Holidays: why you forget all the parts that suck

I climbed a live volcano once. In Chile. I tell this story often because - geez - it's a live volcano. In Chile. That's pretty cool.

It was the real deal, too: bubbling lava, clouds of noxious gasses, treacherous, ice-covered slopes.

We set off in the pitch dark, with only the light of our head-torches to guide us, crampons clamped to our hiking boots, ice axes in hand for the steeper ascents, wrapped up tight against the bracing cold. We were like a band of hardy explorers, Scott of the Antarctic if you will, setting out to battle the elements.

It was a fight against Mother Nature - and a fight we won. After five hours of solid climbing, our rugged crew clambered over the lip of the volcano and we stared into the Earth itself.

All of which, you'd have to agree, makes for a pretty good yarn. What I usually fail to include in this particular story, however, is that the whole thing sucked.

OK, maybe not all of it. Maybe 90 per cent. I'll admit that standing on top of the volcano surveying our conquered territory was quite satisfying. But the rest of the excursion plain old sucked.

I learnt a few things in those five hours we spent stumping up that icy mountain: I learnt that it's really cold on a Chilean volcano at 5am; I learnt that a single packet of Starburst lollies is not sufficient sustenance for a day-long trek in the snow; and I learnt that mountaineers - professional ones, the ones who do this stuff all the time - are completely insane.

Trekking is enjoyable to some, I get that, but this was painful from the mome nt we rolled out of our bunks at 4am and slipped into every piece of clothing we owned. It was a hard slog all the way up the mountain, and it wasn't helped by the fact we walked under a ski chairlift for part of it, which served to remind us of two things: that we weren't anywhere near as hardcore as we thought we were and that it would've been much easier to just take the damn chairlift.

The funniest thing, though, is that not only do I leave out all those hardships when I tell someone the story but I also leave out all those hardships when I even think about that day. Regardless of all the things I've just written, I mostly look back on the Villarrica volcano climb as a great experience, filed right next to Oktoberfest under "Glad I did it".
And I'd probably even do it again, if I didn't think too hard about it.

It's the same with most memories of past holidays, I find: you seem to automatically dump all the bad bits and just remember the good times.

Your brain has this magnificent filter that discards all the memories of the interminable waits for public transport, the arguments and haggling over prices, the hotels that were nothing like the photos, the sights and attractions that just weren't what you hoped they'd be. You just remember all the good stuff.

Your holidays, when you really think about it, are nowhere near as good as you remember them. They're not like a montage of incredible moments that make up a four-minute story on Getaway. They're more like the reels and reels of unused footage that are left on the cutting-room floor.

I once spent a European summer working as a cook for a tour company and I look back on that as a solid five months of parties, great friends and beautiful places. The time of my life.

What I conveniently forget are the whingeing passengers, the meticulous food budget calculations that I often messed up and the nightmare mornings waking up to cook breakfast for 40 people after those aforementioned parties.

I was in Laos just a few months ago and already I've basically forgotten the painful minibus rides and the dingy hostels - memories washed away in a tide of motorbike-riding and noodle-soup-eating joy.

So why do we do it? Why delude ourselves into thinking that our holidays were better than they actually were? To justify the money we spent? To have better stories to tell friends? Or is it just natural attrition - hang on to the good stuff and let everything else fade away?

I have no idea and I don't really care. See, I figure it's fine to forget the boring stuff and it's fine that the actual experience of travel is never as exciting as you remember it in your head. The delusion is OK with me, because regardless of how mundane or disappointing some aspects of any particular holiday might be, I'm 100 per cent convinced that it's better than being at work.

Read Ben Groundwater's column in the Sun Herald.