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!