"The only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster."
The morning dawned hazy in New Delhi as we gathered at the tour bus. Let's sit in the back, my companion said. He feared the scratchy audio from the Bollywood video blaring from above the driver's head would drive him mad. I agreed, not knowing then that screechy music was a good thing compared with not going at all.
We never set foot on the bus bound for Agra and the Taj Mahal.
The driver jumped off, waving us back. "Not going," he said. He marched off; we scurried to the office for answers. Rock-throwing protesters blocked the road to Agra. No trip today, we were told. Maybe tomorrow. Tomorrow we would be on a plane bound for Southern India. We had an itinerary.
How would we tell them back home that we'd traveled halfway around the world and not seen one of its wonders? Here's how: with drama, humor and irony. That chaotic scene has been an enduring tale of a trip taken 20 years ago.
I never did get to the Taj Mahal.
There have been other disappointments over the years: A favorite painting at the National Gallery in London on loan to another museum during my visit. A garbage strike in New York that made walking the streets an odoriferous chore. The Teton mountains of Wyoming so socked in by fog that I never saw their splendor. A stomach bug on the French Riviera. A diverted train trip in Germany that ended on a bus headed who knows where.
I can't even count the times the view from my hotel window has been the roaring air conditioning units. Or how many hours I've spent soothing a restless child on a plane or car in a mobile entertainment extravaganza floor show.
The bad trip, the disaster vacation or the inconvenient change of plans often leave the most memorable snapshots of a trip. Travel teaches us nothing if not to roll with it, and for anyone who has gone anywhere in the past decade, especially by air, there's a lot to go Zen about. Can you say long security lines, paying for baggage and reduced flights?
Of course, there are some experiences too dreadful to turn into cocktail party chatter. Sometimes, you've actually been done wrong and it's more than the fates who are to blame. But mostly, travel is a series of fantastic experiences alternating with missed connections and mishaps. Adventure has a way of shaping us.
"There's an old saying, 'Man proposes; God disposes,' " says Christopher Elliott, National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate and writer of the syndicated Travel Troubleshooter column. "You never know what's going to happen when you travel."
You could be headed to a Gulf Coast beach and a hurricane with a friendly name ruins your trip, or maybe an earthquake shakes your plans in California. Those are the big things, he says. But small things tend to be uncontrollable, too. Like restoration work and photo-stifling scaffolding at a major monument or a museum closed the day you'd set aside for a visit.
"There are different types of travelers. People who have everything planned and those people who roll with the punches," Elliott says. "If you're a Type A traveler and trouble comes, you're going to have a worse time dealing with it."
Then again, the Type A traveler has probably called ahead to find out if that favorite painting is on loan or if Big Ben is ready for its closeup.
"If you're a Type B traveler, you probably wouldn't care anyway," Elliott says.
Of the 500 complaints he's asked to address every week, Elliott says, many are about cruises, air travel and Disney trips. He's not surprised about air travel complaints, given the restrictions that have come along since 9/11 and the effects of the recession on customer service.
For both cruises and Disney experiences, Elliott says that the travel industry itself has caused people's expectations to grow to such heights that they are difficult to meet. Beautiful, colorful brochures and enticing TV commercials may promise more than can be delivered.
"I don't blame people for getting upset when things don't go well," he says. "It's their vacation and they want every minute to count. Plus, they are paying a lot of money."
I've always loved the quote by Martha Gellhorn that starts this story. Gellhorn, who traveled the world as a war correspondent and was married for a time to Ernest Hemingway, wrote it in the preface of her Travels With Myself and Another, first published in 1979.
"As a student of disaster, I note that we react alike to our tribulations: frayed and bitter at the time, proud afterwards. Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival," she wrote.
There is much truth in that statement, even though what each of us considers a tribulation is relative. Even so, the smallest change of plans puts us on another travel path, and, with the right attitude, we bring home a fascinating experience and a good story.
In fact, did I ever tell you the one about the 1979 Thanksgiving blizzard in Denver that stranded me at the airport with only $30 in my pocket? I was 22 and ended up playing mother hen to a 15-year-old on his way to spend the holiday with his father. He had no clue what to do and once I had a charge, I was in charge.
My enduring memory of that trip was not the silly man I had traveled to see, but a phone call I overheard from said teenager to his mother in California. We had pooled our money and found a place to stay for the night rather than sleep on the hard floor of the airport.
"I'll be fine, Mom," he said. "I don't know. Some lady."
Some lady. That was me. I think he handed me the phone. I think I tried to reassure his mother. I don't think I did a very good job at that, as you can imagine.
But we were resourceful and we did live to tell. Two important outcomes of any trip.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.