I woke up the other morning with a knot in the pit in my stomach. It took a while for my brain to catch up with my gut to figure out what was wrong.
On the surface, everything was ideal. We had just come from weeks of trekking in Patagonia amidst endless mountains and lake vistas, we were on the quaint island of Chiloe (Chile) and the sun was shining (a rarity for this time of year, we’re told), and more trekking and travel opportunities awaited us.
But I was burnt out. Something about our recent travel choices left me feeling ungrounded. The constant movement, logistical planning and searching for the next experience had taken its toll. Usually, we travel without fixed schedules and we stay in places longer, allowing us time to relax, work and take in a place in all its various dimensions.
So what happened? Recently we purchased airline tickets that will take us away from South American in mid-May. With this impending departure, we began to fall into the common trap of travel, the common trap of life: trying to do it all.
The Drive to Accomplish
There’s a human – or perhaps societal – drive to make lists and “accomplish” them. Think of the popularity of bucket lists, Top 10 lists, to-do lists, city and country guides “top sights.” As a traveler – nay, as a human being – you are made to feel that if you don’t see everything (or at least a good chunk) on the list then you’ve failed in collecting the maximum number of experiences possible, you haven’t gotten your money’s worth, you’ve missed out.
And there’s nothing more demotivating than a conversation like, “What, you didn’t go there? But that’s the best place!” So in an effort to stave off buyer’s remorse and regret, you try to see everything in a short time and you uber-plan.
Have you ever played whack-a-mole? It never ends.
Life lesson learned on the travel trail: breathe. Say no to that inner travel over-achiever.
Accomplishment Takes Different Forms
Life will be OK if you have one less passport stamp, if you have one less national park trek in your journal, if you don’t visit every church, if you don't see every major region of the country.
Even with the amount of time we’ve devoted to travel, we still leave most countries with a list of places we’d like to see on our return — “something to leave on the table.” We’ve become comfortable with the idea that we’ll never be able to do it all. Our goal has been balance of life, travel and work on the road, taking in enough of a place and doing so deeply so that we can authoritatively say we’ve grokked it, especially when it comes to people and culture. That’s our measure of travel satisfaction.
Peru offers one such recent example. We ended up spending close to three weeks in Lima because we felt the need to have a base, to work and to catch our collective breath. To stay longer in Lima, we passed up opportunities to trek in Huaraz, visit Arequipa, and trip around the Amazon region.
Would we like to see those areas? Sure. Do we regret slowing down? No. It was what we needed at the time. And not only that, we really enjoyed Lima (we realize we're some of the only people who do), we ate phenomenally well, and our stay there likely provided perspective and helped us appreciate the rest of our Peruvian experiences that much more. Had we charged ahead with “the list,” we may have emerged burnt out. Instead, we look forward to returning.
I realize that our seemingly never-ending journey is beyond most imaginations. But I believe the same sanity-preservation principle – choose fewer places and stay in them longer – applies as equally to those of you on a six-day vacation getaway as it does to us.
As much as we love each of those destinations, thinking about the whirlwind gave us hives. In response, we suggested two possible alternative excursions, each excluding either Germany or Austria. Our friend chose Cesky Krumlov and Vienna, we made a weekend of it and everyone was the happier for it.
The Golden Nugget
If travel has taught me anything, it is to listen to my gut. We’ve since narrowed down the list of places we would like to visit before we leave South America this go-around. Most of the places we’ve chosen feature a connection with family and friends. The one that doesn’t: Patagonian wine country — unusual and slightly unknown, offbeat. And it’s wine (need I say more?).
In travel – as in life – sometimes choosing to do less really does give you more.