x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Practical Traveller: straying off course is an adventure in itself

Chris Guillebeau loses his way while out running in the German city of Mainz.

Last year I went to Frankfurt nearly a dozen times, always in transit. Because of a big influx of Star Alliance miles, I had booked a number of trips on Lufthansa to Africa and Central Asia. Each trip involved at least one overnight stay, so I got to know the city well.

On one visit I needed to catch up on my email, so I booked a room at the Marriott through an online discount site. At first I was excited to get a good hotel at a low rate, but found myself disappointed upon arrival. The room was tiny and didn't even include an electric kettle - apparently there was a charge to make my own tea. It also turned out that the weekend I was hoping to hole up and get my work done was the same weekend they were fixing the internet connection. I had to take the tram to the city centre and pay for a time slot at an internet cafe instead.

I usually liked to try a different hotel each time I stayed in Frankfurt, but I finally settled on a two-star Ibis property along the river for my next few visits. The Ibis had everything I needed, from working internet to a decent breakfast. I fell into a routine: arrive in Frankfurt from somewhere afar, take the train to the city, walk the two kilometres to the hotel and catch up on life the next day.

It was a good routine but on my most recent visit last month I decided to make a change. Instead of heading for Frankfurt, I'd head to Mainz - another city nearby. I neglected to note the exact stop I'd need on the train, but German precision came to my aid when I remembered that the hotel directions informed me of a 22-minute trip. I set the stopwatch on my phone when boarding and, exactly 22 minutes later, we pulled to a stop and I got off the train in the right place.

I settled in that night and worked on my projects the next day, pausing for a walk in the town during a break. As the sun was going down, I changed into running clothes and went back outside. It was cold but not freezing - ideal running weather.

I had good memories of running along the river back in Frankfurt, and now I was doing the same thing from another vantage point. My plan was to run for 20 minutes and then turn around, achieving a total distance of approximately 8km to 10km. I started out feeling good, listening to music as I ran the first couple of kilometres across the bridge to the other side. Once there I kept going, finding a good pace as I reflected on the journey. That day I had flown in from Cairo via London, a series of flights that all went well but had left me tired.

Perhaps inevitably, I took a wrong turn and got lost. By now I was farther away from the river and passing through a forest area. The scenery was beautiful, but it was quickly growing dark and I wasn't sure where I was.

I had seen other runners and cyclists as I set out but, now that I was off the path, no one else was around. I knew I'd almost certainly be OK no matter what happened, but I still felt a rising sense of panic as I grasped the fact that I was no longer sure where I was.

Based on my many past experiences of getting lost while running, I've learnt that one decision is crucial. Once you realise you're no longer certain of your surroundings, you can choose to keep going in the direction you think is right, or you can backtrack and find the last known point of origin. Since what you do at this point will determine the rest of the experience, knowing which option to choose is key to ensuring you make it back to your hotel before the next day. It's always a risk to keep going in an uncertain direction, because you may just end up farther and farther away from your destination. Backtracking isn't always the right answer either, since it will almost certainly take a lot more time and there's no guarantee you'll find where you went off the path.

This time I decided to take the risk of continuing in the direction I thought was correct. I picked up the pace, trying to use the last few minutes of daylight to lead me homeward. Fortunately, I was right. I hadn't gone the wrong way; I had just found myself slightly off track.

The lights appeared from the other side of the riverbank. I made for the long bridge, climbed the steps, and ran back across. My hotel was now in sight and a few minutes later I arrived back at the door feeling like a conquering warrior, having banished the uncertainty of getting lost in the German forest.

The next day I planned to fly to Central Africa via Paris. I knew I'd get lost again somewhere but I hoped I'd always be able to find my way. The adventures would continue, but first it was time for a victory drink.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity, published by Penguin. He is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world, and is currently on number 178.