While it was not my intent, if someone were to read through the Colombia articles on vagabondjourney.com they may conclude that I did not really have a good time in this country. I write what I feel in the moment, and this is subject to change as each hour, day, or week passes. I enjoyed Colombia, but I did not engage Colombia as I do most other countries I travel through.
But I’ve traveled long enough to not let this fact bother me too much. What struck me as being odd about my experience in Colombia was that this country is so often touted as being a traveler’s nirvana — a great place to travel — by so many bloggers and travelers who I deeply respect that I automatically assumed that my experience here would be similar. My friends Troy at Foggodyssey and Jasmine virtually live in Colombia, and, from what I can of these two characters, our tastes in places are otherwise pretty to be right on.
But in Colombia it wasn’t.
I had a conversation with a reader over email about this. “I find it interesting that your experience vs Jasmines experience of Colombia are completely opposite,” he pointed out. He hypothesized that maybe Jasmine has different experiences than me because she is a pretty woman who mostly travels solo, while I am a bearded and funny looking man who travels with a wife and kid. While he is certainly correct that the way Jasmine and I are received in just about any place on earth is going to be different, I cannot say that this was completely the case here: Troy, Dave, and the mountain of other male travel bloggers who rave about Colombia are about the furthest things from being pretty, let alone women.
Expectations of places are perhaps lethal in travel, though completely unavoidable. Humans are planning animals, we naturally take words of advice and other people’s experience and use them as part of our own preparation for a place or event. Though this inherent ability to prepare is often abstracted when it comes to recreational travel, and the power of expectation is often blown far out of proportion:
Many travelers seem hell bent on enjoying the places they plan to enjoy, and won’t let any pernicious influence enter their sphere of consciousness. They have their blinders up 24-7, only taking in the good and ignoring the bad — blending travel and fantasy neatly together into an indivisible fiction. While another class of traveler often has big expectations for a place, and then they arrive and get bummed because it did not meet their preconceived notion of what it should have been like.
Both strategies drive the tourism industry, but they both are estranged, and get in the way of individual perception.
The trick, perhaps, is to take opinions of places as indications of possibility, and be prepared to tread ground for yourself to see if that possibility will be in store for you or if you will find something new. The opinions of others can be used as wayfinding points on the road, a way to limit the infinite amount of choices available to a traveler in their pursuit of finding a path through the world. But, upon arrival, open your own senses to a place, and feel it out for yourself. Never let another’s experience out color your own impressions. Above all, allow yourself to see and feel what is in front of you without worrying if it matches the opinion of the group — it is alright to be different here, these are your travels. When your experiences and opinions of a place do not match the “collective” opinion do not shy away and attempt to mask your own experience to save face and remain fashionable, but add your impressions to the collective pot of traveler knowledge of a certain place at a certain time.
I know that unless I go to some place I’ve never heard of before there is no way that I can ignore my expectations of what I’ve read and heard the place is like. Trying to ignore my expectations seems to be as fruitful of an endeavor as believing them 100%. Though whether I expect a place to be a nirvana or I expect it to be a hellhole, I know that I should expect to make my travels for myself.
I know that if I sit back in a country and just expect to be entertained, intrigued, and informed, then my endeavor there as a writer or even a traveler is going to go belly up there no matter how great another traveler said it is. I know that I must expect to make my own travels, that I must actively engage the places I am in, put effort into meeting people, work my balls off acquiring information, collecting conversations, and gaining a deeper impression of a place and a people.
So whether Jasmine or Andy or Troy say a place is great or not is almost of absolute irrelevance for me, as I must make a place great for myself — and I believe that I can do this for 99% of the planet. I will use the advice and recommendations of others as I plan my stops through this world — I need to refine my options down to a singular path somehow — but once “on the ground,” I am on my own to make the place for myself.
If I just walk around a city like a tourist passively hoping to have an interesting experience, every place on this planet is going to let me down. But if I get up off my arse, get out in the streets, burn off some boot rubber, embarrass myself a dozen times a day asking people funny questions and socially sticking my neck out, I can make even the biggest hellholes on the planet interesting as well as enjoyable.