The importance of travel expectations, and mediating them

How often have you arrived somewhere famous and been hugely disappointed?

I hear more and more backpackers talking about how you shouldn’t go to this or that world famous site because it’s not what they’d expected. I don’t think that’s a clever way to live any aspect of your life. While managing expectations could be construed as a philosophy of living pessimistically I disagree and prefer to call it something sappy like ‘living to be amazed’ or just (and much more likely) ‘giving things a fair chance’. So here are a couple of very simple things that you should bear in mind when you’re planning to visit anywhere that you’re hoping will thrill you.

Work out exactly what you’re expecting to see

Most tourists will have a clear picture in their mind of the site they are about to visit. For example, Cairo – majestic Pyramids rising out of the Sahara with a couple of camels striding around the Sphinx, right? It’s a famous cliché of one the most famous places in human history, and while it’s not entirely incorrect it is severely selective. The first step then is to recognise that what you are hoping to see is the result of decades of careful explicit marketing by travel agencies and implicit marketing done by ‘ordinary’ visitors who want to sell you the majesty of their own visit. Ordinary backpackers are just as selective about their favourite photographs as tour agencies so simply sit down and think about that for a minute.

Photography lies

Never take a photograph at face value. It will have been framed a certain way and the photographer will have waited for the exact right moment to take the shot, waiting for a beggar to pass or a tour group to dissipate. I’ve certainly been guilty of this practice before. Expecting Chichen Itza to be an isolated and deserted wonder will leave you devastated because it is anything but that, even at the moment the doors open for the day. Hawkers flood the site and deploy their wares prominently, to entice the thronging crowds who will arrive a little later. Check out what I did to Chichen Itza’s legendary pyramid with the crafty use of one of the Ball Court’s walls:
Hiding other tourists at Chichen Itza
And now, look carefully and you’ll spot the man who was just walking a tad too fast for my shutter to hide him with a tree trunk:
Hiding tourists with tree trunks at the Tulum ruins, Mexico
Try to get videos of the site as well as pictures because even though they also lie it’s more likely to display glimpses of the downsides instead of just the main spectacle.

Photoshop lies

One of the most common tricks of holiday brochures and hotel websites is to manipulate the surroundings of the property. Whilst planning my honeymoon to Mexico and Belize I searched for a nice beach-front cabana to rest in for a few nights. I wanted peace, and beach, that’s all. The place I eventually settled on had some publicity shots that had completely airbrushed away the neighbouring hotel to give the impression that it was isolated with tons of jungle on either side. The reality wasn’t quite as isolated as this – the neighbours were about 15 metres away. I won’t name and shame the hotel as I had a great time there and the offending pictures have since disappeared, but you can easily see how expectation of blissful isolation could be built up by Photoshop trickery, only to be dashed upon arrival. Retouching the ocean and sky is a common occurrence that ranges from subtle blue-shifts to outrageous lies that alter the position of sunrises! So beware, use tools like Google Earth to locate the place you’re visting and then examine the reality from space. Tripadvisor is useful for users’ photography too as they tend to highlight both the good and bad sides on that website.
I think this might be photoshopped meme

Time changes everything

If you run a web search for any popular destination you’re likely to discover reviews from over ten years ago. These will be accompanied by photographs taken ten years ago and probably refer to establishments that didn’t survive beyond much more than ten years ago. Once a place is ‘discovered’ by mass tourism it changes forever. Always search for the most up-to-date report you can find. If, like me, you like to read older travel books like Nicholas Bouvier’s ‘The Way of the World’ to investigate what 1950s Serbia or Iran looked like then that’s all well and good but don’t expect it to be anything like it was back then. Tabriz, for example, is portrayed as utterly cut off from the rest of the world over winter months whilst it’s a major city today. You’ll struggle to rediscover the past.

Renovation changes everything

This is a two-pronged problem. First off – sometimes a long-awaited site visit is completely different because it’s closed for repairs. My visit to Japan had to skip Himeji Castle because this legendary castle was in a huge tent, and now that I plan my trip to Munich in two months it looks like Schloss Neuschwanstein will be clad in scaffolding. Luckily my prior research uncovered this before I actually arrived so I was well prepared to accept the disappointment, and skipped Himeji. Secondly – the act of restoration or renovation can physically change something forever, obviously. If you were hoping for a particular part of Angkor Wat to be shrouded with creepers then you should probably make sure that you prepare yourself for the fact it might have been preserved from the harm they can cause. Similarly, wanting to climb Chichen Itza will lead to disappointment because it’s now being rebuilt and safeguarded.

Know the alternatives

If it’s not the specific site that matters to you but the experience of the genre that you’re after then why not look about for less well-known sites that are just as interesting if not as visually spectacular? Lamanai in Belize trumps Mexico’s Chichen Itza for mystery and isolation but can’t compare to the latter’s visual impact. Though you CAN climb the pyramids at Lamanai so if that’s what you’re after then this, or the much closer Coba, are what you need to learn about instead. China’s Great Wall can be seen in comfort at Badaling but if you want to be able to see more of the original brickwork – complete with the millennia-old makers’ stamps then you need to shop around and head to places like Jinshanling instead. If you then see both versions you will ‘know’ the site far better than someone who only opts for one.
The Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, much more interesting than Badaling

Timing is key

I’ve already mentioned how you need to check on potential renovations but I should add that they are usually timed for the low-season if they are anything less than a multi-year epic, so it’s easier to defer to the next high-season. Daily timing is just as important when there is no work going on though. Labouring this example again; Chichen Itza is pretty much empty at 9am in May but by noon it’s a horrorshow of corpulent and disinterested foreigners moaning about the crowds and the heat. That would ruin most people’s experiences so plan accordingly. Don’t dismiss the advice of guidebooks, if they say you need to get there early then damn well make sure you do or you forfeit your right to moan at all. When you know what time you should be arriving then plan your transport accordingly, but also imagine the mood you’re likely to be in. A five hour journey from Belize City to Tikal in Guatemala might be bearable if you were guaranteed to arrive when it’s quiet but the likelihood of being in a good mood after a cramped coach trip is low. So spend the night in Flores and travel there nice and fresh.

I honestly believe that almost all bad experiences can be deflected with a little bit of planning. Nothing as anal as a minute-by-minute itinerary, just simply knowing what to expect. The world’s greatest wonders are called that for a reason but you have to remember that everyone else wants a piece of the action they generate so beggars, touts, and tourists are part and parcel. Be clever in your travel and you’ll be repaid handsomely.

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