Depression, Burn Out and Renewal on the Streets of India

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Was it just a funk? After nine month of nonstop travel, was I simply burning out? Either of those situations I could handle, but my real worry was that my once-vanquished depression had returned. Thousands of miles from home and on the ‘trip of a lifetime’, I found myself spending more time hanging out and reading in cafes than getting out and exploring.

I first noticed I was slowing down in Laos but attributed it to the mellow, slow pace of that lovely land and its people. The Lao tourism motto is “Stay Another Day!” and it’s a perfect and true choice. There’s something about sitting by a river and watching it ease by while sipping a cold and cheap Beer Laos that makes it so very easy to put off buying that bus ticket and say “maybe just one more day…”

By the time I reached India, I had to admit that something had gone amiss; some spark had been lost.

By the time I reached India, six weeks later, I had to admit that something had gone amiss; some spark had been lost. I was posting less and less often on the blog and when sitting down to write I’d just stare at a blank screen with an equally-blank mind. The words wouldn’t flow and I had less and less to talk about — my oddball adventures and mishaps were becoming few and far between. Only so much can happen within a few blocks of your hotel, after all.

Prior to this trip, I had developed a pretty severe depression. I don’t want to oversell this — I wasn’t exactly standing on a ledge with pills in my hand. But I was more than ‘just blue’. Blue was a good day.

I was able to function in day-to-day life reasonably well but all non-work hours were spent at home alone, watching TV or playing video games. I developed a nasty social anxiety and for a few years I was pretty much a hermit. I just couldn’t handle crowds or groups of people I didn’t already know.

Eventually, I’d had enough and got medicated and got better. It wasn’t that simple, of course — I didn’t take a pill, then wake up the next day and say “What was that all about?” But gradually the meds gave me the emotional distance I needed to examine my life and figure out why I was feeling the way I did. And one of those reasons was that I’d given up on ever making the trip I’m on now.

A year from the day I made that realization, I was on a plane to Bangkok. And in my standard half-assed fashion, I hadn’t spoken to my doctor about quitting the meds — I simply cut the dose in half until I ran out and hoped for the best. I had planned to, of course. I just never got around to it.

I don’t recommend that you try this at home. After a month of mood-swings and an incredibly annoying zzzzzzzt! sound that I heard and felt right in the center of my head every fifteen minutes (which really did make me want to kill myself), I was med-free and loose in the world. It was good.

Until Laos and now India. Landing in Bombay, I decided I had a problem and checked at several pharmacies for my happy pills but they’d never heard of them. “Too new” was the usual explanation. Generic Prozac seemed to be the only option but just trying head meds at random seemed like a recipe for disaster.

My next stop was Pushkar, where I had planned on staying for a week or so. It was comfortable, interesting and relaxed. I stayed a few days extra to experience the Diwali holiday and then the famous Camel Fair was only five days away and then I had to rest up from the crowded madness of the Fair and then…

Somewhere in there I decided I shouldn’t fight it — I just didn’t feel like going anywhere so I didn’t. The usual doubts about what I was doing and why surfaced often but I ignored them as best I could.

I read a lot –a book a day, generally– and wandered about taking photos, or sat at cafes and watched the endless procession of humanity that flowed through the streets. I wasn’t bored but I wasn’t excited. I just was.

After five weeks, I decided it was time to get moving again.

After five weeks, I decided it was time to get moving again. I felt rested and, though I wasn’t exactly on fire to get out and see the world, I was feeling a bit of the old zest for life. At least, I hoped I was.

I bought a train ticket to Rishikesh and it proved to be a difficult trip. My stomach was acting up and I ended up in a compartment with a family that just didn’t seem to like me from the moment we met. After trying several times to initiate conversations or get some kind of vibe going, I gave up, climbed into my bunk and read for the rest of the ride.

The train stopped in Hardiwar, where I needed to catch a bus or taxi onwards to Rishikesh, some 20km away. My stomach was still unhappy –I wasn’t sick or throwing up, but I was continually mapping in my mind the location of the nearest toilet– so I decided to spend the extra cash on a tuk tuk. It was an extra 300 rupees ($7.50 US) but seemed the wise choice.

It proved to be –in it’s own weird way– exactly what I needed.

The driver was a young guy, spoke no English at all and –like most tuk tuk drivers in India– was completely insane. The tuk tuk itself was the standard black three-wheeled affair with a canvas top and an engine that sounded as if was about to shake itself apart with its crazy arrhythmic “tikka tikka TONK” beat — any drum corp that could copy this sound could win Nationals easily.

Before I was fully in my seat, he launched us into oncoming traffic, narrowly missing a speeding truck.

Before I was fully in my seat, he launched us into oncoming traffic, narrowly missing a speeding truck. My cry of “Jeeeeeeeesus!” earned me a smile and a wink in the rear view mirror.

The tuk tuk only seemed to have two gears –low and lower– and he had it fully wound up. The engine sounded like it was full of angry bees on acid, screaming in pain as someone beat on it with a steel mallet. He charged onto a bridge in the wrong lane, ignoring the honking of an oncoming bus and I quickly crossed myself, before remembering that I’m not Catholic.

That all happened in the first minute. Only 45 more to go, I thought grimly. Looking out the rear window, I expected to see men with guns chasing us, but there was nothing behind us but a wall of taxis and tuk tuks with angry drivers shaking their fists.

It was a two-lane road –which in India means you can expect at least four lanes of traffic– but my driver somehow forged a fifth one through the chaos — all at full speed and without the use of brakes. I don’t think we even had brakes. At one point he hopped a wheel up on the opposite sidewalk to dodge a truck, and just missed sending an unsuspecting sadhu on another spin around the Wheel of Life.

He never let up, never slowed down — in my memory now, the ride is just one long blur of close calls, blaring horns and screaming (I’m pretty sure that was me). My backpack had nearly bounced out of the tuk tuk and I as was rearranging it, I noticed that we were now in a race with a bus and another tuk tuk. The bus was in the actual lane, the tuk tuk was passing it and we were passing the tuk tuk. The finish line was a rapidly-approaching speed bump and railroad track.

We won, if you consider hitting a speed bump and railroad track at full speed ‘winning’. The speed bump launched the rear end of the tuk tuk into the air and I smashed my head on one of the roof supports. I seemed to hang in the air for awhile, seeing stars, before gravity reasserted itself.

The rear wheels met the railroad tracks and headed skyward just as I hit the seat on the down stroke, instantly reconfiguring the family jewels into a necklace and matching earrings. Everything went white.

I found myself curled into a fetal position in the back of the tuk tuk, one hand slowly surveying my skull for open wounds and the other buried in my crotch, as I blinked tears from my eyes and whimpered. And in that moment I knew something had changed. Despite the pain and fear, I was grinning like a thief. The funk was over. The spark was back.

Was it a real break-through? Or just the inevitable result of a concussion and testicular trauma? At that moment, I didn’t know and I really didn’t care.

I’m back, I squeaked.

I’m Johnny Vagabond. And this is my world.

{ 125 comments… read them below or add one }

Erica January 17, 2011 at 4:49 pm

It sucks that it took a blow to the crotch-al region but I’m glad you are back!

I know how the funk with video games go. I successfully avoided life for 4 years while playing World of Warcraft. I had to quit cold turkey to put my life into perspective. Glad I did too so that I could be here… reading your blog. <3
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wes January 17, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Omg, WoW is digital crack. Glad ya escaped :)

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Victoria Gibson January 17, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Your story perfectly highlights the other-wordly power of India – scary shit just becomes magical!
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wes January 17, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Ha ha ha! That is so spot on. Thanks :)

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Daniel N. January 17, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Beautiful post Wes! And painful too… Ouch.

Looking forward to seeing that spark alive in Chiang Mai!
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Dave January 17, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Awesome and honest post, my friend – as usual!

I know what you mean about the lack of desire to move – I know I got that here and there (in Laos too, actually – I spent a week in Luang Prabang not just because it was beautiful, but because I just couldn’t be bothered going anywhere else) on my last trip.

Keep those nuts intact … it’s great to have you back!
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Alex January 17, 2011 at 5:39 pm

“instantly reconfiguring the family jewels into a necklace and matching earrings” >> You made my day :)

Glad to see that you are better now and ready to conquer the world again! I wish it hadn’t take you that to find your spark again though…
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jason January 17, 2011 at 5:49 pm

A captivating and interesting read Wes. Glad to hear you’ve found your mojo again. If people travel over a long periods in the manner you’ve been doing (for quite some time now) and don’t experience some kind of burnout every now and then there not human. Safe travels mate…..

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wes February 8, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Thanks, brother

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Rebecca January 17, 2011 at 5:53 pm

So glad you’re feeling better. I’ve had bouts of depression, fortunately no worse than the escapist inertia of books and video games, but I think anyone who has been there just instinctively knows that the depths of darkness down that road is somewhere you just don’t want to venture. So if it took some painful body bashing to get you back on track, then it was very well worth it. Especially to culminate in such a fabulously interesting and entertaining post. Absolutely loved it.

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neha January 17, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Am glad you found your spark back. And that too in rickshaw. Then again, where else … :)

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Brooks January 17, 2011 at 6:17 pm

I’m glad you’re back brother! The dark hole that the dark whole descends into is reason many of us are out here. I was hermit, now I.Am.Freedom! Since you apparently need a new pair, take it by the balls!
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Leigh January 17, 2011 at 8:17 pm

So many thoughts sprang to mind while reading this. That everyone has normal ups and downs. That I’m glad someone talks openly about depression. That I’m impressed how you managed whatever form of depression while traveling. And that you’re clearly one of the smart ones not to use head meds that you don’t know from a foreign country.

But mainly, I happy to hear you made it through, balls and head in tact.

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Marsha January 17, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Wes–this post is the epitome of what I love about your blog: honest, amazing writing (“…necklace and matching earrings…”–where *do* you come up with this stuff?), and it’s always about the journey. Love, love, love this post.
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wes January 21, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Damn, Marsha — thanks :)

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Jen January 17, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Oh, nothing like a series of close encounters with dead relatives to make you love life again. Welcome back!

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Nick Laborde January 17, 2011 at 9:26 pm

Glad you’re back man, I know that funk all to well…

This is just the entrepreneur in me, but I’m seeing a business in these Tuk Tuk adventures.

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wes January 18, 2011 at 11:54 am

On-Demand Near Death Experiences! We could make a fortune.

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François January 17, 2011 at 9:30 pm

This has to the most relevant blog I have read in months.

Enough of this cheery everything-is-wonderful-because-I’m-travelling drivel we get on most travel blogs. It seems there’s more effort in posting clean processed material to increase likeability and hence site traffic than being a genuine human being with an inner reality that has to deal with whatever life throws its way. I don’t want to read about your wonderful trip, I want to read about your take on things, good and bad.

Hooray for you Wes, you’re opening a path for bloggers everywhere with your honest take on your travels. May it have the lasting impact it deserves and it demonstrates again why you are worthy of being one of the top travel blogs on the ‘net!

Cheers!

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wes January 18, 2011 at 11:54 am

Wow, thank you so much. That makes my day. Seriously.

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Akila January 17, 2011 at 9:52 pm

I’m glad you’re back cause I know how much depression can ruin a trip. Great story, of course!
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Erin January 17, 2011 at 10:09 pm

I love that your posts can be both moving and hilarious. Burn out is something that all long term travellers experience and I’m glad you’re feeling better now.
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Dustin Main - Skinny Backpacker January 17, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Thanks for sharing Wes. The travel funk is generally no fun, but I’m sure even more so if you’ve faced depression in the past.

It took about 7 months of traveling non-stop for me to take my first ‘break’ and just chill out somewhere comfortable for a month. More recently my Dad joined me for a 3 week whirlwind in Argentina and Antarctica that picked me up for a bit which was great. A change of pace is what’s needed though, and I’m going to settle in a spot and do weekend trips for awhile methinks.

Good luck with the balls.
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wes January 18, 2011 at 11:53 am

Thanks, mate. I’m considering a similar move, both for a little down time and to help slow the drain on my funds…

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Natalka January 17, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Depression is a bitch. Glad you’re back – I missed you.

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Gray January 17, 2011 at 10:44 pm

What a wonderful story, Wes. I’m going through a funk myself right now, and it is very hard to motivate myself to do anything–write, get out of the house, anything. I know from past experience these pass eventually, but it’s never easy to be in one. It must be even harder when you’re so far from home and the familiar. I’m glad you got your mojo back, though that was a pretty harsh way to do it.
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Dave and Deb January 17, 2011 at 11:37 pm

Incredible post. We didn’t suffer from depression before leaving, but we felt the same way part way through our India travels. Three months in and we just wanted to stay in our hotel room and watch downloaded movies. Glad that you are back to being excited about life again. Bravo for being able to talk openly about how you were feeling, I think you are definitely over your depression. Good luck with the rest of your journey.
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Jessalyn January 17, 2011 at 11:40 pm

A beautiful post – thank you for sharing and welcome back!
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polly January 17, 2011 at 11:45 pm

I think you’ve found the non-med route to achieve a much needed psychological re-boot. Beware: the pharmaceutical industry will be after you now – to shut you up. Your cure will put a huge dent in their profits.

So glad you’re back on track. This was a great post – I laughed, I cried.
Happier trails to you, Wes. xoxo

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wes January 18, 2011 at 11:52 am

Ha! It would take a marketing genius to sell this cure though. ;)

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Sally January 18, 2011 at 12:43 am

It’s so refreshing to hear someone else talk about depression while traveling. I have experienced depression regularly for the past 10 years. Every time it happened, I just blamed my my job or current location. I figured once I was doing what I REALLY wanted to do (traveling & writing…and avoiding stupid jobs), everything would be great. It was a huge shock for me when I experienced depression this past Fall while I was traveling. How could I be depressed? I was on vacation for freak’s sake?
I eventually snapped out of it (2 months later). Unfortunately, I don’t have an awesome story like this to explain how. But now I’m kind of tempted to make one up!
Welcome back to the land of the living… I know how awesome that feels.

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wes January 18, 2011 at 11:51 am

I had the same response: I can’t be depressed… I’m living the dream! Unfortunately, brain chemistry doesn’t seem to respond to reason…

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Mick January 18, 2011 at 1:00 am

The scariest I’ve had so far has been taxi rides in Shanghai, and this sounds an order of magnitude more exhilarating.

You’ve got a fantastic blog here, me old mate. I’ve just been spending a bit of MLK Day morning catching up on older entries.
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wes February 8, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Thanks, mate!

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Andi January 18, 2011 at 2:47 am

Wow, what an incredibly honest post, I was really touched while reading it that you would share this with the world. I’m hoping it was definitely a breakthrough for you. Sometimes all you need is a change of scenery to get you back on track.
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wes January 21, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Thanks Andi :)

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Conrad January 18, 2011 at 3:24 am

It’s kinda funny or, well pretty sad actually, but being depressed is way much preferred (by me of course) then being all too giddy ho I am an awesome traveling dude – and I look smarter too when and if.
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Dave January 18, 2011 at 3:32 am

The language in this post is wonderful, such as “The engine sounded like it was full of angry bees on acid…”

I’ve got some experience with social anxiety too — glad to hear you’re not letting it get in the way of what you want to do anymore!
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Mike at Irie Bean January 18, 2011 at 3:37 am

As a war vet who knows about depression, I cannot testify that nothing assuages the pangs of depression like groovin’ on the danger! Think about it! Meds really are for people who overdose on reality.

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Mike at Irie Bean January 18, 2011 at 3:38 am

Actully I can testify that nothing assuages depression like groovin’ on the danger, but I CANNOT really recommend it.

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wes February 8, 2011 at 5:07 pm
Anthony January 18, 2011 at 3:39 am

Johnny I just love the personal touch you give to your stories, and in true Johnny Vagabond style-you finish the story with something that makes me grin. Although I do hope your crown jewels are ok.

Thanks for sharing mate, lovely post.

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Andrew Murray January 18, 2011 at 6:33 am

Glad your back in the game matey.
I know how you felt with the depression and social stuff, I guess it affects the best of us at one time or another :)
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Lainie Liberti January 18, 2011 at 6:40 am

I love your writing. But more so, I love your complete openness and willingness to share your vulnerability. We travel, but we are human. We feel deeply, sometimes it’s all we’ve got connecting us to our old lives. Thank you for reminding me. Thank you for that.

P.s. hope your “crotch region” is feeling better. ;)
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wes February 8, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Thanks Lainie! The boys are well :)

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Jaime January 18, 2011 at 6:42 am

What a great post Johnny. Even though I have never had to deal with depression I understand completely the feeling of becoming a hermit and not wanting to do anything. It is sometimes hard to get out of that funk. I am so glad you got out of it and are back on the road happy & enjoying life.

Oh & funny as always!!!
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Mikeachim January 18, 2011 at 7:41 am

Raw, honest stuff. And a pleasure to read, Wes.

And I can identify, probably to a milder extent. I haven’t yet been on the road when the blues hit, but I’ve felt that spark sputter and go out. And in my early twenties I had a bad run-in with depression, very much similarly with the avoiding people and escaping into other worlds (books & video games) thing. Wish I’d done what you did – face it head-on, instead of taking the long way round which took years and still plagues me with occasional silly mood-swings I’ve learned to recognise for what they are.

So apart from,in your immortal phrasing, “reconfiguring the family jewels into a necklace and matching earrings” (I laughed loud enough to wake my neighbours, it being past midnight here)…what kind of methods do you have for chasing the black clouds away when they start to gather? What’s your moodswing mental toolkit?
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wes January 18, 2011 at 11:47 am

Man, I’d like to say that I have a toolkit but I’d be lying. In this case I kind of just rode it out, took advantage of the downtime, etc. But in the future… I have no idea. Just gonna try to keep active and forge ahead. Fake it ’til you make it, I always say…

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LeslieTravel January 18, 2011 at 11:25 am

Great ending– you were literally jolted back into a happy mental state! Thanks for sharing your experience with depression… it takes courage to be so candid. I think most long term travelers can relate. I had moments of doubt and burnout during my RTW trip, but fortunately they were short-lived.
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wes January 18, 2011 at 11:45 am

Wow, thank you all so much for the kind words and thoughts. Normally, I’d try to respond to each comment but in this case I think this time I’ll just say thank you all, from the bottom of my heart.

-Wes

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wes January 18, 2011 at 11:48 am

Oh yeah… the ‘crotchal region’ (props to Erica for the name) came through this misadventure in good shape. The boys are resting comfortably :)

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Joe January 18, 2011 at 11:58 am

Wes = my hero.

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ayngelina January 18, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Wow so brave of you for putting yourself out there like that. I wish more people did and they would know they weren’t alone.

We’ve been traveling for about the same amount of time but I think I crashed a few months before you. And then I realized I didn’t have to be out and about all the time.

Instead of defining it as traveling I just started living. It takes the pressure off of seeking momentous adventures – and let’s face it you’ve had more than most have in a lifetime.

In 2011 I resolved to get rid of ‘the shoulds’ if you don’t feel like doing something for one day, one week, one month, let it be.

And you’ll be back and we’ll be so glad that you are.
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Peter January 18, 2011 at 12:32 pm

While I don’t suffer from depression, I have several close friends and family members that do, so I’m well aware of how debilitating it can be. It’s pleasing to hear you’re out of your current funk and enjoying your trip again.
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Nancy R January 18, 2011 at 2:12 pm

As I was reading your blog, I was hoping you’d not take med out there. I could relate to depression and medication as I was there before. No fun and no desire to go back to that ‘black hole’ as I called it. Sorry that it took that speed bump ‘pain’ to jolt you out of your funk, however glad you are okay now. :-)

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Raji January 18, 2011 at 4:12 pm

all these days, reading your stories about ear wax or monkey taking your beer etc, never thought you had been depressed. Sad. but Glad that you are out of it. I look forward to your blogs. So be inspired to tell us your good/bad experiences.
Take care.
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Amy January 18, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Wes, I have to agree with everyone else – this was a fantastically written post, especially because it was brutally honest. Thank you for sharing your feelings with the rest of us – it helps to know there are others out there with their own struggles. I don’t know if I was depressed before I left for the trip, but something was not right. I chalked it up to a general thirties malaise and hatred of my job, and I was rather surprised when some creeping bad feelings sprung up from time to time during my “trip of a lifetime.” It was hard – it is hard – to admit that maybe travel can’t cure all, maybe there is something bigger going on. I’ve come to realize that real life doesn’t go away just because you are doing something amazing, and there are aspects of my personality that make it hard for me to live in the moment and not think the grass is always greener. Plus I think everyone has moments during long term travels where they feel completely burnt out, but luckily they come and go. I’m glad you are feeling better, both physically (I don’t have family jewels but I could feel your pain from your description!) and mentally.

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Pirate63 January 18, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Brutally honest and witty,love this blog,so glad you have your mojo back,travelling does take it out of you,there nothing wrong with just veging out for a while,any time that black dog wants a walk,let me know and i bring a big stick!

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Joseph January 18, 2011 at 11:56 pm

As someone who suffered from depression for quite some time (some severe episodes that left me standing by the ledge and asking “what if” ), I totally understand you. I didn’t take any medication as I never told anyone, I was sitting at home, surfing the internet until I was bored out of my skull, but then I slowly recovered. Traveling is tiring and no matter how hard you try to keep the spark alive, there comes a time when you just “are”, observing the surroundings and not seeking any adventures. The tuk-tuk drive was the moment you were supposed to get out of your funk. And as an avid reader of yours, I’m glad you got out of it. Keep up the awesome work, and I’ll keep up following and reading you!

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wes January 21, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Thanks, brother.

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Russ January 19, 2011 at 2:47 am

This is great. Not the first part about the depression obviously, but the part about the tuk tuk ride had me rolling laughing, on the verge or tears. Good stuff. I found you thru Vagabond Wade @ vagabondjourney, and I think I just might now be a regular reader…

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wes January 20, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Thanks, Russ. And welcome to the site :)

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Michael January 19, 2011 at 2:50 am

Mingalabar!
as always, a very interesting read, and not easy to share in a forum like this I’m sure
but so glad to hear you’ve come through the other side
take good care my friend
chok dii

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Chris - The Aussie Nomad January 19, 2011 at 5:28 am

My friend I did not have you pinned as the video game lad at all. I thought that was just reserved for nerds like me :)

Glad to see you’ve found your groove again. Spending that long on the road trooping about your bound to have times when you just don’t want to see that next temple or extra market stall. I like to think of it as this is my time and my travel adventure I’ll see things when I want and how I want.
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wes January 20, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Ha! I wasn’t a gamer for years… decades really, but got into MMOs and PVP. No time and bandwidth (and desire, really) for that anymore.

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Zablon Mukuba January 19, 2011 at 12:25 pm

everybody goes into a funk. it took a tuk tuk to get you off your funk? the next time am down, will go for a ride

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Earl January 19, 2011 at 9:21 pm

This is definitely an issue that many face after spending so much time traveling. But it’s just a natural part of the adventure as it’s impossible to maintain that intense excitement and desire for exploration at all times, month in and month out.

As soon as the body and mind are rested and ready to pick up the exploration once again, it doesn’t take long before something as simple as a tuk-tuk ride helps us regain our momentum.

Sorry you had to smash your head in the process but it seems quite clear that you would gladly accept a smashed head and jewels in order to snap out of your funk!
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wes January 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm

You’re absolutely right, Earl — it’s a lot cheaper than therapy ;)

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Nancie January 19, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Glad you survived that trip, and that your spark is back!
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