The smell of the urine was overpowering, the itch on my leg was probably a bed bug crawling up from the crevice of my seat cushion, and everyone was yelling in Arabic.
Fuck it. No time to worry about such trivialities — now the least of my worries.
Just a few minutes prior I had been lurched awake as the bus I was on had abruptly shut down while cruising on the highway. A highway in the middle of the Sahara desert, no less. The driver, after spending about five minutes trying (unsuccessfully) to restart the engine, was now on his cell phone screaming and pacing in front of the vehicle.
It’s not long before everyone else on the bus starts to file down the aisle and out the door. As the only “non-native” (English? English?) I can do little but sit quietly with my questions, but after looking outside I do know one thing, I have literally zero intention of going outside.
Beyond my window, behind the shacks and blankets of impoverished highway merchants, I can see the remnants of several decrepit buildings sitting atop a small hill. Only the concrete walls of the exterior remain. Inside one in particular, several people huddle around a barrel fire or lounge in “lawn chairs”. One fellow in particular leans against the doorway intently watching our bus, a rifle resting gently in his hands.
A closer look reveals that he’s not the only one. Most of the men inside the building appear to be armed and all of them are clearly intrigued by our “situation.”
“Great,” I thought, “the second I step off this bus and they see some white boy I’m toast.”
Police or military? Maybe, but if so, what are they doing all the way out here hanging out in some deserted building? (Mind you, this was only a few weeks after the first huge uprisings had subsided)
Welcome to Egypt, Graham, and to hell with your curiosity of wanting to “see the countryside” instead of simply flying to Alexandria like any other normal person.
I was, yet again, on another crazy adventure that no one back home would believe.
Slowly, I took a deep breath, stood up, and walked toward the door.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off-balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese
“Except if you join that tour group” he failed to mention.
From climbing the pyramids, finding myself on top of some of the most ancient temples on the planet, rooftop excursions in Asia, exploring deserted castles across in Europe, clubbing with mob bosses in the old Soviet bloc, stumbling into ancient Roman catacombs, or playing soccer with a bunch of children in the slums of the Middle East, it seems like just about every time I wander away from the beaten path I have the experience of a lifetime.
Yes, nearly every time.
Perhaps I’m just innately more curious than most or maybe I’ve just been lucky. While both may be somewhat true, I think my experiences have had much more to do with my attitude towards travel rather than the stars aligning in my favor.
It’s simple really. The more you put yourself in a position where true adventures can happen, the more they actually tend to materialize.
My method? Unplanning.
Unplanning – Actively resisting the urge to plan out every step of your travels, and instead, embracing the chaos of simply going with the daily flow and creating your own schedule as it happens. Where will you end up? No one knows, which is half the fun and where all the “magic” happens.
It’s not that I don’t want to see the staple landmarks (I often do), but after a while you come to realize that actual experience of immersing yourself deeply with the surrounding culture is far more fulfilling than simply running around like a mad person trying to see every tourist hotspot you possibly can.
Everyone has a picture next to the Eiffel Tower but almost no one has the memories of randomly befriending a bunch of local Parisians and racing motorcycles through the city alleyways at 5am. (If I’ve somehow missed a tour agency that does offer this please feel free to tweet me)
Everyone has taken tours or listened to a guide reciting word-for-word a cheap guide-book in a horrible accent, but few decide to create their own tours. No, really. Go ahead and ignore that rope or restricted sign. Go into that unmarked door. Make your own path. If anything, playing the dumb, lost, or confused tourist nearly always works. (within reason of course, don’t blatantly break the law)
While it may seem like a high risk idea to spend all your time and money wandering around without a well-defined path (what if you miss something?), I have found that actively unplanning has been by far the largest thing that separates my experiences from the thousands of others I see and read about on a daily basis.
It should be noted that participating in tours or skipping around to major attraction and monuments is not necessarily a bad thing, but, at least in my experience, the rush to get to the next location or keep to a schedule usually trumps the ability to enjoy the beauty of the moment or place.
Nor am I suggesting that you need to completely forego any planning or structure at all. Rather, I am suggesting that you set a very loose structure for your trip that combines a few focal points (the things you really want to see or do), along with extended periods of “free-exploration” that give you the flexibility to roll with the punches and freely change directions as you go.
For instance, whenever I plan leisure trips I generally schedule my primary flights (international) and first hotel stay. Everything else is decided on a day-to-day basis which allows for me to do or go where ever I like. A new opportunity comes up? Cool, I’m there. Bored? I can leave at any time.
This applies to large decisions (traveling in between cities, for instance) as well as minor ones (simply stepping out your door, picking a direction, and walking) and is meant to be more of a general guideline than a step-by-step method.
Essentially, unplanning is about making the conscious decision not to worry too much about keeping a schedule or “seeing things for the sake of seeing them” but to instead just do what you want when you want. It’s about listening to your gut and just going with the flow.
While quite unnerving at the moment, I look back on my Egyptian bus experience as one of the most amazing I’ve had. Although we sat there for over an hour nothing bad or all too inconvenient came of it. On the contrary, I ended up having a great time checking out the roadside stands, trying to chat with the locals (My Arabic is nonexistent/god awful), eating weird foods, and getting a private tour of Alexandria after 1am (ok, now that was a bit creepy).
None of which would have happened if I had hadn’t abandoned all plans and just gone with my gut, straight into the unknown.
Regardless of where you are or what you enjoy, remember that there’s an adventure to be had in every direction. The only thing stopping you is your willingness to embrace uncertainty, to become a true explorer, to create an adventure where no signs or instructions exist.