“If things don’t go exactly as planned,” a friend told me, “I have a meltdown.” He and his wife were describing their recent visit to Morocco, a place where things rarely go as planned. “I don’t know how you two travel the way you do. If I didn’t know where I was going to stay for the evening?” He shuddered. “I couldn’t deal with that.”
Rich’s face lit up. “Let me show you this app I just found for last-minute hotel reservations…” As the two bent their heads over the iPhone screen, I thought about how many of our friends are anxious travelers. I know a woman whose checked bags were lost for the first two days of her honeymoon back in the 1980s. “That showed me that travel is not for me,” she announced. As far as I know, she never left Cleveland again.
In travel as in life, things always go wrong; the only part we actually have any control over is how we adapt to the change in circumstances. Some years ago, running for a connecting flight, Rich and I arrived as the plane doors were closing; our somewhat heated demands to reopen them fell on deaf ears. “Madam,” said the exasperated manager. “We will put you on tomorrow night’s flight. But for now, you have no alternative but to spend the next twenty-four hours in Paris.” I was drawing breath for a quelling retort when his words sank in. Twenty-four hours in Paris? Fantastique! Fifteen minutes later we had a hotel reservation and within the hour we were sipping vin in a sidewalk café.
Our plans often go awry, and it happened yet again just last Saturday. Thinking we had a clever scheme to get prime parking during the legendary Fairfax Festival parade, we took an early yoga class along the parade route so we could leave our VW in the studio’s lot. By the time we learned it behooved us to move the car, the nearest parking spot was a half mile away. Hiking back to the town center, we found ourselves in the parade’s staging area. Rock bands were playing, costumed characters flew by on unicycles and stilts, dragons roared — it was a condensed version of the colorful lunacy for which the parade is famous.
“And to think we never would have been in the staging area if we hadn’t needed to move the car," I said to Rich. "Are we lucky or what?”
Spotting a particularly colorful trio, I asked if I could take their photo. “You don’t dress like this,” said the big man with the hot pink wig and purple glitter in his beard, “if you don’t want to have your picture taken.” He grinned and introduced me to his wife, dressed as a rainbow unicorn, and his strapping transvestite son.
Looking at his son, the man’s face glowed with love and pride. While the family mugged for the camera, I thought about how lucky that boy was to have parents who didn’t just accept who he was, they celebrated it — wholeheartedly, and with passion, wit, style, and zest. They were, as my yoga teacher would say, putting compassion into action.
Which made it all the more shocking when, just hours later, Omar Mateen opened fire on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people in the worst act of terrorism since 9/11. Along with the rest of the world, I am still reeling. I keep thinking about that sweet-faced boy in the blue wig; so many of the victims were kids like him, just out for a bit of fun in a place where they felt safe and accepted. We will never know all the demons that drove Mateen to mass murder, but we can be sure that one of them was fear of people who are different.
It's common, even sensible at times, to feel fearful when things get strange. That’s why it’s so important to figure out how to handle ourselves when that happens.
My favorite of the stories my friend brought back from Morocco was about the night he got spooked in the old marketplace and left his companions, heading back to the hotel alone. Needless to say, he became hopelessly lost, and eventually asked a local for directions. “You will get lost again. Ask one of these fellows—“ the man gestured toward some nearby male prostitutes "— to guide you, and pay him a little for his trouble.” Seeing my friend’s appalled discomfort, he added, “They’re just looking for some money. It will be fine.” And it was. The youth politely escorted my friend to the hotel and went away happily pocketing a modest tip. And my friend grew a little less fearful about dealing with things that don’t go as planned.
Yes, the world can be a scary place, and only a fool takes foolish chances. But testing ourselves against the unknown is how we learn and grow. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” Mark Twain wrote. “And many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” Not everyone needs to travel to learn wisdom and compassion. But it helps.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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