Why I Feel Like a Fish Out of Water When I Travel

The lows of being in a new place, and how to deal with it.  
Place Lag
The first day in a new place can be the hardest. Photo: Eastnine Inc./Getty Images

It was a cold day in Arunachal Pradesh. I was surrounded by lush mountains, rising up to kiss the clouds. Beside me, a sky-blue river gushed happily, putting the crayons of childhood to shame. The sun warmed my face even as I pushed my fingers further into my pockets. It was a lovely day, but I had a nagging, uncomfortable feeling that wasn’t allowing me to appreciate the moment. My head was reeling with questions about why I had agreed to be here, in a corner of the country so very far from my home in Mumbai.

This wasn’t a completely unknown feeling. Last year, when I travelled solo for the first time I’d felt the same stifling sensation. I’d visited Goa on numerous other occasions and knew my way around Panjim fairly well. But soon after checking into my homestay, I felt my stomach coil. It was similar to the gut-wrenching feeling that comes knocking with heartbreak or disappointment. But in Goa I couldn’t put my finger on it. There seemed to be no reason at all for me to be feeling this way. Yet all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball, call home, and be in a familiar place I knew inside out. My dissonant feeling was confusing and it prevented me from enjoying and making the most of my first day. And yet, two days later, over a hearty, home-cooked lunch with new-found friends, I’d forgotten all about it.

It was only much later, while reading British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker’s book, Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot that I found the term I felt suited what I was experiencing. He proposes “place lag,” a cross between jet lag and culture shock, to explain the overwhelming feeling of disconnectedness with a place we might have newly arrived in. Though Vanhoenacker finds positivity and wondrousness in place lag, my experience is invariably a negative, disconcerting one. He speaks of places that are a long flight away, but my sense of imbalance can appear even when I’m an hour away from my city. Just like skewed circadian rhythms are to jet lag, could it be that the discomfort in my stomach was a symptom of what Vanhoenacker named “place lag?”

Discussing this concept with a friend, I found he had had a similar experience while on a solo backpacking trip across Europe. He’d just reached Amsterdam and along with the highs of the city, he discovered he was uneasy with being there. His solution? To draw a calendar and cross off the days until he reached home again. He crossed out the dates faithfully for three days, and only found that calendar again while packing up at the end of his delightful month-long trip.

I wondered if the symptoms I was feeling were most acute while travelling alone, but discovered they are not. This summer I was with some of my closest friends in Hampi, when I was blanketed by a strong wave of apathy for the new place. Why was I here? I kept asking myself. Did I want to be here? Was I arm-wrestled into this? I don’t remember very much about that first day. But after a good night’s rest, the remainder of my Hampi holiday turned out to be fantastic. We climbed boulders to watch the sun rise, fell in love with coracle rides, hiked up to Hanuman’s alleged birthplace, and saw the sun set over endless fields of banana plantations. The looming cloud of place lag quickly disappeared from sight.

Is time the only cure for the dissonant feelings travellers like me encounter when we land in a new place? Not for me. I’ve also found that interacting with people helps settle my sense of disorientation. In Arunachal, for instance, I made friends I’ll probably never see again. But because we exchanged intimate stories about our lives, families and hopes for the future, I found my connect.

To counter the negative effects of place lag when I travel, I try to plan one of two things. Either I budget extra time for settling into a new space, or I ensure I have a packed itinerary with barely any time to spare. In the former I accept that I will feel disconnected and work to make the moment pass. In the latter scenario, place lag’s wispy waves of gloom are shooed away before they can appear. On a vacation in Varkala, this feeling was averted with an intense surfing class on day one. On short weekend trips out of town, I focus on packing in as much fun as I can, rarely mulling over my new surroundings. Turns out, days brimming with activity leave no room for place lag. And since coping with place lag usually means more thrilling experiences and new adventures, I’m ready to sign up. Every time.

Appeared in the September 2016 issue as “Beyond the Unrest”.

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    Fabiola Monteiro is Features Writer on National Geographic Traveller India's web team. She loves beaches, blue skies, and baking, and is most centred while trying a new cake recipe. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro.


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