We live in a time where expectation runs high in almost all that we do. Whether it’s planning a tropical getaway, looking for a restaurant in the city, or searching for your next Netflix binge, we want the best! And usually this means looking to those who have experienced what we want, and getting their opinions. We read reviews on trip advisor. Browse photos on Instagram. Check lists online of top recommended shows. I understand the desire to make the most of how you use your time and money. But what we may not recognize is this; we have developed a pattern of grading experience based on expectation. Expectations that are often a result of living in a culture where experiences are curated and embellished, simply for the sake of story telling. And much like this article, this information is based on personal bias. I’ll admit, I check all these boxes. I read hostel reviews searching for red flags, I look up restaurants on Instagram to catch a glimpse of menu items and atmosphere, and I ask for TV recommendations because it takes longer to pick a show on Netflix than it does to watch one. But what I’ve realized throughout these past few months of travelling is that my expectations can make or break my perception of the overall experience.
When I first set out to travel Southeast Asia I thought I had a somewhat accurate idea of what my trip would be like. I researched a general route, watched videos online, looked up photos of beaches, heard stories from friends who had travelled before me, and had even acknowledged potential culture shock coming from a small rural town. I was prepared. And honestly, I was! Three months and not one situation I wasn’t able to navigate. Not to say that I managed all of this on my own. But let me make one thing very clear; being prepared is not the same thing as knowing what to expect. And herein lies one of the many lessons learned while travelling.
Up until now, I have lived my life in a consistent state of anticipation. Anticipating feelings and actions of others. Anticipating the food I’m going to be served at a restaurant (my fellow vegans/readers with any dietary restrictions will empathize with this one). Even something as simple as anticipating where a road will take me based on my GPS. Much like yourself, I have been collecting clues my entire life, learning the subtle and not so subtle flux of cause and effect. I’m nowhere near playing God, but for arguments sake, I’ve navigated life with mostly minor bumps and bruises. But what happens when the game changes and the rules don’t apply anymore? This is what it felt like, immersing myself into the vastly different culture of Vietnam. One where trains and buses run on a loose schedule, and restaurant hours and menus don’t exactly mimic their online status. A world where a foreigner like myself, can no longer predict outcomes.
At this point you may be thinking something along the lines of; what did you expect? And to be honest, I really did anticipate some confusion. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the anxiety that came along with my previously conditioned Western lifestyle. Like I said, I have become so accustomed to my expectations aligning with my experiences that I never realized just how detrimental this was.
I’m speaking from my own experience, so tread this one lightly. But what if we have become so reliant on knowing the outcome of a situation, that we are jeopardizing the good that comes with the element of surprise? We’re so quick to Google information, that we’ve started Googling experiences. And rightfully so! We (Westerners) live in a culture where being late to work is grounds for dismissal, and arriving to daycare by 5:05pm means getting charged for those 5 extra minutes. It only makes sense that we count on the coffee shop opening at 6am and not a minute later. But is it possible that this dependence has driven us to attempt to control even the most joyful experiences. We want to get it right.
“We’re so quick to Google information, that we’ve started Googling experiences”
Ultimately, I am learning to let go. And I believe that there is a lesson in this for us all. Because the experience isn’t in knowing or getting what you want. It’s hidden in the tricks life plays when it turns you on your heels. The experience is sharing a sunset with a stranger, or driving a motorbike for the first time. It’s ordering from a menu you don’t understand, and loving it anyway. Experience is pooping in a hole in the ground in a run down restaurant bathroom while a rooster walks past. Experience makes for good stories. Experience is a hug goodbye, and a surprise hello when you run into each other in neighboring cities. It’s laughing at grim circumstances, because at least you’re laughing together. Experience is crying at the side of a mountain because you finally made the decision to truly be there for yourself. And this, you cannot predict. There is no preparation for moments that test you. And no telling how new friends will make you feel. And even though these things can fill you right up, letting go long enough to feel it takes courage. Courage we can't find in Trip Advisor reviews or on Top 10 lists. So do yourself a favour and next time you consider doing your ‘research,’ don’t.