In travel, as in life, the occasional disappointment is inevitable. It doesn’t matter who you are — a big spending jet-setter or an unwashed backpacker — in every passport lurks a stamp that’s a reminder of a trip that failed to deliver.
When I say disappointment, I’m not talking about an unfinished resort, delayed flight or anything you’ll see on a ‘holidays from hell’ docusoap. I’m talking about disappointment on a more profound level: the ‘trip of a lifetime’ that left you feeling hollow; the ‘dream destination’ that proved so hard to love; those occasions when flames of anticipation are well and truly snuffed out by the mouldy flannel of reality.
It is, of course, all a matter of expectation — the greater our hopes, the more crestfallen we are when they’re dashed. And when it comes to raising expectations, the world of travel is second to none. As children, we hear about enchanting far-away places. Then, when we get older, we see them on television, read about them in books and watch as they’re enshrined as wonders of the world; places we absolutely, categorically, definitely must see before we die. Is it any wonder they occasionally fall short?
Sometimes, I think, as travellers we experience disappointment simply because we’ve forgotten how to appreciate what we’re seeing. Our minds are so clouded by the opinions of others that we can’t pinpoint our own feelings. It’s in these moments I often find myself reducing world-famous attractions to the basest possible descriptions. I’ll stand at the foot of a pyramid and shout, “It’s just a pile of stones!” Visit the Empire State Building and say, “It’s just a bloody tower block!” Take a weary look at the Eiffel Tower and cry, “Is everyone else blind; it’s scaffolding!”
Handily, though, the rules of expectation work in reverse too. There are plenty of places on earth that don’t get the coverage they merit, and therefore have a huge capacity to surprise and delight. Then there’s that select group of attractions that are so amazing that no amount of hype can spoil them. I’ve heard this said about Australia’s Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the Alhambra fortress in Granada, Spain. But in my opinion, top of the list is the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.
If ever there was a building that should be a victim of inflated expectations, it’s this iconic Indian mausoleum. Few places have been talked up as often, and it must be one of the planet’s most photographed structures. It should be a let-down. But somehow it isn’t. In fact, on my first visit, it managed to surpass my expectations.
I feel as though I’ve known the words ‘Taj Mahal’ as long as I’ve been able to speak — I certainly knew of its existence long before I came to understand where, or what, it was. Its outline has been scorched onto my brain, and when I first arrived on the outskirts of Agra and glimpsed a tiny blur of white in the distance, I could tell instantly what I was seeing.
Up close, it truly is an affecting sight. Some people are moved by its touching history: the fact it was born over 350 years ago out of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s grief at the demise of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. But I wouldn’t care if it had been built in the 1980s by Donald Trump; it’s simply a remarkable piece of architecture.
Maybe it’s the scale and symmetry. Maybe it’s the way it’s framed so neatly by its adjoining square of crafted garden. Perhaps it’s the carved details, or the intoxicating effect of so much glistening white marble. But whatever it is, no amount of over-zealous build-up could ever rob it of its impact.
So I say to you all, if you haven’t seen it yet, book a plane ticket to India as soon as possible. Then allow yourself to get really excited. Because I promise, you won’t be disappointed.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)