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We’re dreaming of holidays overseas, but they’re not always amazing

You’re not alone if you’ve found yourself reminiscing over old holiday photos lately, longing to add a few new experiences to the collection.

I’ve been looking at photos from my last overseas trip to Cuba.

The colourful colonial architecture, tobacco fields, vintage cars, lively culture, and potent mojitos are already fading into the background, like the smoke from a Cuban cigar.

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder how clearly I’m really remembering it.

A tobacco farmer lights a cigar on his farm at Vinales, Cuba. Photo: Sophie Kesteven

After all, photos don’t capture the full realities of travelling abroad: Jet lag, lost luggage, stomach bugs, theft, language barriers, culture shock, the odd family disagreement.

Even though I definitely want to travel again, remembering that it’s not always perfect does help ease the pain of knowing I won’t be able to jump on an international flight any time soon.

So why do we tend to look back at holidays through rose-coloured glasses?

How does something that – let’s face it – can at times be miserable while it’s happening, seem so enjoyable in retrospect?

Bon Voyage

A man rides his motorbike down a colourful street in Cienfuegos, Cuba.
I’ve been reminiscing about this Cuban holiday, but it wasn’t without its challenges. Photo: Sophie Kesteven

I travelled to Cuba in February, before the coronavirus pandemic cut my trip short.

The first 24 hours of my travel diary go something like this: My lift to the airport failed to show up, a woman dropped a large water bottle on my head from storage-cabin height, and in LA the line for border security was so long that another woman passed out.

On my flight from Panama City to Havana, a male passenger suffered a possible heart attack. I’ll never know what happened to him.

When I finally touched down in Cuba after midnight, I had to wait 45 minutes for my luggage – then haul it up six flights of stairs when the hotel lift wasn’t working.

A bright pink vintage car and old taxi passes by the National Capitol Building in Havana on a rainy day.
My trip, like the holidays of thousands of Australians, was cut short by the worsening pandemic. Photo: Sophie Kesteven

In Havana I discovered Cuba was no longer accepting US dollars and my bank cards didn’t work in the ATMs – luckily a woman on my tour was able to loan me some money for the trip.

On top of that, I almost got robbed by two young men, while sitting in a restaurant in Old Havana. Thankfully, two courageous waitresses intervened.

This isn’t to say it was all bad – I met so many kind-hearted locals who shared their incredible history, art, and culture with me.

The landscape and old vintage cars were as charming in person as they are in the photos.

The initial stress was worth it, and I’m grateful for the trip – but I’d definitely pushed all the downsides to a distant part of my memory.

An elderly Cuban woman with long colourful nails holds a cigar in her hand and smiles, showcasing a diamante on her tooth.
Now we can’t travel, I’m treasuring the many amazing places I saw, and the people I got to meet. Photo: Sophie Kesteven

When sloth bears attack

Travel blogger Joe Bird has also experienced some “holiday mishaps”.

Eager to see wildlife in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, he and his girlfriend signed up to a walking tour through the jungle with local guides in 2012.

During the safety induction, they were warned about sloth bears.

“They said that they were known for being very aggressive, and it’s what locals tend to fear the most,” Mr Bird said.

“They said the big problem is that they don’t stop until they’ve killed whatever it is.

“They go for the genitals and eyes. I thought out of any way you could die, you don’t want to be mauled by something going for your genitals and your eyes.”

But the guides reassured them it was very unlikely they’d see a sloth bear, and off they all went.

Portrait of a man from behind walking through a off beaten track in the jungle with a guide.
Joe Bird walking through the Nepali jungle in 2012, unaware of what lay ahead. Photo: Joe Bird

“Out of nowhere we heard growling, movement, and the guides looked up in horror and went, ‘Bears!’ It was a horrifying moment.”

The group huddled together and made a lot of noise, whacking sticks into the ground, trying to look and sound bigger than the bears.

“We were trying to show dominance and force, but it didn’t work and we got charged by three of them,” Mr Bird said.

“It was almost like a bowling ball going through a set of 10 pins.”

The guides fought back and though one was injured, everyone escaped with their lives.

Joe says he now looks back on the incident “with rose-tinted glasses”.

“Once the shock and fear of the incident subsides, you realise that even mishaps are a part of the adventure,” he said.

“And it certainly gave us a good story.”

How our brains process holiday mishaps

Patricia Obst, an associate professor with the QUT School of Psychology and Counselling, says there’s a few reasons why we tend to suppress negative thoughts, or find a way to view them in a positive light.

“The mishaps actually become the good stories, so there’s that aspect to it,” she said.

It can also be a bit of a “psychological defence mechanism”.

“We all know that people can completely forget traumatic events, and repress memories and things like that,” she said.

“It’s a clinically useful thing for us that we remember the positive things rather than focusing in on the negative things going forward.”

Other people might have a bad holiday experience but find themselves focusing on the positive aspects of it because of the sheer money they’ve spent on it.

“That’s a perfect example of cognitive dissonance,” Professor Obst says.

“If we spend a lot of money on a holiday, even if it wasn’t perfect, we’re not going to admit that it wasn’t perfect to justify our decisions.”

A man in a hospital bed waves alongside his wife who has a big smile
Bec Wyld alongside her husband Mark, who was diagnosed with kidney stones in a Cambodian hospital.

Then there’s lockdown.

When the opportunity to travel is taken away from you, even the bad parts of travel can seem more appealing.

Bec Wyld spent all of last year travelling through Asia and Europe with her husband and two daughters.

They visited 25 countries, and four different hospitals.

“It was amazing, crazy, annoying, wonderful – it was everything. It was a whole mixture of emotions a lot of the time,” she said.

“Now having being in Stage 3 restrictions in rural Victoria I look back on the whole year as an amazing adventure.

“Even those times riding in a tuk-tuk at 2am to find a hospital in rural Cambodia are a highlight of the trip.”

‘Just plan something’

Even though the end result is hardly ever perfect, anticipating an upcoming holiday can be beneficial for our wellbeing.

“The anticipating and planning can be half of the joy, can’t it?” Professor Obst said.

“It makes us switch our focus completely, and focus on something that’s purely enjoyable.”

That certainly rings true for Ms Wyld.

“My husband has been really affected by not being able to book something and have that plan,” she says.

“I said the other day, ‘Just plan something. Write it down, get a couple of spreadsheets going – we’re going to go’.

“He’s just started it and you can tell the difference in his mood nearly straight away.”

Despite the uncertainty over when overseas holidays will again be a reality, Professor Obst says there’s no harm in dreaming about one.

“In fact, I think that’s probably a very positive thing for our mental wellbeing, to think about opportunities and possibilities going into the future,” she said.

“I know that I have long service leave next year and I don’t care what I do. Even if it’s only Queensland that I can travel in, I’m still having that holiday and I’m going to make the most of it.”

Two women walk down a cobbled street surrounded by colourful colonial buildings.
Little moments from our past holidays can remind us of the connections we all have. Photo: Sophie Kesteven

Now, I know I won’t be venturing anywhere into the Caribbean any time soon.

But it doesn’t mean that we have to remain completely disconnected to what’s happening on the other side of the world.

On one of my first days in Havana an old Cuban man selling stamps from a little marketplace asked me: “‘How is everything going back in Australia with all those bushfires? Is everyone OK?’”

It was a moment of genuine kindness and sincerity, and it took me by surprise.

One young girl bounces a ball in the background of a temple while another smiles in the foreground. A doll in the background rep
Two young Cuban girls play in Trinidad’s Yemaya Temple in front of a doll representing the goddess of the sea. Photo: Sophie Kesteven

It also served as a reminder that it’s not just the places we visit, but it’s the extraordinary people we meet along the way that can make any trip memorable.

So I’m going to keep dreaming about travel and all it entails – the good, bad and ugly – even if it’s just in this beautiful continent I get to call home.

-ABC

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