I’ve travelled internationally enough to know that the first day I get to a new country, I’m usually fine. Even if I’ve taken a red-eye and not gotten much sleep, I’m usually so excited, the adrenaline fuels me for the first twenty-four hours.
The jet lag doesn’t kick in until the second day. And then it hits hard.
Last fall I flew to Paris with a friend. The first day was great — we arrived early in the morning and spent the day exploring the city. On the second morning, we got up and went to breakfast at a cafe just around the corner from our hotel.
Jet lag hit me hard. The exhaustion was so profound, I felt like I was going to throw up, pass out and cry all at the same time.
“You don’t look very good,” my friend said gently as we sipped our coffees and ate our croissants. “Are you okay?”
I shook my head. “Not okay,” I said. Because even talking was hard. After breakfast, we parted ways. I ended up going back to the hotel while she visited museums. I slept for a few hours and met her for lunch, and then for the rest of the trip I was fine.
So I knew that on the current trip I’m on, while I took the red-eye Sunday night and arrived in Amsterdam on Monday morning, it was Tuesday that was going to be hard. In spite of my best efforts — hydrating, staying up on Monday as long as I could, and taking a Tylenol PM to make sure I stayed asleep — I woke up feeling terrible.
Ugh. There’s nothing worse than jet lag, I thought as the exhaustion washed over me.
I tried to sleep more but I couldn’t, so I got ready and went downstairs to the coffee shop in the lobby.
I told myself that I’m on a budget because I won’t have any income for the next four months. So I was just going to get one cup of coffee and sip it slowly while I enjoyed the lobby’s free wifi and wrote a blog post (it cost 25 euro/day to get wifi in my hotel room.)
I ordered a large cup of coffee and the barista brought it to me. I was expecting (hoping for) a Starbucks-sized venti coffee. Instead, my coffee came in a delicate china cup-and-saucer that was smaller than a tea cup.
That’s not a coffee mug, that’s a thimble! I wanted to yell at the server. But I held my tongue, telling myself that maybe European coffee is ten times stronger than American coffee, so maybe it would do the trick.
I did sip it slowly, but it only took three sips till the cup was empty.
I remembered telling myself I was on a budget and I was only going to pay for one cup, and the coffee shops here don’t do free refills.
And then I realized how exhausted I was and thought about how hard it was going to be to drag through the day this tired and I said, Screw it. And I ordered three more.
Over the course of the next two hours, as the barista brought me cup #2, then #3, then #4.
No one else in the coffee shop had a second cup — let alone a fourth. I smiled at the barista every time he came to my table and, at one point, actually apologized. “I’m sorry, I’m just really jet lagged,” I said.
He nodded politely without smiling.
I stopped at #4 — not because I was feeling more awake, but because I did the math and realized that I had spent 2.50 euro on each cup and that was enough.
I went back upstairs to my room. I had two hours before I needed to check out. I read for a while. And then I meditated. And then, all of a sudden…
The caffeine that I had consumed an hour before hit me. Hard. As if it was laced with cocaine or something.
My heart started pounding, I got shaky, I had a hard time sitting still, and thoughts went flying through my brain. Within a matter of a seconds, I thought of friends to call, texts to compose, books to write, careers to pursue, and a movie idea that Hollywood producers should seriously consider.
I never felt so out of control of my brain before.
And that’s when I realized that maybe there IS something worse than jet lag: the refusal to experience and accept jet lag as a necessary part of travel.
And maybe next time I travel I’ll remember that and accept the exhaustion instead of overdosing on caffeine.