Every so often, a video circulates on Facebook or Twitter that captures the unbridled joy of adorable children who just found out they are going to Disney World. If you haven’t seen them, take a quick Google search and you’ll surely find a plethora of these cheery clips. Now, I’m sure the parents of these cherub children believe they are astonishingly original, and that they have undoubtedly secured their titles as the “cool” parents. But when these videos pop up on my feed, I simply brush them aside and mumble under my breath, “Psh, amateurs.” If they really want to be the spontaneous and fun-loving parents they claim to be, they should try to keep that stint up for 18 years – just like my parents.
Yes, you read correctly. From the time I was born to now, as a freshman in college, every vacation my parents have ever taken me on has been a surprise. Their reasoning when my sister and I were little was that they never wanted to promise to take us on vacation and disappoint us with a last minute cancellation if someone got sick – in typical baby fashion, we were often sick. As the years progressed, what started as a logical precaution developed into an elaborate scheme that, apparently, brings my mother and father some sort of diabolical amusement. But looking back on my 18 years of traveling, I can clearly see how through their infuriating clandestinity I inadvertently received one of the greatest gifts they’ve ever given me (besides, you know, life itself): a deep and ardent love for adventure.
I should stop here for a moment and explain something crucial about myself: I am an obsessive planner by nature. My Google calendar is chock-full of the day’s schedule, mapped out from the moment I get up to when I retire to bed in the evening. In terms of school and work, I am utterly averse to the idea of “winging it,” and appreciate careful preparation. While this is my preferred MO, I am fully cognizant that life is unpredictable and requires frequent improvisation.
Typically, our surprise vacations start with my dad waking my sister and me up, and in a groggy fog we haphazardly complete our morning routine. Our suitcases are packed based on whatever vague summation my mother supplied about the weather we are headed for, and we leave our house without the faintest idea of where we are going. Usually, it’s the airport (but not always), and when we arrive we become giddy with the excitement of finally determining our destination.
But, as with life, everything is not always what it seems. It has happened in the past that our “destination” is actually just a layover and not the final stop – in 2011, we spent only 6 hours in London until being swept away on another flight to Barcelona. There is no point in trying to plot the course. Instead, I’ve learned to let loose and enjoy the time I have in a place, because who knows how long we’ll be there or where we are going next. Especially in college, so much of our future is unknown. I cannot guess where I’ll be in next year, let alone in five years or ten years. Life is its own journey that needs to be taken one step at a time.
Another helpful quality I’ve gained from my ventures is an open mind. Having done no prior research myself, I arrive in a new state or country eager to learn and expand my horizons. My family and I make a conscious effort to try new food, take long walks instead of taxi cabs and strike up conversations with locals. When you come with no lofty expectations, you have ample room to be amazed at what you find. From Notre Dame in Paris to the glaciers of Alaska, my jaw has dropped more times than I could count. I’ve certainly encountered foods and places that have left more to be desired, but it is the moments in travel that take your breath away that make an open mind such a valuable asset.
People often ask me if I would ever consider continuing the same surprise vacations with kids of my own. My answer is a definite yes. While technology makes keeping secrets so much harder, as my parents are finding out, and people can easily let information slip (Grandpa has been a culprit on more than one occasion), the benefits my children would reap make the arduous process of secret-keeping worthwhile. The days of surprise vacations will soon be behind me, as I’ll likely start orchestrating my own vacations in the not-so-distant future. But I will be endlessly grateful for the adventurous spirit, indescribable excitement and indelible memories that my surprise vacations have inspired in me.