lot of my favorite bloggers do monthly recaps, and I think it’s a great way to mark the passage of time when you travel long-term. Now, time is such an abstract concept. I think in terms of “how many days of underwear do I have left?” and “how long have I been at this hostel again?” rather than days of the week, dates, or even months of the year. But time is passing – and quickly, too. As I write this, I’ve already gone and passed my three-month travelversary, without any major meltdowns. Score! So, pardon the lateness for this first monthly recap as I play catch up.

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Traveling with Anxiety: Lessons From a Month on the Road

Ever since I made the decision to quit my job to travel the world indefinitely, I spent the last month of work waking up anxious every day because I was so excited (and maybe a little scared) to leave. I thought that once I hit the road, my anxiety would dissipate. In many ways, it has. In other ways, it’s surfaced and made traveling difficult. But even in these short four weeks, I’ve learned quite a bit about how I personally need to plan my travel experiences in a way that is kinder to myself and my mental health.

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