A Little Adrift… In Search of Balance

For seven months, the gaping absence of Africa stories on my blog has nagged me. During this time, some of you wrote me with concern. Thank you, all is well. I needed time to sort out personal things post-Africa. As this new year takes shape, I am jumping (maybe limping) back into writing. And for starters, I thought it apt to share a bit about this past year that has gone unsaid.

It was a hard year for me.

I started the year on a high, speaking at a National Geographic Live event in Washington, DC, which scarcely seemed real — it was an honor I hadn’t dared to dream of when I left six years ago. And yet there I was, up on stage and talking to people about how they can create meaningful travel experiences. It was rad.

Speaking at NatGeo

And yet, even then, as I confidently told the audience of my plans to travel across Africa, I was unsure if that was the right next step. I loved the lure of Africa, but never thought I’d go there solo. I left anyway. I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa in early February and I already feared burnout. My Dispatches from Africa were darker, more critical of each experience. The problem, of course, is not with Africa; how could an entire continent be at fault?

My ability to cope with the highs and lows of travel skidded to a halt early last year. Six years is a long time to travel, and I wasn’t in a good head-space at the start of the trip. A series of setbacks — many not unlike those in past travels — began to snowball. I killed my pricey laptop a week into the trip. I was robbed in Cape Town… twice. Sketchy internet made working with my clients difficult. Traveling Africa was expensive and a lot of the hostels were empty of other travelers. I was alone all of the time. There is something to be said for persevering, though. It was poor timing, but dipping my toe into Africa’s range of cultures and history widened my perspective. Traveling through parts of Africa deepened my appreciation for travel. Even more than before, I believe travel creates so deep connections in our lives.

Exploring the gorgeous Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa.

Views over Cape Town and Lion’s Head from Table Mountain in South Africa.

I stayed the course throughout the spring. I checked-off bucket-list items and I found amazing local projects, the stories of their founders begging to be told to a wider audience. I was there with these incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences, yet under it all, I couldn’t shake a deep depression. I was sad all the time. The last straw was contracting dysentery (again) a few days before my flight home. I’ve struggled with depression in the past, and there is a deep history of it in my family. Constantly traveling exacerbates the problem. I needed to stop moving and collect myself.

I kept it together for the two weddings I attended in June, just long enough to wish them well, then I broke down. I didn’t want to talk about Africa and I cried a lot. I had lost my ability for gratitude and perspective. Things are on the mend now. I’ve gotten help and I reconnected with friends. I slowed down and house-sat in Seattle for two months. For the past three weeks, my dad and I hosted family from Panama for their first visit to the U.S. (a visit complete with Disney World, the Kennedy Space Center, and plenty of time exploring Florida’s lakes and beaches).

lake seminole park, florida

Everyone was in town for my birthday, so we headed to Lake Seminole Park in Florida for a picnic and time on the lake.

There was much good in 2014, too. This year made me examine my long-term goals and assess how I can better balance work, travel, and life. I was still making traveling the point of my life, and it no longer fit.

The whole of this is to say, I was working on me these past months. I was putting back together the parts that I allowed to break by constantly moving.

I haven’t figured anything out for sure. But six years traveling is a long time to constantly travel solo. Too long, maybe. I miss having a community and a set of friends. For years, I have loved picking a place and living for three to six months in a new city. I loved finding a new pop-up community of nomads like me, it added to the journey of self-discovery and fun. And each day I was grateful for my ability to construct this intentional life; it felt right.

Six years traveling

I celebrated my six-year travel anniversary this past November. I created this collage to look back on all the amazing friendships I have cultivated all over the world. To celebrate the stories and people who star in my travel memories these past years.

Now however, I’m considering where I can find a home-base from which to travel for shorter stints. I’ll leave for a month or two at a time, then home to work on other projects. Projects like lining up more college speaking this year, a second book, or any of the cacophony of ideas tearing through my thoughts each week. I will look back at my travels last spring with a fresh perspective; I will share stories in the coming months of the people and places from my time traveling across Africa.

We parked on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania for a stunning sunrise that changed and shifted with each passing second. From the tinge of pink at the start to a lifting of red-tinged fog as full day broke over our safari car.

Also! I’m adding two new members to the A Little Adrift Jr. gang. My oldest nephew turned 11 a few months ago, and he informed me that “it’s my turn to travel with you, just like Ana did.” And since I was taking him, I figured I needed to take my 10-year-old nephew too, just to be fair. And though I won’t homeschool them, this summer I will scoop up my nephews for a month of roadtripping the Yucatan in Mexico. They are both already psyched and googling the beaches and cenotes we’ll explore while there. After that, it’s off to London in August for a wedding and hopefully a bit of time exploring Europe (I’d love to head back to Ireland).

At the beginning of each new year I set goals for myself. I’ve used vision boards in the past and I’ve also asked for accountability by laying out my goals on the blog.

Instead of goals, however, I have set one intention for 2015: creating balance.

What are you working toward in 2015?


98 Responses to A Little Adrift… In Search of Balance

  1. Terrance Collins January 2, 2016 at 2:30 am #

    Hi Shannon, just found you today, January 2, 2016, as I sit in my 143 sq. ft. studio in Shenzhen, China. Lazing and lounging with my Kenyan girlfriend, Wanja, and her friend, Grace, visiting us from an hour out of Shenzhen, where she’s a teacher.

    Like you, I’m a plastic paddy, both parents 2nd generation Irish, from Mayo and Tipperary. I too love Ireland and don’t get there often enough lately but hope to return this year.

    My compassion and support for you in the depression you were experiencing when you wrote this. But, I hope you know, as I believe, that EVERYTHING ALWAYS works out. My path from Irish Catholic to 60’s ‘ingest anything to get high’ hippie to quasi-Buddhist, at least in my thinking, has convinced me that it’s all grist for the mill.

    I have complete power over what I let my crazy mind ponder or where I let it wander…or set up camp. This works for me, to train my mind in acceptance and gratitude. Of course, I also believe we all have our own path, and I am not preaching or proselytizing, only sharing my journey and offering my story as a possible salve.

    You know we Irish carry a thousand year weight of oppression and struggle. Yeats summed up the Irish psyche, or one view of it, when he wrote, “being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

    But, we also share one of the most beautiful cultures in the world. Nothing like sitting in a Roscommon farm home of an evening and watching the young children, from 5-12, boldly, confidently and proudly share their gifts, whether as dancers, musicians, or wordsmiths.

    Ah, life is grand. Bright skies and sunny mornings to you, my sister of the spirit.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 4, 2016 at 5:18 pm #

      Thank you for all the kind words and for sharing your own experiences with finding balance. My dad and I talk about the debt we’re still paying from our ancestors, and though I have no clue the extent, I do believe that epigenetics can have a startling effect on some of the nuances in our lives. At the end of the day, however, I am grateful to have such a beautiful legacy in the Irish culture, and this year has shown a bright side to the previous darkness. I hope you are well and having a wonderful week in China. :)

  2. Latino Traveler October 8, 2015 at 7:16 am #

    Thanks for writing this! This blog post resonated with us as we’ve been traveling for a little over 9 months. It was surprising to us, as we never thought it possible, that we would need to find a place to slow down and rest from traveling. We decided to stay in Bali, Indonesia and will end up spending two months here total. Do you have any advice on a another blogger friendly home base? We’re thinking of switching to Chiang Mai after our 30 day visa, which we already extended once, expires.

    • Shannon O'Donnell October 9, 2015 at 5:37 am #

      So glad that the post resonated. And Bali is a fantastic place to stop. Friends stopped there this year as well and said it was exactly what they needed to recharge after so long on the road. In that region of the world, Chiang Mai is the next big hotspot that has a nice mix of local community, expats, culture, and food. I know that there is also a more business-building focused community in Ho Chi Minh city, but that always seemed a bit frenetic to use as a base to recharge! If you are up for switching sides of the world, Medellin is another expat hotspot, as well as Mexico! :)

  3. Claudia Luxembourg August 19, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

    I can’t begin to tell you how much I understand you. I have suffered from depression – the kind of thing that made me stare at the fire, tears rolling down my cheeks, for no other reason that I was deeply, deeply sad. There have been days when I could not even get out of bed. I sought and got help and all is better now. Having a balanced life is important. Not that my opinion matters, but I support your decision of searching a base and travelling for shorter periods of time. I intend to do the same, because I have come to realise lately that I do need to stay closer to my family. Stay strong!

    • Shannon O'Donnell August 20, 2015 at 11:52 am #

      I appreciate the support and you sharing some of your own struggles and how you have managed to find balance. It does matter and it helps to know others have gone through it and how they are moving forward. I hope you settling down near family goes well, it’s brave to admit and make the adjustments needed to feel strong.

      • Claudia Luxembourg August 21, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

        <3 much love to you Shannon!

      • Robin Small October 9, 2015 at 1:12 pm #

        I really love the open and honest communication style you have Shannon … it obviously coincides with self reflection time … the beauty of ” time travel ” … to coin a new meaning … to self reflect

        glad your healthy and balanced again …. hey we are human not robots 👍

        • Shannon O'Donnell October 10, 2015 at 2:18 am #

          Thank you Robin, I like the idea of “time travel” — it really has been the hours on buses and trains over these years that have allowed me the time and space to reflect and better understand myself and place in the world. Many thanks for sharing :)

  4. Jane Langille June 24, 2015 at 6:56 pm #

    Very insightful post Shannon. I have thought that when I do Africa, for much of it I would bite the bullet and join a tour which I usually only did for a few days at a time and not often on previous trips but would have to do for much longer there. It is a different kind of travel place.

    I have also thought that I should always keep a base even when home frustrates. There are things I like and need here. A little balance.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 24, 2015 at 10:13 pm #

      Thank you Jane, your plan for Africa sounds well reasoned. It would have definitely changed the entire tone of the trip to have a group and have the logistics just work. I appreciate the kind words and I hope you make it to Africa soon! :)

      • Jane Langille June 25, 2015 at 8:46 pm #

        I also know what you mean about “empty hostel syndrome”. I’ve experienced it even in places you wouldn’t expect with bad hostel/hotel choices or timing. On one trip many people were going in a different direction/taking a different route or we were just ships that passed in the night-never in the same place for very long. You do need your social time.

        • Shannon O'Donnell June 25, 2015 at 9:01 pm #

          Exactly! That’s a good way to put it. Often the people I did meet and connect with were headed in the opposite direction, so it really was ships in the night. Well, I hope you have a lot better luck on your Africa travels, a tour at least for part of the time, or all, will definitely help that.

  5. kaitangsou May 27, 2015 at 12:28 am #

    I would rate Cape Town as the safest capital city in the world…

  6. Audrey Friesen April 2, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

    I agree that balance is important. There is something to be said about having a home base. For myself, I think a some more travel would balance things out a little more for me!

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 3, 2015 at 2:54 pm #

      I can definitely understand the need to get out there and make travel the priority for a time! I hope you are able to add a bit more travel into your balance this year :)

  7. Rachel March 28, 2015 at 7:09 am #

    I can imagine the stress. We like to think of ourselves as nomadic creatures, but we’re not really. We like to settle and familiarise ourselves with things.

    Always remember: you come first. Before the blog, before interviews, before book publishers, before deadlines. Your health and your happiness matters much, much more!

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 28, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

      Thank you for the support Racel! I appreciate the kind words and advice. :)

  8. Alice March 19, 2015 at 3:46 pm #

    I like,to hear more about your depression and how you are managing depression. Depression illness is often misunderstood. People with this condition often do not talk much about it. Depression is chronic illness that many have to live with. Please write more about this illness and how you are managing it at home and on the road.

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 19, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

      Hi Alice, depression is a tricky one, so I am very far from being the ideal person to be giving advice on how to handle it. I highly suggest that you talk to a professional. That being said, for me, traveling slowly and really staying connected to friends helps. But going home and having a steady home-base was a big part of healing this past year.

  9. UrbanManUSA March 12, 2015 at 5:04 pm #

    I found the great article you referenced elsewhere on your website called, “10 Types Of Expats.” I was a white collar expat for 5+ years in the 90s. I encountered many of the worst variations of the 10 Types (as well as a couple more). Such dysfunction! Also, when nearly everyone has a departure date in the back of their minds – even if its 2 years away, and especially if it is a few months or less – they aren’t really truly present. Life got to seem really superficial. I reached a point of ennui. I left expat life and have been in the USA since the late 90s. The transition went well. I have a good career going and a strong level of happiness.

    Now however 15+ years down the line, I am feeling the itch to be an expat again. The rat race elements of American life are getting a bit thick. I’d like to believe the additional wisdom that (hopefully) comes with age would allow me to better navigate the expat terrain. Also, I would seek to be in a location where the locals are more inviting (at my previous stops they were in general not) and also a place with a larger population or at least within an hour of a medium to large city (to provide more variety than I had back in the 90s).

    So, with all the build up, where am I going with this? You’ve been an expat in many environments. You’ve seen the gamut. How much of a difference does a more friendly local population really make? Ditto the offerings of a medium or large city versus a small place – does it make life a little better, or a lot better? Does being older and wiser (bearing in mind my age is probably greater than yours by at least 10 years) make the realities of being an expat easier to process?

    Or is it the case that being an expat has a shelf life, after which you just aren’t going to find it fulfilling? You have your drinks in the sun. And lunches and coffee shop meetings with people of 15 different nationalities. The photos are taken and saved. You experience 100 different flavors of unusual and different. And then that’s it. Been there, done that.

    Looking forward to any comments you might have to offer regarding these ”easy” questions …

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 16, 2015 at 1:41 am #

      You ask some tough questions… its hard to say how you might find some of the places I have traveled, or the ones that feel like home to me. I know that after years in Thailand, one of the things I realized is that as much as I love the culture, there was just never ever a time when I would go beyond being the foreigner. Even if I learned the language, I would be an outsider. I say this because it’s part of what put a shelf-life on my expat life. I am looking for a home base but I want a place where I can truly form a community. For me, I find that it makes a huge difference if the local population is warm and open and willing to accept you. In Mexico, I felt that. I loved the town I lived in for six months and I felt like there was a path toward making it a home if it was what I wanted.

      I think it’s less about expat live being something you grow beyond, and perhaps the connection of a community something that you want. If you’ve chosen a place where that is hard, then it would surely have a shelf life. And yet, there are places and communities where I have met many happy, old, and wise expats loving their lives and feeling connected to friends and the community and living a fulfilling life.

      Not sure if that is what you were looking for as a response, but I hope it helps!

      Cheers and best of luck. :)

      • UrbanManUSA March 18, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

        Thanks for the response, Shannon. Appreciate you taking the time and enjoyed your input. We have similar takes on a couple of countries.

        I’ve spent time in Thailand. The culture has its charms, and the cost of living in many areas is appealing. Reality, however, the language/alphabet is completely different, that is too huge for me to ponder tackling.

        Mexico currently is at the top of my possibilities-being-mulled list. You mentioned in Mexico meeting, “happy, old, and wise expats loving their lives.” This leads to a concern I have. In the expat community, is nearly everyone either old and on social security, or a redux-hippie 20-something (or acting like one)? I’m in between. Did you find there to be a decent number of people in the 30 to early 50s age range? If so, in what specific locations in Mexico?

        • Shannon O'Donnell March 18, 2015 at 9:17 pm #

          That’s tough. There are a lot of the two expats you describe, but the others do exist. I am far from the expert on regions of Mexico, however, I really don’t have a good idea of them all. That being said, I think that Guanajuato or San Miguel del Allende could be great… they tend to attract those middle years because they are very liveable cities.

  10. Megan February 26, 2015 at 12:53 pm #

    I wandered over from the Daily Mail article (don’t judge). Loved the write-up and did my best to not read the comments..:). I’ll spend some time today reading through some of your back posts! Travel burnout is a real thing. I know enough about myself (’cause I’m old and wise) to know that I need a home base and traveling continuously just isn’t for me. There’s a time and place for everything. I’m sure you’ll find the almost-perfect balance for life, community and travel.

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 27, 2015 at 9:47 am #

      Thanks Megan! Glad you wandered over (I kept telling myself to stop reading the new comments too) and that the site resonates with you. Thanks for the support on the balance front — it’s hard to believe it’s already nearly March, but so far I’ve made strides in striking that balance between travel and grounded community. Happy travels. :)

  11. Christian P February 19, 2015 at 4:45 am #

    Beyond those obstacles you made it through. Congratulations Shannon for your travel and for finding the balance!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  12. Entrepreneurs Odyssey February 15, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

    WOW, what a read. This is my first time here, can you believe it, so much to catch up on.

    This was an eye opening post for me to begin with, and one that will be in my mind as I read others in the future. I’m happy for you that you’ve made another chapter in your life. Your certainly have a story that the world must hear. Thank you for sharing.

    Wifey and I are just going to click over year one on the travel scene, that is after letting go of all strings…

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 15, 2015 at 7:57 pm #

      Congrats on a year on the travel scene! And thanks so much for the kind words and for reading. I hope our paths cross one day out there on the road. :)

  13. Shannon O'Donnell February 13, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

    Somehow my reply back to you never posted, but I just wanted to say that I am so sorry to hear that 2014 was a rough year for you as well. Much like what you described in your piece, for a while I found myself caught up in the lure of the online world, in all that I thought I wanted my blog to become, but then floundering from too much time spent working for free and paying attention outside of myself, to what others were doing. It sounds like toward the end of the year you were able to find some clarity, and I look forward to seeing how this year unfolds for you too. Be well :)

  14. Mary February 13, 2015 at 10:45 am #

    This is a great inspiration. I’ve been searching for travel tidbits that highlight each trip and I found your site. Thanks for sharing, you had a blast 6 years of traveling. I’m jealous! Best of luck for your next adventures.

  15. Vagabonding Mike February 11, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

    Six-years….
    I can barely even say that. WOW!

    My plans for 2015, well…I intend to call it quits with the old jobby-job and hit the road. I have a long way to go before I hit six years though.

    Congrats to you!

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 12, 2015 at 5:27 pm #

      Congrats on the upcoming trip — that will make 2015 one of the most memorable of your life. Happy travels and thanks for reading! :)

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