I could feel the burnout coming for weeks, but when it finally hit me it was so overpowering that I completely shut down in a matter of days.
A travel burnout is not a new sensation for me. Typically I crash either mentally or physically (or both) every three months or so, but this burnout was, to date, by far the most savage. It’s hard to say why this particular episode was so devastating; maybe because I have been pushing myself harder than ever before to continually produce new material, or maybe because of the strain of living on such a tight budget for so long. Maybe not seeing anyone in my family for nearly two years, or the unfortunate stress created by not seeing my girlfriend for long stretches of time finally caught up to me. Whatever the reasons, when I burnt out it came on hard and fast and without mercy.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of breaking down completely, but the word that sums it up best for me would have to be weary. Weary of everything, from eating to walking, to taking buses, to haggling over the price of a taxi. Weary of being perpetually homeless and usually fairly dirty. Weary of the endless communication problems, the high frequency of illness, the need to vigilantly watch over my possessions, and the constant lack of creature comforts. Weary of life.
It happened just as I was finishing my story about Tibetan refugees in exile in India (which will begin to appear on the site over the coming days and weeks). A pervasive and persistent feeling of malaise settled over me like a toxic cloud. Sitting in a café in Darjeeling with a friend, we started planning the logistics of a one-month visit to Nepal when I realized that I had no desire to go whatsoever.
There was no reason not to; Nepal was less than 30 km away and the costs were well within my budget. I just did not want to do it. It had nothing to do with Nepal, which I am sure is an amazing place, and one that I plan to visit sooner rather than later. But the thought of starting again in a new country and going through the exhausting process of searching for a story, recruiting local translators and gaining the trust of subjects seemed like it would break me completely. Even though I had been traveling for nearly seven months, I realized I had not actually taken a vacation in almost two years – and as anyone who travels seriously can tell you, there is a big difference between travel and vacation.
I spent a few more days in Darjeeling, thinking carefully about the next step. My biggest fear was that if I pushed any harder I would begin to hate what I was doing, and for someone still establishing himself in a very competitive industry, that seemed like a seriously bad idea. So I dropped everything, took an overnight train back to Calcutta and booked the cheapest one-way ticket to Bangkok I could find. From there I met some friends in the tiny rock climbing community of Tonsai beach and didn’t emerge for several weeks.
I dropped everything. I didn’t write, I didn’t take photos, I didn’t think about stories or grant applications or contest deadlines or the cost of repairing my 70-200mm lens. I basically thought about hammocks and fruit shakes for nearly a month. And it was glorious.
Refreshed and re-invigorated, I’m writing this from an island in Malaysia where I’m sleeping on a friend’s boat as I prepare to head slowly back to Canada where I will embed with a tree-planting camp for nearly four months to document one of the most unique jobs in the world, one that holds a special place in my heart. I’ve wanted to do this story for over five years and it’s exciting that it’s finally happening.
Over the coming weeks I’m going to post more from my project about Tibetans in exile, as well as share some of the images from the past eight months that didn’t quite fit with whatever story I was working on at the time, but are interesting nonetheless.