Nostalgia is an interesting thing. It can make even the worst experiences seem amazing. It can turn a dreary day into a series of life-changing moments. It can take something dull and polish it with the sheen of excitement.
Every traveller would understand this. There are plenty of experiences you look back on fondly that, if you were honest with yourself, weren't actually that much fun at the time. They might, on reflection, have turned out to be character-forming and truly enlightening – but that doesn't mean they were enjoyable when they happened.
I do this all the time. I catch myself telling stories of these amazing things that happened and then stop and think – you know what, that actually kind of sucked at the time. These are just a few of them.
I look back on all the big hills I've climbed with a genuine sense of achievement and pleasure. The volcano in Chile. The high pass in Peru. The mountaintop in Vanuatu. Each a fulfilling, life-affirming experience that I would do again tomorrow. And yet, when I really think back to what those climbs were like, I remember the pain: the aching legs, the shortness of breath, the sweating, the sense of pointlessness, the feeling that my time would be better spent in a pub somewhere with a beer. That, my friends, is mountain-climbing.
Sleeping on the beach
Sand: It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Photo: Getty Images
There's a deep romance to sleeping on the beach that in no way translates to the actual experience. Have you ever tried to do this? It's really uncomfortable. Sand gets everywhere. It also gets really cold a few hours after the sun sets, when the warmth of the day dissipates and the grains seems to freeze beneath you. And then the wind gets up. And then if you choose the wrong spot you end up soaking wet. Still, great story huh?
Anything to do with jungles
I'm not well equipped to deal with humidity. It makes me sweat, a lot. It drains my energy. It saps my will to do anything. So being in a jungle is not ideal. I never particularly enjoy jungles. The insects. The heat. The stickiness. The sweat. That's not my idea of a good time. However, there are things that make the jungle worthwhile, things I look back on pretty fondly: like seeing mountain gorillas in the DRC, or watching scarlet macaws in the Peruvian Amazon. Great stories that I really did not love getting.
Staying in dorms
You meet people when you sleep in dorm rooms. You meet strange people, you meet fascinating people, you meet friendly people, you meet fun people. You meet people from all around the world. I've made so many friends from staying in dorms. I tell every traveller they should do it. But the actual experience? Waking up every time someone accidentally turns a light on? Listening to the interminable rustling of plastic bags? Sharing a toilet? Locking all your luggage under your bed? That bit isn't much fun.
There are some truly great bus rides out there, particularly in South America, where you can end up with a business-class seat with waiter service. By and large though, bus journeys suck. They're cramped and they're ponderous. They're smelly. They're prone to breakdowns. But that doesn't stop you from looking back at even the worst misadventures as enjoyable experiences. I took a night bus in Vietnam and watched the driver steering with his knees while he smoked cigarettes and planted his hand on the horn and even that seems pretty fun in the retelling.
Waking up at dawn
Dawn is both my favourite time to be awake, and my least favourite time to wake up. I hate getting up at or before dawn. I hate hearing the alarm and dragging my sorry butt out of bed, forcing myself to have a shower while still thinking about all the sleep I should be having. And yet being awake at dawn is magical. There's a purity to it, the brilliance of a full day yet to reveal itself. I look back fondly on every dawn I'm awake for, from the safari drives to the first tracks snowboarding runs. But the actual experience? Not great.
Cycling between wineries
What a great idea. How romantic. You start off at one winery, try a few of their best drops, then jump on your bike and pedal sedately through lovely scenery to the next stop. This is the stuff Instagram dreams were made of. It's beautiful, it's enjoyable. And that's definitely the way you'll see it in a few weeks' time. When it's actually happening, however, it just seems kind of silly. You didn't come here for exercise, you came here to drink wine. And there are hills in wine country – big hills. And there are cars, and trucks. And arriving all hot and bothered for a shiraz tasting is not romantic.
Which travel experiences do you think are better in the retelling? What do you look back on fondly that was actually really hard at the time?
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