I made my first Day Planner when I was 5, stapling together notebook paper and carefully sectioning off blocks of time with a colored pencil.
It probably comes as no surprise to learn that I grew up to be an equally planning-obsessed adult and that my grown-up travels are organized with even greater levels of precision. You’d think there would be no surprises left once I reached my destination, but you would be wrong.
Despite my obsession with finding out everything there is to know about a place before I visit, I am constantly astounded by the secrets the world is hiding around every corner. Usually these surprises become the most delightful parts of the trip, the experiences whose memory outshines everything else that you planned so diligently.
The unexpected delights of keeping an open mind
My recent trip to Cuba with Intrepid Travel was the perfect example. Having looked at the itinerary, I thought I knew pretty much what to expect from the trip.
It was just a blurb on the itinerary: “Hike to a small waterfall with our local expert guide.”
I almost didn’t even go on the hike at all. Several group members stayed behind due to the steep, rocky trail. I almost didn’t bring a swimsuit with me because I couldn’t imagine swimming in a freshwater river in the middle of the woods. When we reached the waterfall, most of the group elected to sit by the river’s edge instead of going for a swim.
The icy water was perfect after the sweaty hike. Trees hung over the water on both sides, turning the river into a deep emerald tunnel that swirled and eddied toward the falls. The heavy cascade of water into the river was deafening until I floated under the torrent and into the shallow chamber full of shimmering green light.
The ceiling of the cave was a riot of fluttering bats, dipping and gliding in a private marionette show that nature was putting on just for me. I hooked my legs over a rocky outcropping and floated weightlessly on the water for – minutes? Hours? It’s impossible to tell in those moments when everything is so perfect and otherworldly beautiful that you’re afraid to breathe too sharply for fear of bursting the bubble.
Despite being just a blip on the itinerary, that waterfall swim became the highlight of my entire trip, and I’m reminded of just how often that’s the case. Every time I travel, I’m reminded of a quote from Martin Buber: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”
The unexpected delights of ruined plans
I’m completely obsessed with Greece, but on my first trip to Athens, I didn’t even expect to like it very much.
I had listened to the hype, which is almost always a bad idea. Everyone told me that Athens was dirty and crowded and not worth seeing. I’ve noticed that when people hate something, they’re heavily invested in making sure that you hate it, too.
My plan was to get up early on my first day and head straight to the Acropolis before anyone else arrived. When I stepped out of my hotel into the freezing rain, however, I realized I was going to have to break with the itinerary and do something spontaneous. Ugh.
I was paralyzed with indecision when I heard the sound that would lead me to my journey’s secret destination. Greek Orthodox monks chanting inside an impossibly tiny stone church, the sound pouring out the windows and snaking between the surrounding buildings.
As I followed the music, I found myself outside the Acropolis Museum. I ducked inside and without another tourist in sight, made a beeline for the top floor, thinking I would meander my way down through the exhibits and hopefully greet nicer weather by the time I returned to the entrance.
There is a book in the museum gift shop with a title that summed up my first, visceral reaction as I entered the Parthenon Gallery: You Can Still Hear the Marble Breathing. There is no other way to describe it; they’re not cold, unfeeling statues but ghosts, living souls half clinging to this world. The feeling is electric, wandering alone and spellbound through this haunted house.
Eventually other visitors arrived and the spell broke, but the experience was absolute magic while it lasted.
The unexpected delights of making mistakes
Sometimes the biggest mistakes lead to the most amazing experiences. If I weren’t such a disaster-prone traveler, I never would have had the experience that has turned out to be the highlight of my entire life.
It was only the second solo trip I had ever taken and I was going to head to Uganda to see mountain gorillas in the wild.
There’s probably a reason that any sane person would tell a new traveler to start with an easy trip to get your feet wet. But I have always been a very enthusiastic idiot and I was determined to have my own Gorillas in the Mist moment.
I was so bad at traveling back then, I literally forgot to pack water for what could have been an all-day hike in the equatorial sun. When we approached the gorilla family and the guide instructed us to leave our packs, I stupidly left all of my spare memory cards and camera batteries behind.
Once we had walked the last 30 minutes to where the gorillas were gathered, I got exactly one photo – one dark and blurry and completely unrecognizable photo – before my camera battery died.
Walking back to get a spare out of my bag wasn’t an option – we were only allowed one hour to observe them before we had to hike back out of the jungle. I decided to step to the back of the group and spend my hour memorizing the experience instead.
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing up before I registered the grunting and snapping of twigs behind me. I turned in slow motion to see a blackback male gorilla directly behind me, his massive, heaving chest level with my face as he made low, guttural grunts in the back of his throat. He tilted his head slowly from side to side as he peered into my face with eyes that looked jet black and impossibly human.
I could smell his sharp, pungent odor as he shuffled in front of me, his black nostrils flaring as he continued to stare down into my face and I continued to stare up into his. It was another time-stands-still moment that may have only lasted a minute or two, but felt like days.
He slowly turned and moved away just as the guide realized what was happening, her voice catching in her throat as she called out to me not to panic, that he wouldn’t hurt me if I didn’t make any sudden movements. But I wasn’t the least bit afraid. I was in my secret destination, wrapped up in the magic of the experience I had been completely unaware was waiting for me.
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All images courtesy of Leslie Price (except Acropolis picture courtesy of Intrepid Travel).