My flight to Romania was suddenly cancelled, leaving me stranded in New York’s JFK airport at midnight, without access to my luggage and 24 hours before the next flight. After an unproductive call with an unhelpful customer service agent, I hung up the phone with the kind of force used to drive a fence post into frozen ground, repeated the action a couple times for form's sake, unleashed a cursing jag loud enough to offend people on passing aircraft, then stomped outside to fork over $40 for a cab ride to Brooklyn to crash on a friend's couch.
Needless to say, JFK is a horrible place to have an emotional breakdown. Nothing about its atmosphere is comforting. Everyone is too wrapped up in their own situations to care or show concern for anyone else. And a good physical tension release - say demolishing a payphone with one's bare hands - is likely to end in legal trouble.
So, what makes for a good place to have a cathartic breakdown? Ideally, someplace familiar and safe with supportive friends, but that's often not possible when travelling. Maybe someplace with water, so thrashing around can be done without breaking anything and tears get washed away. Somewhere with lots of pillows seems like a good idea. Friendly, understanding strangers will do when no close friends are to be found.
Sometimes a full-scale breakdown can sneak up on you, but most of the time you probably know when one is on the horizon, and even in the midst of one you need some time to work through it. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for places to retreat to when a cathartic emotional release becomes necessary.
Norway - Natural distractions
Cathartic breakdowns and recovery intervals are greatly eased in gorgeous, safe surroundings. It doesn't get much gorgeous-er or safer than Norway. If that doesn't do that job, drinking prodigious amounts of beer, singing and carousing seemed to work just fine for the Vikings, so give that a shot. Unfortunately, the costs of traveling in Norway, particularly alcohol prices, have been known to trigger a breakdown or two, so a travel benefactor is key.
Istanbul's Grand Bazaar - Soft landings
Pillows and carpets everywhere! Istanbul's famed Grand Bazaar is the perfect place to throw oneself down, writhe and cry it out. For a memorable visual effect, consider a splayed belly flop into a mound of paprika. Then shake it off with a restorative cup of tea. Also, the melodramatic scene will (probably) discourage harassment by carpet peddlers.
Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico - Deep dives
In addition to inexpensive taco and beer-fueled breakdown therapy, the Yucatan Peninsula has cenotes: deep, natural limestone pits filled with ground water. Jumping from medium heights into these cenotes is an invigorating release of both physical and emotional tension. And when you've exerted yourself enough in the cenotes, the inexpensive tacos and beer await.
Salzburg, Austria - Burst into song
What better place to stage a breakdown recovery than the quaint, serene, fairytale surroundings of Salzburg where the soaring melodies of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Sound of Music inevitably patters one's ears several times a day? For those who find themselves at the 'release' stage of their breakdown upon arrival, seek out the music of hometown boy Mozart, who was no stranger to emotional release. Or headbang your way to serenity in Salzburg's heavy metal music scene, host to the world's first ‘scholarly’ heavy metal conference in 2008.
Kaikoura, New Zealand - Soak in the rays
If the joy and serenity of watching sea mammals frolic doesn't ease a breakdown, nothing will. Kaikoura's deep waters are an inviting habitat for sperm whales, dusky dolphins, orca, fur seals, penguins, sea birds and a lavish supply of catharsis-flavored lobster. The magnificent 8,500 foot Seaward Kaikoura Mountain Range is visible from just about every spot in town and Kaikoura sits on New Zealand’s so-called 'sun belt,' basking in over 2,000 sunshine hours per year.
The Balkans - Cut loose
The people of the Balkans have been through A LOT. Very little fazes them anymore, so go ahead and cut loose with everything you've got. Scream, sob, tear off your clothes, drink a whole bottle of Rakia in one unholy chug… Bystanders will give you a respectful amount of space, maybe raise an eyebrow, and just patiently wait for you to get it out of your system. After you collapse in exhaustion, if you're lucky someone will lead you to a café and hand you a beer.
The Dead Sea - Float on
If a good thrash in water is your recovery of choice, best to go someplace with calm water, as being thrown around by crashing waves might spark a follow-up breakdown. The Dead Sea, one of the planet's saltiest bodies of water, has attracted people seeking wellbeing treatments and convalescence since Herod's time. Health resorts abound and floating serenely in the salt water will extinguish a breakdown in a hurry. It’s a safe soak too: the saltiness of the water makes it very difficult to do anything but float harmlessly.
Outer space - No pressure
Space is a soundless vacuum. As the tagline from Alien said, 'In space no one can hear you scream,' so primal scream to your heart’s content. Cathartic or not, at least no one will be able to hear your breakdown, or see it without a high-powered telescope. And it's easy to imagine that floating around during a weightless recovery would be extremely calming. This might not be as ridiculous as it sounds: commercial flights into space will be coming your way very soon.
Leif Pettersen is a Lonely Planet author, freelance travel writer and polyglot. He’s visited 51 countries (so far), logged at least five memorable cathartic travel breakdowns and can be found @leifpettersen.