I’m guilty, just like all of you. I frequently find myself flipping through calendars, staring longingly at postcards or thumbing my way through Instagram, drooling over some of the amazing travel photos I find. Sun drenched beaches in the tropics, alabaster-white churches perched high on island cliffs and famous landmarks, all begging me to visit them. Through years of travel experience though I’ve long believed that chasing after these postcard images isn’t just sometimes a waste of time, but often it’s a disappointing and futile exercise.
Rarely what the image promises
Sadly, many of those travel photos we lust after just aren’t realistic. I recently wrote a post about Cairo, describing how some people are actually disappointed when they visit the pyramids. Not because of the mighty monuments themselves, but rather they are disappointed to see just how close Cairo is to them. They seem to think it’s a recent phenomenon, urban blight that doesn’t show up in any photos they’ve seen. The truth is that the pyramids and Cairo has always been next to each other of course, but photographers always go for the more photogenic of the two angles, leaving out the city’s buildings and instead focusing on the surrounding desert.
Photos are snapshots in time, and for those who publish calendars, guidebooks and postcards, their number one goal is to make a certain place look as amazing as possible. That means the ideal hour on the ideal day in the ideal season is chosen, a luxury you probably won’t have. What’s the trouble with this? Well, nothing unless individuals start to plan their trip around these iconic places, and lapse into what I call dream trip mode.
It’s a topic I’ve written about before, but so many people put certain trips on a pedestal so high that enjoying them is never actually possible. They consider the trip to be a dream trip, a once in a lifetime activity and if everything isn’t perfect, then it’s ruined. The problem with this is that there is no such thing as a dream trip, things always go wrong and expectations are almost never fully realized. So instead of feeling lucky to be somewhere new, that person leaves disappointed that they fell short of their dream trip goals. Postcard travel has the same effect.
I spent a fair amount of time in Arctic areas this winter, and while there I met many people traveling just to see the Northern Lights, spurred on by almost fantastical images they have seen on Twitter and Instagram. They left mostly disappointed for a couple of reasons. First, most of them never saw the Northern Lights. The phenomenon is a fickle one and absolute perfect conditions have to be in place in order for them to light up the sky. Second, unless you’re seeing a particularly great display of them, they don’t look the same to the naked eye as they appear on film. The colors of the lights are automatically heightened by the photos, even without any editing, and many times the lights appear to be nothing more than strange clouds to the naked eye.
But those people had put all of their hopes into one activity, seeing the lights, and built it up in their mind to the point that they convinced themselves that the trip would be a failure without them. Never mind they were traveling through one of the most beautiful areas of the world at the same time. From personal experience, dream trip mode absolutely impacted one of my trips. Several years ago I traveled to Thailand and had booked a room at what appeared to be an idyllic resort on the island of Koh Samui. The photos of the beach and ocean on the hotel website were mesmerizing. When I arrived I agreed the setting was beautiful, but those marketing images failed to mention one important detail. Due to the location of the resort, the tide was out of the bay for most of the day and instead of the rippling waters of the Gulf of Thailand, I found myself in a beach chair next to a muddy lagoon. Not exactly the dream trip I was seeking. While I didn’t let it ruin my trip, for many others it may have done just that.
Postcard travel doesn’t have to be all bad though, and I’ve certainly been guilty of chasing those iconic shots myself. Turns out, there are some instances when postcard travel isn’t just acceptable, but it makes the trip so much more enjoyable.
There’s always a ‘but,’ isn’t there? While many photographers take advantage of angles and times of day to deliver that sufficiently drool-worthy photo, there are frankly some places around the world that live up to their promise. Santorini, that oft photographed Greek island with the whitewashed, blue domed churches is the first that comes to mind. Yes, the views really are that spectacular and better yet, most of the island is just that beautiful. That’s the real beauty of these famous spots, it’s where you end up in the pursuit that makes it all worthwhile. Sure, those 90 seconds you spent taking photos of the cliff in Santorini were great, but even better was that delicious lunch of Greek mezze you enjoyed, or that tiny cafe perched high above the water where you and your loved one sipped a glass of wine while watching the spectacular sunset. It’s the overall beauty of the destination that we travel for and not just to capture a silly picture.
Make your own postcards
Even better than having other people dictate to us what is and isn’t beautiful or what travel sights are and aren’t worth it, make your own postcards; design your own personal travel calendar. Some of the best travel experiences I’ve had have been in the pursuit of certain photos, and not necessarily the photos themselves. When I was in Singapore many years ago, I was determined to find the Merlion, a statue spitting water that is the mythical mascot of the city. Massive construction was underway though and I got lost, very lost. At one point my partner and I found ourselves inside a mall, that’s how lost we were. But to this day I remember that afternoon wandering around the city, discovering parts of it I would never have seen otherwise all in pursuit of that silly statue. The journey was more important than the destination, as is so often the case.
More recently in Reykjavik, I had seen a photo of the Sun Voyager statue on the back of my guidebook. It looked beautiful and I knew I wanted to capture the same photo to share on my site. Once again dragging my partner along with me, this time in freezing Icelandic temperatures instead of the Singaporean heat, we wandered up and down the waterfront but we just couldn’t find it. I was perplexed, the map indicated we were at the right spot and yet no statue. So we decided to go higher up. Trekking to the top of the Hallgrímskirkja Church, we enjoyed an amazing 360 view of the Reykjavik downtown. I almost didn’t go up and in the process I would have missed one of my favorite views of the trip. From high on top of the church the city laid itself out in a beautiful quilt of colors and architectural styles. I had no idea the city was so colorful, and it made me appreciate it that much more. I also spied the statue from up there, which we did eventually find. While I’m happy with the photos, the journey was a lot more fun and I made my own postcards in the process.
Travel is an inherently personal activity. It’s great to get tips and advice from other people, but don’t let those words define your own travel experience. You have to make it your own, you have to bend it to your own interests and desires. You’ll never have as much fun living out someone else’s dream trip as you will living your own.