This summer, I prepared to go on an extended trip through four countries in Africa. I had been anticipating this trip for quite some time--it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My adventures were to include: attending a July 4th celebration with fireworks, an amazing tent safari in a remote area of the Serengeti, seeing Victoria Falls (the largest waterfall in the world) in Zimbabwe, and a mission trip in the mountains of Kenya.

Planning Down to the Last Detail

An extended weeks-long cross continental trip has very different requirements from, say, a week-long vacation at a beach you already know. I had to carefully select every item I packed in my suitcase. It was a meticulous planning process, one in which I felt proud. There were weight and suitcase size restrictions on the safari planes, so unless an item of clothing served a good purpose and was comfortable, it did not make the cut. I researched and found that khaki and olive green are preferred on safari so that you become part of the background for the animals, and black is avoided to keep insects away. Again, I researched, planned and packed until it was perfect.

Everything Seemed Taken Care Of...Until Something Happened.

One delay. That was all it took. Our first flight had mechanical difficulties, which dominoed into missing our next flight.

Suddenly, the whole 32-hour trip to Africa went sideways.

We were re-routed on another airline and arrived at our final destination at three in the morning. When our bags were not on our flight, initially I did not worry. Instead, I took a deep breath. Surely they would be delivered over the next few days.

But our baggage ultimately arrived in Tanzania four days AFTER we left that location (over a week after we left the U.S.)

After all that careful planning and packing, I ending up traveling for 22 days in Africa with only carry-on luggage, (2 outfits and 1 pair of shoes). Different from most parts of the world, there are no shopping centers or stores to buy new items where we traveled, and so I made do with what I had.

"That Won't Possibly Happen to Me."

Writing this now, back home in the U.S., our bags remain in Africa. And we are wrestling with the airlines to get them returned to the States. Before the trip, I would have believed the chances of this happening were slim to none.

As I reflect on this experience, here are some observations:

  • I needed a lot less than I thought I needed when I packed at home. Decisions about what to wear each morning were easy (particularly shoes!)
  • It was delightful to have so few items to keep up with, and only a carry on bag as I traveled around—no worries about weight on the safari plane!
  • It was a great opportunity to joke about my situation, and opened up conversations with fellow travelers; many even offered me their clothing.
  • I made it a game to challenge myself to handle this situation with as much grace as possible. It was truly out of my control, and I wanted to rise to the occasion and be flexible enough to handle it.

Coping and Building Resilience In Our Lives

This experience helped me build resilience, although of course it did not impact me long term. Other life experiences that did impact me long term (including divorce, bi-lateral mastectomy, and raising a special needs child) put trials like this in perspective. My life plans did not include these experiences, yet I can look back now and see that these events are all part of the fabric of my life, and have contributed to the richness of life. As a (reformed?) Type A personality, I love to plan and prepare for contingencies, and the majority of the time this is a helpful attribute to keep things orderly.

However, life is messy, and the best laid plans get up-ended by something that you don’t see coming.

Planning For Your Financial Future

From a financial perspective, we budget, save, prepare for contingencies and still get blindsided by something we never saw coming (for example: the 2008 market, or personal challenges like losing a job, getting a divorce, or losing a loved one).

A strategy is to take a deep breath, remember that there are resources of support to help you figure it out, make do with what you’ve got, and get creative about how to handle this situation as gracefully as possible.

A friend, who is a physician and neuroscientist, explained to me years ago that you cannot hold fear/anxiety and gratitude in your brain at the same time; they use the same pathway in the brain (I realize that’s not a medical term, but I like to think of it like it’s a hiking trail). I can choose between these emotions in the moment, so when I feel the anxiety rising in me, I try to think of at least three things I’m grateful for right then.

I tried to use this strategy in Africa when I remembered all the glorious things carefully packed in my suitcase that I did not have with me when needed (like rain gear at Victoria Falls). My grateful thoughts to offset this included: 1) I’m looking at one of the seven natural wonders of the world and it is jaw-dropping beautiful; 2) I have hiked long distances to see far less impressive waterfalls, and this one has a beautiful, flat pathway and 3) even though I’m soaking wet from the waterfall spray, the sun is out and my clothes and shoes will dry. There’s even a rainbow!

Whether planning with finances or planning with other life events, try the strategy of positive thought, or the act of thinking of three things, to help take up all the space in the mental pathway, so there’s no longer room for anxiety.

For guidance with finances during life transitions, set up a consultation.

All photos by Leesa Sluder.

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