“But did you actually like India?” everyone seemed to ask.
It was a fair question. Every time I described India, I usually started with my first impression of the country. The long, circuitous route from the airport into central Delhi, the roadway thick with vehicles diverse in wheels and dimensions, the cow burrowing her head into the flaming pile of garbage while rummaging for some nosh. I relished the grim, gritty details, the number of times I stepped in feces of indeterminate origin, exactly how many times I contracted scientifically-innovative new strains of diarrhea, the many and various attempts to grift me of all of my money and earthly possessions.
The crowning glory in every string of India anecdotes was our journey to Jaipur. The sojourn was a 17-hour ride crammed haphazardly into glass capsules in a rattling deathtrap manned by a driver with an itchy brake-foot. At the terminus of our jaunt was a series of hysterical mishaps involving alleys crawling with braying goats and half-naked children, each of them screaming at us. We climbed into four different rickshaws, each which was trying to rip us for our dwindling supply of rupees, and as we climbed into the last we were sure we knew the face of madness.
I, in fact, really liked India.
But the length of time it takes to say, “The Taj Mahal sure is pretty” is not quite so long. Certainly not as long as a detailed description of the five hours we stood on a dusky train platform waiting for our delayed chariot, or the various riff-raff we shook loose from our beds when we finally boarded. I can generate dozens of new similes for those few meals that destroyed my insides compared to the few positive adjectives I have for the numerous meals which I processed normally.
The best stories to tell and to hear are those that involve some degree of horror and calamity. They invite embellishment and flair, they require emphasis and expression. To tell a good story about all the easy times while travelling requires a slide show and a peaceful, anaesthetized grin. Regaling an audience with a travel horror story requires a thrill for the telling, an eye for detail, and skill with the dramatic.
This is not to say that people do not want to hear about the good times, that they don’t want to see the pictures or imagine the food. People enjoy hearing about the scent of saffron and sandalwood, about the texture of the sand on the beaches, about the glory of the sun rising behind the ancient such-and-such. You can take down notes, record the best places to find the magical dish swimming in that unearthly sauce that certainly contained the tears of Jesus, write down the directions to that thing with the stairs and the awe-inspiring view of the everything.
But a perfectly happy time spent in a luxury resort has no up-and-down. An endless buffet of foods served in hollowed-out pineapples and coconuts provides no thrill. If it’s all mountains and temples and the majestic beauty of this wacky amazing planet we live on, the story eventually grows tedious. There’s no rise and fall. There’s no adventure to the adventure.
The hero’s journey requires a jaunt to the underworld, it needs its call and it needs its tasks. Where there is tumult and hardship and difficulty, there is a story. Where there are hurdles to overcome, there’s a stalwart hurdler leaping over them, looking impressive all the way. A roller coaster doesn’t ride a long, flat track.
All of this is just as true for the teller as the listener. There’s no story quite so exciting to tell as the one where you endured unthinkable horrors from beyond our realm of space-time and came through the journey scarred but alive. You have survived, you are here to regale, so you must have overcome the obstacles. But how, mysterious wanderer, and with what magical tools?
A person describing their fabulous time hiking and snorkelling sounds like a human having a very nice time after an expensive flight in a jet-fuelled tube of metal. A person describing defeating hordes of fiends at the airport check-in, or doing battle with intestinal parasites, or barely escaping injury or death in cars and on cliffsides and at market stampedes sounds like an adventurer. They sound like someone you want to buy a drink and listen to for a while.
A travel horror story gives contrast, it gives levity. It raises stakes and hilarity, and makes the days in the sunshine sipping margaritas out of a gold-encrusted clamshell seem earned.
The horrors can be diverse and various in severity. A serious encounter with turbulence, an immigration officer drunk with power and hatred for all of mankind, or a quick, surly mugging. Stomach bugs and absurdly long lines to see overcrowded attractions. Heat stroke. Vehicular breakdowns. Blisters and cuts and trudges through boggy pits of brown water.
In the moment itself these events can seem unbearable—far from home and the familiar, you are trapped or ill or holding on for dear life. Your warm bed, your safe food and water, your car and your house and your mom are all far away, and it is only you and the elements. But given enough time, given enough distance, they take on the air of adventure. They become something worthy of the telling. They become a travel horror story, one of the best souvenirs you can bring home from your time on the road.