Posted by: Anna | July 20, 2011

The hardest part of our trip

I never saw it coming. I remember, in the brief time during college when I was a psychology major, studying the relationship of the number of choices available to an individual’s happiness. Humans say they want a lot of choices, but are actually happier with a limited number. It’s the reason the value menu at McDonald’s is a brilliant innovation – we like being presented with a small number of choices. Our brains are good at evaluating the selection and confidently making a decision.

Tommy and I have both reached a point of choice-exhaustion. Every day, we make hundreds of choices, in a rather uniformed manner, from a seemingly unlimited array. Every meal is a decision of selecting a restaurant from the thousands available to us (in large cities) or the fifty or so (in smaller cities). We then have to read an entire menu, often filled with unfamiliar items, and select something with little information. Every night, we have to decide where to stay – small hotel, hostel, dorm, private room, location. We spend hours researching our options in order to have some basis upon which to decide, then we pick. Inevitably, we have not selected the best option. It is so frustrating.

When I researched and read about long term travel before our trip, I never read anything about what I’ve decided to call “decision fatigue”. The mental exhaustion of making many slightly uninformed decisions every day, both in the present moment – what to eat now – and for the future – how long to stay in Fiji – make me feel like my mental circuits will blow. The sense that “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity” coupled with the sense that each decision is irreversible (I can only spend the month of October in one place, each day doing one activity – no redos) allows me to create a mental pressure that takes some of the joy away from the trip experience. My achiever personality struggles to adapt to a life of leisure, where each day is not measured by how well I’ve succeeded at my stated goal. Perhaps some of us were wired for working?

Tommy’s struggles originate from a different source, but he has a hard time with this also. He does very little research to make travel decisions, and thus often finds that his desires are thwarted by a lack of planning. For example, we got up this morning and he wanted to go to the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur (second tallest buildings in the world). Too bad – tickets have to be acquired before 7:30 AM. We certainly were still peacefully sleeping at that early hour. It’s frustrating to be doing it wrong all the time. He doesn’t particularly like to be wrong any more than I do. It often feels like if we just go with the flow, we miss out on the best of what a place has to offer. But if we research to really know what the best is, then our trip becomes a challenge to achieve success instead of an adventure.

Asia has really revealed this dichotomy in a way that India and Africa did not. In Africa, there is often only one budget option for accommodation, or maybe two. I can easily choose between two options. We cooked most of our own food, so that eliminated any complex decision making on meals. One activity often filled an entire day – a morning and evening safari drives, for example. We were free to just enjoy the flow of the day, with the decisions that presented themselves as pleasurably exercises in personal choice. Asia is totally different. Travel is easy, meaning on any given day I can choose to end up in at least six or seven new places, each with different attractions. I can travel by plane, train, or bus. I can choose to stay put. In a big city, the options to fill a day are seemingly endless. For a meal, we are eating out for every meal (so cheap in Asia, and we almost never have a kitchen anyway), so we have to choose a place, then a food. For accommodation, I can opt for a cheapie hotel or a hostel, or I can try to couchsurf. If I want to couchsurf, at least fifty different people’s profiles will pop up online for me to browse through and then send requests to.

This might sound silly – I don’t know. Honestly, there are days where I long for the routine of work. Get up, shower, get dressed, commute, work, eat, work, eat, watch tv, bed – repeat. I know it probably sounds spoiled, but there are days where that honestly sounds like paradise.

I have learned that for me, I get a great deal of satisfaction, and happiness, from my own competence. Traveling reveals my weaknesses, in knowledge, preparation, boldness, snap decision making, and more. I have a hard time having fun when I don’t feel like I’m succeeding, and lately on the trip, it feels like we have made more wrong decisions than right. The more that sensation permeates my consciousness, the more paralyzed in the face of the next choice I am. Twyla Tharp (famous choreographer) claimed that limitations actually enhance creativity. I think that’s true. The openness of our travel in Asia has actually reduced the spontaneity and creativity of our trip, leaving us sticking more and more to the familiar, well-traveled banana pancake trail.

Tommy and I have debated the solution with each other. We don’t want to go forward in this quandary, where we hesitate with even a unimportant choice. (We have looked at socks in at least seven different stores in the last two days, without purchasing any. We need two new pairs of white running socks each. This is not a difficult thing. I cannot imagine shopping in seven stores for socks at home!). Temporarily, we have “Day Captain”. One of us is in charge for the day, allowing the other to have a day off so that we can relax the brain. Today is our first day of that. We leave for Australia tomorrow, where we will shortly meet up with my parents and brother. They are on vacation, so we have decided that it’s the perfect chance to go with the flow for two weeks. We are hopeful that this will help us restore some equilibrium and gather steam for our last four months on the road.



  1. I can’t wait to see the posts from Australia, and you know Sally and Jerry will have things mapped out!

  2. I hear ya – Anna. Decision Making – when you’re having to make so many – can be exhausting. But I like the idea of Day Captain. Monica (our oldest) is going to spend the fall in London, so the rest of us are going to join her for about 10 days at the end of her semester – thus for Christmas. I think I’ll put the Day Captain plan into effect when we are there – hopefully it will make things go smoother.

  3. I see that y’all have come up with a solution that will work, as long as the other is willing to accept unconditionally the days activities the “Day Captian” has chosen. Good for you. I, on the other hand, am like Tommy (or is it he is like me?) in that I would — just “go and do” without research. Each of us only has 24 hours in any given day and I would think that any experience during that day, whether good or bad, would be acceptable. You two are on the trip of a life time. I think you should enjoy each day, each experience, each meal and if sometimes you miss something, oh well. You still have the experiences that you did do, saw the things that you saw, etc. While you both are aching from having to make so many choices, remember all the hard work it took to get you to the point where you are. The long days at work, the weekends that were dedicated to a “job”, etc. Sit back, plan what you can, and go experience the world. Yes, some days you will not make the best choices, but so what! And, of course, don’t forget all us “little people” here that HAVE to go to our “job” each day. We look forward to you writing about your experience. Through your eyes and words are the closest that some of us will ever get to experience this amazing world.

  4. I hope Australia is the vacation from the vacation you so need. I totally get what you are saying. You will be able to relax — there is stuff to see but you really don’t have to plan a thing if you don’t want to. And how can you say you have decided wrong a lot — all of us on the sidelines enjoying your trip with you know that is NOT true! Love you!

  5. I think the Australia trip will be a good break…plus you will get to be with some of your family. Rest and re-group! I send my love to you both. XOXOXO, Kita

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