Is there a dark side to the desire to be elsewhere?
“Ya know what, Sarah?” My cousin peers down at me from his peak of 6 feet something as he blows out the fumes he just inhaled. “I love smoking so much… sometimes I fantasize about my next cigarette while I’m still smoking.”
This concept is as funny as it is horrifying. “You’re not even enjoying your cancer!?” I want to say. Instead, I laugh.
My first hit
In 2013, I moved to Singapore and shortly after my move, I decided I wanted to explore elsewhere in Asia. As I worked on weekends and didn’t have many friends yet, I thought I’d take a solo Trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It would be only a half hour flight and a 3-day get-away. It would be scary to Travel alone, but I didn’t have much to lose by giving it a try.
While in KL, I met a bunch of other 20-somethings from all over the world, many of whom were also traveling alone. We all ended up going out together and playing drinking games all night.
When I came back to Singapore after those three days, I felt like a different person. For days, I buzzed at how much fun I’d had “alone.” Suddenly, I didn’t need anyone else. I could find friends just like that. Anywhere in the world. Just by being myself.
My elation upon my return was due, in part, to having overcome my fear of solo travel. However, I was also taken aback at how exhilarating it had been. I had spent the past 3 years working in an office job in New York, slaving away most of my waking hours only to have my money absorbed by impossible rent, bar tabs, and cab fares. And the people I’d met at this hostel, long-term travelers, were cruising through foreign lands for months at a time constantly meeting other young people with beautiful accents. And they were only spending $15 per day.
I wanted this. I wanted all of it. This heightened reality. Some call it “the bug.” The travel bug. You do it once, you feel it, and you want more.
Off the deep end
As time progressed, I went on more trips alone. I didn’t even ask friends if they were free to come with me anymore. At 24, I felt like I’d unlocked the key to happiness. Suddenly the whole world was a playground and all I needed in order access it was myself and just a little bit of money.
I ended up traveling through Southeast Asia solo for three months. In Vietnam, I jumped off cliffs into crystal blue waters. In Pai, Thailand, I spontaneously hopped on the back of a my yoga teacher’s motor bike; I relished in the wind whipping through my hair, my hands wrapped around his torso until we reached a hidden waterfall. In Koh Rong, Cambodia, I stayed up all night drinking with the bar staff, waved my arms through the bioluminescence on a night swim and watched the ocean turn pink as the sun came up. I saw children squeal as they played with sticks in puddles. I learned about how people from other countries thought about their lives and world.
I began to understand that happiness is not about material things. I saw with my own eyes and felt with my own heart that the idea of The Other is bullshit. That we’re all human. These experiences were powerful and important.
However, it’s easy to blur the experiences of substance with the pure feelings of pleasure or Thrill, which on their own, lack substance. Much of what I felt while drinking with strangers or jumping off cliffs was mostly just chemical reactions in my body. Thrill, passion, bliss — wonderful feelings. But I didn’t distinguish between the meaningful experiences and the more hedonistic ones.
Travel was travel. It was the best thing in the world. In every way it was good. Right.
In the years following my trip to Kuala Lumpur, I went on many trips and even found a remote job so I could work from wherever I wanted. But as I continued to travel, it became less and less exciting. Meeting a whole new slew of international people became more exhausting than fun.
And I increasingly found myself booking my next flight almost immediately upon arriving somewhere new. I realized I was chasing this memory of travel instead of being present. And this is not so different from what my cousin was doing: planning his next cigarette while having the current one.
Now in 2018, I’m still on the road, and I know I will travel intermittently for the rest of my life. But it no longer has this rosy color surrounding it.
Although I continue to have unique and fulfilling experiences, I don’t feel like I did those first few times I traveled alone. The kicks don’t kick like they used to.
And so when it comes to travel and everything in my life that I want, I must ask myself: How much of this desire is based on the pursuit of fleeting feelings and how much is for the betterment of myself, and the world? How much goes beyond pure thrill? Because true happiness doesn’t come from thrill. It comes from helping the world progress. And that progress starts with me. I could decide to eat healthier or learn a new language. In some way, because I’ve improved myself, the world is a little better, a little more understanding.
A thrill-seeker is not very different from a fear-avoider. Just as avoiding a bad feeling (nervousness) should not stop a person from introducing themselves to a stranger or asking for a raise at work, seeking a rush can be just as frivolous. We should not let our cravings for certain feelings guide our choices.
Because we will never feel as good as whatever we have built up in our minds. We can spend our whole lives trying to get X feelings from Y. And we can fantasize about how great we’ll feel when we do that thing. But it will never be quite as nice as we remember it to be.
That doesn’t mean you should stop feeling pleasure. On the contrary, you should let go, and thoroughly enjoy positive feelings when they come to you. But the only time to do that is now. This moment. Feel it. The sun on our skin. The orange on our taste buds. Now it’s here. Not next time. Not next trip. Not next home-improvement. Not 10 pounds lighter. Not next time you see him. अनिच्चा.
If you liked this, give me a clap or read more about what traveling did for me here. :)
When travel is an addiction was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.