What Extended Travel Taught Me About Expectation Management
And Other Lessons from Ninety Days Around the World
I really hate lists.
The world of travel writing is chock-full of them, and I find most of them to be absolutely asinine. I’m sorry, and I’m aware this is curmudgeonly, but I don’t care about your top three reasons I shouldn’t move to Portugal or the five questions you shouldn’t ask travelers. Yes, these are real blog posts I just found online, and no, I didn’t read any of them.
Why? Because I care about the story of the trip. Why did you go? What did you learn? How did you dig into a place, find its soul, and feel your own soul be moved by it? And how are you communicating that to your readers?
Buzzfeed-style listicles simply don’t convey any of that. Hopefully this list is different.
I’ve been asked a few times over the past couple months to write a summary of the things I learned and experienced while traveling around the world during the first quarter of 2022. As you might imagine, that’s a pretty big undertaking. And without writing a dissertation on extended travel, a list is pretty much the only way to do it. So, here goes. To all the better writers than me out there, forgive me for committing the cardinal sin of list-writing.
1 — Travel is a Lot More Accessible Than You Think
Think about the one place you’ve always wanted to go — visualize it, try to smell it, imagine what it would be like when you’re there. Now, ask yourself, what’s stopping you from going?
The answer is probably one of three things: time off work, money, or a worry that it’s inaccessible — that it’ll be hard to get around or dangerous or maybe you don’t speak the language. And all of those fears are misplaced.
Let’s start with time off work. I think the American PTO system is broken, but sadly I can’t fix it in a blog post. And obviously most people can’t drop everything, sell their houses and travel for three months like Kira and I did. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have amazing experiences in amazing places with your ten or twelve or fourteen days of yearly time off. My advice is to start small — you probably won’t be able to see all the small towns in Peru in ten days, but you can almost certainly explore Cusco a little bit and hike the Inca Trail. Even if you want to go big, don’t let those ten days stop you — yes spending 60 of your 240 hours of PTO just to get to and from Southeast Asia will really suck. You’ll probably be so jet lagged you feel hungover. But if you’ve always wanted to go, suck it up, it’ll be worth it. At least it was for me.
So what about the money? I’m working on a full breakdown of our expenses for future publication, but I’ll sum it up here — if you travel the right way, you’d be shocked by how little it costs. We spent roughly $100 per day and could’ve saved more money by actually planning, instead of waiting til midnight to book a flight leaving the next morning. The budget-friendly things I was afraid of at the beginning of the trip, like traveling by local bus and staying in hostels, actually ended up being one of my favorite aspects of travel, and part of what I miss the most now that we’re home. Even with more money to spend, I still would’ve wanted to travel the way we did. It’s simply more fun than taking the all-inclusive resort or coach bus approach, and I think you get more out of it.
It seems the biggest fear people have about travel is inaccessibility and safety. And that really shouldn’t be surprising when headlines are filled with clickbait about travelers dying and disappearing, or when you log into Reddit and read the horror stories of muggings in places you probably assumed were perfectly safe. While I can’t speak for every country in the world (yet) I can say this — every place I’ve ever been, including Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, were safer than I thought they would be. Now, that means different things in different places (i.e. Syria) but the takeaway for people reading this should be to stop being afraid of traveling. No matter where you go risk is involved, and if you avoid traveling to a place you’ve always dreamed of visiting because it might be dangerous, you should probably also rethink your daily commute.
It’s easy to get preachy when talking about barriers to travel, and I’m aware that, like in most other aspects of my life, I have a serious degree of privilege compared to others — as a relatively fit white American male that can speak one foreign language semi-fluently and bullshit his way through a couple others, I don’t have much to worry about whether I’m at home or on the road. So I’ll sum this up by simply saying that in the almost thirty cities we passed through, I was never once scared, I never came close to getting robbed, and I could always find someone that spoke English. Travel is a lot more accessible than you think.
2 — You’ll Go for the Bucket List Item, but You’ll Fall in Love with the Small Things
When Kira and I decided to go to Cambodia as the last stop on our extended honeymoon, the first thing I did was Google “what is there to do in Cambodia?” Obviously I’m kind of a moron, because the answer is a lot. Angkor Wat is at the top of every list, for obvious reasons. It’s possibly the most incredible archaeological site I’ve ever seen. And while I’ll never forget seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise, I’ll also never forget my first bite of char kroeung sach ko, a stir-fried beef dish with lemongrass that ranks among the best meals I’ve ever eaten in my life. And I never would’ve eaten that phenomenal meal, sitting on a plastic stool on the side of a street in Siem Reap, if I hadn’t gone to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. And if I hadn’t gone to Cambodia I might’ve never fallen in love with Southeast Asia at all, an infatuation that might end up changing my life, at least a little bit.
Of course you don’t have to travel halfway across the world to an off the beaten path destination to have experiences like that one. For example, I have two favorite places in Paris, and they aren’t the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. There’s a small cafe near Sacre Coeur where I drank an espresso chased with a glass of red wine one afternoon, enjoying the setting sun and listening to an impromptu jam band playing Dave Matthews covers. And around the corner from the cathedral there’s a tiny restaurant where none of the staff speaks a word of English but they serve phenomenal steak frites and I ate my first escargot. I finally understood why people fall in love with Paris after that, and it had nothing to do with the Mona Lisa.
I’ve already written about hiking the Inca Trail, and how my favorite Peruvian archaeological site actually isn’t Machu Picchu, but Wiñay Wayna, the nearby but probably not related former Inca hospital/pharmacy. Of course I never would’ve known about Wiñay Wayna had I not hiked the Inca Trail, and I never would’ve hiked the Inca Trail if I didn’t think it seemed like a cooler way to get to Machu Picchu than taking the bus. But if you want to escape from the world for awhile and find some inner peace and see the kind of place you might want your ashes scattered when you die, go to Wiñay Wayna at sunset. You might even get lucky and have the place to yourself.
It’s impossible to capture all of those small things on social media or in a blog post, let alone a guidebook. I’ve tried my hardest to commit as much of the last three months to my permanent memory as I can, but I’m sure I’ve forgotten, or simply never knew, some of the things we did on our trip. The point here is that I found incredible value in really digging into a place in every way I know how, from eating like the locals to sitting at a street cafe and enjoying the sunset. Which takes us to the biggest lesson I learned of them all.
3 — You Probably Need to Slow Down a Little Bit
And this is the part where expectation management comes into play. I think as Americans, it’s easy to take our bullshit modern 24/7 hustle mentality with us when we travel abroad. It’s our default mode, a cultural ADHD that’s bred by equal parts imposter syndrome and a desperate need to do better, to do more, than everyone around us — our friends, our parents, our neighbors, and probably even the guy in the grocery store parking lot that has a newer model car than we do. The apps on our phones train our brains to skim instead of read, to scroll instead of focus, and our insecurities leave us hungry for the next thing. That’s hard to shut off, and I’m as guilty of it as anyone else.
But none of the things I’ve talked about in this article, none of the stories I’ve told here over the past few months, would’ve been possible if I’d been rushing through them.
There was a kid in another group hiking the Inca Trail with us that kept his AirPods in the whole time and ran the trail every day like a competitive ultra-marathoner. On our last morning he shoved past us to get to the Sun Gate first, and I wonder if he was disappointed when he realized it was too rainy to see Machu Picchu below. I can still smell the fresh rain in the air, and feel the moisture that was on the path as I climbed to the top. I wonder if he can.
We expect a lot from our daily lives. Most of those things are simple, like attentive service from a waiter or people to follow basic traffic rules when merging on the freeway. We also let those things bother us a lot when our expectations aren’t met. Again, I’m just as guilty of that as anyone else. But as soon as you leave the borders of the United States, you have to throw those expectations out the window, because they simply don’t exist anywhere else. Yet somehow I never saw a multi-car accident despite the chaos of streets without traffic laws, and I learned that there’s an undeniable bliss in not rushing through a meal but simply enjoying the ambiance of a cool restaurant with a satisfied stomach. I was forced to slow down because I was experiencing cultures where rushing and the hustle mentality don’t exist, and that experience opened my eyes to the fact that it probably shouldn’t exist here either.
I brought a lot of things home from this trip, including a too-expensive pair of sunglasses I bought in Paris because Anthony Bourdain wore the same style, and a handful of bracelets that earn me awkward looks when I wear them around in rural Kentucky. But as much as I love those douchey travel guy bracelets and my Persols, I love the mindset I brought home even more. I’m not in a rush now, and I don’t need to be in control. In fact my favorite moments are the ones where I slow down, savor, and enjoy the life that I’m privileged to get to live.
The last thing I want to do is paint a picture of the world as a perfect place, or in my comparative analysis only highlight the parts of the United States that I find problematic. The world writ large and all of the specific places we visited are host to violence, disease, inequality, and hunger. But they’re also home to wonderful people, incredible food, and beautiful scenery. To avoid travel because of the problems we perceive to exist in a place is shortsighted; and to travel without slowing down and taking the time to enjoy the small things is honestly a waste of both time and money.
Even though Kira and I are back home I still have a few stories left to tell, but I wanted to write this summary essay first, and talk about the reason I’ve been posting all of this stuff. My goal in writing about this trip was to inspire others to travel the way we did. I hope I succeeded.