Beat The Blahs

It gets to everyone. Keep going long enough and sooner or later the constant parade of people, places and things starts to wear you down. The monuments become a blur and the conversations all starts to sound the same. Exotic foods leave you hungry for a hamburger. Where once you surged up to the guesthouse bar at night, now you’d like nothing more than to kick back with Netflix and they can even keep the chill.

If life is a banquet, a diet is starting to sound pretty good.

Take heart, it happens to all of us eventually. Whether you’re a backpacker, NGO worker or journalist, travel far enough and sooner or later the extraordinary can’t help but become mundane. I’ve spent plenty of time wishing I could zip back to the U.S. for a few hours. I’d catch up with friends, grab a Five Guys and fully appreciate the marvel that is quality plumbing. It’s the blahs, and fortunately there are ways to help beat it.

Comfort Food

Food is a huge part of travel, so much so that it didn’t take long at all for the Travel Channel to become a de facto global food network. We express so much of our culture in how we eat, for better or worse, and as a visitor you can’t afford to miss that. Plus, who can say no to a bowl of curry or a Transylvanian sausage?

Thailand cooking class

Ingredients to make red curry paste, laid out just like someone else’s mom used to make.

Still, as much as food helps you to dig into a place, it’s also a daily reminder of just how far you’ve really come. Heavy ginger and masala, or putting a fried egg on top of my rice, is a quick way to point out that everyone I love is on the other side of an ocean. So if all of that is starting to get to you, try seeking out a little flavor of home.

For me, and probably plenty others, that means pizza. Where I went to school in Ann Arbor, Michigan you can get delivery at virtually any hour of the day or night, and seeking that out is a way I can put my feet back underneath me. Over the years homesickness has led me to discover some of the worst pizza that the world has to offer, including a rightfully forgotten experiment in steamed pies pioneered by a small town in Thailand as well as a friend’s urgent warning not to try the “happy pizza” in Siem Reap. (Contrary to my naive expectations, it would transpire that a “happy” pizza comes laced with marijuana.)

Still I went ahead and dove into that steamed pizza, if not the gleeful one, because quality isn’t the point. If I want good food in Vietnam I’ll find a bowl of noodles. If I want to feel like home is a little closer than it was this morning, I’ll try some cheese-product and ketchup on a meaningless crust.

Build a Community

Once in Chiang Mai I attended a birthday party for a local English teacher. The party included expats of every age and type, from students abroad and other teachers to retirees and business owners. There were even a few aimless wanderers like yours truly. We all got together at the local gay bar to celebrate a young woman who, to most of us, had been a stranger until just recently (perhaps for some until that very evening). In real life it would still be awkward to call a new friend twice in one week by then, no less attend her birthday party. In Expatia, though, communities fall together just that quickly.

When everyone could be in different time zones tomorrow morning, there’s really no other choice. It’s also a defense mechanism. Like college freshman who are best friends by the end of orientation (only to never speak again by Halloween), you connect with people because there’s little else to do.

Cameron highlands homes

A community in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands.

Overseas it’s easy to feel displaced, and to wonder if everyone back home is moving on to new, glamorous lives. One good way to fight that feeling is by building a network of friends overseas. Most major cities have communities of expatriates that are very welcoming of newcomers, and if you spend a little while in one place you’ll pretty quickly get to know them. They won’t replace anyone back home, but even on the far side of the world you’ll have a place to belong.

Sometimes it’s just nice to walk into a bar where somebody knows your name.

Avoid Facebook

Facebook is an easy target, but this can just easily mean skype, e-mails or any other mechanic of modern urgency.

As the months go on it gets easier to believe that talking to friends and family back home will make things easier. The problem is that it’s impossible to wholly appreciate where you are with one foot out the digital door. Every minute you spend online with someone across an ocean is time that you’re not spending getting to know people right where you are. It’s keeping you from the new friends and new stories that not only make travel worthwhile, but that (ironically) will keep you from being lonely.

Obviously you don’t need to log off permanently, but try to remember that you boarded that plane for a reason. Talk to fewer people back home. It feels like an unlikely solution to loneliness, but you’ll be more likely to reach out to someone new. It works surprisingly well and pulls you back into the world you’ve come so far to see.

Keep a Routine

One reason that many people travel is to escape their routine. It makes the ambiguously dirty slogan “busting your rut” is a popular rallying cry.

But a routine isn’t entirely a bad thing, there’s a reason we all have them. They’re comforting. They give a familiar feeling of home, whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or an afternoon spent yelling at pigeons in the park.

If things start feeling a little too strange try getting some of that back. You can’t always find pigeons overseas, but maybe resolve to start every morning looking for a decent cup of coffee. Have a beer at the end of each day’s sightseeing, or even just check your e-mail at the same time each night. Anything to build in a little bit of normal. It’ll help keep something grounded while everything else is up in the air.

Indonesia guesthouse

Pictured: not my usual guesthouse, but a great choice for when you’re sick and need some luxury.

Try Something New

It might seem like this goes without saying. You left home to do exactly that, so how will doing something new help when the whole problem is experience overload?

By getting creative.

We take our habits on the road like a well-worn backpack. Some people prefer temples and hate hiking, others can’t handle spicy food of absolutely any type. I once knew a tourist in Cambodia who absolutely hated footwear. He walked everywhere barefoot and wouldn’t touch a sneaker, shoe or sandal to save his life. (He was also a monumental tool.)

These habits define how we travel, but they also create a thread running through all of our experiences. For me, it’s museums and seafood. I find row after row of neatly catalogued artifacts incredibly tedious, and as far as I’m concerned Nemo and I can leave each other in peace. Wherever I go, however far away, it will be the same in every country: no fish, no galleries.

Yet from time to time I make sure to wander down to the local museum and take a look anyway. It’s something different, and a chance to challenge myself.

So when months of travel are starting to wear you down, try to break out of your comfort zone. Do something new, even if it isn’t your favorite way to spend a Tuesday afternoon. It might just put some energy back into your day.


Eric Reed may be the only living travel writer who's afraid to fly. A freelance journalist, reformed lawyer and accidental expert on economic policy, he launched Things Dangerous as a place to tell the ups and downs of a beat writer's life on the road.

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