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Bad things can happen to us when we travel; that doesn't mean we have to let them ruin our trip. (Photograph by Tim Gainey/Alamy Stock Photo)

When Travel Goes Wrong

I knew something was wrong when my phone buzzed.

My wife, Karen, and I were in Barcelona with Peter and James, two friends from England. We had strolled from the beach to an open-air market on the Moll de la Barceloneta, a popular promenade teeming with pedestrians and bikers. Karen bought local honey; Peter and I picked up a six-pack of craft beer.

Who would be texting me?, I thought. I’m a travel introvert. I’ll post a photo on Facebook to show I’m alive, but I like being inaccessible. Friends and family know this and rarely contact me when I’m abroad.

The message was from my brother-in-law, Bill.

“Call or text me,” he wrote, “or call/text your sister.”

My instant reaction: Something happened to mom.

My mother was 75 and in decent health, especially for a lifelong smoker who often ate popcorn for dinner. But she’d been struggling with falls, which were becoming more frequent.

I texted “What’s up?” and tried not to worry. Karen chatted with Peter and James about dinner plans as we walked the Via Laietana, one of the city’s major thoroughfares.

My phone buzzed again.

Mom was dead, Bill said. An apparent heart attack.

Damn.

Damn, damn, damn.

Even before my mother’s death, before I’d barraged myself with unanswerable questions—Why wasn’t I there?—the trip had been…challenging.

It started with a sore throat in Manchester, England. By Birmingham I had developed a stiff neck, a steady cough, and a raspy voice. Days later, after flying to Barcelona, the neck pain was so severe I could barely raise my head. Soon, explosions of agony were triggered by the simplest of activities: eating, walking, breathing.

For a year, I’d fantasized about this trip. Now I was trading tapas for pain meds and emailing funeral plans to friends.

And yet, today, six months after Mom’s death, and after monthly doctor’s visits for my better-but-still-cranky neck, when I recall our trip to Spain, I think…

It was wonderful.

How can that be?

At an outdoor café, James was cutting my food. I had just swallowed a Voltaren, an anti-inflammatory that would require a prescription back home. (Amazingly, the bottle of pills cost just €2.50. God bless universal health care.)

I did not ask James to do this. I am not a toddler, nor do I reside in a nursing home. But James had been watching me. He’d seen me grimace as I gingerly chewed, wince as I widened my mouth. So he leaned over, and without speaking, sliced my tomato and cheese baguette into manageable bites.

It was a small, spontaneous act of kindness, but it stands out among in my memories of Spain. And that’s one of the reasons we leave home, isn’t it? To see ourselves and others in new ways. Adversity just magnifies the perception.

My sister-in-law Janelle learned this the hard way last summer on a vacation-gone-wrong in Colorado. She and her husband, John, had rented a rancher in Buena Vista, with wide views of the Rocky Mountains. On the evening they arrived, Janelle felt achy and tired. The following morning, after awakening in the night with a screaming headache and sore throat, she attempted a hike—and ended up sobbing on the trail.

“We stopped at a pharmacy to get some pain relievers and I collapsed,” she says. When she arrived at the local emergency room she was delirious, with a fever of almost 105.

“I saw John’s worried face and all I could think was, ‘I ruined his trip. I ruined our trip.’”

Janelle spent the next five days in the hospital. John slept on a couch by her bed. He helped her to the bathroom while she gripped her IV pole. He ate hospital food for every meal.

“He never complained,” she says. “He stayed all day, every day, while I cried, screamed, and tried to sleep.”

After a battery of tests, doctors diagnosed a serious infection in her neck tissue. She was released two days before their flight home. For all they had lost, the trip remains, she says, the most meaningful of her life.

“His vigilance showed me how much he loved me,” she says. “I will never forget that.”

The entire sixth floor of our Barcelona hotel smelled like Bengay. Peter had loaned me a tube of the pungent goo, and each night my wife would slather it on my neck and shoulders. For us, the stench will forever be a Barcelona in-joke, my crooked neck an enduring punch line.

Misfortune sucks, but bad moments make for good tales.

“I’ve had trips where I’ve been ill and one where I was robbed,” says Kayt Sukel, author of the new book The Art of Risk. “Those are the trips I remember. They are my stories.”

Heightened emotions—which, she says, come from taking chances, from leaving the safety of our homes for parts unknown—create stronger memories. Traveling exposes us to risk. That’s why we do it. Our brains crave novelty.

“When you explore, the reward centers of the brain get boosts of pleasurable neurochemicals,” says Sukel. “You’ll get some corresponding stress chemicals, but it’s generally the kind of stress that motivates rather than incapacitates. Taken together, they help facilitate learning, growth, and good feelings.”

In Barcelona, I didn’t just see the sights. I suffered the worst physical pain of my life. I felt grief. Because of that, my emotions—joy, wonder, loss—seemed more profound, and my connections to the city felt deeper.

I have experienced a similar phenomenon on many occasions while volunteering overseas, but a special-needs school in Xi’an, China, comes immediately to mind. Some of the kids there were autistic, others developmentally disabled. Though they would frequently offer tender smiles and hugs, they would also scratch, bite, and pull my hair; shriek, scream, and wail.

At the end of each work day, a fellow volunteer and I would take long, meandering strolls through Xingqing Palace Park as we struggled to cope with the challenges and culture shock. I remember Xi’an more vividly than any place I’ve visited. The smell of spices and bus exhaust. The gritty sycamore-lined streets. The indescribable feel of Xi’an.

In 2001, my friend Meredith and her husband, Mark, traveled to Ireland to see Slieve League, Europe’s highest sea cliffs. Meredith had visited the remote area in County Donegal years before—“No one up there but me and the sheep”—and wanted Mark to experience it. After an hour at the cliffs, they drove to the next hamlet and popped into the local pub.

“It was a crossroads, really,” she recalls. “We went in, and they said, ‘Are you Americans? The World Trade Center towers are under attack.’”

Mark wept. He worked for the U.S. government, writing security briefings for high-level officials. He knew it was bin Laden. On the flight home, he had heart palpitations flying over New York and the still-smoking wreckage, knowing what was to come. But memories of Ireland, and the kindness of strangers, provided an emotional balm.

“So many Irish people approached us and told us how sorry they were,” Meredith says. “I always loved Ireland, but it made me love it even more.”

Unfortunate events won’t ruin your trip—if you refuse to let them. Despite my neck pain in Spain, we walked 25,000 steps a day. Rest would have been a smarter choice, but I refused to stagnate in a hotel. So I pressed on and made jokes.

“I may be missing the architecture,” I told Karen, “but I’m becoming an expert on Spanish sewer tops and feet.”

That’s what resilience is all about. Finding the upside. In a study conducted by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, researchers studied 750 Vietnam veterans who had been held as prisoners of war for six to eight years. They were the subject of the study because, unlike so many POWs like them, they exhibited remarkable resilience in the aftermath of extreme trauma. Why? The No. 1 reason, researchers concluded, was that they had remained optimistic throughout their ordeal.

The POWs faced more dire circumstances, but I could adopt a similar outlook. Whatever I was suffering, I was lucky to be in Spain, with people I love, enjoying Catalonia‘s exceptional cuisine—even if it was hard to chew.

And that’s why it was a wonderful trip. Because I chose to view it as a wonderful trip.

I learned about Mom’s death on our last evening in Barcelona. My wife and I would return to Peter and James’s house in Birmingham the next day, and then head home to face funeral plans, estate questions, and the inevitable disassembling of my mother’s life.

I told Peter and James about my mom at Flax & Kale, a vegetarian restaurant on a narrow street near Plaça de la Universitat. They were shocked, of course. And sympathetic. I’m not one for speeches, but I told them I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. And so we drank wine, and ate, and told stories, and did the most sensible thing that humans in those circumstances can do. We celebrated life.