Great Expectations

by Gray Cargill on April 15, 2011

Grand Canyon

The gap between the real and the ideal can be as wide as the Grand Canyon

Have you ever had great expectations for something that weren’t realized? Maybe it was an event you had been looking forward to that got canceled, your dream job that turned out to be a nightmare, or someone you had up on a pedestal who turned out to be very, very flawed?  I recently had an email exchange with one of my readers, Barb, in response to my post about New Zealand and how much I long to see the landscape there. She cautioned me not to set my expectations for New Zealand too high. She had spent much time there herself and felt that while the Maori people were worth the trip, we have equally stunning landscapes here in the US.  Her email was a timely reminder for me, as I plan my upcoming trip to Spain, not to expect anything unrealistic of my travel experience.

I did that with Paris. I came away from my trip liking Paris, but not loving it the way I expected to, the way others do.  It’s hard to put my finger on why I was disappointed. I had little interaction with locals, the weather was miserable, and I wound up catching a cold. Still, the same could be said of other places I’ve visited, yet they didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for those locales. So why Paris?

Paris rooftops

Paris rooftops

I think it’s because my vision of Paris, which had been carefully cultivated for a lifetime in my mind, was operating on the level of myth rather than history. Paris is supposed to be the most romantic city in the world. I expected it to be a magical place that would sweep me off my feet.  But I didn’t experience the myth that is Paris, I experienced the history and found it to be a city like any other. A beautiful city, for sure, but just a city. As with any time the ideal meets the real, there is bound to be disappointment.

The same thing happened with Mexico. I had thought that when I finally went to Mexico, I would spend my days exploring Mayan ruins and the streets of quaint villages, eat plates of traditional cuisine prepared by friendly locals, and spend my evenings listening to Mexican music in some little hole-in-the-wall. Instead, I found myself at an isolated, all-inclusive resort with no car, too far to walk to any town, surrounded by other vacationers who seemed to only be interested in the all-you-can-eat-and-drink, laze around the pool “culture” of the resort and the Disneyfied Mexican entertainment they trotted out every night for our benefit.  I was frustrated that I had come all the way to Mexico, but wasn’t experiencing the real Mexico at all.

So yes, sometimes as travelers, we get these ideas in our heads of how the travel experience is going to be. We set ourselves up with “great expectations.” Especially when it comes to our dream destinations. “This trip is going to change my life,” we might think. Or “I am really going to find myself on this trip.”  Or “this will be the trip of a lifetime.”

I think I’ve done a fairly good job at tempering my expectations for my upcoming trip to Spain. While it’s a country I’ve long wanted to visit, I have no preconceived notions about it the way I did France or Mexico. And after my experience in Paris and the cultural and language struggles I went through there, I am prepared to find myself equally frustrated, challenged and exhausted in Spain.

That’s not to say I don’t think I’ll have a good time. I hope I have a great time. But I’ve lowered my expectations. After all, it’s really unfair to put the burden of our lifetimes’ hopes and dreams on a poor, unsuspecting country and its people. So I’m prepared to have language difficulties. I’m prepared for it to possibly rain every day or be unseasonably cold (or hot). I’m bracing myself for potential transportation or lodging difficulties, and for being lonely sometimes.

I think it’s okay to feel disappointment when travel doesn’t turn out the way we hoped. But I also think it’s important for us to take some responsibility for that disappointment and not blame the place. As Shakespeare wrote “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Perhaps our expectations were simply too high, too unattainable, too unrealistic. Temper them, and we might find ourselves deliciously surprised by how much we love a place, in all its dirty, ugly glory.

Have you ever had your “great expectations” for a place disappointed? Where was it, and what happened? Would you go there again, but do things differently?

Gray July 16, 2011 at 8:25 am

That’s a shame (about the tourists being robbed). People often think that about Vermont too. There are still people who live here who are in the habit of leaving their home doors and cars unlocked at night and then are shocked when someone robs them. There’s crime everywhere and you still have to take precautions. If you do, then it IS safe.

Kirstin July 16, 2011 at 12:24 am

I think after the Lord of the Rings there is an expectation that all our scenery in New Zealand is unique and amazing.. To be honest I’ve been in Ireland and in Wales and felt completely at home.

Occasionally I read in the newspaper about some poor tourist who has been robbed while travelling around the country and they’ve said “We thought New Zealand was safe”. I think NZ is pretty safe and a lovely place to live.

Gray April 25, 2011 at 4:18 pm

True, Christine. I think the passage of time helps a lot with perspective about a trip, too. I might feel disappointed immediately after a trip, but as time goes on, I find myself remembering the good of a place more than the bad.

GRRRLTRAVELER April 25, 2011 at 10:28 am

I love this post. YES! I have been disappointed, though I do agree that it’s all about perspective. I think most of the time, just getting on the plane builds high expectations… doesn’t matter where you go. I’ve felt a bit disappointed with Vietnam, Laos… but then I look back at the few precious experiences and then I realize, I’d do it all over again. If you walk away with even a few good experiences and learned how to travel differently, then you’ve gotten your money’s worth.

Gray April 24, 2011 at 3:27 pm

You are so right, Jenna, about taking it personally at times. And about the weather playing such a huge factor (for me anyway). And the weather cannot be controlled. I guess that’s an argument in favor of slow travel. The longer we’re in a place, the more likely we’ll see at least some nice weather. 🙂

Jenna Vandenberg April 24, 2011 at 11:44 am

I love that you wrote about this topic Gray – unmet expectations are a huge part of traveling that no one ever talks (or especially writes) about. I think we tend to take it personally if a trip wasn’t a great success. (“what’s wrong with me!?! Why don’t I love Hawaii?”)

So much of a trip can be hinged on weather. I hated Copenhagen cheifly because the snow and slush wasn’t shoveled around my hostel and I walked about with wet socks all day – hardly Copenhagen’s fault. But what can you do besides buy better shoes and fall in love with Stockholm instead?

Gray April 19, 2011 at 11:30 am

Oh, I’m glad you liked New Zealand, SensibleTraveler, though obviously your opinion and Barb’s differ on whether the landscapes there are better or the same as the US. So many factors affect our reactions to a place, too. I guess we should just be thankful when our expectations are met.

Sensibletraveler April 19, 2011 at 10:26 am

I don’t know if it’s possible to set too high of expectations for New Zealand. I’ve traveled across most of the U.S., and while we have some pretty awesome places, nothing can match the landscapes of New Zealand’s South Island.

Gray April 18, 2011 at 9:07 pm

I remember how nervous you were before your trip, Suzy. I’m so pleased you had such a good time for your first big solo trip!

Suzy April 18, 2011 at 3:28 pm

I definitely agree here. You shouldn’t build a place up too much or your experience because you never know how it will go. For my recent trip to Ireland, I think I was so worried about traveling solo that my expectations for having a good time were pretty low. In the end, I had a blast. I was so surprised by things I worried about that weren’t even a worry once I got there.

Gray April 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

I’m sorry to hear that, Michelle. Sounds like you were most looking forward to spending time with your friend, and that’s where the disappointment lies (that she wasn’t available). That is a shame, especially since you traveled all that way to a city you didn’t want to be in just to see her. I’m glad you at least had a good time at the beach so your trip wasn’t a total wash.

Michelle April 18, 2011 at 9:32 am

My last trip to Australia (only a few weeks ago) lead to some disappointment. I left Canada wanting nothing more than to have a great time at the beach, spend some time with an old friend, and have some great stories when I got back to help show my friends that traveling all that way alone was, indeed, worth it. My time at the beach and watching a pro surf competition in Coolangata for a week couldn’t have been better. The damper on the experience was having to deal with getting in touch with the friend I was staying with the enxt week in Melbourne, finding out she now had to be away 75% of the time for work and not finding out until hours before I was getting on the plane. I ended up in a city I didn’t really want to be in (we’d had plans to take a road trip) and ended up spending a decent amount of money killing time waiting for her to get back from her trip. We ended up spending about 15 hours together of the 3.5 days I was in Melbourne. That situation and her lack of communication in the days afterward put a bit of a damper on my time in Sydney as well. I ended up just spending my last days wanting to be at home instead. I’ve been honest with everyone who has asked abotu my trip. I don’t want it to come across like it was all sunshine and roses but I was really disappointed. I guess it was more with the situation than the location, but it all related back to each other.

Gray Cargill April 17, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Thanks very much, Jeff! I’m not too worried about keeping up with the Spanish late night schedule; I know I can’t do it, so I’m not even going to try.

Jeff Broman April 17, 2011 at 4:00 pm

I understand how it is very easy to get high expectations when you are traveling. The amount of information available online can often create the image that every place you go will be amazing. I have gotten to the point where I really do not over research my destinations because it is much more interesting to be surprised by what you find. I do the most research before the trip figuring out the logistics (where I will stay, how I will get there, trains, buses, etc.) than what I will do. I still have a good idea of what I want to do and see but do not need to know all the details before I get there. I find that by just wandering around I find the most interesting things.

Spain can also be a very challenging country especially if you do not speak Spanish. It was one of the last countries the I visited in Western Europe and is my favorite one. It is an amazing country with great people and it will exhaust you. Barcelona is my favorite city and I can not get enough of it. Don’t worry about trying to keep up with the Spanish schedule…not everyone is out partying all night. If you need any tips on Spain let me know.

Sabina April 17, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I think it’s always good to not get your expectations too high – in travel or in life – because expectations are almost never realized. Although, when expectations do become reality, it is a beautiful feeling. I think this must be one of the things that makes me feel so passionately about so many different areas of the Middle East. I always, always expect – and end up receiving – so much.

Gray April 17, 2011 at 2:43 pm

I’m so glad to hear that about your travels to the Middle East, Sabina. It’s interesting that most people would be hesitant to go to the Middle East to begin with, and I doubt their expectations would be very high if they did. Your experience proves otherwise.

Alouise April 17, 2011 at 12:48 am

I think sometimes it can be difficult keeping our expectations in check, especially all the travel blogs, facebook pages, and twitter updates talking about amazing travel places. One’s persons top travel destination is another person’s worst. One of my favourite quotes is this one from Dr. Seuss, “Hope the best. Expect the worst. Life’s a play and we’re unrehearsed.” I certainly don’t expect the worst from my travel, but I do try to be realistic about what to expect. I know that trying to do too much into one place, can lead to disappointment. Funny enough The Grand Canyon was a travel disappointment for me. Probably because my friends and I went there from Utah on our way to Las Vegas thinking a quick stop at the Grand Canyon would be worth it. We drove for about six hours, and only spent an hour there. Plus it was snowing – and we wanted to drive to Las Vegas to escape the snow.

Gray April 17, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Ha – That’s so funny! My personal philosophy has always been “plan for the worst, but expect the best”. Who knew it was a variation on Dr. Seuss? 🙂 It’s hard to imagine the Grand Canyon being a disappointment, but yeah, it totally depends on the circumstances, your mood at the time, who you’re with…so many variables come into play in determining whether our expectations are met or not. Thanks, Alouise.

Jack and Jill April 16, 2011 at 3:55 pm

We have definitely been disappointed by having too high of an expectation so I always try to keep my expectation in check about places that come highly recommended. But not too sucessfully… so I guess it’s all just part of the travel experience. Sometimes you end up being disappointed, other times the experience surpasses your highest expectation ten fold.

Gray April 16, 2011 at 5:50 pm

I love it when the latter happens. 🙂

Andrea and John April 16, 2011 at 2:38 pm

I can definitely agree with that about New Zealand – although it was really beautiful, my expectations somewhat let me down there coming from the US and even Australia or some places in Europe. ~Andrea.

Gray April 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Hi, Andrea – I think we often overlook the natural beauty at home in favor of the distant and exotic. Until someone comes here and raves about how beautiful it is and then we remember. 🙂

Anonymous April 16, 2011 at 1:43 am

I was actually super disappointed by Spain: Barcelona was the number one city on my must-visit list. The beaches were pretty and the weather was great, but I wasn’t overly impressed by the cuisine and I hated Las Ramblas. Overall, I did enjoy Barcelona–and would consider going back–but it wasn’t the most amazing city EVER that I had built up in my mind! Plus, I’m not a big nightlife person–and all my friends that loved it, loved going out all night in the crazy clubs there. Different strokes for different folks 🙂

Gray April 16, 2011 at 2:48 pm

You’ve just touched upon one of my concerns about Spain,Christine: The late nights. I realize that what makes Spain so much fun for so many is the late nights–dinner at 10pm, partying until 4am. That’s just not my style at all. Not sure I’ll be able to handle those hours.

Tracy Antonioli April 15, 2011 at 9:55 pm

i planned our ‘great europe trip’ for six months, working on it for hours each day. i spent thousands of dollars (and it was a budget trip–thus the hours each day. saving money takes time!) and i had a terrible, terrible time, mainly in paris. i cried–a lot–not because it was so awful, but because it was so ‘not great’ and i’d invested so much money and time into the trip. i will never go into another trip with insanely high expectations, and hopefully i will never be so disappointed again. i haven’t been since–and that was the real value of that trip.

Gray April 16, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Oh, Tracy, I’m so sorry! Having spent so much time as well as money makes it that much worse. I guess we have to get burned once or twice in order to learn not to have such high expectations. If only that weren’t so!

Bluegreen Kirk April 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm

Its just the way things tend to go. What someone else expects and feels my not simply be what you were looking for. I know many times people have insisted that I need to visit some place or see something that to me just ended up not being worth while. But then again I would have never known until I went.

Gray April 16, 2011 at 2:44 pm

True enough, Kirk. A lot of times our expectations are based on others’ impressions, but everyone’s tastes are different.

Abby April 15, 2011 at 3:27 pm

All of this is so true! While I get so excited every single time I board a plane, I’ve been much more mellow about the travels themselves, taking everything in stride. I never really thought about why! I thought it was my need to feel comfortable in faraway places, like I had to play it cool, but I think expectations play a huge role, now that you’ve got me thinking…

Gray April 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Sounds like you’ve figured it out a long time ago, Abby. 🙂

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