Sunday, 26 May 2013

Enjoying the frustrations of travel

I recently, as an exercise, tried to list all the countries I'd visited in the world.

I had trouble remembering some of them, but I finally came up with a total number: 33.

I don't consider myself unusually well-travelled. Better than some, worse than others. But what amazed me about the exercise is how much I've managed to forget in only a short space of time. Hungary and the Czech Republic have started to merge together in my head; I can't remember whether it was in Prague or Budapest that I visited the graveyard on the hillside. I'd completely forgotten about Ukraine, until I looked at a map and remembered that I'd taken a three day business trip to Kiev a couple of years ago. And that got me thinking:

How do we really experience the places we visit?

Two years ago, I spent three and a half months travelling in South East Asia. I'd never been to that part of the world before, and was blown away by the brain-riot of temples and crowds and hawkers and everything else.

But, like many travellers, I liked some bits of it more than others.

I liked Thailand's easy-going nature, its well-developed transport and tourism infrastructure, its friendly smiles and warm, sunny days. Thailand is an easy place to travel and enjoy yourself.

I liked Malaysia's mishmash of cultures and cuisines. I loved the spicy food, the jungle hikes, colonial plantations surrounded by rose gardens, tea plantations or strawberry farms.

I didn't like Vietnam so much. Despite the beautiful scenery, the buzzing cities, the history, and everything else that Vietnam offers, I wasn't happy when I was there. I found the constant hassle from touts wearying. I found the grossly inflated prices for foreigners annoying and the people less friendly (not all of them, of course - I met some lovely people in Vietnam too, but overall I found the people in Vietnam much more insular than in Thailand or Malaysia. Those who made a living from the tourist trade or from fleecing tourists were happy to see you. Those who didn't want to make any money off you mostly just ignored you and got on with their lives). Rereading my old journal from my month in Vietnam, I was amazed at the strength of my frustration and unhappiness on many occasions. And yet....

I still think about Vietnam on a regular basis.

I remember where I went, and what I did, and who I spoke to. I remember being lost in Saigon. I remember thinking my bus was probably going to crash and kill us all while heading North on highway one. I remember being followed by some weird guy in Dalat, and the brakes on my bicycle failing in Hue. I remember empty, windswept beaches in Hoi An, and non-stop rain in Halong Bay. I remember it all, and I think about it far more than I think about happy-go-lucky Thailand, or even spicy, vibrant Malaysia.

Which has me thinking: maybe the best way to experience a place or a culture, the most memorable way of seeing the world, is through a haze of anxiety and frustration. It's the less-than-blissful memories that stay with you.

So here's to all our travels, the happy and the not-so-happy alike. May we get caught in the occasional rain storm along the way. May our guesthouses be sometimes a little bit dodgy. And may all our travels be 100% memorable.

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