When I traveled to Koh Tao, Thailand, I was convinced that I would have a week to myself. It turned out that my diving course was full of great people, and I ended up hanging out with them a bunch. It was great! But I didn’t expect it, and the socialization felt like a bonus.
Fast forward to Hanoi, and the opposite happened: I expected to meet a bunch of new people (and I did), but I had this gnawing sense that something was missing. In hindsight, nothing was missing. I actually reconnected with two great friends from different parts of my trip (even running into someone I met in Europe two months ago) and I hung out with people every night. But because my expectations were so high, even when I got exactly what I wanted, and made genuinely good memories, it felt like I wasn’t getting enough.
It’s so counterintuitive to lower your expectations, especially when you’re backpacking, and it feels like it’s supposed to be the best time of your life. Why would we lower our expectations when there’s so much to experience? Shouldn’t we be raising them so that we can squeeze every last drop from our trip? To an extent, yes. You need to maximize the time you have because you won’t get it back. But on the other hand, no. Happiness is a complicated topic, but it is so often just the difference between expectations and reality. Lower expectations, then, often lead to more happiness.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hope or do cool activities. For example, I hoped that driving a motorcycle for four days through the mountains in north Vietnam (the Ha Giang loop) would be one of the best experiences of my life. And it was. But you can't pin your happiness on the outcome. You can't expect what you hope to happen to actually happen. You need to be ok if your expectations and reality don’t align. I enjoyed the Ha Giang loop because it was thrilling and beautiful, and also because I went in with relatively low expectations about the weather, the people, and the food (all of which turned out better than I expected).
One of the most important, but hardest, things I’ve learned on my trip is to embrace the process of letting go (emphasis on “process” because I don’t think that letting go is a binary, on-off switch). I let go of multiple itineraries and saw them get replaced with new countries and people. I let go of certainty I had about my personality. I let go plans after the trip.
Likewise, I’ve felt some of my deepest peace when I’ve completely let go of the idea that I’ll meet new people (easily one of the most variable parts of travel) and accepted that I’ll be on my own. And do you know how many times I’ve actually been alone for more than two days at a time? Zero.
Letting go grounds us in the moment. It is the Buddhist idea of non-striving. Why are you focused on winning the championship when you should be concentrating on making the shot that will get you there? Why are you worried how people will react to your Instagram caption when you should be focused on enjoying the moment that will be captioned? Why are you focused on who you’ll meet later when you have an entire city to explore right now?
Travel is so much about what you gain: experiences, friendships, lessons. And those gains frequently come by ceding control. By changing your plans. By eliminating your own certainty. By being flexible. And by letting go.