“Sounds good! We should definitely go on a hike later!,” I spewed mindlessly, as I walked away from the group of travelers I had just met on the train. On second thought, I was exhausted, hungover from the night before, and reading my book seemed like a better option. I realized I wasn’t really interested in hanging out with them. Why did I just agree to that?
‘Cause that’s just what you do. Just hang out with them, just have the drink, just go on the date. After all, you’re on holiday!
Not so fast.
When we travel, we tend to let our guards down – or at least we’re sold the impression that we should, because “you’re on vacation!” Sure, defenses are up in regards to keeping an eye on our wallets, avoiding dark side streets, and consuming shady-seeming beverages from strangers – and my genuine hope is that we’ve got that mastered by now. However, the other boundaries we would greatly benefit from building are not as obvious.
We travel and we want to meet new people, respect new cultures, and try new things, but there is a difference between this and partaking in things that make you feel uncomfortably not yourself, drained, or generally unenthusiastic.
1. Your body
Different cultures have different definitions of ‘personal space.’ When I was waiting in an ATM queue in San Jose, Costa Rica, a twelve-inch gap was a VIP invitation for a group of four to swoop in, genuinely thinking the person in front of me was last in line and I was staring aimlessly in the middle of the street. No big deal. I waited another cinco minutos to withdraw my colone$. Pura vida. In India, I had a mother’s two children on my lap while she balanced a microwave on hers – all completely normal protocol on a public bus. Also not a big deal. I juggled the kids no problem.
In the name of travel, we have to push ourselves to realize it’s not going to be the same as home. But respecting culture does not equal allowing someone to make you feel uncomfortable. In the same bus ride, stop after stop, the standing crowd became more dense, slowly encroaching on us seated creatures. I was drifting in and out of sleep and had no energy to discriminate against body parts. Arms, hands, asses, crotches – all the same at this point, right? Well, yeah… till I awoke from my half-nap to notice some guy’s private parts against my arm. What the *!@%?! But then I empathized. He’s got nowhere to go. Poor guy is standing and crushed. I mean, we’re all on top of each other. But now it’s getting weird. He knows it’s there. I snapped out of the mental back and forth justification game. Wait, what?! Poor guy?! Poor me! I threw a subtle elbow into his thigh and he backed off.
A stranger’s wandering hands (or pelvis) seems like an obvious example of when to take action against discomfort. Yet it still took me a few minutes to deliberate what I should do. It required listening to my thoughts and tapping into what I felt before I made a move. So when it’s not as serious – like getting bullied out of your expensive seat in a crowded theater or someone blowing cigarette smoke directly in your face in a restaurant – speaking up can be even more difficult, because we don’t want to offend. Just pause. Ask yourself if it really makes a difference to your experience. If yes, speak. It can always be done with tact… or elbows.
Boundaries can be drawn romantically as well. If you like how you’ve been living in this department, don’t change it just because you’re traveling. There’s no need to buy into the ‘oh loosen up, you’re on holiday’ deal. Travel doesn’t mean throwing your usual behavior out the window. It just means you took your awesome self to a new place and you’re going to continue being your awesome self. That’s it. I’m not saying there’s no room for breakthroughs, healing, and letting loose, but do what you want because you want to, not because you feel like you ‘should.’
Body boundaries also apply to what you consume. Just eat the cake! Just take the shot! You would think peer pressure ends after college. It doesn’t. It never will. Accept it.
Listen to yourself. I think what it comes down to is acting instead of reacting. Take a minute to ask yourself what you feel, what you want, and what you need. You’re giving yourself way too much credit to assume you’ll absolutely crush someone’s feelings by speaking up or distancing yourself. Don’t flatter yourself. You don’t have that much power over them. They’ll be fine.
2. Your time
When you’re home, work and daily stressors rapidly consume your time, and your free time is restricted. It’s valuable. Thus you choose not to pack it with mediocre plans and if you do, you’re well aware of it (and most likely bitching about it). When we’re on the road our schedule is blown open, and sometimes we take that as a green light to fill it with meaningless stuff.
I sometimes realized days went by and l hadn’t once consciously chosen how I wanted to spend my time. I realized I was handing out a lot of “yeah, of course I’m down to see the waterfall!” and “sure, why not have a drink?!” and not enough of “Let me take a second to think about it and get back to you.” I noticed these responses to friends, significant others, random strangers I met on a bus, and even to the itinerary my travel agent planned for me three months ago. I realized there was a lot of moving with the crowd of backpackers or at the suggestion of the hotel receptionist and not enough with my own desire and intuition.
So I hiked with the group from the train that day. But my fatigue and halfhearted interest prevented me from fully showing up. I was exhausted and I was thinking about my bed and my book. I noticed this was just one of the many times I had simply gone along with suggested plans because it seemed to ‘make sense.’ I mean, we were in the Himalayas, what if I missed out on something cool? Looking back, had I just waited for the right time, I would have been more positive and connected – both to the group and towards the scenic beauty around me.
It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually I stopped going along with things just for shits. And it feels good. Do I really want to eat dinner with this woman from my Thai island tour? She’s really nice, but I’m about to throw myself off the side of this ferry if I hear one more story about how many trophies her kid won at soccer camp. Would it serve me better to eat alone tonight? It’s internal conversations like these that I started listening to, instead of ignoring. When I noticed a doubt, I’d lean into it instead of brushing it off. (For the record: she ran out of trophy tales because her kid was only 5 years old, I remained safely seated for the duration of the boat ride, and I ate Panang vegetable curry in sweet solitude that night.)
You don’t have to go into a 30-minute meditation to weigh your options. Be flexible. Be spontaneous. Be open. But still be conscious. Go to sleep at night with the empowering feeling of knowing that you mindfully chose how to fill your day.
3. Your words
“You in the mood to scroll through the usual small-talk or you good?” he asked me casually, indicating the disdain he shared for unnecessarily filling the air with bullshit. Up till that point, this fellow backpacker and I shared only the café wifi password and a table. “No,” I laughed. Excellent question. It was 11 PM in Bangkok and I was waiting for my overnight train. The last thing I felt like doing was getting into it: Where are you from? How long have you been traveling for? Which cities have you been to? Where was your favorite? In the end, we never did do the talk. (Ironically, his capacity to sit comfortably without words intrigued me…#mindF*!%)
Travel small-talk can be a huge energy sucker and vibe killer. We all do it and it’s all well-meaning, but it’s just not always necessary. In the west, in America especially, we are taught that being friendly, smiley, and talkative is the way to go – all the time…that Thou shall always network in all situations whatsoever and that He who does not network shall be condemned. I think this approach is something we need to reevaluate. At times, yes, this is the gateway to deep connections and successful partnerships. But the always-need-to-be-talking mentality can also have a reverse effect and lead to inauthentic communication and feeling quite drained thereafter.
There is nothing wrong with a polite acknowledgment of others and subsequently sharing silence. Each word you speak delivers a small piece of you to the world. So package it effectively. Chances are if you’re bored with a forced conversation, so are they. Save your words for when they matter. If you preserve your words for when you’re truly interested, helpful, excited, or eager, you’ll be that much more present and authentic in the interaction. If not, you’ll waste your…
Your body, your words, your time – these categories are messy, they all overlap, and they all come down to energy.
A word of warning: if you do choose to build boundaries around any of the above – if you choose not to slam down tequila shots at the crazy party, if you choose silence over small talk at the train station, or if you don’t give a socially acceptable reason why you turned down an invitation to dinner – you will be questioned. People are simply trying to understand you. Give it a shot, but don’t waste too much energy trying to justify yourself. If there’s an awkward silence, let it be awkward. Smile politely, peacefully knowing you followed what you needed at that time. Everyone else will be quite alright. Really, they will – friends will understand your hangover nap is more fun than hiking, the Thai island proud mom will gladly dump her stories on the next unsuspecting victim, and that girl you didn’t kiss – believe it or not, Romeo – will get over you one day.
Regardless of others, we also need to draw boundaries around the scattered nature of our own minds. Navigating the candy shopesque options of a big city, trying to make sense of the suffering you see on the streets en route to your ritzy resort, and overanalyzing why you and your best friend just aren’t clicking on this trip – all these things consume your energy. And they should, because they’re important. But we need to know when to stop. Pause and ask yourself whether it would be more valuable to take it a bit slower or place your mental energy elsewhere for the time being.
Drawing boundaries and preserving energy has to do with fully showing up in the world – for that conversation, that hike, that dinner. There is nothing noble about giving someone half of you. The more you build boundaries when it’s necessary, the more you can then allow yourself to be in full contact with those you interact with when you speak, date, and explore.