Most people that have travelled for more than a few months, or have lived abroad for an extended period of time, will know what I mean when I refer to that anticlimactic feeling of being back ‘home’.
As a person, you changed exponentially while living another life in another time zone. Your ideas, ideals and outlook on life changed completely while you were collecting stamps in your passport. You always knew that you would have to go home eventually, and at some point, you probably even looked forward to going back home to put all of your new ideas and perspectives into motion, to create the sort of life that you wanted back ‘home’.
The problem is, that when you got back home it didn’t quite feel how you expected it to. While you were away, growing, changing, experiencing and learning; your hometown was just ticking along as it always had. The same people were going to the same places, having the same conversations and doing the same things. Once all of the excitement of catching up with friends and family wears off, you start to get drawn back into the everyday life, in exactly the same way you did before you ever left. At some point, you probably bump into an old friend, who hadn’t even realised that you left in the first place, and in some sort of irrational way it kind of pisses you off that you’ve just had the most incredible experience of your life, and they are trying to fill you in on some gossip that you would have been really interested in a couple of years ago, but absolutely don’t care about anymore.
Even the word ‘home’ is confusing. You’ve had dozens of homes while you’ve been away. Your version of the word home refers to anywhere you’ve based yourself for a few weeks while travelling, be it in a dorm room in a hostel or a couch in an overcrowded flat share. However, your family’s version of the word home still means the same as it always has, it’s that place where you have Sunday dinners and Christmas Day.
I am, of course, writing from experience here. I expected that there would be a transition period and that I would just get used to life at home again, but a couple of years later and I still get that same uneasy feeling of mixed emotions everytime my Timehop app shows me where I have been and what I have been doing for the past six or seven years.
Some days I can feel a sense of gratitude for the great adventures I had and the memories I have, even though those memories feel more and more distant each day. But, more often than not, those memories can feel like a sucker punch that sends me into a soul-searching bout of nostalgia. I look out of the window into suburban Warwickshire and wonder why I can’t see the beautiful lakes and mountains of New Zealand or the sunny beaches of Sydney’s eastern suburbs. I wonder how I went from living in some of the world’s most beautiful places to living in this anonymous street that looks like any other residential street in Britain.
There’s a difference between happiness and contentment that can be hard to explain to people who don’t understand that. I’m definitely not ungrateful for my current set of circumstances, I have a beautiful wife and the most amazing four-month-old daughter I could ever imagine. I have a job that I enjoy and live in a nice house in a town that is consistently voted as one of the best places to live in Britain. I genuinely appreciate all of that. But, I also have a near constant nagging feeling, a little voice somewhere inside me that constantly asks the same questions… Are you where you are supposed to be? Is this tiny little part of the world the exact place where you should be to live your best life? Does this environment motivate and inspire you?
I ask those questions repeatedly, and it leads to a feeling of discontent. On my morning walks lately, I have been trying to delve deeper into those feelings of discontent and understand exactly what it is about those travelling days that I am missing. I’m starting to understand that this is more than just missing the great weather and beautiful places. Living as a backpacker is an experience, it’s not just a holiday. If Timehop shows me photos of a week I spent on holiday in Spain it’s not going to send me into this spiral of nostalgia like a reminder of living in New Zealand would. It seems that this feeling doesn’t stem from the place, but from the experience.
Backpacking, travelling or living in another country for an extended period is, without doubt, a catalyst for great change in a person. We grow as people in those circumstances, we meet new people, we learn new things, try new things and experience a different way of life. It’s not the place that we are in that does that, it’s the mindset that we adopt while we are there that does that. Fundamentally, we experience this personal growth simply because we open ourselves up to it and allow it to happen. Ultimately, is that what I am missing, not the places, but the feeling of being open to change, new experience and growth?
I think the answer to that is probably yes, but, that said, is it even possible to adopt that mindset at ‘home’ or does the mindset only exist when we are in a new country?
I wrote down a list of things that I did differently when I lived abroad, simple things, everyday things, but the key things that are the difference between what I did then, and what I do now so that I can understand and adopt that mentality again, and essentially try to live like a backpacker while living in my own country.
Explore like a Backpacker
When I was a backpacker, I had an insatiable appetite to explore the places I was in. I wanted to see everything I possibly could. If I heard about somewhere beautiful, saw a great photo, or had a recommendation from another backpacker, then I would add it to the bucket list and do whatever I needed to do to make sure it got ticked off pretty quickly.
Do we always have that same attitude back home? Definitely not.
In New Zealand, my wife and I would think nothing of getting up early and driving for 3 hours to go and see something on our list, we lived for road trips like that. They were never a big deal, they never required much planning, we just got up, got coffee, and went. If the things we wanted to see were a bit too far away for just a day trip we would start planning longer trips. When could we get the time off work? What deal can we get on a hotel or lodge? Should we hire a campervan and make a multi-day road trip out of it? How much do we need to save to do this?
There were even times when I hitchhiked to get to places that I wanted to see, and although I’m not suggesting that anyone tries that as a realistic way to get around the UK, it just goes to show that where there’s a will, there’s a way. There was no such thing as an obstacle when it came to exploring. If we wanted to see something, we would make it happen because that’s exactly what we were there for.
Back in the UK, it’s harder to have that same attitude. It’s easier to make an excuse to avoid a long drive and somehow this tiny island that we live on can seem quite big when you open up Google Maps to start looking at distances, but in reality, it’s very easy to explore the UK as long as you have the right mindset for it. From my home in Warwickshire, I am less than 2 hours from the Peak District, around 3 hours from Snowdonia and just over 3 hours from the Lake District. Those three places have countless incredible things to see and adventures to have, and they are just a small part of the country. If I adopted the backpacker mentality it would take years and years to see everything there is to see here.
Spend Time Like a Backpacker
The driving force behind that motivation to explore other countries is the ticking clock that we are always acutely aware of. While I was living in New Zealand and Australia I knew that my time there was limited. There was a visa in my passport with an expiration date that served as a constant reminder that everything I wanted to see and do would need to be done before that date arrived.
That end date was the best cure for procrastination that I could ever have. New Zealand and Australia are a long way from home, they require long and expensive flights to get to, and realistically, I knew that I would only have the opportunity to visit these countries on a very limited number of occasions in my lifetime. That ‘now or never’ mindset enabled me to squeeze in as much as I possibly could to my days there and that mentality could serve us all well at home.
How many things on your bucket list are usually in a sentence with the words ‘one day’? I want to see the Northern Lights one day, I want to go on a road trip around Scotland one day, I want to do a coast to coast hike one day. What is this ‘one day’ that we are waiting for? Why aren’t we ticking off our UK bucket lists with the same appetite as we would if we were in another country?
The problem is, we think we have time. There is no visible expiration date to work to and an apparent abundance of time leads us into thinking that we can always put things off. I don’t want this post to take a morbid turn here, but to make a point, if we knew the exact date of when our time will be up, would we act differently? Would we stop pretending that we have all the time we want?
I ticked off dozens and dozens of things from my New Zealand bucket list in the space of a year. Now I need to look at my UK list with the same gusto.
Spend Money Like a Backpacker
I’ve never been more thrifty than I was when I was a backpacker. I thought about every dollar that I was spending to make sure that I could achieve all the things that I wanted to. I planned my meals, shopped around and looked for bargains so that I could spend my hard earned cash on the important things like experiences, travel and adventures.
That’s not to say that I was tight, just more considered. I spent way over the odds on rent in Sydney, I could have found far, far cheaper places, but I made a choice that I wanted to live the Sydney dream and had an apartment that looked straight out onto the beach. In New Zealand, I had an apartment that looked straight out onto the lake, with the mountains as a backdrop which was possibly one of the best views I’ll ever see. They were conscious decisions to pay more to enhance the experience of being in those places, but the flip side of that was to be frugal in other areas. In New Zealand, we drove a battered old Subaru and made sure that the majority of our adventures were free. In Australia, I ate so many packets of instant noodles that I’ve never been able to eat them since.
Money was never wasted because that money was the only way to fund the experiences and adventures that we had.
In years to come, will you remember that time you had a wardrobe full of really nice clothes, or will you remember that year you just wore your old clothes but went on an epic campervan road trip?
In the UK I’m guilty of overspending on all kinds of things that I don’t need. I have too many coats in the wardrobe, too many shoes in the cupboard, and boxes of all kinds of junk under the bed. We quite often throw food away from the fridge or cupboard because it’s gone out of date before we’ve got to it, and we overspend on our shopping budget so often that I’m not even sure why we have a budget in the first place.
Adopting that same backpacker mentality to money here in the UK, will no doubt free up a whole load of cash that could be better spent on ticking things off the bucket list and having adventures with family and friends.
Watch TV Like a Backpacker
Studies show that the average person in Britain watches around 24 hours of TV each week, which is an incredible amount of time, especially if you calculate that over the course of a month or year.
Back in 2011 and 2012, when I was living in New Zealand and then Australia I watched just less than 14 hours. Not per week, but in total.
For a few weeks, I stayed at a hostel in Tongariro National Park, from the windows of the hostel you can see Mount Ngauruhoe, which is better known to many people as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Several scenes from the movie were shot in the national park, and scenic tours were a big part of the tourism market there. On one particular day, while staying at the hostel, the park was hit by a fairly large storm. The rain was absolutely torrential, with no signs of easing up, so the entire population of that hostel descended on the lounge area, armed with cushions, pillows, beer and kumara chips, and we embarked on the 11 hour journey through Middle Earth in one sitting, with the imposing Mount Doom just about visible through the rain covered windows.
In another hostel, close to Christmas, I joined a few residents in the TV lounge and sat for two hours through ‘The Holiday’, which in all honesty was a pretty poor choice. If you’re only going to watch one Christmas movie, that isn’t the one to go for.
For the rest of the time in New Zealand and Australia, I didn’t watch TV at all.
I spent the best part of two years without watching any TV, and the surprising thing was, that I didn’t miss it at all, and more importantly, I didn’t miss out on anything either. I didn’t see any news, but the important news you hear about through conversation. I didn’t see any reality TV in that time, and I’ve never seen Breaking Bad or any of those superhero movies. Sometimes people look at me in a funny way when I tell them that, but the reality is that I saved myself two years worth of wasted TV time, which equates to about 2500 hours, with absolutely no negative impact on my life.
I don’t know about you, but I can definitely make use of an additional 2500 hours whether I’m backpacking or not.
Read Like a Backpacker
The upside to having all of that free time saved from not watching TV is having time to read more. I read dozens and dozens of books while travelling and credit some of those books for the great positive changes that I have had in my life since then.
While living in Australia I did most of my reading on the beach, I know that’s not quite as easy to do in the UK in February, but there are still ways to get through books and turning off the TV and reading on the sofa in the evening will have a far more positive impact on your life.
When I was travelling I found that most hostels had at least a shelf where you could swap your book, and if I saw a backpacker reading something that I liked the look of I’d just ask them if we could swap when they’d finished. I always had a book with me. I even had a library card when I was spending time in Sydney and Wellington and a lot of the change and growth I mentioned earlier can be attributed to the ideas and things that I learned from the books that I read during that time.
Back in the UK I just never seem to find time to read. Right now, there are 9 unread books stacked on my bedside table, that I purchased with every intention of reading but have never got around to. It’s time that I started reading like a backpacker and working through that pile.
Make Friends Like a Backpacker
On the other side of the world, where we don’t know anyone, we are much more open to meeting new people and making friends with strangers we meet along the way.
I made an effort to talk to people in hostels and I made the effort to socialise with colleagues outside of work. There are some cliched questions that backpackers ask each other while boiling noodles in communal hostel kitchens. Where are you from? Where are you going? How long have you been travelling? Yes, those questions can become tedious to ask or answer by the time you get to your tenth hostel in ten days, but they are the all-important icebreakers for opening up conversations with like-minded travellers who are in a similar mindset, and on a similar journey to you.
Back home, for the most part, we tend to stick to the familiar and our Facebook friends list doesn’t seem to grow as quickly as it did back when we were travelling. That’s not how it should be. New people can bring new ideas and positive change into your life so there’s definitely no good reason to close yourself off back home. Startup a conversation like you’re in a hostel kitchen, wherever you go.
Own Things Like a Backpacker
When you’re forced to condense your worldly belongings into one small bag, that can’t weigh more than 25kg, it’s surprising how quickly you realise how many things you don’t actually need.
I’m not suggesting that that would ever be possible back at home, but there are a lot of studies that show that reducing clutter in your life can increase happiness. This also links back to our spending habits, do we really need to buy these things, could that money be spent on something better, like ticking things off your bucket list?
I’ve moved around quite a lot over the last few years, so I probably don’t own as much as the average person, but there’s no doubt that I buy things I don’t need, and accumulate unnecessarily.
Make Choices Like a Backpacker
As a backpacker, I made bolder choices than I do back at home, and that is a key difference.
I lived deliberately and chose exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t allow circumstances to control where I was going or what I was doing, simply because I didn’t have time for that to happen. I knew what I wanted to do and how long I had to do it and went for that with tunnel vision.
I chose to make experiences a priority and to chase adventures at every opportunity, I chose exactly what to spend money on and what not to, I chose not to waste time with TV and internet. I chose where I wanted to live and what view I wanted to see when I opened the curtains in the morning. I chose what possessions I carried around with me as I went, and I chose to be open to new people, new books, new thoughts and new ideas.
Ultimately, I have all of those choices back here in the UK, but I have been making the wrong ones. It’s time to start thinking like a backpacker again and making the right choices.