I exhaled deeply as I sat in the hotel lobby at 5 am in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Just twelve hours previously life was grand; Emily, an American friend who had come to visit, and I were in Singapore eating crabs and doing a rain forest walk above tree canopies. Then I messed up bus stations. By "stations" I mean countries. By "messed up" I mean I thought we were leaving out of Malaysia, but we were actually leaving out of Singapore, and I didn't realize the mistake until we had already left Singapore, at which point we were re-directed through customs backward and briskly cabbed back to the city-center for a fat fee.
The whole hassle could have been avoided entirely if I had just glanced at our tickets a few hours earlier. But I hadn't. The result was an illumination of why we travel and how we react to travel on the whole: although profusely apologetic, I was pretty much not fazed about being, literally, in between two countries and having a bus to catch in the nation directly behind me.
You see, travel for me is never a vacation. It's too active and too stressful--too concerned with dates and times and places to be relaxing. It isn't about seeing big buildings or eating food or doing anything just to say 'I've done it.' At some point, statues, skyscrapers, rice pools, waterfalls, bridges, beaches all look the same. It's not about what I see but what I do, and how meaningful it is to me in that moment, and how much it makes me feel connected to the burning fireball in the center of the earth. When the trip doesn't go according to plan (or, rather, it does, but I don't know the plan so the consistency is lost on me) there is room for unexpected human connection.
The stories are in between countries. That is where we realize our own strength. That is where we are travelers in the true sense, in the sense that anything can happen, in the sense that we know we might be more challenged, or at least slightly more entertained, if anything does.
Safe in the well-lit hotel lobby, with Emily sleeping soundly in an armchair across from me, we were far from in between countries. We made it back to Malaysia with less cash and less stock in my travel credibility than either of us would have liked, but we were unharmed nonetheless. And we realized together that, though it would be a lot less stressful, travel without any glitches would also be a lot less fun.
This article originally appeared on Letstravelradio.com.