The gift of ignorance

Sunrise on Gatun Lake

Gatun Lake, Panama Canal

A year ago this morning, Christmas Eve, I woke up on a sailboat anchored in the Panama Canal. Howler monkeys were making a wonderful ruckus in the trees on shore. The air was weighted with humidity. Our mooring buoy reeked of bird guano. The waters of Gatun Lake lapped softly against our vessel. It was, in short, a rather fabulous way to wake up.

Three days earlier, had you asked me how one gets on a sailboat transiting the Panama Canal, I’d have answered, “I have no idea.” But at the hostel in Panama City I had asked the receptionists if such a thing were possible, and she directed me to a Hungarian fellow in the dorm who had been asking the same question and seemed to have found the answer. A bus ride to Colon and several hours later, I was on a boat preparing to make the two-day transit.

Pre-trip research is vital, but nobody ever masters everything about the place he or she is going to visit before arrival (or after, for that matter).  So when you arrive still ignorant about some things, embrace your cluelessness and ask others to teach you.

I remember how, years earlier in India, one of my best experiences stemmed from my ignorance about tipping practices at Pizza Hut. I leaned over to a neighboring table and asked two young professionals if it was appropriate to tip. They answered, and then some minutes later—their names were Sanjeev and Abhay—they invited me to see how India’s young professionals unwind at the end of a long day.  Off we went to a club miles from the backpacker district. We got together on more than one occasion, and I relished our continuing conversations about life, history, and culture. “I trust Time magazine more than the New York Times’ investigative reporting,” one of them would say. Or, “Did you know navigation comes from our word navgat—‘to be able to chart your way?’”

Last Christmas Eve, when the sailboat completed it’s transit late in the afternoon, I took a taxi across Panama City to a hostel. I had the address, but since neither the driver nor I could find it I was soon standing alone on an empty street. When a car pulled up in front of an apartment building, I approached the woman getting out to ask for help. She quickly helped me find its location, even walking me there. In the process, however, she and her family also invited me to spend Christmas in their home—an invitation I couldn’t refuse.

As I went to bed that night on a cot in their laundry room, the lights of a Christmas tree shining down the hallway, I considered the times that my ignorance about something led to surprise and relationship. That is, I considered the times ignorance had been a gift.

How about you?  Stories welcome!

Posted by | Comments (4)  | December 24, 2009
Category: Images from the road

4 Responses to “The gift of ignorance”

  1. brian | No Debt World Travel Says:

    Ignorance is indeed bliss sometimes, isn’t it?

    I got out the habit of reading guide books except for the very basic information before I get to new locations. Let me get the hostel/hotel, get settled and then venture out. I may miss things, but I experience other things I would not have, so it all evens out.

  2. Deanna Says:

    wonderful story! i love hearing of open arms hospitality around the world!

  3. Ted Beatie Says:

    Awesome story, Joel. When my wife and I were in Morocco, we went to the bus station in Marrakech without any idea how to get to the desert besides getting on the bus to M’Hamid. While we waited in the station, we were approached by a haggard young fellow in a white robe and dreadlocks. Turned out that he worked for a camel trekking outfit in that city, and not only arranged our excursion, but invited us to dinner with his family. It was one of the best and most unexpected parts of the trip.