On Christmas Eve, in 2008, I woke up on a sailboat anchored in the Panama Canal. Howler monkeys were making a wonderful ruckus in the trees on shore. The waters of Gatun Lake lapped softly against our vessel. Humidity gave weight to the air. And our mooring buoy reeked of bird guano. It was, in short, a 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 receptionist 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, and a boat. You see, to transit the Panama Canal a sailboat is required to have at least four line-handlers on deck as the boat goes through the locks. Since many sailboats are manned by just two people, often a retired couple sailing around the world, they need to find extra bodies to meet the requirements of the two-day canal transit. The Hungarian and I would volunteer our time as line-handlers in exchange for free passage, and a chance to experience the Panama Canal.
In traveling to a new place, nobody ever masters everything about the place he or she is going to before they arrive — 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 some minutes later they also invited me to see how India’s young professionals unwind at the end of a long day in Delhi. Their names were Sanjeev and Abhay, and off we went to a club miles from the backpacker district. We agreed to meet again later in the week 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?’”
But back to Christmas Eve 2008. When the sailboat completed its 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 located the place, even walking me there. But in the process she and her family also invited me to spend Christmas in their home. It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse, and I canceled my reservation at the hostel.
As I went to bed late 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 had led to surprise and relationship. That is, I considered the times ignorance had been a gift.