I woke up this morning with the same kind of dread and annoyance as I do when I have to go to the dentist. I shut off my alarm and turned to my girlfriend and whined, “Ugh I have to go to Sri Lanka.” My travels have run the gamut from incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences to complete disasters, and as such, so does my anticipation of a trip. I don’t look forward to every trip the same way. Sometimes there’s bad anticipation before a trip, either because I’m kind of scared of visiting a destination or dreading how expensive it’ll be or simply because I’m not as in the mood to travel as I was when I booked it.
Bad anticipation is normal. It’s like having cold feet before you marry someone you know you really want to marry. It will be worthwhile in one way or another, even if the act of getting there seems really daunting. Honestly I love disaster vacations almost as much as I love trips that go off without a hitch – a disaster makes for a way better story. But even with that kind of attitude, I still experience feelings of trepidation and uneasiness. So why do we sometimes get bad anticipation before a trip?
The fine line between being informed and psyching yourself out
I like to at least have a cursory awareness of what I should and shouldn’t do somewhere before I land there and make an ass of myself or get taken advantage of. Outside of that, I’m not much for planning activities. For instance, just before Cambodia – a trip I absolutely adored – I found myself asking “Wait, why did we decide to go there again?” I was totally unprepared for what there would be to see and do, so we sort of made it up as we went along, and it turned out to be fantastic. I kind of like it that way, because then I don’t have much expectation at all. And no expectation is definitely better than a bad expectation.
Cut to Sri Lanka, where everything we want to do is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and I had to dig a little deeper with research in advance. Before long I was finding disconcerting travel tips like “avoid wearing shorts or tank tops on trains to avoid unwanted attention.” Or “don’t walk around at night alone.” And fun fact! Women aren’t legally allowed to serve or buy alcohol (although they don’t really care if tourists do it), so now I’m expecting all the nightlife to be a semi-threatening sausagefest.
Of course for every cautionary tale, there’s a ton of people raving about how AMAAAZZZING Sri Lanka is, and it’s the top destination of 2019 in whatever travel article I read like six months ago. But the cautionary tales hold a little bit more weight, because they sound more like real experiences than the postcard-esque photos people are always pushing when they tell you to visit Sri Lanka. A nice picture of mountains is generic and non-specific. It’s not nearly as “real” as someone telling you how a tuk tuk driver groped them on the street in Colombo.
How to create an unfair pre-conceived notion about a place
Aside from reading message boards and blog posts, a good way to freak yourself the fuck out about a place you’re visiting is by Googling images of the non-touristy parts of town. That’s how I discovered that everything in Sri Lanka outside of the major tourist sites looks like a dump. Whether it is or not, we’ll find out very shortly.
If you look up photos of “Sri Lanka,” you get vistas of beautiful hazy green mountains and majestic temples, elephants walking around everywhere, and stilt fishermen (who FYI don’t even fish for money anymore; they make more money by charging for photos). But we’re not going to sleep on a tea plantation or inside the Dambulla Cave Temples. We’re staying in shithole cities that are within a 10 km distance to those other things where I’ll probably spend 2-4 hours a day. So what am I supposed to do with the other 20 hours?
When I look up pictures of the places where were scheduled to go, they all look like there’s nothing there except a dirt road and a row of hotels in the middle of a jungle, where according to popular travel tips, we shouldn’t even be walking around in after dark. There’s like two bars and a market where there’s probably a higher than average chance of food poisoning. Is that an unfair characterization? Probably. But it sure as hell is not a super inviting image.
Just let go of preconceived notions and go
I’m glad I only now started looking up logistical details of Sri Lanka just days before going there. Because if I had done this when we were originally talking about it, I would have definitely been like, fuck this mission, let’s go to Bali. And that’s a shame. When you do that, you start to exclude destinations from your travels that may turn out to be great.
The truth of the matter is that I have no idea how I’m going to feel about Sri Lanka until I get there. And that’s true for any trip, even trips that you were really excited about beforehand. The photos you find online may be old or inaccurate. The experiences you read about, good and bad, are ultimately one-sided and from people who aren’t you. The only way to see what a place is really like and form your own opinion about it is to suck it up and go there yourself. Isn’t that what travel is all about? You have to see it for yourself. If that wasn’t the whole point, then the Travel Channel and National Geographic would suffice.
So if you start to feel overwhelmed by all the conflicting information and the unsettling travel warnings, just step away from TripAdvisor. You’ll see exactly what it’s like when you get there and form your own opinions.
But yea… this is gonna be a total shitshow.