Fernweh Feet

Here, at Indie Road, we like to write about the side of backpacking that you don’t normally read about on travel blogs – about how it’s not all about suntans and Instagram but sometimes people and situations can bring us lower than ever before, and that the backpacking lifestyle can be trying and difficult, but also how it’s ultimately worth it. Today, I would like to discuss one of the two hardest things about backpacking; the end.

This is obviously a very personal experience that differs with everybody. Some travellers become very homesick and cannot wait to tuck themselves up between familiar sheets, while others have to be forced through the boarding gate at the airport as they cling onto the last moments of their experience. It’s far more complex than a simple dichotomy, but it’s a start.

How often do you hear people complain that they “need a holiday” just weeks after returning from a trip? How common is it to hear people complain about the “post travel blues”? We raise ourselves up to new heights as we dive into the unknown and indulge in new experiences, so much so that what most people refer to as a “normal life” becomes somewhat mediocre and dull. From behind our office desks we close our eyes for just a moment too long and feel the white sand between our toes and cool mountain breeze in our hair, and when we open them again to the sound of the fax machine and the loading wheel on the computer, it’s depressing.

The thing is, the like-minded people who live with sand between their toes and the mountain breeze in their hair will close their eyes and imagine getting lost in historic European cities and the taste of a legitimate Spanish tempranillo. We always seem to want what we can’t have because the exotic shades of foreign culture taste somewhat sweeter, and ultimately home becomes somewhat more conceptual instead of something physical. The problem is not that we live in boring places, it is that we have become accustomed to the freedom of the road, and when reality comes crashing in, we romanticise everything that we had when we had nothing.

For me, it’s different to most. My homecoming was for a funeral, and to a city that I never grew up in because my parents moved to New Zealand while I was travelling. When I did go back to the UK, I was so eager to leave again, despite the fact I was initially excited about seeing everybody. While you’re developing and changing, they’re either going around in circles or developing and changing away from how you remember them. It felt anti-climatic, and I felt very alone despite being surrounded by the faces and friends of my past. I didn’t belong there anymore.

And while that particular example was quite typical, I feel the same emotions whenever I stop. I try to keep the fernweh at bay by making my pauses in foreign locations, where I am challenged with language barriers and disquieting cultures, however I can never stop obsessing over my next holiday. It’s like an itching in my feet, or a horizon line I can never quite reach, and the only way to feel satisfied is to know that there is always somewhere new to explore. On the few occasions that I do come close to escaping it, in an age of Facebook and Instagram, I’m never more than a few scrolls away from a photo of somewhere else I’d rather be, and it begins again.

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I recently spoke to a couple of backpacker friends who have returned from their travels so that I could broaden this perspective a little. Iris is a Bavarian girl I met while I was back home in New Zealand, and is one of the very few people in this world of seven billion that I would cross borders and crumble mountains for. Once she compromised her last batch of scones at a cafe where she worked with curry powder as she hated her boss. She also describes our first meeting as initially terrifying because she was exposed to me singing “Bohemium Rhapsody” in the car. She has been back in Germany for a while now, settling into a student life, but still stares longingly out of windows and dreams of road trips and campervans, despite the fact that her road trip and campervan nearly took everything from her.

For her, the best thing about travelling is the feeling of freedom; the uncertainty of where to go and where to sleep, following simply her moods with the lack of responsibilities chaining her to one place. Since returning, she particularly misses the flexibility of being able to do whatever she wants and pushes away her fernweh by trying to distract herself with friends and keeping a busy schedule while hoping for better days. She cried all the way back to Germany on the plane, but her first month back home was great. Her family picked her up from the airport and fed her a flavour of Germany upon arrival, and she surprised her friends with an early return which made her realise just how missed and appreciated she was, but about a month later the depression really began to take over. Several months on, I can still see the little fire in her eyes as she scans over some photos of Thailand, quietly hoping to escape reality again.

This feeling is very hard to describe to people who haven’t experienced it themselves, as while it is great to feel welcomed and wanted in one particular place, sometimes you just need something a little bit unfamiliar, and it’s not because you don’t like them and you don’t like your home, it’s just something that becomes part of our DNA.

Now, she lives and studies in Nürnberg, and believes the move away from her quiet little village in the Bavarian countryside was essential for her sanity. While she is happy, she is always thinking about where to travel to next, and truly believes another big backpacking trip is on the cards. She misses the hernia-inducing feeling of having her life on her back.

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Axel, one of our bloggers, also had similar reactions. During his travels, he felt that he accomplished everything he needed to both physically and emotionally, and so felt quite ready to return, however as the burdens of a scheduled life began to fall into place over time, so did the cravings to escape them. He compares this to being heartbroken in the way that his mind will attack him with good memories at any unsuspecting moment as something so small as a smell or a photo can take him back to standing on top of a mountain and make him desire what he has lost, sometimes leaving him feeling a little jaded. He has decorated his room in Dusseldorf with photos of New Zealand and often loses himself inside them, wanting to be back on the road and believing that these were some of the best months of his life.

He has a strong hunger to explore Scotland, initiated by some pictures sent by a friend, and feels by having a concrete goal he will be less likely to procrastinate this. A lot of stationary travellers have an overpowering will to leave and to explore again, but without a direction they find themselves deeper in the hole they’re existentially existing in, and become increasingly frustrated at their circumstance, but even with a solid objective that frustration can drive us insane.

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After speaking to them both I realised that they reflected some of my emotions, and furthermore, neither of them claimed they were able to cure the sickness that had made them dream of travelling again, only to distract their minds with work and their social lives. Unlike a broken heart, fernweh seems to build and grow stronger over time, and the only way to feel better again is to explore. Initially this can be done on a local scale, but before you know it, it seems even Planet Earth isn’t quite big enough. There is very little that can be done.

But here’s the pivotal moment in this conversation; none of us would trade the wanderlust amongst the other difficulties of backpacking for a different life. Travelling changes us in many ways, mostly positive, as seen when Axel reflects upon his newfound strength upon returning and Iris upon a blooming self-confidence, and this alongside all of our extraordinary memories and riveting stories of eating terrible dinners at unimaginable locations, losing our senses to nature and making connections with other travellers from every corner of the globe is a large reward for the small price of lusting after horizons. Remembering and chasing those highs is just enough to help us survive the deepest of valleys.

Curiousity is a wonderful thing, even if it leaves us on the precipice of lunacy.

– Tom @ indieroad.

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