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Travel for the Bad Experiences

CHINA | Wednesday, 22 August 2012 | Views [3488] | Comments [1]

*Every single bad experience has either happened to me or a close friend. Not a single one is made up.

How many people can you think of who traveled to "find themselves?" There is this expectation that when you travel you feel something profound and meaningful. The travel in and of itself is somehow supposed create situations that make everything up until that point seem bland. I am guilty of this myself. Not so much the finding myself thing since I actually know myself really well (a little too well...) and have known myself for quite a few years. However I do expect traveling to result in this magical melding of a perfect experience that fills me with wonder and delight. This is actually the reason that I continue traveling and then travel some more. The truth is that I rarely if ever get that feeling.

Granted I do have grass-is-always-greener syndrome and it is a burden that I am learning to deal with but the glamor of traveling the world is an illusion. The truth is, the world is surprisingly mundane and the journey itself is usually riddled with bad luck: missed planes, unending bus rides that bounce you to your bones, that sick sinking feeling when you have been robbed/cheated of your money/belongings. Trains will miss the station you needed to get to, printed ticket times will be wrong, sitting between two third class train toilets in India for eight hours, and finally, you might just find yourself at the wrong airport and end up missing your flight.

Depending on the amount of luxury that you can do without, you will likely need to use at least one toilet that is a hole in the ground or even worse, an unventilated concrete outhouse where nice smelling things go to die. Showers won't work, water (that may or may not be tinted brown) will spray everywhere, and you will get sick at least once. Keep in mind that you will be getting sick in whatever horrible bathroom you are stuck with, so have fun and make sure to choose one with a comfy toilet seat/wide bowl depending on which end it's coming out of. If you are a woman, at the very least you will be ogled and at the other extreme you will be groped or worse. If you are a man, watch out for opportunistic women who are looking to leave their current place and shemales, I doubt you want many surprises (unless you are gay and this is a happy surprise, in which case watch out for shemales that are likewise looking at you like a walking green card).

Depending on which country you are in you will need to watch out for the animal population. Crafty klepto monkeys will snatch your food/scarf/jewelry, you may fall off an ill-tempered camel, and you might get attacked by a rabid animal.

Finally the people. No matter where you are from, people are surprisingly similar. In every culture in the world you will find those who are friendly for no reason, those who are friendly in order to swindle you, and those who are just straight up hostile/rude/aggressive. Looking for an untouched population, pristine in their tribal ways? Sorry, Lady Gaga has made it around the world in a path blazed by Michael Jackson. Sure, you will get those quaint cultural quirks that only one specific people tend to exhibit but chances are those quirks will start to wear on you after awhile. For example, I like my personal space and while I don't mind sacrificing it out of necessity (Hong Kong) it just drives me crazy when people stand really close to me/stuck like a barnacle on my side when there are miles of space around. The two experiences that vividly spring to mind are: 1. in Chennai in a movie theater where I was the only woman in line for popcorn and at least 10 hands were on my butt and all the guys were pressed as close to me as possible. 2. In Lhasa in the temples. I guess I look Tibetan and Tibetan nomads (at least the ones I have encountered) love to stick close to their own. The Boy started speaking Tibetan to a monk and all of a sudden I had ten nomad barnacles popping out from all around me. I will literally spooned while standing upright as they gawked at the spectacle of the Boy.   

That being said there are so many cultures that have some of the most genuinely friendly people I have ever met. Lhasa was one such place, and Istanbul and Alanya are two others where I have just fallen in love with how fabulous the local population is. Honestly how similar people are to each other regardless of nationality is one of the best things about traveling. The world stops being this scary place where anyone who is "other"is automatically labeled a threat. Seeing people as people is a great perk.

Anyway, to continue on with bad experiences: beggars. At some point during your travels, you will feel the burden of being privileged. You will feel guilty and/or the desire to change whatever society has impacted you. Eventually realizing that you can't really help anyone individually, you will grow a thicker skin and learn to ignore that poverty that surrounds you.

If you are traveling in a nation that is pretty much like where you grew up barring the fact that they may speak some sort of European language, then you will likely not be able to relate to most of what I have written.

While you travel, be it alone or with another companion, you will likely feel lonely and cut off at least once. If you are traveling for an extended period of time, this feeling will grow. I don't care how many hostel friends/local friends you have met. Uprooting all the time to backpack off to the next destination makes you start over again and again and again.  And maybe it's just me, but it takes its toll.

Having experienced everything I listed, you then get to see whatever site/museum/natural wonder that you dragged yourself all that way to see and are, most times, inevitably let down. Whether it be the super-souped up photos from Nat Geo, etc. or from it being built up in your mind, the reality rarely lives up to expectation (cough cough Mona Lisa cough cough). Either that or you are overwhelmed at first and then get used to the sight.

Through all this you haven't felt that profound moment that started you on this quest. So you take a whole bunch of pictures of you looking happy and doing crazy things and post it onto Facebook/Instagram/insert_social_media_tool and make everyone jealous of the awesome adventure you are having. You don't document the days of tedium.

Having thoroughly depressed whoever has bothered to read this far down, I will say there is a silver lining: it's the bad experiences that make travel worth doing. All of those times that you were holed up crying to yourself in some godforsaken hellhole, praying to local gods, and wishing you were somewhere, anywhere else, just know that those tears are going to make the funniest, most entertaining stories. They are also great for subtly bragging that you traveled but done in such a self-deprecating manner that no one thinks you're full of yourself.

Think back to any of the travel stories that your friends told you. Honestly, how much do you really recall of those times where they were overwhelmed with the beauty of _____________ (insert sunrise/sunset) on top of ______________ (insert temple/mountain/other tall structure) versus those experiences where they were squished between two old women with chickens while the bus careened on one wheel because a cow was caught in the wheels? If you answer overwhelming beauty moment, good for you, this post doesn't apply to you. If you answered the latter, then we have something in common.

Bad experiences are bonding experiences. I am telling you that the fastest way to make a new friend is to open up with some sort of horrific food poisoning moment that had you projecting through one end or both. Best ice breaker in the world.

If you are traveling with a partner then bad experiences will forge a much stronger relationship than if everything went according to plan. The first time I was ever truly honest with the Boy about what a d-bag he had been to me in the beginning of our relationship (but only at the beginning, he learns fast!) was after one such shared awful train-wrecker of an experience. We were in western China on a 10 hour bumpy-as-all-get-out bus ride (which we were told could last anywhere from three hours to seventeen) on very little sleep and ending in a crap hole of a hotel room (it literally smelled like feces). At that point no one could contest that I was pretty darn committed to the kid and so I just let loose. I remember this fondly, for the most part.

Bad experiences can also give you new found respect for some and increased respect for those who you already regarded highly. This actually happened with me for my dad. Only a few months ago, when we were in the Philippines, someone nabbed his briefcase and then thoughtfully left it on a bench behind us minus a lot of USD. The amount of restraint, acceptance, and positive thinking from my dad was awe-inspiring. I can honestly say that I have never been prouder of him as a human being than during that trip.

The reason I wrote this post is that I have noticed a trend in each of my submissions to travel writing agencies/guide book publishers/travel writing contests: all of my stories were about negative experiences. I can't help but wonder if this is a contributing factor for why they aren't so fond of my writing. Travel writing is supposed to inspire people to travel and I worry that I can achieve the opposite effect. It is actually an effort for me to write about stuff that has just rocked my socks off. And then even the positive ones (Sunk in Coron) are slightly dark (you should have read the first draft...). I can quite confidently say that if my positive and negative travel memories formed two separate teams, my negative experiences could beat the positive in whatever field you name. They are the Gabby Douglases, the Michael Phelpses of my psyche. The reason that I hold onto the ridiculously bad situations that I find myself in is because those are the ones that make me really feel like I have been placed out of my comfort zone and survived.  And that is the point of travel. To go beyond your world.

I have most definitely experienced some moments when I have fallen silent in awe and feel nothing but wonder for whatever it is that I am seeing. Those are definitely the highlights and are the more precious for how rare they are. Those are memories that should be treasured. But the awful ones are just so much more fun! 

I am not saying you should hope for something to go wrong, just accept that it will and get excited for some center-of-attention party stories!

If you would like to read more, feel free to hit up my blog: Unsettled TCK

Tags: backpacking, bad experience, china, india, lhasa, on the road, the philippines, tibetan, trekking



I love this, so funny and a welcome relief from cheesy sunsets and wrinkled faces articles!

  jeniferlou Nov 10, 2012 8:32 PM

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I am in front of the Kyichu River in Lhasa.

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