For Creatives, is There Such a Thing as Too Much Travel?

On hitting “peak nomad” and how to overcome it.
pic of me : alex in malawi border queue

Reading in the queue at a Malawian border post in 2016, while on a 34-hour bus journey.

In 2015, I moved out of the apartment I was sharing. I’d had a lightbulb moment: I’d realised that — thanks to the internet — I didn’t actually need to be based all the time in the region where my biggest client was. My home city, Cape Town in South Africa, is a stunningly beautiful place to live, but I had the strong urge to explore elsewhere, to spend time in far-flung lands.

That wanderlust has fuelled nearly four years of nomadic life. I’ve taken hundreds of flights, been on every continent (except South America and Antarctica). To some desk-bound nine-to-fivers, it might look like living the dream.

Certainly, I’m grateful for the flexibility I have as a freelancer— for the exhilarating freedom of having so much choice when determining my “when” and “where”. There’s been plenty of upsides: the more I’ve travelled, the more there’s been to write about (in addition to copywriting, I write for magazines and newspapers — often about the places I go to). I’ve met amazing people, tasted amazing food.

But it’s not all rosy: I learnt the hard way that you can have too much of a good thing. Constant travel started sapping my creative energies — which is not ideal when you rely on them to make money! Adjusting to new places and people all the time left me drained — as did the constant, unsettling churn of movement: planes, trains and buses. I was left struggling to find the energy or motivation to write as much as I needed to. My mental health suffered — my OCD flared up, the obsessive spirals fuelled by the stress of navigating the unfamiliar. At times, I found myself struggling to appreciate where I was — the sense of wonder had faded. In coping with sensory overload, I’d become a little numbed; my outlook was a little blurry. I started to wonder — what’s the point in travelling so much, if you’re not making the most of where you are?

I knew things had to change. And so, I decided that as wonderful as the Technicolor brightness of travel might be, I needed to balance this out with “white space” — fallow periods to read, reflect and write; familiar places I felt comfortable, safe, at home in. Given that attention is finite (and precious!), I also had to be more selective about how much media I consumed.

All in all, this was about finding balance — between old and new; movement and stillness. I don’t always get it right, but since I’ve started incorporating more of this white space, I’ve found myself happier, healthier and more productive. In between time on the road (or in the air), between new places, I try to revisit old ones. I stay with friends, I revisit cafes I know. During this downtime, I try to keep use of transport to a minimum. I’ve left social media and have reduced the number of email newsletters I read each day (I try to get weekly ones instead — so that I remain informed, but less consumed by the relentless news-and-views cycle).

I’ve found that no matter where I am, there are things that can anchor and soothe me. Making coffee with my Aeropress. Writing in my journal in the early morning quiet. Going outside for a run or a walk. Doing a 40-minute body scan or breathing meditation. None of these is a silver bullet, and hell, sometimes travel still feels exhausting and overwhelming. But in combination, they’ve gone a long way to creating conditions conducive to produce meaningful creative work when I’m on the road. Given that’s how I put bread on the table, I’m grateful for that.

This piece first appeared in The Startup on Medium.

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