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Why RTW Travel Must NOT be Seen as Vacation

Tomorrow, volcano permitting, I fly home to Boston! And thus we can begin zillions of reflective posts. Let’s start with the following realization:

A months-long Around the World voyage is not a vacation. Want to know why? Because it it were, you would die. On vacation, by definition, you indulge in anything and everything and you laze around like a jellyfish. So let’s be real here: if you did that every day for a multi-month Around the World trip, you would become both obese and bored. Let us examine both indulgence and indolence in detail to understand why.

Valencia, Spain
One of many festivals in Valencia, Spain!

1.) Indulgence: Long-term travel is a master class in resisting temptation.

I self-identify as a gal who is unable to say no to any luscious food that is placed in front of me, no matter how full I am. I’m infamous among my former Boston Public Schools coworkers for over-the-top gorging myself at Free Food Opportunities (or FFOs, as my friend dubs them), because food is delicious, and letting it go to waste is bad!

When you are traveling, however, for the most part you are awash in liberty. You could eat solely potato chips for weeks straight if you desired, because who would know? And truthfully, at the outset of the trip, you will likely do something similar: go all-out on something ridiculous and unhealthy. For me, one such early indulgence was non-stop Thai iced coffee…. ooh that creamy, lard-filled condensed milk layer!

Valencia, Spain
Valencia’s buildings look like frosting!

But sooner or later, you will begin to feel like trash and your body will suffer. Soon, you will slap yourself in the face and scream: “Snap out of it, man (or woman)! This is your life, now, not a vacation. So you need to take care of your body or you are going to do damage.”

It took me MONTHS of this nine-month trip to get to this point of wisdom. I slowly started to exercise again around month three, then re-got into fitness for real around month seven. Embarrassingly, it took eight months for me to actually develop self control in my goat-like gluttony, but what finally did it was the week I spent in non-stop five-star, delicious eight-course meals thanks to the Valencia Ministry of Tourism.

Somewhere around eight-course meal number seven, I did something I’ve hardly done in my life: I refused the chocolate dessert that was offered and begged the waitress to bring me fruit instead. WHAT?! Madness! But my body literally rebelled and forced me to change.

La Lonja, Valencia
La Lonja, Valencia’s famous silk market

The sexy world of temptation during travel holds millions of other lures, of course, all of which you must learn to moderate or refuse, or else. The best people to explain this to you are the countless 20 year old British boys I met in Southeast Asia with broken legs and arms from repeated drunk-as-skunk lapses of judgment.

And then there’s the temptation to do absolutely nothing with yourself for weeks or months on end. You’re on vacation, right? Wrong! Read on.

La Lonja, Valencia, Spain
Gargoyle atop La Lonja in Valencia

2.) Indolence: Long-term travel forces you to invent your own “job” and responsibilities in order to feel worthwhile… and stay sane.

I just spent a week with a wonderful solo female traveler who decided to cut her Around the World trip short on month five and return home, perhaps to re-start her former job. Why? Because her voyage had lost its point. It had lost its soul, and it wasn’t making her happy anymore because she didn’t feel like she was contributing or learning anymore.

Oh, how I understood what she meant! It is guaranteed when you are in the midst of a RTW trip that you will have moments (if not weeks) when you moan: “What have I done with my life?! Everyone thinks I’m on this amazing vacation, but I don’t really even know what I’m doing! I feel like a waste of space!”

Listen: humans are meant to work. We NEED to feel like we are contributing something to the world, or we get depressed. We NEED to feel like we aren’t just sitting around or swirling in self-indulgent circles. And therefore, when traveling long-term, you always must be creating jobs and responsibilities and helping opportunities.

Valencia, Spain
Valencia’s buildings making you hungry yet?

Examples of indolence-fighters include, but are not limited to:volunteering for at least one month out of every four, playing music or creating art, taking short courses, getting mini jobs in each new place, living with and helping local families, participating in language exchanges, and… writing a blog.

As trivial as the world of blogs seems to some, I cannot express to you how important this website has been in keeping me sane and happy these nine months abroad; it’s given me focus and structure… not to mention invaluable support from all of you great readers.

Valencia, Spain street
A lovely Valencia street scene

Ultimately, the perfect “job” or combination of responsibilities during long term travel is different for each person. What does matter is that those pursuits you pursue whilst abroad make you feel occupied, purposeful, and like you are using your potential.

In the end, it’s not a bad thing that Around the World, long-term travel is “not a vacation.” Things that aren’t vacations are still amazing! What it boils down to is this: we are precious beings, we humans, and thus we must resist the indulgence and indolence of vacation attitudes so we can stay healthy and happy all those months on the road!


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Kyle Undag

Wednesday 15th of December 2010

Boy, Ms,Marshall, you got me deeply on this one. I've never really put much thought into this topic but as I got deeper and deeper into this article, I slowly became depressed and worried about my work status right now, and I'm only 16! This has never crossed my mind before reading this article. Before reading this, I thought long-term traveling was all about sight-seeing and eating! Now I'm sort of afraid to travel. :-/ It's so easy to find a job here in America (as a teenager) because you are comfortable in this environment. But what happens when you're in a totally different country where no one knows you?


Wednesday 15th of December 2010

Lol :) Kyle, relax! You're fine! This article was about months and months straight of travel, and most folks (myself included) begin traveling only a few weeks at a time, which is more vacation-like. You are a hard worker so you'll find a job that makes you happy, just keep at it!


Saturday 29th of May 2010

The dangers of FFO's...then again, I think food tastes even better when it's free!


Thursday 20th of May 2010

When I embark on a particularly long journey, the first question that pops into mind is "What am i gonna do there?" And not in terms of exploring, sightseeing and eating exotic food, but in terms of being productive, working in something, etc. I've taking on a variety of projects while abroad- from translating and editing manuscripts, to teaching english, to doing travel writing... Dont know how I would have survived without it:) Your post rings so true- extensive journeys are definitely not vacations, and keeping busy (and keeping a blog!!!:) is imperative to our sanity and sense of self worth.

Thank you for pointing this out!


Saturday 15th of May 2010

Great post! Love the suggestion too about taking courses and living with host families. I lived in Italy for over a year and for half the time lived by myself and the other half with a family. I felt so much more useful and purposeful when living with a host family. I turned my daily tasks into conversing more to improve my Italian.


Thursday 13th of May 2010

I agree! People thought I was crazy when I didn't consider my RTW a "vacation". There are times when I went on vacation, but most of my trip I did not feel that way. It changes your experience if you feel like you're just playing around every day.

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