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Friday, March 13, 2009

Disappointment on the road: how I attempt to avoid it

Here's my response to an invitation from Eric over at to reflect upon disappointment on the road:
"Giza’s pyramids were smaller than I’d imagined and their suburban location a surprise, Paris’ Eiffel Tower was little more than an elegant oversized transmission tower, Victoria’s Twelve Apostles tinier than I remembered, and, there weren’t even twelve anymore, and that hot air balloon ride was noisy, cramped, chaotic, and uncomfortably hot. As a travel writer, avoiding disappointment is a constant challenge. Because I know disappointment occurs when expectations are too high. Lower expectations and the chances of disappointment are lower. Raise them and we increase the risk of having a bad time. The irony is the very things we find inspiring – the stirring images we enjoy gazing at, the evocative stories we like reading – are the things responsible for our disappointment if our experiences don’t measure up. To have no expectations, we must read nothing, look at nothing, and listen to no travel tales – impossible for a writer. So the way I counteract disappointment is to seek out different ways of experiencing ‘familiar’ places – to look beyond the main attraction to the overlooked and under-written about (often beneath our very noses or right around the corner), to discover and communicate the wonder of everyday things and people, to write honestly about places, and to encourage others to seek out and appreciate the beauty of the authentic and everyday."

Drop over to Eric's site to see what other travel bloggers have to say, but I'd love to hear from you and find out how you overcome disappointment on the road, or whether you have any tips for avoiding it? Is this even something you think about and are conscious of? Or do you just deal with it when it happens. And if so, how?


Anonymous said...

This is such a problem that like you and lots of others, it seems, I've been thinking about it a lot. I don't think it's only in travel, but travel is often about the new, and the new needs some preparation, so we have to move ourselves into that zone where we imagine, prepare and then experience.

The reason I've been thinking about it is that I wanted to document this next trip to the US well... I'm not a travel writer (god, I'd be horrible), and that isn't the purpose of the documenting the trip - it's a research trip that is more about specific issues in each place and a way of looking at each place, but it got me to thinking about how much research I should do before I get there, or if it would take away the moment of experiencing and therefore lead to that disappointment that you're talking about here. I'm worried that the expectation then will be either too high or too low, and I guess I'm fearful that expecations become the point of it... how much does it deviate from what I expected... how well am I prepared for this? Should I have brought this, that or the other? Should I have contacted more or less people? And I suspect then for me the disappointment would be in not meeting the expectations that I have of a place. And that feels really pedestrian, that's why I really like your take on managing those feelings, and I really will give it a shot.

I do think it's much more exciting to be the cautious optimist, and I'm still not quite brilliant at doing that with travel when I am in other contexts.
So, it's definitely a good travel task for me to take on.

I think the other thing that struck me by what you and the others wrote was how much it seemed to be about expectations that others had set... I keep coming back to this feeling that I have that I like reading you and other travel writers that I really love, compared to the majority of them out there, because they aren't writing about the big things, but the human observations... stuff like getting a good breakfast and the moments that that brings, or meeting someone who surprises you, is so much more meaningful to me than getting a look at the Mona Lisa, ya know?

Anonymous said...

I'm currently HQ'd in a city that is a hugely popular tourist destination, but that I find hugely disappointing. I keep myself from getting too down about it by taking my camera with me wherever I go, and forcing myself to find the beauty to capture. It's worked - so far!

Unknown said...

I think it's important to remember that the icon is just a representation of a place and a time when "wonderment" was not within everyone's grasp. We are a shrinking world. The Pyramids may not appear as huge against the numerous high towers being built today however; hitching a ride in a lorry to get there, sitting on a crate of figs between the driver and passenger with a chicken on my lap... priceless? Perhaps not, but surely memorable in terms of generousity, and storytelling; both by me and I'm sure the driver. I grew up 25 minutes from Niagara Falls. I never visited much, because of the tourist trap status. After 20 minutes of watching copious amounts of water tumbling down, you're done. But, now when I go there I get this huge smile on my face as I watch travellers/tourists mulling around the kitch and tacky commercialism; families with children cramming to see the the falls, dropped ice cream cones, picnic blankets spread like a quilts over the park areas. It's a bit of madness and somehow warming at the same time. Don't be disappointed, don't let your hopes become your expectations. Take it all in, every little visual morsel and watch the spectacle unfold. It's much more than the tower, the building, the natural beauty, it's what the place has been, what it has become, the people who visit, and the people who have made it home. And if that doesn't work, perhaps wait until off peak season.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Sandy

I can't wait to see how you document your US trip and read your post-trip reflections.

You point out "how much it seemed to be about expectations that others had set", you know, this is utmost in my mind whenever I'm writing guidebooks, so that means at the moment I'm thinking about this all day every day with each word I write... taking care not to put a place or experience too high on a pedestal so that people are then disappointed by it.

As I've been rewriting content written by another author who was too critical of some places, I'm remembering that we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived in those towns as a result of having low expectations. But then if I'm too critical in my writing do I put people off going there altogether? We only went to a few of these tiny outback towns because we had too. Others might have given them a miss because of the bad reviews and then missed out on wonderful experiences...

Thanks for commenting, Sandy!

Hi Miss Expatria

Now I'm dying to know which city you're in! I'm going to have to visit your site and find out as soon as I post this! I think that is a great strategy to use, taking the camera. We used to do that with our students, and I remember as a student having our photography lecturers require us to document the surroundings we were most familiar with, to find new ways of seeing them. It's that sense of seeing but not really seeing, of having our eyes opened as if for the first time.

I'm glad it's working for you! I'm keen to look at those shots...

Thanks for dropping by!

Jessie V said...

lara, this is an excellent discussion. as a person with disabilities, i am often disappointed that i can't get in, go to, or actually see things close up. what i've learned is to enjoy things from a distance, and also to look around where i actually AM. sometimes, the benches around the eiffel tower are infinitely more interesting than looking (or going) up.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Gregory

You make an absolutely brilliant point! I love this statement: "I think it's important to remember that the icon is just a representation of a place and a time when "wonderment" was not within everyone's grasp."

It makes me think back to those guys who carted the very first movie cameras around the world - they were trying to sell them of course and in the process of demonstrating their purpose recorded all this amazing footage which they could back to France and the US and showed to audiences there... the stuff they filmed were the icons, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, Iguazu Falls... I imagine they were the things that jumped out at them, that visually captured and communicated the excitement and exoticism of those places into one pretty picture... or reel of film. But of course before that there was photography and postcards...

These days, like you, I much prefer the moments in a truck with a chicken on the lap, or in a taxi with a fascinating human being at the wheel... I think travel documentary has come a long way but I don't think it's there yet... they are still so focused on the personality of the presenter... but I'd love to see (or make) travel docs that communicate those little everyday experiences that make travel so interesting.

Great advice too! Like you, I love watching the way people watch, and the way they enjoy sights more than the sights themselves. That's a great thing to encourage those who are disappointed by the icon to do.

And, yeah, totally agree about off-season travel. I'm a huge fan of it! You get such a different perspective of a place. I love to see the beauty of an empty beach in winter, rather than one crowded with a thousand human bodies... although there's lots of fascinating people-watching that's missed in that case. But there is something about off-season travel, isn't there?

Thanks, Gregory!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Jessie

Oh, I feel for you - thank you so much for that insight from your perspective - but I love your strategy.

I try to do that as well - hence the photo of the Eiffel Tower - that was my third visit and we wanted to step back and look at it in ways we hadn't before. I totally agree about it being more interesting from the ground in many ways!

Thanks, Jess! :)

ClearlyEnlight, said...

Accepting the moment, and taking the time to absorb the moment will defeat the emotion of disappointment.

Disappointment is an emotion that plays upon expectations. Avoid expectations and preconceived ideas, I wrote an article on this subject along with not having any attachment before I departed for my travels.

I have not been disappointed with anything, because there is nothing to be disappointed about if a person remains in the moment and accepts the precise moment.

ClearlyEnlight, said...

Accepting the moment, and taking the time to absorb the moment will defeat the emotion of disappointment.

Disappointment is an emotion that plays upon expectations. Avoid expectations and preconceived ideas, I wrote an article on this subject along with not having any attachment before I departed for my travels.

I have not been disappointed with anything, because there is nothing to be disappointed about if a person remains in the moment and accepts the precise moment.

Anonymous said...

The only time I remember I've been a bit disappointed was when I came to New York. After reading different travel articles and guidebooks I expected the city to be (even) bigger. Since then I haven't really had any expectations before visiting a new city. I think it's possible to not have any expectations at all - that doesn't mean you don't have any thoughts/views/images in your mind about how a city or certain aspects of the city will be. You just don't expect it - it's all in your head. Not a fact. For example, I have thoughts about how Rio, Sao Paulo, Barcelona, L.A., Chicago and other cities will be. But I don't expect this to be true, so there's no risk that I'll be disappointed - no matter what. If that makes any sense :)

Lara Dunston said...

Hi ClearlyEnlight - great advice. You're so right - expectations are the things that cause that disappointment, so the art of it all is to try not to develop too many expectations. But then it's the expectations that keep people inspired and motivated, isn't it?

Hi Erica - yeah, that does make sense, but you're a travel writer too, don't you think that's easier to do as a traveller or holiday-maker than it is as a professional travel writer? Because as a writer, we're in the business of inspiring people and motivating them to travel as much as we are about informing them, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of travellers and so develop and go with the expectations - and that is a wide range of expectations - they might make... and then test them out in a way, so we know what to write (or not write) ourselves.

Thanks for commenting!

ClearlyEnlight, said...

Expectations within balance, yes, does motivate and inspire. Although, many people become imbalanced that leads to glamorous fantasizing into a non-reality that leads into being disappointed.

Remaining the in moment, which the ego hates, is the remedy. Accepting the moment as it is, and not what a personal fantasy, based on ego, wanted it to be.

This process works for myself as a long term traveler.

Anonymous said...

Having a great travel companion is my way to overcome disappointment. When my husband and I found Tybee Island in Georgia to be disappointing we decided to stop off at an old fort on the way back to Savannah. This last minute side trip turned out to be fascinating and a lot of fun. If you stay open to other possibilities you can always find something amazing!

Anonymous said...

I find that my disappointment usually has to do with things other than the actual place. Maybe I ran into a rude person, or I'm overtired, or it's overcrowded.
But these instances are rare. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world just to be out and about.
Oh and I am lucky to have the best travel companion, my son. Kids have a way of seeing the cool things we often miss, and I've learned to have a much better sense of humor about disappointments. They often make for the best stories anyway.

Lara Dunston said...

HI Travel Muse - yes, it's hard to be disappointed when you're travelling with someone you love, isn't it?

Hi Carolina - I'm glad you mentioned that, actually. I'd completely forgotten about rude people!

Thanks for commenting, you two!

Anonymous said...

I have had the odd disappointment but I try to keep things in perspective and still enjoy the sight for what it is. Trying to understand its history, cultural impact or reason for being helps salve any disappointment as I think there is nearly always some story that makes sense. That being said, I've almost never been disappointed with natural attractions (nature is always impressive to me). A far greater disappointment is when I travel far to see something to find it closed for some unexpected reason or encased in scaffolding or heavily restricted.

Anonymous said...

Lara, Whenever I’ve written about travel in the past I’ve tried to put myself in their shoes, but I haven’t looked at it in the way that we ‘test’ the expectations travelers/readers might make so we know what to write. That's a great way to explain it.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Mark - oh, yes - scaffolding! There are places we've visited countless of times in Italy that seem to have been forever under scaffolding. Very frustrating. Agree with you that nature rarely disappoints.

Hi Erica - thank you! Yeah, whenever we have a guidebook to update, I do a quick read-through of all the sections we need to update and highlight key words and make notes about my immediate emotional reactions, and then 'test' out my actual reaction when we're there, and then decide how to temper the language used. I'm so conscious of how travellers react to text and the actual experience and how they conflate and compare the two - perhaps too conscious sometimes! :)