I’ve been on the road for a long time this year. Between tours, guidebook research, travel with my son and various little projects, I’ve been away from my own bed for a while. It can be tough, especially for introverts like myself. Tonight I’m staying in, enjoying the quiet of my hotel room. I have developed a few self care routines which have become an important part of travel for me.
Taking care of yourself, especially as a tour guide, tends to be at the bottom of the list during travel. Without it, though, you get worn down to the point that it isn’t fun anymore. Here are my favorite ways to take care of me, mentally and physically.
It’s nice to take a little time out of the schedule for grooming. I’ve always thought it was sweet that my employer, Rick Steves, likes to go to the same barber in Venice for a haircut. It’s only been recently that I understand why. Taking a little time out for a bit of grooming is treat, a simple luxury. It’s also fun to do something normal, but in a foreign place, and see what that experience is like. I don’t do haircuts, my hair grows too slowly so I’m afraid of bad haircuts that last months. I’ll go instead for a pedicure or manicure. If I’m lucky enough to get a room with a bathtub, I’ll pick up some bubble bath and have a long soak, which feels great after lots of walking. Even if I don’t have a tub, taking a really long time to shower is a delight. I’m always in such a hurry, taking a long, hot shower, moisturizing with some nice skin cream, then taking the time to carefully comb out my hair, it’s a process that soothes and makes me feel like I’m at home.
I walk a crazy amount in my work, 10 miles per day is not unusual. Add that to stress from work and the basic stress of being away and my body can be tense. I don’t get massages at home, it’s just not a priority, but I’ll do it when I’m abroad. I have found more and more cities have massage centers or spas that are convieniently located in tourist zones. In Rome, for example, there are Thai massage centers that can take you almost any time. It costs about that same as in the US, about $1 per minute. I do an hour massage, but they can usually do something shorter if you can’t afford the time. More than anything, I enjoy the mental peace of being in a quiet room for an hour with no distractions, it’s a good chance to process all of the new information your brain is receiving in a new place. If you’re looking for a massage on the road, you can ask the concierge at your hotel as they may even have someone who can come to you or they may know a hotel with a spa program. Don’t want to spend the money? Massaging your own feet is a great stress reliever. With skin lotion, you can work the soft parts of your feet, especially between the toes. If you can find a small foam ball, you can roll your foot around on top of it for a little foot relief.
Food is the ultimate comfort and self care item. Hate to admit it, but I occasionally eat fast food. I know, I specialize in tours of Italy, the food capital of the world. I know! But sometimes I don’t want to sit in a restaurant by myself for hours. Sometimes I just want to eat something other than pizza or pasta. And sometimes there is nothing more comforting than a BigMac and hot French fries. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but eating American food is really a pleasure when you’ve been away a long time. I’d give almost anything for a peanut butter sandwich right now. Eating out every single night for months is also tiring. I don’t always want to go out, and sometimes the best meal is a bag of chips and a beer from the minimart near the hotel, eaten while reading a book in bed. I bring a lightweight titanium mug and coil water heater with me for this very purpose. I’ll buy tea, instant soup, instant couscous and so on, and enjoy them in the privacy of my room. I realize you might think my life is a glamorous and exotic party every minute, but right now I’m wearing a t-shirt and leggings, eating a Cup O’Noodles in bed and am thrilled. Self care!
The preschoolers have it figured out, napping is wonderful. We busy adults with our responsibilities and jobs do not have time for silliness like sleeping in the middle of the day. If you haven’t had a nap since preschool, you should try it while you are traveling. It can make a huge difference in your attitude and ability to navigate a new place. Strange beds and unusual routines put people out of sorts even if they don’t realize it. If I find my tour members are grouchy or not feeling like themselves, I’ll prescribe a hearty midday nap, even if for 20 minutes. You’ve got to be careful though, long naps while jetlagged can make things much worse. Set an alarm and sleep no longer than 1 hour. Even if you can’t fall asleep, laying down and shutting your eyes for a little while has a great, rejuvenating effect.
At the beginning of a day, I like to spend just a few minutes stretching. I enjoy yoga and will throw in a few simple moves to get the blood flowing. As an example, stretch to the sky, then bend over and hang, letting your spine lengthen. It can be that easy. I had a yoga instructor on tour recently and she would do “flash yoga” in the middle of the day, during our breaks. I was amazed by how many people in the group joined in to our little yoga classes in piazzas or rest stops. Five minutes here and there of easy yoga created such a calming feel on that tour, and a nice moment of reflection. The best body care advice I can give is to take care of your legs. At the end of the day, lay on your bed and put your legs up, against the wall like an angle. This is particularly important for us women since blood tends to pool in our legs. Those of us over 40 who have children have a harder time recirculating blood, something that might not be obvious in everyday life. So many women come on tour and get swollen ankles, rashes on their legs, achey feet. All of these problems can be avoided by putting your feet up each night before bed. Being proactive about taking care of your body can make a happier trip.
Give Yourself Permission to Relax
This is the hardest part. You’ve just paid a bizillion dollars of hard earned money to take your dream trip. You may never come back and you want to see absolutely everything that time allows. I get that, I really do. But you can’t see everything. You can’t do it all and if you try, you’ll end up sick, I guarantee. I’ve seen it happen, people getting up really early and trying to fit in everything, sightseeing 12-14 hours per day. It’s not sustainable and you will hit a wall, possibly a very hard wall, possibly an actual wall if you’re really tired. So I’m going to give you a gift. I give you permission to take a break. Blame me. I told you to do it! Rest and relax for a while. Skip a museum and take a nap. Go drink a glass of wine on a nice square or take a bath. It’s ok. You’re on vacation after all. Nobody will give you an award for having seen the most sights, believe me, or I’d have won it by now. Taking the time to process an experience will help you savor it and remember it. Take a break. You’re worth it.
I’d be curious about what you do to take care of yourself on the road. If you’ve never thought about it, think about how you take care of yourself at home and come prepared to do whatever that is. Could be something as simple as going to a movie. Above all, be well and take care of you.