International travel and COVID-19: How can travellers define themselves without being able to travel?

We're sitting around the campfire one night – in Malawi I think, on the shores of that great lake – when Amy pipes up with a question. "Hey Ben, were you cool back home?"

I laugh. A month or so into a three-month overland journey around east and southern Africa with a whole lot of strangers, and the questions are already getting weird.

If I'm not the guy who travels, who am I?

"Of course I wasn't cool," I answer. "If I was cool I wouldn't have had to leave."

Everyone around the campfire has a chuckle. None of them are cool back home either. They're a motley bunch, my travel buddies, a hodgepodge of ages and nationalities, all here in Malawi for their own reasons. We've got a recent divorcee, someone who has lost their father, people who have just lost or quit their jobs, and those who have never had a proper career and are still just wandering.

None of us really had it together at home, so we did the sensible, mature thing and we just left. We went travelling, for a long period of time. We signed up for three months of camping in Africa. We signed up for something wild and different to break the status quo. We signed up to define ourselves, not as divorcees or bereaved or unemployed or undecided, but as travellers. We were going to be travellers.

Everyone likes to define themselves, even if they don't realise it, even if it's only subtle. Some people are fitness nuts, some are boardroom bosses, some are party animals, some are creative geniuses.

And some of us are travellers. We go to faraway places and we do amazing things. That's who we are. That's how we derive joy from life. That's how we celebrate the world.

Does that sound like you? Maybe it does, particularly if you're reading these pages, even during lockdown. Travel is life, for some of us. It's everything. It's our world.

And so now in these last 18 months or so we've been forced to consider that world without travel. We've been forced to consider ourselves without travel. And it hasn't been easy. It's rocked my world as I'm sure it's rocked many others.

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(And yes of course you can dismiss this as a first-world problem, which it undoubtedly is. So be it. We live in the first world.)

I'm convinced that I'm at my best when I'm travelling. I'm at the peak of my powers. I'm Ben+. I'm Turbo Ben. I'm gregarious, I'm happy, I'm a risk-taker, I'm a problem-solver. Everything that I like about myself is brought out by the travel experience, by the highs and lows, the challenges and triumphs of life on the road.

At home, stationary, I'm not as good. That's just how it is. At home you get into a rhythm, you get into a routine, and you just cruise. I don't hate myself at home but I know I'm not everything I can be.

That's never been a huge issue though, because there's always been the chance to travel in my life. The next trip has always been on the horizon. I've always known where I'm going.

Now though, I can't say that. For the first time in my adult life, I can't say that. And I'm sure that's the same for so many people who love to travel. The thing we love, the thing we've allowed to define us, has gone. For now. So who the hell are we?

I've had to grapple with that. If I'm not the guy who travels, who am I? And if life isn't filled with overseas adventure, or the anticipation of the next trip, what do I have instead?

Because life at home can feel really boring when you've conditioned yourself to travel life, to everything being different, to every day being filled with challenges and thrills and triumphs. The travelling life is a release from your own world but it's also a release from yourself. When you travel you're no longer bound by everyone else's idea of who you are. You can be anything or anyone you want. It's a chance to relive old versions of yourself, or invent entirely new ones.

Life at home just isn't the same. And then you add lockdowns into that mix, being stuck not just in your own country, not just in your own state, but in your own house. Day after day after day. How do you cope with that? How do you find that old spark?

It's been hard, I'm here to tell you. As I'm sure it has been for you. It's been a challenge. But it's been a challenge worth taking up.

How do you find your best self at home? I'm a new dad, so I've sought joy in my young kids. That's an easy notion to romanticise but in reality it's actually really hard – young kids are a lot of work. But I've tried to see this restricted world through their eyes, to get excited about riding bikes and going down slides and jumping on a trampoline.

I've sought joy in my home town, too, in Sydney. I've taken up free-diving, which feels like the kind of thing you should only be lucky enough to do on holiday. I dive deep into the cool waters off the Sydney coast and stare at fish and forage for sea urchins and see how long I can stay underwater.

I explore the city, when I can, when I'm allowed. I go with my family out to the west of Sydney and tap into other cultures and feel the thrill of adventure while also eating some delicious food. I explore my suburb, my home. I've sought joy in home cooking too, in creating tasty meals, and more so, in enjoying those cooked by my far more talented partner.

Who am I now? I'm the travel guy, still. I guess. But I'm also a father. I'm also the hiking guy, the free-diving guy, the cook, the urban explorer. And then sometimes – a lot of the time, actually – I'm none of those things, and that's also OK.

I'm still not cool, obviously. And I still long for travel. But there's more to life than that.

How are you dealing without travel in your life? Has it changed the way you see yourself? Has it changed who you are? Or have you just cruised through?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

Twitter: twitter.com/bengroundwater

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