The Dirty Secret About Travel

It doesn’t come up often in the perfect Instagram shots, the #livelaughlove tags, the cutesy captions. Even when I’m talking to friends back home in person, recounting my trips, I hardly ever bring it up. It sounds too much like a humblebrag, a lucky person problem. It is. I get that.

But anyone who’s traveled often or for long stretches of time probably knows what I’m talking about.

Every new place you visit expands you. (We love to talk about that.) You stretch to contain these new experiences: music like you’ve never heard it, foods you’ve never dreamt of combining, fruits and spices you’ve never seen before. You fall in love with mysterious overgrown ruins, with a khao soi just the way one hole-in-the-wall makes it, with twisting medieval alleys, with white sand beaches that look like something from a catalogue.

Not to mention the people. Locals who welcome you with open arms, become new best friends. Travel companions you meet along the road, join forces with, look after for as long as your paths cross. Maybe even online friends you’ve talked to for years yet never met, who you’re finally in the same hemisphere as, and can embrace in person.

(The part we don’t talk about so much?)

Eventually, be it in a few days, weeks, maybe even months… you leave. And when you do, you leave pieces of yourself behind.

Shed skin cells, strands of hair. Slices of your heart and fragments of your soul.

Every time you leave somewhere, you die a little death. The life you lived in that place, in that moment, is gone forever.

But it’s fine, because you’re on the road, and for every yawning empty hollow that opens up in your chest, there’s a bright new beginning on the horizon. A new city or beach town or mountain villa waiting to steal your breath away. Waiting to show you, tantalizingly, what life might be like there, if you decided to stay.

You won’t. But you imagine it, for a time.

Over and over and over.

You grow used to living with your heart stretched wide open. You grow used to the fact that on any given day, at any given hour, if you let yourself think too hard about it, the grief and nostalgia, the missing of everything and everyone who isn’t with you right here and now, could consume you.

You crave food you’ll probably never taste again. You yearn for quiet little bars that have gone out of business, beaches now filled with trash, inside jokes that only a few people on the other side of the planet understand.

You get accustomed to missing ten people, none of whom have ever met or even heard of one another, at the same time—missing them so hard that “missing” barely encompasses the depth of it. It feels like being pulled in ten directions at once, until there’s nothing left over for you.

Whenever that mood strikes, your usual remedy is to step out into the sunshine. To find new connections, new loves. To revel in the here and now.

But you don’t expect this.

Suddenly every single one of your thousand loves, dotted all across the globe, is in danger at once. Some more than others, yet all trapped in the same uncertainty, the same fear of the unknown; and you’re trapped too, in one place and one life.

Maybe it’s a new life you intended to choose anyway. Maybe it’s the life you were trying on for size when the curtain came down, when the borders shut and the airlines cancelled your flight. Maybe it’s a life you’ve been in for a long time, a place you’ve always called home. Maybe it’s comforting to be there, or maybe it feels suffocating now, like a shoe you’ve outgrown.

Maybe it’s all of those things at once.

Regardless, there can be no running anymore, no forward or back. We have been suspended in amber, our missed pasts and longed-for futures on indefinite hold. All we have is the here. The now. The life right in front of us.

All we can do is live it.

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