Stories about travel

When I was 14, I spent a week and a half in Costa Rica on a school trip. The venture was undoubtedly life-changing, and I spent the weeks and months after telling anyone who would listen stories about seeing six foot sea turtles lay eggs on a beach in the cover of darkness and ziplining above the canopy of a cloud forest.

The stories I told weren’t inaccurate, but they were certainly incomplete. Even when going over my own recollections, I skipped the part where I was standing alone in an ice-cold shower nearly sobbing as I tried to wash blood out of my underwear. I was homesick and on my period (still a relatively new phenomenon at that age) and traveling mostly with 11-year-olds who I thought were too young to understand, and adults I didn’t know well enough to confide in. In that moment, it didn’t matter that I was at a turtle reserve and getting an incredible opportunity to see nature up close. I just wanted to go home, to be around something familiar and comforting.

It’s easy to romanticize travel, to others and especially to ourselves. Being able to travel extensively is such an incredible privilege that it seems ungrateful to focus on or talk about things not going so well. Plane tickets, especially to strange foreign countries, aren’t cheap, and we humans are the masters of justifying things after the fact. Nobody wants to spend thousands of dollars on something not perfect, so we tell ourselves stories that leave those parts out.

Some things that are painful in the moment become hilarious tales of misadventure after the fact. As soon as we return home, we laugh off stories of bureaucracy and delayed trains and intestinal problems cropping up in less-than-convenient places. When I talk about my family’s trip to France in 2003, the record-breaking heat wave that sent temperatures up to 120 degrees becomes a footnote, even though much of our day was consumed with searches for ice, for watering holes, for anything that would let us cool off.

Two weeks of travel around India has given me ample opportunity to think about all of this. According to our Facebook feeds, Spencer and I are having a classic adventure. We saw a tiger in the wild, took selfies in front of the Taj Mahal and spent a day visiting temples and holy sites scattered around Delhi.

Left out, of course, are the grueling hours spent hauling our possessions from taxi to train to bus to plane to another hole-in-the-wall hotel with flickering lights; the humidity, which rendered me so exhausted that I had trouble walking in a straight line after an hour at the Taj; and the endless haggling with drivers in an attempt to get where we need to go without paying an arm and a leg.

After days packed full of sightseeing in oppressive weather or traveling through three states in India, Spencer and I are often exhausted and a bit homesick. We miss the simple luxuries of home: having more than three t-shirts to choose from, being able to kick up your feet on a couch and watch a TV program that looks vaguely familiar, or just having friends in the same time zone as you.

Feeling that way can be discouraging at times. Travel is fun, we tell ourselves. We should be happy. We should be grateful.

Here’s what I’ve come to realize during my summer on the road. It’s not possible to see sights and meet people and experience a new place without having unpleasant and unhappy moments.

I’m not just talking about the momentary confusion of finding your train in a bustling station where your language isn’t widely spoken – the sort of character-building cultural difference that’s the meat of any good travel experience. I’m talking about the bone-crushing exhaustion of days where you transfer luggage four times and have an upset stomach and all your underwear is dirty and there’s a weird sore on your thigh that is probably nothing but possibly a parasitic worm and you really, really just want to be home wearing sweatpants and watching Netflix.

For every unforgettable visit to an ancient monument or enlightening conversation with a local, I’ve had a moment sitting on a train where I would have done anything to eat something disgustingly deep-fried in the way only Americans can do properly. A moment where I wanted to scream at the next person who interrupted my conversation to ask where I was from or try to sell me something. A moment where I would have paid a decent sum of money to be teleported home, just for one night, and resume my adventure in 24 hours.

It’s taken me some time to realize that feeling like this doesn’t mean I’m bad at travel or wasting my time and money. Because I think we all have these moments on the road, even if they get edited out of the stories later. If you want to see sights, you have to walk around in hot weather or transfer trains or brave long lines of other tourists, some of whom are probably jerks. Sooner or later, you’re going to end up being tired and irritated. Sooner or later, most of us miss something from home. And I’m convinced no amount of inherent peppiness or preparation can smooth all of those moments over.

India has, in many ways, been challenging, in both the good and bad senses of the word. I’m learning a ton about a history and culture that’s very different from my own. I’m seeing incredible things, gathering stories and trying all kinds of new food. And I’m learning a lot about the limits of my patience, about the ways my anxiety manifests in unfamiliar circumstances, and about the things I really need to be comfortable.

I am incredibly happy and incredibly grateful to be here. But that’s not all I am, and that’s not what I am all the time. After two weeks, I’m okay with the full range of feelings I’ve had on this trip. The hard stuff makes for good stories later, but I think we do ourselves a disservice by pretending adventures always have to be fun.

4 thoughts on “Stories about travel”

  1. Traveling too much can end up making you feel lost.

    Thank you for this unique and honest perspective, Rachel. I don’t travel much, and recently had a wonderful 11 days in Wyoming. The natural beauty was unsurpassed. Still, I sick of evaluating new hotels for comfort. Mostly, when I got home I was astonished at the feeling of having an entire room devoted to storing and preparing food.

  2. Brilliantly written! I love your honest assessment of your travels this summer. You are finding the gems among the gravel, and not afraid to admit it isn’t always “picture perfect”.
    I can’t wait to hear (or read) more when you return home to your Netflix and your sweatpants!

  3. Oh my goodness, I love your honesty! Traveling has always been a struggle for me and that’s why I haven’t done much of it. As I read your entry, I realized it typically comes down to putting a lot of weight on the experience being perfect which is not a realistic outlook to begin with–especially for someone with the anxiety issues I have. Taking the experience as a whole speaks deeply to what I’ve been learning about in general: life is good and bad experiences and just taking the good and ignoring the bad makes life incomplete.

    It reminds me of the one and only time we had the pleasure of sitting a friend down and listening to his story of his summer in Nepal. We had the privilege of listening to all his great stories about helping in an orphanage, hiking in the Himalayas, and meeting locals who were fighting against the human trafficking that is so prevalent there. Yet our favorite stories, and the ones we repeat most frequently, are the ones he shared that had us laughing awkwardly in horror and relief at the misfortunes he face and survived. It was those tales of truth that made us so thankful that he had returned safely to us. The story of how he was nearly kidnapped while meandering through a protest (the government fell apart just days before he arrived!) and, being the 6′ giant that he is, scared off the far shorter men by stomping in their direction. His run in with food poisoning that nearly killed him and caused the hostel owner to rush him to the hospital where he received antibiotics that began turning his IV arm blue. There were so many like this and it put things into perspective for me on so many different levels.

    Until reading your entry, I just assumed that he was made for that kind of adventure–which is true to a point–but that doesn’t mean that he viewed the experience as completely perfect.

    Thank you so much, Rachel, for being so honest. I would very much like to hear ALL your stories when you get back, it would be an honor and a privilege.

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