How do we remember our previous travel experiences? Why do we block out the parts we didn’t like? Does it do us any good?
With travelling, as with all things, we run from the parts of our past that we don’t like.
We’ve all been guilty of it in the past, and most of us will fall foul of it again in the future. It seems to be an essential part of the human condition: we can’t walk down Memory Lane without hiding behind the safety of our rose-tinted glasses. Uncomfortable bus journeys never make the final cut of the stories we tell our friends, sunburned photos are quickly detagged from Facebook, and bad money management is hardly ever immortalised in the written word. With travelling, as with all things, we run from the parts of our past that we don’t like; we paint a fresh coat onto the canvas of our memories, hoping to correct the original into something more enviable or even just palatable.
Earlier this week I read an incisive critical analysis of the Lonely Planet travel guides, in which accurate detail and any acknowledgement of variety are too often compromised in favour of homogeneous, romanticised descriptions; line upon line of sweeping statements that attempt to encompass everything but in reality apply to nothing. I was immediately reminded of the following description of my home state, posted on 14th August 2013, in which priceoftravel.com tries to sum up my cultural heritage like a blind man trying to explain the difference between purple and yellow:
The Western Indian island of Goa is not a place to go for temples and culture, but it's a fantastic and cheap group of beach towns that are perfect for relaxing in the sun when you're all templed out. Everything feels local and authentic even though most of the visitors are Europeans.
Even if the authors somehow failed to notice during their stay that Goa is not actually an island, the pejorative “even though most of the visitors are Europeans” chooses to skim over the most disappointing aspect of their trip; clearly they’d rather have adhered to the ideal of the intrepid traveller lost in a sea of exotic natives, rather than being surrounded by other people that looked like them.
Had they chosen to investigate further into this blemish on an otherwise perfect “[getaway from] culture”, they might have understood that European tourists would be naturally attracted to the most European of the Indian states. Especially one that was ruled by the Portuguese for 400 years, was only liberated in the early sixties, and thus fosters an intricate mix of Eastern and Western cultures permeating our religion, language, architecture, law and food. Had they thought to question Goa’s annoying habit of having fewer Hindu temples than other states, they may have picked up on the strong, lasting influence of Christianity. A simple Google Search would have told them that the city of Old Goa is brimming with UNESCO World Heritage sites: ancient Catholic cathedrals built by the Portuguese colonialists, one in particular an important pilgrimage destination.
And therein lies the danger of romanticising our past travel experiences: sometimes, in our haste to get rid of the stain, we end up removing all of the flavour and colour and interest in favour of plain perfection – which, frankly, is boring.
As the plane rolled to a stop, I knew we had made a mistake. Booking the last flight back to London on a Sunday night had saved us some money, but an entire night now stood between us and the first train home. Southend Airport was scheduled to close fifteen minutes after our flight had landed, and soon enough we were quickly ushered out of the arrivals lounge and onto the freezing January streets. When the 24-hour MacDonald’s drivethru refused to serve us, we realised we’d run out of options. A taxi? Too expensive. A hotel room? Even more so. A bus? Not at this time of night. Nowhere to go.
We went back to our normal lives, promising each other that we’d never be stupid enough to put ourselves in that position again.
The tiny train station had a roof, at least. We lay down on the stone floor, dirty clothes under our backs, and tried to snatch an hour of sleep. That tactic was quickly replaced by frantic, idiotic dancing to tinny mobile radio to try to stave off the hypothermia. We hadn’t given much thought to food the day before, snacking on the train to the airport and not bothering with expensive drinks bottles on our no-frills flight. Now our throats screamed for water, our minds hurt from lack of sleep, our bones were sore from the unforgiving floor. But mostly it was the cold, the brutal winter that penetrated every layer of clothing and would not let us rest. But the time eventually passed, and we went back to our normal lives, promising each other that we wouldn’t forget how awful that night had been, that we’d never be stupid enough to put ourselves in that position again.
And we kept that promise. I hated every second of that night, but I count myself blessed for having travelled with friends for once rather than solo as usual. I know now that I can’t get through everything on my own: would I even have realised hypothermia was even a potential danger? I have never felt so helpless in my life, but I’ve never committed that kind of organisational idiocy since. What would I have done if the station hadn’t had a roof? I feel lucky to live in a country where crime is low enough that, with three friends accompanying me, I didn’t worry for a second about our safety. In reality, we would have been sitting ducks for a mugging. Our travel scars may heal superficially, but it’s the lessons they burn into our bodies that count. Don’t ignore them; listen, and remember.