My brother and I recently spent two weeks in Thailand, splitting our time between three different locations—Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phi Phi. Seeing another part of the world, completely different from my own, was an experience I’d often thought about (like thinking about what you’re going to eat for lunch when you haven’t had breakfast, and oh yeah, the person next to you is eating pizza), but of course one that I couldn’t foresee. Why? Mostly because I left out one key traveling component: the not-so-glamorous stuff.
Now, I’ve been lucky enough to do a decent bit of traveling (mostly domestically, and by some standards I’m sure I’m completely inexperienced in the matter), but it took me to go halfway around the world to realize: it’s not as glamorous as it looks. Sure, I’ve thought that before. Especially on the back end of driving twenty-four hours straight or when pooping in the woods only to realize I didn’t poop in the woods at all but instead pooped in my pants. But I never thought about really fleshing the idea out and putting it all on paper. So we’ll give Thailand some credit for pushing things along.
I know. “Not as glamorous as it looks.” It sounds like a snobby thing to say, especially about something that is a privilege to be able to do. But it’s not negative, it’s just something that isn’t always portrayed in pictures, or writing, or social media to the extent of its relativity. We see a picture of a person in this exotic location, or hear about an amazing city someone went to, but we don’t see the thirty hours of travel time it took them to get there, or the difficulties in navigating the city because they couldn’t speak the language. We see and hear about the end result, the climactic moments. Which are of course a large reason why we travel, but it’s by no means the whole story. Here are a few more examples of what I mean:
–You’re in an airport. Local time it’s nine o’clock. But to you it’s four in the morning, and you haven’t slept in thirty hours and now you have a three hour layover before jumping on a twelve hour flight. You find your gate, take up a couple of seats, and attempt to get some sleep in a crowded, noisy airport using your lumpy backpack as a pillow (if you’re lucky). This is your trip to the exotic location. Or home.
–You’re in the Indian Ocean. You see long boats in the water, and towering cliffs in the distance. It’s what you came to see, and everything you hoped it would be. BUT, you have to pee. Unfortunately, the bathroom costs money to use and you’re tight on that. No big deal. You’ll just pee in the ocean. Or so you thought. However, the waves are just big enough and consistent enough to interrupt your peeing flow. As a result you spend the next couple of hours feeling like you need to pee but not being able to. (This feels kind of like being in the ocean, waterless, and needing something to drink. But about urine.)
–It’s two in the morning local time. You’ve just arrived to a new, foreign city where you’ll be spending a couple of days. Stoke is pretty high. Now all you need to do is find a cab and drive the forty five minutes that remain to your hotel/hostel and you can finally sleep and explore the city fresh in the morning. Except the cab driver doesn’t speak a word of your native language, and also doesn’t read in his. Find another cab driver, you say? You’re already twenty minutes in to the drive and he’s taken four lefts and six rights and you just drove by a few buildings that look like some not-so-honorable things happen there. Good luck.
–Riding a long boat with all your luggage to catch a ferry. Pretty cool, except it’s raining and you’re wearing salmon shorts.
–Renting a car. But having to rent another one because a lady who was illegally parked pulled out in front of you and ripped part of your fender off, only to have that newly rented one have its tire blown out because of an obscure railroad tie that cannon-balled towards you like you said something about its mother. Now you’re limping into an unknown town for the evening where you’ll spend the night, because it has a population of 17 and nobody works after five. (Sounds like they’ve got it figured out!)
All of that can happen in a matter of days, too. I should know. Most of it happened to me. And while it’s happening it’s frustrating, and scary, and exhausting, but give it some time (some things need more time, and perhaps more alcoholic beverages, than others) and those lowlights become some of the things you remember most, and feel most satisfied about.
Getting through moments of adversity is part of the traveling gig. Something will go wrong, or differently than you had envisioned. It always does. And in that moment you’ll feel uncomfortable, and scared, and vulnerable, and unsure of yourself, probably longing for a nice hot bath in your own home and a good thumb sucking, too. But when that does happen, when you do find yourself feeling this way, you’ll discover you’re more than capable of doing what needs to be done. Maybe more capable than you knew you were.
To paraphrase from an article I wrote a while back, we need stuff to go wrong. Without it, our memories become clouded with indiscernible moments—a kind of Utopian fog—and it becomes easier to take for granted when things do go well. I think the same can be said about traveling. Without the not-so-glamorous, without those mishaps and lowlights, maybe we don’t appreciate the day on the beach or the night out with new friends in an amazing, foreign city. Maybe it becomes all too easy and monotonous and we get bored. Or maybe that’s just me trying to spin a positive light on not being able to pee in the ocean, I don’t know.
Is traveling as glamorous as it looks in pictures or in words on paper? No. But traveling is what it is because of all that it is. The people we meet, the things we see, and the feelings it evokes—both good, bad, and somewhere in between.