Phases and Cycles – Noticing My Energy

Getting to Know Myself

In my extended period of long-term travel, one of my big goals is to get to know myself better. I have some people-pleaser tendencies, so in the past it’s been easy for me to just go along with whatever somebody else wants. Sometimes this is okay, because I think being easygoing and flexible has been a net positive in my relationships and professional life. I play well with others. But people like me often discover that there’s a shadow side to this strength. We let others influence our decisions, sometimes to the point where we don’t actually know what our own preferences are. So last June, I set off on a journey that is all my own, where the only preferences that matter are mine, and there’s nothing to do but listen to myself and make decisions based on what’s right for me.

I’ve noticed one pretty strong theme throughout the last year. My needs and preferences tend to fluctuate like a sine wave. I go through pretty distinct phases and cycles, where what feels right to me in one moment might be very different than what felt right a few weeks ago. I experience these fluctuations as a change in energy level, like I have a battery. I was familiar with the battery analogy as it related to social energy, introversion and extroversion, but I’ve found that it applies in other ways, too.

Sprint and Plop

Traveling long-term is so different from going on a 10-day vacation. When you’re in it for the long haul, you’re probably not going to be able to keep up the same pace that you would on a shorter trip. (Though I did meet one guy in Medellín who had been to a new country every week for a year…and that sounded awful to me.) A travel writer named Nomadic Matt talks about the phenomenon of travel burnout, and I think reading about it in his memoir before I left home helped me to have more realistic expectations.

Sometimes I do like the whirlwind pace, spending a couple of nights in each location, and squeezing in lots of activities. I call this a Sprint. It’s an efficient way to travel. You get to see all the must-sees and do all the must-dos. I sprinted through Guatemala after finishing my time in Spanish school, and it was awesome. I had a Sprint along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, exploring cities and small towns and beaches. But it’s exhausting after a while. I can usually handle a few weeks of Sprint before I need to Plop.

Just two nights in this hostel in Minca, Colombia.

The Plop is what I call settling in for an extended period to recharge my battery. For me, an ideal Plop involves sleeping in the same bed for a few weeks. Often, it means living my life in a tiny geographic radius. I don’t put pressure on myself to do the tourist things I’m “supposed to” do. And during a Plop, with my head clear of the complications and logistics of changing locations, I often have energy to dedicate to a specific goal or focus. I’ve achieved a lot in Plop phases.

In a Plop, I often repeat the same meals every day.

My biggest Plops of this trip were in Colombia. I spent five weeks working on a farm at a rural eco-hotel in San Rafael, Antioquia. This was in October, so I’d been traveling pretty quickly for about four months, and I was tired. I spent my mornings on the farm doing manual labor. Then I’d take a dip in the river, followed by a cold shower (there’s no hot water). I spent my afternoons sitting in the rustic, open-air hotel restaurant, pursuing my habit-based goals as I worked through a coaching program with my friend Bridget.

Then came a period of sprinting along the Caribbean coast and through the Eje Cafetero (coffee-growing region). Then I plopped for three weeks in a city called Manizales and went straight into another Plop. This one was five weeks teaching English in Guamal, Meta. I worked out and took online Spanish lessons every weekday morning, then planned English lessons and taught classes in the afternoons and evenings. As I write this, I’m enjoying a Plop in Oaxaca, Mexico, focusing on rehabilitating my knee injury for three hours a day. In San Rafael, Guamal, and now Oaxaca, I rarely left the property I was living on, and I liked it that way.

Rural isolation and farm labor in San Rafael, Colombia.
Rocks for weights in Guamal, Colombia.

Social and Hermit

The Myers-Briggs personality test consistently categorizes me as about 60% introverted. I’ve come to understand this better as I’ve gotten older. I do actually love to be social. I get a little lonely if I’m isolated and not spending time with others for a long time. I like parties (if I know everyone there). And sometimes I have a lot of social energy and stamina (I once went on 21 Tinder dates in 21 days). When I’m in a Social phase like that, I feel like a sparkler, shooting off fiery flashes of light. All of that social energy translates pretty well to the backpacker lifestyle. It can be super fun to meet new friends in a hostel dorm or go out with a big group of other travelers. In the early weeks of my travel, I was very much in Social mode. A disproportionate number of the travel friends whom I’m still in touch with are from my time in Guatemala.

Making cool friends in San Marcos, Guatemala.

But I also really need to be alone sometimes. I go through particularly introverted Hermit phases where I find that I’m quickly exhausted by social stimulation. It was interesting to notice this feeling in Nicaragua, which was so similar to Guatemala in terms of the traveler scene, but I was very different. When I’m feeling Hermity, I prefer to spend a lot of quiet time by myself. If I’m in a place where that’s not an option, I get overwhelmed and irritable. I can be around people for a while, if I like their energy, and it’s a one-on-one interaction or a small group. But even then, I’ll eventually need to disengage and recharge. A Hermit phase is a good time to get a lot of reading done. Compared to the Social sparkler, Hermit energy is more of a warm glow, soft around the edges.

Dinner for one in El Castillo, Nicaragua. This is how my dad poses with whole fish dinners.

Novelty and Familiarity

Seeking novelty has been a big part of my life during this trip. I’ve visited 13 countries, and met hundreds of people. It’s been awesome. Broadening my horizons, connecting with people from all over the world, and stretching my comfort zone have all been goals of mine for this experience. In my normal life, things don’t vary much. I go to the same places, and my social circle has become pretty small. Since I began working from home in the pandemic, I’ve realized that I don’t usually interact with people I haven’t intentionally selected. But in the last year, I’ve pivoted from that in a major way. The deep dive into novelty-seeking has paid off incredibly well. I’ve tapped into my adventurous side. I’ve made connections with some wonderful people, whom I’d like to keep in my life for the long haul. I’ve learned things and visited places I never imagined I would. It’s exciting and beautiful, but after a lot of new experiences and encounters, sometimes I just need to take a breather.

All-day, unguided, very technical hike to see 7 waterfalls in Jardín, Colombia.

When I feel fatigued, being in a situation that feels familiar is the most comfortable and relaxing thing for me. But when all the locations are unfamiliar, as they’ve been on this trip, the only way to get that fix of familiarity is through people. In the last year, I’ve had the incredible good fortune to share some of my experiences with people I love. Early in my trip, after just six weeks solo, I got to visit a friend from high school and some friends from Colorado in the Caribbean, and I spent time with my family all over South America. Then, I was traveling solo or with new friends again for seven months before I was able to meet up with another friend in Mexico.

Mini road-trip to Samaná peninsula, Dominican Republic.

When I’m with people I know well, I can let my guard down. The implicit support, the love, and the care I receive from these people is like a protective coating. With them, I don’t get stressed about little mishaps or logistical challenges. When I’m not by myself, the labor of planning, decision making, and watching out for personal safety is distributed. So, a bit paradoxically, through familiarity I have more energy for novelty. It’s less work to sprint and explore. And there’s the added excitement of having a new experience in the context of a comfortable, broken-in relationship.

In long-term travel, these Familiarity phases are a little harder to come by because they require participation from a pretty select group of people. But I think more than anything, Familiarity breaks are what keep me going, capable of continuing the adventure. I think my ideal travel schedule would involve alternating between being on my own and visiting or traveling with friends and family.

Family time in Quito, Ecuador.

Recognizing the Time to Recharge

Sometimes these cycles line up the way you’d think they might, and I have a few weeks of being a Sprinting Social Novelty Seeker, and then a few of being a Hermit enjoying a Plop with a side of Familiarity. But sometimes it’s a blend. The main thing I’ve realized is that it’s important to intentionally give myself space to recharge, in whichever way I need. It’s the only sustainable way for me to live this lifestyle. And though my time in Latin America is coming to a close for now, my travels aren’t over yet. I’m looking forward to using this deeper self-knowledge to structure the next several months.

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I was curious about this! I need a lot of recharge time when I’m experiencing NEW, especially a lot of it! I’m glad you’ve had such a mixture of comfort and adventure!

Nice fish.

Valuable insight! I relate strongly to what you’ve written about these cycles, and you’ve given me vocabulary to recommence my own travels with more intentionality. Also love the fish photo