In the summer of 2003, I was staying on the island of Capri with a group of students from the United States. Capri was an island every bit as gorgeous as I had been told, but my fellow students preferred to lounge around the pool at our villa drinking overpriced beer, which honestly you can do anywhere.

What I really wanted to do was to visit the Villa Tiberio, the hilltop home of the second Roman emperor, Tiberius, to which he had largely withdrawn for the last years of his rule. It had been, for all intents and purposes, the capital of the Empire, and it was there that Tiberius—Caesar during the Crucifixion—had died and his insane successor Caligula had seized his signet.

I wasn’t able to convince anyone to go with me to the Villa. The misty rain and my vague directions didn’t help, but the previous day had been sunny and everyone had opted for more lounging around the pool, more sipping beer, rather than what might have been their only chance to see some of the most important ruins in the world.

So I set off by myself, in the rain, with only a guidebook, my camera, and a rain poncho. The bus ride from our villa in Anacapri to the main settlement wasn’t for the faint of heart in the best weather, verging as it did on sheer seaside cliff above azure waters, and the slick roads made me edge toward the inner side of the tiny Italian bus ever more sharply. Deposited quayside in the village of Capri, I hiked the remainder of the way—perhaps a mile—in the rain.

In time, despite my efforts to get lost, the ruins emerged from the mist. They were red brick, capped with mortar of much later manufacture to keep their decay at a minimum, almost disappointing in how much the buildings of two thousand years ago resembled the buildings of today. Some archways still stood, and I sheltered in them from the rain with a slight tingle on my spine. Those same archways had been trod by Tiberius and Caligula, the former a tortured man who had nevertheless ensured his empire would last for 1500 years, the latter the sort of insane despot who would ensure it lasted no longer.

As I climbed the hill on which the villa was situated, I eventually made it above the rain clouds that had concentrated in the lowlands. Capri is vaguely saddle-shaped, and I emerged at the peak opposite the one where my group was staying, on a small hill. Like most small hills in Italy, and most Roman sites, it was topped by a small church, locked tight.

At that church, I met a fellow hiker—the only living human I saw all afternoon. I never did get his name, but he was an American, like me. He had worked as a software engineer back in the States, only to be let go after the worldwide economic downturn that followed the dot-com bubble burst and 9/11. They’d given him six months’ pay as severance, and he had decided to use it to see the world. he couldn’t be sure what the future would bring, but he wanted to be sure he had the experiences he could in the meantime.

I often think about our chat there, surrounded by two thousand years of history. I’ve had many opportunities to go abroad since, and I have tried to seize upon each of them regardless of the cost in time and treasure. Because as I look at my life as it has been since then—stultifying, sedentary, single—it is always instructive to remember the gentleman who set out in circumstances so unsettled I could barely conceive of them to experience what he could.

I’m not so foolish that I can claim that the encounter changed my life. I’m still cautious, conservative, a creature of habit, a confirmed homebody, single as Lonesome George. But there’s lesson and metaphor in the encounter nonetheless, I think. I disdained my fellow travelers for remaining poolside with their beers when there was a world to explore, yet the traveler I met showed me that more often than not I am seated by my own pool with my own beer, rejecting the fantastic in favor of the familiar.

And so the assorted travels since then—Vietnam, France, Qatar, and (if all goes well) Russia—have been my weak and sporadic attempts at going against my nature and living like the gentleman I met: like I had six months’ pay in my pocket and nothing to lose. If I leave this world unexpectedly, with my goals unmet, I will at least have had those few and paltry experiences, and the few soggy words I have thrown together.

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Maria Ramirez, owner and operator of Journeyman Travel Agency LLC, had helped people move all her professional life. Since she started the business in her garage just out of high school to the present day, she’d booked trips to Acapulco and Antarctica, to Zambia and Zanzibar, and all points in between.

But Maria never traveled herself. In all her years, she had left her state only once, for a wedding, and crossed a border only once, for that selfsame wedding. Most of her clients went further afield in their first trip than she had in her entire life.

Maria had a lot of excuses thought up to laugh the issue up when it was raised. She’d seen how ugly the industry could be, from jacked-up prices to stranded travelers, and that ugliness had turned her off ever leaving LA herself. She was prone to motion sickness and was afraid that any flight might make her violently ill, and the trains just didn’t run as far or as fast as they used to. She was waiting until retirement to unleash all her skills in a paroxysm of travel the likes of which few had ever witnessed.

She never told people about the dream, about the flames, about the cries hanging in the frigid air as bodies in motion tumbled, earthbound, end over end.

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I sat down at his invitation, surprised as I was to find an old white man with a British accent in such a remote ashram.

“I saw you looking at this earlier,” he said. He held out an exquisitely carved lotus flower, its white surface veined with intricate carvings. For a moment I thought it might be made from flakes of marble, but I was startled to realize that the material was actually chicken eggshells interlocked together without joints or glue. The slightest mishap could crush the entire beautiful object in an instant.

“Isn’t it dangerous, carrying around something so fragile?” I said. “Couldn’t you keep it inside?”

“It only took five years to make,” the old man laughed. “Not worth losing any sleep over. I use it for my meditation, to help with balance and coordination. It’s a powerful tool for self-control.”

It seemed like a powerful tool for frustration to me, but I maintained a respectful silence.

“I’ll go ahead and answer the question that you’re too polite to ask,” the man said. “I came here with my wife, a Dravidian who was born and raised in Australia. We met in Switzerland, at an avant-garde drama festival of all places. It was an international festival, and people kept on coming up to me speaking French or German or approaching her speaking Hindi or Bengali. We had never spoken those languages in our life, and gave very little thought to how we presented ourselves; as a result, people made assumptions, cast us in roles just like those wretched plays.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I said.

“That’s all right,” the old man said. “We didn’t understand what we’d learned either, at first. After we married, we decided to try and find a place without assumptions, roles, or masks. We quickly learned that this was impossible. Rather, we sought out a place of peaceful seclusion where we could attempt to divest ourselves of the assumptions, roles, or masks we thrust upon ourselves. It’s been nearly fifty years now, and I think this isolated little ashram is as good a place as any for introspection, don’t you?”

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Airports were such seas of harried and unfriendly faces. Maya was shy at the best of times, but in major airports she tended to look at the floor while hurrying from gate to gate rather than risk getting a nasty look from someone having a bad day. It occasionally disconcerted other people, but on the other hand she tended to find a lot of change on the floor, even if it was often too hazardous to retrieve.

Raleigh-Durham wasn’t the worst offender among the airports she frequented; that was O’Hare, or as she sometimes called it, O’Harried. But with a divorced parent on either coast and a scholarship to Southern Michigan’s pharmacy program, airports were an unfortunate necessity of life, as were the frequent layovers at various hubs.

Near Gate A13, Maya noticed an earring on the floor near one of the peoplemoving sidewalks crowded with those who probably could have used the exercise. It looked like costume jewelry, with three bright crystal beads around a central wire and a bangle of black-veined red at the end. Maya thought of picking it up and turning it in to the docent at the nearby Super Executive Platinum Club, but the swarm of people about it, and the notion–somewhat irrational, in light of that interesting bangle of stone–that it was a cheap fake. She passed, and continued her downlooking way toward distant Gate A113.

After passing about three harried families shouting in foreign tongues, Maya came into an open patch between throngs across from the River Rock Books by Gate A31. She was startled to see, nestled between a discarded ticket stub and a gum-filled wrapper, the earring’s twin. Curled up around itself and dusty, but unmistakable.

“Huh,” Maya said to herself. “If I’d picked up the other one I’d have a set. Oh well; who cares about an earring on the floor anyway?”

Eighteen gates later, she nearly collided with the hurrying form of a man in a kilt. Maya muttered a passive-aggressive threat and continued on her way. Ulberth the Stone-Shaper of Dumfries did the same, frantically searching the ground. How could he have been so careless?

The Chaos Earrings were lost, and the fate of the universal balance hung on their safe recovery from the Raleigh-Durham airport’s cheap tiles.

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This post is part of the February 2012 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “second chances.”

I had prepared very carefully, from packing everything days in advance to dropping the dog off at the kennel early to renting a car to get me to the airport as well as run those last few crucial errands. I even bought an extra waterproof camera the night before I left, remembering that I’d used up all my shots early last year.

Yet as I got up at 4am to be at the airport bright and early for my 7am flight, I had a vague feeling that I was forgetting something. It wasn’t until I was at the airport, staring at the electronic ticket kiosk, that the circuit finally closed.

My passport was sitting in a drawer at home, 90 minutes away.

I was trying to board an international flight.

People who work the ticket counters must get a lot of sob stories (even if most probably come from people trying to avoid paying a $25 baggage charge). I think the fact that I was trembling uncontrollably from sheer overwhelming stress did a lot to lend credence to my tale of woe. As my house was a 120-minute round trip away, and I had an hour until boarding, you can probably see where I was coming from there.

I hoped that the Dominican Republic might be like Mexico at El Paso in 2000, when all I needed was a driver’s license–but no, not in this age of international shoe and underwear bombs. The lady at the counter instead booked me for the second and final flight from the USA to Punta Cana, which left from Philadelphia at 10pm.

“I’m shocked that there’s another flight,” I said, with no small measure of relief.

“I’m as surprised as you are,” she said. “You have three and a half hours to get back here with your passport.”

Lucky for me I’d chosen to rent a car instead of taking a taxi–I really would have been out of luck then. Even if I’d been able to hire another ride, I doubt that any taxi driver would have been willing to violate the speed limit as flagrantly as I did on my way home. The trip usually takes 90 minutes one way; I did a round trip in nearly the same amount of time. I actually only missed my original flight by about a half-hour.

I introduced myself to the baggage handler as “the unfortunate with a tale of woe” as she reflected how quick my passage had been. The gate agent had changed shifts, with the matronly and helpful agent who rebooked my flight replaced with a male agent more or less my own age.

“You’re lucky she did that for you,” he sneered as my itinerary printed. “Normally, ‘I forgot my passport’ isn’t an excuse for waiving a rebooking fee.” I was able to make it to the gate without injuring him, an action which I believe qualifies me for a Nobel.

That aside, I wasn’t out of the woods yet. Bizarrely, my path took me further away from the Dominican Republic–first to Charlotte and then to Philly. Each connection was super-tight, less than 45 minutes from arrival to boarding. A delay of any kind would have stranded me overnight.

Amazingly, both flights were not only on time, they were early. 30 minutes early, both of them, a feat probably never equaled before or since in this age of delays and just-in-time arrivals. I had enough time to buy lunch and dinner and keep my family up to date on my progress via text.

Whoever scheduled the USA-Punta Cana flights clearly did so under the influence of powerful narcotics. There were two a day: one from Charlotte arriving around 5, and one from Philly rolling in around 10pm, long after the airport had basically shut down. When my flight landed (also 30 minutes early!) my tour company had long packed it in. The only fluent English speaker I could find (other than my fellow passengers) was a German expat working for another tour company who confirmed that a $70 taxi ride to my resort was the only option.

I split the ride part of the way with a couple from Connecticut (interestingly both academics, like me) but once they were dropped off at their rented Punta Cana townhouse it was just me and the driver with only my high school Spanish and his handful of phrases between us. I was, understandably, a bit nervous.

It didn’t help that he clearly had no idea where the resort was. We stopped three times for directions–a gas station, the Connecticut townhouse, and a police post–and most of the route looked to be raw, howling wilderness. I felt like I was being driven to the ends of the earth, and it was all I could do to maintain a cheery facade by tapping my bag along with the Caribbean beat in the van’s speakers.

Needless to say, I was so relieved when my resort appeared that I paid the asking fare, $80, without even haggling. The driver attempted to negotiate an airport return in a week, but I left him at the front desk while I went to my room, where my brother was already checked in, and basically collapsed.

But you know what? Aside from my slip, which I attribute to lack of sleep more so than anything, I was extraordinarily lucky. I got a second chance at my long-awaited tropical paradise vacation with my family, and I seized it. The rest of the week seemed like a beautiful waking dream, made all the sweeter by the fact that I almost missed it.

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
Ralph Pines
Diana Rajchel