Travel Decisions And The Freedom Of Not Knowing

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Saturday 9 March 2019

Travel Decisions And The Freedom Of Not Knowing

A few days ago Esther and I cycled up a steep hill, which sounds like nothing new in itself since we’ve cycled up a lot of hills over the years. However, unlike most of those other hills, this time around we had no facts and figures whatsoever about the road ahead of us. We didn’t know how long the hill was, or how steep. In fact, until the road abruptly reached the bottom of a mountain and started going uphill at an alarming rate, we didn’t even know there was going to be a hill at all. Our ride planning had involved looking at a jumble of small white lines on GoogleMaps and choosing one of them to follow. It was only the next day that I got the urge to look up where we’d cycled to and discovered we’d inadvertently included a 5km, almost 10% average gradient climb in our route (the Puerto de la Safor if you want to look it up), which is a steeper average than most of the big Alpine and Pyrenean ones we’ve tackled over the years, albeit a little shorter.

Why am I telling you this? Well, Esther and I were wandering along the beach this morning and got to chatting about some of the pros and cons of using our smartphone and mobile data to look things up in advance, and realised that if we had known about those climb statistics beforehand there’s a sizable chance we wouldn’t have gone that way at all. We would have thought “gosh that’s hard. We haven’t done anything that steep for a while and it’s only spring, perhaps we should go another way” or some self-doubt would have risen up such as “we’re not feeling our best today it’s too difficult for us”, or “the weather isn’t great today let’s stay by the coast”, or something else like that. And that would have been a massive shame because we had a fantastic time cycling up that particular climb, negotiating the narrow roads and peering into the mist-shrouded valley beneath us. It was brilliant. Wonderful in fact and possibly even more so because we didn’t know what lay ahead. There were no expectations, no mental chatter saying “this will be hard”, “take it easy” or even “2-km to go”. We could simply feel it was steep so tuned into what our bodies were telling us and they were saying “I’m okay”. So we just kept going until we ran out of uphill.

In many ways that climb reminded us of our first couple of years on the road, long before we had any means of accessing the internet (except at tourist offices). Back then any ride information we might have picked up either came from a tourist office brochure or, more usually, from a sign by the side of the road as we cycled past it.

By contrast, in the past couple of years we’ve found ourselves increasingly drifting into the habit of looking up facts and figures on our first ever smartphone using local sim cards and data bundles. For much of last summer, for example, every time we got on our bikes we knew pretty much exactly how far and how steep the route ahead of us was, often kilometre-by-kilometre. We’d know if there would be a “steep bit, a flat bit and then steep again” for instance. Also, if we looked at a route and we judged it too long and steep, or even short and easy, we’d pass it by. And it isn’t just cycling where we’ve gotten into the habit of looking ahead.

When we first set out we tended to pick our destinations based on where the red dots were in our motorhome aires guidebook. If we were lucky, other travellers might have told us about a place or we might have picked up a leaflet somewhere, but 9 times out of 10 until we rocked up at the coordinates in the book, we had no idea what we would find. There was a certain excitement in that, and again, no expectations. There was no point spending time wondering if a location had things we wanted to do, organic grocery stores or whatever, all we knew was that we could park there. Anything else was a bonus. Nowadays most of the places we stay overnight at we find online, checking user reviews and Google searching the area, looking at possible ride routes in advance and locating the supermarkets etc.

Then there is weather planning. In our first few years on the road, apart from 2-day forecasts pinned on tourist office doorways, our weather forecast involved opening the blinds (unless it was raining, in which case we’d already heard it). Then we’d usually just do whatever it was we had planned anyway, unless the weather was dangerously bad. Now we look at short- and long-term forecasts for places we might visit most days. We then try and juggle our plans around the weather. “Well, it’s warm here for three more days, then it gets chilly for two, but then it picks up again, so let’s ride for 3 days then do laundry….”

All of which might sound very sensible compared to our haphazard, suck-it-and-see approach prior to having a smartphone, but after our ride the other day I’m not entirely sure it always is. Having the capability to look things up on the fly is wonderful, and often saves us a lot of time. When we genuinely need some information asap having mobile data has been incredibly useful. We do have a busier life now balancing not only our own self-care needs but also the responsibility of the dogs needs and also some projects which are very dear to us, so we have less time than in those first couple of years to find tourist offices to look things up. So, when it’s really needed, such as when our gas runs out and LPG filling stations are few and far between. Once, we didn’t have the internet and only found out later on we’d driven past the only LPG pump in the region and had to double back 100-km! Or if something important breaks and we need a garage asap. Or we need to book a last minute flight because of a family emergency. Mobile data is great to have.

However, in hindsight, for general planning and pondering what we might do it can also be very time-consuming and stressful as we try and make sure we make the ‘best choice’ from the near infinite options we can explore online. Then, if things don’t work out it can feel frustrating as part of your brain starts to wonder if we could have gathered more information and so planned better somehow.

Last summer, for example, I lost count of the number of times we made our plans based on a weather forecast only for it to be completely different on the day. We’d plan a ride because it was supposed to be warm, and it would rain. Or plan to do laundry and wake up to the best weather in weeks. Which isn’t a catastrophe, plans can change, but so much time gets taken up making the plan in the first place, gathering all the possibly pertinent information and then rejigging things when it doesn’t work out.

Likewise, with places to stay. There was a wonderful simplicity in having a single book with a limited number of red dots on the map. Now we can load up CamperContact or Park4night and often see dozens (or more) possibilities all within driving distance. There then follows a “we could go here” or “we could go there” planning session. Then if we do get somewhere and find it doesn’t feel so good, it feels like we could have known better in advance somehow.

Of course, user reviews narrow some of the uncertainty but it can’t be overlooked that everyone has different preferences. Take movie reviews. We tried to watch a movie the other day because it had over 500 ratings and an average of 4.5/5, but we didn’t make it more than ten minutes before looked at each other and said “I’m just not enjoying this.” So it is with overnight stops. What might be a 1-star, dirty and un-serviced parking to one person is a peaceful, rural idyll to another.

Where am I going with this? Firstly, and possibly most importantly, when it comes to planning there isn’t a right and wrong amount to do. Take that bike ride/steep hill I started this post with. It worked out that time but it could equally have been a 20% average gradient and left us knackered for days because we get fixated on reaching the top so easily. Planning keeps us safe, most of the time. That said, now that we do have the internet 95% of the time, for us we’re increasingly realising that when it comes to planning we have to find a balance in how far we take things. Plans are very important to us and we’ll probably talk more about our planning processes and what works for us in another post. We couldn’t get anything like as many things done as we do without a plan of some kind. With so few formal constraints on our time we can, and sometimes have, wasted hours (days) pondering even the simplest decisions.

However, what that ride and our chat on the beach reminded us is that the internet is a tool to help us, not something to then enhance the indecision we already have by adding even more options to the table. We need to set limits on ourselves and not get fixated on believing there is a ‘best’ or ‘perfect’ plan that we can find if we have enough information.

Also, when we do make plans we still need to then release any expectations. Like when we expect good weather and get bad. Or expect a nice parking and find one that feels unsafe. There’s no point then wasting energy wishing it was different, being angry at the people who said it was nice or at ourselves for not making another choice. That resistance just wastes more energy which at the same time could be used creatively to get ourselves out of the situation by making a new plan quickly.

Finally, sometimes there is a real value in just not knowing and allowing ourselves to be surprised. To be able to set out and say “I’ve got no idea what this is going to be like and that’s okay with me today” and then see what arises. It can be frightening but it can also be exciting. And what we’ve experienced and learnt over our years of travel, and even before that, is that life has an incredible way of working out well, and sometimes even better than we could have ever imagined or planned for. And on the off chance something does go wrong, well that’s when mobile internet is a truly useful tool.

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