On She Goes

Heal Thyself: Why Self-Care Should Be at the Top of Your Travel Checklist

Relax in the now.

Sarraounia Christianson
Sarraounia Christianson
February 21, 2018
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When I begin to dream about a trip, I imagine the top places with bucket-list potential that simply cannot be missed. And those who follow me on social media will see my current travels across South America, where I’m constantly enjoying breathtaking landscapes, meeting incredible people, and discovering tasty food. I gallivant across countries with carefree abandon, hopping from city to lake to island to mountain with the professional ease of a seasoned traveler.

But here’s my confession: sometimes I am the worst traveler ever. While in Bolivia for a couple of months in mid-2017, I was properly sick three times. In Potosí, I spent three out of four days horizontal in a darkened dormitory, crippled by some unknown bug that took over my tummy, head, and general sanity. Mix in the bitter cold, high altitude, and general body weakness and you’ve unfortunately got a pervasive get-me-out-of-here feeling. I missed a whole day of sightseeing in La Paz to sleep off something awful. I attempted a run in Samaipata before I’d fully recovered from another affliction, only to suffer a whiteout on the side of the road in near 86-degree heat!

In Las Iguanas, Peru where the Peruvian jungle provided the perfect excuse for a total social media blackout.
photo courtesy of Sarraounia Christianson

When I feel horrible, the only thing I want is my own bed, a steaming-hot beverage, and a Netflix marathon. I don’t care if I’m somewhere I will never see again in my life; it will have to wait until I can be vertical without wanting to vomit.

The most time I had spent on the road prior to this current South American trip was three weeks, and that was on an endless budget. I could spend what I wanted and treat myself. In South America, I’m on the road for far longer, and a few months in, my body was done. Does being careful with my expenses mean I should cut corners with my health too? My body enables me to experience incredible places. Without my strength I could not have hiked for days in ethereal Patagonian landscapes, pounded the streets of the mega-cities, or trundled around in an SUV to the mesmerizing salt flats at high altitudes.

I prefer not to use prescription medicine, relying on a well-rounded diet, plenty of water, exercise, and sleep to stay healthy. But that kind of regimen comes unstuck on the road. I’ve tried to work out, but fitness is all about routine, something seriously hard to maintain when I’m constantly on the go. Another major barrier to a healthy life is being unsure about what is safe to eat. I began to second-guess what I consumed. How can I travel to the fullest if I’m giving every piece of food, which was once my faithful friend, the side-eye? These changes can wipe me out, and I needed a plan on how to recover.

I suffer from traveler’s guilt. Many people want to do this, but I actually am doing it, therefore I must make the most of it. I can’t miss a moment. A totally unrealistic sentiment because getting on and off cramped and bumpy buses, living in the same rotation of half-dirty clothes for months, and constantly adapting to new environments is mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. When it comes to travel life—just like any other part of life—we need to think about self-care.

Practicing a little self-care with a view, in hot springs in Bolivia.
photo courtesy of Sarraounia Christianson

My South American travel self-care plan goes like this: First off, deal in specifics—an actionable plan with achievable goals, which leads to a slower pace of life. In my case, halfway through the trip, I booked two weeks of Spanish classes in Lima, the capital of Peru. After being in the city for a while, I could prepare my own nutritious meals, wander around town, and just do whatever. I didn’t need to rush around sites, as I’d already taken the time to see them a couple of days prior. Learning Spanish is one of my major goals, so it was refreshing to work toward something intellectually stimulating and gain a little confidence in a new skill while being in a different place.

Turn off social media for a day, fight that constant urge to tick off Instagrammable spots, and relax in the now.

I then planned for a month on the beach in Ecuador, in a tiny fishing village called Puerto Cayo. Hello, beach runs! My body and mind thanked me for staying in one place for a while and getting the blood pumping, all while taking advantage of those essential sun vitamins. Not everyone will have a full month at their disposal, but setting aside a precious beach day here and there and taking the opportunity to sleep in or finish a book and have no schedule is essential. Switching up the pace a little does wonders, for if this time is not taken, burnouts can eventually creep up. The body is not made for so much constant change without some downtime.

These tired feet deserved all the pampering they got in Lima, Peru.
photo by Sarraounia Christianson

So stay in that coffee shop all day reading, and you might just discover the best hot chocolate this side of the equator. Get into bed a bit earlier, write in a journal, treat yourself to a mani/pedi, decompress with family on Skype. Whatever you need to do, just throw out the hit list, turn off social media for a day, fight that constant urge to tick off Instagrammable spots, and relax in the now.

Once I did this I found I could get to the heart of a place with surprising ease. My mind was no longer buzzing with fatigue or nausea. I could focus on the little things that help me stay healthy. Factoring in self-care means that what I came to see is clearer, more visceral, and even more exciting than ever.