The Traveler’s Curse

In some hostel, somewhere in Asia, I once came across an idea that has stuck with me for years.

In hostels such as these, the occupants of a room generally have only one thing in common: they’re traveling. As such, a certain genre of hostel-specfic conversation comes to dominate common areas.

“Where are you from?”

“How long have you been traveling?”

“Where are you going next?”

This is fun for a while, when young travelers are still getting their sea-legs, so to speak. But eventually the conversation inevitably veers toward something more emotional. Cheap backpacker hostels are secretly houses of emotion, of delight and apprehension and giddy confusion carefully painted over with a veneer of cool detachment. Yeah, dude, I do something exciting and dreamed-of and life-affirming every day. No big.

One evening, I found myself beside an outdoor fire pit, talking to an older backpacker — that rare breed of hostel inhabitant that actually got their life in order before abandoning it. We were talking about reverse culture shock, how returning home after long periods of traveling or living abroad could, in some circumstances, make a person feel that they didn’t belong and couldn’t be happy in their home country.

And how if you can’t find happiness in your home country, you may, in fact, be unable to find it anywhere.

He called this the Traveler’s Curse.

He and I agreed that most travelers, whether they admitted it or not, remembered the places they visited based on a simple question: What does that place have that I, having visited, feel is missing in my life elsewhere?

Everywhere we go, he explained, we add to our list of must-haves. A hypothetical place I’d want to live, for example, would have:

  • Tainan’s night markets
  • America’s appreciation for entrepreneurialism
  • Kyoto’s sense of courtesy and tradition
  • Paris’s museums
  • Shanghai’s metro and waimai (food/groceries/etc delivery)
  • Amsterdam’s walkability
  • Thailand’s beaches
  • Austin’s attitude

The tragedy, of course, is that no place can satisfy all of our myriad demands. So we keep traveling, searching, thereby lengthening our list of demands, and progressively narrowing the possibility that we’ll ever find a place that ticks all of our boxes.

Does traveling make us happier? Is it a passion with diminishing returns?

Standing outside that night, watching the fire burn itself down to embers as the flames searched in vain for some new carbon-rich material to ignite, I wondered. I’m still wondering.

Brooks Eakin

American abroad. I write about creativity, travel, productivity, and design.

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