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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 88 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 3396 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

8 comments… add one

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  • Andy Graham October 14, 2011, 7:29 am

    Wade, I try to never listen to readers, or other travel writers, it is just a waste of a good mind to entertain their dribble.

    What is your contribution to the world? If you are telling an honest story, then you are a historian, if you write to please the audience, then you are just telling stories for entertainment purposes.

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    • Wade Shepard October 14, 2011, 10:56 am

      Yes, it becomes severely limiting to try to write what you think people want to read. To do this can make more money, but it is a job, a chore, and if I did this I may as well just find work doing something else and make twice as much money haha. They teach the exact opposite in those travel writing schools (“find a niche and write for people of that niche . . .), but a writer needs to write first and foremost for themselves. If anybody else finds it interesting, then great; if not, oh well.

      The email from the reader, Todd, was pretty genuine though. This article was not really about him — he gets the plot keenly — he just unintentionally presented me with a good turn of a phrase to base this piece on which is for a more critical crowd.

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  • Jasmine October 14, 2011, 8:09 pm

    I totally agree with you here… I write about my subjective experiences, positive, negative, and neutral. I have occasionally popped into a blog here and there that is filled with sunshine, rainbows, and puppies, as if nothing else existed, and that’s just not real life.

    I do have to say though that it seems like you’ve really disliked Colombia and your time there. I do hope you get back on your feet again in San Cris when you get there.

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    • Wade Shepard October 16, 2011, 11:46 am

      Hello Jasmine,

      Would love to talk with you about Colombia soon. This has been an interesting country for us. It just seems like standard Latin America at double the price. I can’t figure out the pricing in this country, as, on average, the “people” make the same as neighboring countries. I also don’t like that foreigners are expected to pay roughly 30% more for things like bus tickets. It is over $60 now for a foreigner to take a bus from Cartagena to Medellin. For the ride from San Gil to “Santa Marta” a friend call the bus company and ordered our tickets with her Colombian ID number, which got us the tickets for 20,000 pesos less each than if we paid the tourist price (this may have lead to some of the problems we experienced en route). For essentials like transport, it is BS to charge people significantly more money based on their national origin. The visa renewal and exit fees also have taken their tolls on me. I am now paying nearly $4 per day (I pay for three people) to the Colombian government just to exist here, as we are over our 60 day free time, and the thought of paying out $180 just to leave is annoying. Then the hotel rooms . . . well, I don’t even want to get started on this, but I’m paying more here for accommodation that I’ve EVER regularly spent haha.

      Beyond this, my time here as been alright. It was not the nirvana I was looking for (haha) but I’m happy. The problem is mainly that I know that there are countries all around Colombia that are very similar where I am won’t have the money sucked out of me each day like I have a vacuum cleaner stuck to my pockets. But that’s travel. Some countries are more expensive than others. But the reasons why Colombia is more expensive is something that is currently eluding me.

      It is all about quality of life, I suppose. In a cheaper country, I can live better. If I wanted to live well — i.e. as I can in Mexico or just about anywhere else in Latin America that I’ve traveled — in Colombia I would be dropping well over $60 per day. I just feel like I’m getting a lot less for a lot more money here. Travel becomes vastly less enjoyable when you have to sacrifice nearly a week’s wage just to get to the next city haha. This doesn’t really ruin my time here, just dampers it a little.

      Other than money issues, Colombia is fine. I ultimately have a good time each day.

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  • Jasmine October 16, 2011, 12:23 pm

    That’s really interesting, as I find Mexico is a lot more expensive than Colombia. I wasn’t aware about the foreigner premium for transport, I just go by the rule of paying $2-3 per hour of bus travel in Colombia. Prices do fluctuate during peak high seasons though, for everyone, not just for foreigners. And the reason transport is so expensive in Colombia is because of the price of petrol – almost $5 a gallon!

    I find the food to be especially cheaper in Colombia than in Mexico, especially at sit-down restaurants (the most I’ve ever paid in Colombia for a meal is probably $5, which is at the low end of the scale in Mexico at a sit-down in my experience).

    Outside of the big cities, I never pay more than 25,000 pesos for a private room with bathroom, which I think is a good deal. Even in Cartagena I paid something similar.

    Anyway, it’s been interesting to hear about your experiences there. Would love to talk about Colombia too once you guys get to DF.

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    • Wade Shepard October 16, 2011, 3:29 pm

      $2 to $3 per seat hour on a bus???? Wow. Every other tourist is paying $4 to $5 per hour as a rule haha. I ask around about this regularly, and most foreign travelers pay more than me. But the price of gas is more or less the same in Colombia as it is in most other LA countries — around $2 a liter or — so I still don’t understand those Colombian bus prices. What locals and you pay — $2 or so per hour — seems about right, but everyone with a white face and foreign accent pays way more.

      Yeah, we typically pay 30 to 35 thousand pesos for a double room at a hotel that is not a hippie run hostel. In Cartagena, 40 seems to be the cheapest that is not full of prostitutes or real dirty and full of hippies. I think this is still the low season rates.

      We would pay around $8 to $15 per night for a GOOD private double room, around $4 for an excellent meal, and roughly $2 – $3 per bus hour in Mexico. It is funny that our experiences of prices in these two countries differs so much.

      Looking forward to meeting up soon.

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      • Wade Shepard October 16, 2011, 8:46 pm

        I added up what I’ve paid up to here for buses, and it averages out to around $3 an hour. But, again, I bargain hard or had Colombians buy my tickets, so I often paid less. The other backpackers I’ve interviewed about this all paid $4+.

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  • Jasmine October 17, 2011, 10:07 pm

    That’s about right. I would say that backpackers paid more because they didn’t know they could bargain for bus fare (not too common in many countries) or don’t know how to do it properly.

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