Matador Network

How to survive the time between travels

Photo: Kamila Cellary

My 20’s followed a pretty basic pattern: Travel. Run out of money. Come home. Save money. Travel again. Repeat.

There was a problem with this pattern — at best, about 75% of my time was being spent at home saving for the next big trip, and I tended to be bored out of my mind in these intervals. I was trying to spend as little money as humanly possible so I could save up and get out of the country again, which meant going out as infrequently as possible. Which meant sitting in a room, slowly going insane.

This is, obviously, not a particularly healthy way to live — you can’t just muddle through three quarters of your life and expect to die satisfied. So I’ve found a few things that help fill the time between big trips.

1. Learn to love the planning stage.

I am convinced that it’s just as enjoyable to plan a trip as it is to take one. My approach has traditionally been to wait until I have a free afternoon, go to a bookstore, clear the shelf of all books related to my intended destination, and curl up in one of their chairs flipping through the books for the rest of the day. This is the “filling your brain” phase. You are not making concrete plans, you are simply learning all you can.

Next, buy a map of your destination. Sit in front of it, identify your arrival point, and play around with routes. Make marks on the map of the spots you want to see, and connect them in bizarre, demented ways. I still have a map in my trunk of South America from that motorcycle road trip I never took.

Next, make lists. Lists of things you want to see, lists of things you want to bring, lists of pictures you want to take, lists of people you want to travel with, lists of the ways you’re going to cut costs, lists of things you want to change about yourself before you go.

Learn to love the planning as its own thing, and your trip will begin long before you leave for the airport.

2. Read everything.

A destination is infinitely more interesting when you understand its history and context. First, go onto Wikipedia — yes, I know it’s not a perfect resource, but it’s a resource — and get the broad-strokes history of the place you’re going. Go down the rabbit hole — click through to other articles on famous events or people. Look at the Google Maps street view of the city you’re visiting, and try and imagine Oscar Wilde or Ho Chi Minh on that street, decades back.

If something in particular piques your interest, Google the best book on the subject and buy it (or, better yet, get it from your library and put the money you saved towards the trip). Read it, and then alter your trip based on the new information.

Read books set in the country. Read their best books by their best authors. This is a good resource. Read stuff that’s totally unrelated but makes you feel like you’re somewhere else anyway. Your life now and during the trip will be much, much richer for it.

3. Treat home as a destination.

Life can’t just be lived abroad. Eventually, you’re going to have to learn to love where you are, even if it’s not the place you would ideally choose to be. The best way to do that is to treat your home like it’s a destination.

Do the same thing you did in your planning stage, but for your home. Who, from here, is famous? Are there any myths about my hometown, are there any local histories I can discover? Any true crimes, any political scandals, any uprisings and riots?

Google “free things to do in [your city].” Go to the museums, to the parks, to the coffee shops. Join local listservs. Find out what the most popular hobbies here are, and try them once. Go into a strange bar and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Act like you’re not from here, ask them what they’d suggest doing to a tourist.

Travel is, ultimately, about exploration. You do not need to go abroad to explore.