Visiting India’s Taj Mahal was one of the biggest disappointments of my travelling life. I’d dreamt of experiencing this wonder of the world for years, imagining that when I finally saw it in the flesh I’d be changed by its great beauty in some profound way.
The reality? Well. After an hour of waiting my parents and I were prodded through the metal entrance gates like cattle, then were shepherded around the grounds, told where we could stand and where we could take photos and where the best viewpoints were. With hundreds of other visitors swarming around us, we spent our time there feeling mostly frustrated, and left the UNESCO site, the world’s most iconic symbol of love, feeling strangely empty.
It’s not that the ivory mausoleum wasn’t breathtaking, because it was. It’s that I had had such great expectations of how it would make me feel that I wasn’t able to take in the truth of the experience once I was actually having it.
As I prepare for this upcoming month of adventure in Israel and Jordan, that memory has been wafting around my brain like the ghost of travel regrets past. A reminder, as I see it, to not to get too caught up in my expectations.
I’ve been pretty deep in my planning, diving into guidebooks and magazine articles and blog posts, wanting to get it all just right so we won’t have to waste a single hour of the time we have there. My mind is full of visions of how the days will unfold, how the food will taste, how beautiful it will all be.
It’s true that anticipating a trip extends the life of that trip. It excites us and educates us and prepares us for what’s to come. But remembering that disheartening morning at the Taj Mahal has made me realise how detrimental conjuring ideas of how it all should be, can be.
It’s also true that the reality of travel is never what we anticipate. Which isn’t to say that it’s always worse, only that it’s different. There are missed planes and lost luggage and stomach bugs and jetlag and bickering and financial alarm and disappointments. The market you were desperate to see isn’t open the day you visit. It’s raining the whole two days you were planning to spend by the sea. The restaurant you dreamt about eating in for months turns out to be terrible. You know the drill.
By hitching my happiness in a destination to things going a certain way, or a place matching up to my anticipated visions of it, is a recipe for disappointment. So what if I try to let go a little and allow the trip to unfold in its own delightfully mysterious way? If I let the destinations surprise me, rather than heaping my often unrealistic expectations onto them?
I’m almost certain it’s the only way I’ll be able to truly appreciate these places once I’m there. And the only way to avoid feeling the way my mum looks in the photo below.