I'm gradually drawing the strands together. Over the past few months I've been lucky enough to meet a handful of travellers who have been on the road for a long time, and who have managed to cope with the return home; from these conversations I have managed to formulate a few theories about long-term travel.
There seem to be a number of phases that travellers go through when embarking on a long journey (I'll take as my example a lone male traveller for grammatical simplicity, though the balance of sexes on the road seems fairly even). The first phase, obviously, involves planning the trip at home, but this isn't travel so much as preparation, and life continues fairly normally until our man quits his job and buys his tickets.
The First Year
When our lone traveller actually embarks on his journey, the most common feelings are of disorientation and slow acclimatisation, which go on for a few weeks after leaving home. Symptoms of this stage include a propensity to pinch himself and get sudden thrills at the fact that he is abroad. Everything is refreshing, from money to food, and he will gradually get more comfortable with his surroundings, the most important aspect of which is the well-organised backpack. This is when he realises that those collapsing glasses and pack liners, which looked so useful in the shop, are practically useless, and slowly the crud gets discarded.
After about a month or so, our traveller is settled in and the phone calls to the parents lose that slight edge of panic. This is when the everyday aspects of travel – organisation, planning and finances – become easier and less of a chore, and more of a background noise. Plans fall into place, cars or coach tickets get bought, and our traveller can delight in saying he has been on the road for 'a couple of months now': the time is long enough that he can start to be vague. He begins to think of himself as a traveller rather than a tourist, even though he has a long way to go before becoming a real traveller; he might have the machinery in place, but the fun is only just beginning.
Six months into the journey and life on the road is becoming normality. There have been enough plans dashed and resurrected for our traveller to understand the Buddhist nature of travel, that of impermanence ruling the roost, and old habits, ingrained by years of western living, are beginning to crumble. The addiction to television and social media has been eradicated from a lack of exposure; the regularity of pub sessions and weekend trips has been replaced by an awareness of budgeting and a realisation that, on the road at least, every day is like Sunday; even dress sense, such an important part of fitting smoothly into the well-oiled western machine, has been dulled, and clothes become dusty and worn but above all practical; even the accent might start to change, if our traveller is in a country where he is surrounded by people speaking his language with a local lilt. Changes are starting to happen, but take him from the travelling environment and put him back in his home environment, and he will adapt quickly to being back home, whatever he believes when he's in the desert.
The first year is a milestone: at last our man can say he has been on the road for a whole twelve months (though when asked he'll probably say something like: 'Well, I left back in ' or something even more impressive). Here comes the first big break: most people go home after a year, that being the time span of round-the-world air tickets, and in this case they will find home a surprise, but will fit in quickly enough. They will almost certainly want more time on the road and will be sorry to have to go home, but normally a job awaits, or a lack of funds makes the return obligatory, so these travel dreams are banished until the next time... if there is one.
The Second Year
The next few months prove interesting, because our man has moved into the category of the 'long-term traveller'. He now becomes more of a centre of attention at traveller meets, is asked to recount stories to those still green on the trail, and begins to forget about home. Homesickness, which affects most people at some time during the first year, is but a past memory (unless illness strikes, when homesickness is just a symptom of the ailment), and by this stage the traveller is obsessed with lengthening his trip, trying to extend his reach for as long as possible: by now it's highly unlikely he will have a job to go back to, and going home isn't much of an attraction any more. He is probably forming opinions about people back home being stuck in the western rat race, is beginning to read books on philosophy and religion, and might even start to grow his hair a little. Travelling is becoming a way of life rather than a temporary break from society.
The two-year barrier is a big one. There's almost a sense of having achieved rather than the previous sense of being about to achieve, and it's at this juncture that our man will start to look at his new way of life and to make some real plans about the future. The return might still be some way off, but having survived on the road for two years, the concept of living on the road for a hell of a long time – ten years, say – becomes an alluring possibility. Travelling poses few logistical challenges and the main limitations are finances and a desire to see one's family and friends again. But the trip is far from over, and the thought of all those countries yet to visit keeps him going.
The Third Year
The first few months of the third year get tough. Travelling seems to lose a little of its sparkle because it takes a considerable amount to surprise our man, he's seen so much. By now the everyday aspects of travel – money, accommodation, finding places to eat, planning and so on – are just that, everyday aspects, and there's an ease with the environment and lifestyle that can only appear after a long time perfecting the method: the difference in attitude and maturity between the seasoned traveller and the eager backpacker is easy to spot.
And so he starts to wonder if it would be a good idea to return home for a while in order to get jaded and depressed once more by the rat race, after which he will be raring to hit the road again and continue his travels. But the thought of returning home is tinged by a new fear: time is marching on, he's getting older, and returning might be permanent, especially if a relationship appears (assuming our man hasn't lost his genetic desire to procreate). A return date is often projected during this stage, an attempt to fix the time on the road so finances and planning are facilitated, and the desire to return is placated. It's a half measure.
And this is why, towards the end of the third year, home becomes a reality and a desire. Because he knows when he is returning home, he plans round this, gets into the idea of going home, and barely spots the slight fear that creeps up on him as the months slip by. He wants to return home, but doesn't know quite what to expect: after one year, things have changed; after two, more differences will be apparent; but what about after three? Home will be another world.
Or will it? This is where the theorising breaks into a number of strands. Conventional travellers' wisdom says that home will be exactly the same as when you left it, but you will have changed, and this theory is certainly fine if you have been away for a year or so. But the long-termers I have talked to say that after three years, plenty has changed, even though it might not look like it on the surface. Marriages have been performed, children sired and houses bought; jobs have been changed, though the nine-to-five mentality still pervades all; and on top of this, after three years any traveller will be a totally different person, not just slightly altered. Integration is a challenge, probably the first real challenge for some time.
Some people return only to opt out again: Howard, whom I met in India, had spent two years as a train driver after his first three-year trip, and I met him just as he was hitting the road for a second dose; and my friend Nick spent three years studying so he could make a career of being abroad (he now runs a charity in Africa). Some never really return: Bob had been travelling for 13 years when I met him in Nepal, with only one year back at home in the USA in that time, but he's now settled down in Germany with a son. Some reintegrate painlessly, and I'm lucky enough to be one of them... though I haven't managed to shake off the strange longing I get when I look at a map of the world, and I still intend to travel again.
Another interesting point concerns friends back home. Even with letters galore the average long-term traveller will have lost touch with most of his friends, if the experience of other travellers is anything to go by, it's a distinct possibility that he will be so different as to no longer really like some of his friends. Others have found that whereas they have their friends when they return, they cannot communicate to them the nature of their trip, with the result that our prodigal son seeks out new friends, mainly those who have also travelled.
Whatever the results of returning home, I know this: as with other long-termers I learned enough about myself and the world to be able to rise to any challenge, be it reintegration or emigration, and I learned enough about people to be able to handle anything and anybody. And that is probably something we all strive for whether travelling or not: for me it took nearly three years on the road to discover myself, but that might not be everyone's ideal solution.