As I might have mentioned before, I’m an introvert. That means (for those of you not psychologists!) that: I replenish my energies from being on my own; I’m not a mad fan of events and activities with a lot of people; I prefer a small number of people I know well to socialise with; I enjoy spending time on solitary activities like writing or reading; and I find meeting new people taxing on my energies and sometimes stressful.
Being an introvert is both helpful and unhelpful when travelling. Even though I’ve been back a few months now, I thought I’d share the example of coming back to Koh Phangan earlier this year, as the transition from two months in the UK led me to reflect on how my personality preferences impact me here. Yeah, I’m geeky enough that this is the kind of thing I think about while riding my scooter around the island….
Challenge 1: Traveling
Traveling back to Koh Phangan from Dubai (where I did a week of work between the UK and Thailand) was a bit of a mission in itself. The flight from Dubai to Bangkok, and then again from Bangkok to Koh Samui, were fine, despite spending 6 hours in Bangkok – I know I can use the Bangkok Airways lounge (one reason I fly with them), I feel comfortable there, I know what I can and can’t do, and it’s easy. I can do my own introverted thing without needing to interact with anyone else.
Stepping out of the plane on Koh Samui my feelings were more mixed. I felt really glad and joyful to step out onto Thai soil, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin, and enjoying the island breezes. The temperature in Dubai had been warmer than the UK by a considerable way (UK was at about 3 degrees when I left, Dubai was about 20) but Thailand is hotter again, late 20s and early 30s. And very sunny.
But getting from the plane to a minibus-taxi, to the ferry, to a song taew taxi, to my guest house was an adventure, and luckily for you, one I won’t bore you with. But there were unfamiliar activities where I had to interact with strangers – stressful. Lots of waiting around, sometimes in the right place, sometimes not, some concerns we wouldn’t make the last boat of the day, and most agonising for me, having to ask help from strangers to move my heavy suitcase around, for example, onto the song taew where the luggage goes on top of the vehicle – and you have to pass it up to the driver who waits on top. My luggage was at the 23kg limit for flying, and I could barely lift it, let alone above my head. I had to push my introverted little self to ask for help from a random – but kind – burly bloke.
Challenge 2: Finding somewhere to live
I finally made it to the guest house I’d booked last minute, once I’d realised how busy the island is in high season. When I left here, in August, it was low season, and the island felt spacious and deserted. Not so now. Despite many bungalows being built each month here, it was hard to find somewhere to live (and if you’ve read my 7 homes in 6 weeks post, you’ll know it didn’t stop there!).
As an introvert I find the lack of properties a challenge as I really like my own space, and I keep having to move to find it. I’m on place number 8 now. For each house, I have to call up random Thai numbers to find out if they have any vacancies, and talk to strangers on the phone, who may or may not speak my language – I almost certainly don’t speak theirs. Not my favourite thing.
Challenge 3: Language barrier
This language barrier can be challenging. It can be hard to ask people to repeat themselves. Plus the Thais themselves don’t tend to do that, they just nod and smile and agree, but may not have always understood what you wanted. When I was learning Thai, I found that one word for ‘no’ here is ‘not yes’. Like some other cultures (in China recently I found a similar thing), Thais don’t like to use the word no.
Introversion can also be a challenge when trying to practise my minimal Thai here for my language course. I can be shy, and as is often the case, the Thais I meet have much better English than my Thai, so they just switch and answer in English even if I ask in Thai. Sometimes I try again, sometimes I cave and use English. And sometimes I blush at the same time.
Challenge 4: Comfort versus challenge (I know, very meta)
Another challenge for me as an introvert is pushing myself to go to new places and meet new people, where I don’t know the conventions. This seems to apply particularly to the places I eat, where I have a handful of favourite restaurants which I go back to, where I’ve built fledgling relationships with the nice staff, and I can sit and feel comfortable. But I know I also need to keep challenging myself, and a friend and I decided recently we would try one new place each week as a fun thing to do together. Being with someone I know definitely makes it easier!
It makes me laugh sometimes, when I consider the question of being brave or not being brave. Sometimes I feel as though I’m scared of everything – new places, new people, strange food, animals, insects, riding my scooter – and every day brings new challenges. And I realise how easy it is for me to build a routine in another country where I minimise those challenges. But challenge is important for me to grow – but exhausting. So it’s a constant tension between the two.
When introversion supports the travelling life
Blessings 1: You work alone. A lot.
But it’s not all bad (well, hardly at all on one level!). Being an introvert is super helpful for me as I do a lot of work online – both paid work and also blogging and other projects. I spend a lot of time alone, in my bungalow or in cafes, and I am very happy doing this. I could easily go several days without seeing anyone and it wouldn’t bother me. This makes for some very productive time for me when I don’t have things on.
Blessing 2: You do activities alone
I’m also happy to do things alone that I know others aren’t comfortable with. Going to the cinema, eating out, traveling alone are all things I do regularly.
Blessing 3: When you make new friends – and keep them
And (I hope!) I’m a reasonably loyal long-term friend. I might find it challenging to make new friends, but once I do, I try hard, despite travelling, working and all the other bits and pieces, to keep in touch with those I love. The list of whom grows all the time – I’m truly honoured to have a place in so many wonderful lives.
Blessing 4: Facing your challenges will mean you grow
Every time you face one of the challenges above as an introvert, you’ll find you grow a little, and next time, the challenge will be a bit easier. For example, despite the fear and anxiety I had when starting to ride my scooter, I love it now, and get real pleasure from riding it. It’s the same when you master a new form of travel in a new country. Or make a new friend. The next time, it’ll get easier.
Should you or shouldn’t you?
So let’s sum up. If you’re an introvert, and you decide to be a digital nomad, what will be the challenges and blessings you face?
- You have to talk to a LOT of new people
- Strangers will want to be your friend
- You’ll feel like you’re the only one not partying
- Sometimes you’ll have to ask strangers for help
- You’ll have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to go to new places – don’t fall into the trap of ‘I’m already in a new country, that’s enough, I can just go to the same three places to eat for a month’
- You’ll work alone and get a lot done
- You’ll be fine doing all the things in your native country you did with friends, alone (cinema, eating out, travelling, going to the ocean)
- You’ll be one of the travellers who manages to keep their ‘home’ friends
- You’ll grow the number of friends you have even though you don’t mean to
- You will grow exponentially as a human being given the number of challenging situations you are likely to face as an introvert.
So don’t be put off if you’re a wannabe digital nomad and an introvert. You can make it happen.
Are you an introvert? What challenges do you face when you travel? Let me know in the comments below.