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August 17, 2015 Comments (1) ONE Proj blog, Practical and How-To, Travel Philosophies

Unplanning: 5 Lessons From The (Death) Road

Shop in the Amazon

On an sunny August evening in 2006, I sat in a shanty bus shelter near the bottom of Bolivia’s famous “death road”. I was waiting for a bus. And I was particularly anxious – not just because I’d spent the previous 12 hours dying in the bathroom, and was concerned about orifice control – but also because our bus was late. Hours late. And we had pre-booked a costly 5-day tour into the Amazon at the other end of this bus ride, a tour scheduled to begin the next morning as soon as we (were supposed to have) arrived.

Ninety minutes into this anxious waiting game, a bus pulled up. It wasn’t ours. But we were invited to buy a seat on it, instead of waiting for the one we’d reserved and paid for.  We declined, which would turn out to be a wise decision. We later learned this bus would break down, twice, in the middle of the night. The travellers aboard it were 5 hours late for their Amazon tour, and needed to hire someone to bring them out to their group who’d left without them.

The lesson I learned from that situation? Lesson #1: Stick to the devil you know. 1

Back at the bus stop, we continued waiting anxiously. You’ve all felt this type of worry – that pit of dread in your stomach that you feel when you might miss your airplane. Mine was amplified by frustration at the complete lack of knowledge about where, or even if, our pre-paid bus even existed.

Where the heck is it? Why is it hours late? Are we going to forfeit the hundreds of dollars we’d prepaid for the tour?  Though our worry abated slightly when our bus arrived – three hours late – we’d still worry all night, as we bounced down the remainder of the Death Road towards the Amazon, that our tour would leave without us. All that worrying from our desire to preplan excessively taught me lesson #2: Don’t demand order from chaos.

The next morning when we arrived (without any wheels falling off), our tour guide was miraculously waiting at the bus stop for us. He was unperturbed by our tardiness – and surprisingly, unsurprised by it. Somehow he knew that our bus was delayed. And besides that, our operator wasn’t even ready to go anyways!

This surprising situation taught me another vital travel lesson, #3: Everything always works out, somehow.

Over the next five days we’d swim with pink dolphins, pet crocodiles, fish for piranhas (and eat them), encounter anacondas, swing Tarzan-like from vines, and play a football match on a dusty pitch in the Amazon, Gringos vs Bolivians. (photos on Flickr).

We had a great time of course, but had certain issues, not worth detailing, with our tour – the operator back in the capital La Paz had lied to us and charged us for extras we never received. Fellow travellers in our group had paid less for the same tour booked directly from the much more local operator. Though we eventually got refunded a fair amount (after a stand-off with the manager of the tour company back in La Paz, which ended with the cleaning lady announcing that oh she was actually the owner, and yes she would make concessions), the lesson from this situation was clear:

Lesson #4: Try to pay as late and as close as possible to where you receive the service.

This advice includes the tour example, but also buses (I try to pay the driver; I’ve seen too many fake ticket booths) and dodgy hotels (I try to pay on checkout). This advice works because it removes middlemen, give you time to use your gut feeling before paying, and gives you access to someone accountable should things go pear-shaped.

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All of the above lessons help by limiting the bad: whether anxiety or financial hardship. Such advice is important because we feel the pain of losses almost twice as much as we feel the joys of gains. (psychologists call this phenomenon ‘loss aversion‘).

But having enriching and eye-opening journeys is not just about avoiding the negatives. Ask anyone about their favourite travel experience.  What is yours? (Please share it in the comments)

Most responses I hear involve a story about something unplanned and unexpected. Not the tour you booked in advance – but the amazing hole-in-the-wall restaurant you wandered into. Not the beautiful beach you came to visit – but some hidden waterfall you stumbled across. Not the major tourist site you visited – but the generous and fascinating shopkeeper you met in the streets afterwards.  In short, serendipity lies at the heart of amazing travel experiences.  

In my Bolivian story, we met two British friends in the Amazon with whom we’d travel for nearly a week, visiting great places I had never planned to, and even taking my first ride on the roof of a bus. All this brings me to the final lesson of this post, #5. Have the time and openness to embrace the unexpected.

Whether stopping to talk to strangers, listening to tips others mention along the way, embarking on ridiculous challenges, or being invited to share in the lives of local people, having an open heart and mind will lead to the most magical experiences of your life.

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Before you go, let me summarise these five lessons on unplanning, and add a few explanatory notes:

#1) Stick to the devil you know.

Just like changing lines at the supermarket, you’ll have less regret about your decision if you don’t change your mind.

#2) Don’t demand order from chaos.

In chaotic countries schedules don’t exist, people are not punctual, and nothing is overly planned. And everything seems to work out marvellously! – precisely because everyone knows that the system is “there’s no system”. So don’t fight it: Unplan your trip, and you’ll unstress your mind.  If in doubt, see Lesson 3. 

#3) Everything always works out, somehow.

And you’ll laugh about how worried you were.  In places like Bolivia and other developing countries, even relatively expensive gaffes like missing a tour aren’t going to bankrupt you.2 In my case, it would have been $75 lost – which only seemed like a lot to us because we were thinking in local currency. 

#4) Try to pay as late and as close as possible to where you receive the service.

There will always be some westerners with more dollars than sense. But for the rest of us, minimise rip-offs by not giving sly locals the time or the space to cheat you.

#5) Have the time and the openness to embrace the unexpected.

Serendipity is the magic sauce of rewarding travel experiences. But you need to create the conditions for it (in your mind and heart); and when it appears, be prepared to dance with it.

There is much I want to explore on serendipity, a topic fundamental to my ONE principles and this Project. So I’m working on a follow-up post on how to create conditions for serendipity. If it sounds interesting, please make sure you’re subscribed to my mailing list.

Your Tarzan-like friend,

-Mike

Myke swinging Tarzan in the Amazon


  1. I’ll elaborate more on each of the lessons later. But for now, let’s continue the story.

  2. This comment does not apply to cons – those can be very expensive. Kidnappings and police extortion can cost in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. I’m currently planning a post about common cons and how to avoid them; subscribe to make sure you don’t miss it.

One Response to Unplanning: 5 Lessons From The (Death) Road

  1. mike says:

    One of my awesome travel experiences and an example of this serendipity is discovering a small permaculture farm in northern Thailand based on a post someone put in Wikitravel. (see http://michaelfuller.ca/lese-majeste-thailandlaos-1/ for the story) There I met some amazing people. One of them then recommended a tranquil riverside village in Laos – one without roads, cars, electricity, or internet; and accessible only by boat.

    Subsequently, I visited that tranquil village for a few days of chatting with locals, swinging in a hammock, and meeting some crazy Germans building a raft. (they wanted to float hundreds of kilometres down river town. They nearly drown just building it, and I never heard from them again once I left.)

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