Travel Used to Be My Identity. How Do I Move Forward?

Jessica Wong

“It’s important to name this reality upfront, that there is a loss here,” says Liz Graham, a therapist at Tribeca Therapy in New York. “There’s a loss of sense of self, there’s the loss of a coping skill.” Travel, she notes, is often something we use to deal with the […]

“It’s important to name this reality upfront, that there is a loss here,” says Liz Graham, a therapist at Tribeca Therapy in New York. “There’s a loss of sense of self, there’s the loss of a coping skill.” Travel, she notes, is often something we use to deal with the feelings many of us are experiencing right now. “[Travel] makes life pleasurable when things feel hard or painful or sad or monotonous, yet this is a moment where your primary defense mechanism has been ripped away from you, unannounced, all at once.” 

Being realistic that this feeling might not go away anytime soon can be surprisingly helpful, too. “What’s been really hard about COVID is this ambiguous timeline,” Graham says. “We’ve kicked the can down the road on grief—what if summer [is when we can travel again], what if fall, what if—and there has to be this kind of reckoning with yourself, at least for now, that you’ve lost something.” Let yourself feel sad about the fact that travel as you knew it is off the table for the time being, while resisting the urge to replace that sadness with a false sense of hope pegged to an end-date in the future—especially because, when those dates come and go, the pain only compounds. 

By accepting the state of things, it’ll be easier to start working through these feelings, and figure out what you can do in the meantime. And spoiler alert, taking a virtual tour of the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower probably isn’t going to cut it. “Ask, How does travel serve me?” suggests Graham. “Not only, What are the actions that make up the travel experience? But what does it allow me to do? What does it allow me to feel?” Maybe it’s that travel represents an area of life in which you’re spontaneous, outgoing, or maybe more playful than otherwise. 

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Simply trying to transport yourself to a new place isn’t going to deliver those same benefits. Sure, you can learn how to make crepes or practice your Japanese, but that might not work for everyone, because they’re not the same thing—and it isn’t helpful when everyone tries to convince us that they are. 

“[At the start of the pandemic] I realized that I needed to identify what I loved most about traveling and see how I could recreate those aspects while hunkering down,” says Katalina Mayorga, the founder of group travel company El Camino Travel (with whom we operate our Women Who Travel trips) and Casa Violeta in Nicaragua. “I feel completely in my groove working and immersing myself across various cultures, learning from them, and adapting. The joys and challenges that come with that make me feel most alive.” 

A business pivot offered a way to continue to make these cross-cultural connections, says Mayorga. She launched the El Camino Travel Clubhouse, a private member’s club with weekly conversations led by people around the world. “I became very intentional about making space for deeper connections across cultures, not only for myself but also for others in our community who told us they were feeling the same way,” she adds. The recurring injection of art and new perspectives from around the world has combatted the monotony of lockdown. 

For Evita Robinson, founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe and contributing editor to Condé Nast Traveler, travel has long been a means of escaping, and feeling free. “Travel is my largest representation of freedom,” she says. “Not being able to freely commune and engage has been the roughest part [of the pandemic].” 

When I asked how she has tried to replace this means of escape, Robinson said by doing something simple: “I started running,” she says. “It was the only sense of freedom I had. It’s the only thing I felt like I could truly control.” Nearly one year in, running remains an outlet for her in the way travel once was. 

Khan says that filling the gap travel has left in her life is still a work in progress—but one useful exercise has been writing about things that aren’t travel, and exploring interests that had been put on the back-burner during a travel-heavy phase of life pre-pandemic (until lockdown, she’d spent the past four years been moving every three to six months). Ask yourself what consumed you and brought you joy before travel. When you’ve been on trips, what are the activities that most draw your interests? Now can be a time to explore those passions. 

And when it all feels too much, just take it day by day. “The psychological experience of things stretching out into eternity is unbearable,” says Graham. “There is a lot of peace in just tackling it one step at a time.”

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