The Emotional Cost of Travel

“I don't want to fall asleep. Because when I wake up you'll be leaving.”

It was one of the last things she murmured before sleep took hold, and it left me laying there gut shot. The next morning I would depart on yet another trip, this time leaving home for a few months of solo travel on the other side of the world. My significant other of four years would be left at home to work and study and carry on life while I gallivanted around sunnier climes. She fell asleep with tear streaks on her face while I wrestled with my selfish need to go places until the dawn called.

Contrary to popular belief there are downsides to traveling. And I'm not just talking about jet lag and sporadic nausea, not just food poisoning or bed bugs or squat toilets with no toilet paper. Beyond the financial cost, beyond the environmental impact, there is an emotional toll long-term travel extracts. While travel is a privilege, that by no means makes it without consequence.

The moment you leave home, you are leaving home. Life will continue without you. Things will change, people will move on. Over time you may be replaced in your relationships by people who are present. For many travellers this might actually be a plus; if you're coming from a toxic environment, this sort of escape might be a blessing. And that's wonderful — live it up! For those of us who come from families we love, who have friends we care about deeply, then traveling comes with a hefty price tag. Time may stand still for you, as you globetrot and bask in the quintessence of life, but it will sustain its onward march for everyone else. Or maybe you will grow and change in leaps and bounds while life back home remains constant. In either case, you'll miss birthdays and weddings, births and deaths. Family get-togethers will proceed in your absence. You will start to grow apart from the life you led, and all those in it.

This is the price of exploring, of geographic and cultural curiosity. Are you willing to pay it?

Flashback to Japan, 2010.

When I called home I had nothing much to report. My trip was one amazing adventure after another, with only minor hiccups to colour the background. Responsible son that I am, I periodically called home to check in with everyone and to let my family know that I was alive and well.

An unflinching Pacific sun shone down as I leaned into the shade of the pay phone, filling in the details of my trip to my dad. It wasn't until I had spewed up my yoloing that he started to tell me what was new back home. And it wasn't good. My grandpa was sick, and was staying with him until further notice. The precise nature of the illness wasn't conveyed, and for whatever clueless reason I didn't press for further details. He was, after all, old. Old people get sick, no big deal. After a moment the conversation shifted back to more pleasant ground before I hung up, departing once more to hunt down some adventure. I would be heading off the grid for a few days to refresh, to slow down and disconnect. No internet, no pay phones — just beaches and maps and campfires, bugs and sunburns and B.O. The simple things. The things that remind us that we are human beings, that we are universal and unique.

A few days later I got back to a hostel and checked my email. My grandpa had died.

He passed away in the Greater Town of Napanee, surrounded by family during his final days. I suppose that's one of the better ways to go. But I wasn't there. By the time I could get to an airport and book a flight across the ocean I would have already missed the funeral. I was coming home in a few weeks anyway, so my family encouraged me to stay. So I waited. As my family arranged and attended a funeral, I fluctuated between moping on the beach and moping in a dorm room. Here and there I battened down the emotional hatches and enjoyed the long hours of foreign sunshine and quiet strolls down hectic streets. But the price had been paid.

Exactly twenty days before my grandpa died I mailed him a postcard. I don't know if he got it.


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