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Travel Writing Should Include Both Positive and Negative Experiences

It is often difficult to communicate the positive and neutral experiences that you’ve had in a country when there are negatives thrown in as well. Humans perhaps have a propensity to focus on negative statements disproportionately more than positive ones. We seem to just expect tons of positives to be present in published travel writing [...]

It is often difficult to communicate the positive and neutral experiences that you’ve had in a country when there are negatives thrown in as well. Humans perhaps have a propensity to focus on negative statements disproportionately more than positive ones. We seem to just expect tons of positives to be present in published travel writing — travel writers get paid to show a peachy vision of the world — so when someone does write about the negative aspects of visiting a particular country it tends to act as a curve ball of sorts, taking readers off guard, and causing many to rise up in arms and defend some place they fantasize about.

This seems to be especially true if you are writing something negative about a country like Colombia — a place that has an almost cult like following of travelers who tout it very highly.

Nirvana or hellhole?

I have had many excellent experiences in Colombia as well as some real awful ones. I tried to publish them both evenly here on this travelogue to give a somewhat balanced report — I am not one of those bloggers who ignore the negative elements of travel in the name of good business — but it is my impression that I’m failing in this attempt: my negative critiques of Colombia seem to be grossly overpowering my positive ones, 10 positive reviews can not stand against one negative one. A long term reader and supporter named Todd sent me an email that contained a line that really stuck with me:

“Sorry you did not find the nirvana you were looking for.”

He was referring to the somewhat less than enthusiastic travelogue entries that I’ve published about Colombia. Though his tone in this email was truly genuine and was not snarky in the least, these words still riveted me, as, in many ways, he was very correct: I have not found nirvana in Colombia. But this is rarely my attempt anywhere.

Tourists go looking for nirvana, paradise, leisure. It is my aim to go looking for something much simpler than this: normal, daily life in all climes of this earth. In point, I am on a banal hunt for knowledge of the way things are in all corners of the planet.

I like being thrilled and entertained in my travels, but it is not really my goal. I travel to learn, to simple look upon and found out what is going on at street level everywhere — it is the process of attempting to satiate an unquenchable curiosity, of simply getting to know the world I live in. I can have a completely horrible time somewhere but I will still consider it a valuable experience which was worth doing. If I was hot on the pursuit of pleasure I am not sure I could say that half the places I’ve traveled fulfilled this goal.

While enjoying your travels is perhaps the prime pursuit of the occupation, it is not the only pursuit. In many ways, visiting a hellhole can be far more valuable than sitting on some nice beach dozing your days away. Travel is about building a life, it is about collecting new experiences and impressions while working towards constructing a holistic impression of this planet — the great masterpiece of the traveler. This means going to places that you love as well as going to those you feel little passion for, and just because you spend a handful of months in a country you don’t really enjoy does not mean that it was time wasted.

When you think of leisure, pleasure, nirvana, you think of a time and a place where you are not challenged, where there are no hardships, where you are enjoying yourself without a hitch. These experiences are good in the moment but often lack real value for posterity. This is not to say that I’m a masochist, that I’m out trying to be unnecessarily challenged or looking for hardship. I take my nirvanas when I get them, and I do try to go to the best places possible — what idiot would intentionally go to a hellhole? — but when I don’t find nirvana it is not cause to whine about it and call the experience a bust. To the contrary, the facing of a hellhole is a part of travel experience.

To write a balanced view of the world you need to include the negative elements as well as the positive, and just because I occasionally act annoyed or frustrated with a country or culture does not mean that I don’t like it or have not enjoyed my time there. To present the world otherwise is to lie by omission, it is to be dishonest. I want people to read my articles from Colombia and be like, “yeah, some things are real good there and some things are real bad, but that is the way life is everywhere,” I want them to see the double edged sword that is pretty sharp on both sides, I want the reality of this country to come out between the lines.

World travel is about both the nirvanas and the hellholes. These two value judgements serve to balance each other out and keep the road diverse: too much nirvana and your mind gets numb and flabby, too many hellholes and you are hating life. Knowing how to take the two in stride is a key to enjoying traveling long term. Most places that you go to in travel sit somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, only occasionally will you hit a nirvana and, hopefully, you will only rarely find yourself in a true hellhole. Taganga, in my book, is a hellhole, while Palomino and Mongui were nirvanas. The rest of the places I visited in Colombia fell somewhere in the middle: not super good, not super bad, just middle of the road stops on this journey through this always intriguing planet.

“Now I know.”

This is perhaps the prime impetus to travel. In this view of the world not even a hellhole is completely bad, and even a nirvana is not absolute bliss. Traveling to know places — to take away an impression of a certain place at a certain point in time. This is the true essence of this occupation. In this light, both nirvanas and hellholes are dualities that blend together to form a complete whole: your impression of the world as you travel through it.

Travel writing needs to reflect this to be anything more than limp wristed entertainment.

Filed under: Colombia, South America, Travel Philosophy, Travel Writing

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 87 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3347 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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