Mr. Lonely – What to Do When Traveling Makes you Feel All Alone

look behind the cool, front exterior to Mr. Lonely:)

There comes a time for any and every traveler when thoughts of family,  friends, warm familiar faces and a trusted community become overwhelming.  Yes, traveling can be exhilarating and liberating.  It can be one of the most exciting forms of adventure in life.  But at some point the adrenaline dies, you struggle to find stamina and you wonder why you are half way across the world from everything you know and call home.  It all gets pretty melancholy and depressing.  You start getting resentful of your Lonely Planet guide books as they start taking on a whole new meaning. I’ve been there a few times and there were a few things that helped me bounce back.  Here’s my list:

Call your parents

This may seem obvious but most of us probably don’t do it enough.  Especially when I was away on my first major trip to the Philippines at 16, I waited too long to call home.  I think I was trying to save money and stick to letters and emails.  It was 1997 and international calls were very pricey.  I remember that I finally caved and called home collect!  It probably cost my parents a fortune but I felt a whole lot better after the call:)
Go on a run or play sports

The surge of endorphins that comes from vigorous physical activity makes it hard to remain depressed and lonely.  I have always liked running so I often take off running all over a new city.  This serves two key purposes – I get a decent workout and I get to know the town better.  A tip on this one – by running early in the morning you skip the traffic and it is safer than running late at night.  You’ll soon be able to fine tune the timing. In Seoul, for example, I quickly found that even 30 minutes made a huge difference in terms of how much time you had to spend dodging cars and pedestrians.

Playing soccer or basketball or whatever with the locals can be even more fun than solitary running.  I used to love playing soccer with some of my Argentine friends in Buenos Aires.  The exercise high, the camaraderie, the forced language acquisition and the easy access factor (most locals will not turn you down if want to join a casual game) combined for an awesome Sunday morning.  PLUS, you get invited to come back – you have FRIENDS:)

Forget being culturally authentic and go find the closest expat magnet restaurant

This may seem like a strange suggestion on CultureMutt but this really works.  Once in a while, it IS worth tracking down a Hard Rock Cafe or whatever the local tourist sellout location is.  Not only will the food taste familiar but you are also likely to run into other expats and travelers that are also craving a taste of the familiar.  Sometimes a conversation with someone from your part of the world, even if he or she is a complete stranger, can be just the spark you needed.  A word of caution here though – it is easy to become a lazy expat, to decide that you are only going to hang out with expats and that you are somehow “above” the local culture.  This robs you of the benefits of travel and you may as well book your flight home if you have mentally checked out of being abroad.

Find an organization that you were part of at home

I have experimented a lot with this one, mainly in the form of hunting down churches.  It also works if you are part of an international service club or anything similar.  You’ll find that religious and service organizations have a distinct culture that is often fairly consistent all over the world.  If you are a member in Europe or stateside, you will generally be just as welcome in Tokyo or Lima, maybe even more so because you are the “new arrival”.  I’ve often been lucky and been taken home for lunch and city tours, just for taking the trouble to find a church.

Book a night at the craziest hostel in town

Hostels are amazing places.  Not only are they cheaper and often friendlier than high-end hotels, they are full of adventure-loving travelers that are out to have the best time of their lives.  I remember having a total blast with a random Swiss guy I met in Vancouver, BC when I was there to take care of some paper work at the American consulate.  I met him at a hostel I found for $10 Canadian a night and he turned out to be a great tour guide and a very entertaining storyteller.  Similarly, I met a whole international group of hostel dwellers (including two fellow Swedes) in Buenos Aires when I first moved there and within days we were conquering the city together.

Volunteer on a service project

There are few things that combat depression and loneliness quite as effectively as a good service project.  Savvy, global do-gooding, right?  Doing things to help other people makes you feel good.  And often the people that are drawn to these projects are interesting, altruistic, happy types that make for great company.  My wife, Jammie often talks about how easy it was to make friends with other English teachers in Korea because everyone felt like they were on a happy, service-driven adventure and was open to new friends and new adventure.
I hope this helps.  In my time on the trail I’ve used all of the above to overcome loneliness and I’ve seen others do the same.  There are always those that give and go home because they are lonely and miss home too much. But if you have invested money and time in planning an extended overseas adventure, it makes sense to do all you can to reap the full benefit.  You can do it.  So stand up, dust yourself off and step out of the internet cafe you’re holed up in and start enjoying your life on the trail again.

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Bjorn Karlman

4 thoughts on “Mr. Lonely – What to Do When Traveling Makes you Feel All Alone”

  1. Concerning your third point, in my experience, I have found that foreigners sometimes go through this I-don’t-want-to-associate-with-other-foreigners phase. It is really stupid. I’ve always tried to be friendly with other foreigners during my time overseas and never really got why others cut themselves off. I’ve always assumed they do this because by surrounding themselves with local people and customs, it allows them to believe they are just like the locals and not strange. However, when they see a fellow foreigner, it is like getting splashed in the face with reality. Being a stranger in another land is going to feel awkward no matter what. The best thing to do is to just accept your strangeness and have fun with it!

    1. THANK YOU! Well put, Tristan. Yes, I have definitely come across the “more-authentic-and-local-than-though” attitude while traveling. Infuriating and funny at the same time. Infuriating because of the sheer pretension and funny because “what are they doing with the Nachos Supreme at Hard Rock?”

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