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. We're the Russos February 11, 2015 at 2:38 am #

    Hi Shannon. Just discovered your blog and have really enjoyed reading through your posts. Glad to read you are back and on the mend. Look forward to reading more. Love the “Balance” goal for 2015.

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 12, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

      Thanks for reading and for the support, it’s a month into the year and I am still working on balance. I hope your 2015 is off to a great start as well! :)

  2. Ryan February 11, 2015 at 12:41 am #

    Glad to see you are on the mend Shannon, 6 years of constant travel has to take its toll! And sometimes finding balance and a base will help you keep traveling, in smaller doses, but allow you to enjoy it more. Especially after what you had gone through. After even my first time traveling abroad for just 9 months, I was burnt out and somewhat demoralized, and the inexperience probably added to it, and a few events that turned things sour for a long time. But I took a step back for about a year and began traveling again, smarter, and more conscious of my personal physical and mental and emotional needs.

    By the way, I saw you on the Nomads World post we contributed on together but I had never read your blog. I really like it, and personal articles like this are what speak to me the most. Thank you for sharing!

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 12, 2015 at 5:50 pm #

      I remember I hit a breaking point on my RTW trip at the 8 month mark, I was burned out then too — it’s a long time to traveling non-stop. It’s the less glamorous side of long-term travel. Thank you for sharing your experiences, and for the support. I hope you have a wonderful 2015.

  3. Laura // RoamFarAndWide.com February 8, 2015 at 10:17 pm #

    Very honest and vulnerable post. I admire your bravery in traveling and writing. I hope 2015 is balanced for you so far.

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 8, 2015 at 11:37 pm #

      Thank you Laura, it can be hard to share the vulnerable ones, but I know other long term travelers can often relate. I appreciate the support. :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 8, 2015 at 11:37 pm #

      Thank you Laura, it can be hard to share the vulnerable ones, but I know other long term travelers can often relate. I appreciate the support. :)

  4. Renuka Singh February 6, 2015 at 3:33 am #

    Ah! There’s a lot that happened for you last year! Congrats on being honored to speak at National Geographic conference. Good to see you back at writing! I am also looking at 2015 with a lot of hope in terms of better travel opportunities – some that I will create and some should come my way.

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 6, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

      Thank you Renuka, I hope you have travel opportunities this year as well!

  5. Expense Management Analyst February 4, 2015 at 8:00 am #

    Cool I have also been to Lion head this year :)

  6. The World on my Necklace February 2, 2015 at 10:29 pm #

    It seems like a lot of digital nomads are coming to the same conclusion lately: less travel and finding a base or home. I can completely understand that as I think that most of us don’t want to travel continuously forever. Balance is good and is what I am striving for as well.

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 3, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

      Indeed, a lot of travel bloggers who started a while back are moving toward home-bases, it’s been interesting to see how they are dealing with the eventual need to slow down and have some more solid grounding from which to then continue exploring. I hope you find balance as well this year! :)

  7. Sadie Redinger February 2, 2015 at 7:06 pm #

    Extended travel seems like such a fun, easy thing to do, but there are so many factors to keep in mind. I’m sorry you had such a hard time, but you’ll be a much stronger person and traveler because of it. It’s all such a learning experience. This year I’m setting out for more extended travel and have to keep Balance in mind when trying to work out volunteering and time for myself.

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 3, 2015 at 4:45 pm #

      I have come to value balance above many other things in the life of a long-term traveler. I wish you all the best and happiness on your upcoming extended trip! :)

  8. Serendipity Tess January 31, 2015 at 9:07 am #

    I chuckled when I read what travelling through Africa does to you sometimes: indeed you are alone a lot. I drove through Namibia back in 2006 for a month, when I was 21. I had hoped to meet loads of people – especially since I was camping and thought ‘surely this is the best way to meet people’. And then I slept on empty campsite after empty campside. And I barely met anyone. So I travelled back to Windhoek to spend time with my friends and they would occasionally travel with me. I ended up living in Namibia for three years and the people I met in Windhoek are still in my life today. But these were encounters which I came across while being stationary. Funny that. My intention for 2015 is to cultivate self-love. Still intending to travel but on a quest to find a place to grow non-existing roots. Quite a challenge.

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 1, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

      It’s so odd and counterintuitive that there are so few travelers! It makes sense now, that many of them are on overland trucks and such, but I really thought there would be the backpacking comradery that I had found in Southeast Asia. It makes it a lot tougher, but I am so glad you had friends in the city to fall back on and still have a wonderful trip. Thanks for reading and sharing your experiences! :)

      • kaitangsou May 27, 2015 at 12:31 am #

        Try hitchhiking! I hitch-hiked through SA and Namibia in the eighties…of course you could get stuck in some really isolated spots and wait for days before you see a soul…oh well…that is Africa, not flooded by scammer, losers, child molesters, druggies and all sorts of white trash that infect Asia…

  9. CWBush January 30, 2015 at 10:30 am #

    2015 has been a real sea change for me. After being more on the road than off for the last seven years and calling Asia home for most of that time, I find myself living on campus and back at school in Australia.

    I’m hoping working towards something (while still travelling when time and money allow) and being in a more stable environment will help me finally come to grips with the black dog and start taking some positive steps towards a life that has more to it than simply finding the lifestyle with the most hammock time and the cheapest beer.

    Thanks for sharing your story. I’ve had my moment of break-down clarity on the road (and oddly, it also featured the weddings of my two best friends) and – tough as it is – a clearer head and a better definition of what matters is super helpful moving forward.

    Good luck :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 1, 2015 at 1:36 pm #

      It sounds like you have found a wonderful balance right now. Like you, I have considered going back to school part time, using that location as a home base and then continuing the adventures while having the grounded structure of friends, classes, etc. I wish you the best of luck in 2015 taking those positive steps. Thanks for the support and for sharing how you’ve coped with the transition. :)

  10. Tom Powers January 29, 2015 at 6:40 pm #

    It was great to read about your burnout. It’s a very real phenomenon that I hadn’t thought of as I plan to embark on my own life change involving travel.
    Be well and come visit and stay if in Boston (until I get up and leave lol).

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 1, 2015 at 1:33 pm #

      I hope your planning is going well! The biggest thing I learned in the early years was to slow down and really enjoy each new place, rather than rapidly looking ahead and always planning the next step. That slow travel is what delayed the burnout for six years! Good luck planning and traveling! :)

  11. Merwin David January 27, 2015 at 6:18 pm #

    Welcome Back Shannon.. So nice to have back and i been following your blog since last year and You’re one true traveller. Good photos from Africa..:) My word for 2015 is Love my friend..:)

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 27, 2015 at 9:53 pm #

      Thank you so much Merwin. I have all these stories in my head and can’t wait to share even more of the Africa photos. I appreciate the support. :)

  12. Mariellen Ward January 27, 2015 at 11:09 am #

    Thanks for writing this with such honesty Shannon, I appreciate it. As travel bloggers, our lives can look so glamorous from the outside, and people don’t always know the whole story of how tiring and lonely travel can be. I also wrote a similar post recently, http://breathedreamgo.com/2014/12/stumbling-road-dreams/ so I relate very much with what your saying. Burn out is real, and it’s made doubly hard by tiring travel schedules and low income. I’m sure that you are making better self-care choices now, and will look forward to how things evolve. Take care Shannon!

  13. Rachel January 27, 2015 at 1:43 am #

    I can’t help staring at your last photo of the most beautiful sunrise I’ve seen.. well, every photo of sunrise or sunset is beautiful to me, they’re my favorite scenes.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 27, 2015 at 9:53 pm #

      I agree Rachel, being present and watching sunrises and sunsets is essentially one of my favorite things to do anywhere in the world! :)

  14. Susan Shain January 26, 2015 at 5:04 pm #

    Shannon, glad you’re taking time to do what’s right for you. I’ve had a tough year, too, and also am slowing down on the travels a bit. My word for 2015 is ACCEPT: accept what’s happened, accept what will happen, and accept that I am right where I should be. (Funny enough, balance was my word for 2014; I was working way too much!) Hope to see you out here in SD soon! xoxoxo

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 27, 2015 at 9:57 pm #

      Accept is a wonderful world, I hope there will be elements of that within my year as well. They say that much of happiness stems from that word, really taking stock at what you have and accepting that it’s right, that it’s enough. I do hope we cross paths, thanks for the support Susan! :)

  15. Jodi January 25, 2015 at 1:25 am #

    So glad you’re back, khun Shannooooon! Though of course to me you were never missing, since I am lucky enough to have the offline version in my life too, I am happy to see your words online again and echo your readers that they were missed. xx

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 25, 2015 at 7:21 pm #

      Thank you khun Joooodi! I am so happy to have had you in my offline life this past year.

  16. Jeff Bronson *Kraven* January 23, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    I’m happy balance is becoming a crucial factor after all these years. I feel a home base and community, even if for part of the year is important. At 40, I’ve just now taken the plunge quitting, and will be in Goa, India to kick things off next week. I’d love to have a *tiny house* owned outright, then take a few months of the year to travel.

    The best of both worlds.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 26, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

      Congrats on taking the plunge! And though I haven’t made it yet to Goa, it’s a town that is made for relaxing and sounds like the perfect spot to start this next phase. Like you, I *love* the tiny house movement and the ideal would be exactly what you described — own one and travel the rest of the year. Happy travels :)

      • Jeff Bronson *Kraven* January 27, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

        Thanks so much Shannon! Good luck with your tiny house hunt as well :)

      • Jeff Bronson *Kraven* February 19, 2015 at 5:36 am #

        Thanks Shannon! Goa is definitely a town for relaxing and not much else as Internet is a sufferable affair!

  17. Sheila Brown January 22, 2015 at 6:19 pm #

    Wow Shannon. I just found your blog as I was doing a google search on World Nomads for a travel group I belong to. In reading this post, I am sitting here with my mouth agape thinking, “OMG, this is exactly my story!” – minus the Africa part. Like you, I have been a solo female traveler
    for many years. 8 years for me – 34 countries and 64 international trips. I found 2014 to be an incredibly tough year as I lost my former insatiable desire to travel and dealt with depression as well. I have had a history of it for years but had been free of it for a decade. I am sick of my nomadic life alone, however, I cannot fathom “settling down” in the states. Like you, I am looking for that foreign country that I can life in, build a commuity, travel to nearby countries while being able to have a closet with my clothes to come home to! I just spent 16 months living on the coast in the DR and unexpectedly found myself back in the states for almost all of 2014 -something I never expected to happen. I’m back and forth over which country I will settle in, and I know I will find it. I’m heading to Nicaragua in April 2014 to check it out. I’ll then spend my summer nomading around Europe. I hope you find your spot soon!! Here’s to both of us finding Balance in 2015!! Love your blog!

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 26, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

      We are in that same boat, I am weary of the nomadic life, but it’s hard to know how to stop moving. And then there’s that pesky search for the right spot in which to settle. Even part time, it seems so odd to think about coming back to the U.S. But, I think I may actually make the U.S. my base, simply because of the ease of living here (visas and such) and then look at traveling about 4 months a year in three or so separate trips. That way it never feels like I am just stuck here. I wish you the best of luck searching out a spot — and keep me posted if you find a good one! I haven’t visited Nicaragua, but friends have expat-ed there and loved it! :)

      PS: I seriously love WN — they have great customer support if you need to contact them and ask questions about insuring your travel group. :)

      • Zachary Stockill February 1, 2015 at 12:44 am #

        “I am weary of the nomadic life, but it’s hard to know how to stop moving.”
        Amen. Will be curious to read more about if, and how you figure it out.

        • Shannon O'Donnell February 1, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

          Thank you Zachary, I will keep an honest log of it on the site, I know it’s an issue a lot of other long-term travelers face.

  18. Jimmy Dau January 22, 2015 at 11:42 am #

    Sometimes we need to rearrange things to find the balance. Good to read your words again Shannon. Hopefully we cross paths sometime!

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 22, 2015 at 11:51 am #

      Thank you Jimmy, I appreciate the support. And I am counting on us crossing paths at some point soon. :)

  19. DeJav Speller January 20, 2015 at 7:43 am #

    Just started following your blog. I must say firstly thanks for sharing your story. Definitely enjoy when bloggers express reality and not what they want people to hear. Feel some of us get to that point to have a home base to do more short term traveling. Can’t wait to see future post.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 20, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

      Thanks for the support, it can be hard sometimes to admit the truth in the travel space when a lot of what is shared focuses on the positive and long-term travel.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 20, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

      Thanks for the support, it can be hard sometimes to admit the truth in the travel space when a lot of what is shared focuses on the positive and long-term travel.

  20. Shannon O'Donnell January 19, 2015 at 9:25 pm #

    It was definitely a year of change for you as well Tal, thanks for sharing and I hope you find your inner peace as well!

  21. Leigh January 19, 2015 at 5:58 pm #

    Hi Shannon, I always love your writing, your honesty and reading about your travels. It’s good to hear things are on the upswing. I’m a full-time RVer and think that you might enjoy doing the same. There is an incredible group of digital nomads traveling the US who connect in person regularly and have created an incredibly supportive and close community. Email me if you want to learn more!

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 19, 2015 at 9:22 pm #

      You know, I do love the idea of the RV community in the US. I have thought of taking a long road-trip across the US as a next step instead of picking a single spot right now. I’m still torn, but I really appreciate you sharing that there is a good community on the road. That is important to me. If I circle around to that idea you may just get an email from me for advice! :)

  22. Tam Warner Minton January 19, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

    I wondered where you’d gone, but I did think you probably needed to regroup after such a long and harrowing trip. So glad you are back, Shannon! I’m headed to the Clearwater Beach/St Pete area in April.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 19, 2015 at 9:17 pm #

      Regrouping was key to processing that trip. And definitely let me know when you make it to the area, we just might overlap!

  23. James Schipper January 19, 2015 at 11:29 am #

    We miss you too! Thank you for for everything, and I can’t wait to see and hear about about your adventures!

    My plan this this year year is to show up.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 19, 2015 at 9:16 pm #

      That’s a good plan! I can’t wait to meet up and hear more about what you plan to make happen this year. :)

  24. Bridges and Balloons January 18, 2015 at 7:34 pm #

    It makes me so happy to see that little line that you’re coming to England for our wedding. I miss you Shannon. Can’t wait to see you!

    And I ditto you on balance. It’s such a tricky thing to find, but an excellent pursuit xx

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 19, 2015 at 9:23 pm #

      I miss you heaps and your wedding is an anchor point in the year for me. I can’t wait to come see you guys and help you celebrate the big day. xo

  25. Tal gur January 18, 2015 at 3:35 pm #

    Boy I felt like reading my own 2014 story…(http://belowzerotohero.com/2014-2015). Similar to you I set one intention for 2015: inner peace. Hope you find your balance!

  26. Amanda Pescadora January 18, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

    Wow, I love how you´re being so honest with your readers. It makes you appear a lot more authentic than other bloggers will ever be. I wish you all the best in 2015, safe travels, great moments and the balance you´re looking for :) Lovely regards from Germany

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 19, 2015 at 9:54 pm #

      Thank you Amanda, I appreciate the support and kind words. I hope you have a wonderful, safe, and balanced 2015 as well. :)

  27. James Clark January 18, 2015 at 10:19 am #

    Glad to see A Little Adrift alive in my Feedly! Travel is tough when you are already feeling burnt out, so glad you have taken time out to recover. Home-base travels is a sensible idea and if it means that ALA will live on, then yay! Hope we cross paths again soon :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 19, 2015 at 9:26 pm #

      Thanks James! It feels good to take some steps back into the writing world. And though it’s been a while, I do hope our paths cross sooooooon. :)

  28. Chris Jean Ciolli January 18, 2015 at 4:07 am #

    Glad to hear you’re feeling better & taking time and space to do what’s best for you. It’s strangely a difficult path to take sometimes.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 19, 2015 at 9:50 pm #

      It’s strange, isn’t it, that there is some shame for some of us in admitting that we have to take time to work on ourselves. It was hard to admit that I couldn’t just plough through and carry on. Thanks for the support.

  29. Dan January 17, 2015 at 2:10 pm #

    My family (couple with nine year old son) is about to embark on a 9 month trip through South East Asia and we have been drawing from your writings for our preparation. You may not know this, but you have been so helpful in this process and wish to acknowledge this. With gratitude.

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 19, 2015 at 9:52 pm #

      Congratulations on your upcoming trip, what an amazing trip for you and I am so happy some of the resources and stories on the site have helped. SEA is an amazing place to explore with your son. I so love knowing that my site has helped you, thank you. Safe and happy travels. :)

  30. Astrid January 17, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Shannon! I too have battled with depression all my life and it is so eyes opening to suddenly see there are others, because really one just feels so alone when in the darkness. I am trying to find a home base too at the moment (and thats actually how i fond your amazing blog, through the san pancho cost of living post) I love the intention of balance for 2015 and am sending you light and love!

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 19, 2015 at 9:53 pm #

      I am sorry to hear that you have also struggled with depression, there seems to be a very limited narrative about it online. Like you said, sometimes in the darkness it’s hard to remember there are others out there in a similar place. I wish you such luck in balancing your own life and finding a home base in 2015.

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