The Uncertainty of Travel:
A Crash Course in Dealing With the Unknown
The willingness to relinquish control and open ourselves to the mysterious unknown is at the heart of every great spiritual tradition.
Imagine you and I were having chats together over pints and the conversation turned to travel. I might lean in close and tell you that I think I was born to be a wanderer. I have been marking the dates of trips in bright bold lettering on the calendar for as long as I can remember. I spent much of my adolescence counting how many days I had left of school before I could leave for church camp. I was constantly longing for that moment that I would walk out the door with my green canvas duffel bag slung over my shoulder and a brown paper sack full of corn nuts, Skittles and Reese’s Pieces to get me through the van ride.
I left home for the great unknown for the first time when I was 18 to study abroad in Prague. That first time out in the big wide world alone taught me everything I still love about travel. Big lessons like how leaving home complicates returning home and smaller (but not less important) ones like how to find a last minute all night train ticket to Krakow.
But if I had to sum up what I love about travel in one sentence I think it would be this:
Travel is a crash course in living with uncertainty.
Even if you never leave home, life will eventually find a way to show you how much you do not know. Sooner or later, you will have to come to grips with not being able to predict every step of your life. Learning that we are not in control tends to be the making of us. Either we are undone and made bitter by life’s curve balls or we learn how to accept that our carefully laid plans were only ever illusions. When we find ourselves holding tight to the reins, we can either release them gracefully or have them wrenched from our hands, leaving burn marks across our palms. Most of us do a bit of both – going back and forth between riding the waves of change and having them crashing down on top of us.
When we are traveling, usually we have paused everything else in our lives, so we have the space and bandwidth to actually enjoy the way that travel accelerates being present with the unknown. We can even have fun with uncertainty, because we embrace a posture of openness to it.
What will I eat today? What will I see, taste or experience that surprises me? Am I lost? I wonder where my hotel is.
But then there are lots of moments in travel when an unanticipated event presents more of a challenge. Here are just a few that I’ve experienced:
- Cancelled flights.
- Finding myself on the wrong train platform. Or on the wrong train.
- Having my passport stolen.
- Having a crying baby on an airplane. Having a crying baby on a bus. Having a crying baby anywhere that is not my own home.
- Spraining an ankle.
- Getting sick.
- Being lost. Being lost with children in tow.
- Having my laptop stolen.
- Having a flat tire.
- Not being able to find groceries when I have arrived in a city on a (previously unknown to me) public holiday and everything is closed.
I’m sure you have experienced some of these challenges while traveling, as well as others I haven’t named. When I am preparing to travel, I make a lot of plans. I research beyond what is maybe even considered normal. I make back up plans to my plans and then back ups to my back ups. But copious planning can not eliminate every possible problem I might face on a trip. This might even be more true now that so many parts of travel have been wildly affected by the pandemic. Flight cancellations have become as commonplace as getting the wrong drink at Starbucks. Regulations surrounding COVID are complicated and ever-changing. And those regulations can’t stop you from actually getting COVID while traveling, or for that matter, any other illness.
There is just so much about traveling that you can’t predict or know.
You can plan to be sightseeing in Rome, but then find yourself quarantining in a rather uninspiring hotel for a week, ordering the same food every day from one of the two places nearby that will deliver.
Or maybe a much anticipated post-hiking pub meal wakes you up clutching your stomach in the middle of the night. You can barely crawl to the bathroom and you are wondering how you will hike 14 miles the next day.
You might find yourself sharing your breakfast table with an older gentleman who, at first glance, seems quirky and interesting, but then turns out to be a raging racist.
Or equally he could be an open-hearted hillwalker eager to share a lifetime of knowledge about the very stretch of the trail you’re about to walk.
You just never know.
I’ve never been to Portugal before, but I’m headed there soon. For a while now, I ‘ve been in that delightful stage of anticipating a new place, wondering what it will be like. I think I will walk on narrow cobbled streets and past brightly colored buildings. I plan to taste Porto’s port wine and I wonder if I will like codfish casserole and custard tarts. What will I taste, see and experience?
When I leave Porto, I will be on foot, walking to back to Santiago from a direction that is wholly unfamiliar to me. With both old and new friends.
I’ve been planning this trip for over a year and still I am sure that every day things will happen that I have not anticipated. I am grateful for another opportunity to trust my inner wisdom to know that whatever happens, I will rise to meet it, maybe even with grace. Like many times before, I will experience firsthand how the universe provides when challenges present themselves. I believe that there is an immense generosity in the world that I get to tap into when I walk into the unfamiliar with an open heart.
I picture myself joining with the great tradition of famous wanderers (both real and fictional). Dante, Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, Cheryl Strayed and Sarah Marquis.
Of course Frodo never had to face airport security lines, but I’m happy to trade that wearisome inconvenience for not having to battle an army of orcs. Usually, the only monster I have to make peace with on a trip is the one that arises from within myself when things don’t go my way.
Even after years of practice, I have not mastered the art of facing uncertainty.
So I keep traveling. I hope that every time I leave home with my backpack slung on my shoulder and an Rx bar in my pocket that I am getting a little better at facing whatever happens with grace and love.
Setting out is always a leap of faith,
a risk, in the deepest sense of the term,
and yet, an adventure too.
The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring,
and most of us make our homes there permanently.
The new is always by definition, unfamiliar and untested,
so God, life, destiny, suffering,
have to give us a push, usually a big one,
or we will not go.
Someone has to make clear to us that
homes are not meant to be lived in,
but only to be moved out from.
-A quote from one of my favorite Richard Rohr books (Falling Upward)