Editor’s Pick
MAY 19, 2009 10:27AM

In praise of lousy vacations

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 [Bilbo] used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – J.R.R. Tolkien 


ALL EXPERIENCED TRAVELERS know that the quickest way to make their listeners’ eyes roll inward is to gas on about what a wonderful time they had somewhere. In fact, anyone who has ever endured a neighbor’s slideshow of his or her summer vacation trip knows this even better. “There is no greater bore than the travel bore,” writer Vita Sackville-West said. “We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen in Hong Kong.” Or as Martha Gellhorn put it: “The only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster.”

After decades of travel, both disastrous and otherwise, I’ve discovered that this realization applies not just to our poor listeners, but also to our own selves. As much as we rejoice over the pleasant times in our lives, they are rarely memorable and do not make us grow. It is the willingness to embrace adversity and work through it that distinguishes the classic traveler from the consumer tourist. Travel – like the pilgrimages of our ancestors – is a metaphor for life itself. The uphill slog with blisters on our feet is just as much a part of a journey as a downhill gallop with a wind at our back. But it’s on the uphill slog, when the only way out is through, that we find out who we really are and actually get somewhere. When we look at it this way, we may discover that the only really good vacation is a lousy vacation.


Traveling light in Tansania

On the way to Tegel Airport to catch a flight to Dar-es-Salaam, my cab driver opined that for him “a journey always starts the moment I step out my front door.” How right he was.


My third trip to East Africa was not exactly going to be a vacation, but rather a voyage of research and discovery for my new novel. For months I had been laboring in my home office to complete a particularly arduous translation project. My sedentary, Internet-driven lifestyle had become not only a burden but also a curse, and I was eager to escape for a few weeks to the highlands of Tanzania and to the spice islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.


Now I was ready for anything. There would be no “safaris” for me: I would travel light and alone, with little advance planning, carrying just two small knapsacks and my notebook. Danger has never been a consideration for me when traveling in Africa. I have always expected that when I step off this planet it will be because of a heart attack while rising from my desk and not from a snakebite on the banks of the Ruaha. In fact, the possibility (although not the reality) of danger was part of the allure, and I had heroic fantasies of getting stranded in a game park or surviving a plane crash atop Mount Kilimanjaro. So here I was on the way to the airport, already dreaming of my adventure, which, I was certain, would begin the moment I stepped off the British Airways plane onto the tarmac in Dar and not a moment sooner.


I should have heeded my cab driver’s wise words, because the modern Airbus that was supposed to take me to Heathrow on the first leg of the journey was grounded with engine trouble in Lyon. By the time I arrived in London, I was told that the overnight flight to Dar had already left without me. What to do? Spend a wasted night in a London airport hotel or… “Wait,” the counter clerk said. “You can catch a flight to Johannesburg in one hour, and then take a connecting flight on South African Airways to Dar.”


I could have grumbled about this inconvenience like a package tourist, but why should I? Wasn’t this just the sort of adventure I had been dreaming of? I had always wanted to see South Africa, even if it was just from the air. What followed was the longest flight of my life, punctuated by enlightening conversations with fellow travelers and a couple of hours glued to the window as South Africa rolled past beneath me. The connecting flight took me over Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi – a dream world of hills and forests and savannas thrown in at no extra charge.


I hadn’t been able to notify my African friend Lenny, who was meeting me at the airport, of my change of plans, but that was the least of my worries when I arrived and discovered that my larger knapsack had taken off on a flight of its own. I now realized that while I had packed everything I needed, I had not packed it in the right places. For days I sweated it out in my four dollar hotel room on the west side of Dar without so much as a fresh pair of underwear and, more ominously, without my malaria medication.


What if my bag never arrived? No matter: I had along my notebook and Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari to keep me company. The rest was simply a matter of leaving the comfort zone of a cut-rate tourist, which wasn’t particularly comfortable to begin with, and, with some help from Lenny, acquainting myself with aspects of Tanzanian society I never would have seen otherwise. My mishap forced me to slow down and take in my surroundings. After all, the Tanzanians who thronged the streets were not going anywhere very fast. I had already replaced my toiletries and other items at the open-air markets off Uhuru Street while dodging hip-deep potholes filled to the rim with yellow ooze and was just about to purchase a whole new wardrobe from one of the ubiquitous used clothes bazaars when my knapsack finally arrived.














The rest of my journey surpassed all expectations and yet remained oddly anticlimactic (except for a suspected attack of malaria on Zanzibar, which proved to be a false alarm but nevertheless made it into my novel) and this is the only story I ever tell people from my trip. I doubt anyone really cares what I saw on Pemba anyway.


Flooded out in Sicily

Spring in Sicily! Doesn’t that sound like the perfect antidote to a drizzly Berlin March? A cheap flight and a modest vacation rental in Santo Stefano with a view of the Mediterranean sounded perfect. What my girlfriend and I ended up with was basically two weeks of pouring rain, with time out for a few sunny hours on our terrace shivering under woolen blankets. It didn’t help to read in the papers about how beautiful the weather was in Berlin. Our frustration assumed an entirely new quality the day we took the bus all the way up to the famed sanctuary of Gibilmanna above Cefalù on the north coast, a pilgrimage site celebrated for one of the most spectacular views in Italy, only to be greeted by thick fog, a closed museum, and unfriendly friars. Despite the altitude we had finally hit rock bottom. And yet it was here, huddled in the dank mountaintop church beneath the lovely 16th century Madonna, waiting for the next bus to take us out of there, that I penned a key scene in my latest book, to be followed by entire chapters over the following days – a special dispensation that I think we had coming.


The Madonna of Gibilmanna 


















Blinded in Catalonia

We had learned our lesson. The next spring, instead of waterlogged Sicily, we were headed for balmy Barcelona and the sun-kissed lavender fields of Southern France. With visions of open-air cocktails in Carcassonne dancing in our heads, we took off into a cloudless Berlin sky, only to land in the midst of a Catalonian downpour. In fact, the entire trip seemed to have a curse hanging over it. The weather remained stormy and about twenty degrees colder than in sunny Berlin. We then discovered that we were not allowed to drive our rental car across the border into France. The worst came in Cadaquès, Salvador Dalì’s seaside retreat, where on a hike to a cliff top lighthouse a sudden gust of wind snatched my wire frame eyeglasses from my face and slingshotted them far into the western Mediterranean.

















What now? I had no extra pair. Driving was out of the question. While I could see just enough to hobble around, the trip was now officially a fiasco. At the tiny optician’s shop in Cadaquès the friendly assistant told me that – what with Good Friday and Easter coming up – a new pair of glasses would take a week to manufacture, by which time we would be long gone. However, she could sell me contact lenses here and now.


What an idea! Contacts had always commanded a special place in my imagination, right alongside rattlesnakes and black widow spiders. I had spent my childhood in awe of the travails of my elder siblings as they nursed scratched corneas and combed the carpet for wayward lenses. This was one ordeal I was certain I could never endure. But sure enough, there I was on the Costa Brava with a pair of soft lenses and a bottle of fluid, spending upwards of an hour each morning trying to get the damn things to stick to my eyeballs. But by the time we left, I almost had the routine down, and I’ve been a proud and downright obsessive contact wearer ever since. Catalonia changed my life – even if I didn’t get much of a tan.


A bigger journey















Now it’s fine to wish “interesting” situations on yourself, but you obviously can’t wish them on others. Many years ago, as we were preparing to embark on one of our family vacations to Tuscany, I was amused when my young son who, like me, is a big fan of the Tintin comic books, asked: “Can we have an adventure this time?” Sorry – an adventure is the very last thing you want to have with kids around, and so back then all our planning revolved around preventing adventures rather than seeking them out. Today, single again and with my kids in college, I am once more open to the unexpected.


Of course, the mishaps I have described here are trifles compared to the genuine calamities some travelers endure. People are robbed, jailed, kidnapped, raped, shot, and murdered outright. Planes crash, trains derail, and I don’t wish such disasters on anyone. Nevertheless, I believe in confronting adversity and embracing it as a guide along our journeys, which are always part of a bigger journey to our true selves. After all, there is no knowing where we might be swept off to.

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Good stuff here. Serendipity is underrated.
For me, the most memoable trips are the ones where I actually have some obligation or something to do (aside from sight seeing).
On the sightseeing trips- I generally get tired and overloaded with the 'sights' after a week or 2.
Same here! That's why the very idea of package tourism bores me so. I'd have to keep asking, "Are we excited yet"?
Great fun! I just got back from springtime in Sicily, and it was delightful (and therefore unmemorable?) - perfect weather, lots of wild flowers. We were Cefalu too - gotta write that up one of these days... an entirely different religious (or quasi-religious) site ...

I'll trade your memories of Sicily for mine any day :-)
Mishaps make the trip. Long after our memories of Juno's graduation in Reno have faded, we'll be talking about getting evacuated from the hotel and 3 a.m., and stopped by Nevada Highway Patrol outside Fallon! Yes! Rated.