Confessions Of A Travel Perfectionist

Why I am the worst (or maybe the best) person to go travelling with

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ELLE's Travel and Lifestyle Director Susan Ward Davies is on an endless quest for perfection as she explores the world. She explains why she will never settle and shares her most memorable travel experiences

Here's how my trips start out. On day one, we head to the nearest beach. Wow, we've totally lucked out: a limpid sea laps gently on a glorious strip of golden sand, white clouds scud across the bluest sky, palm trees rustle soporifically… The whole tropical paradise idyll. What a result, I think, having this right in front of our hotel. What could be more perfect?

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But here's the rub: What if something was more perfect? As we found this one so easily, maybe beaches like this are two a penny around here. What if this isn't a particularly special beach at all? What if there's another beach nearby that in comparison will make this one look like a playground sandpit? Imagine missing out on something really amazing just because we thought we'd hit the jackpot right from the off?

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By about midday, the not knowing is too much to bear. I have to go off to check out all the other beaches in the vicinity (leaving my eye-rolling companions prone on their loungers). And only when I am satisfied that our beach is, in fact, the best of the lot, can I settle down and enjoy it.

You climb a little bit higher, swim a little bit further, party a little bit harder – and, if by going the extra mile you can enhance something, why wouldn't you do that?

For a while, anyway. Are we sure we're on the best part of the beach? Does the other end get the sun for longer? What if…? You get the picture. In the aforementioned scenario you can substitute the beach for a bar/restaurant/mountain/train journey/party/hotel room/plane seat… for pretty much anything.

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It's all part of the same syndrome: a kind of extreme travel FOMO. The quest for perfection. The need to wring out every last drop of pleasure from each experience, and wanting even a fleeting scenario to be the very best that it can be. You climb a little bit higher, swim a little bit further, party a little bit harder – and, if by going the extra mile you can enhance something, why wouldn't you do that? It's like pre-chilling a vodka glass or adding dill to smoked salmon and ice to a G&T. You can make do, or you can make it special. And I'm all about making it special.

For me, that means tramping around all the £10-a-night guest houses in a Colombian town until I find one with a view of the church, or trying every noodle shack in a Laos village until I've discovered who makes the tastiest green papaya salad. It means checking out every room in Venice's magnificent (but very dark) Gritti Palace until I find the few that have more than just a gloomy, leaded-windowed, half-view of the Grand Canal. And on trips, it means always getting up before sunrise to make that little bit more of the day, to get the edge on the rest of the sleeping world.

Lying there, looking at the sky, trying to catch his breath after his mini near-death experience, he knew that was it – the perfect moment – and that he could go home

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If you haven't heard of Spalding Gray, a brilliant writer/raconteur/actor in the Eighties and Nineties, check him out on YouTube. He played a small part in Roland Joffé's 1984 epic The Killing Fields, and based one of his famous, captivating performance monologues, Swimming To Cambodia, about his time filming it in south-east Asia. He describes how he couldn't return home from a trip until he'd had his 'perfect moment'; while taking some R&R after weeks on location, it happened, out of the blue, on a Thai beach. It was one of those hot, irritating days of mishaps and frustrations, culminating in an ill-advised swim after smoking a large joint. He was smacked by a large wave, which bowled him over and over until it finally spat him out on to the beach. Lying there, looking at the sky, trying to catch his breath after his mini near-death experience, he knew that was it: the perfect moment. And he could go home.

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When you look back on all the amazing places you've been and see what stands out, you'll know just what he means. Personally, it was the punch-the-air elation of reaching a Bhutanese mountaintop after a chilly, altitude-sickness-inducing climb. The what-have-we-got-ourselves-into nervous thrill of bouncing over moonlit waves in a motorised dugout canoe between Panama's tiny San Blas Islands. Stargazing around a firepit in Mozambique. Holding my breath as we photographed the last look of the day in eastern Kenya's Chyulu Hills, as a small herd of elephants got a little too close for comfort to the model. And the madcap bar/gig/club-crawl /hot mess of a night in Santiago de Cuba, culminating in a 3am street fight – all machismo and posturing – that prompted Scott, the photographer, to say in his American, Harvey Keitel-like drawl, 'Now that's what I call a night out.'

Wouldn't you always want to be able to say that?

Perfect moments can be unexpected, scary, exhilarating, spiritual or just a quiet few minutes in front of an awesome view. But the more you put yourself out there, the better they are.

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Perfect moments can be unexpected, scary, exhilarating, spiritual or just a quiet few minutes in front of an awesome view. But the more you put yourself out there, the better they are. Life is too short for the mediocre, and, where travel is concerned, you may think, 'I can always go back.' But you never know what country is going to be out of bounds next, what with terrorism, viruses or natural disasters. To quote writer Primo Levi (and Emma Watson), 'If not now, when?'

I was lucky enough to see Palmyra before ISIS got their destructive hands on it, Burma before it found its way on to the tourist radar, and a whole heap of countries until the sense of discovery got tripadvisored and instagrammed out of them – and I will always be grateful for that.

So next time you think you're in the coolest bar, on the most beautiful beach, in the most scenic vantage point for the sunset, just ask yourself: 'Am I really?'

Susan Ward Davies Travel Diary
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