Why the Ugly Sides of Travel are Just as Important

by Published

As glamorous as Instagram and travel magazines might make it seem, travel isn’t always glittering and glamorous. There are long bus rides, bedbugs, upset tummies, and blistered feet to balance out the colorful cafes, views over the ocean, and quirky bookstores… and sometimes, the scale leans more in the direction of the former.

OK, OK, let’s gets real. Sometimes, the scale is thrown completely off-balance and you want nothing but to crawl under the covers and watch your favorite TV series. With modern streaming speeds, without subtitles, and preferably with some air conditioning. And maybe a hot fudge sundae while we’re at it.

Yet, at times, that seems as impossible as asking for rain during a merciless August in Italy. 

Monastery in the mountains of Nepal lit up at night with stars bright in the sky

Sometimes the most beautiful places in the world can be the most challenging.

Travel is life’s learning process, accelerated. Since experience is the best teacher, we are faced with countless lessons every day on the road: in humility, in faith, in language and customs. It’s not just fluffy animal friends, smoothies with passion fruit on top, and cute outfits from vintage stores. Yes, that’s right: your outfit will not always match the backdrop, your hair will not always be in a neat bun, and you will not always make it to the top of the mountain just in time for the perfect sunset picture. 

But, despair not! It is in these bumps and curves that are the most valuable components to travel. Whether you are volunteering with wildlife in Namibia or teaching English in China (or anything inbetween), it is in the mishaps and frustrations that some of the best rewards show themselves. So, while the latest season of whatever is stuck buffering, embrace the inconveniences.

Here’s why the ugly sides of travel are just as important as the more Instagrammable sides

We grow up.

It’s difficult to evolve into our new and improved selves if there are no difficulties to inspire such change. Anthony Bourdain sums this up pretty well: “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But, that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” 

It’s true. Luggage gets lost, hostels don’t exist, people don’t show up when they say they will, you forgot one of the 11 requirements you need to present at the border to get an entry visa, you left your charger at the hostel, you mispronounce a word in the most embarrassing manner, you can’t resist the empanadas from the street vendor and end up with food poisoning for a week.

Instead of losing your temper or booking the first flight back home, take these instances to develop patience, become flexible, practice better organization, put more time into research, learn to laugh at yourself, and really wash your fruit before consumption. Each thing that goes wrong is a chance to make something better within ourselves.

Cataratas do Iguacu, crowded with tourists in Brazil

Reality is a little different than your Instagram story.

We embrace the journey.

If you’ve ever packed a bag and gone somewhere, you will know that every trip has its detours. It’s not a straight line from A to C; you need to pass through B, M, Y, Z, and a Ɣ or キ in between. Sometimes, this might involve a twenty-hour bus ride, being dumped unceremoniously at the side of a dusty road, or taking an unplanned layover in another country. 

However, it is usually on these unplanned roads and dusty bus stops that we make unexpected friends, learn valuable lessons in patience, figure out how to re-navigate paths, and see hidden treasures unmarked on the map. We learn to seek the (mis)adventure of the lines connecting cities on maps and to view the journey with as much potential as the destination.

And, of course, we really appreciate the moment of arrival when it finally does occur.

[Can’t decide between two programs? MyGoAbroad can help]

We talk to strangers.

Every good journey has us lost, confused, and disoriented. Maybe we don’t know in which direction to go, how to order the toppings we want, or how to buy bus tickets (it’s OK). In such instances, it’s best to ignore our parents’ well-meaning advice and talk to strangers. 

A piece of good advice from an unknown person can save the day. They can point us in the right direction, recommend a place to stay, or become our new BFF’s in a foreign country. In addition, they make the world seem a little more human and a little less scary (and, usually, put our own problems into perspective). So, when the entire travel itinerary is falling apart, reach out.

With each human connection, we destroy the walls around ourselves (and our preconceptions), learn to trust in good faith, and practice our communication skills. It is when we are most vulnerable that we reach out with open hands and hearts— and it is in this state that we often receive the best reassurances from the world. We are not alone and, as a rule, people are willing to help if we let them.

Looking out of a train smiling in Goa, India

You can still find beautiful moments when travel gets a little ugly. 

We learn to let go.

I certainly don’t wish it upon anyone to have their new Nikon D500 DSLR stolen while admiring Michaelangelo frescos, but… now your backpack is a little bit lighter to carry afterwards?

And, as everything happens for the best, maybe there is a good reason behind it. I remember having my new iPod stolen in a hotel lobby in Athens (the only thing I specifically bought for my year-long trip through Europe) upon arrival. At first, I was sad and refused to leave the city until it was returned – how could I ever go explore Mediterranean islands without listening to my favorite bands from back home? But then, I learned to tune into the moment: listen to the breeze, pick up the slang in the streets, and enjoy the silence. Not to mention, I came in with a bunch of really cool underground Greek tunes.

Things get misplaced, things get left behind, things sometimes tend to disappear. Or, on a more philanthropic note, we see someone who needs our favourite black sweater more than us. Whatever the case, it is a positive breakthrough when we learn to detach from things enough to carry less and tread lightly. We start to collect memories more than possessions. Whether it is personal possessions or friendships, we let go of the fear of losing something— for it always shows up again when we most need it. 

[Get the travel ball—and plans—rollin’ with our Online Advisors]

We experience life as it is.

Just like life, travel comes with both sunshine and dark clouds; it is where these two mix that rainbows are formed. There is no truth in the assumption that life can be tedious and complicated at home, and carefree and perfect abroad (even if there is no denying that some things are better abroad). The same traffic jams, long lines, headaches, and feelings of ennui exist abroad. 

Such experiences bridge the gap between “at home” and “abroad” and make the world seem a little bit smaller. Not being immune to jammed fingers and (host) family feuds on the other side of the planet makes geography a little bit irrelevant and life a little bit more encompassing. We learn that every place has its pro’s and con’s, that every day has its up’s and down’s. It is acknowledgement of this balance that lets us be at peace, no matter how exotic or down-in-the-dust our present location is.

Ready to travel and walk along the vile side?

Rhinos in South African national park

For every beautiful photo there is a blister on your feet and a sunburn that is peeling.

Here are top programs to consider for every kind of adventurer.

gvi logo

1. Volunteer Abroad in Nepal with GVI

As a health care volunteer in Nepal with GVI, You will be providing health support for people with special needs and assisting in training teachers, health workers and families in order to help the community provide healthcare support where it is needed. Get ready for an experience that is as rugged as the mountain range this country is famous for.

Related: Read GVI reviews |
Not quite right? Check out these volunteer opportunities, too. 

ita logo

2. Teach English in Brazil with International TEFL Academy 

After getting TEFL certified, you can quickly begin working in major cities throughout Brazil. English teaching jobs are usually concentrated in the larger cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Recife, Salvador, and Brasilia, but if you’re really looking to rough it, there are opportunities to teach in rural schools as well.

Related: Read ITA reviews |
Not quite right? Check out these teach abroad opportunities, too. 

sit study abroad logo

3. Study Abroad in India with SIT Study Abroad

With SIT Study Abroad, you’ll learn how communities in India and around the world define and strive for health and well-being. This program strengthens students' ability to understand, interpret, and compare the biological, ecological, economic, political, and socio-cultural factors that affect human health. 

Related: Read SIT reviews |
Not quite right? Check out these study abroad opportunities, too. 

vacorps logo

4. Intern Abroad in South Africa with VACorps 

If you are interested in protecting and promoting human rights, this life-changing internship with VACorps will give you the opportunity to become personally involved in helping to generate social change while discovering South Africa at the same time.

Related: Read VACorps reviews |
Not quite right? Check out these internship opportunities, too. 

frontier logo

5. Road Trip Across Sri Lanka with Frontier 

Travel with Frontier and discover all the wonder Sri Lanka has to offer. What is so fantastic this journey is that whilst traveling you will benefit from the leadership of a young, friendly, fun but also sensible and well-traveled guide who will help you out when traveling gets a little ugly.

Related: Read Frontier reviews |
Not quite right? Check out these adventure travel opportunities, too. 

woman with surfboard on the beach, Weligama, Sri Lanka

Not pictured: wiping out seven times in the Sri Lankan waves.

So, let travel be a little ugly sometimes 

Like any experience, travel looks better in hindsight. It doesn’t seem to even be a conscious effort for most of us; we just tend to remember more the sun breaking over Machu Picchu and lazy afternoons along the Urubamba River instead of the pestering offers to buy one more alpaca jacket or the bout of traveler’s diarrhea. It’s not selective memory and it’s not that we ignore the bad things. It’s simply that, in the picture at large, these nuisances were temporary obstacles (and usually with a good lesson attached to them) that did not take away from the overall grandeur of our summer study abroad in Portugal or internship in India

Plus, what good does complaining things like getting on the wrong boat, not having ice in your water, eating yet another breakfast of papayas and pan dulce, or sharing a dorm with a snorer do? As soon as I am back home at the office, it’s the type of problem I would like to have… rather than overdue library books, closing the bar while sick, or paying electricity bills.

Because, in the end, the ugly sides of travel are still travel. Timeless, transformative travel that always knows what is best for us.

Find your program—meaningful travel starts here.