You’re going to have a travel disaster (and that’s a good thing)

November 05, 2014                 6m read time
Kirsten Akens

From lunch with a count to the start of a nonprofit, sometimes mishaps on the road can turn into amazing experiences.

It was supposed to be easy. Colorado Springs to Chicago. Chicago to Paris. Two flights totaling 20 hours from home to final destination.

It wasn’t easy. Bumped from flight to flight. Re-routed through other cities. Downright rude “customer service” employees. By the time I reached the City of Lights, I’d lost a full day of my vacation to airports—and acquired a four-day bout of nausea and dizziness that could only be attributed to jet lag and stress.

Terrible travel can reach life-threatening levels, but most, like mine, rate as simply frustrating. And, even I’ll admit, when the dream in our head turns topsy-turvy, we might just find ourselves upside-right.

It’s likely many of us have tried to find a specific location while on a trip, made one wrong turn, and found something even better. An overlook with the most gorgeous valley view. A friendly smile (and directions) from a local. An awesome little coffee house. Through the words of a friend currently traveling in northern Tanzania, “What I learn here every day is that where you are is where you’re supposed to be, and usually it’s not what was planned or expected.”

Single bag on an airport moving walkway ZOZI

Single bag on an airport moving walkway



While getting lost sometimes leads to happy discoveries, lost luggage is never so nice, right? Maybe.

On her way to Sydney, Australia for a personal development course with her work, a friend found herself stuck on the Tarmac in Colorado waiting out weather issues. Not the happiest start for her first trip overseas. The flight delays eventually led to a sprint through LAX to catch her connecting flight, but in the end she made it to Sydney. Unfortunately, her baggage did not—and would not, an airline employee told her, until at least 24 hours later.

Airline staff gave her pajamas and toiletries, and showed a kindness that allowed her to accept help, when she otherwise might have cried, fallen apart, and ultimately clouded her trip with the disappointment of things not going perfectly.

“I was able to trust that I would be taken care of, which set a stage of openness for what was supposed to be a week of intense personal development.”

Rather than continue to fume about her missing bags, she relaxed and enjoyed the kick-off dinner with 35 of her global co-workers, the facilitation team, and a group of aboriginal natives, who talked with them about local heritage. When she returned to her hotel room, she found her luggage waiting, safe and sound.

She was elated, yet adds, “I will say that since this, I now carry a change of underwear whenever I check luggage.”

What I learn here every day is that where you are is where you’re supposed to be, and usually it’s not what was planned or expected.

Language barriers can lead to problems or surprises—I once ended up with chicken and asparagus when I asked for a vegetarian meal in my limited French—but so can miscommunication when phone and Internet service is spotty.

A friend tells a tale of a trip to stay with a college mate who was au pairing for a young family at a 9th century castle in Germany. The dream trip, right? Friend (with another girlfriend in tow) boards plane. Mate Facebook messages them: “Don’t come. Everybody is sick!” Message doesn’t reach them until they are in town and cannot find anywhere else to stay. The two end up on the castle steps at 2 a.m. in the pouring rain. They knock. Knock again. Continue knocking until a housekeeper answers the door, tells them to be quiet, and sneaks them up three flights of stairs to a tiny nook of a room with two twin beds and door that doesn’t quite shut. The girls don’t know what to expect come morning, but, exhausted, sleep hard.

The next day, they tiptoe to the housekeeper’s apartment, where they’re treated to a lavish German breakfast with their now revived au pair friend. Afterwards, the housekeeper directs them to the Great Hall. “We’ll see what to do with you from there,” she says.

The girls enter the massive room, and as if on cue, the chinos-and-sweater-vested count of the castle walks in with a pet dachshund tucked under one arm. “We’re just about to breed Anton,” my friend recalls him saying. “Do you want to come watch?”

They followed him to the front lawn. The pup wasn’t successful in his liaison, but the girls had a grand time. By the end of a morning laughing and sharing stories, the count had invited them to stay as long as they wanted.

Her takeaway, aside from a great story for years? Rolling with the punches is a key skill to have, along with trusting that things will work out. (And a backup plan might be worth considering.)

Surreal image of the red light district in Thailand Onny Carr

Surreal image of the red light district in Thailand

Onny Carr


Then there are those volunteerism trips, the ones you sign up for to help do something for someone else. I have more friends than not who have headed off to remote parts of the world (or lesser-known parts of the U.S.) to give of themselves—and end up bringing home more than they felt they could ever contribute. (One friend did come home from overseas with giardia, but even he says that “tuned him in on a personal level to the billions who don’t have clean drinking water in the world,” leaving him more grateful for what he does have.)

For Sarah Ray, founder of Yobel International, an organization working to alleviate poverty and prevent slavery in the developing world, it was a five-day holiday and, as she now jokes, “a bunch of sick chickens,” that shifted her entire life.

“My traveling buddy and I found ourselves in Thailand during the midst of the bird flu at its point of greatest hype. What was intended to be a five-day stint of lying on beautiful beaches between orphanage work in East Africa and Nepal, turned into a five-week there's-not-a-single-flight-outta-here tour of Thailand's cheaper hostels.”

With no budget for lodging and what Ray says she chalks up to “21-year-old naivité,” the two ended up in some questionable places. During their second week after an overnight train trip from Bangkok to Hua Hin, they booked a hostel room and crashed. The friends awoke to find themselves in the middle of a red-light district.

“It was 2003, years before widespread knowledge of sex tourism or human trafficking,” she explains, “and so imagine our heartbreak as we witnessed dozens of young Thai women selling themselves to European men four times their age. Once opened, it seemed impossible to shut our eyes against the plight of women, girls, and boys being sold night after night to the highest bidder. It was during those five weeks that I silently promised that if there was anything I would do with my life, it would be to see humanity set free from this.”

Four years later, she started Yobel.

. . .

While Ray is probably an outlier when it comes to turning a bad travel experience into a successful nonprofit, she’s not the only one to have learned something from her journeys. My travel debacles put a damper on the beginning of my Parisian trip, but they also challenged me in new ways. I had to let go of my frustrations about the flights, so that I could experience the joy of being on the ground in France (i.e.: Be present. A constant practice in my life.) And often-conflict-avoidant me had to decide how I wanted to handle the situation when I got back home. Sit around and complain? Or address it head on?

I addressed it. And not only did I receive a refund from the airline, I received something even more valuable: a sincere apology and, a sense of empowerment, and a desire to do it all again.

. . .

So maybe you've never spent the morning with a count and his randy dachshund or started an international nonprofit. But I bet you have your own story about travel plans that went awry—only to go oh-so right in the end. Share yours in the comments below.

Kirsten Akens

Kirsten is an award-winning journalist, editor, photographer and practicing yogi based in Colorado. A lover of books, balasana, baked goods, blogging, and Boston terriers, she also has an unnatural affection for alliteration.

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