Hitting the Travel Wall

Over 900 days on the road, and I’m still not immune to the phenomenon of culture shock.

There wasn’t one event that set me off last Wednesday. Anchored by four chicken buses across El Salvador, it was a travel day like so many others. But this time, everything simultaneously rubbed me the wrong way and left me with a sense of guilt over my irritation.

I felt:

Annoyed Annoyed: None of the buses had space anywhere – underneath, on top, racks inside – to stow our backpacks.

Guilty Guilty: Our bags consumed precious space inside an already packed public bus.

Annoyed Annoyed: Yet another passenger engaged me when all I wanted to do was to get through the ride in silence.

Guilty Guilty: The man talking to me was nice enough. He didn’t hit on me and he made an effort to speak Spanish slowly and to enunciate. My guilt mounted as I avoided small talk by feigning intense interest in the absurd Dolph Lundgren action flick playing on the video screens. (Aside: I can’t believe anyone actually funds these films!)

Annoyed Annoyed: The lunch options on offer at the bus station in San Salvador were fried and appalling. I couldn’t handle another pupusa (a fried corn flour round, usually stuffed with a combination of beans, cheese and pork rinds) or plato tipico (a plate typically consisting of meat, rice, beans, and fried plantains).

Guilty Guilty: The Pollo Campero (Central America’s version of KFC) chicken sandwich promotion that flashed outside the bus was all I could think about.

Annoyed Annoyed: Our seat on the last bus of the day (another squished affair) featured a window with a broken latch. No problem, except that it was raining buckets.

Recipe for travel insanity:
1. Close your window.
2. Wait for bus to hit a bump (every 5-10 seconds) and knock the window ajar.
3. Endure torrents of rain in the face.
4. Slam the window shut.
5. Repeat for the next 45 minutes.

I put my head in my lap, closed my eyes and willed the day to end.

Upon our arrival, irritations I usually dismiss got under my skin: a high school kid joking that I owed him five dollars for the directions he just gave us; men on the street making kissing noises in my direction; a ceiling-less hotel room gathering mold under a leaky roof, and a bug-infested bathroom whose filth defied its use.

Throughout the day, Dan watched all this, sized up my body language and realized something was seriously wrong. He was a champ and picked up the slack for me in the midst of a series of lesser evils: buying lunch (so that I wouldn’t collapse in a low blood-sugar funk), negotiating buses, rigging bus windows shut; and choosing a guesthouse. All I had to do was follow.

Deciphering the Emotions

I should note that my episode had nothing to do with El Salvador or its people. In fact, the Salvadoran people have a reputation for being very warm, friendly and engaging. Our experience only served to reinforce that.

While sorting out my feelings, I recalled a graph from my Peace Corps orientation a decade ago. If you have ever traveled, volunteered or worked abroad long-term, you will likely recognize the following culture shock graph indicating a typical emotional cycle someone goes through while living abroad.

Audrey in the Culture Shock Graph

The first three months in a new country are considered the honeymoon phase: everything is new, different, delightful. Then comes the fall: the shine wears off and all those once-amusing local characteristics become frustrating and a pain in the ass. Acceptance follows: you learn to take a bit from your own culture and a bit from the local culture, thereby reaching a sort of equilibrium.

So why did I hit the wall now?

We’ve been in Central America a little over three months. And although the countries we have visited in this region evince differences, they share many similarities (food, landscape, aesthetic, transport, language, etc.). What was exciting and new at the beginning has become routine, and propelled me – rather abruptly – from the honeymoon phase. Now, it’s time to make peace.

——————————-

Hospitality from Home

A few days later, a group of Americans from Kentucky and Tennessee traveling on a chartered bus offered us a ride to San Miguel, the big city in eastern El Salvador. They saved us four bus changes and served up warm, friendly, and familiar conversation.

One of the women in the group offered us her hotel room in San Miguel, taking a bed in her friend’s room for the last night of her stay so that we could enjoy the comfort of her hotel.

I was again humbled by the kindness of strangers…and reminded of why we we’re on this crazy journey.

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Comments

  1. says

    Interesting I go through a similar deal here in the states every few months, even though I’m a brit & been here many years, thanks for the insight :)

  2. Suzanne says

    So so true. And what’s amazing is the universality of the 3 month wall. The good thing for you is that you hit it, you recognized that you hit it, and now can start moving past it. Take care you two!

  3. says

    I can relate. For me, days like that are when you pull out the credit card and find a NICE place to stay. It’s worth it to restore your sanity.

  4. Diane Kappa says

    Audrey,
    I understand all to well. I hate to admit this but I find comfort knowing you-the experienced traveler/expat-still have days when you put your head in your lap and will the day away. I have those days. And when I do, I put on my Ipod with some really good upbeat tunes and I pretend I am in a musical. I envision myself dancing in the subway singing at the top of my lungs. I don’t know why but this helps:) Maybe give it a try. Hugs to you and to Dan for being so supportive and understanding.
    -Diane

  5. LaDaun says

    I totally understand your frustrations. I was in CA for four months and experienced similar emotions. Overall, it’s still one of my favorite regions in the world! If you need any reco’s for Panama, please let me know, I’m happy to offer them. Panama aka the land of abundance, is in my opinion the crown jewel of CA. Costa Rica plays a distant 4th if you ask me. Well behind Guatemala and Nicaragua.

  6. says

    My husband and I are starting our round-the-world trip in September but we are planning on coming back to the U.S. every two to three months for a few weeks mainly to be with our dogs. Several long-term travellers have told me that three months was the perfect time to come back home and recuperate for a little while because three months is usually when they hit that wall. It’s interesting that this is a universal concept!

  7. says

    Well, I do have to say it is refreshing to see that you are human. :) I’m sorry to hear about your frustrating day, but I’m so glad you shared your experiences. My husband showed me the culture shock graph before we moved to Brazil. I have to say I’ve gone through all the changes, but mine have been more of an up, down, up, down, up, down with multiple peaks instead of a clean graph a shown here, intervals much less than three months.

    I’ve been to Europe once and back to the US five times in this two years (one of those earlier than expected and two unplanned). I’m not sure if my personal pattern of going back and forth is the reason for my response or what. Maybe I should be the subject of a study for a new graph. Ha!

    I feel your pain with the fried food and rice and beans as it is similar here in Brazil. While enjoyable, one (at least one not originally from here) can only take so much without longing for variety. Take care of yourself.

  8. says

    I know that too well, except my honeymoon phase lasts usually only 2 months ;)
    A friend of mine and I talked about this often, kinda funny to read in an article what happened to you!

    All the best, enjoy the trip and see you on Tour ;)
    Bernhard

  9. says

    @Neale: Some people think that culture shock only occurs with very different cultures, but thanks for mentioning that it can also occur with relatively similar cultures (i.e., two western cultures) as well. I imagine some people from the western US experience something similar if they move to the eastern side of the country :)

    @Suzanne: You hit the nail on the head. At first, I thought I had lost it. I was ready to throw in the towel. Then I stepped back. Once I realized what was going on, I could start dealing again. Oh, and the pizza helped too.

    @Kristina: Unfortunately, when this happened we were heading to a town without a nice hotel! But, we did change our itinerary to go to an “easier” place the next day. Sometimes a little comfort is exactly what’s needed.

    @Diane: Love the image of you singing and dancing your way through the Budapest metro! Bad days do happen and the key is to find ways to get through them and move on. Glad this made you feel better :)

    @LaDaun: Misery loves company – I’m glad I’m not the only one who went through this in Central America. We’re skipping Panama and Costa Rica this time around, but hope to pass through next year as we make our way north again. We’ll certainly hit you up for tips.

    @Akila: A friend asked me on Skype the other day why I didn’t feel this in Asia. As I reflected, I realize it began to happen towards the end of our time in Central Asia; we had been in the region three months and like Central America, each country had its differences but there were a lot of similarities. However, for the rest of our journey through Asia we were leaving a country every 1-3 months and the next country was very different in culture, visuals and food (e.g., India and China). So, it was almost like the culture shock clock was starting over again. This is a very long way of saying that your plan to go back to the States every few months will probably help with restarting the clock. Good luck with your rtw trip!

    @Lori: I laughed out loud when I read the first sentence of your comment! I think life and professional changes also play a role as well in how people react to different countries. And, with people flying back and forth more frequently and technology making it easier to stay in touch, I imagine that’s affecting people’s ups and downs along this graph. Perhaps you could do the new study :)

    @Bernhard: Everyone has his/her own timetable! Dan seems to be on a longer schedule than me…

    @Matt: Which home do you mean? :) Yes. We stopped by Prague last summer to renew our visas and visited family in the States over the holidays. So, maybe I should clarify and say that I’ve been living out of a backpack for 900+ days…

  10. says

    I know exactly how you feel. There are so many times while on the road where you go through the rollercoaster of annoyance and guilt. You described it perfectly and rationalized it well as well. Good luck. Now that you have identified how and why you are feeling this way, I am sure that you are doing much better already! Keep traveling and inspiring us all.

  11. says

    I’m not sure travel would be complete without the culture shock. It sort of sucks but in the same way as bungy jumping or eating a disgusting new food for the first time. A total love-hate relationship.

    I think for many, it’s these feeling that make you want to turn around and go home. Thank you for writing a post that reminds us all that everyone feels this way sometimes, even an experienced traveler like you, and that when we do feel it weighing on us, it’s not a sign to pack it in or that we’ve somehow failed or just don’t know how to travel well.

    And thank goodness for the kindness of strangers. We’ve been helped endlessly along the way as well. Travel has made me truly believe that people are good and decent. It’s also the reason that whenever we stop in one place, we make a place in our (temporary) home and at our table for people just passing through.

    xoL

    ps Love that chart culture shock and reintegration. Sums it all up perfectly and yet comically.

  12. rosie rosenthal says

    Hi Dan and Audrey. This is Rosie, ( sister Kim’s “casual visitor”). Enjoying reading about your travel adventures and was thinking a few things about your emotional ups and downs with travel. I think you are both lucky to be traveling with each other because you both seem to be in tune with the other’s emotions and thus one can take over when the other is not doing well. Also with the computer, you have friends to communicate with almost instantly when things are not going so well. That would give you some type of consolation, I would think. Imagine how it would be if you didn’t have each other’s support and the internet.
    Also thinking the experience of traveling may in some ways be similar to being in a relationship – at first its exciting and new, then maybe some of the things one found interesting and whatever are now becoming annoying. Then things are worked out and new understandings are made. Then another “bump” and then it smooths out again…
    Dan,we are planning to visit your Dad this Independence weekend and I’m looking forward to it as I enjoy him and his partner (whose name escapes me ). Their wind generator is up and running.
    Hope you continue to have good health and pleasant adventures. rosie

  13. Lisa Munro says

    Audrey,

    The Peace Corps diagram from ten years ago looks like the one I received four years ago. Every time I come back to Guatemala, I experience the same roller coaster and it leaves me emotionally exhausted. This doesn’t make us intolerant, difficult, bitter, or angry. It means that we’re human.

    Travel safe and well.

    Lisa

  14. says

    Oh, this is a great post. Funny how the men making kissing noises and hissing “mi amor” can really set you off on a bad day!

  15. says

    @Dave & Deb: Yup, you got it. Once I could understand why my emotions were all over the place, I could focus on moving on. Doing much better now :)

    @Leigh: You are right that travel wouldn’t be complete without culture shock. I think some people associate the term “culture shock” with the immediate reaction of arriving in a place and everything being so different than what they are used to at home. But, it’s really a longer, more complex process that takes months. And it is important for travelers and expats to understand this so that they don’t pack it up early when they first hit the discomfort.

    “Travel has made me truly believe that people are good and decent.” I couldn’t have said this better – it’s one of the things that keeps us going. Each time we hit a rough spot, there’s usually some unexpected “angel” that shows up to help.

    @Rosie: How could I forget you from Thanksgiving dinner last year?! You hit on a couple of important points in your comment. We are really fortunate not only to have each other on this journey, but that we can read each other so well that the one person steps up to the plate when things get tough (emotionally and physically) for the other. And, it’s so important to have someone physically there to share everything with – good and bad.

    Technology also does help in reconnecting with friends and family. The day I posted this a dear friend got in touch with me on Skype just to be sure I was OK. Little things like that matter.

    I’m laughing at the analogy to relationships – you’re so right! If you ever have problems remembering Don’s wife’s name, think of the Seinfeld episode when his girlfriend’s name rhymes with… Hope you guys can send us some photos of the windmill – we’re super excited about it.

    @Lisa: Well said. Going through this cycle and having these feelings are natural – it’s better to acknowledge them than hide them and let them stew inside. And, it is exhausting. I needed time to recharge my batteries. Safe travels during your remaining weeks in Guatemala and good luck studying Kaqchiquel!

    @Liz: Usually I can laugh off those guys, but on the wrong day don’t get me started…

  16. says

    I love the honesty of this post – and stumbled across it on just the right day (as I wrestled with emotions I wished I didn’t have.)

    I’ve nominated your site for an award on my site http://www.insidethetravellab.com.

    Drop by if you get the chance and pass it on,

    If you want to continue the blog carnival:

    1. Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who has granted the award and his or her blog link.
    2. Pass the award to 15 other blogs that you’ve newly discovered.
    3. Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award.

    All the best on your own crazy journey, Abi

  17. says

    @Abigail: I’m glad this account of what I went through with culture shock helped with your current situation. Hope you’re able to move beyond this phase soon!

    Thanks for the award!

  18. Mark says

    Very astute observation. It made me think of my experience travelling in Europe. After 5 months, I started encountering people with faces of people I knew from home. My version of the travelling wall was in the form of homesickness (and I was down to $32!). Thanks for helping me to remember that feeling. Travel safe,
    Mark

  19. says

    @Mark: That’s interesting that you started to see faces of people from home on the streets of Europe. I’d also agree that’s a sign of homesickness and wanting to be with people who have a history with you, who know you well.

  20. Mark says

    Five months was my maximum limit for travel. I ended up with a career in international sales with Fedex. Combined with my genetic make-up (Dad was a pilot, Mom was a travel agent) and my own wanderlust, I’ve been able to visit 72 countries. After 8 years of international business travel, the glamor was becoming lost. A 3 week trip to South Africa, Turkey and 3 European countries left me fried. I kept wondering what was on my voicemail, what mail had arrived (this was the mid-90s, when we weren’t as connected as we are now). I knew the end had officially arrived when my Director told me to go to Hawaii to fix an issue and to take as long as I needed for the trip. I said, “Can’t I do this by phone and email?”

    I still have the travel bug but I’m enjoying being married and being a Dad to our 12 year old. He’ll start travelling once he gets into high school.

    I used to have a big desire to join this club:

    http://www.travelerscenturyclub.org/

    Now I’d still like to make 100 countries (both my parents went to well over 100 countries), but it’s not all consuming anymore. And I don’t want to go to Africa just to get 15-20 countries done in one fell swoop!

    So you know, I learned of your travels in the Scranton newspaper a couple of years ago. I’ve been avidly following your voyage.

    I will do whatever I can to assist you in making your travels a full-time business vocation if/when you return to the Scranton area. I live in Lackawaxen, about 45 minutes east of Scranton on the Delaware River/New York border.

    I wish you both the best in your travels!
    Mark

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