Boiling Lake Hike, Dominica

Are Travel Memories Sugar-Coated?

The value of recognizing good and not-so-good travel experiences

“Oh my gosh, we spent time in the Amazon during our honeymoon, and it was spectacular!” “Yes, I’ve been to Barcelona – such a great city!”

I hear myself saying things like this a lot when recounting trips, and I can’t help but wonder: am I remembering the trip for how it actually was? Alright, don’t get me wrong: cruising down the Amazon River was cool, it really was, but what I’m actually remembering when I say that is the incredible sunsets, a few hours in a local village, and spotting wildlife from our skiff. It was a really unique experience and I’m so glad that we did it, but Scott spent 1/3 of the time on the boat sick from a brush with something in the Amazon, and we both got fistfuls of poisonous spines from a tree (Scott’s were much worse) that had to be removed by a medic. We spent a day in the Amazonian town of Iquitos and while it was interesting (I can’t think of a better word), we were surrounded by people who had been tripping on ayahuasca for a week. Plus, it was one of the first places we’d visited where we honestly felt a little on edge in terms of safety. There was a moment that I thought someone was going to whack me with a machete as we set off across the Amazon into the middle of nowhere. And Barcelona? I seem to be the only person that missed the memo on Barcelona being the most magical city in the world. I liked it, but I wasn’t as over-the-moon as everyone else seems to be.

What I remember:
Top 5 Experiences in Peru

The other reality:

Aqua Expeditions, Amazon

Yet when people ask about Peru and about the Amazon, I can’t help but say, it was spectacular!  And when people mention their undying love for Barcelona, I echo their sentiments.

I don’t think I’d be totally off base in assuming that we’re all a bit tempted to respond with the positive, instead of genuinely reaching deeper to share the nuances of an experience. Perhaps it’s because we’d rather not bother people with the pesky realities, lest we dissuade them from undertaking a trip of their own (I definitely fall into this camp sometimes; I’d hate for a mediocre experience of mine to dampen someone else’s travel ambitions). On a more selfish note, perhaps it’s because we actually want to believe that a trip was made up of sunshine and rainbows like we’re telling people; as if we share our sugar-coated story enough it makes it real in our minds. Most of us have limited time and limited money to spend on travel, so perhaps to admit to ourselves that a trip wasn’t as magical as we’d imagined is where the disappointment lies.

As we recall past adventures, our brains – and the passing of time – have this funny way of blurring out the bad stuff: the missed flights, the nights slept in the airport, the long bus journeys, etc. and spotlighting the standout snippets, especially if there’s something that played prominently into an overall experience. Sometimes we tell an ‘enhanced’ travel story so many times or hear a travel partner share a story from their perspective that our personal stories – and maybe our actual memories – seem to change in step.  A neuroscientist at McGill University has done some research on the malleability of memory and in reading the quick synopsis of his life’s work, it seems that his general theories are in line with this exact feeling.

Packing for the Middle East

But having the good memories outweigh the bad certainly isn’t a bad thing – it seems to be a bit of a defense mechanism to block out less-than-great snapshots. The key is for us to be able to really recall our own true memories when people want a genuine rundown of our experiences, not just the highlight reel. I find that being able to remember the bad along with the good is actually quite valuable. Recognizing great experiences vs. good experiences (and on the other end, bad experiences) is what helps us build better adventures in the future. For example, after our trip to Dominica, I finally had to admit to myself that the idea of hiking is much more enticing to me than actually hiking. So, in the future, if we were to head to Switzerland or Nepal, we’ll weave in appropriate hikes where they seem organic; we won’t go out of our way to embark on a difficult hike that leaves us feeling defeated. Similarly, in Israel, I learned/confirmed that group travel doesn’t mesh with my personal travel style very well. Knowing that now, it’s likely that we won’t partake in a group trip of that magnitude again. While our experience in the Middle East may have been better in line with our style if we’d traveled solo, that particular experience helped us recognize what we like and what we don’t, which is a valuable lesson for us moving forward.

All of our travels – the good and the bad – are part of the memories of life, and even experiences that don’t live up to our expectations leave us with stories to tell, lessons learned and adventures experienced.

Does anyone else blur out the bad bits when recalling their travel memories? Have you been on any trips that didn’t live up to your expectations?

Shannon Kircher, The Wanderlust Effect


More about Shannon Kircher

Shannon Kircher is the founder and editor of The Wanderlust Effect. Founded in 2009, she has continued to document her international escapes as an expat in Europe and the Caribbean. Additionally, Shannon is the founder of Compass & Vine, a luxury boutique travel design firm, and is the Director of Marketing for the Frangipani Beach Resort. Shannon holds an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and is a current candidate for WSET Level 3 in Wines & Spirits.