Expectations fill our travel plans like water fills the oceansI woke up in a haze. “Why is my iPhone screen cracked? Did I break it while I was sleeping?” Half awake, I looked closer. No, not broken, just a deceptive-looking black-and-white album cover. I was simply groggy, confused, and slightly stupid from the few hours of sleep I had gotten.

I opened the window shade and looked out the window. The sky was changing from black to a rainbow of colors as the sun ushered in a new day…one more welcomed from 35,000 feet.

As breakfast came, I emerged from my airline blanket cocoon, and the realization hit me: in less than a day, I’ll be in Africa, a continent I had put off going to for long time.

Since I made the announcement about my trip, the first question everyone asks me is “are you excited?”

”No, not yet,” I would say when they asked.

Seeing the disappointment in their eyes at an answer that didn’t convey overflowing exuberance, I would always add a caveat:

“Yes, of course I am excited. I’m going on safari! But with so much to do beforehand, I just haven’t had time to wallow in that feeling.”

* * *

I remember when I first went away in 2006. Before I left, my trip was the only thing I would talk about—where I was going, what I was going to do, and the adventures I would have. Back then, my exuberance was overflowing.

And then I left.

Days went by, and I felt no different.

In my mind, this trip was going to be life-altering. It was going to change everything—inside and out. And it did, but not right away. And while I wouldn’t change the path I’ve taken to this moment in my life, I still remember that disappointment…disappointment born of expectations created by naïvety.

We all carry the scars of the past.

Each memory is like a weight we knowingly, or sometimes unknowingly, drag with us throughout life.

And as I sat huddled in my airline blanket eating another cardboard-tasting airline breakfast, I couldn’t think about how I still carry that scar from my past.

Now, before trips, instead of jumping up and down, I shut them out of my mind. Yes, I’m excited for Africa. Yes, I was super excited for Japan. But as the Buddha said, with no expectations come no disappointments.

Maybe it’s all those movies I watch or just an overactive imagination, but I build up trips in my mind to the point where what I think will happen never matches what actually does. And while what does happen is always amazing, it becomes less amazing when measured against the expectations in my mind.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve coincidentally learned a lot about expectations. Buddha was right—they lead to nothing but disappointment. Often when we have the highest expectations, we suffer the greatest disappointments.

To many, it seems weird that I would remain so stoic and nonchalant about such an epic trip. “Yeah, I’m going to Africa,” I would say, as if it was no big deal.

But it is a big deal, and while Toto’s “Africa” has been on repeat on my iPod, I knew giving too much thought to this trip would simply allow my imagination to get the best of me and create a false set of expectations.

I will think about Africa when I land in Africa.

I will take it as it comes to me, unfiltered and raw.

Because there’s only the moment you’re in, and when you just enjoy it for what it is, not what you expect it to be, it can never disappoint you.

  1. Matt, I think this is one of your best-written pieces to-date. It flows really nicely and has a real literary touch. I like it! Of course, I also appreciate the message it’s sending. Have a great trip…. I’m sure it will be fantastic.

  2. Lauren

    Same here, it was literally months into my trip before I finally felt “free.” But it happens! It’s just a process of letting everything go–you can’t do it all at once.

  3. That’s the way very young children and animals experience their daily lives. There is definitely something to be said for it—-as long as you thought ahead enough to have your plane ticket, passport and shots.


    PS: Looking forward to your safari posts. We are planning to make our first visit to Africa in 2014.

  4. Maybe it’s jaded, but I try to approach most things in life like this. I used to say I’d rather be relieved than disappointed, but I think Buddha said it better.

  5. Sarah

    I don’t know… I get what you’re talking about, but half the fun for me is planning! Which is why I’m over here thinking about RTW trips and even mapping out my itinerary when that won’t be able to happen for quite some time. 😛 I love making lists, looking up stuff, finding pictures and YouTube videos and cookbooks, and just trying to get a quick peek into what it’s going to be like… And then of course you get there and it’s completely different, but that’s okay! There’s always some smell, some ineffable feeling that never comes across when you’re sitting at home. So I get that, but I still like to plan.

    I feel like if I just stepped off the plane without doing things like that, without getting myself excited, that I would feel like I’d missed half the fun. 😛 And besides, me being the somewhat fearful person that I am, I have to choose to replace fear and nervousness with excitement and anticipation. If I did away with those, I feel like the nervousness would just creep back in, and I’d almost start dreading the trip.

    Am I just rambling, or does this make any sense? Or both? 😛 (First comment for me, by the way. Whoo…)

    • I agree with you Sarah. For me the planning and anticipation is part of the fun of the trip. I also believe that if you think you are going to have a fantastic trip, you will. And the opposite is true too. (Vague interpretation of Henry Ford’s quote –“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”.)

      P.S. Matt, I hope you aren’t becoming jaded from all your world travel!

      • Sarah

        Hey, Melanie! (I wish this would send me an email when someone replies!) Great point about how much your mindset can affect your trip. This is why I find it difficult to travel with some people… You know the type: they think locals are always rude and trying to cheat you, the hotel wasn’t what they were used to back home, they didn’t like any of the local food… Grr. I’m sure I do my fair amount of complaining, but that kind of toxic attitude is difficult to take after a while. 😛 (I like that Henry Ford quote, too – who knew it could apply so well to travel? :) )

  6. Steve

    I think after this trip you’re going to be asking yourself why did it take me so long to get to Africa. Cape Town is excellent, Namibia is beautiful and different and Victoria Falls is incredible. Plus all of the people are extremely friendly in each of these countries.

  7. You have a great talent Matt, the ability to express yourself so well through written words is one I wish I had. I’m sure it has been developed and refined through all your years of practice.

    While I fundamentally agree with your point I’ve had somewhat of an opposite experience. Even though I’m always excited about my trips before I go, I always have constant anxiety about flying, knowing the ins and outs of the destination, and how ‘safe’ it will be. And once I finally get there… it has always been even better than I had imagined. I’m sure all trips and destinations won’t go that way.. but so far so good.

    PS: Enjoy Africa!

  8. I am trying to stop thinking (and talking) about my upcoming trip so much, I definitely am a bit worried I’m going to hype it up so much that I might be a little disappointed once we leave. But then this is my first big trip and its a bit hard not to be overly excited

  9. Take it as it comes. I like it Matt. I have been kind of doing the same. I try to keep myself busy preparing and working my next trip that I haven’t thought about expectations. Great post and very well written.

  10. This is such a beautiful philosophy for travel and for life in general. I’m going to Africa for the first time next summer and, like you, I’m not fully excited quite yet. Thanks for reassuring me that’s it’s okay not to be jumping up and down every second before a trip.

    I also love the Africa playlist idea! Can I suggest Shakira’s “Waka Waka” and Karl Wolf’s “Africa” get added? :)

    Have an amazing time! I can’t wait to read about it!

  11. MAN! I’ve never been able to sleep on planes. Even with help from a pill.

    Managing your expectations can be important but have you been saving this location in the rainy day travel-bank? Maybe trying to rekindle that “newness” feeling from 2006 by purposefully keeping it out of your mind?

    Just remember it can get paradoxical, right now you have expectations that you want this trip to be as pure or “raw” of an experience as possible. Your second last line sums it up. yet you could see things there that are common in the rest of the world.

    But you can attempt a constant. Be positive. Be positive to others. Stay positive in the worst situations (unless you’re in danger) and you can expect to enjoy life.

  12. Sibila

    Great post, truly inspiring. It makes a lot of sense for me because even though I don’t consider myself a frecuent traveler (I wish I were) , every time I’ve had the chance to travel I don’t have much time to think about where I will go or what will happen to me there. I give myself time to book the tickets, look for decent accommodation, the not-to-miss landmarks and that’s it. If I had time to research more, maybe I’d start to wonder and give place to expectations…

  13. Nice post! I agree that not having expectations for any particular place can really help you open up and receive whatever that place actually has to offer. And I understand that feeling of not getting worked up for a trip until you’re actually on the way. Sometimes it doesn’t really click that I’m going somewhere until I’m on the plane. But I did discover that some places have been really hard to not have expectations about, even if you try. I talked about my experiences with New Zealand here: http://quixoticroad.com/new-zealand-reflections/. I think sometimes, despite best intentions, it just happens. But it sounds like you have a great attitude about Africa….can’t wait to read about your adventures there!

  14. If I was in Africa “waka waka” by shakira would be on repeat on my iPod!

    Personally, I think there has to be excitement before making a trip to somewhere new and exciting. As long as you make the most if what you have, there should be no disappointment.

  15. Great post Matt! Very well written. I know the feeling about not being excited for a trip, usually for us it’s because it feels surreal and as if it isn’t actually happening…if that makes sense?

    We loved Cape Town and I’m sure you will enjoy the rest of your time in Africa and won’t be disappointed! Can’t wait to see your future blogs.

    Goats On The Road

  16. Awesome, amazing, fabulous, superb, fantastic…. My heart skipped a beat while reading this article. I absolutely like the message behind the article. Rightly said, expectations will always end up in disappointments and most of the times we miss valuable things and moments in life because of our expectations. This article touched my heart :)

  17. Nico - A Travellers Journey

    It’s quite an inauspicious way of arriving on a new continent. Maybe this means you’ll end up having an amazing time after all.

  18. James Griffin

    Matt, I couldn’t agree more. Whether it’s a summer blockbuster film, a highly recommended book or a trip of a lifetime; the more time we spend creating mental images of super-human encounters and events about which others will write, create films and record albums, the more likely we are to end up missing the actual beauty that we do encounter. Thanks for sharing.

  19. It’s pretty ironic you wrote/posted this as I am in the middle of writing something similar, as I leave for my “BIG TRIP” in 20 days and I’m 1/2 freaking out, half avoiding the topic and questions of “are you excited?!” So, Yes, I too am just leaving my expectations and outcome buried deep inside a closet somewhere, as I know that if I set myself up for disappointment, that’s exactly what I will get in the end.

    *CHEERS!* to new adventures and new places

  20. I used to be overwhelmed by the decision of whether to order triple chocolate ice cream, double chocolate with chips, or chocolate explosion. Whatever I got, I always expected it to be delicious.. yet it never was. My expectation was so high that I would become unsatisfied with what I had ordered and always wonder about what I could have had instead. Now I order vanilla ice cream to avoid the expectation. It is always delicious. Because of this, my vanilla ice cream expectations have escalated and I think I am at the point where I must choose a new flavour to underestimate.

    I went to Uganda for six weeks a few years ago with little expectations and a similarly small amount of money to play with. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life and I hope that you enjoy Africa even half as much as I did, because, well, just wow.

  21. Patrick

    Lovely post Matt. As we all know living in the now, embracing the present, taking things as they come… its a good message and one that makes utter sense, but like most things that are worthwhile they are difficult to put into true practice (but not entirely impossible!).

    Buddha may have said that with no expectations there are no disappointments… but he also said that positive beliefs manifest positive things.

    I think it’s a balance we are all striving for, in all areas of life!

  22. I love this! So many good quotes that I want to quote.

    I remember when I first experienced this myself — on our first travel adventure, and our first night in Mexico. I had expectations of what it was supposed to be like, and it didn’t match up. I tried to learn… and let go of my expectations. It makes travel so much more enjoyable!

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