An array of multicolored houses perched on the cliffs of Vernazza in the Cinque Terre of Italy. It was a view I had dreamed about since I was 12, pinning a picture of it to the manifestation board in my bedroom. With each passing minute, it became apparent how skilful the editor of that photograph was. The colors were so much brighter than reality.
I reached into my paper cone of fried seafood, popped a piece into my mouth and then discreetly looked for a place to spit it out. I glanced across at my husband, who was chewing his sandwich like it was bubblegum. “I think the panini might be stale,” he said, his jaw working mechanically. I glared at my fritto misto. Twenty euros down the drain for six bite-size pieces of inedible fish. I tried to push away thoughts of the currency conversion.
Italy was the country I’d wanted to visit most, and, having recently lost several friends my own age, living to 30, let alone 90, felt less certain than it had in years before. There’s an urgency that comes with that, a sense of expectation. If this was my “try-before-you die” trip — if this was the culmination of all my savings — then it was unacceptable to have even a single meal fall short of the sky-high expectations I’d built up over years of rumination.
Days later, it was 104 degrees Fahrenheit — 40 degrees Celsius — in Pompeii by 9am. I was sunburnt, had heatstroke, and there was no shade – fair enough in a town that had been decimated by an active volcano, but don’t try to argue with me when I’m hot. I wanted to go back to our Airbnb and leave the historical monument I had fantasized about visiting since I saw it in a school textbook. I started to cry because it felt like I had to spend the entire day there in order to make it all “worth it”. Not even the assorted ancient penis sculptures around the barren city could cheer me up.
The truth is that Italy still made for a wonderful vacation. Barring a couple of awful meals, the food was delicious and the scenery was incredible. But I should never have framed my journey there as a “bucket list trip”, because that phrase instantly meant a minor disappointment was amplified to borderline catastrophe. I had spent so much, expected so much – it had to be perfect. “With bucket list trips, we are delving into fantasy and escapism, but as creative and inspiring as that can be, it can veer into toxic positivity,” says clinical psychologist Ryan Cooper.
A similar thing happened when I visited New York City. Frank Sinatra had told me I wanted to be a part of it. Taylor Swift had assured that it was waiting for me. And on day two of my visit, some guy on the Staten Island ferry tried to fight me because I accidentally tripped over his feet. One of the biggest upsides of the trip was when I saw Mandy Patinkin spit on the sidewalk on the Upper West Side.
Turns out I’m not alone when it comes to the Big Apple being on a bucket list, nor in it falling short. Amber Leach, a professional photographer, travelled from the UK to New York City in the hopes of a snow-filled cityscape. “I had planned some beautiful, snowy, Christmassy photos with my family in Central Park. Christmas movies set in New York are just magical. It was always a place on my bucket list, especially covered in snow,” Amber explains. Only, she happened to travel during the warmest Christmas on record. “[People] were actually wearing T-shirts at the Rockefeller Center with the Christmas tree behind them.”
For Lucy Gordon, founder of From Our Cellar, Cuba was the bucket list destination that fell short. “We had planned the trip for years and got recommendations from people who had been there. We got all the guidebooks and set out thinking this was going to be the most amazing adventure,” Lucy says. “There was litter absolutely everywhere, including on the beaches. Our itinerary for two weeks of traveling finished five days early. We had hyped it up so much in our heads but ended up desperate to come home.”
“The problem is that even a fantasy trip will still need to happen in the real world,” Cooper, the clinical psychologist, says. “We need some mental flexibility. It won’t be a movie montage. When we hit disappointments in a bucket list trip (and it’s not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’), we need to reframe. Our thoughts determine how we feel. We can change our subjective experience of something by working on how we handle our thought processes.”
There’s nothing wrong with being excited about a trip. The problems arise when you expect your destination to match up with the perfect vision in your head. “We need to think in advance ‘How would I like to approach that [disappointment] so that it’s part of my travel plan?’” Cooper suggests. “That way when it happens, we integrate it. We create options for ourselves. Anything worth pursuing will have some challenges. These challenges are not the enemy but part of the experience.”
Instead of a bucket list, once-in-a-lifetime trip, then, I’ve learnt to reframe any vacation as a trip. Just a trip. That gives it a chance to be a positive experience even when it falls short of built-up expectations. And if you can’t do that, maybe it’s time to stay at home. More and more people are discovering the beauty of the staycation and becoming tourists in our own countries. Over the past few years, in my own native South Africa, I have gone beyond the beauty of Cape Town and the wonders of safaris in the Kruger and explored little-known gems like Hogsback and Cintsa. So many South Africans haven’t visited towns like these, and they have swiftly become my favorite return visits.
Consider, too, the green ramifications. Traveling is wonderful for the economies of the places you visit, but not traveling is better for the environment. We live in a society that urges travel constantly but financially it isn’t viable for many, and psychologically the trip can take a toll of its own. If the prospect of planning travel seems like too much, and if the thought of it all going pear-shaped on the bucket list trip makes you anxious even while still in the ideation phase, perhaps the solution is simply to do nothing – at least for the time being. The world can wait. And if it can’t, prepare yourself for imperfection. It is the real world, after all.