The First Week: An Unexpected Slowdown
I had high hopes for Portugal coming into Remote Year. Lisbon was the destination I was most looking forward to, embracing the lifestyle of Western Europe joined in a Mediterranean-like setting with the chill atmosphere of the city. The first few days were a honeymoon of sorts. The excitement and anticipation of a new location combined with a fantastic track event set the bar high. Unfortunately, I was unprepared for what lie directly ahead: that I would mentally and emotionally hit a wall.
You see, I am part of a 4-month travel plan on Remote Year, an experimental program offered by the fledgling startup (the whole thing itself is an experiment still!). This is a wonderful opportunity to travel for a longer period of time without having to dedicate and plan employment and logistics for an entire year. I thought this was a very suitable arrangement for someone like myself who hadn’t ever been overseas. Europe is generally a good first start for a long-range travel destination, aided by the fact that I am white and obviously of European descent (and also partly Serbian, which was a coincidental perk when visiting Belgrade). I therefore share a lot of European and Western ideals brought over to the United States some 240 years ago and perpetuated since.
However, there are some important caveats to us “four monthers”. First, we are joining the larger, year-long Kublai group that has been in action since the beginning of February. Their journey began in Asia. They’ve already trekked through Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand before shifting continents to Europe. Second, as mentioned, this arrangement is experimental and has only been done once before in Remote Year. There were a set of four monthers that joined the group in Asia, with one opting to stay for longer. Finally, there is an interesting social and psychological dynamic involved in joining a travel tribe (our “tramily” – tribe + travel + family). It was a bit intimidating and a concern I had joining a group that had already established themselves and formed bond over an apparently epic several month travel through Asia. I just hoped I would fit in, be welcomed, and not feel like an outlier because I am infusing myself into a group that has already gelled for some time.
Long-term travel is a highly rewarding expedition, with people reporting some of the most memorable or important experiences of their lives on long-term and/or long-distance travel. However, it does not come without its costs – monetary, physical, emotional, mental, and so on. Being that this Kublai group has been away from home for almost 6 full months now, changing to another continent and the passage of time caused some fatigue and emotional troughs to settle in for a large portion of the group. This is normal, expected, and has happened in previous RY groups; constant happiness is not and cannot be a sustainable state of being. This is true in general, not just in travel. To really live fully, you have to experience the full cycle of emotions. From sadness to anger, to dispair and hopelessness (and homesickness). That’s partly what makes the happiness and triumph, the elation and enjoyment feel so worth it. Being that I am somewhat of a sensitive snowflake™, I was able to pick up on a lot of these emotional lows a lot of my fellow Kubs hit upon this and also last month in Belgrade (though the latter was somewhat mitigated by us four monthers infusing some new life into the scene). It started to affect me. Additionally, I’ve also never traveled this long before. It takes some getting used to being on your feet and living out of a suitcase for months at a time.
The first week, I didn’t do much around Lisbon hardly at all. In fact, I started to feel like I was wasting my time. I would head to the workspace, just a few blocks and around the corner from my apartment, and then head home. Rinse and repeat. The transportation system was very frustrating, with inaccurate schedules and unreliable arrival times and crowded busses (when leaving for Spain, my bus passed me by! I almost missed my train). I spent a lot of time, more than I wanted to, trying to find food, particularly hummus, which is a soul-restorative food for me. While that has been impossible to come by in Lisbon, I was able to find some organic and fresh groceries to support my lifestyle, but I was underwhelmed or ultimately unfamiliar with them, especially given the price…
While Serbia was notable for its cheapness (a $10 USD entree was maybe 600 or 700 dinars which translated to somewhere in the $6-range), Lisbon and Portugal have been about anywhere from 1.5-2x more expensive than Belgrade. I hardly felt like I spent any money in Belgrade. Now in Lisbon, I feel like I am bleeding cash everywhere. Combined with my medical expenses for the ENT, I was blowing through funds at an uncomfortable rate. This contributed some anxiety about finances and reasonable spending habits, a careful balance to maintain when away from home, even with a full-time job to support you.
…This, combined with a feeling of isolation and adjusting to a new living situation without my roommate Mason from Belgrade, whose animated personality and impromptu serenades made the experience laughable and fun, made it more difficult to feel like a part of the group. In Asia, Kubs mostly lived together in a single (or two) building(s) making it easy to interact and run into each other in say the lobby or hallway. Now that since Belgrade we’re living in several different buildings spread out around the city, it requires a lot more effort to reach out and interact with fellow Remotes. Still being new and encountering the group’s low point, this proved difficult for me, especially as someone who suffers from social anxiety. I started to question my place in the group, how I should reach out to people, if I reached out if anyone cared, if I would have friends. The reason I wanted to do Remote Year as opposed to say backpacking alone was that, despite my introversion, I wanted a supportive community to be a part of. Travel is rewarding and fun, especially so when you can share the experiences with people encountering the same thing as you.
But the disconnect was real, and it was a tough week and a half. I kept my head down and focused on work as much as I could, although I was sporadically working on things as we are in the polish stage for a large feature push. Being remote and working remotely also comes with the challenges of keeping up to date and moving forward with your work team, not to be left behind. That is another dynamic I realized I needed to contend with, adding to the pile of emotional stressors I had started to encounter this time around.
Things finally came to a head in our bi-monthly “town hall” style meeting of all Remotes. It was clear among us and the program leaders that something was different. People were not as engaged in the community and felt disconnected. Survey results from the last month revealed that and the feeling persisted into this month. That day was a quiet, concerned feel among everyone. An impromptu talk-it-out session was held the next day where I attended and expressed some of how I was feeling to a program leader and a few fellow Remotes.
Turning the Corner
If I had to pick a point that was the lowest, it was at that town hall. I was wading through that first week or so feeling down and foggy, not 100% certain why I was feeling that way at the time. The meeting helped to bring clarity and understanding to what I had been going through. It reinforced that it was valid I was feeling this way, and that I was not alone. A ‘game’ we played was to “stand up if…” you had experienced doing or feeling a certain thing or way. To my surprise, a lot of Remotes stood up when asked if they had felt alone or weren’t sure of their place in the group. This revealed to me the extend of the emotions everyone was going through. That just because you are travelling does not mean your problems go away. If anything, they’re sometimes made more obvious. This was clear to me in my social anxiety and being uncertain how to reach out (do I Facebook, Slack, direct message, physically go to someone, or what?).
I didn’t want this to continue. As I said, you have to feel the full cycle of emotions. But it is a cycle, not a constant. Feeling constantly down was not the way I wanted to spend this ambitious journey. I wanted to make sure I was feeling fulfilled and content, even if in every single moment I wouldn’t necessarily be “happy”. Prior to joining this travel adventure, I had attended some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) classes and worked with a consoler to learn and control my generalized and social anxiety better. I have remembered the concepts and lessons learned there. I’ve used them and applied them to situations now here more than 4,000 miles away from home. It has helped and made me feel more confident in my ability to handle stressful situations. It has also helped me to start to slowly come out of this slump I had been stuck in. I made my way to the beach a couple times; once to watch the sunset and another to sun bathe. It was nice to go out and do these things, even if I was alone, to help establish that I was at least venturing outward and taking advantage of the European shoreline.
I also made an increased effort to reach out, despite how hard that can be for me. Social anxiety works by isolating you from others as well as yourself. You are constantly scared of rejection or humiliation, and situations that normal people would do with relative ease are at times an insurmountable challenge for those with SAD. It makes reaching out difficult and you end up not doing things even though you want to do them. However, as I learned in CBT, the best way to confront and change those anxious fears and responses is to put yourself directly in the triggering situation and observe the results. During a successful “retraining”, the outcome is much better than the sufferer anticipates, and those neural connections that provoke anxiety are “restructured” with repeated exposure over time. It becomes easier and easier as exposure with success happens. I’m trying to bank on this and continue my work in CBT, with the support of my Talkspace therapist even as I am no longer attending official CBT programs.
I also tried earnestly to adjust my perspective and attitude. If you think like you’re going to have a miserable time, you’re probably going to have a miserable time. Instead, if you think you might have a decent or even good time, you’re much more likely to have a positive outcome. Your perspectives and attitudes shape the results of almost any situation. Specifically, I made an effort to say hello more, to post on Facebook and Slack, and to plan specific events and invite fellow Kubs to them (such as dinner or a city tour). Not all of these worked, but some did. I also think as a group, realizing that we hit this low made people start to take comfort in the fact that they are not alone, that we are all still in this together. Some Kubs went home and had opted-out of the last month of travel. Some were able to come back refreshed and ready to travel with the group again. I even met some new faces that I had not previously seen. We started to go out more, and my schedule became busy again.
I ventured out into Lisbon more, and I started to feel a lot better about my time in Portugal. We attended a small benefit concert (really a small bar located in an underpass), put on by Mason and his visting friend, raising money for the Refood program. The program collects unused restaurant food which helps feed Lisbon families in need. I felt even better after attending this concert and walking home chatting with a fellow Kub about all sorts of topics. That was a great conversation and the night helped make me feel included in the group again.
Let’s Leave Our Troubles Behind in Sintra
My next track event, a day trip to the west cost town of Sintra, also helped to pull me out of the rough as a memorable adventure up the mountains and to the sea. I cover this in the next post.