My mum has this habit, as mums do, of asking me about how my day has been. Perhaps understandably, the frequency of this question increases tenfold whenever I travel: the more far-flung the destination, the greater the interest, the more often the question is asked. In my most recent trip to Colombia, she popped up in my messages with:
“Glad you made it to the hostel OK. How was your first day?”
“Lonely,” I thought. “Overwhelming. Exhausting.”
What I actually said was, “Medellin is a really cool city!”
It was the truth: Medellin is an awesome place. It’s full of intrigue, with a dark past but a bright future; great nightlife, heaps of excellent restaurants, and plenty of opportunities to educate yourself about its fascinating if gruesome history.
But I wasn’t telling the whole truth.
How was my first day? Well, I was jetlagged. I was uncertain about whether I’d made the right decision to travel all over again, I hadn’t really clicked with any of the people I’d met; I had too much work to do and all I really wanted to do was hide in my bed and go to sleep at 7 PM.
But I didn’t tell my mum about any of that. I didn’t want to worry her, or confirm any misgivings she might have had about me going away yet again — not finding a real job, not settling down. It’s hard to balance reassuring family and friends against actually being honest about the times when traveling is actually not all that great.
Being real about the dark parts of travel.
I’ve traveled quite a lot. And everyone knows it: I share things on Facebook, talk to people over Skype, and post Instagram pictures. It’s a highlight reel, of course. But the things is, when people ask me if there was anywhere on my travels I didn’t like, I will bring up a low point, then immediately hedge it with reasons why this one bad time paled in comparison to the rest of the trip, and move on as soon as possible. I can’t bring myself to say yes, I had a bad time in this city or on this day.
I can’t bring myself to tell the truth, essentially: to cut the starry-eyed crap and tell people how it really was for me.
As residents of Social Media Land, we are sold a certain story about travel. Travel is held up to be this mythical, magical phenomenon. And to a certain extent, this is accurate. When you travel you seek out new and exciting experiences, you go to places, and you see and do things you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) at home.
But then again, that’s also not the whole story.
When people travel, the things that they put on Facebook and Instagram — the stories they relay back to friends and family — is an edited version of reality. It is not focused on the sweaty bus journeys, the cramped hostel rooms, and the exhaustion that is inevitable when you leave for a new destination every three days.
I’ve done it too. I mention it, laughingly, as a fun anecdote — “Remember the time when we slept on a bench outside the airport?!” — qualified by the fact that of course I had an amazing time, of course the trip was wonderful, so what’s a bit of discomfort?
And in fairness, the awkward or uncomfortable or unpleasant stuff quickly fades into the background, because it genuinely isn’t your presiding memory of the places you’ve been.
It’s understandable that travelers want to paint a rosy picture.
You don’t want to offend your hosts or taint people’s projected image of a country. You don’t want to disappoint your nearest and dearest with a story of a trip gone wrong when you’ve been so excited about it for so long. And of course, if you’re a writer on a press trip — well, you’re in a real tricky position if the experience turns out to be less-than-golden.
Many times I’ve also felt that my own particular experience of feeling lonely, or exhausted, or uncomfortable might be just that — my own experience. Maybe I happened to come across a bad neighborhood, or would have felt differently if I’d had a couple more hours of shut-eye the night before. Perhaps another person, on another day, might have experienced a sense of wonder in the same place I felt like I was about to be murdered.
But the more I travel, the more I think that maybe sometimes the romance of long-distance journeys and incomprehensible local languages, isolated rural landscapes, and bare-basics accommodation is just that: romance.
If we all continue to paper over the cracks of our experiences, eventually the whole thing is going to become a fiction. The more we talk it up, the more people will go abroad and feel like they have to exaggerate the good and ignore the bad. They’ll feel inadequate or abnormal if they come across parts of travel that they don’t enjoy: the streets that stink, the eye-opening, heart-wrenching evidence of poverty, the poor infrastructure that might mean you’re stuck on public transport for entire days.
Travel is just like the rest of reality.
India, Indonesia, Nepal, South Africa — I loved them all as a whole, but actually, it’s inaccurate, unrealistic, unhelpful to paint a picture in which every minute was joyous. People tried to scam us in India, the roads were ruined by the monsoon in Nepal, and in the part of South Africa I stayed in, you couldn’t leave the house after dark.
Here’s the truth: travel is just like the rest of reality — it’s flawed.
It’s a very privileged version of reality. Many people can’t afford to just up and leave their regular lives to drift across the world: they have responsibilities and commitments that they just can’t leave. But even so, in travel, there are all the same downsides that there are in everyday life. There are times of boredom, or overwhelm; you might get sick of the repetition of your days, and you will almost certainly have to deal with assholes.
We need to start talking about the terrible parts of travel. Not every city is “quaint,” not every party is wild, and that sometimes the best days are actually the ones you spend hiding in bed watching an entire season of Peaky Blinders on Netflix, because you’re just exhausted from the demands you’ve placed on your body by choosing a life in which you’re constantly in the world. In an over-Instagrammed world, we could all do with a bit more honesty.