Stereotypes and preconceptions about a place are a funny thing. What you can expect from a place comes from a variety of places: friends and family, guidebooks, photos, videos, movies, and more all affect what we think we can expect from a place.
Reality of places are rarely what you expect.
(Of course, if you have a preconception of a place, sometimes you can also be hell-bent on proving that stereotype true.)
But mostly I have found that while preconceptions are not necessarily a bad thing and may not always be wrong, they never show a full side of a place.
For instance: I just moved to Alaska, so what kind of images pop into your head? (Of course, the first problem with saying “I moved to Alaska,” is that Alaska is a big place of a variety of ecosystems, of small towns, big (ish) cities, and tiny settlements, and of dozens of ancient cultures and modern subcultures.)
But in general, “Alaska” might conjure up images of craggy mountains, glaciers, tundra, dogsleds, and igloos.
Do you want to know what I did in Alaska this weekend? I laid on a dock in the sunshine, reading, napping, and enjoying the views of the shimmering, slow-moving river. Friends and colleagues drank beer, chatted, and strummed guitars. Only the pain of leaving your toes in the frigid river, the tips of some snow-capped mountains just visible on the horizon, or the bald eagle that casually soared by hinted that I was as far distant from Los Angeles as Los Angeles is from Caracas, Venezuela. It felt like summer vacation, a day by a lake in the lower 48.
The daylight lasted until 10:30 p.m. or so, but it is still May, still early spring in southern Alaska, where the trees were just budding and spring birds just starting to migrate through. Yet, it felt like a chill summer day: not what I was expecting, especially this early in the season.
I will mention that this time last year, most of the river was still frozen over, with patches snow still covering the dead grasses and piling on tops of stark branches. So you never know what you’re going to get.
Which gets me back to the contrast of what you think a place is going to look and be like and what it is actually like: you never know what you’re going to get. Colombia might produce some coca, but it is more than cartels warring in the jungle. Peru might have a rich Inca/Quechua culture, but it is also a place with dozens of other civilizations and cultures, Tanzania does contain the Maasai, but it is also a land of variety of tribes, modern and ancient. Dogsleds, tundra, and mountains are definitely part of the physique of Alaska, but warm days hanging out with friends by a river are part of that as well.
As I do whenever I travel or get the opportunity to live or get to know a place, I look forward to find out more nuances as I explore it further.