On the anxiety of travel & the lives we could lead

When I’ve traveled over the last few years, I’ve found it harder and harder to happily play the tourist. Instead, I want to be the local.* So I make-believe that I’m setting up a life in whatever city I’m in. I’ll choose a cafe to haunt, a grocery store to run through, a club to dance at, a group of friends to call my crew.

Still life: Saturday afternoon at my favorite cafe in Cape Town.

Still life: Saturday afternoon at my favorite cafe in Cape Town.

But there’s always the sense of impermanence. Whatever life I’m setting up is bound to fall away—next week, next month, whenever the plane carries me off into the blue. Then back to the “real” thing, back home, see ya never new city and new friends.

That’s the challenge about travel, I think. It’s a tantalizing reminder of all the lives we can—could—live. It invites us to consider the possibilities of an alternate path, but never lets us fully commit to the change. It’s a desperate tease.

After two weeks in Cape Town, I’m feeling this stretch more than ever. I have my cafe, I have my routine, I even have my new friends. I can see—so easily!—the life I could lead here; it’s a city to fall in love with. But it’s not mine. Anxious, I have to ask myself: what’s the point of travel if we can’t grow roots? I’m an earth sign; I need that stability, that grounding in place and time.

The answer, of course, is that it’s a learning process. The more I shake up my idea of home, the more I push myself to consider the alternatives (another piercing? backpacking through Thailand? embracing California?), the more I know about what I need from the place where I will set down those roots. And, maybe most importantly, the more I can strip away the illusions I have about myself. (No, I will never be the backpacking-through-Thailand type. No, I am not a surfer girl. And no, that piercing is definitely a bad idea. As a friend here reminded me, I am not “chill,” however much I might like to think that I am. And that’s totally OK.)

It’s incredible to have the opportunity to meet new people and go new places. But sometimes, the best part of all that newness is recognizing just how the old stuff—home—is also full of the power to shape us.

*For my anthro/cultures-of-travel friends: I will be investigating the “local” complex and why that’s problematic in future, don’t worry. 


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