Unexpected hiccups are a part of life — things happen that slow us down, make us question our decisions, and sometimes get mad at the world — and being on sabbatical is no exception. We’ve all taken trips where things haven’t gone as planned, and we were forced to look beyond our guidebook for solutions.
But what if we’re just so self-involved, we can’t see the bigger picture behind these inconveniences? Things that happen for a good reason, but are misinterpreted based on our expectations. I believe there is a lesson in everything we experience, and the best ones come while traveling.
Here are some common “bad things” that can happen out on the road, and the incredible lessons behind them.
1. Getting Lost
For our first European adventure, my husband Jared and I took a trip to Italy. One of the things we wanted to do in Rome was to visit the catacombs along the famous Appia Antica, a.k.a. The Appian Way. When the day arrived, we anxiously set off. The plan was to take the city bus to what we thought was a good starting point along the Appian Road and then walk the rest of the way. Unfortunately — thanks to our weak Italian interpretation — we got off at the wrong stop, and by the time we realized it, the bus had long since gone. Initially, we were quite frustrated — we only had a certain amount of time, and it was being wasted trying to figure out where we were and how the heck we were going to get to our destination.
Despite our uncertainty, we started walking. Cutting through back streets and unpaved paths, soon we began to laugh at our situation because we had no idea where we were. Before long, however, we seemed to have forgotten time was a factor and found ourselves stopping to photograph wildflowers and huge, grassy fields overlooking the distant city. We marveled at the architecture of century-old churches, and stumbled across a monastery with the most massive statue of a priest I had ever seen — at least 12 feet tall! After about an hour of wandering, we found ourselves safely back on the Appian Way, and soon we arrived at the catacombs.
Looking back, this “inconvenience” taught me a valuable lesson: Getting lost is an opportunity to do and see things we would otherwise miss, and sometimes these are where the best memories are made — in the unexpected. It wasn’t the first time I took the wrong path, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but it did teach me to enjoy the journey. So next time you are traveling — if you happen to get lost–instead of getting frustrated, get excited for the unexpected adventure ahead.
2. Going Outside Your Comfort Zone
Last summer I took a trip with my best friend to Ecuador. Although South America–the Amazon rainforest in particular — has always been on my bucket list, I was still considerably nervous. Political unrest and cautions of violence were all over the internet. Diseases — most not thought about here in the states — and creatures smaller than my pinky, yet capable of murder, were just a few of my worries. Then there were the activities: white water rafting, rainforest trekking, waterfall climbing and animal encounters–all as equally terrifying as they were exciting. Needless to say, I had a lot of emotions about this trip. With my concerns and excitement in tow, I hopped on the plane, ready for my grand Ecuadorian expedition.
I can’t emphasize enough how glad I am that I did not let my fears stop me from traveling to this magnificent place; it ended up being one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The people, both the locals in the capital Quito and the indigenous Kichwa people of the Amazon, were some of the most genuine, selfless people I have met. They are proud of their culture and work hard to preserve its legacy. The way they utilize and respect their environment is a practice we could all learn from.
Oh, and all those adrenaline pumping activities? Each one was better than the last! Not that I wasn’t nervous — especially when our rafting guide was prepping us on how to recover when we “fall out into the raging waters” — but I didn’t let that stop me. I dared all of our excursions and left the country with a strong sense of accomplishment and pride (and maybe a few bruises). I think the lesson here speaks for itself; Don’t let fear keep you from doing things you otherwise desire. Fear has a way of limiting our thoughts and in turn our actions. If we want to live out our dreams, we must conquer our fears.
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
3. A Local is Rude to You
Living in South Florida, and having traveled to a few places, some notorious for rude citizens, I am no stranger to rudeness or attitude from a complete stranger. I have no one example that sticks out, but it has happened plenty.
For some reason, we think that the people we meet during our travels will be just as thrilled about our adventure as we are, and unconsciously assume they will act so. As if the busy waiter should care that it’s our first time in Italy, and we expect the pasta to be better than our Nona’s. Or when we show up 2 hours early for check in because we have to drop our bags to make it to the museum before closing, and we expect the host to discard everything else and accommodate us.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but no one cares as much about your vacation as you do. I’m not saying this to be cynical, you will come across lovely people in your travels, I always do, but at the same time, you will undoubtedly meet those who are less enthusiastic. The point I’m getting at, and the first part of the lesson is: it might be our fault that someone is rude to us. Perhaps we were so wrapped up in our own world, we didn’t realize we may be offending that waiter, or maybe we were short with the concierge because they weren’t able to accommodate. Or it could just be our cultural differences that cause us (or them) to misinterpret each other’s words or actions, and attitude ensues (this happens more often than not). Think of the times you may have been mean to someone because you mistook their words or actions.
So here lies the second part of the lesson: sometimes people are just jerks! Maybe they are always grouchy, or perhaps they just had a bad day; we can’t always know why someone acts the way they do. This is why we can’t let other people’s actions dictate our own, or give one person’s rude comment the power to ruin our day. We can do our best to be courteous to others… but don’t stress over some stranger who’s got a stick up their ass!
4. Staying in “Lesser” Accommodations
Two stories come to mind when I think of this. The first is the time I stayed in a hostel in Jamaica. Aside from poor planning — resulting in us being much farther from the city than we had anticipated — we also (my friend and me) shared a room with four guys. Four messy, loud, and shockingly unhygienic guys! To top it off, it was 90 degrees outside with no A/C, no glass or screens on the windows, mosquitos everywhere, and wild dogs howling –seemingly right outside our window — throughout most of the night. It was a far cry from the all-inclusive resort we overlooked a few miles down the hillside.
Looking at this experience, the lessons are clear: tolerance and appreciation. Not all of us are the same — we weren’t raised the same, we didn’t come from the same place, geographically or culturally — therefore we all don’t have the same standards. Cohabitating with strangers, although uncomfortable at times, enables us to become more tolerant of others. What other situation could better test your tolerance than being in a foreign country and sharing you’re typically private space with a complete stranger?
The next story further explains the lesson on appreciation.
This past summer in Ecuador, we stayed at Cotococha, an eco-friendly lodge in the Amazon. Our accommodations were everything we’d hope them to be. We had a private bungalow at the foot of the Napo River. We’d fall asleep to the sound of the swift current, and wake up to a gentle rain shower, with monkeys calling in the distance and birds singing their songs — it was paradise!
However, there is a price to pay for staying in a hut in the Amazon: no electricity, no hot water, endless humidity and countless nooks and crannies for all sorts of creepy crawlies to get in. (Without giving you the story, let’s just say we quickly learned that a nightly “bug and rodent scan” before bed was a good idea).
We chose to stay in this type of environment and wouldn’t change a thing about it — being immersed in nature has such a way of calming the mind and rejuvenating the spirit. At the same time, we quickly started to appreciate the comforts we so easily took for granted back home: dry clothes, hot water, light, privacy, even flushing toilet paper down the toilet. Such basic things that only once they were stripped away could we begin to acknowledge them as the luxuries they are.
This was such a humbling experience, to see how others live, and to realize how blessed most of us are to have basic necessities available to us. So I challenge you… the next time you find yourself complaining, stop and think, is this something really worth whining about? I can almost guarantee if you look at it from this perspective, you will quickly realize it isn’t.
5. Poor Weather Conditions
My first trip outside the country was to Costa Rica. I couldn’t wait — all-inclusive resort, zip lining, horseback riding, sipping cocktails at the beach, rainforest exploring, hot springs — it all seemed so thrilling! Being novice travelers, however, Jared and I had booked our first international trip in the midst of the rainy season, and unbeknownst to us, ALL these activities would be experienced in moderate to heavy rainfall — we had 20 minutes of sunshine the entire trip!
Lesson learned: obviously always check the weather conditions for the time of year you are traveling, but more importantly, learn to roll with the punches. When faced with unexpected or “negative” situations, accept that challenge with a positive attitude. Things won’t always go as planned. Yes it rained, and at times it was quite uncomfortable, but we were so happy to be there we didn’t let it ruin our vacation. We still did all the activities we had planned and had a blast doing them — we just got a little wetter than anticipated. I look back on that trip and have nothing but good thoughts. How many people can say they scaled a Costa Rican mountain, on horseback, slipping and sliding in the pouring rain!?
This was also a reminder to appreciate things. We were on vacation, in Costa Rica. That is a privilege, and many people will never have that experience. So what if the weather wasn’t ideal, at least we were able to experience a part of the world different from our own. #begrateful.
6. Having Something Stolen
I have never had anything stolen while traveling, but I have heard horror stories, and I have had my car broken into — which led to my identity being stolen, and that was a hassle I don’t wish upon my worst enemy. Theft can happen anytime, anywhere, and to anyone. We are a much easier target while traveling, typically because our guard is down while we are enjoying our surroundings. Like when my car was broken into, and my purse was taken. I was at the dog park in the middle of a quiet residential area, and the last thing on my mind was getting robbed!
Lesson learned: always be aware of your surroundings no matter where you are, and be extra cautious when in unfamiliar territories. Thieves are experts at spotting tourists, so keep a low profile, don’t wear that Michael Kors watch and flash your new $5000 camera around. Common sense and awareness can help prevent these things from happening. Also, side note, don’t keep your social security card in your purse or wallet, duh.
7. Visiting a Poor Neighborhood or Country
I have visited a few poor towns and counties in my travels, and each time I feel sadness and anger about the situation so many people around the world are faced with.
The most recent example, and probably the most eye-opening, was when I went to my doctor to get vaccinations for my upcoming trip to Ecuador. Being my first trip to South America, and planning on spending time in the rainforest, I wanted to make sure I was protected — so although malaria wasn’t a significant concern in the area I was visiting, being safe I decided to get the pills anyway. After chatting with the nurse, I learned that malaria kills one child every 30 seconds, about 3000 every day. Why? Because in developing countries, particularly in Africa, they would need to take malaria pills all the time, which is not only unhealthy, but they simply cannot afford it. I almost broke down right there. Here I am, this young American girl going on vacation, and I can just walk into a clinic and get these pills that I may not even need, yet 3000 children die every day because they cannot get the necessary treatment. It broke my heart and made me angry all at the same time.
Another example is when we got to Ecuador. We could see the poverty in many small towns and villages, and even in parts of the capital Quito. We saw buildings that were decades old and in much need of repair. Homes along the street, with no doors or windows, composed of one, maybe two rooms for an entire family to share. The unsanitary water required us to make sure we were only drinking bottled or filtered water. In the Amazon, the Kichwa (or Quichua) people showed us how they pan for gold along the riverbanks. They spend hours upon hours each day sifting through the sand and rocks, typically only finding tiny gold fragments worth a couple of dollars.
What is the lesson in all these examples: “First world problems” ARE NOT PROBLEMS. There are people around the world truly suffering — wondering where their next meal is going to come from or how they are going to afford medical treatment. So many things we complain about are so trivial when compared. “I was stuck in traffic,” “my Starbucks order was wrong,” “I lost my debit card”… you get the picture. Half of the world’s population is poor and only until you witness it first hand, can you begin to fully understand and appreciate just how well we have it here in the US of A, and how thankful we should be every day!
I hope that some of my experiences, and what I took from them, will translate into your own life. It is much easier to complain about something than it is to welcome it, especially if it is unpleasant. Only by embracing life’s challenges can we overcome them, and emerge as more grateful, well-rounded people.