A favourite school teacher once told me that ‘you learn more from failure than from success’. I believe that to be true in many contexts, and when it comes to travelling it’s particularly relevant.
Last week a very carefully planned but difficult journey ended unsuccessfully, as the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli probe crash landed on Mars, ending its life-searching mission before it properly began.
As an astronomy enthusiast, I’m always disappointed when these missions don’t work out, but I know that the human appetite for exploration doesn’t end because of a few setbacks. My own travels, albeit on much smaller scale, bring to mind some of the lessons that each and every voyage we undertake can teach us.
1. Prepare for any eventuality
Perhaps I should qualify that slightly – let’s leave major mishaps to one side, they’re a whole different kettle of fish.
But as we wander, jaunt and trek around the globe, sometimes, something completely unforeseen takes us by surprise, and the more organised we are, the better. You know the kind of thing I mean – plan your route, book things in advance where necessary, research destinations, bring the right equipment, copy your documents, get your jabs….you get the picture.
Above: Political unrest, public demonstrations and other unexpected events can disrupt a planned trip
One of the challenges for me has been fully researching my travel insurance – it’s a minefield, and a boring one to boot, but a valuable investment of time.
Ironically, the greatest pay-off for being prepared is that it gives you more scope for spontaneity, so I’ll always aim to give myself the best of both worlds in this sense.
2. Manage your expectations
This refers more to mental preparation than practical tasks or travel logistics. It’s about hoping for the best, but accepting that plans don’t always work out.
You may run out of time and/or money and need to forego some attractions on your list, or even an entire destination. Or those fickle Northern Lights may not make an appearance on the 2 nights you’re booked into an arctic igloo.
Above: During and after pneumonia in Irkutsk, Siberia
At Lake Baikal (Siberia) a few years back, I had the misfortune to become very ill during a planned round-the-world trip, the bottom line being that I was hospitalised (photo above left) and had to cancel the rest of the journey. It wasn’t fun. The plus side, of course, is that I have a different tale to tell than many others who’ve chugged along the Trans-Siberian railway.
If you take the approach that whatever happens (within reason!) it will still be an incredible adventure, you’ll get more satisfaction out of the trip anyway.
3. Be resourceful
Did you ever see the TV show ‘Lost’? No, not the one about the mysterious island. This 2001 reality show had a brilliant concept. Three pairs of strangers were dropped off in an unknown location somewhere in the world and had to race back towards the same destination. The aim was to be the first team back. They were given very limited resources; a basic backpack each, limited cash, and one camera. Resourcefulness, teamwork, smart thinking and more than a little luck decided the outcome.
Whether you’re on a press trip, work excursion or personal vacation, you’ll probably have some sort of itinerary. A deferred appointment is a nuisance but doesn’t have the same impact as, say, missing your flight, but either way, being adaptable is handy.
Think ‘opportunity’ if you can. So the museum is closed – is there an interesting church or market nearby? Couldn’t get the theatre tickets you wanted? Nip to the bar around the corner, you may just see the best live band ever. Just stay smart and keep safe!
4. Don’t make the same mistake twice
The lessons can come in any shape and form, it’s not always about the details. During my road trip to Canada in June, I learnt not to overthink things. Having never driven anything bigger than a Vauxhall Astra…or an automatic for that matter, a 25-foot Cruise Canada RV motorhome seemed like a challenge too far, but by the end of the trip I was confidently navigating undulating roads with tight bends, and was more than a little sorry when the experience came to an end.
I’d spent several weeks beforehand in a state of anxiety trying to visualise every type of on-the-road scenario and in the end, all that was needed was a calm approach and an excellent navigator – in my case, my travelling partner Travel With Kat. Experience is the greatest teacher – it’s not a cliché for nothing!
5. Savour the journey
I have a friend who dislikes the phrase ‘life’s a journey, not a destination’. I know what she means – we’ve all had journeys where every single darned cotton-picking thing seems to have gone wrong.
There will be times that will try your patience; the crowded plane; the weirdo in the train carriage; long queues; the sickness-inducing choppy waters; the white-knuckle mountain road coach trip. They’re all tests of endurance and resilience, but exploration requires some compromise and I have a simple yin and yang point of view.
The fact that you’re on this trip at all is a privilege, so if possible, enjoy the journey. Or just sit back and dream a little. Revel in a little downtime, it’s good for you. We spend so much time in a frenetic haze of activity we’ve almost forgotten the art of mindful idleness.
And if you’re in that crowded plane and have followed point 1, you’ll have your earplugs with you!
6. Keep the spirit of exploration alive
Thinking back to the Mars probe disappointment, it would be easy to give up and never try again. There are those who would see it as a sign that we are not ‘meant’ to explore beyond our home world. But for most long-term explorers or travel enthusiasts, giving up is not an option. Success isn’t measured in the same way as a marketing campaign or economic policy. The disappointments and challenges we face serve only to enrich the experience and fuel our thirst for further adventures.
You get knocked down…and you get up again. That’s the whole idea.