Occasionally I kick myself for not being better prepared.
This usually happens when, for example, I’m sprinting madly through a parking lot, dragging my flipped-over rolling suitcase behind me as I realize that the day’s last bus to wherever I want to go is pulling out of the station. Through the window I can usually see other backpackers sitting smugly in their pre-assigned seats and tearing open packets of snacks. I’ll probably have forgotten to buy snacks, so if I manage to make it on, I’ll jealously watch them eat out of the corner of my eye.
Or when I realize that the forty-five minutes of wandering I’ve just done could have been avoided by simply loading a map of the area on my iPod.
When this happens, I’ll resolve to Get Prepared. “Sort your life out,” I’ll tell myself. “Next time I’m going to load the map, buy food, and look up the bus timetable. No more assuming things will go exactly as I want them to.”
But then, just often enough, the hands of fate swoop in and somehow make the best of things, and sometimes it’s a good story. And the lesson remains unlearned.
One time in Seattle, one of my friends invited me to meet up with her coworkers for a drink. A long taxi ride later, I stood before the leather-clad bouncer at the door of the bar, rummaging through my purse and pockets. He stared me down, arms crossed, as I realized that….my ID wasn’t there. I looked up at the bouncer. “Please let me in. I’m 25. I just forgot my ID in my other purse, that’s all. I swear!”
It was then that I realized the bar in question was a gay bar, and my tactics were not going to work on this particular bouncer. He looked at me skeptically, raised eyebrows suggesting irritation at my attempt.
“I don’t care how old you really are, you’re not getting in here. Not without an ID. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a line behind you.”
I couldn’t decide what to do. Being cheap, I was unwilling to take a taxi home and back to get my ID, but I also didn’t want to give up. My friend and I agreed that she would go meet her coworkers and I would walk around for half an hour, after which we’d all meet up and go somewhere nearer to my house (or someplace where I could try my luck sweet-talking a different bouncer). I wandered aimlessly down the street, watching people getting into bars right and left. So easily. Had I really made it to the age of twenty-five without learning to double-check my purse before going out for the night? Thinking about this, I stood on the corner, taking a picture of some sign I liked on a telephone pole, when a girl and her friends came up to me.
“Oh my god. Baby girl. I love you!”
I was confused. I’d never seen her before in my life. “Excuse me?”
“Do you know where the block party is?”
“Um, no. No idea,” I said.
“Wow, sorry,” she replied. “I didn’t mean to offend you or anything. I was just asking.”
“Haha, no, I’m not offended,” I told her. “I don’t know where I’m going. I’m just waiting for some friends to finish their drinks because I forgot my ID and I’m stuck out here.”
“Oh, you need an ID? I have an extra. You can totally have it. Here you go!” she said, pulling out her wallet and handing me a card. It was expired, and from Arizona. We didn’t look very much alike, and she was a good six inches shorter than me, but still.
I couldn’t believe my luck. “Really?”
“Definitely! Have a good night,” she said as she turned and walked the other way with her friends.
Back at the bar, my bouncer nemesis glowered at me as I stood in the doorway, but I triumphantly ignored him, gesturing to my friends to go somewhere else with me. The ID miraculously worked at three different places, and at the end of the night, munching on a Seattle dog (it had cream cheese, onions and cilantro, and was served to me by a guy who spun the ketchup and mustard bottles like guns in a Western movie), I felt victorious. Everything had turned out even better than I thought!
I was thinking about this the day I tried to visit the biggest tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands. The plantation is a bus ride and a walk away from Tanah Rata, the town where I was staying. I didn’t know where to get off the bus, or where to walk afterwards, for that matter, but I assumed I’d figure it out when I got there (famous last words). I did see a couple of foreign girls I’d seen in my hostel who I had heard mention going there too. We didn’t have any languages in common, and it had seemed like they wanted to keep to themselves, so I thought I’d follow them just until I knew where I was going.
They got off at a random path that led up a hill, so I got off there too. I followed them for a little while, staying far back enough to not seem like a creeper. Suddenly, then. the road got a little confusing, and I stopped a couple of Malaysian ladies walking past me. “Is this the right way to the tea plantation?” I asked them.
“Oh, yes, yes,” they said, pointing up the big tall hill. “That way.”
I didn’t see the girls anymore but did see a sign with two arrows pointing in opposite directions. One said BRINCHANG. The other said G. BRINCHANG. What was the G? I had no idea, but I’d come from Brinchang, so I decided to go the other way. I followed the trail up a steep jungly path. Sometime around when I was grabbing tree roots to pull myself over the thick mud, I realized that this was probably not the right way to the tea plantation. But I’d come that far already, so I decided to just go for it. It was beautiful, and took about 2 hours to hike. And finally, I came to the end of the path!
And there was…a power station. And that was it. A road began at the edge of it, but I had no idea where it headed. I followed it into the fog, not seeing anyone else. Then I saw a sign saying BRINCHANG, 11 KM. Eleven kilometers to get back to where I needed to go? That would take hours!
I started kicking myself then, going through my series of life-sorting resolutions and swearing that the next time I would read the guidebook, get a map, and bring an extra water bottle. Why had I taken a random 2-hour detour through the jungle? Why had I assumed that was the right place to go? Just as I was sure I’d wasted my only day in the Cameron Highlands, I came around a bend in the road and saw…a couple, a bit younger than my parents, sitting in picnic chairs and drinking wine.
What in the world?
“You’ve been jungle walking, haven’t you!” they called out.
“Accidentally,” I called back. “I sort of had a two-hour detour.”
“Ha! Come have some wine with us,” they said, unfolding another chair and pulling an empty wine glass out of their cooler.
Well, I thought, that’s more like it!
I sat down with them. As we chatted, they mentioned that they were about to drive to the tea plantation for some lunch, and did I want to join?
Absolutely. As I shut the car door, the skies opened up and it started pouring rain.
They bought me a pot of tea and a slice of lemon cake. Sitting on the balcony of the tea plantation’s restaurant and admiring the gorgeous view, I couldn’t believe that just half an hour earlier I’d been lost, sweaty and bracing myself to walk eleven kilometers home.
Afterwards, they dropped me off back at Brinchang, wishing me luck on the rest of my trip.
And that was it. I’ll have to pay this one forward to some other backpacker one day.
Do you consider yourself lucky? Do you plan everything, or take your chances and see where you end up?