The 7 Stages of the Traveler’s Social Cycle

Last week I shared some of the ‘travel fails‘ that led me to say hasta luego to Mexico and spend some time in Florida working on my location-independent business. One of the themes of that post that I couldn’t supress was the social one — the effects of meeting and eventually leaving so many people while traveling long-term. I was surprised to see in the comments that a lot of people had a sort of “aw, there there, chin up” response, as if I were expressing a negative sentiment, but that’s not what I was going for at all.

There’s definitely a negative side to the social aspect of travel — plenty of bloggers have written about it (like here, and here, and here, and also this one and this) — but most of the time I’m a believer in the big gushy school of philosophy that says the hellos are worth the goodbyes. What’s more, the traveler’s social cycle is more complex than just hellos and goodbyes, ups and downs. For most of us, it follows seven identifiable stages.

travel social cycle Neil Jarvie

Fourth of July party in Leiden, one of the social peaks of last year. Photo by Neil Jarvie.

 

Social Cycle Stage 1: The Hellos

travel social cycle stage 1

When the traveler embarks on their journey, he or she normally sets out surging with enthusiasm. Going out and conquering the world! Finding myself! Taking happy pictures with various shades of not-white children! Food and parties and culture oh my!

This enthusiasm means that when Mr. or Ms. Happy-Go-Lucky Backpacker arrives in the first few destinations of their trip, they’re like peppy little social puppies, curious about everything and everyone around, passionate about every minute detail and peculiarity, especially meeting new people. “Hey! You there! Where ya from? Oh-em-gee that’s so cool! Tell me about your trip! No wait let me tell you about MY trip! btw we’re best friends now never wander more than five meters away from me please. *selfie mode*”

I started my travels this year in Louisiana, where, in Morgan City and Lafayette, I had two Couchsurfing hosts who, each within our first few minutes together, I knew would become my really good friends. Maybe part of the reason for it was fatalistically determined by my being in Stage 1 of the social cycle, but it was at least partly just because these two great guys are awesome people who belong in the hall of fame of people I’ve met traveling.

travel social cycle morgan city

The one-horse town of Morgan City, where I spent four days due to unexpected levels of cool from my CS host.

In Morgan City (pop. ~10,000), my ride dropped me off in the middle of the afternoon at my host’s workplace. With backpacks on either side of my body I met Josh, who shook my hand, gave me his key, and explained the five-minute walk to his apartment. We couldn’t have chatted for more than two minutes, and I wrapped it up with a tactless joke about stealing all his stuff, to which he replied that backpackers are the most trustworthy houseguests because we’re already too burdened down to drag your TV down the road with us. I stayed there in tiny, boring Morgan City (affectionately nicknamed ‘Morgan Shitty’ by its residents) for four days watching CGP Grey videos and cycling around the Shitty with Josh, and I thoroughly enjoyed every day of it.

A few days later I was on my way to Lafayette, Louisiana, and I got a response to an open message I’d posted on the local CS page a month or more before. A Couchsurfer named Daniel wrote me asking if I was still in town and what I was up to tonight, so we decided to meet up at a Zydeco music show at the Feed ‘n Seed in Lafayette. Within the first five minutes we had covered eclectic topics like ‘languages are super cool’, ‘sub-Saharan African geopolitics, jeeze what’s that all about’, and ‘humans are innately good, true or false?’ I didn’t spend that long with Daniel in Lafayette, but over the course of two days and several $3 bottles of Gran Legacy vodka, we got to know each other like it’s taken me years to get to know other people.

travel social cycle lafayette

Lafayette (sans y), another town I learned to love for the wonderful people I met there.

Meeting all these cool and interesting people is a rush, and you find yourself posting obnoxious Facebook statuses with more obnoxious selfies about all the “wonderful people” and “lifelong friends” you’ve already made on your trip. And just when everyone is fed up with your manic shit, it gets way worse.

Social Cycle Stage 2: Social Junky Mode

travel social cycle stage 2

Most travelers, whether they label themselves as ‘introverts’ or ‘extroverts’, are addicted to people. We love meeting new people, learning about them and their lives, and then doing travel shit with them. We go together to take photos of old buildings, try weird local dishes, take a run in the city park, or guard each other’s stuff during bathroom breaks in the café. Especially if you stop somewhere for a bit to cool your traveling heels at the peak of Phase 2 like I did, you might just become absolutely consumed by your social life.

In Mexico City, as I mentioned almost lamentingly in my last post, I finally settled down again for long enough to relearn the feeling of belonging to a circle of friends. My colleagues at the hostel and many of the long-term guests — from the US, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, and others — all became a part of my daily life for different lengths of time. A couple of them I still talk to every week, others I’ll see again somewhere on the road, and others I’ll never see again and they’ll have been no less good friends for it.

travel social cycle friends

At a live music show with friends from the hostel.

For me, Phase 2 meant spending the better parts of March and April going with and doing with and eating with and drinking with and partying with and relaxing with and traveling or living with. At the most extreme point of this phase, I became a totally codependent social addict: if I wasn’t meeting new people then I was making sure that every possible waking moment and daily activity was done somehow cooperatively. I was all like:

[playing cards in the hostel living room]
Me: Hey guys, I’m gonna go make a drink, be right back.
Hostel dude: K hurry up
Hostel chick: Can you grab me a beer while you’re back there?
Me: …if you come with me.
Hostel chick: Ugh, fine.
Me: No I meant everyone…

travel social cycle family dinner

Family dinner at the hostel, with approximately everyone.

It’s in Phase 2 that some of the best experiences of my life have happened, but unfortunately no one can sustain such a state forever. If the need to do some kind of income-generating activity doesn’t pull you away then eventually all but the most maniacally extroverted will eventually get burnt out on being all social all the time.

Social Cycle Stage 3: Hermit Mode

travel social cycle stage 3

At some point you just need a break. Eighty percent of the time, I’m all about meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories and learning something from them and having a beer with them. But the other 20%, I really just need to not be talking to humans right now. Please come back when you are a television or Reddit.

For the last eight months I’ve been either on the road or living in a backpackers’ hostel. If we make the very conservative estimate that I met two new people per day in that time, that was about five hundred hellos. Two hundred-odd days in a row of constant introductions and ‘getting to know you’ can lead to temporary social fatigue and a severe shortage of fucks to give.

travel social cycle chilling

Sometimes you just wanna hang out with the people you already know and laugh at stupid internet things. Photo by Tanja Mikolcic.

I’ve never been so painfully bored of my own tedious life as when I lived in Hostel Home and had to tell people about it multiple times every day. “Where are you from? Where are you going? What did you study? Wow that’s so interesting, tell me about that!”

We tend to interact in pretty predictable ways a lot of the time, and at some point you start to hate your own stories. “Oh my god, tell me about [subject/place]” sends me into auto-pilot. I tell the requested story by rote while thinking about how douchey and pretentious I must sound and how long has that painting been over there and what am I gonna eat for dinner tonight??? Sometimes I play a slightly sociopathic game where I just answer the ‘where are you from’ question with “guess.” Whatever the person guesses, I say yes, and test my on-the-spot lying skills from there. For the funs?

Stage 3 manifests differently for everyone. Depending on how burnt out you are and how sociable you are at baseline, it might just take the form of choosing to spend time with the friends you’ve already made and putting little effort into making new friends. For others, it could be spending the afternoon in the blanket fort you’ve constructed around your bottom bunk in the hostel, trying to stream movies and cursing the poor reach of the wifi in your dorm. You could go out to one of the common areas, but that’s where the humans congregate.

travel social cycle hostel

One of the two areas in the hostel that I temporarily colonized and made my own personal GTFO I’M BUSY space.

When I hit Stage 3 in Mexico City, I stopped making more than a polite effort to get to know most hostel guests, and instead of stumbling home drunk at 3 a.m., I stumbled into the kitchen for more coffee. That’s when I poured myself into work, into growing my location independent business, and cussing violently at anyone who woke me up during any of the various times of day I slept. It was a very productive period for me, but not a very fun one.

Social Cycle Stage 4: Party Mode

travel social cycle beyonce

Just as hermit mode is an overcompensation for Stage 2, Stage 4 is its equal and opposite reaction. One day the traveler has an abrupt epiphany that almost certainly involves unironically thinking the word ‘yolo’ at some point: “I’m out in the world man! What am I doing?!”

About six weeks before I left the DF, I already had a date for leaving Mexico City and the friends I’d made there. With the looming dreaded fifth stage of the social cycle, I realized I needed to carpe the diem and enjoy the DF and my friends there while I still had the chance. Overnight I transformed from the vaguely person-shaped horizontal entity on the couch who laughed when asked if it wanted to join, to the neurotic social instigator. GuyswhatsgoingontonightwhatarewedoingwhenarewegoingLETSGO. AHORA.

travel social cycle hostel party

Some light partying with friends in the hostel. Photo actually completely candid.

Suddenly I was in bucket list mode. I knew I was leaving the city soon, which meant all the things I’d be embarassed to leave without having seen or done had to be seen and done, not ahorita but ahora. In my last month in the DF, I saw the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the National Museum of Anthropology, and the National Palace. I took a weekend trip to Puebla, and went on a week-long nightly gastrotour of the Roma/Condesa area of Mexico City with two friends in the hostel, and so much more. Every day. It was like Stage 2, but more goal-oriented: there were things to do and people to spend time with, and suddenly I could hear a ticking clock.

In the midst of Stage 4, those of us who lean more towards the clingy end of the social spectrum will see everything tinted by shades of an impending end. We start having thoughts like “aw, this is one of the last times I’ll get up and cook eggs with egg-cooking buddy” or “I’ll probably never almost die at this intersection again” or “oh wall, beautiful, nondescript city wall with which I have no associations… you’ve always been so good to me….”

And then Stage 5 comes along.

Social Cycle Stage 5: The Goodbyes

travel social cycle stage 5

It’s inevitable. In fact, while I suspect most long-term travelers are with me in going through most of this social cycle, I think Stage 5 is the only guaranteed universal. It’s the death and taxes of travel. All good things come to an end, and when you meet someone because you’re both drifting flakey types who suffer from severe geographic attention defecit, there’s pretty much an expiration date stamped on your time together from the first handshake.

One of the reasons (probably the number one reason) I left Leiden was because I hate leaving places. More specifically, I hate saying goodbye. I have this exhausting tendency of getting attached to people really quickly, sometimes even in days. Since I had such a great group of people around me there, I figured the longer I stayed, the more inertia would build up, and the harder it’d be to go. So I decided to go travel and see more of the world before settling down, but with the firm policy in place that I would not stay somewhere long enough to warrant any goodbye parties again.

…oops.

travel social cycle goodbye

My two travel buddies in San Cristóbal de las Casas in the south of Mexico.

Once I said see ya soon to my remaining buddies in the DF, I headed south through Oaxaca and Chiapas to the Yucatan Peninsula, with David and Bruce, a good friend from the hostel and his brother, who also became a friend as we tore through Mexico together. I spent about two weeks with them until Bruce left, and then finally David, both heading back to their lives in the US, while I stayed behind in Playa del Carmen, sitting on a rooftop and deciding what would be my next step.

travel social cycle playa del carmen

I think I’ve rarely felt as lonely as I did on this rooftop during my last week in Mexico, one of the unfortunate symptoms of Stage 5.

This stage progresses differently for everyone. Some of us are leaving places we’ve been long enough to call our expat homes, others making polite goodbyes at the end of a pleasant weekend, and others staying put and waving as the other travelers in their lives move on. For me in Mexico City, it was a mix of all these things.

A couple weeks before I packed up and headed south, some of my favorite folks from the DF beat me to the punch and started their own journeys, kicking off goodbye mode for a melodramatic lead-up to my own departure. At the beginning of my trip I’d been so energized by feeling independent and self-reliant, but after the last rounds of goodbyes I felt unaccustomed to being by myself, being self-reliant because there wasn’t anyone around me to rely upon.

In my last post I was definitely feeling sad about all the goodbyes I had to say last month. People who travel or move frequently get more and more experienced at parting ways, but it never seems to get any easier. Every time I reenter Stage 5, I think, “oh fuck, this again?” But I keep going back through the cycle, because Stage 5 isn’t the end of the story.

Social Cycle Stage 6: The Reunions

I think Stage 6 is my favorite part of travel and one of the most invigorating parts of my life. The goodbyes are awful, but sometimes they’re just setting you up for something even better: seeing all those fantastic friends again.

As we grow up and move away from our homes and university towns, we have an ever-growing list of people to visit, and I think most of us never get around to actually visiting most of them. Two of the perks of long-term travel are the ever-expanding network of friends and other travelers fanning out across the globe and adding their names to your to-visit list, and the time and flexibility to go visit them. Sometimes saying “hello” in Mexico is planting the seed for saying “hello again” in Argentina, the US, Rwanda, Germany, or the Philippines.

travel social cycle new orleans

New Orleans has been a site of many reunions for me over the years, as it’s a place I visit frequently and I’ve met a lot of people living within a six-hour driving radius or so.

On my way back to Florida this month, my social cycle came full circle when I met up with Josh and Daniel, the Couchsurfers I met in Stage 1 on my way to Mexico. In the intervening eight months, they’ve met and made friends with each other through me, and the three of us took a trip to New Orleans when I came through again. It was exactly what I needed to pull me up out of the dumps of Stage 5 and remind me what’s so great about meeting so many new people in so many different places.

travel social cycle friends

Reuniting with Josh and Daniel in New Orleans as we ferried across the Mississippi.

And then, Saturday, while drafting this post, I took a break to Skype in to the birthday barbecue of one of my best friends in Leiden, where I was passed around from old friend to old friend for express catch-up sessions and then added my voice to the singing of happy birthday.

travel social cycle skype

Skyping in at Erik’s birthday barbecue. If I could just find a way to digitally ingest my beer this would be perfect. Photo by Shahin Azad.

It still absolutely sucked saying bye to every person in every picture on this post, but things like my weekend with Daniel and Josh and Skype-attending a birthday party in Leiden help remind me that object permanence is a thing and my friends are still there even when I can’t see them. Even better, I’m sloooowly crawling out of my life-crushingly impoverished student phase*, and as time goes on I’ll be able to afford more trips and more and more reunions.

* This is probably a lie.

Social Cycle Stage 7: The Hellos

I’ve lived in the same place for a couple of years before starting this trip, and I forgot how nice it is to meet new people. Sure, I met new people in Leiden, but when you’re living in a routine it’s so easy to fall into an indefinite state of Stage 3-lite, rarely venturing out of your trusted social circle or your favorite local bars.

If last week’s post came off as sad or negative, it must have been because I was still feeling a little down from the recent goodbye phase of the cycle, and I think anyone who’s ever moved house can relate to that. The traveler’s social cycle is a cycle, which means it eventually comes full circle. The ups and downs make for some of the most paradigm-shifting experiences and universally relatable stories that we all go on to later share in hostel living rooms or on overnight buses. And sometimes they’re even ice breakers for the next hello and the start of a new cycle.

Do you feel like you also go through the traveler’s social cycle (or a version of it), or is it just me? Share your thoughts in a comment below or in a tweet to @JakobGibbons!

13 comments

  1. Nikita · August 31, 2015

    Oh, yes. I know these stages far too well (except that I do this weird thing where I begin a trip in hermit mode and only open up after a couple of days). Lived in Prague for a while and spent a really obnoxious amount of time in stage 4, getting emotional about every little thing to the point where I was rolling my eyes at myself (doorbells really don’t have to be hat emotional). Really looking forward o more reunions now! :D

    • Jakob Gibbons · August 31, 2015

      Haha yes exactly! I know that ridiculous feeling of being totally aware that you’re being overly sentimental about everything haha. That bit somewhere in the post I wrote about “oh beautiful wall with which I have no associations” was totally a true excerpt from a few years ago for me haha. Keep being ridiculous and be even more so at the reunions!

  2. Rae · August 31, 2015

    What a great and well-written post. I am an ex-pat living in Germany so my experience of being abroad is a bit different, since I am not thrown into being with people in a hostel all the time, but the basic cycles are ones I can understand and appreciate. I could definitely see needed to hermit it out a bit when doing major traveling because although I have always thought of solo-travel as being a bit solitary, if you are staying at hostels and constantly meeting people, you are actually rarely ever alone. I have only made one solo trip in my life up to date (but plan on many more) but made the mistake of staying in a secluded bungalow and realized how much I started to crave human contact a few days in.

    Rae | Love from Berlin

    • Jakob Gibbons · August 31, 2015

      Thank you Rae! I imagine even as an expat you experience some similar ups and downs. When I was living in Leiden in the Netherlands for a few years I was always surrounded by a lot of expats and international students, and I still felt my social style sort of peaking and troughing, so to speak, from excited by the constant instream of new people to put out by all the three-month friendships.

      I definitely recommend solo travel though — most of the time I don’t find it solitary at all (hostels, Couchsurfing, etc.), and I’ve always found it a very personally empowering experience :-)

  3. Mia · August 31, 2015

    I have lived through these stages several times as well. The goodbyes are always the hardest part, but then the reunions is my favourite stage and you can’t have one thing without the other.

  4. alison · August 31, 2015

    A bit tough for me to relate to this one, as our traveling styles are pretty different. I did enjoy reading about the way you travel with your location independent business. It’s interesting the variety ways people make it work. And I certainly like the way you are enjoying life.

  5. Ahhhh, I was glad to see a Reunion part! That really is the best aspect of meeting traveller friends. No matter how many years down the line you can hit them up and you’ll start yapping away as if you only saw each other last week!

    • Jakob Gibbons · August 31, 2015

      So true! I’ve found over the years that my ‘travel friends’ are the ones with whom it’s easiest to just sort of pick up where we last left off after a few years of sporadic contact at best, and you always seem to have a blast with them.

  6. Radhika - Fulltime Nomad · August 31, 2015

    Enjoyed reading this, Jakob. So true! We’ve just come back to Mexico after spending some time here last year, so we’re in Stage 6 ;)

    • Jakob Gibbons · August 31, 2015

      Wonderful! Stage 6 is of course the best — please enjoy it and beautiful Mexico!

  7. Natasha Amar · August 31, 2015

    I love this post because it’s so honest with none of that ‘Oh I always like to meet new people and that’s what it’s all about’ fluff. No one can be super excited and full of joy all the time and I can really relate because I’m an introvert so the introverting stage comes a lot earlier for me. That said, I do love meeting people and enjoy new friendships and great connections on the road. But it also has the tendency to burn me out quickly when the balance between solitude and company is lost. And reunions are the best- especially if it’s with one of those people with whom you can pick up right where you left off.

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