Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.
My friends and I are standing inside Bangkok’s crowded Sky Train after a grueling 10-minute walk to get to the station; drenched in sweat and cranky. We’re hot, uncomfortable, and exchanging stories of times when we’d been annoyed by Thailand and/or Bangkok. It’s too crowded! People don’t know how to walk on the sidewalks! It’s so hot! And so on…
Still, we’ve decided to spend our day at one of the biggest weekend markets in Asia and as soon as we arrive we’re met by all the noise, pollution, crowds, and – most of all -smells of Bangkok. Every alley we enter is an assault on our senses, and some areas are so bad that it’s all we could do to blindly walk through, barely saying a word to each other or stopping to see what’s on offer. But in these hidden shops, we also find some of the coolest items, and get a chance to laugh with each other about the novelty and peculiarity of it all. In that afternoon, we buy everything from shoes for a friends’ dog to ice-cold bottles of Singha (because, when you’re walking around the largest weekend market in Thailand, you do it with a beer in your hand).
After hours of walking around, we call it a day and head out in search of food, knowing full well that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the place. That night, after we’ve all settled in and enjoyed the life-restoring powers of the air conditioner, I thought about something I’d read and didn’t understand: travel is rarely enjoyable when it’s happening. Only in retrospect do we understand the beauty of all we experience.
I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, but I think there’s some truth to it. I’m reminded of my trip to Ethiopia several years ago, and the day I now look back on as one of the best traveling days of my life. At the time, that was one of my worst days in the four months I spent in Ethiopia.
Having dodged my cousins, I’d decided to explore the town on my own and had promptly managed to get lost, have my cash stolen, and almost got attacked by a crazy woman. In retrospect, I remember it as the day I walked around the ancient walled city of Harar, played a game of street soccer with village kids, and accidentally stumbled upon the museum and former home of Arthur Rimbaud (who, in typical western man fashion came to Ethiopia for exotic flavor and stayed after “marrying” a local girl). Upon walking out of the museum, I was chased and subsequently slapped in the face by a crazy woman who for some reason didn’t want me walking around her village. Had I not lost my cash upon leaving the house, I could have just flagged a taxi and gotten back home, never having experienced any of the things that I now look back upon with fondness.
So, yes, I guess most of travel is only glamorous in retrospect. It’s something to keep in mind as we deal with crowded trains, unreliable buses, language barriers, and extreme temperatures. We’re the lucky ones; the ones who get to feel the warmth of suns in distant lands and brush elbows with people whose perspective on the world is vastly different from ours. It’s all good, and it will be even better in our memories.