Failed trips or the art of flexibility

Failure can be a strong word.

It’s no big deal, and not something I am particularly hung up about as sometimes some plans are just not meant to be (and of course there are all those valuable lessons that can be learnt). But occasionally there is the need to take a deep breath and calm yourself before you recall certain missed opportunities.

Sometime back in 1993 (I think) Kate and I were visiting my parents in Piemonte. I had decided to catch a train to Romania to add to my collection of photographs taken there. I already had many images I was proud of, but there weren’t enough of them for me to consider it a finished project. There was no overall theme or story behind them. So I thought I’d catch a train, get off somewhere completely random (I’d follow my nose, use my intuition) and walk from the station, sleeping in the fields and under trees. I hadn’t even bought a rucksack but was using a kit bag I had bought at the army surplus store. The fact that it hurt like hell over my shoulder while I carried it did little to dent my pig headed determination and apparent enthusiasm. I don’t think I even intended to take a sleeping bag.

The romance of it all though was soon overtaken by the reality.

The train journey was one I was all too familiar with, but was perhaps a sign of things to come. It was crowded, delayed and slow and I was sat trying (and failing) to sleep in the corridors outside the toilets. But I was still within my comfort zone and was coping fine. So far, so good.

As all travellers know though, there are often more moments of sheer desperation, dejection and depression during a journey than there are of exhilaration and happiness. These usually involve the rain, cold, snow or even boredom, but they also coincide with those moments in which you have to dig deep within yourself to find the will power and inner strength needed with which you can continue. It is often these memories that offer more joy and satisfaction than those which involve less pain and hard work.

But in this particular case I failed to find the inner strength and determination required and my memories of this time are more of embarrassment and shame. My mind was not in the right place to be on a trip so vague, unprepared and forcibly happy-go-lucky.

I got off the train somewhere in Transylvania and walked for a couple of hours before I realised I was never going to reach a place deserted and safe enough for me to sleep. On top of this my shoulder hurt from carrying the (much) too heavy and uncomfortable kit bag and I could not for the life of me find the desire, will power or courage to even take my camera out of the bag.

I turned round, found a cheap hotel by the station and hid for a couple of days. My mind spiralled into a state of fear and my body was unable to venture more than fifty metres from the hotel. I have no idea why this happened, but I do know that my nose and instincts have always been reliable when it comes to travelling and taking photographs. With (plenty of) hindsight I have come to realise that if my nose led me so vociferously and violently to a small, dark hotel room and then finally back onto the train out of Romania, then I am extremely glad I followed it. Despite the embarrassment and shame I still feel when I think of those few days.

Cycling with Jim through France during March 1992There have been other occasions when planned trips have failed or performed u-turns on me midway through but they have been far, far less painful and embarrassing. During the Easter break at college in 1992 Jim and I decided to cycle from Italy back to the UK.

This involved crossing the Alps. In March.

We were not far into the foothills when the bitterly cold headwind – and the blizzard it was carrying – hit us hard, forcing us to turn around back to Chivasso to catch the train to the other side of the Alps. We managed to last a couple of days in the French snow – which we discovered was just as cold and wet as the Italian snow – but the plastic bags on out feet were as useless as the sodden gloves on our hands. So we caught the train into Paris, slept in the station, got woken up by police dogs patrolling the station, got moved on, and eventually made our way back to college in Brighton. This time though there was no embarrassment or shame, but laughter and joy from a fun albeit slightly foolhardy mini adventure.

More recently (July 2009 to be precise) I was in Italy for Val and Paolo’s wedding. I flew into Trieste and was planning on driving from there into Slovenia and Croatia to take photographs for my book before heading back into Italy for the wedding in Fano, near Rimini. My father is also based in Umbria now so I wanted to see him too.

After spending the night in the Slovenian hills in the rented car, sheltering from a huge thunder storm I dropped into Croatia and got completely lost. I was having a great time. I found my way into a village and pulled over outside a shop to stock up on food. There was a huge hiss and small pop as the front right tyre clipped the curb and I spent the next fifteen minutes changing it in the rain. This in itself was not a problem and perhaps I should have continued into Croatia, but it felt wrong. The spare tyre was a tiny, skinny temporary one and it was Sunday and, according to Avis, there was nowhere open that would change it within a couple of hundred kilometres. Trieste, my starting point in Italy was closer. Cue a sudden and comfortable change in plan. Something told me I shouldn’t be driving on the dirt tracks in the Croatian mountains with no spare. I turned round, abandoning my original plans, and went to visit Val and my father and spent time taking photographs in Umbria, the Apennines and the Dolomites. I don’t know if this was the right decision and while I came away with plenty of good photographs, I have not found any stunning ones yet (though I am still scouring the negatives). I will never know, but it does not really matter. I am comfortable with my decision and on top of this I managed to spend extra time with friends and family I had not seen for ages and meet some wonderful people I had not met before.

I suppose the moral of these stories (for me) is that you will only feel a failure if you are so rigid in your plans that you cannot accept any changes that circumstance may thrust upon you. And, quite frankly, such rigidity does not usually lead to enjoyment anyway. Travelling and taking photographs rarely goes to plan so you should always be prepared to improvise with what is in front of you. Live on your toes, follow your nose, and react quickly, decisively and instinctively to whatever happens, be it within your view finder or on the path before you.

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