The Autobahn, where the speed limit is just a suggestion.
. . . it definitely wasn’t part of the plan to stop at what we thought was a charming roadside cafe but was actually some kind of gambling shack where hardcore porn was playing on a big screen TV right behind our table (they had awesome lasagna though).
My best friend Katelyn and I were sitting on a bus barreling down a highway outside Denver, Colorado. Rush hour traffic was at its peak and we were sunburned, sweaty, and stressed out.
Earlier in the afternoon we’d missed two buses we needed to catch to make it to the airport in time, our flights home were now a mere two hours away, traffic was at a standstill, and we still had another bus transfer to make, at a station 10 miles out of our way, while the clock ticked down to that bus’ departure.
Did I mention it was super-hot and a few of the other bus passengers weren’t exactly excelling in the personal hygiene department? Logistically speaking, the last few hours of our trip couldn’t have been more of a nightmare, but it was around this time I turned to Katelyn and said, “This is my favorite part of traveling.”
She looked at me like I was insane. “This? What? Why?”
“Yeah,” I said, “when things go wrong.”
Obviously I’m not talking about serious travel disasters or any situation that’s dangerous or harmful, but things like missing a bus, getting hopelessly lost, or having an emotional breakdown while in line for the London Eye (been there, done that) are actually blessings in disguise. Here’s why:
1. It makes you realize people are awesome.
When it comes to restoring faith in humanity, nothing — not even a BuzzFeed list called “500 kitten GIFs That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity” — is more effective than seeing random strangers step in to help you when you’re struggling in an unfamiliar place. In the case of Katelyn and my Denver airport bus saga, this help came in the form of so many people over the course of a couple hours: traffic cops who gave us directions, the random people who cheered us on as we sprinted to the bus station, and ultimately a heroic bus driver who radioed the bus headquarters to ask an airport bus to wait for us at a highway exit(!) and then put the pedal to the metal to get us there (we made our flights).
I have met kind, helpful people all over the world that I would never have had the chance to meet if things hadn’t gone wrong. A sweet lady in Kansas City who made dinner for my boyfriend and me when we arrived late and couldn’t find a grocery store open. A guy in Paris who gave me a little jar of honey from his store when he noticed I had a cold. The people in Hawaii who offered me a ride when I was limping down the street with an epic blister. The teenager in Switzerland who paid my trolley fare when I brought the wrong change. People are so awesome, you guys.
2. It gives you a deeper, more authentic experience.
Let’s say you plan a trip to Rome — you book a fabulous hotel, you make a schedule to hit up all the gorgeous tourist spots, you compile a list of life-changing places to eat, et cetera — and you stick to the itinerary and everything is perfect and you have a lovely time. Obviously, that’s great. Who doesn’t love an Italian vacation that goes off without a hitch? But here’s the thing: sometimes, a smooth trip allows you to just skim over the surface of a place and a culture. It’s often the hitches, the unexpected bumps in the road, the wrong turns (both literal and metaphorical) that allow you to dig deeper and interact with the place you’re visiting on a more genuine level.
When my mom and brother and I went to Italy, it wasn’t part of the plan to have drive 100 miles in the wrong direction and end up having to spend the night in a town we’d never heard of, but it was there that the family who owned the hotel re-opened the kitchen for us and we ate the best meal of our lives overlooking the Mediterranean. A few days later, it wasn’t part of the plan to get caught in a rainstorm without a jacket and end up huddled under a walking bridge with a group of chatty, friendly Romans. The day after that, it definitely wasn’t part of the plan to stop at what we thought was a charming roadside cafe but was actually some kind of gambling shack where hardcore porn was playing on a big screen TV right behind our table (they had awesome lasagna, though).
Each of these experiences showed us a different side of Italy we never would have known if we’d had a “perfect” trip. I mean, I watched porn with my mom and brother while eating lasagna in a room full of rowdy Italian bookies. I’ll take that over a carefully curated Colosseum bus tour any day.
3. It makes you realize you can handle pretty much anything.
This is, in my opinion, the #1 reason everyone should travel alone at least once. Because when things go wrong (and they probably will), you will have to deal with it on your own, and in the process, you will realize you can deal with pretty much anything. It’s scary and stressful to consider travel scenarios like a crowded train station with no English language signs, or a hotel that looked nice online but is seedy in real life, or car trouble on a lonely stretch of road, or a cab driver who’s giving you a weird vibe.
But do you know what happens once you’re actually in one of those situations? You just fucking deal with it, and 99.999% of the time it all works out OK. And for the rest of your life, you will know this about yourself: Whatever crazy, unexpected obstacle is in my path, I can fucking deal with it. How rad is that?
4. It forces you to go with the flow.
Most of our travel experiences — hell, most of our life experiences — are carefully planned out and scheduled. When things go wrong, you’re forced out of your plan and your comfort zone, which is scary and inconvenient, but it’s also a great opportunity to learn to go with the flow. I’m a control freak at heart, which is part of the reason I love an unexpected plan change — it freaks me out at first, but ultimately serves as a valuable reminder that letting go and seeing what happens is the best way to live a full, colorful, exciting life.
5. It gives you an awesome story to tell.
All the best travel stories I have are due to mistakes, dumb decisions, or crappy situations. All of them. Was I terrified when my mom revealed she “didn’t 100% remember how to drive a stick shift” as she merged onto the Autobahn in our tiny rental car? Definitely, but she figured it out, and man, that story still makes me laugh. Do I wish I had double-checked my translation dictionary before I accidentally said, “pope blowjob” in Italian very loudly in a crowded store at the Rome airport? Sure, but I also love admitting this absurd flub at dinner parties. Would I have preferred to not get super-sick in Belgium? Of course, but if I hadn’t gotten sick, I never would have had the chance to mime my symptoms to a pharmacist (next time you’re playing charades, try to act out “runny mucus” and you’ll see how ridiculous I looked).
The next time you’re in the middle of a crazy travel situation, take a deep breath, remind yourself it will all work out, and then imagine how funny this will be when it’s all over. Because trust me: in hindsight, it will be so, so funny.