In the evening, I sat with the satay man on the rocky shore of the Tembeling River in Kuala Tahan as he expertly turned the meat skewers over the coals in his brazier. I had been stranded there by bronchitis while the rest of my companions had gone upriver in longboats into the forests of Malaysia’s Taman Negara National Park.
I had cursed my luck before I met the satay man. We sat by the light of the coals and talked about the rising and falling of the river, tigers in the night, how to spot a pangolin, and how to make perfect satay. It was the best I’ve ever eaten, the conversation was even better, and the world felt magically intimate for this one moment in time.
Before I ever wrote a word about travel, I was a research botanist. I spent several years of my life in pursuit of rare plants, often in obscure parts of the world. I wasn’t looking for adventure; I just wanted to find plants, identify them, collect them, and then grind them up to extract their DNA. As one does. That’s why I was supposed to be on one of those longboats in Taman Negara.
On every trip without fail, unexpected things would happen: accidentally offending locals with my Dr. Strangeloveian inability to stop giving everyone the thumbs-up; being mistaken for a cadaver lying in a field; drinking moonshine made of who-knows-what tropical fruit with total strangers; trying to keep up with a guide who wanted to sprint up a mountain singing Foreigner songs. Forget the plants, I was finding something even rarer: great stories.
I had stumbled on a strange truth about travel: a quest will make any trip more interesting, and it hardly matters what the quest is. Think of your favourite travel stories from books and movies. Nearly all involve a quest: to find something, to lose something, to understand something, to get back to someone just in time, to do something no one has done before. When travel writers come home with exciting tales, it’s not because they’re lucky people: it’s because they went looking for a story and they either found it or found something else along the way. You can do the same.
Not coincidentally, many of the things that make for good stories also make for strong memories: surprise, tension, anticipation, failure – or at least the possibility of failure. You don’t have to base-jump into a fjord in a squirrel suit or otherwise risk life and limb; you just need a part of your trip where the outcome is uncertain.
‘But,’ you might say, ‘what about relaxation? I want to go on holiday and relax. I’ll embrace uncertainty some other time.’ A quest doesn’t have to be big. You can spend 95% of your time in Jamaica lounging on a beach, but if you spend a day tracking down the source of your favourite coffee in the Blue Mountains, you’re guaranteed to come home with some potent memories (and perhaps several pounds of high-quality single-origin coffee beans). It’s a win-win.
It only took one bite of satay for me to learn that even failure can be a win. I had no idea what I would find upriver; in fact, I never even made it that far. That’s the nature of quests: if the outcome is certain from the get-go, it’s not a quest. Failure gives you a chance to display adaptability, something you may not do much at home and certainly won’t get to do whilst sunning yourself poolside. And sometimes, if you’re paying attention, failure takes you right where you need to be, getting closer to the divine via a skewer of perfectly grilled chicken.