Photo: TORWAISTUDIO/Shutterstock

The Best Travelers Know When NOT to Travel

by Isabelle Martin Feb 19, 2015

On a recent drive home from the Cleveland airport, my friend described the foundation of happiness as legs on a stool. Happiness, she said, is held up by different “legs:” health, social support, financial stability, satisfaction with work. If you kick out one of the legs, the stool can still stand. But when two or three go…

“Your life shits the bed,” my friend said flatly, her gaze fixed on a towering flame shooting out of a smokestack on Cleveland’s skyline.

By some odd twist of fate, I’ve wound up in the same medical school as this friend, except three years behind her and just when she’s no longer living here. I still haven’t hit the point of feeling “at home” but my friend’s short visit helped me unpack why I’m still feeling so unsettled.

I feel like the legs on my stool are mostly a pile of splinters lately. I don’t know anyone here. I just broke up with my boyfriend of three years. I’m living on an ever-growing mountain of loans. I’m subsisting off ramen noodles and haven’t exercised in months. School is the only leg that’s hanging in there, and even that feels a little weak.

I know I need to get a grip. This is Cleveland, not Somalia. The legs I’m talking about aren’t life-and-death. They’re about comfort, familiarity, and living a meaningful life.

The more I think of it, the more I come to this conclusion: In the long run, there’s something good about getting those legs kicked out. Often. When you have to reassess and rebuild, your legs don’t get mossy. And you realize that you can live without them for a while.

Traveling kicks the legs out by placing you in a totally new environment, where you need to build new relationships, figure out new ways to take care of yourself, and periodically reassess your own values in the light of new perspectives. You learn to constantly improvise, and to make sharp distinctions between yourself and your surroundings. When you’ve spent all your life in the same place, how can you know how much of you is you and how much is your environment? But when you throw yourself into new territory and test your response to new challenges, the excess is chipped away until only the core remains.

This wanderlust is mostly rooted in change-lust. And realizing that this need to chip away at myself, to improve, and to clarify what’s really “me” is what lies at the core of what drives me, I am able to reframe what I’m doing here in Cleveland.

I know that Cleveland isn’t that bad. I know that the only way to find happiness here is to get out in this new environment and figure out why it isn’t as bad as I think it is. The real point of travel — experiencing new ways of life, appreciating different perspectives, building a strong identity rooted in open-mindedness — isn’t served by only traveling to “exotic” or obvious places.

I’ve spent the past year feeling an increasing pull to keep all of my legs in place. For the first time in my adult life, I began to want a stable home and a family of my own. What I’d learned during my adventures had started to inform the direction I wanted my life to take. To uproot again, somewhat unwillingly this time, was a new and unsettling experience.

No amount of traveling ameliorates the sense of waiting, of yearning, of something just ahead. That anticipation is in me, regardless of where I am. I felt it in Boston seven years ago, suddenly overwhelmed with tears while driving downtown with my then-boyfriend, seeing the long stretch of how predictable my life was becoming. I felt it a year later in New York, at a party on a friend’s roof deck in Brooklyn in March, trying to decide whether to move to Germany for grad school. It’s the reason I didn’t apply to any schools in New York; I loved it too much and didn’t want to get complacent by putting down roots. I felt it on trains across Europe, in in-between places where I was able to pause and let my movement catch up with me, to simultaneously feel the fear of freezing up and thrill of rushing along. This need for something new always drove me to push forward.

This wanderlust is mostly rooted in change-lust. And realizing that this need to chip away at myself, to improve, and to clarify what’s really “me” is what lies at the core of what drives me, I am able to reframe what I’m doing here in Cleveland.

I didn’t always want to be a doctor. When I traveled to Ethiopia in 2010, it was as a field biologist. I went to Ethiopia to observe baboon social behavior, but I wound up learning a lot more about human infrastructure. Access to basic needs — food, clean water, education, and medical care — was very limited, and as a result, several people I worked with and grew close to became very ill.

Their experience with a crumbling stool was lightyears away from my own.

My coworker’s two-year-old nieces both contracted malaria, and he had to sheepishly ask me for $20 to buy them medication. The fact that my job was to collect monkey shit for genetic analysis — while two-year-olds were dying of preventable, cheaply treated diseases — seemed utterly absurd. Our cook’s brother died of a brain tumor because treatment was too expensive. Every day, more debilitating conditions popped up from things that are so easily and cheaply treated in the US.

When I returned to Germany, these stories gnawed away at me for months, ultimately prompting me to quit my PhD, move back in with my parents in a Boston suburb, and spend the next three years taking premedical classes in preparation for medical school. So now I’m here in Cleveland, battling conflicting feelings of boredom, motivation, and uncertainty, trying to hash out and stay close to what really matters to me. Just trying to keep my legs rooted without losing sight of why I came here.

For some people, travel isn’t the end-goal; it’s a method by which you learn your place in the world. Somewhat paradoxically, having your legs kicked out through travel can lead to periods of both physical stillness and mental and emotional growth. Knowing that there’s a reason for the debt, and the breakup, and the ramen noodle diet — that these challenges are a necessary part of the path to becoming a doctor — help me feel a little more at peace with being stuck in Cleveland.

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