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The Five Stages of Wanderlust

It’s been half a decade since I began earnestly pursuing independent international travel. My World Cup trip to Brazil in the summer of 2014 was something of a turning point in my life, as I’ve been on the road making multiple trips to new destinations every year since. 

During that time, I’ve observed a certain pattern in the types of emotions that travel brings about within myself, especially when it comes to these adventurous, intrepid trips to faraway lands.

With these emotions swelling once again in advance of my crazy Aeroplan-inspired Chinese New Year trip (which will bring me to West Africa and Micronesia among other new places), I’m attempting a self-diagnosis of sorts based on the familiar five-stage model (although for travel rather than grief!). I’d like to sketch out these emotions for you and see if any of my fellow travellers can empathize.

Nan Madol, Pohnpei, Micronesia

Nan Madol, Pohnpei, Micronesia

Inundated though it may be under the weight of a billion Instagram hashtags, the term “wanderlust” remains, in my mind, the perfect way to describe that curiosity, that drive to forge ahead into uncharted territory, that endless thirst to witness what lies beyond the horizon – those feelings that all travellers from all over the world can relate to. And for me, that’s where things begin…

The First Stage: Wonder

As a kid, I would find myself transfixed by the world map on our wall for hours on end. 

Our family had a ritual of putting star-shaped stickers on the places that we had visited together as a family, and while that might’ve been quite exhilarating for any other kid my age, I was always more interested in what lay beyond the stickers.

What about those countries, I’d ask my parents, pointing to the likes of Jordan, Sierra Leone, and New Caledonia. Why haven’t we gone there? What are those places like?

Don’t get me wrong, my parents did a great job of instilling in me the impulse to travel at a young age, and I’ll always be grateful for that. But for them, much of the world simply wasn’t on their radar – we were very much focused on the Asia-Pacific, North America, and the occasional trip to Europe. 

And so it remained for a long time until I grew up and started planning my own trips. At first, I didn’t quite know where to start – I just knew I wanted to travel, but was never quite sure where exactly to go. 

Where should I go next?

I’d look at the world map, but now I’d be struck with analysis paralysis. As I was on a limited budget at the time, I’d delve into calculating which destinations were most cost-effective, before realizing that such an approach simply didn’t feel right. 

And one day, it came to me. I was back in Beijing in the winter of 2013, again poring over the very same map that still stands on my wall to this day. And I realized that those little questions that came to me, those tiny moments of wonder as I pointed my fingers all over the map – they were the key.

What’s [this country] all about? What’s life like there?

What would it be like to visit [this new place] or [that new place]?

What would it be like to visit Brazil, the home of football, during the biggest tournament on Earth?

What would it be like to traverse an entire continent by taking the train from Moscow to Beijing?

What would it be like to hit up seven new countries on a single 16-segment Aeroplan trip?

And so on.

Nowadays, I never really feel the need to actively seek out new travel ideas. Instead, I read, talk, write, and live and breathe travel all day long, and I let the ideas come to me naturally in these little flashes of inspiration. 

The Second Stage: Compulsion

After that initial spark, there invariably comes the usual barrage of logistical questions that one must consider. I had never been south of the equator as a 20-year-old; was I really going to survive in Brazil of all places? Was I going to starve, freeze, get robbed, or experience some other form of untold suffering along the Trans-Siberian Railway? And this 16-segment Aeroplan trip… how the hell am I even going to pack my bags for Ghana, Australia, and the Marshall Islands?!

But among those pressing questions, I’m also treated to the feeling of being compelled to take the trip. I basically get the feeling that now that I’ve had this amazing travel idea, I simply must make it a reality, and I have no real choice but to do so. 

In fact, there’s even an element of zen about it. Since I’m absolutely certain that I’ll be taking the trip, I can take the endless logistical questions that are racing through my mind and put them aside for now, since I know that everything will work out alright.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

I found myself feeling this way for each of Brazil, the Trans-Siberian Railway, and the crazy Aeroplan trip, as though the very act of conceiving of the trip alone had already decided for me that I was going.

Where these feelings of compulsion and certainty comes from, I’m not exactly sure, but I think it’s borne out of that general instinct to travel – the “travel bug” if you will. For me, that instinct is too strong to ignore, so when I’m struck with some really juicy travel inspiration, I have no way of giving it up. It’ll simply keep gnawing at me until I sit down and book it. 

To my fellow travellers, this is the one I’m most curious about whether or not you’ve ever experienced the same. Ever feel compelled by your travel instincts to turn an ambitious trip idea into reality, or do I just have a bad case of voices inside my head? 😉

The Third Stage: Excitement

Flights booked, hotels sorted. The excitement begins in earnest. 

Let’s be real, this feeling is simply the best. At first, days, sometimes weeks go by with you embroiled in your day-to-day life, before every now and then you get reminded that you’re about to go on an awesome trip not long from now. 

Then, as the departure date approaches, your behaviour begins to revolve more and more around the upcoming trip. You rattle off your itinerary to anyone who listens. You try to visualize the new attractions you’ll visit and the new people you’ll meet, even though your imagination could never come close to the real thing. 

You randomly take a moment in the middle of your day to close your eyes and you can just feel the Copacabana breeze on your face as you sip on caipirinhas. Or the blur of the outside scenery as you zoom across the Trans-Siberian rails. Or the salt of the Pacific Ocean as you explore the ancient ruins of Nan Madol in Micronesia.

The Trans-Siberian Railway

The Trans-Siberian Railway

And if you’re fortunate to be flying business class or staying at fancy hotels, you scour the web for reviews and pore over the in-flight menus, deciding exactly which white wine you’d like to be sipping on at 37,000 feet and previewing the embroidered bathrobes in which you plan to unwind upon arrival. 

From looking up packing lists to researching power plugs to choosing your outfits, an undercurrent of excitement runs through everything you do. Enjoy it. Revel in it. It’s one of the best parts of travel. 

The Fourth Stage: Anxiety

Of course, the very nature of travel is that it pushes your boundaries and challenges you with new experiences, so there’s naturally going to be a healthy bit of anxiety involved, particularly if it’s a trip to a new destination that you aren’t too familiar with.

I remember the last few days before I was about to depart for Brazil to watch the World Cup. I had kept second-guessing myself. What if something went wrong? Was I in over my head? Were my friends and I going to be mugged at gunpoint as soon as we got off the plane, as the media, my parents, and everyone around me seemed to be saying? 

Four years later, even as a much more experienced traveller, the sheer audacity of the Trans-Siberian journey I had planned would occasionally keep me up at night. I was pretty confident that Jessica and I could handle ourselves just fine, but even so, if something were to go wrong, the middle of Siberia isn’t exactly an ideal place to find oneself stranded…

And right now, as we speak, I’m not ashamed to admit that my anxiety levels over my upcoming jaunt to West Africa are probably at their peak. I’m not overthinking it too much, but I’m certainly giving some careful consideration to the potential risks of a six-hour layover in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and how those risks would be best mitigated.

Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

I’m less concerned about my three days in Accra, Ghana, since everyone I’ve spoken to has said that it’s a lovely place to visit. But I’m still exercising a degree of caution, because after all, the world doesn’t exactly hear the best of things coming out of West Africa. Alas, such surface-level judgments and impressions are things that I absorb from the world around me, whether I like it or not. 

To be clear, though, I’m not regretful in the slightest about booking the trip; instead, I know from my previous trips that these little bursts of anxiety are entirely normal. For me, one of the guiding purposes of travelling is to challenge my pre-conceived notions about the world, so understanding these anxieties is in fact quite useful for putting them to the sword later on through actual experience. That brings me to the final stage…

The Fifth Stage: Fulfillment

If you’ve followed the blog for a while, you’ll know that travel is something I find fulfilling like absolutely nothing else. 

Truth be told, I don’t think I could pinpoint exactly why that’s the case. But I could point to a patchwork of reasons, and hopefully derive some sort of coherent picture out of it. 

For one, travel brings a constant flow of exciting new adventures, and that’s something I really value in my life. I do note, however, that while that’s always been the case for me (and I’d assume most of you as well), it’s also not universal – I know many people who are at their happiest when they’re chilling out at home and enjoying the peace and quiet. 

I also think that consistently pushing out of your comfort zone is the only way to expand it and to grow as a person, and travelling is one of the most effective ways of doing so. 

Sunrise view from the top of Mt. Batur, Bali

Sunrise view from the top of Mt. Batur, Bali

And as someone who grew up in a multicultural setting, a high level of global understanding is something that I hold dear, and there’s nothing like spending time in as much of the world as possible to further my progress towards that goal. 

Of course, there’s also the more selfish and superficial reasons, like travelling far and wide to an extent that relatively few people get to experience, and deriving a sense of satisfaction from that feeling of exclusivity, which is only reinforced by all the business class and First Class trips I take thanks to the magic of Miles & Points. Yes, it’s superficial to think so, but I think it’d be silly to pretend that these reasons don’t exist. 

Ultimately, though, I think it goes back to the instinct. To me, travel feels entirely instinctual, as though it were the most natural thing in the world for us humans to wander through the world around us.

When I travel, I feel as though I’m at peace with the reason I’ve been put into this universe: to explore it. And that, to me, is fulfillment.

Conclusion

Wonder, compulsion, excitement, anxiety, fulfillment. 

This was a post from the heart, as I fleshed out my five stages of wanderlust to outline the various emotions that travel evokes for me, based on the trips I’ve been fortunate to take so far. I’d like to think I’m just getting started still, so I’ll be curious to see whether my model continues to hold water on the adventures that lie ahead.

I’d love to hear your thoughts as well, whether you find that my perspectives resonate with you or you have some of your own views to share. 

5 Comments
  1. Avatar
    Tom Wong

    I totally agree with you about the 5 stages. Excitement is the best part. By the way, my wife and I booked a similar 16-segment trip covering Europe, Africa and the South Pacific (United Hopper) in Sept/Oct, so we will be looking forward to your reports and insights.

  2. Avatar
    Jian

    Ricky, do you think "wanderlust" is an "illness" or not? Why or why not?

    1. Avatar
      Ricky

      I wouldn’t call it an illness. More of a natural part of the human experience that manifests more in certain people than others. If it were an illness, though, it’d certainly be quite a nice one to have!

  3. Avatar
    Mara

    Hey Ricky,

    Totally relate to the compulsion phase so it’s not just you. But I also go through another stage after the fulfillment one and I can only describe it as sadness that it’s over!

    1. Avatar
      Ricky

      Well, the easy solution to that – always have another trip planned! 🙂

Ricky

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