Planning. Before I would travel, I would spend weeks, even months planning a trip. How can I maximize what I will see in the limited time I have? I need to read books, scrutinize blogs, learn phrases in a new language and conduct research. Yes, LOTS of research to find unique locations to explore. I’ll let my “Control Freak” flag fly and say I derived a lot of enjoyment in this planning. It always kept the excitement building towards the trip and culminated in a successful execution of a well laid out plan. So, a year ago when I was asked to give a series of lectures in Brazil my fanatical planning methodology was ready to jump into action!
But, what if I planned a different kind of trip? One that I didn’t … plan. Could I let a trip unfold organically and accept it for what it became? Do I even want that kind of vacation? After some significant thought (and admittedly already buying one book), I decided I would not extensively plan my trip. It was barebones planning – flights and lodging only. Fly to Rio de Janeiro for 3 days, fly to Salvador for 4 days, fly to my conference in Foz do Iguaçu for 5 days and finally across the boarder to Argentina for 3 days. The remaining plans became a jumbled assemblage of ideas in my head that may or may not happen. Yikes!!! Not knowing what I will be doing from one day to the next is scary. Can I really do this?
I stuck to my commitment and didn’t plan. I noticed something interesting when talking to people about my upcoming trip – I was doing a lot of listening. Normally I would have been telling people about where I planned to go, what I was going to see, how I was going to do it. But when I’d say “I have a few ideas but no firm plans beyond the barebones”, people would share their thoughts and experiences. It was completely unexpected and novel to hear them speak so openly and freely. I was fascinated listening to people’s perspective before I left on my trip.
Even more unforeseen to me was that it continued on my travels! I began a conversation with the person sitting next to me on the airplane to Rio. I actually should say an assisted conversation because I spoke no Portuguese and she spoke minimal English. Thank you Google Translate!!! Her name was Gi and she was a carioca (resident of Rio). She told me all about what to see and do in her city. We had a lovely conversation laughing and learning about each other until about 4am. Gi offered to show me some of the areas of Rio not so easily seen after she was finished work each night. My favourite night in Rio was when we explored the neighbourhood of Lapa, which is erupting with artists and musicians. It was an amazing vibe feeling live samba moving through your body throughout the area. Likely, not an experience I would have had without Gi since it wasn’t safe to travel off the well-lit street at night in this part of Rio.
Upon arrival in Salvador, my Airbnb hosts arranged for a friend to pick me up at the airport because I was arriving at night and hadn’t really thought about transportation. Upon arrival at my apartment, I met my hosts Daniel and Roberto. They wanted me to have the best time in Salvador and asked me my plans. Shocked when I said I didn’t really know but I have a few ideas, they gifted me an hour of their local knowledge. Can you imagine renting your apartment to a stranger and then talking with them for an hour about your city, yourselves, family, career paths and life in Bahia? It was amazing!!! They coached me to navigate the bus routes in the busy city. If you think everything in Portuguese was confusing enough, most (but not all) busses in Salvador have you get on at the back and leave at the front. For anyone who hasn’t ridden busses in Central or South America – there is no schedule, are jammed packed and drive extremely fast. But that’s my kind of fun. Daniel and Roberto told me about a colourful church in the north of the city, where to find all the best local foods and the dream like Praia do Forte three hours north. The couple even messaged me a few times to ensure I was having a fun time exploring. I’m so happy I had flexible plans.
It isn’t just humans that I took time to stop and chat with. Throughout the trip there were many dogs that needed a little attention too. There are significant numbers of dogs in the cities and rural areas. A veterinarian I spoke with at the conference said it is a challenging issue and rampant throughout the continent. I developed a particular soft spot for the dogs living outside my apartment in Puerto Iguazú, Argentina.
Puerto Iguazú is where I met another Airbnb host, Andrea. I think you know how this conversation went. It ended with Andrea asking me if I’d like to go pick up some empanadas for dinner. Traveler’s Note: Always answer yes to empanadas in Argentina. The evening that ensued will not easily slip into forgotten memories. It started with us driving to town on a motorcycle to buy the empanadas. My first driving experience at night in South America was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. We walked through the town as she showed me all the sights including the hustle and bustle of an evening market. Returning with the empanadas, I met the other guest, Susan. It was her birthday. I like birthdays, yay! While listening to the jungle sounds the three of us shared cake, wine and how our lives brought us to this nexus of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. How could I have planned this night?
I truly could share countless more of these encounters. As I relinquished the need to control every aspect of my travels, entirely new opportunities arose. I wasn’t simply arriving, taking a picture and checking something off a list. My destination stopped being about the location I was trying to reach and became about the people along the way. Their life, their experience, their story became an essential part of my experience. I’m glad I reluctantly embraced the path not planned because I will never travel or live the same way again.