Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

Time of Your Life: Expectations

I have been thinking a lot about this trip, but beyond a reminder in my calendar to select the participants in June, I have been coming up with more questions than answers.

For a start thanks and kudos to Jennifer Fletcher for coming up with a great name. Time of Your Life.

On the other hand, every silver-lining has a cloud. Calling the trip the “Time of Your Life” could actually be its downfall, if we take the name too seriously.

One way to have a trip that is not the time of your life is to burden it with the goal of being the time of your life.

No vacation is so good that having unrealistic expectations cannot badly screw it up.

Having witnessed hundreds of travelers make this mistake, you would think that I would be sure to avoid it in my own travels…. In Spanish they say, “En casa del herrero, cuchillo de palo.” (In the blacksmith’s house the knife is made of wood.”)

In the fall of 2006 Yolanda and I spent two and a half months visiting friends in Europe.

Most of our friends in Europe are in the travel business, so most of the trip was professionally planned and arranged.

One piece that I arranged myself was a romantic interlude in a first class compartment on the overnight train from Paris to Madrid.

Since I knew that even the first class compartments are small, and we were traveling with a lot of baggage including two large cases for out take apart tandem bicycle, we planned to put most of the luggage in the baggage car.

When we got to the station I gave the conductor the baggage for the baggage car. Not only did the train not have a baggage car, the conductor was condescending. “This is passenger train. Why would it have a baggage car?” He said slowly emphasizing every word.

So now my goal for the evening changed from romantic interlude to beat the conductor at his own game. When we got to the compartment I waited until the train was moving and piled the baggage outside my door where it partially blocked the corridor. Now my baggage had become his problem and he would have to figure out what to do with it.

When the conductor walked by, I smiled and told him that I didn’t mind leaving the baggage in the corridor. “No problem,” he said without stopping, “The police will put it off the train at the Swiss border.”

So now it looked it like the baggage would take up the floor and the lower bunk and we were going to share the approximately 2 and half foot wide upper bunk. Much more of a romantic interlude then I had bargained for.

Then I had an idea. The shower. If we could jam the baggage floor to ceiling in the shower, the problem would be solved.

And it worked. The shower door was so narrow that by putting the bags in vertically and then turning them more or less horizontal, we were able to wedge in the bags so that there no danger of them falling out with the movement of the train.

We also turned on the shower.

By the time I was able to reach around the bags and turn it off, we and the bags were soaked, there was an inch of water on the floor, I had yelled out some very choice Anglo-Saxon and Yolanda, who is against swearing (unless she is doing it) had yelled at me for bad language.

So now the theme of the evening for me had gone from romantic interlude, to out-foxing the conductor, to me defending myself for swearing. Except now the offense had morphed from swearing into upsetting everyone else on the entire train.

At least a half-hour later having rung out the clothes we were wearing, we walked into the dining car.

I was explaining to Yolanda that she was projecting on the other passengers her annoyance at me for what was a justified reaction to extreme circumstances, when everyone in the restaurant stopped talking and watched us walk half way down the car to the first empty table.

To Yolanda’s credit she sat in silence and waited for me to start laughing.

Here she is on my cell phone video the next morning.

So what does this have to do with our trip to Costa Rica? Just that we have to be careful not to let unrealistic expectations become a burden. Perhaps if rather than trying to have the times of our lives we just try to have a good time, we’ll be more likely to have the times of our lives.

Or perhaps having the time of your life and a good time are the same thing and the key is to swing easily from serious to silly, from having expectations to taking things as they come.

Please keep ideas for the trip coming.

If you have anecdotes about funny things that have happened when you travel or how you screwed up a trip, please share them.

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Comments and Replies

  • […] This is a continuation of the February 1 post. […]

    • At February 04, 2010
      7:41:13 am
      Shannon Borrego said:

      I’m sure that almost anyone who has traveled a bit over the years has a funny story to tell. I got quite a laugh out of yours, Michael. I’ve really been enjoying everyone’s input on this one!
      When I was young and the possibility of running out of money was an ongoing threat, I remember enduring horrific accommodations. There was the quaint pension in Italy where the shower was literally next to the bed; the stifling overnight train in Egypt where the cockroaches came out en masse every time the lights in our cabin were turned off; and the paper-thin walls at a hotel in Spain where rooms on both sides seemed to be occupied by exuberant honey-moon couples. But the story that stands out in my mind is one that occurred right here in the U.S.
      Back in the day, as they say, I was a flight attendant for the now-defunct TWA. As a “newbie” I often ended up with the least desirable flights which entailed long days with many flights. After one particularly exhausting day which had begun in the early morning hours, the crew finally landed in Miami and headed to our hotel around mid-afternoon. I was so tired that I decided to forego the usual crew get together for dinner. Instead I was looking forward to ordering room service, putting on my comfy threadbare nightgown and kicking back in front of the TV. All went according to plan until I decided to place my finished room service tray in the hall for pick-up. I’m still not exactly sure what happened; as I leaned out of my room to scoot the tray along the wall, my foot, which had been preventing the door from closing, slipped and the door shut behind me with a click. And there I stood at 5:00 p.m., no shoes, no robe, and a ratty (and rather transparent) nightgown. I racked my brain to remember the room numbers of other crew members but drew a blank. I stood forlornly in the deserted hall for awhile, hoping someone would happen along and allow me use the phone in their room to call downstairs; the hallway remained empty and silent. And, to top it off, I now suddenly had to go to the bathroom. With no alternatives coming to mind, I decided to take the elevator to the lobby, rush to the nearest employee and request another room key. With any luck, the lobby would be empty and only a few employees would witness the scene. As it turns out, luck was not with me that day. Upon arrival in the lobby it became immediately apparent that my hallway had been empty because everyone in the hotel seemed to be in the lobby! And, to make things worse, there was no way to reach an employee without crossing the entire room to the front desk. To this day I still blush as I remember the smirks of the amused hotel guests. It is very difficult to look dignified when you are barefoot and half-naked, but I did my best to keep my head up as I made the long journey to the front desk.
      At long last, key in hand, I escaped back to the elevator and beat a hasty retreat to my room—not to emerge until crew report the next morning.

      • At February 04, 2010
        9:36:52 am
        Michael Kaye replied
        to :

        Hilarious, Shannon.

        Your story inspires some questions and an idea.

        Questions: The next morning had the rest of the crew heard about it? If so, how did they let you know? If not, did you tell them?

        Idea: The next time that happens to you :-), try just going into the elevator and pushing the alarm button.

        • At February 04, 2010
          1:48:50 pm
          Shannon Borrego replied
          to :

          You know Michael, I honestly don’t remember whether the crew already knew about the little scene I had created in the lobby or whether I just blurted it out to give everyone a laugh. I love your idea of the alarm button–too bad I didn’t think of it. Hey, I see you’ve mastered the smile icon!

    • At February 01, 2010
      11:29:10 pm
      Jan said:

      I have a comical train story too Michael. I was traveling with my son and daughter-in-law on an overnight train from Stockholm to Copenhagen. We were not expecting six bunks in this tiny compartment to be shared with complete strangers. One of our fellow roommates was a fellow that had done some heavy drinking and smelled heavy of alcohol. The other fellow must of eaten an entire pot of chili for his dinner. You can imagine the toots and gases that emulated from his bunk. My daughter-in-law was crying softly and my son was trying to comfort her in this night of sorrow. We also had to share our small bunks with our giant size backpacks. We too learned that trains do not have a secured area for luggage.

      • At February 01, 2010
        3:48:17 pm
        Nancy Jean Barnabei said:

        A very funny story Michael, loved it! John and I were eating lunch at a little restaurant in Italy one trip, and they had a four-cheese pizza, but for some reason we thought four was over doing it and ordered a pizza with only two cheeses. Well that’s what we thought until two four-cheese pizzas arrived! Ok, not quite as romantic as your train-baggage-shower trip.

        • I’ve definitely had a few unexpected turns for the worst. Sometimes, like your shower escapade, the experience turns into something you can laugh at years later.

          One of the more memorable moments for me occurred during my first “independent” trip as a college student, traveling to Europe for a few weeks. We were visiting many popular tourist destinations, including Italy’s Cinque Terre. For whatever reason, we chose not to make reservations before the trip, which was a big mistake in August. When we arrived at the first of the five towns late one afternoon, we discovered that the entire town was booked (including any family floors we could potentially sleep on). So we hiked to the next town… which was also booked solid. As was the next. Ultimately we ended up sharing a picnic table on the cliffside trail halfway between towns, which was perched high above a very noisy nude beach. It certainly wasn’t the most comfortable night, but thinking back on it always makes me chuckle.

          From my experience, letdowns due to unreasonably high expectations are a bit different from the random snafus and disappointments that can occur during travel. Failing to make a reservation in the Cinque Terre in high tourist season was a simple mistake we paid for. Traveling to a remote research station in the Amazon that biologists and wildlife experts had told me was “far better than Costa Rica for wildlife” and coming away crushed by a disappointing four days in which we saw a single lizard (and almost nothing else) is something different.

          My expectations for trips are usually derived from a combination of my own experiences and those of others. I go to Yellowstone every year, so it’s easy to judge what makes for a good/fun/successful trip to the park nowadays, since I have a solid collection of past experiences to reference. But when I’m researching a new destination and read about the wonders one can possibly experience there, I naturally get excited. As I register more and more opinions telling me the same thing (e.g., “better than Costa Rica!”), my expectations are bolstered, leading to even greater potential for a letdown.

          So how do we manage expectations? Well, it’s pretty hard to not want to research a place and learn about what’s there. Without that research we wouldn’t get excited enough about the place to even go there, right? So maybe it comes down in part to what your goals are and what’s at stake. As a photographer, my travel fun is occasionally tempered by the fact that I have to come away from the experience with some tangible: photos, sometimes of certain subjects, and not just the memories we usually take away from a trip. But if you travel with less specific goals and a more open mind geared toward exploration and a bit of spontaneity, you’re probably more likely to be able to “roll with the punches” and come away with some fun memories even from those occasional unplanned events.

          • At February 01, 2010
            3:03:08 pm
            Daniele said:

            Hi Michael,

            Enjoyed the story. But why would a train from Paris to Madrid go through the Swiss border?

            • At February 01, 2010
              5:55:35 pm
              Michael Kaye replied
              to :

              Daniele, That’s a very good question. Obviously Paris-Madrid via Switzerland makes no sense. Yet I not only have a vivid memory of the conductor saying specifically the Swiss border, I have much more recent memories of telling the story to people from among other places France and Switzerland, and you are the first person to mention it. I also have a clear memory of waking up when the train stopped at the border, seeing the police get on the train, and assuming it was the Swiss border.
              Off-hand I can think of 4 explanations:

              1.The train was going the long way—very unlikely.

              2.The conductor said border and I misheard and thought he said Swiss border.

              3.The conductor said border and I misheard and thought he said Swiss border.

              4.The conductor actually did say Swiss border figuring that anyone ignorant enough to assume that a passenger train had baggage cars would believe him.

              If I had to bet, I’d go for # 4.

              I’ll save some more thoughts about the conductor for a future post.

              • At February 02, 2010
                10:52:28 am
                Daniele replied
                to :

                I love explanation 4! He may have said/meant the Spanish border… You should come back and repeat the trip: with the Schengen Space now in place no conductor will be able to threaten you with border police! D. (from Switzerland)

          • At February 01, 2010
            1:38:08 pm
            Patty said:

            LOL! Michael, I so appreciate your sharing that story – so stressful while living it, but funny in hindsight. The ability to see the ridiculousness of a situation is a great quality in a travel companion (and life partner).

            My husband and I planned for a hiking trip in Switzerland by buying thin raincoats with no rain pants, our New York logic being “It’s August! We’ll just be dayhiking! How bad can the weather get? And if it’s raining, we just won’t go hiking!”

            Of course, weather in the Alps is highly changeable, and we ended up hiking up a mountain in beautiful, clear skies, only to round a corner, and see something like smoke blowing over the ridge toward us. “What is that? Smoke?” No, clouds! And…HAIL.

            It was a bit nervewracking to be caught in a hailstorm, but when we got back down safe and sound and were eating fondue and drinking beers, we laughed with our friends at our naivete – now, “We just won’t hike if it’s raining!” is what we say to each other when we pack for trips (or at least, it’s what I like to say as an excuse to cram everything I own into our luggage). :)