Travel Principle #4: Don’t Panic

Don’t panic. Bad things happen to travelers. Chances are it won’t be you. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong when you’re traveling. This is especially true the further you go from familiarity. The more immersed you are in places and cultures that speak different languages, practice different religions and eat different foods than you the more you might find yourself in situations where you might want to panic.

Remember, don’t panic. Not only does it prevent you from making other accidents or miscalculations in the moment of panic. It also puts you in the best place to experience a unique travel story.

Once you realize you can’t control everything in a situation except for the way you look at it and how you react you can begin to see the uniqueness of this moment of your journey.

Don’t Panic. No, really, don’t panic.

Yes, it’s the start to one of my favorite books (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). But it is so simple a principle that it cannot be consider plagiarism. However, to appease any legalistic readers out there, the book (or movie) act as supporting evidence for Travel Principle #2.

Don’t panic. Ever. Unless you’re dead. Then you can’t panic because you’re dead.

It may sound like I’m making light of life and death. I’m not. Ok, maybe I am just a little.

But you have to look at life in travel as such: Until you’re dead, you’re not.

Or, another way: Until it’s game over, you’ve got a chance to make the next level.

Putting Yourself In Harm’s Way

There have been numerous times I have found (or put) myself into situations where the outcome was far less than desirable.

For instance, I once tried to surf twenty to thirty foot waves on East Java. I had gone to Bali on an amateur surf trip and somehow talked myself into going to a surf camp on the adjacent island. A huge swell was headed to the island and nobody with my skills should have considered going on the trip, let alone paddling out.

But everyone assumed that I was as skilled as the others on the trip. Why else would I have chosen to go to the surf camp if I were not a skilled surfer (refer to Travel Principle #1)? So when it came time to suit up and paddle out, surely I was as capable as the next guy?

I remember what it looked like to be on the crest of the wave looking down. At first you think you will drop into the wave with no problem. Then it sucks back from beneath and you rise up even higher. As it reaches the shallows, in this case a nasty reef, the water sucks up even more and the wave really takes form.

The Moment Panic Sets In

I was on top of that wave looking down into a beautiful barrel and picturing myself on the cover of any surf magazine that has ever been published. It looks so easy and carefree. But as I saw the reef hollowing out below I changed my mind and pulled back. I remember the guy next to me gave me a look of disgust. He could have taken the wave. Instead nobody rode the wave since I had the best position and couldn’t pull the trigger.

It crashed down in front of me and for a moment I was relieved I had not taken that extra stroke. Then as I turned toward the open sea to paddle back to safety I felt my heart wrench to see an even larger wave approaching. Other surfers looked like agile penguins in the water as they ducked the wave and popped out on the other end. I scrambled and dug into the water with both hands as though it was all I had. In reality, it was all I had. I was in some serious mess.

The Nightmare Begins

And I would be for the next ten minutes or so.

While the last surfer in front of me ducked through the backside of the wave I got carried upward to the top and couldn’t manage to push through. The next thing I remember was telling myself this was a nightmare, but remember to take a breath.

I don’t think I actually voluntarily took a breath. I think my body kind of knew what was happening while my brain was still processing the activity. But what matters is that even in such a desperate situation I did not panic.

I read an article where Kelly Slater described a similar moment. You can’t control the wave. You lose control to the wave and you just have to let go.

In other words: Don’t panic.

Finding Peace in the Midst of Chaos

I did my best to count the number of seconds I was submerged. It was more or less 97% of my breath, however long that was. I surfaced just long enough to take another short breath before the next wave pushed me back down. I remember thinking it would be nice to reach the reef, as sharp and dangerous as it was, just to know which way was bottom.

The wave rolled me over and over again and eventually I surfaced again. I took another breath and pressed repeat. Although I was not as experienced of a surfer as I should have been, I did know the fundamentals. Waves run out of energy as they move toward the shore. So as long as I was moving forward, all things being equal, eventually I would be out of harms way.

Calm in the Waiting

I did finally make it to shore. But it didn’t help to watch how effortlessly everyone else seemed to surf these beautiful waves. It also didn’t ease my mind to see that you could stack three, four or sometimes even five or six of these surfers on top of themselves and not cover the height of the wave.

Yet in the end I was alive. I had not panicked, though everything in me told me it would have been appropriate. When things don’t go the way you think they should (refer to Travel Principle #2), and they start to go sideways on you, fight the urge to let go of the control you do have over the situation. Until it is “game over” you will always have a move to make that can get you to the next level. Stay focused on what you can control and make the best decision possible. If (when!) you survive you will have an incredible story to tell!


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