Reality check

I saw this pair of photos on a Facebook post and had to give a rueful chuckle. So true! How often  we have high expectations of a travel experience that arise from photos that we’ve seen or descriptions we’ve read, without reflecting that the photo may well have been staged or the description may be omitting some important elements. And yet, it’s only natural to look forward to the exciting travel experiences we plan, sometimes for months or even years.

We travelled to Costa Rica a few years back with the express goal of seeing birds. Bryn was very into birding by then and he was making a documentary film about Costa Rica and its relationship with nature. A prime target was the resplendent quetzal, a magnificent bird with iridescent plumage and metre-long trailing tail feathers. The guide told us that our best chance would be to stake out a wild avocado tree that was in fruit, as the quetzals love to eat the tiny avocados. We would need to be in place around dawn, as the birds might arrive to feed any time thereafter.

The guide woke us at some ungodly hour and we drove in darkness into the valley through a thick layer of mist. The tree we were targeting was in a farmer’s field and he had given us permission to climb up the hillside through his cow pasture to where the tree perched on a high knoll. After navigating an extremely steep, slippery, muddy path, we settled in to wait for the birds. It felt like a classic birding expedition: the semi-darkness of sunrise, a remote location, peaceful silence, and that buzz of excitement as you anticipate the arrival of your quarry.

Then the tour bus pulled in. A horde of people tramped into “our” field. People carried small children or dragged them by the hand. They set up folding chairs and scopes. More groups arrived, each with their own guide. They blundered around in their neon-coloured rain slickers, talking loudly, some eating breakfast on the go.

We were gobsmacked. This was not at all what we had expected. But, of course, if we had thought about it, we would have realized that there were likely many other people who wanted to see the elusive bird, there were many other guides, and it would be their business to know this particular tree had ripening fruit and might attract the quetzals.

No birds showed up, whether because of the bustle of dozens of tourists milling around the tree I’ll never know. Luckily, we did see the quetzal later in the day, at a different location, thanks to our excellent guide. But that morning was definitely a letdown.

How can we avoid falling into the trap of disappointed expectations when we travel?

Well, we might try changing our expectations or changing our experience. For example, we might:

  • Try not to have expectations. Do research, choose destinations or experiences, and then try to let go of expectations. Instead, be in the moment. When we travelled to the Yucatan, I really wanted to see Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan site, because I had studied it in university. However, I dialed back my expectations after researching the site and realizing it would be extremely hot, unpleasantly commercialized, and very crowded. Accordingly, I tried to focus on enjoying what I could at the site rather than bemoaning the lack of tranquillity and opportunities for quiet contemplation.
  • Be realistic about expectations. Take a peek at the stats of how many people visit that place. About 30,000 visitors gawk at the Mona Lisa every day and if you’re hoping for a lengthy, private tete-a-tete with her, you’re bound to be disappointed.
  • Re-examine expectations. What is it about this place or activity that is really important to you? If being solitary or having majestic silence at a site that sees tens of thousands of visitors every year is the experience you seek, that is probably not realistic. But if you can adjust your expectations to “I will be there, I will be fully engaged, I will simply experience this to the best of my abilities, no matter what the circumstances,” you may still be able to find meaning in it. In Nova Scotia, I thought that taking a day cruise on the famous Bluenose II would be fun. But somehow, the reality just didn’t live up to the romantic notions in my head. Still, I reminded myself, I was on the sea on a beautiful ship, the wind in my face, and I had a stunning view of Lunenburg. I looked around and noted all the lovely details of the ship, the polished wood, the gleaming brass, the white canvas sails against the sky. I let go of my unrealistic expectations and relaxed into the cruise for what it actually was.
Across the river from Chenonceau.
  • Change the experience by finding a new approach. The Château de Chenonceau is the second-most-visited chateau in France, receiving around 800,000 visitors yearly. Not much chance of a unique or personal experience. However, in seeking places we could walk the dog we were caring for, we discovered a wooded path that runs along the other side of the river from Chenonceau. We rambled through the forest with just ourselves and the dog, coming upon perfect views of the chateau and its reflection in the still water.
  • Alternatively, choose a different experience that isn’t on such a well-beaten path. Mona is great and she’s certainly famous, but there are 35,000 works of art in the Louvre, many of them—IMHO—more interesting than Leo’s lady. Pick any one of them instead of Mona and you won’t have to line up for an hour to get a brief glimpse.

Finally, one of the best ways to beat the expectations trap is to remain open to and ready to embrace places/experiences that we haven’t planned or built expectations around. On a steaming hot day in Panama, we drove over the central mountain range to visit the Caribbean side of the country. After a few hours, we pulled off the highway onto a rocky, bumpy little track to check out a farmer’s field for birds. Not only did we photograph some interesting species, but we discovered that the track led down to a gorgeous swimming spot in the river, overhung with tall, leafy trees. The water was cool, green, and transparent and we were the only people there. Resistance is futile and I was soon paddling around, luxuriating in this totally unexpected delight. No expectations, yet it was an experience I will never forget.

Have you had a travel experience that did not live up to your expectations? Or have you found your own way around the expectations trap? Share in a comment!

Into the Wild, Thai Style Part 2

Ike took us on one more boat-birding expedition at sunset that first day before we headed for bed. Our hut had no solid window coverings, just flaps that you could prop up to let the breeze in, so it was essentially open to the bugs flying in and out at will. As to bugs on the floor, I think they kept it meticulously swept, but the safest plan was to simply not look. We slept on the floor with the equivalent of a yoga mat and a sheet and I spent the night imagining that armies of creep-crawlies were marching up my arms, around my neck, and straight for my face. Gah!

Sunrise the next morning was spectacular as we rose before dawn to be on the water at first light. As promised, Ike took us even further into the most remote areas of the park in hopes of seeing some of the rarer birds. Hornbills with improbable shapes soared over our heads, looking like pterodactyls.

A pair of broadbills—crimson red with bright blue beaks—lurked just out of clear camera range. A turquoise and orange kingfisher dove off an overhanging branch.We saw monkeys and macaques clambering in the trees, as well as a slow loris sitting very quietly, no doubt hoping we hadn’t seen it. A large monitor lizard swam lazily past our boat.

For our second night on the lake, we docked at a camp that made the previous night’s accommodations look like The Ritz. This was well beyond where the tourist day-trippers ventured and there were only a few other guests, fishermen, most likely.

Before turning in, I went to brush my teeth at the one and only sink in the one and only bathroom. There was no water flowing from the faucet, which didn’t bother me as I was using bottled water anyway. So I brushed and rinsed and spat—and felt water splashing against my feet. I peered under the sink and realized that there was no pipe connected, the water simply drained directly onto the floor. Such a no-fuss solution to the problem of plumbing.

WARNING: The following paragraphs contain graphic material that may be disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

So, sometime during the night, the one and only toilet in the one and only bathroom got plugged up. Which meant that morning found a gaggle of rather desperate guests wandering around in search of somewhere to conduct their morning ablutions. Being the sole woman in camp, I was probably more desperate than most.

Before continuing, I must harken back to an email exchange I had with Ike when organizing the tour.

Ike: Are you okay with a rustic camp?

Me: How rustic is rustic? I’m okay with anything except squat toilets.**

Ike: Ha, ha! No, I promise, absolutely no squat toilets.

Fast forward to the camp with the only flush toilet nonoperational. Someone kindly points me down the hill to a corrugated metal shack. I have a strong feeling that I know what I’ll find inside, and yes, indeed, there it is, the hole in the floor, and a big plastic cistern and scoop next to it (this is in lieu of toilet paper, of course).

We are all stronger (and more resourceful) than we know, and I’m happy to report that I did survive the ST challenge. Poor Ike was mortified when he realized what had happened and apologized profusely, but really, when you choose to go “into the wild,” you just have to accept that things might not go according to plan. Adaptability is all part of the adventure.

**Squat toilet: A hole in the floor over which one is expected to crouch while…well, you know. Not uncommon in parts of Asia.

Ike is Ike Suriwong, The Phuket Birder.

Into the Wild, Thai Style Part 1

Cheow Lan Lake, southern Thailand

It seemed like a good idea at the time….

A two-night, three-day birding tour in southern Thailand didn’t seem so crazy. We’d hire a guide, he’d take us to birding areas that we couldn’t reach on our own. A boat. Oh, yes, there’d be a boat, as our targeted area was centred on a large man-made lake where the water was the only way to travel. And floating bungalows. That should be a lark—imagine, sleeping in bamboo huts actually on the lake.

And so, in all innocence, we left behind the comfort of our hotel in Phuket pre-dawn to climb sleepily into Ike’s SUV.

Let me pause for a moment to speak, with fondness and with reverence, of Ike. I can honestly say I have never met a more personable character in my travels. Having struggled for two weeks in Thailand to be understood (my fault, not anyone else’s, as I speak no Thai), I was happily gobsmacked at Ike’s perfect command of English, to the point where I had to stop myself continually (and idiotically) remarking on it. Not only did he express himself better than a good number of my acquaintances back home, but his birding skills far surpassed ours. Often during the weekend, we would be listening to a cacophony of sound arising from the jungle, and he would suddenly cup his ear, point, and announce “great hornbill!” And by gum, if we stilled our ragged breathing and tuned out everything else, we, too, could hear the distant, soft hoot. Then, more times than not, just to prove that he wasn’t just making things up, we’d see the tiny but unmistakable silhouette of a great hornbill sail off across the horizon. Add to his virtues a ready sense of humor and a genuine kindness, and you have a good picture of him.

We were not Ike’s typical bird tour clients. Although you can’t exactly call us novices, as we’ve been birding for something like 18 years, we’re more like developmentally challenged bird tourists. We enjoy going to places where birds hang out, we like seeing the birds, I like to snap photos, but finding rarities is not a high priority. On this particular trip, for various reasons, we were almost completely unprepared. Serious twitchers* arrive at their destinations with a list of target species, having thoroughly studied their intended prey, and well versed in juvenile plumage, alternate color morphs, and vocalizations. We had a dogeared field guide borrowed from the library and some binoculars. We had no idea which species were rare and which were commonplace. We were like children, oohing and ahhing at the pretty birds when Ike pointed them out, nodding appreciatively when he gave us the names. In short, we were pathetic. Ike took this in stride.

Back in the SUV, sun just starting to peek over the horizon on the first day. Ike had described the itinerary thus: “The trip will begin with a drive to Sri Phang Nga, birding at the park, afternoon birding in a different location, then a drive to the lake. First day on the lake, we’ll go for birds around the eastern lower tributaries and then the last day we’ll move to another substation deep in the heart of the sanctuary to search for the rare species. On the last day, we’ll drive back to Phuket after lunch.”

On that first afternoon, we were thrilled to see our first pitta. Pittas are small, (generally) brilliantly coloured birds that skulk in the dark underbrush and are so legendarily difficult to see that one fellow spent a year travelling around the world on a quest to spot all 34 species of Pitta (see “Calidris reads: Costa Rica–The Jewel Hunter). This particular bird—a Malayan banded pitta—had been somewhat acclimatized to humans by the simple expedient of someone putting out meal worms in the same place in the jungle at the same time every day. Even shy birds aren’t stupid and this one obliged by showing itself just long enough for me to snap some photos. As far as we were concerned, this “twitch”* already made the trip a success.

We motored across the magnificence of the lake in a traditional Thai longtail boat, awestruck by the vertical green walls that thrust out of the water around us, hills and islands in rank after rank disappearing into the distance. There is no development on the shores of this lake, which is preserved as a park, thanks to the revered Thai king who spearheaded the creation of the reservoir. We occasionally passed another boat, usually full of other tourists.

Grey-headed fish eagles, ospreys, and white-bellied sea eagles flew by or perched on tree snags poking out of the water. A wild elephant drank and splashed on the shore.

We turned around yet another headland and spotted our accommodations for the night—the aforementioned floating bungalows. All the buildings of the camp are joined together by floating wooden walkways cobbled together from old bits of logs and lumber, many of which are half-submerged and/or rock alarmingly when you walk on them.

Lunch was a typical Thai spread of baked fish, rice, veg, and fruit served up in the—you guessed it—floating diner.

After a heavenly swim in the lake, we were laying down for a siesta when Ike called us out excitedly: “Ice cream!” Although it seemed like it must be a heat-induced hallucination, sure enough, as we tumbled out of our hut and hurried down the walkway, which rebounded wildly with every step, we spotted the last thing we expected to find in this castaway location: a beaming man scooping ice cream from a big tub in his wooden boat. Apparently, he makes a daily run of several hours to bring the treat out to the camp. How he kept it frozen, I have no idea. You could have any flavour you wanted, as long as it was vanilla. And although I’m usually a chocolate gal, I can tell you, I’ve never tasted anything more welcome than that plain vanilla ice cream, eaten on a floating dock on a steaming hot afternoon in a remote part of a jungle-shrouded lake in Thailand.

*Twitcher: A birdwatcher whose main goal is to collect sightings of rare birds, i.e., “twitches.”

Ike is Ike Suriwong, The Phuket Birder.

Calidris Reads: Costa Rica

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Costa Rica:
A traveler’s literary companion

Edited by Barbara Ras

First sentence from one of the stories: “Pressed against the run-down schoolhouse, the chumico tree bears a miraculous fruit for the poor child who can’t afford marbles.”

I really wanted to like these stories, but I found I just couldn’t get into them. Perhaps because much of the work is translated. Maybe I’m just a shallow and unsophisticated reader and this represents serious modern literary fiction. I would finish one piece with relief and think “Maybe the next one will be more appealing” but it wasn’t. I didn’t find that the stories gave me the sense of place that I’m looking for when I choose a book to travel with.

2 knots (Not recommended)

 

The Jewel Hunter

Chris Gooddie

Opening: “Blood pounded in my ears. My heart rate was up in the stratosphere. I crouched on a disused hunting trail in a remote forest in southwest Sumatra.”

We all read it. We all loved it. But we’re birders. It’s a quirky, humorous true tale of how the author gave up a lucrative job to spend a year criss-crossing the globe in a quest to see every species of pitta. Pittas are reclusive, sometimes rare, birds that lurk deep in forests, so his success was by no means assured. Along the way, he comments on food, people, places, and adventures he encounters, as well as sharing the lists he creates. Birders tend to be list-makers, and Gooddie is no exception, for example, the following mantra:

  1. Animals are the best things in the world.
  2. Birds are the best animals.
  3. Pittas are the best birds.
  4. Gurney’s Pitta is the best pitta.

If this strikes you as even remotely funny, this book might be for you. (We found it hilarious.)

Note: Although we read this book during our Costa Rica trip, there are, in point of fact, no pittas in CR (nor in North/Central/South America as a whole; they are mainly Asian and Australasian birds, with a couple of species in Africa). However, we were very caught up in birding on that trip, so this fanatical birder’s story seemed appropo to our state of mind.

If you’re a birder, I’d rate it 5 knots (Must-read); if not, I’d say maybe 3 (Recommended).