I travel a lot internationally for work. Some people (friends, loved ones, neighbors, distant acquaintances, my hairdresser, local bartenders, most healthcare professionals) would say too much. I’m an elections expert, and I work for an international NGO that promotes credible elections and inclusive, accountable government in countries all over the world. It may sound glamorous but frequently involves unsuccessfully hiding equatorial sweat stains in high-level diplomatic meetings, wearing ill-fitted linen suits hastily purchased at a local market on account of wayward luggage or accidentally dropping hotel key cards into pit latrines. This isn’t “jet-setting to London in Business Class” kind of work. This is “flying coach to any country recently featured on the Fragile States Index” kind of work.
This lifestyle lends itself to amazing experiences, helpful survival skills and existential angst (yes ladies, we can have it all). My job is both gratifying and exhausting, hovering somewhere at the intersection of deep pride in my professional accomplishment, extreme sleep deprivation and regularly contracting vector-borne illnesses. I get to work with a diverse and inspiring community of lovable and similarly warped adrenaline junkies. And I get to see, do, smell and eat amazing things (excluding that time I drank homemade palm wine out of a repurposed petrol container).
But the excitement of this lifestyle comes with guilt and fatigue and creeping insecurity about my husband’s relationship with our cat (Am I a terrible wife? Does the cat like him more than me now? Are they talking about me?). When I was single and in my 20s, the on-the-go life of the Intrepid Aid Worker was exhilarating and seductive. But now, married and in my late 30s, it’s wearisome; a lot less “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” and a lot more “Where in the World are My Compression Socks and Sense of Stability?”
But enough about my personal existential angst. Since I have so much experience with this, allow me to offer some humble advice about how to travel constantly for work without losing your mind.
Before you go
I’m a vegetarian, which means I’m not only unpopular at dinner parties but also a nutritionist’s nightmare when traveling to remote places abroad. Most places I wind up in subscribe to a strict meat-and-starch diet, which means I need to plan ahead and pack accordingly to avoid getting scurvy or some other affliction typically reserved for 18th-century sailors. That said, even if you don’t have dietary restrictions, you might find that food variety can be pretty limited in a lot of areas, so if you’re likely to tire from goat meat covered in goat sauce in a goat stew every day, then you should plan on bringing some protein bars, trail mix and fun snacks that you can share with new friends and colleagues. (Hot tip: my coworkers and I have discovered that Trader Joe’s Chili-Spiced Dried Mango Slices transcend all cultural barriers and are universally beloved.) Also, it’s perfectly acceptable to smuggle gourmet cheeses across international lines when necessary.
Other travel necessities
Universal plug converters, a French press and coffee (the world is divided into tea cultures and coffee cultures; if you’re in the former, you’ll probably need something stronger than the ubiquitous instant Nescafe), luggage locks and a Swiss army knife or multi-tool (particularly one with a corkscrew). But don’t forget to put the multi-tool in your checked luggage or the TSA will confiscate it, and then you’ll find yourself alone in a prefab hut in South Sudan trying to pry open a bottle of wine by digging out the cork with a kitchen knife like a madwoman. For instance.
You’re an adult now and you might have to go straight to work from the airport, so you don’t get to dress like you came straight from an elementary school slumber party on flights anymore, no matter how long or how many connections you have. That said, I’ve found that leggings and a smart tunic are a great way to look really put together for 20 hours of travel while basically wearing pajamas.
While en route
Loyalty programs and airport lounges
Don’t let a single airline mile go to waste! Sign up for a loyalty program with a major airline alliance and eventually you can gain status to access their lounges (among other perks). A world of good-smelling lotions, free booze, stable internet and plenty of outlets awaits you.
In the air
First things first: even if your airline says that it has in-flight internet, don’t rely on it actually working, or being strong enough to accomplish anything. If you need to do work on the plane, always make sure it’s something you can do offline. But why are you doing work anyway? Long haul flights are made for catching up on guilty pleasure movies while drinking mini-bottles of Malbec. Also, airlines are finally starting to embrace the binge-watching trend and many now carry box sets of critically acclaimed shows. So instead of watching “Coco” for the 4th time, you can watch the entire season of “Sharp Objects” in a single transatlantic flight (and land in a real weird headspace).
Look, it’s just going to happen. Do what you can to get on your new time zone quickly. Don’t take naps during the day and get outside in the sun as much as possible. But understand your limitations. I once traveled from Zimbabwe to the US, then to Iraq, then back to the US, then back to Zimbabwe all within a single two week period and my biological clock was so out of whack I think it basically tore a hole in the space-time continuum.
Once you’re there
In my line of work, trips abroad can be particularly physically and emotionally demanding. So it’s important to figure out what’s going to keep you grounded, or at least help you destress at the end of the day. Make sure you’ve got a season of the Great British Bake Off (or something similarly delightful and mindless) queued up on your laptop and watch an episode before bed each night. Or figure out how to get a daily run in if you’re into that kind of thing. Creating a routine even in the most volatile environments can be comforting.
Don’t forget to enjoy the moment
To quote the great Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you’ll miss it.” Eat the food, shop local and try to get out and about, no matter how much work you have to do. I’ve never regretted squeezing in a trip to a night market, a brisk walk around town or a drink at a local watering hole instead of staying in to check emails and go to bed early, even when opportunities for sleep are fleeting.
This kind of work can wear you down, and it’s easy to be bitter until you take a step back and recognize some of the wild opportunities you’ve had. I wouldn’t change any of my past adventures, even if my life might be moving in a different direction now. If you find yourself in a similar position, try to appreciate the chance to experience new places and people and goat stews, no matter how much existential angst you’re harboring.