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Soliciting Serendipity - Travelers Who Play It Safe Will Be Missing the Special Joy of the Chance Happening

JACK SMITH,

BARRING SOME fatal misadventure, my wife and I should be returning this weekend from an 18-day tour of Egypt and Israel. I say “barring some fatal misadventure” because travel is always chancy, and I would think more so these days in the Middle East.

However, one must not travel scared. The moment we step on an airplane we are abandoning all the safety that terra firma supposedly provides. We ride with the specter of engine failure, terrorists, a madman among the passengers or simply a bolt of lightning.

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I don’t know what the chances are of any of those perils occurring, but I have been told that the chance of any one person being hit by lightning is one in a million. I imagine that the chances of any one airplane being hit would be a little better than that.

What causes me to reflect on the dangers of travel is a letter I received from Beverly Douglas after I wrote about a recent weekend my wife and I spent in San Diego. I said that we got lost in Balboa Park trying to find the Old Globe Theater, that we left our hotel the next morning to find some breakfast (the hotel grill was closed), walked down a street past dozens of unsavory-looking mendicants and had an unpalatable breakfast in a restaurant that evidently served as a gathering place for the homeless.

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“Did you think about a map?” she asked. “And even without a map, your hotel or your restaurant would have been happy to give you directions to the Old Globe (it’s extremely simple). Your hotel could have suggested a restaurant for breakfast--for example the ‘beautifully restored U. S. Grant’ ” (which I had thus described).

Well, yes, one can always ask the concierge where to eat in the neighborhood, but that’s no fun. I’m sure the restaurants recommended by hotels are safe, but we like to strike out on our own--take chances. A strange city is an unending enticement. Adventure lies in the unknown.

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Imagine going to Paris, Rome or London and eating only in recommended restaurants, walking only down streets approved of in some guidebook. The holes-in-the-wall are what’s exciting.

The most hoped-for element in travel is serendipity--the discovery of unexpected pleasures when one is pursuing something else. If one’s course is mapped out in advance, what surprises can it hold?

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Of course, there are disadvantages in free-wheeling it. One might be cheated, mugged, murdered or, at the least, become lost. When we toured Spain and Portugal by rented car a couple of years ago, we got lost in every city we visited until I hit upon the idea of paying a taxi driver to lead us to our hotel. The seasoned traveler learns to cope.

It’s more fun, anyway, to take one’s chances of finding a hotel for the night than to enjoy the security of reservations. For one thing, if you have reservations, you have to find that hotel. That’s why we got lost in Spain.

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A couple of years earlier we had toured France and Italy by car without a single reservation. The only problem we had was in Geneva. We couldn’t find a vacant hotel room and had to take a suite in the Intercontinental. It was $465 (and that was several years ago). We have never regretted it. We had a living room, dining room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms. When we finished showering, a bottle of Champagne was waiting in an ice bucket on the table. That’s serendipity. We immediately drank the whole bottle and went out to dinner--without advice.

In London, one needs no map to find history in every block. We took a walk after breakfast on our first morning and ended up on the corner across from Big Ben only minutes before the queen, Prince Phillip and Prince Charles rode by in a Rolls-Royce. It was Lord Mountbatten’s funeral.

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My wife was helplessly blocking the view of a little Londoner who stood just behind her on the crowded corner. After the royal party had passed, she turned to the woman and said, “Did you see her?”

“No, luv,” the woman answered sadly, “I’ve never seen any of them.”

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That poor woman had probably lived in London all her life and never seen the queen. By chance, we did so on our first morning there. If we’d followed a guide book, we might very well have spent that morning in the British Museum, looking at hieroglyphics.

The reason that I’m writing this for a magazine whose publication will coincide with our return is that, being the risk-taker I am, there is a chance that I will be murdered in a Cairo alley, that our plane to Israel will be hijacked or that I will die of claustrophobia in a pyramid.

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In that case, this is goodby.


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