Notes From The Road: Expectation Management

When I’m in America (or any western country, really) I’m one of those pain-in-the ass Virgos who strides around crowing about high expectations and how you get what you expect from people and how you live with what you tolerate and on and on etc.

Yes, it is approximately as annoying as it sounds. My BFF is a very patient person.

And even though I’ve spent a the majority of the last ten years traveling and living abroad, every time I travel I spend the first six weeks desperately try to manipulate this new country and culture into fitting my western expectations. Yes, I realize that I will be eating different food, in a different climate, possibly with different tools. But every time I travel (every time!) I spend the first bit freaking out about customer service, timeliness, cleanliness and ohmygod why won’t you just stand in line!?

A lot of these things seem like forgone conclusions to us westerners. If the time schedule says the train leaves at 9:30, it should leave around 9:30. Once you’ve finished eating that bag of chips, you should throw the empty bag in a rubbish bin. If one orders spaghetti, one would really prefer to get spaghetti instead of pad thai.

And it’s tempting to think “India! (or Peru or Cambodia) you’re doing it wrong!” Surprisingly, this mindset will not actually help you enjoy your trip. Weird, right?

May I suggest instead, altering your expectations?

Don’t expect:

* when you order a type of food that you recognize from home, it will taste the same. Sometimes you will ask for crackers in your soup and get crumpled Doritos (true story). And America-Indian food doesn’t taste the same as India-Indian food.* there won’t be cockroaches. Because there will frequently be cockroaches, regardless of how much you’re paying for that hotel room.

* that you can flush the toilet paper – you probably can’t

* that the sheets will be stain free. They’ll probably be clean, but they won’t necessarily be stain-free

* that there will be hot water

* the electricity/internet/time tables to be 100% reliable

* central heat or air conditioning

* that person really, 100% understood what you asked for

* that the piece of clothing you bought from a sidewalk vendor for $3 will hold up for more than five washes

* that it’s realllllly an antique

* that it’s going to look like the pictures they’re showing you

* that the village visit, the canoe ride, the dance performance is included in the price of the package

* handwashing clothes in a bucket to have the same results at your Maytag at home

* airplane/train food to be any good

* that you’re paying the same price as a local, even after half an hour of haggling

This all seems rather dire and disappointing but I swear my goal is not to make you preemptively hate travel. But maybe you can learn from my (on-going) mistakes and land in a new country with the appropriately placed expectations and then be pleasantly surprised when your hostel room has clean sheets, wifi, hot water and a conceirge with passable English.

What things regularly surprise you when you travel? Do you have to adjust your expectations?



Oh I hate those toilets! On occassion you can find them in Japan.
I have grown sort of comfy during my years travelling. A straw mat in a communal dorm with 20 others doesn't really cut it for me. I want a bed and no vermin plus a regular water toilet. Might sound stupid but I've tried all the other stuff and if given a choice, I'll go for at least those "luxuries".


My travel partner and I always have to remind ourselves in other countries that what we think might be "rude" behavior or tone of voice or especially word choice is not necessarily intended as rude, but possibly (probably, even) just a cultural difference in communication. We just stayed at a hotel in Austria where I initially was certain the desk woman hated us, but over the few days as I interacted with her more I realized she's just… brusque. She was actually quite helpful.


Garbage disposals. I had to prepare myself and my travel friend that Ireland (along with many, many other parts of the world) do not have a garbage disposal and we had to learn how to separate our rubbish food. It definitely made us eat everything off of our plates (not that we don't anyway πŸ˜‰


Hell, your expectations may be turned around even in countries that you would expect them to be similar. Almost no where in England has air conditioning. Most of the time, this is fine, but when they were having a "hot spell" (85+ F every day), an unsuspecting tourist could be quite surprised. That happened to my family when we were visiting, but I grew up in a house without AC, so it didn't bother us too much.


Toilets have always been the one thing that can send me into total madness. I'll never forget walking into a bathroom and thinking "where is the toilet and why is there a hole in the ground?" And no toilet paper. I just got use to carrying my own and perfecting my squat.
Customer Service never got to me. Considering I've worked in retail I'm not sure why I never got mad about it, but what I hate is exchanging money. Some countries make it easy, but not in China. I filled out more forms to exchange money than I did when I applied for college. It drove me up a wall. It also helped me not to over spend in China.


I haven't done much traveling, but this is great advice. I think if you expect a foreign country to be just like home or to be everything you dreamt it would be, it will never live up to your expectations, but if you take it for what it is it can probably exceed them πŸ™‚

Ellie Di

*flaps hands* The potty! I think I might faint. Just a bit. The cleanliness thing is part of what prevents me from travelling outside Western countries. I can put up with everything else on that list, and much more, but the idea that pooping requires my balance and possibly smearing myself with my own hand makes me gag and sends shivers down my spine. You're a much braver woman than I am!

Emy Jo

Yes. Toilets and toilet paper. My goodness, but if you go to the opera in Minsk in all your finery, do you really want to squat and wipe with a napkin you swiped from the dinner table?


One thing that has surprised me on various trips is how UNcomfortable we Westerners are with bodily functions. I have heard amazing loogies (sp?) being hocked, I've seen men urinating in the open – some discretely turning their back, but not all – I've seen people of all ages digging deep inside their nostrils or that dreaded close-one-nostril-and-blow-really-hard-and-see-what-shoots-out-the-other-one, I've heard (or even worse, smelled) people passing gas without the decency to even look embarassed. Yes, it's disgusting, but I find that my reaction is more often an indication of MY fussiness and not THEIR disgustingness. And I've lived abroad long enough that now I ask where the "toilet" is – certainly a lot less refined than asking for the "restroom".
Oh – and those squatty potties? I prefered them in India. I was grateful not to have to touch any surfaces, because in a country of over one billion people – who know what it last got cleaned?


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