Monday Q&A: What’s it like to come home after a big trip?
One thing I’ve learned from our Boston to Ushuaia trip: you really can’t go home again.
For us, the trip was a life changer. In many ways.
When we told people about our trip, one of the most common reactions was: “Wow. That sounds like an incredible once in a lifetime vacation.”
For us, it was far more than a vacation. And we had always intended it to be the first of many overland motorcycle trips. But after actually going on the trip, not doing it again simply isn’t an option. We have to go back out on the road.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning…
Overland Motorcycle Travel is Life-Changing
For us, anyway, overland motorcycle travel has proved to be life-changing. You hear about a few overland motorcycle travelers who go out again and again, or who go out for a pre-planned trip and end up staying on the road. I think there’s a good reason for that. Overland motorcycle travel gets into your blood. It’s compelling. It changes the way you think about life, and the things you prioritize as important.
Once you start, you can’t stop.
Why does overland motorcycle travel elicit this reaction?
I think it’s a lot of things.
There’s something incredibly powerful about crawling over our world, inch by inch. Tracing the path you’ve taken becomes extremely satisfying. Connecting the dots between point A and point B involves a whole set of memories of its own, and the adventures, sights, sounds and experiences that come along with it. To me, that is the essence of motorcycle travel. Sure, you can see some amazing, world-famous sites along the way. But the truly compelling thing about motorcycle travel is all of the in-between bits. It’s all the stuff that people who fly in and out don’t get to experience.
When you travel overland, you get a much more accurate, detailed picture of a country. You learn about its infrastructure. You smell the smells. You meet the people. You typically have a much more genuine experience outside of the large tourist centers where people who fly in and out spend their time. It’s a way of truly getting to know the world.
I now have a rich tapestry in my mind’s eye when I think of Mexico, Central and South America. I can recall the beautiful rolling hills of western Guatemala, and the way a big brother looked after his little brothers while they watched us eat our tacos at a roadside stand. I remember a woman’s bright smile at a small truck stop where we had one of the best meals of our trip. I remember the Mexican tortillas (awesome!) I remember the kindness of the Colombian people, and their friendly interest in us and our bikes.
And then there is the beautiful landscape that connects all of it. The Sierra Madre Oriental of Mexico leading into the eastern flatland, into Guatemalan rolling hills, the mountain range in western Nicaragua, the verdant jungles of Costa Rica… and in South America, the beautiful Andes mountains in Colombia, so unlike what I had expected, the continuation of the beauty through Ecuador, the transition to desert in Peru, the change of the character of the desert in Chile, and the flatlands of southern Patagonia in Argentina. And again, the magnificent Andes marching down through all of it, changing character as it goes, but always awe-inspiring.
It’s like the world’s best geography lesson. All of these places on the map become more than meaningless names and news stories; they become landscapes and experiences. Their people have faces. And when you realize how much more there is out there in the world, you can’t help but want to see it.
There’s also the element of experiencing things so unlike what you know at home. The food changes constantly; frequently surprising, sometimes unpleasant, but always an adventure. The culture changes, too, and it’s evident in the buildings, the way people dress, the interactions you have with them – it’s like moving through a giant sociology experiment.
And you get to see things that enrich you as a person. We experienced abject poverty throughout Latin America, but that didn’t always go hand-in-hand with squalor. Sometimes there was beauty and simplicity in the poverty.
It became inspiring to see people who were working hard to improve their lot in life. I will always remember the guy we chatted with over a late breakfast in Peru, who owned his own restaurant and two cars, and made around $5,000 per year. He was well-off by Peruvian standards, and we were embarrassed to compare our lives to his. It was incredibly humbling. And it really makes you think hard about the lifestyle you lead “at home” – and what you’re really getting from that.
But there’s more to it, too. Every day on the road, I had a moment where I felt grateful and blessed to be doing this. It was a gift to be there, in that moment, seeing that vista or having that conversation with a local in a country far, far from home. None of the mundane things from our every-day lives could hope to compare. And that leads to problems.
Coming Home Presents some Challenges
For both Kay and I, coming home again presented some serious challenges. Neither of us felt particularly good about the work we were doing. We both wanted to be doing something more meaningful with our lives, after the travel we’d done, the things we’d seen and the people we’d encountered. The endless quest to make money and acquire stuff just lost its appeal completely. And what else is life in the United States for, if not to acquire stuff? That’s the crux of our culture. And it was off-putting to come home to it.
When I came back to Boston, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. It didn’t feel like home anymore. It felt weird to be around people speaking English, and to overhear snippets of petty conversation. One woman was angry about what another woman had said. One guy couldn’t wait to buy the latest video game. A family argued over which food to buy at the store. It just all seemed so… unpleasant. So far from what we wanted to be doing.
It felt sort of ugly – not like the kind, hard-working people we’d met on the road. Here were people who had everything, and didn’t feel it. They didn’t feel blessed. They took it all for granted. I was very unhappy at being surrounded by it, and didn’t really know my place in it all.
Our apartment felt huge. It seemed so excessive. After living out of our motorcycle panniers for four months, I couldn’t imagine what we were supposed to be doing with all of this stuff. So we started selling it. I sold off hundreds of books and DVDs, and we used the income to pay our rent since neither of us had work immediately when we came home. We simplified and de-cluttered, and it felt good to be clearing out some of the excesses of American life.
And the work. The work was a necessary evil, because we’d spent every penny we’d saved when we were on the road and we needed money to buy food and pay bills. But neither of us wanted to be doing what we were doing. Both of us felt the work to be soul-killing. I fell into a low-grade depression; I didn’t really notice, but I became a lot more unproductive at work and my income fell off drastically. Kay did the same, to a lesser degree; he’d work and then come home and we’d just want to sit and veg all night, because we were miserable.
It didn’t take long before we started talking about being back on the road again. And then we began the early stages of planning for our next trip. Within a year, things had taken shape and we’d made some significant investments in equipment for our next trip – notably the Ural, which will enable us to take the dogs with us on a much more extended trip where we needn’t be bound by dog-sitters or rent.
Over time, it has gotten easier to be back at home. We’ve gradually become more comfortable immersed in American culture again. We’re back to our old spending habits, but now our expenses are all trip-related in some way or another; kit for the bikes, kit for the dogs, kit for ourselves. Or technology to improve our efficiency at work, make more money and build up our cash reserves for the next trip faster. With a firm goal of being back on the road, the things we initially found so irksome at being back in American society have downgraded to a low-level irk.
But we’ll never be the same people we were before the trip. We’ll never be able to share our experiences fully with our friends, because unless you’ve experienced something similar, all the words in the world can’t explain it. And we’ll never be content living the sort of life we lived before the trip.
So if you’re anything like us, taking a big overland motorcycle trip is a life-changing experience. It’ll be more than you can possibly comprehend before you leave. And it’ll have a lasting effect when you return.