I don’t travel well

I am a broken shell of a human. Bitter and sickly, and an utter Scrooge when it comes to stepping outside of my house for more than an hour, or further than a block away. But I wish it wasn’t so. Like most, I like to travel, in the sense that visiting new and different places is interesting and stimulating. Unfortunately, I’m not good at travelling. I don’t mean that I’m bad at organizing trips, I mean that I’m too physically fragile to ever really be able to fully enjoy vacationing. I’m not as frail as I was as a child, but I’m still, it seems, more prone to illness than the average Joe anytime I’m confronted with climate change. My body seems to be wholly incapable of adapting to differing environments.

I live in Montreal, Canada, and according to official officialness we have a humid continental climate with severe winters, no dry season, warm summers, and strong seasonality. This is all true except I would change the word “warm” to “hot as hell” to classify our summers, and I call bullshit on this “no dry season” nonsense. Ok, technically, we never experience a season without precipitation but our winters feel very arid for someone with extremely dry skin.

My body has ostensibly adapted to this climate, but I still struggle with nature’s animosity, as my body is extremely sensitive. My eyes are prone to infection, my skin will break out in eczema from the slightest provocation, and will burn after literally five minutes in the sun. I’ve got every seasonal allergy imaginable as well as allergies to all mammals with fur, and even with no allergens in sight I’ve got sinus issues. Anytime I move from indoors to outdoors and vice-versa my sinuses are triggered. In fact, EVERYTHING triggers my sinuses. Eating triggers nasal drip. Working out triggers it. Standing up triggers it. Leaning over triggers it. Reciting poetry triggers it. But I’m used to living this way and have more or less adapted (though my S.O. will tell you I haven’t learned not to complain about it!) But when I travel all of these problems are exacerbated. When my body is confronted with a different climate than I’m used to, it rebels, with snot. And thanks to my super fun anemia, I also have a weak immune system so I’m pretty much guaranteed to catch a cold no matter where I go.

When I was a kid I really enjoyed airplane rides, I suppose because of the novelty. But now airplanes fill me with dread because they are literally just viral incubators in the sky. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a trip and not gotten sick. I can’t blame the planes though, I get sick on road trips too. I get sick no matter where I go. I get sick in Europe, I get sick in the States, I even get sick just going to friends’ houses.

When I was younger, I think I felt like there was nobility in this suffering. Or perhaps I was simply ashamed of my own fragility and felt like it was my duty to suffer in silence so as to accommodate others. But as I get older, I grow less tolerant of this suffering. I’ve mostly reached a point where I’m unwilling to go to certain places because I know they will be lessons in enduring hardship. I still go to my mother’s and my sister-in-laws’ for holidays but I won’t go just to hang out because they have cats and dogs. I refuse to feel bad for not staying at the houses of friends with pets. Stop trying to guilt me into spending the night. When I was young I would put up with other people’s allergen-rich homes because I was poor and polite. Now I don’t give a shit. If you’re insulted by me staying in a hotel, so be it. I will not hang out in your cat-infested house of horrors!


And I’m done with Airbnb! And regular B&Bs for that matter. Regardless of how nice these places appear to be, they are inevitably crawling with something that triggers all manner of runny noses and itchy eyes. And I will no longer tolerate that “Oh, it’s just allergies” attitude from myself or others. These supposedly innocuous allergies have gotten so bad that they are indistinguishable from a cold. It’s now happened to me more than once that I became so headachy, so runny-nosed, so lethargic and fatigued that I was convinced I had fallen ill, only to have this illness miraculously cured the moment I got home and took a shower.

So even though I’d like to travel, because there are a lot of places in the world I’d really like to see, I don’t always have the energy to face the inevitable onslaught of pain and discomfort that will follow. This is why I’m done with all those listicles and pins advocating the ten places you simply must travel to before you turn 30! (Meanwhile, I’m 40 so according to society I’ve already missed the boat). Apparently, you just haven’t lived until you’ve backpacked across Europe and stayed in these amazing hostels. But I can’t stay in hostels! I can’t even stay in chic hotels! I can only stay in 5-star chain hotels that bleach the fuck out of their sheets and have climate control in their rooms. Stop making me feel bad for not going to the back streets of such and such city. I can’t even go to the front streets of such and such city. I can barely handle the front streets of my city! (Thanks, smokers). And stop asking me where I’m going when I take a vacation. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay locked up inside my condo for two weeks straight because those two weeks without any contact with the natural atmosphere will be the most comfortable weeks of my life.

*Update in lockdown, 2020. Turns out I don’t get allergies if I never go outside. It’s amazing. For the first time in my life, I know what it is to breathe properly and it’s a revelation. I will never leave my house again.

6 thoughts on “I don’t travel well

  1. I feel your pain. You’ve just described my life. Like you, I don’t hang around houses with pets. In and out. Change my clothes when I get home. Travelling is indeed a problem. There are cities (e.g., Bangkok) where the air quality is so awful I’m a mess after a day. I also hate the heat. When Julia did a university semester in Singapore, my belle-soeur Alex and travelled to see her and the three of us went to Cambodia for a weekend. I always carried an umbrella to shade myself from the sun, but that wasn’t enough. Finally, after a day of visiting ancient temples, I simply couldn’t walk across the half-kilometer open space to reach the final (and apparently most interesting) of all the temples. I waited in the shade and told Julia and Alex to take photos for me.

    The only difference between you and me is that, at 62, I’ve accepted my situation. I remind myself that severe allergies and heat intolerance aren’t terminal. I don’t have cancer. I’m comfortable in my house and make social and travel plans that meet my needs and expectation.

  2. As a post script, I wanted to tell you a story. When I was in my mid-20s my boss was a wonderful woman who’d suffered from polio as a child. There are few polio victims still alive today, but there were still a few 40 years ago. The disease severely disabled her. One leg was shorter than the other so she had to wear a horrible, built-up Frankenstein shoe on one foot. Her back was hunched. She was only about five feet tall. Suffice it to say she had never walked normally, let alone run or done any physical activity you or I would regard as normal.

    One evening over beer I was grumbling about my allergies and how insensitive others were to my self-perceived disability. She gave me this look. I can’t describe what it was, only the affect it had on me. I felt stupid, self-centered, greedy, insensitive, tactless… all those things all at once.

    While I still whine sometimes I think I do it a lot less than I used. to.

  3. I have lupus and so relate strongly to much of what you’ve said. For me one of the biggest difficulties is getting people to understand that a flare-up could kill me. Because so far I haven’t died yet, there’s this idea that I might as well keep gambling. The odds must be in my favor, right? Except each flare-up undermines my overall health and increases the disease expression, giving each flare up that much more potential to be deadly. I have to live with this, trying not to let fear get the best of my mind. Arguing over this with people who insist “it’s worth it” (whatever “it” happens to be at that moment) just feels stupid. I want to hand them a revolver loaded with one bullet and invite them to play Russian roulette, because that’s how it feels to tempt my system. And setting risk of death aside, there’s the incredible suffering of the flare up itself. Here, in case the gun doesn’t kill you, take these jumper cables, plug them into your car, and then shock yourself and tell me the pain’s worth it. I won’t even get started on the havoc the pharmaceuticals wreak on my system, taken to cope with the increased symptoms I experience on a trip. It’s such an individual thing, what’s worth it and what’s not.

    I’m writing a book, creating a garden, enjoying my life. I love travel shows, travel documentaries, and reading travel memoirs and magazines. I’m lucky to live in a place where people from all over the world establish restaurants serving traditional foods from their country or culture of origin, and I love trying their foods. I’ve also had many meaningful conversations with people from all over the world, learning about other cultures and values in this way. What I wonder most is, when did living a full life at home become so taboo? When did everyone forget that you can broaden your mind quite extensively with books, sometimes more so than will happen by a puny snapshot of time spent in a foreign country? If everyone has the same photo posted on Instagram, can it really be considered meaningful? What’s really being admired here? Because it looks to me like a whole lot of self-aggrandizing being used to hide a gaping void of emptiness. People often use travel to convince themselves their lives have meaning, but eventually they have to go home and wait for the next trip when they’ll be able to feel that make-believe meaning again. I think we all need to learn to live in our own lives first, which means letting go of the idea that what fulfills one person might not fulfill another.

    1. So well said! Thank you for sharing your experience. I agree. Why can’t staying home be good enough? Home is comfortable and (relatively) safe and after all, we’re living our own lives, not those of our friends and family. And if they don’t get it, are they really such good friends after all?

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