Balancing Expectation and Experience

And how to deal with your disappointment on your travels.  
broadway cats
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical "Cats" plays on Broadway. Photo: Rudi Von Briel/Photolibrary/Getty Images

I worked on my first school play 17 years ago. Rehearsals were the sweetest part of my day and I instantly fell in love with the stage. As part of our prep, the drama teacher showed us a televised version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical Cats. I was awestruck. My life’s new purpose became to get to Broadway to watch a show live on stage. For the next few years, I worked part-time with some theatre groups in Mumbai, all the time dreaming of walking down the streets of New York’s Broadway theatre district. When my mother travelled to New York, she phoned me as she was about to enter a show of The Phantom of the Opera. Between tears, I asked her to bring back every show pamphlet she could get her hands on. I savoured those brochures and playbill copies for ten years.

In 2014, I finally made it to New York City. Needless to say, the first thing I did was run to the theatre district. As soon as I got there, I had to recheck my GPS to ensure I was in the correct area. Apparently, I was. But there were no glittery streetlights, tap dancers on the sidewalk, people in elaborate costumes, or music in the air. The streets were crowded with thousands of tourists with selfie sticks. Spread over many streets, inconspicuous doors lead to various auditoriums. The only familiar things were the play posters, copies of which were plastered on my bedroom walls. This anti-climactic moment was a culmination of 16 years of dreaming. And I was terribly disappointed.

Soon enough, I realised that I had obviously built the place up unrealistically. It was much like the disappointment of watching a movie after having read the book. But this was not the first time that I had been disenchanted with a destination. The Eiffel Tower didn’t wow me, the New Orleans’ jazz scene was louder than I expected, and Germany’s pretzels were pretty dry. The common thread between all these disappointing experiences was that I had already experienced them in my head several times over. I had built stories about how they would play out, planned my photo poses, and even thought of conversations I would have with people around me. The real events were a major let-down.

I remember reading about a study that states that the anticipation of an event gives a person more happiness than the actual thing. While that’s great in itself, I wanted to savour places in the flesh as well. I had to figure out how to enjoy the anticipation for what it was, and then move on to relish the real-life spectacle.

I spent time coming up with solutions to make sure a disappointment did not ruin my holiday. The easiest solution is to avoid over planning. Get basics like transport, accommodation, and money sorted and have a rough idea of the things you want to do, but don’t over research. It’s completely okay not to know what to expect. This was a big step: Learning to enjoy the surprises instead of the anticipation. But what if, like me, you’ve already had those dreams and looked forward to particular events? I realised you then have two options. Be grouchy for the rest of your trip, or find a way to enjoy yourself anyway. Taking the second option should be the obvious choice.

I’m not one to discourage travellers from fantasising about the places to which they will travel. And once we’re in a place we’ve been dreaming about, it’s not easy to wipe out our imaginations either. But it is surprisingly easy to focus on new experiences in the here and now. I could, for instance, have focused less on the Eiffel’s disappointment and more on the magnificence of the Sacre Coeur in Paris, on yummy jambalaya in New Orleans, and on adding some butter to my pretzels in Germany.

I went back to the theatre district the day after Christmas in 2014, this time with my boyfriend’s family. After a fancy Italian dinner we walked to a Broadway auditorium to watch The Book of Mormon. Completely absorbed in the wonderful company, I didn’t even remember my shattered dreams from the first visit. We took silly photos outside the theatre, bought overpriced beer during the interval, and laughed loudly at the hilarious musical. An entertaining night out is all that the theatres aim to provide, and I learned to appreciate it for just that.

Appeared in the October 2015 issue as “Dreamer’s Dilemma”. 


    Natasha Sahgal is a traveller and writer. Her itchy feet take her around the world, making friends wherever she goes.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?