*This post was originally published on July 16th, 2012 on amywarcup.com
After twenty-six nights, 55 hours of flights and layovers (collectively), about twenty Thai foot massages, and at least fifteen Khao Sois, it hit me….a condition rarely spoken about in depth, but one that is very real: Post-Travel Depression (PTD). Yes, it really does have a formal medical name. I’ve traveled many times in my life to dozens of cities and towns (although I have so many more to explore), but none have left me feeling quite the nostalgia that Chiang Mai has. Perhaps I should call my condition Post-Thailand Depression. I could even still call it PTD, although I must admit that this abbreviation insinuates, when spoken aloud, a far more morbid image of disease than simply feeling the blues after an exhilarating world travel experience.
As I awoke my first morning in my bed at home, I wondered for a moment where my mango, dragon fruit and papaya fruit bowl was, realizing that the best solution in that moment was to drive to my local Wegman’s grocery store to make this tropical breakfast myself. As each piece of mango lavishly delighted my palate, I thought in my self-pity how I was just sitting at my simple glass kitchen table in my relatively uneventful hometown of Rochester, New York. Gone were the twenty blocks of market stands selling jasmine flowers for offerings, or hill tribe purses, or obscene t-shirts diagraming Bangkok’s “Ping-Pong show” with the grossly misspelled word “poossee” written beneath it. All of those fleeting conversations with bizarre strangers, such as the woman from Castile who replaced her hair with peacock feathers, or the ragged charlatan who “owns ten successful software businesses worldwide,” but needed thirty baht for a taxi because he forgot his wallet in his guest house…all of those encounters were gone. No more were the dozens of smiling Thai eyes that greeted me daily with an exuberant “tuk-tuk, madame?” …And where were the street vendors selling Pad Thai and fruit shakes? Why couldn’t I walk out my door and walk up the street for a six-dollar massage and pedicure? Why, when I went to the grocery store, wasn’t everyone smiling back at me and saying hello when I looked into their eyes, smiled, and nodded? Rather, people either looked away, or glared briefly with a look that may have said “I don’t know you, you freak.”
Well, perhaps my interpretation was in part because of my 102 (F) degree fever, my jet-lag, and the aggravating charley-horse I had in my left leg. These conditions do not typically invite the most optimistic view of understanding human behavior. Another realization I came upon was that although old friends provide the comforts of familiarity, they did not experience the metamorphosis that had recently occurred in my life. “You’ve just had this amazing life opportunity,” they may say. “What do you have to be depressed about?” Well, what some may not understand is that the sadness that follows such an amazing life happening does not translate to a lack of gratefulness. Certainly, I have felt gratitude beyond measure after visiting Thailand. Never before have I been so aware of the favorable circumstances in my life that have allowed me such freedom to take this journey. Nonetheless, the feelings of letting go, of even some mind remorse, remained. So, to cope, I experimented with techniques in my life that helped relieve my post-travel melancholy, and these were some things that helped me move through my blues:
- Write it down: One of the assignments I required of my students during our recent travels was to keep a dated daily journal. My limitations in the assignment were few. I did not care so much how long each entry was written, or how personal they chose to be in sharing; only that they took time to ponder on what they were absorbing in their experiences and that they write it down. The primary purpose of the assignment was not for me or their grades, but rather, for them, so that they have a documentation of their memoirs that they may refer to in the future, or perhaps stumble upon twenty years from now to re-live their experiences. What I realized, however, was that I forgot to do the same for myself. Oh, sure…I often took notes for blog post ideas, or wrote down details of the history of certain temples so I could share this knowledge with the college administration upon my return, but I was not writing my personal experiences. I did not give myself a place to reflect on how I felt as I lived these moments from day to day. – But, writing after returning, I decided, was still not too late. So, I pulled out a blank journal my sister had given me as a gift a couple of years ago, and started writing. Taking what I was feeling out of my mind and onto paper created a tremendous feeling of relief within me. It was almost as if I had taken my heavy backpack off forever to run free of the burden. I could see my experiences from a third-person perspective without fear of judgments or over-analyzing my emotions. They were just there, and nobody else needed to see them but me. – But, they were mine…my life and reality; something I may choose to reflect upon one day as I reminisce of my past. Thoughts and emotions are powerful, but they are also fleeting from moment to moment. Writing them down is like taking a photograph of a personal experience that is harbored in the mind.
- Find the Culture at Home: This option may vary depending on where one lives, of course. Discovering aspect of Thai culture may be easier to discover in New York City or San Francisco than in Lost Creek, West Virginia. Still, even in my relatively smaller city of Rochester, New York, there are some Thai restaurants, places that practice Buddhism (although not Theravada, typically), and there is a little shop up the street from me that is owned by a Thai woman who sells imported goods and jewelry from Thailand. There was great comfort in knowing that I could drive less than ten miles to eat a spicy green curry, or order mango with coconut milk and sticky rice to bring home. Sure, it isn’t the same as walking out the door and finding a mango fruit stand outside of my guesthouse. I knew eventually I’d need to curtail this addiction if I wanted to save money for future travels, but the comfort of eating Thai food those first few days made my cultural transition much smoother. A nice, chilled bottle of Singha didn’t hurt, either. So…what to do if you live in a town that is even smaller and may not have Thai restaurants? I suggest taking a recipe book and trying your hand at making some of these delicious meals yourself. It may be time consuming at first, but once you know a recipe, it will be significantly faster and easier. This needn’t be just for Thailand withdrawal, either. Every culture has something unique that may be recreated at home.
Talk to Strangers: Of course, some discretion should always be used with this suggestion. After all, Mom and Rick Springfield didn’t grill this advice into our heads without reason. One aspect of traveling that really has struck me, however, is the realization of just how many more strangers I do talk to when I’m not at home. This is especially true when I’ve traveled solo. There is often less fear, somehow. Nobody knows me, the chances of us having some awkward mutual acquaintance, or the risk that the person may have heard of some unsubstantiated gossip about me is almost non-existent. Still, I thought, why is it that we don’t take risks and talk to new people more often? This is especially true for those who live in northeastern United States, like I do. In light of this thought, I strolled up a quaint city street in Rochester one balmy summer afternoon, intending to take food “to go” from one of my favorite sushi restaurants. Instead, however, I decided to dine at a table alone, as I unabashedly did so many times in Chiang Mai. A nearby woman and I struck up a most engaging conversation about cultural differences, spiritual perspectives, and career changes. On the day that followed, I visited a local gardening shop to purchase day lilies, and talked to a woman about the therapeutic aspects of planting and working with the earth. Perhaps these conversations weren’t quite the same as the ones I had with the fifty year old New Zealander who once lived with aborigine tribes and motor biked across Europe and Asia, but they were still meaningful. They were also conversations I may have never had on an ordinary day if I had not been in my post-Thailand state of withdrawal.
- Talk to New People About the Experience: This coincides well with the previous suggestion. I am not insinuating that we shouldn’t talk to our friends about our travels. It is a given that we will share with them, especially the more personal stories. Giving presentations, however, and engaging in discussions with new people that are interested in world travel and culture may give way for a more captive and engaged audience, because they are there to learn about your experience. It also allows you, as the traveler, the opportunity to re-live the journey. When I returned from Thailand last fall, I gave a presentation at FLCC, the community college where I teach. The event was open to the community as well as the college body. A group of retired women came together for a “ladies afternoon” to hear my presentation, since they all shared an interest in travel and culture. They were attentive during the presentation, and afterward asked me several intelligent and thoughtful questions about cultural barriers and differences in world perspectives as a result of varying belief systems. There are only a miniscule number of things that engage my intellect more than these discussions. I realized that sharing with others about our travels is not really just about telling others of our personal experiences. It is an opportunity to seek connection with others and understand the world beyond the confines of our cultural limitations.
- Break Away From a Routine..Even Just a Little: When I was in Thailand, I experienced something new daily, even when I had a full-day scheduled of Thai massage training. It may have just been walking down a new Soi (small road) in the morning, or eating a strange piece of cake that looked like a dish sponge and tasted like roses, or trying on a pair of Thai style pants that tie differently than anything I’ve ever worn in America. All of these little novelties stimulate the mind and the senses with the excitement of newness. Coming home to a mundane and familiar routine can be difficult afterward. Even tiny changes, however, can bring back just a trace moving away from feeling as if in a rut. Typically, most mornings, I immediately pour myself a cup of coffee and take a shower. Some mornings, I may do a short yoga practice. I decided to change this routine one morning by taking a walk instead (well…I did still drink my coffee first), and then drove to a local park to meditate in nature for a short bit. Instead of going to my usual yoga classes, I decided to try a few new ones with unfamiliar teachers. I’ve been exploring the possibilities of starting a new hobby. One that has particularly piqued my interest recently is learning how to do Ariel silk dancing. Perhaps one of the Cirque de So Leil dancers can teach me this art.
Ask almost anybody who has traveled extensively. In most cases, unless it was a particularly unpleasant experience, they will tell you that coming home was a bit challenging. Many may speak of having had some degree of PTD. In time, however, we assimilate to our homes again. Humans have an amazing ability of resiliency and adaptability if we are open to change, but bringing back pieces of the culture with us, and integrating it into our lives, make the transitions much easier. It can also create positive changes in who we are and how we choose to lives our daily lives, forever.