How to Talk About a Disappointing Experience Abroad

David Michalczuk CC 2.0

Written by  November 17, 2015

How do you share the emotions surrounding a trip didn't live up to your expectations—without offending others? 

After one year of planning, working, saving, dreaming, fundraising and longing for the day that I would get on the plane to Bali for my study abroad volunteer placement, I'm now home from "paradise. Yet, I’ve never before been so happy to not be on a trip anymore, and I feel weird about it.

I’ve been back in the U.S. for about three days now. I’m going through the process of calling friends and family, getting emails and Facebook updates, and touching base to say I’m home and safe and my phone once again works. Of course, I’m being asked, “How was your trip?” It’s such a difficult and strange feeling to want to scream, “I hated it.”

Maybe I am a sore loser. I have been so fortunate with my traveling experiences and with a lot of my volunteer positions at home and abroad. I had invested so much time, money and emotion into this trip to a birth clinic in Bali and felt so passionate about having a great learning experience. To be disappointed is a crashing blow. It’s hard for me to process this, and even harder to feel like I can appropriately talk about this experience quite yet.

Should I talk about this trip as though I’m the luckiest girl and leave out all the nasty bits? Or should I tell the whole truth, even though I risk sounding ungrateful?

When I signed up for this program, I expected to go in and work my butt off. The impression that was given to me was that besides my weekly work for three online courses, I was going to be jumping into a busy clinic setting. I thought I would be working with Balinese midwives each day, seeing clients from morning till evening, witnessing loads of births and learning at least theoretical components of midwifery practice.

What I got was weeks of our small group discussing nit-picky logistical concerns (most of which I assumed an organization I was paying would have handled), just three births, a few hours of clinic each week, and a lot of napping.

Sure, I got to explore paradise for a bit. My friends brows furrow in confusion when I say that I am unhappy with my experience and reference the clear blue waters, smiling faces and palm trees littering my Instagram feed. I wonder what it is I could possibly complain about. Who wouldn’t want to spend two plus months on a beach? What’s wrong with me?

Should I just “suck it up” and talk about this trip as though I’m the luckiest girl on earth (I often do feel this way about my life in general) and leave out all the nasty bits? The sad bits? The infuriating bits? Is it possible to do that and not feel entirely disingenuous? Personally, I don’t think it is. Those moments comprised the majority of my experience abroad.

Should I tell the whole truth to everyone, even though I risk sounding ungrateful amongst loved ones who were not on a beach for two months, but instead working to build their start-ups, to finish school, to raise their babies, and so forth? Where does extreme honesty become complaint?

It’s going to take me some time to sort out the story of this I want to tell. Some of what I learned about myself from the Bali journey is immediately applicable to my life. I know I’m further along in my midwifery studies than I was willing to give myself credit for. I understand where I need to be to feel like I’m moving forward with that and to start to see a finish line. I had my strengths in the policy and advocacy aspects of this work galvanized once again amongst this diverse group of students and practitioners. I didn’t need to spend this much money and time to travel around the world to do it, but anyhow, it happened and, for that, I’m glad.

Much more of what I may be able to take away from my time abroad, however, is going to take a lot of time and work to surface. That can be difficult for anyone. It’s especially difficult when those in our lives want to hear a quick happy sound bite so they can move on with their busy lives, leaving you with fewer avenues to reach a healthy conclusion about what you just experienced.

I don’t have some sort of conclusive golden words of wisdom for volunteers who come home feeling this way. I wish I did, but I don’t. I don’t think you should trust anyone who says they do.

Instead, what I want to pass on—what I feel truly dedicated to in my travel writing—is to help encourage you to process travel experiences—the good, the bad, and the ugly—in your own time and using your own words.

This particular trip is going to take me a while to process. It’s going to take some practice of speaking to others about what I experienced and what I’m wanting to take away from that time in my life to perfect. Each person's process can unfold on a completely different timeline and with completely different results. Even if your loved ones want a nice, tidy answer to “How was your trip?” you don’t have to force yourself into a pleasant “good.” if you need more space and time to find the right words for it.

It can be discouraging to feel shot down when you want to vent your deep frustrations or hurt with a disappointing travel experience. You might not find empathy easily dolled out. There are channels for processing, though. Use your creativity—write about it, collage it out, walk to a cliff and scream, find those few friends who will hear you out, keep writing to your fellow volunteers and use them to help process. In time, you will learn the right words for your experience. 

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Published in Study Abroad Blogs
Emily Flynn

Emily Flynn is a doula from the Western U.S., currently writing from Bali as a midwife in training at the Rumah Sehat Madani clinic through the Birth Institute. Emily is an advocate for getting more women into adventure travel and wrote a book on it, This is Not a Guide Book.

Website: www.thisisnotaguidebook.com

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