Thursday, May 26 2011
Travelling across the land of opportunity, liberty, guns and Sarah Palin has taught me much about the power of expectations and their influence over any travel abroad. But America has let me down. Or, when I say “America”, I mean, “what I think America should be”, has left me disappointed.
When I first imagined a roadtrip across the sprawling North American Continent, I conjured up images of quintessential American highway driving – sunglasses on, baking desert heat, windows down, Route 66. Burgers, California Surf and the occasional religious fanatic, shouting mad-eyed to the heavens on the bustling street corner. I imagined gospel churches, raccoons and bears, and white picket fences with golden Labradors panting lazily on the porch from behind them. But where has this come from – I mean, why do I have this idea of a place I’ve never been to before?
When we travel, we constantly frame the experience as somewhat exotic or foreign – we instantly categorise the experience as the “other”. This other is always going to be a constructed place or an imagined ideal – it is precisely what we don’t know. We build an image of this unknown using all the millions of bits of information stored in our craniums to form these expectations. For example, when I think of Los Angeles, I immediately think of movie studios, Hollywood stars, palm trees and cocaine addictions. Stereotypes, perhaps, but they did come from somewhere.
I often enjoy watching people take photos of various landmarks. In fact, they don’t even need to be of significant importance. I get a kick of watching someone saunter up, frame the photo, line it up perfectly, check the photo, then stroll away. It’s like we’re pleasing our innate desire to collect and capture, the representation of the photo surpassing the reality of the actual visit.
Perhaps this is where our expectations come from – these glossy, perfectly framed photos are what we come to expect of a place. So when it’s overcast and you have poor lighting behind the Golden Gate bridge, or when you swear you notice scaffolding in your photo of the Hollywood Sign, it doesn’t quite fit with our squeaky clean, artificial constructions.
Expectations are a funny thing. Unmanaged, they can get dangerously lofty and lead to stress and anxiety. In planning, we always manage to draft complex, cramped itineraries, crammed with all the sights and attractions we come to expect of a certain destination. But honestly, how often can you say you saw everything on your long, Lonely Planet-inspired list? That’s the key to managing expectations, allowing for flexibility and responding to change.
Travel, the cunning beast that it is, likes to pitch a few curve balls now and then: a missed bus or train connection, a freak storm, a street-closing parade or an incomprehensible taxi driver. That’s the beauty of travel – this is why we do it – we’re all addicted to the spontaneity and adventure of doing something extra-ordinary. Besides, no one ever recounts the stories where everything goes to plan. That’d just be predictable.
Adaptability is key. Never let your expectations get in the way of truly enjoying a place. Allow for local knowledge to influence that list. Go on a stroll down a backstreet off the normal route. Get lost and recount your exciting tale to the man who can’t understand you who is selling peanuts on the street corner. Laugh about it to all the confused Germans at the hostel you are staying at.
Come to think of it, America hasn’t let me down at all. In fact, it is only the image that I kept in my jaded mind’s eye that remains disappointed. The rest of me is smiling happily because I’ve found a new America. This America is one that exists in reality, that I have found on my own, without any prejudice or expectancy.
Sure, there was Route 66, and long highway drives. Hell, there were even guns for sale in department stores and the LAPD. These are also real things. But just don’t expect, or colour your holiday with the falsities of cliché imaginings. Expectations and travel are so precariously intertwined that it remains essential to find that balance.