Written by Chris
-Motto of the Boy Scouts of America
Moshi, Tanzania – For the first half of my life so far, I was very active in the Boy Scouts and I don’t think that there is anything that I have internalized more from those years than the Boy Scout Motto; “Be Prepared”. I absolutely love being prepared. When we went camping I took pride in always having the right gear. If it rained, I had a poncho. If we were starting a fire, I had the matches. If we came across a bear, I had my running shoes.
And after I became an Eagle Scout, I carried this value on in my life at college. I had my homework ready when I got to class. I knew what I needed to know in time for the exam. And, during those long all-nighters, I always made sure I had adequate cash in my pocket to pay the bartenders. I was always prepared.
And on into my professional life. I prepared for my meetings, prepped for phone calls, and studied up before jumping into some new technology. Then, when I started doing field service work on the lasers I was building, I launched myself into a whole new level of preparedness.
First, I had to pack my tool case. In order for the trip to be a success, I had to have the tools and parts to fix whatever problem may arise. Since I was going to be out in who-knows-what part of the world and usually on a tight schedule, I couldn’t afford to go shopping around town when I needed something, and often the odds of finding some small, speciality laser optic were incredibly slim anyway. So I made sure to bring along just the right things; rare parts, those likely to break, the right tool to take apart any part of the system. I won’t say I was perfect, I had to improvise quite a few times, but I think I did pretty well considering the magnitude of unique parts in the systems I worked on.
And then there was the trip itself. I delighted in putting together the perfect dossier for my trip before I left. Not only did I have to book the flight and transportation, I had to get myself to and from the site (and make sure not to miss any of the good restaurants in town). So I printed out city maps, campus maps, my flight reservation, hotel reservation, local transit schedules, customer location, and a sightseeing list, should I have a free moment or two. I put all the info in chronological order, threw it in my bag, and the trip schedule was set.
My “Be Prepared” doctrine was serving me well. I ticked through the steps of my trip, got my work done, and got back home. I started to see travel as the ultimate preparedness challenge. I felt like my preparing skills had reached a new level. It was a huge part of who I was and I never questioned it.
But once I got on this trip, everything changed. I started with my usual preparations at home; getting the packing just right, making some hotel reservations, mapping things out. But, as things got going, I just couldn’t keep up. The scope of the trip was just too long, we move too frequently, and I found that I was spending the majority of my time in between transits just planning for the next. And so I did something I thought I would never do; I took my beloved preparedness and let it go.
And do you know what happened? I loved it! Now that I was free of the schedule, I discovered a new richness of travel that I had been missing all along. When everything is planned and scheduled, you end up with a somewhat sterilized impression of the place you’re visiting. You only get what the guidebooks show you. But when you can change on a whim and follow a suggestion from some local or a fellow traveler, that’s when you find the good stuff.
That’s how we ended up in the Amazon when we cut out of our Ecuador home stay early, and how we checked out Huacachina and Ollantaytambo based on some advice we picked up, and how we extended our stay in Cape Town from 2 days to 6 to 7 to 8 days. Sure, we ended up in a few fleabag hotels because we didn’t check them out in advance, but we also found some really nice places (and at much better prices than the guidebook-sponsored varieties).
So I learned a valuable lesson (and, thankfully, early on in this trip). Travel is about experiencing new things, and that is very hard to do if everything goes according to plan. You might as well just stay home and read some travel books. So ask for travel tips if you run into someone who shares your tastes, or have your waiter direct you to the local’s bar with the best pisco sour, or hop in a taxi and say “take me someplace awesome!” (your results may vary). But whatever you do, leave the dossier behind.