I’m a travel writer. I travel for a living. Which sounds great, and it is. But my travel stories are only as vivid as my travel experiences. A boring trip — that is, one that goes entirely by plan — makes for a humdrum story.
So I have a little secret I’ll share with you that has served me well. Even if you don’t have a story to write when you return from your next trip, it might serve you, too:
Never say no.
September 1976. I was in London with two buddies at the start of a backpacking trip through Europe. Someone at our hotel asked us over our breakfast beans, “Hey, do you guys want to go to the Queen concert in Hyde Park this Saturday?” London was abuzz. Biggest concert in the city’s history. I’m sure you’re expecting me to tell you what an amazing show it was . . .
Nope. We had an itinerary, and my friends insisted we stick to it. I wanted to tear it up on the spot. But we said no. On Saturday we were on a train bound for Bath, one of the few regrets of my life.
There’s nothing wrong with an itinerary. A plan makes sense. But so does adjusting it. Because spontaneity and openness are what adventure travel is all about — not adherence to a preconceived journey. Why not stay home and read a book?
I firmly believe that the world is a generous place. It wants to reveal its wonders. It wants people to connect. The world wants us to fall in love — with each other, with strangers, with colors and aromas, with the wild and unexpected.
Every trip I’ve ever taken has served me opportunities to say yes to experiences I could not possibly have preconceived. Once, on a long bicycle trip, I wheeled in to a goat-farming village on the southwest coast of the Peloponnese in Greece. I couldn’t ride another mile. No hotel or campground in sight. Then I saw an elderly man across the street, gesturing, offering me a place to sleep for the night. Gregorios took me to his simple home— a goat farm, of course — where, over a bottle of retsina and a feta omelet swimming in olive oil, I learned about his life through pictures and sign language. Chronos?” he asked at one point, nodding toward me. Chronos? Does he want the time? He wrote something on a piece of paper, pointed to himself, and showed me what he wrote: 93. A 93-year-old goat farmer extending mercy to a 31-year-old traveler. Yamas, Gregorios. I’ll never forget you.
On a trip to the Amazon, I met a serious birder who asked if I wanted to go tree climbing with him. Of course I did. Using nylon-webbing ascending devices, we shinnied 175 feet into the rainforest canopy, settled into the crook of a ceiba branch, and lolled for hours watching exotic tropical birds that could only be imagined from the ground.
Group travel, too, presents opportunities to say yes. On a Classic Journeys walking tour in France’s Dordogne Valley, a planned winery tour fell through. Guide Bart proposed visiting a truffle farm instead. “One of the highlights of our trip,” report guests Bill and Elaine Parker, who delighted in the truffle-sniffing talents of Titeuf the wonder dog. Now the farm is a regular stop on Classic Journeys’ Dordogne itinerary.
On a trip to India, Mike and Barbara Murphy and their adult children, Maggie and Matthew, found themselves way off the Classic Journeys itinerary by saying yes over and again. They met a knife maker who honed them a couple of treasured souvenirs. They were served tea in the home of their guide’s grandmother. “She couldn’t speak our language,” says Maggie, “but she made it clear with her stick that I was not supposed to sit on the ground, but in the chair she had her granddaughter bring for me. She poked me with her stick until I moved!”
I’m obviously not talking about saying yes to danger, to “special, only for you” prices on rare tapestries, or to a daughter’s hand in marriage. Those moments call for common sense. Don’t say no; say “maybe later.” Heh.
I believe that every moment of our lives can be a turning point, a fulcrum, a portal into something entirely new, perhaps life-changing. Those moments come by grace. We can’t will them. But better than any other enterprise in life, traveling poises us to greet them. Here comes another moment. I’m going to say yes.
Robert Earle Howells is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year Silver Award winner and has earned four National Magazine Awards for General Excellence at Outside and National Geographic Adventure magazines.