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Lost And Found: How Uncertainty Makes Travel Memorable
As the bus begins to pull away from the bus stop in Chania, I catch the old man's eye again, giving him a thumbs-up through the window. He stares back blankly – then leaps to his feet, waving his arms, pointing, shouting. I raise my hands in an uncomprehending shrug, keeping the palms turned inward to avoid flipping him a mountza, the traditional Greek insult. He shouts louder, as if volume alone could break through the language barrier that had us miming to each other a few minutes ago. Then his body slumps into a pose recognizable the world over – "Oh, you bloody fool" – and that's when it hits me in the stomach.
I'm on the wrong bus.
I have an hour before my ferry leaves the port of Souda, taking me away from Crete and back to mainland Greece. If I don't hit that ferry, my carefully engineered schedule slithers through my fingers and I'm left untethered, without local knowledge, a decent enough grasp of spoken Greek or the money for new tickets. Without that ferry, I'm lost.
I sit down, by order of my knees, and stare out at the dusty, baked scenery as we rattle God-knows-where-wards. And then something strange happens. Panic ebbs away. I start to appreciate how lovely the light is, the rose-fingered sunset fading through the spectrum into that special glowing blue that enlivens domed roofs and door-frames right across Greece. I'm warm, I'm well fed, and I have no idea what is going to happen next – and it's this last feeling that is so intoxicating right now.
When most people travel, they seek the unknown – either in a familiar, packaged, piecemeal form with the help of guides and tour operators, or the raw, improvised version that's so popular with people young enough for their nervous systems to take it. I go off the beaten track using a third approach, which I like to call "Oh You Bloody Fool." Somewhat appropriately, it's a way of travel I accidentally fell into. I go places, things go wrong, and I fall through space, screaming. This is usually, but not always, a metaphor.
There's a perverse joy in having your travel plans collapse around you. I've missed many flights and will doubtless miss many more. Once I get over the initial shock, once I've leaned against the nearest wall and cursed everyone up to and including the Wright Brothers, a calmness steals over me. I change. Lacking any alternative, I'm forced to become the person who can deal with this mess. My senses fly open, taking great gulps of the world around me, collecting data for my suddenly hyperactive brain to sift through in search of Life Or Death Answers. My heart thumps. My jaw sets. No time to waste – and off I go.
In "A Field Guide To Getting Lost" (2006), Rebecca Solnit says:
"The thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost."
I've spent a lot of the last decade getting lost. I've been lost on England's North York Moors in the middle of a rainstorm with the light fading – one of the few times I've genuinely hated not knowing my location. I've blundered across Berlin at 4 a.m. in search of my hotel, clutching a rain-dissolved paper map. I've suffered a thousand deaths of embarrassment in front of strangers, and I've eyed other travelers – so competent, so self-assured – with a mixture of envy and hatred. Why can't I land on my feet instead of my face? Why does it all have to be so hard?
Perhaps this is the wrong question. Perhaps it's really this: why do I want travel to be easy? When it's easy, it's a non-experience that our memories can't get a grip on. Thanks to the miracle of GPS, we need never be lost. We can get from A to B knowing exactly what B looks like and having a machine dictate the entire route to us. Our technological support networks are vast and all-powerful, and our guides, physical and virtual, know more about the places we're going than we ever will. We are mired in certainty and we need never put a foot wrong. But what if that's not what we need – or why we travel at all?
I'm not pondering any of this as my bus takes me away from Chania. I'm fully in the moment, hunting for clues to where this bus is going, scanning the horizon for landmarks that tally with the map in my "Rough Guide." There are 11 people on that bus. One lady is wearing a brown hat; one man has spectacularly hairy ears. These details are unforgettably burned into me by an elevated level of awareness ...
I'm having the kind of travel experience I left home in search of.
Ten minutes later, the port of Souda hovers into view, and I realize, with curious disappointment, that I'm saved. I'm on the right bus after all. I unwittingly compensate by getting off the bus far too early, forcing me to sprint the final mile with a fully-laden backpack, and then I spend the first hour of my ferry ride lying semi-naked on the cool metal floor of my cabin, trying to bring my temperature down. The rest of the journey is a self-recriminating haze.
These days, being lost is at the heart of the kind of travel I love, filled with stories I don't know in advance, positioned along the uncomfortable line between serendipity and disaster. Occasionally wild uncertainty is thrust upon me, as when I was robbed of my passport in Düsseldorf, seven hours before my flight home to England. (Ever wondered how long a UK emergency passport takes to put together? About six hours.) I've learned to appreciate these experiences for what they are – a living hell at the time, a treasure-trove of travel memories afterwards. All that said, I give myself lots of leeway nowadays, spacing out connections and over-budgeting where I can. I may be a bloody fool, but I'm not stupid.
[Photo Credit: Flickr user Jenny Downing]