This is a repost from Ash’s weekly newsletter, Clouds Form Over Land. Subscribe for less sailing-oriented writings in your inbox every Wednesday.
When I was a kiddo, a trip to a neighborhood restaurant could spark physical symptoms of homesickness. I closed up like a clam. Hunger dropping from my stomach, the busyness of the place overwhelming my senses. The regular struggle with this most minor adventure made me wonder how people went to college or moved into apartments or got married or navigated life’s other big shifts. I bemoaned the end of every school year and every summer.
A trip across the state for a water polo summer camp felt like going to the moon in a shaky spacecraft, even though it was a dream to attend alongside a good friend. By high school, I’d figured out how to mask and attended band camp without much fanfare — aside from a comically horrendous case of poison ivy that got me out early one year.
Despite my bumpy demeanor on the road, our family still traveled all over our home state and from sea to shining sea. I scraped together some coping mechanisms and grew into an adventurous homebody. My preference was to see the world through the pages of a book, ideally with some knitting on the side.
Then I walked through a portal in the shape of a scholarship funding for international internships.
After spending my first year in the dorms fifteen hours from home, I hopped on a plane to Lusaka, Zambia. There are a lot of places on earth pretty different from my midwestern hometown, and this city in southern Africa is one of them. I spent three months aiming to be helpful at a crochet collective and school for widows and orphans of the AIDS crisis. I made a baby blog to describe it, and eleven years later I’m still proud of our library work and the cultural experiences I said yes to – attending church as an agnostic, sitting with wailing women after a death, and hours in silence and conversation bonding over crochet.
I wanted the experiences more than the fearful discomfort.
The past decade has been a water slide of pattern-shifting on five continents. I slowly developed the language to explain my experience, get more comfortable with change, and orient myself to new surroundings. This sailing trip has been a unique opportunity to go slowly mile by mile and bring our home of six years along for the ride.
Here’s a collection of tips for a homesick kid near you.
Play a role or pick a lens, don’t over plan: if going with the flow feels unattainable, try a trip with a clear role like a camp, retreat, volunteer or work assignment. If that seems too structured, pick an interest and explore it elsewhere like a researcher. Retrace family ties in another place, explore a type of art, try different types of public transit. You could micro-dose this technique by signing up for a cooking class, staying in a hostel with lots of activities, or simply renting a bike. Choosing a role or lens gives the trip a big-picture plan without bogging down the itinerary and squelching spontaneity. Some of the best activities are found on the way.
I had some tremendous experiences in Colombia, first as a water polo player and second to train call center employees for a solar company. Stepping into a role aside from tourist helps experience a place more fully — and keeps the mind diverted from homesickness.
Read fiction and watch films: these days expanding our understanding of foreign places is as easy as typing the location into the search bar of the library catalog, streaming service, or web at large. Putting images and stories behind the destination is fun and relaxing.
Learn some basic phrases and download a translation app: from experience, I can say it’s possible but not pleasant to muscle your way through with gestures and English. Learn to say introductions, origins, and a little about the purpose of your trip. Download a language for offline searches on the Google Translate app. These efforts and the willingness to stay cool and connect go a long way!
Activity bag: my parents encouraged us to pack our own “activity bags” for road trips. I still delight in kitting out my bag with a journal (or three), books, knitting projects, headphones, and a phone packed with downloaded podcasts and audio books. Travel often has spare hours of transit, waiting in lines, lingering at cafes and restaurants, and other lulls. For the anxious among us, it doesn’t hurt to have a few activities up our sleeves.
Pack light: when the suitcase is out and your closet door is open, it’s easy to toss in too much. To avoid temptation, imagine lugging the bag over unpaved roads, into taxis, and up flights of stairs. Those bulky roller bags lose their allure once you leave the smooth airport floor.
I traveled to Nepal with an overstuffed backpack and eyed the tinier version of a fellow traveler. He had a few black tee shirts, shorts, pants, and one or two layers for warmth. Hiking boots and sandals. The rest of his pack was reserved for camera gear – you can check out the mini-doc he made about the trip here. He washed the shirts a few times and was well dressed for every occasion of this casual trip.
Everyone all over the world has a need to clothe themselves, and often a desire to express some sort of personal style. The internet abounds with articles about the best clothing to wear when traveling in a,b,c country or doing x, y, z activity. These can be helpful pointers, but often they lead to unnecessary purchases and dressing in a way that doesn’t feel like me. I brought a suitcase full of maxi dresses for modesty on a trip to Ghana and felt utterly out of place when a local friend brought me to a night club.
Instead, search for temperature range, humidity, precipitation, and biting bugs. Shop your closet and if upon arrival you have totally missed the mark, buy some clothes to meet local standards and take home as a souvenir.
Carry over routine, rhythm, or ritual: chances are, your daily life runs on some set of rails. Keep a few to stabilize the upending of your usual schedule. I continue to journal in the mornings and wind down with reading many nights. Our Argentinian friends travel with yerba mate tea, cup, and specialized straw. A Californian friend always books a hotel with a gym.
Anticipate your next meal: hunger and thirst will provide fairly predictable opportunities for cultural experiences, relaxing, and connecting. I’ve stood on many sidewalks looking around or searching online for a tasty place, weighing the immediate hunger pangs against the options available. Toss in a few other travelers with varying dietary restrictions, budgets, preferences, etc and a hangry snarl can ensue. My friends have a habit of discussing the next meal at the conclusion of the current. It feels goofy to discuss dinner when full from lunch, but opens the opportunity to ask fellow restaurant goers for recommendations or survey the fridge for ingredients for the next meal.
Remember that the US is a pretty dangerous place, and you are used to living in it: I can count the times I’ve felt unsafe in other countries on one hand and all have boiled down to a misunderstanding (a Bangkok taxi driver misheard the name of the hotel, a Zambian park ranger with a rifle hopped in our truck to guide us to see the now-extinct white rhino). The headlines in the US can paint a violent picture of both our country and those abroad. Be cautious and realistic about the scale of dangers.
It’s OK to cry at the airport: all these coping mechanisms may integrate the newness with the you-ness. Sending down roots makes it tricky to move on to the next place, but in my experience we’re all the better for it. Tears contain the stress hormone cortisol, so let it flow baby.
Ask, “what’s available to me now?”: look around and consider options and constraints for how to move through this time.
Here’s a real-time example: it’s the last day in our current anchorage, early morning, and raining. I can finish this letter, write some goodbye cards, prepare the cabin for departure, scrub the decks as it rains.
- Take a visit to a museum! Psychiatrists recommend it.
- Empty your daily bag of choice. Toss the detritus and add your essentials. Add a handkerchief, neosporin, water bottle, book, pocket knife, notepad, pen, and a snack in case a short trip gets extended. Bonus: take a similar approach if you have a car, office, or other mobile space.
- Have a think on what you want to learn or explore, then create a fall reading list
- Blood cancers impacted our family when mom was diagnosed with Lymphoma in 2019. Following lengthy dianosis and proper treatment, she has been cancer free for three years. If you have room in your budget this month, please consider donating to our team fundraiser for the Lukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Written in the spirit of not letting what we can’t do get in the way of what we can.
Did you try any of these? I’d love to hear about it.