When Plans Go Kaput
In difficult, unplanned situations, sometimes taking a pause to recalibrate leads to unexpected, memorable experiences
“Sir, seems like your flight is tomorrow, not today”
My wife, Priya, and I were checking-in at Milan airport heading to Copenhagen, when the flight attendant decided to prank us. Or so we first thought. We stepped aside and checked the bookings. The attendant was right. We had booked our connecting flight a day later by mistake. We both had to be at work that day. Panic gripped and we pleaded to get into the flight. It was full and the flights leaving later in the day were staggeringly priced.
Milan was a stopover on the way back from Barcelona, where we had gone for a vacation. Now we were stranded. The sweet memories from Barcelona vaporised in a whiff, and we slumped on a bench, soaked in dispirited silence. A pause later, I began laughing at the Kafkaesque absurdness of the situation, of a well-crafted plan going down the drain. Priya looked at me incredulously, and then joined in. We laughed like babies, at ourselves.
Powerlessness is at times immensely potent. Having overcome the initial shock, we thought on how to best savour the accidental reward of an additional day of vacation. We called up work, explained the situation, and searched for a cheap rental car at the airport. Less than an hour later, we were on the road. We had no destination in mind, and only after hitting the highway we started to read the road signs. The road could take us to Cinque Terre or to Venice, both only a few hours’ drive from Milan. “Venice!” Priya delightfully declared when I asked which turn to take.
Later that day, leaning on the cushions of a gondola, and listening to the coughs of sound from oars kissing the water, Priya said: “Today morning I would not have imagined that hours later we would be in this beautiful city. These few moments are some of my most precious”. As the gondola wandered through the canals, we neatly folded the beautiful, serene evening in Venice and tucked it away in our memories.
I wondered why an unplanned adventure brought so much joy than a luxurious week of planned vacation. It made me think about why I travel. Travel stills the time, forcing me to live in the present moment. When at university, I travelled to escape the punctilious regimen of studying engineering. Travel trained me on street-smartness, and I revelled in the unfamiliarity that followed on boarding a bus to an unknown destination, with just enough money to get by. Later, I had the resources to travel comfortably. Once I moved to the Nordics, a military preciseness surreptitiously took over my travel planning. Slid away the days of unplanned adventures; I began to book hotels, flights and dinners in advance, carefully constructing the vacation in my head before experiencing it in real life.
With this cultivated meticulousness, I once planned a trip to Prague on my birthday. Destiny once again conspired. We were late in reaching Prague, missing out on the dinner we had reserved. Moreover, it was raining and cold. I was frustrated and remained holed in my hotel room, waiting for the rain to subside. It didn’t. As I sat looking out of the window, the calmness returned. I decided to walk to the Old Town. At this late hour, there were only a few people out on the streets. I walked the cobblestone streets bathed in artificial light, its brightness softened by the rain. The amalgamation of rain and light made the Old Town seem like a water colour painting. The more I walked, the more I became convinced that Prague looks most beautiful when softly lit against rain. That midnight I returned to my room wet and cold. I was happy still, for I had walked through perhaps the most beautiful city in the world.
I still plan, for planning is a necessary evil and mistakes are costly in a foreign land. Though now, I leave space for serendipity to sneak in. I do so by staying over in Airbnbs where I get more opportunities to interact with the locals, by leaving at least a day fully unplanned while travelling, and by reminding myself of the bygone years when I travelled with no plans and little money and returned with a bagful of unforgettable experiences. And when things don’t go as planned, I take a deep breath and force myself to slow down – the best way I have found to do so is by seeking a cup of black tea, finishing which allows me just enough time to recalibrate my situation. In these moments, I invariably ask myself that if I have to live only a day and have no other place to go to, what would I do at this moment in this place.
Following the principle of taking a pause when things go haywire, once when we lost the way to our Airbnb in a small village in the Swiss Alps while driving in the dark, we deliberately stopped to soothe the anxiousness. As we waited in silence, a herd of Red Deer that inhabit the Alps surrounded us. At that moment, in the isolated mountains with no other human being in sight, the herd ignored our presence and allowed us a glimpse into Alpine wildlife in its natural habitat. When we eventually found our Airbnb and recounted the experience to our hosts, they exclaimed, “We have been living here for 12 years and have never been able to see this species. You are so lucky!”
Experiences can be sought but not planned. And sometimes unplanned experiences are what make a journey memorable.
A version of this essay appeared in National Geographic Traveller