Chasing Ghosts

chasing ghotsLast month, I was having drinks with a well-known travel writer and like two soldiers discussing battle wounds from the same war, we talked about the cycle of travel, being on the road for years at a time, the highs, the lows, and everything in between. As we wandered the battlefield of memories, we came upon the topic of friends and re-visiting places. I lamented to him my recent exit from Ios, a place I had fallen in love with and a place that pulls me back there even now. I keep seeing Facebook status updates from friends and it makes me depressed. But I can’t go back there, what I miss is the memories he replied as he relayed his own experience with this. Yes, he was right. In the end, what he and I were really talking about was how we were chasing travel ghosts.

As travelers, we have many great memories. Once in a while, we are lucky enough to have life changing moments on the road. That time and place where every thing is magical and perfect and the people just go together like yin and yang. These are moments we wish could last forever. And the places always seem to pull us back to them. I’ve had those beautiful moments- my first stay in Amsterdam, living in Ko Lipe, Thailand for a month, and lately, spending time on the island of Ios. In all three of those moments, I found paradise. I found locations I still remember vividly in my mind and still pull me towards them no matter where I am in the world. Most importantly though, I found people I connected with and will stay with me for a lifetime.

But like all things, these moments come to an end and all of us move on to different places and different lives, though each holding on to that bit of paradise.

We live these memories in our minds often. They are prominent memories in our lives. Whenever I meet people from those times, we always reminisce about how great and life changing these experiences were. I sometimes stay in touch with these people more than I do my friends from childhood. I visit them, they visit me, I go to their weddings.

memories of ko lipeWe talk about going back to those places. Reliving those moments. After leaving Ios, I couldn’t wait to go back. “Next year!” my friend Jill and I said, “we will be back.” After Ko Lipe, I always tried to return but could never quite make it.

Maybe it’s fate.

I know deep down I won’t go back to Ios. And I’ll never return to Ko Lipe. And I only return to Amsterdam but over the years, I’ve spent so much time there, I have something of a life there.

But by going back to Ios or Ko Lipe or La Tomatina in Spain, all I would be doing is chasing the ghosts of travel past.

I’d be chasing memories. The locations I went to didn’t matter. It was the people I was with that mattered. While the places were great, the memories I made were with the people. It was together that the magic was made. I’ve refused to go back to the island of Ko Lipe because I knew it would never be like before. A friend of mine did go back the following season and said it wasn’t the same. She lamented the development, the people- everything just didn’t feel right. She hasn’t been back since. Like so many, she too went chasing ghosts and came up empty handed.

Whether we go try to relive places like Ios or Ko Lipe or head back to hostels we enjoyed the first time, we are simply chasing ghosts. I love visiting cities over and over again. I love Amsterdam, Thailand, Italy and countless destinations. But heading back to relive moments and not explore places deeper is simply chasing the past. We’re trying to recapture that initial feeling like a drug addict chasing his first high. But we can never get that back. Because we can never get the people back.

Next year, I’ll be back in Europe. Next year, I might be in Greece. But unless my friends return to Ios, I won’t be there again. I’d simply be chasing ghosts and disappointment when I’d rather be chasing new experiences.

  1. Dear God, if you have fond memories of Ko Lipe then don’t ever go back. I went there a few months ago and found it to be absolutely drowning in development; a worst-case scenario of unsustainable tourism, even by Thai standards.

  2. Great article! I think every traveler has those moments, but experience has taught me it’s better to move on to pasture’s new like you said, and try find new experiences, rather than trying to re-live old ones.

  3. Oh Mitch, that is sad to hear about Koh Lipe. I went in 2006 and it was so quiet and undeveloped. My husband and I had a magical time bathed in serenity there. Such a shame.
    Such a poignant piece Matt. I’ve so many of these ghosts trapped inside my heart and its the only place I’ve ever felt safe enough to visit them again. My most beautiful moment was at Railey’s Bay Thailand back in ’99. I was there with my best friend and we met an amazing group of people who we hung out with for 2 weeks. We rock climbed together, explored, laughed, drank, and partied and it was where I really discovered me. The memory I have imprinted in my mind is of all of them standing on the beach and waving us away as we left in the small motorized boat. I knew at that moment it was the last I would see of any of them. I knew in my heart I never wanted to see them again, because it would never be the same, and I wanted to preserve them in that time in Railey’s forever. I never want to know them in any other way than that. Life brings to you people that are only intended for you, for that one moment in space to bring you gifts. Take the gift and accept them as the passing messengers and then let them go.

    • This produced some tears, Caz… I’m not going to go through examples of my own experiences, we all know what it’s like, but both Matt’s post and your reply really hit home for me… Stirred some powerful emotions here, but it was good. Thank you both.

  4. Great post! I feel this way about a few places, but I still think there are places that are magical based soley on the environment, people or no. For me, it’s Alice Springs, Australia. No idea why, but it’s a location that just keeps bringing me back!

  5. I realized this again recently, in Yangshuo China. You walk around looking at the places you had great memories of, but the connection is just no longer there. Nice post, its sweet to have something thoughtful to consider and reminisce on a low-key afternoon.

  6. Alouise

    I think all travelers can relate to this. There’s always some place or moment that we want to relive, but like you said we’re just chasing ghosts. I find there’s nothing to replace seeing or visiting some place for the first time, no matter how often you return. It’s not that you can’t have a good time going back, it’s just not the same as it was the first time… at least not for me. Luckily the world is a big place, filled with interesting people. Hpefully you’ll be able to have some new amazing experience with other people some where else.

  7. Great post and so true. Just today I was returning from a short overnight trip to Key West and on the drive back got to thinking what an impact people make on our travel. Travel is such an incredible experience for so many different reason – culture, scenery, flora, fauna etc. but the human element creates such an impact and lasting memory like nothing else! Great post!!

  8. Yep, totally true.

    I feel the same way about Rio now after spending a year there. I’ve met some amazing people and I doubt I’ll ever have the same experience again…So no Rio for a while, but maybe Ios could be fun :)

  9. This was totally depressing (LOL), but it made me think. It’s something I’m grappling with now, in going back to places I’ve been to. It’s hard. I agree with you though; sometimes it’s better not to go back.

  10. I think this is why so often many travel type blogs focus on people at one point and time in their existence. Some of these places we visit, such as ancient cities, are stagnant and unless you are referencing staring at a piece of art one’s experience at a place is dependent on so many outside factors that the location isn’t necessarily relative to the experience.

  11. Great post Matt! It’s the same for me. I struggle everyday with how much I want to go back to Sydney. Of course I know that I loved that city, the lifestyle and everything about it but I know that what truly made my experience what it was were the people I shared it with.

    Luckily for me, I have kept closely in touch with those important people and we continually make efforts to meet in new cities and countries (not so easy living all around the world!!). But we are lucky that we all realize the importance of our friendships. As we round out a year of being away from Sydney I think we are all slowly realizing that no matter how much we love each other it will never be just like that, whether or not we stay friends and keep travel together, always that will be the big trip and it will be an amazing memory!

    I guess you have to somehow learn what to hold on to and what to let go. You have to understand why you loved a place and be honest with what might be missing if you do decide to go back.

    Thanks for the post!

  12. What a true post… I felt like you were talking directly to me and my obsession with returning to Koh Tao, Thailand… in the year since I’ve left I often feel my desire to go back consumes me… almost kept me from taking a great opportunity for this summer in Grand Cayman. I am going back, perhaps foolishly, but being away has taught me not all islands are created equal. I am prepared for the possibility that nothing will be the same and my heart will be broken, but I’ll never know if I don’t go back soon.

  13. Teresa

    Couldn’t agree more with the points made in this post. Looking to fall in love with more cities abroad; but as of now I guess I am “crushing” on cities. Haven’t really found that one spot I need to go back to; just places I can see myself returning to.

  14. Liv

    For some reason, I’m only haunted by ghosts of Japan. And then, when I visit New York City, I’m visited by ghosts of myself in my late teens, early 20s, late for work, miserable on the subway, hungry in the park. Train stops, street corners, restaurants.

  15. Gotta say, I’ve been really loving your posts lately. This one might be one of my faves. That’s exactly what travel is – creating and chasing memories. To me that’s exactly what photography is too. It’s moments in time, just like travel that keep us coming back, looking for more. It’s like when you first see the streets of Amsterdam, or Italy or India or anywhere through the grimy cab windows- it’s those fleeting moments that make the most impact. Then the moments when you meet new people, make amazing connections – Moments in time – so hard to capture but so hard to forget. Staying away from places where you have those amazing memories is really hard but there really is nothing worse than being disappointed if you return. Being robbed of beautiful memories can be truly heartbreaking. Sometimes never going back can be for the best.

    • NomadicMatt

      I think every post is your favorite….Glad you are enjoying them. You are right, sometimes going back is the past way to keep the memory.

  16. You’re soo right… I’m always afraid of going back to the places I loved because I feel it will never be the same, it was all about that time, that people that were there with me…. I loved my time spent in Vienna almost two years ago, I want to go back but trying to relive moments is just like trying to catch a fish with ur hands… also my time in Berlin, as you said it was a city that didn’t do much for me, still I discover many great things about it (I dont know if you went to this famous karaoke named Bearpit at Mauer Park) its epic! you start liking the city by experiencing the high tolerance that they have for everyone. also Malta but there I have a theory that its just a magnetic place so i think it will be worth it to take the risk and go back… I met so many people that have gone there and then they claim its the only place they continue visiting over and over just because; sometimes I feel a little coward because I dont want to go back, because I’m afraid I will be deceived, that all the magic will be gone but then I start thinking that that charm that place had just depends on myself and that I’m able to make it work it again, but haven’t had the guts yet…. I’ve been on the road for 20 months, lived in so many different cities but haven’t gone back to one single place, someday I’ll try because even just that particular smell of that city makes you relive those moments a little bit, and giggle and remember, I know its not about living on the past but sometimes its nice to take a look back and laugh once again.

  17. This really hit home. I’m going through this right now, this honeymoon phase where I’m obsessively keeping in touch with the people I met in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. One of the guys goes there several times a year, and I just heard that his next trip is already planned. I was shocked to discover that I was floored by this news… he’s going without ME?! How are these emotions so real, since I know the paradise-ness could definitely use a reality check. But this is what makes traveling fun, right?

  18. Megan

    Abs we all need to go back for a reunion tour and nothing is set in stone yet – just a tenative plan. I think we should make it happen!!!!!!!!!! Miss you and love you!

  19. Megan

    Chasing ghosts, chasing long lost loves. I have spent many a night pining over old memories and saying “what if ..”? And.. I would also say going back to a place where you have a great group of local friends is always a recipe for a fabulous experience, as long as your expectations are in check.

  20. Heather

    So very true, i think we all have feelings like this at one time or another when we travel a lot. there are certainly places i would never go back to because they just wouldn’t be the same without the right people.

  21. OMG, I was drawn in memories and looked through photos when popped to this article. It is sooo much about what I feel right now. Great article, wise words, though sometimes I anyway want to chase ghosts. Easy said than done, really:(

  22. Tori

    I read this article when you first posted it in July and made a mental note to re-read it this week as it is a marker for the end of a epic travel journey i had. One that every year I seem to revel in at it’s anniverary. Always chasing those ghostly moments, wondering if i am silly for doing so while fighting the sentimental feelings they bring with them. I have to say it’s down right depressing that such a great experience can come to hunt years later. Kinda makes everything in life taste bittersweet.

  23. Sometimes I feel like the whole of our loves are chasing ghosts; ghosts of who we were (if only for a moment) and who we wish to be.

    great post, it should speak to everyone that has discovered something about themselves while traveling.

  24. I love those moments, they are the ones stay with you, I have photos on my fridge, so every time I get something I can be reminded of awesome experiences and people.

  25. Spen

    Hey Matt,

    A really interesting and thought provoking article. I, like you, fell in love with SE Asia in 2004. Since then, I’ve returned every year, exploring more, deeper, further. I’ve loved every second of it. I have wrestled with it though; part of me felt I should head to a new country or continent, but I have rationalised it now. My 20’s will always be about SE Asia. Everytime I return to Bangkok, it is better than before, even though the memories are with me of previous trips, and the ghosts. Next year, I’ll return to Cambodia. I haven’t been since a magical trip in 2006, but I know it’ll be great, because I have new friends there now and I will explore parts of the country I’ve never seen.

    I think travel ghosts are true, but for me it’s only in highly specific detail. I couldn’t for example return to miami beach, or ibiza, or seville, without definite sadness and anti climax, because those places were shared with my best friend, who lives in Oz now.

    new experiences though in countries you’ve been to before – bring it on I say!

    Awesome site, really inspirational. Am struggling at the mo to work out how to make the break. keep up the great work mate.

    John aka HYPER/balladry photography

  26. Donna Willingham

    Great post, I think we can all relate to chasing ghosts, I certainly can, and it’s such a disappointment. Travel is always about new experiences and new people, and it’s a fantastic route for your own personal development. In fact, I feel I should share with you an amazing course I did while I was in Cairo – Sarah Merron of Fire Dragon Coaching teaches strategies that really helped me focus on getting the best out of myself and others around me, for both my work and personal life. She runs courses all over the world, so it’s a fantastic way to combine travel with self improvement. Here’s the link, I found it had a very powerful effect on my life:

  27. Great read, I think this is human nature. Everyone can relate to this because every aspect of our life weather it be places, people, relationships etc are governed by this very real experience. You ever go back to a relationship to find it “not the same”. We all chase ghost from a different time, sometimes its the people we were with we are chasing but sometimes it’s ourselves. We change so much.

  28. Very well said. I enjoyed your post. It is very true that we can chase ghosts. I was just thinking today how as much as I loved living in London, I would never go back as it could never be the same. My life is different now as are the people in it, and I want London to stay the perfect memory it was. Great read!

  29. Ann Lombardi

    Very good post, Matt. I felt the same way when I first began traveling long ago. Now for some reason, the older I get, the more I enjoy not only discovering new places, but also returning to the same places etched in my mind from years gone by. For me, maybe now it’s more about my taking in the moment and holding my expectations in check. Still I keep on creating great memories as I remember the old, despite the changing face of our planet. Happy travels, everyone!
    ~Ann Lombardi

  30. I can’t agree with this post more! I’ve been through the same thing quite a few times on my travels and it just goes to show that it’s not so much the place as the people and experiences we have there that make good travel. I lived in Port Douglas for about 5 months over a year ago and I think about that time almost everyday. I remember the night before leaving, talking with my friend and crying because my time there was over and I knew I could never have it again. She said we can go back then realized we really couldn’t ever go back to the summer we had there. I met my boyfriend there and we talk about going back then both say-it just won’t be the same. I’m actually not sure I could ever go back. That summer was so special.

  31. Ken

    You are so right. There is no going back. Each time I have tried to go back to some of my favourite places, they were never the same, so I don’t go back any more. I look for new places and will keep looking.

  32. It’s that magic of the right people and the right place that create those perfect moments. I learned to stop chasing ghosts because they are like any prey…when chased and hunted down they flee or hide. But if you sit quietly they return to you as memories and make you smile again.

  33. Steff

    Wow. I feel the same about London. The people I met in the Pub the first night I was there, the man I met on the double decker bus who tried to convince me London wasn’t the best city in the world (it didn’t work) getting lost and people helping me along the way, the museums, EVERYTHING! lol. It has been 6 years since I have been there and it has been too long! I’ll get back there no matter what anyone says!

  34. I really relate to this idea of chasing ghosts. I lived in Glasgow, Scotland for a few months a couple years ago and it completely changed me. I don’t think I have gone more than a couple days since I have been back without wishing I was their. I want to return so badly, but I am so afraid that my experience will be so different. The only solace I have is re-reading the blog I wrote while I was there, which I do quite often.

  35. Robbie

    An awesome Australian band called The Amity Affliction just released an album called Chasing Ghosts and it’s #1 on the charts. Thought it was worth a mention :)

  36. Soph

    Great post Matt! I feel the same about places and people met in thoise places and at this exact time. It is so sad and at the same time they are my the most precious memories. And you are totally right about chasing ghost. It cross my mind sometimes to go back where I was so happy once, but I’m afraid of this because it would be so different.

  37. Wow! This post has hit me HARD! I’m a 39-year-old woman who’s been on the road, what…11 days? And I’m soooooo lonely! I kept questioning myself as to WHY?? This is what I thought I wanted. But at my age, traveling ALONE is NOT what I want. I have a boyfriend back home. I’m ready to have a baby (before it’s too late). So what the hell am I doing out here? Reading your article, it clicked for me. Back in the late ’90s I got the opportunity to work in Europe (France and England). It was the best, most exciting, most informative time of my life. And I left to come back to the states before I really had to. I’ve always regretted that decision. And I see now, that in my attempt to start traveling again NOW, I’m just really chasing that past travel ghost. I love travel, but not like this. Not now. I just didn’t really understand why, until this post of your’s. Thank you.

  38. Kristina

    I’ve been reading your blog for the last two days straight and I am so glad I stumbled upon this post. It explains exactly what I’m feeling right now.

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