Bucket Lists: Are They Overrated?
Featured destinations: Africa, Indonesia, Paris
Published 08 April 2016
In recent years bucket lists have become a bit of a trend. Everyone seems to have one, either of their own creation or borrowed from one of those ubiquitous 30 Things to Do Before You’re 30 books. Perhaps, fearful of our own mortality, we are all worried that we haven’t lived life to the full, or at least that we won’t have. So we put together a list of the things we want to do and start ticking them off, inevitably feeling hopelessly inadequate when by 30 we have achieved only four of the 30 items.
Ticking off my bucket list
Since leaving university, I’ve spent almost two years abroad, visited dozens of countries and crossed the vast majority of the items off my bucket list. Mountain climbing. Tick. White water rafting. Tick. Bungee jumping, riding a helicopter over New York, hiking to Machu Picchu. Tick, tick, tick.
Yes, I had an amazing time, but what if I hadn’t followed a list? What if, somewhat controversially, rather than planning my holidays around the remaining things on my bucket list, I had simply gone where I felt like and lived each day as it came? Would I still have done these things, and more importantly, would it even matter?
Building up expectations
Back when I worked in Africa travel sales, I spent many weeks watching the world’s most majestic animals thrive in their natural habitats. Seeing the Great Wildebeest Migration was soon added to my bucket list and, after four years of trying to convince my boss to send me to the Serengeti, he finally agreed.
Having watched plenty of David Attenborough documentaries I had visions of vast herds charging across the plains and bloody battles between wildebeest and crocodiles in the thundering Mara River. But the reality was somewhat different. Huge queues of safari vehicles clamoured around the water’s edge, their occupants chatting loudly, poised with their ridiculously large camera lenses. A group of wildebeest, perhaps 1,000-strong, stood in front of us, waiting for their moment to cross the river. They never did. We sat there for five hours in the baking heat, and saw… well, not a lot. Call me a heathen if you like but I was far more excited when I saw my first leopard, or the time I watched a giraffe being born, entering the world in a slippery mass before dropping over a metre to the ground with an undignified plop. Minutes later, I watched the baby take his first tentative steps, encouraged by his mother. What a pleasure to witness such wonders. I had never even thought to add ‘see a giraffe giving birth’ to my bucket list.
At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I don’t think it was the fault of the experience but of my expectations. I built the Great Wildebeest Migration up in my head to be the ultimate, the very best in wildlife watching. But while spectacular in any other context, compared with my dreams, it fell short.
In Japan, they have a name for this: Paris syndrome. The Japanese imagine Paris to be a wonderfully romantic city, filled with the scent of baking croissants, the twinkling Seine running through its heart and the Eiffel Tower majestically overseeing proceedings. On arrival though, they are greeted with a city like any other: loud, noisy, busy, and dirty. Now I love Paris; I know it’s a beautiful city and could happily while away an afternoon or three in a streetside café sipping fine wines and sampling the moules-frites. But being realistic, I also know that just like any city, it’s not perfect. Paris has its rough spots, overpriced restaurants, crowded stations and the odd rude resident. But for some Japanese, this slight on perfection is too much to bear, and there have been reports of heart palpitations, giddiness, shortness of breath and even hallucinations as the sufferer fails to deal with the reality of the city.
Going with the flow
So how do we avoid this disappointment? Simple: don’t make a list. Don’t build up expectations. Just go with the flow. Sure, research your destination before you go, but don’t spend hours looking at photo-shopped pictures and filtered Instagram posts. Don’t believe every guidebook that tells you of ‘awe-inspiring’, ‘spectacular’ and ‘life-changing’ sights. Allow your mind to open and form your own opinion; find your own must-see attraction. And why does it have to be on a list? Sure, aspire to travel, to see the world, but not from a list. Go where you feel like, to the places that interest you. If someone recommends a restaurant, a sight, a view, go there; see for yourself, even if you’ve never heard of it. You might just discover something amazing.
Many years ago I went to Indonesia, armed with my list of must-see sights. The historic city of Yogyakarta. Tick. Bali’s beaches. Tick. Mount Bromo at sunrise. Tick. All perfectly lovely and I had a great time. But my guidebook’s ‘Top 10 Indonesia’ page told me to go there, so I expected them to be good.
Then one day a man approached me waving a piece of paper in my face. ‘Ijen Plateau’ it screamed. I looked it up in my guidebook. Nothing. Where is it? What is it? “Very nice, I take you there,” the man said, and without any idea of what I was signing up to, I agreed.
image: Angela Griffin
It truly was remarkable. Walking down into a volcanic crater, surrounded by bright yellow sulphur mines, to a hot soup of bubbling sulphurous liquid, was unforgettable. Eight years later and this is still my overriding memory of Indonesia. Not the surfing beaches of Bali, or the temples of Tanah Lot, but a remote volcanic plateau that, at the time, was not in any guidebook or on any bucket list.
For some, bucket lists can work, but remember that we are all different; just because your friend wants to swim with dolphins, doesn’t mean you have to as well. It’s not a competition. Sure, use those 30 Things books for inspiration, but not as a rule. Those books, may I point out, are written by someone who doesn’t know you and never will, so has no idea if scuba diving is something that you’d even want to do, or have done numerous times already. Indeed for some ‘live’ would be very top of the list or perhaps get a job or buy a house, so it’s all relative.
Just do what makes you happy
So I sit here now a reformed list ticker. I no longer have a bucket list. It doesn’t mean I won’t travel. I still have places I want to go and things I want to see, just not any that I put pressure on myself to do. If I reach my deathbed having never done a skydive, then so what? Did I have fun, did I enjoy myself? Was I kind and considerate of others? Did I make my husband and my children happy? Yes! Then my list is done.
For travel inspiration and to book your next holiday, take a look at Round the World Experts’ tailor-made Journeys.