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Travel mishaps with a silver lining

  • Story Highlights
  • "When things go wrong, travel gets more interesting" and memorable, expert says
  • Car breakdown leads mother and son to blissful town, lagoon and 10-cent mangoes
  • 9/11 stranding sparks long-standing relationships and scholarship
  • The kindness of a stranger in Cairo, Egypt, has changed man to this day
By Jessica Ravitz
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(CNN) -- The car breaks down. The lover jilts you mid-trip. The hotel turns out to be a dump.

Nancy Donohue and her son Jeremiah "Maia" (in Elvis wig) broke down in Mexico and found small-town bliss.

Pericles Rellas thanks a dumpy hotel and a kind stranger for showing him Old Cairo in Egypt 20 years ago.

Travel snafus can throw upside down the most thought-out of vacation plans. But what the mishaps lead to, and how people deal with them, can be blessings in globe-trotting disguise.

"When things go wrong, travel gets more interesting," said Jim Benning. "If everything goes exactly as planned, the trip may be all right, but is it the trip you'll tell people about for years to come? Probably not."

No stranger to travel trials -- he's heard about and lived plenty -- Benning is the editor of World Hum, an online travel magazine that focuses on the journey as much as the destination.

In 2001, he found himself on a 20-hour-long, overstuffed train ride across China. It was so unbearable that he jumped off in Chengdu in Sichuan province, an area he never intended to explore.

"The only reason I got off is I couldn't stand another second on that train," he said. "It led to the best week I had in China."

Travelers who can stay flexible and roll with the glitches do well, even "thrive," when adversity strikes, Benning said.

Nancy Donohue of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, is one such person.

Back in 2003, the artist joined her grown son, Jeremiah (or "Maia"), in volunteering at an orphanage in Guatemala. Once the three-week stint was over, the two set out on a road trip to take his car back to his home in California. But only two days into the drive, the car broke down north of Acapulco, Mexico, leaving them stranded beneath the hot sun for three hours, she said.

They found refuge in the town of Coyuca -- her for one week (she had to fly back to the states) and Maia for two weeks -- before the right car part arrived and he could move on. While there, they found bliss, bonding with the locals and spending their days at the beach, swimming in a lagoon and feasting on 10-cent mangoes. iReport: Read about this lucky breakdown

"It's the story of my life," Donohue said. "Anything that happens is for the good."

Even in the worst of times, there can be blessings, Shirley Brooks-Jones learned.

The Columbus, Ohio, resident was on Delta Flight 15 from Frankfurt, Germany, to Atlanta, Georgia, on September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks had closed U.S. airspace, and for 24 hours, she was on one of nearly 40 airplanes on the tarmac in Gander, Newfoundland, getting bit-piece updates and trying to understand what had happened.

When it became clear that they'd be going nowhere anytime soon, she and the others deplaned -- without their luggage. The people of Gander and the surrounding villages wowed Brooks-Jones, 73, and the other stuck passengers with their kindness. Locals gave them shelter, food, and access to phones and televisions so they could follow the news. They made sure prescriptions were filled, gave them clothing when needed and made sure they had every toiletry they lacked.

The people of Lewisporte, the modest village where she was stranded, did all of this without allowing the passengers to pay for a thing.

"We just landed on their doorstep," said Brooks-Jones, who's been back to visit 16 times since that initial four-day layover. "I fell in love with those people and the area."

She wasn't the only one. Those on her flight who were touched by the people of Lewisporte helped fund a scholarship for students there. The Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship Fund has raised nearly $900,000, she said.

For Celeste Botha, a far less warm, even icy, reception turned her travels topsy-turvy.

She took a four-month leave from her life and career in Seattle, Washington, to explore -- many miles away in Colombia and Panama -- a relationship with a man she'd fallen madly in love with. A Peace Corps volunteer when she was younger, Botha had dreamed about living overseas again. Going away with Mick made sense, she thought.

But what she hoped would be a romantic adventure turned into a broken-hearted disaster, said Botha, 61. Almost immediately, the man changed, turning critical and showing disinterest.

"He had just flipped the switch," she said of what transpired five years ago. "When we got to Cartagena [in Colombia], it was all downhill from there."

She could have jetted back to Seattle, defeated, but she refused to do that.

"I was not going to let this experience with Mick destroy my experience overseas," said Botha, who ended up meeting a British sailor, a travel companion for years to come. "I was determined to be happy."

Smiles were hard to come by as Pericles Rellas led his father into the rundown Cairo, Egypt, hotel he'd booked back in 1989. The dump left his dad "horrified," Rellas, 45, remembered.

But the next day, as they braved the overwhelming and crowded streets, they happened upon the perfect place to stay. Not only that, they met a desk manager, Nutan, who insisted on taking them around Old Cairo, showing them hidden shops and sights they surely would have missed. iReport: Read further about Nutan's gift

Nutan did this, said Rellas, of the Los Angeles, California, area, because a stranger had once helped her when she struggled to find her way in the United States.

"She was repaying a debt to someone," said Rellas, who now thinks about Nutan whenever he stops to help someone who appears lost or confused. "What have you been given in your life, and what can you give back to honor what you've been given?"

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