September 2014 marks four years since I quit my job as a lawyer to travel the world – so it seems about time I shared with you my 20 worst travel stories. This article is in two parts – you can read part 2 here.
For people who lust about travel, seeing other people fulfilling their dream day after day can be an envious prospect – largely because the travel industry is pretty bad at sharing the darker sides of leaving home with your possessions in a bag. From overly touched up sunset photos to craftily described hotels (for the record “jumping off point” generally translates as “ugly but close to some other place you’d rather be”), travel is most commonly sold as a beautiful thing where nothing goes wrong. Ever.
Of course, as I recently noted to a friend, it’s far better to spread inspiration than fear, but there needs to be a good smattering of the downsides to travel too.
And, with my four-year travel anniversary just around the bend, now feels like an appropriate time to share with you…
My 20 worst travel stories
For the most part, I haven’t written about these travel moments before, and at least one of them was terrifying enough I never thought I’d write about it at all (you’ll find that story in part 2).
A word on safety:
While I’m happy to share these darker moments with you, I ask one thing from you in return – that you keep in mind that I have only been able to summon up 20 occasions out of 1,460 days of travel. Learn from my experience, and often my mistakes, but please don’t let this list put you off. Pack your street smarts (a separate article will follow on street smarts soon) and you should be fine.
Also, you may notice that there are more than a few stories here that take place in Mexico – that’s not because Mexico is more dangerous, it’s simply that I’ve spent much more time there.
Note, this list is in no particular order and certainly isn’t listed by degrees on the scary scale.
1. Thinking I had malaria in Mexico
It all started with that damn frigid night bus from Panama City on my way to Bocas del Torro. I caught a cold and developed a cough that followed me all the way up through Costa Rica. I fought it off but two countries later it returned with a vengeance and in the form of a very severe case of flu. Of course, I didn’t realise that at the time. Crossing the Mexican border (by boat) from Flores in Guatemala to Palenque in Mexico, I was barely able to stand by the time I hauled myself and my bag to my guesthouse. I flopped onto the bed and didn’t surface for over 24 hours.
All alone and packing the symptoms of malaria, I did what every thirty-something would do in the circumstance – I called my mum. A quick picture message back home showing the contents of my pharmacy kit, and my all-knowing mum told me which combination of pills to take with a promise that if things didn’t improve, to get to a doctor, fast.
Slowly, I returned to health, but it took over a week for me to feel well enough to leave my room. Arriving in a new town and staying in a private room on my own, with no support network, not even from other travellers, was one of the loneliest health scares I’ve had on the road. That said, I formed a life-long bond with the gecko in my room…even if I’m not sure whether he was trust a hallucination or not.
- if you’re feeling ill, stay put a few days – having an existing travel network of friends around will really help;
- get to a doctor – don’t put it off like I did, even if just for peace of mind (for you and your family!);
- pack a well-stocked medicine kit; and
- if you are completely alone, befriend a gecko.
2. Landing in Quito after an attempted coup
Photo by: Simons Schultz.
My travel adventures back in 2010 got off to a rocky start. A few days before I was due to fly to Quito, my first real stop on my around the world trip, the opposition party were accused of staging a coup against President Rafael Correa (more from the BBC on the story here). Neighbouring countries closed their borders, a state of emergency was declared and planes were grounded…right up until the day I was due to fly, when the first flights, including mine, were allowed back into the highly disrupted country.
Landing in Quito, the tanks had barely cleared from the streets and even the military were hanging around in packs. The tension was palpable and all in, it was the least inviting introduction to South America. Of course, things got rapidly better and Latin America went on to become one of my favourite places in the world.
- pay close attention to the news for developments as you travel;
- follow the travel advice of your airline and government travel website – if the UK Government had said don’t go, I’d have stayed in Madrid; and
- follow local advice on what to do if you land in an unsettled situation, and generally stay on higher guard.
3. Tsunami warning in Hawaii
“There’s a tsunami coming” are not words you ever want to hear, yet that was the message one evening when I was on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. A full-scale evacuation took place and although the tsunami warning never actually translated into a full-scale issue, they were some pretty intense hours holed up at the evacuation centre wondering “what next” as the time ticked down to the tsunami’s ETA.
You can read my full story here: Living in the Midst of a Hawaii Tsunami Warning.
- always be ready to react at a moment’s notice – one girl at my hostel was trying to pack three suitcases when we received the evacuation notice. Packing essentials does not include drying and packing your loofah; and
- follow the evacuation advice to the letter.
4. Climbing down a volcano barefoot in Nicaragua
Of all the stupid things I’ve done on my travels, wearing the wrong footwear on a hike up a volcano will forever remain in my top three.
When my footwear broke, a long, painful barefoot descent followed that included lacerated feet, lost toenails and a night hike with a very useless torch. It was one of the few moments on my trip where it genuinely occurred to that this is how stupid people die.
You can read the full account of my denseness here: Isla de Ometepe: My Barefoot Volcano Hike.
- when you’re guide tells you there’s a lot of “lodo”, don’t nod and pretend you understand the word (which happens to mean mud) and carry on regardless.
You can read a longer list of lessons learned in my article for the specialist adventure travel company Secret Compass.
5. Escaping from a burning bus in Brazil
Photo by Elsa Blaine.
If my understanding of the Spanish language is bad, then I’d have to describe my Portuguese as non-existent. And, this presented a real problem when I found myself on a burning bus in Brazil.
I was onboard a bus that had hauled me from Mato Grosso (near the Pantanal in Brazil) to Sao Paulo when there was a bit go a kerfuffle on the bus…and by that, I mean people were pushing and shoving each other to get off. Assuming we’d just reached another bus terminal (there’s commonly a lot of pushing and shoving at a bus stop as people vie to be first in line for the off-the-bus toilets), I closed my eyes and tried to return to sleep….until I smelt the burning.
To this day it saddens me that not a single person tapped me on the shoulder to suggest I might want to evacuate the vehicle that was possessed with a fully flaming engine. As the situation dawned on me, I tried to make my way off the bus, bags in hand, as the rest of the bus tried (against all logic, common sense and life-preserving instinct) to scramble back on to the burning bus in order to rescue their possessions. Dumb, risky and, most annoyingly, an action that was stopping me from get off the bus in the process.
Thankfully, the driver managed to extinguish the flames, but what followed was 5 hours sat in the unsheltered Brazilian heat while we waited for a replacement vehicle.
- always takes crackers and water on a long journey; and
- learn the word for fire in every language…and bomb, I’m probably going to add bomb to the list…
6. Losing all access to cash in Chile
Like it or not, money makes the world go round and is the one thing you will spend every day on your travels. So, when I turned up in Chile (after crossing the border from Bolivia) and the ATM gobbled up my last remaining bank card, I went into melt down.
For a whole day I panicked as I counted that I had less than $10 to last me 5 days until my pre-booked bus left town. By some amazing quirk of luck, I managed to track down the man who serviced the ATM once a week and got my Visa card back. However, with no functioning ATM in the town I was still unable to get my hands on any cash.
For my entire time, I ate in the only affordable (but still expensive) restaurant in town that accepted Visa. From water to snacks to main meals, everything I bought was from that restaurant. It was a necessary indulgence, but not an experience I’m keen to repeat. And I’m very pleased I didn’t run out of anything essential – like soap, which the restaurant didn’t stock!
- always have a back-up of cash on you in dollars (I now have at least $50 at all times);
- try to change some money before you cross the border so you are not solely relying on working ATMs at your new destination (I personally need to get much better at doing this!); and
- carry more than one credit card if you can – if one gets gobbled up, at least you’ll have a spare.
7. Falling down the steps of a hot tub in Mexico
I’m seriously clumsy, I fall down stuff more than the average person and I can bruise with as little as a harsh look in my direction. So, it’s no real surprise that I managed to acquire the bruise above.
How did it happen? I stepped out of a hot tub in my hostel in Mexico. The steps were shiny wood, my feet were completely wet and like a cartoon character, my feet made a running motion as I tried to gain traction before falling down and hitting every one of the four steps on the way.
Stretching all the way from my bottom down to the back of my knee, this bruise protruded about a centimetre from my leg and every time I walked, I could feel the blood swishing around below the surface. I’d never bruised myself so badly before and with an upcoming flight and fears about clots and DVT, living with this bruise, which took weeks to finally go, was definitely one of my worst travel moments.
(And for the record, I wasn’t drunk when I fell!)
- remember – wood and water don’t mix!; and
- be careful getting out of hot tubs!
8. Getting pushed down a dark alley in India
I will maintain to my dying day that everyone should visit India at least once in their lives but my first experience in the country is not one I’d be in a rush to repeat.
Thanks to terrible flight timings, I landed in New Delhi at 3am. To save haggling for a taxi in a new country in the small hours of the morning, I booked an pre-paid airport pick-up from my guesthouse.
Arriving in the area where I was staying, the driver stopped the car, got out and carried my bag down an alley. I couldn’t see any signage for my guesthouse but felt compelled to follow him and my bag down the alley. However, after just a few steps before he trapped me against the wall in the dark side-street, held out his hand and demanded a tip.
Had I not been 13 months into a year-long trip and supremely angry at his intimidation tactics, I’d probably have been more afraid. As it was, I managed to push him away, wrestle my bag off him and, in the pouring rain, eventually find my guesthouse. Still, not my definition of a fun night out and one of those occasions that turned out to be more scary when I look back on it in hindsight.
- even if you don’t feel it, try not to be intimidated by the more forward men in India (he was asking me for a tip, not robbing me);
- if you can and it’s safe to wave around your valuables, use the GPS on a smartphone to track where you’re going relative to your accommodation.
9. Taking a street taxi in Mexico City
Photo by: Carlos Van Vegas.
I think it’s important when you travel to make a distinction between real danger and purely perceived danger. What do I mean by perceived danger? Well, it’s where our brains go into overdrive, worrying and panicking that something bad will happen in a certain situation when nothing has actually happened to suggest you’re at risk.
A good example is the time I took a street taxi in Mexico City on my own. For many years Mexico City has had a problem with the street taxis (pictured above) – so much so that there is a standing joke that when you get into one you have a 50% chance of getting robbed versus a 50% chance of getting shot. Of course, it’s not true, but nevertheless, street taxis in Mexico City do present a risk, particularly for express kidnapping (where you’re taken to an ATM and forced to withdraw cash) if you’re unlucky enough to get into a taxi with the wrong driver.
For that reason, I usually only use the airport/radio taxis or get around Mexico City by Metro. However, one evening, after drinks with a friend, I took a street taxi…alone. Weighing up the risk, promising to message as soon as I got back and with my friend taking a picture of the driver before I got in the car, off we went.
I swear, for 20 minutes I didn’t breath as we drove through the city. Not once did my driver do anything to suggest I was about to be raped, robbed or shot but I spend the entire ride in a state fear thanks to my perceived danger.
When I got out of the taxi, the fare was about 25% more than it should have been and I’ve never been so happy to be overcharged in my life. I’ve not taken a lone street taxi in Mexico City since.
- if you can, avoid the street taxis in Mexico City, especially at night if you are alone;
- try to meet friends close to your accommodation so you can walk home; and
- try to get home before the metro stops running.
For some really good information on Mexico’s taxi situation, check out the Mexperience website.
10. Being nearly robbed then actually robbed in Belize City
It’s very rare that you’ll hear me tell someone not to go to a place because, in the main, I believe the only way to form an opinion on a location is to visit yourself. So, even if I went and didn’t have a good time, that doesn’t mean other people will have the same bad experience.
However, if I have one place that is the exception to my rule – a place where I’m confident enough to say “Don’t go,” then that place Belize City.
Edgy is to put it nicely.
After a long bus journey with my brother and a travel friend, we took a nap in our guesthouse before heading out for some food. We’d only walked a couple of blocks but on the way back we were approached by a very aggressive local who asked us for money.
Making a split-second assessment of the situation – he didn’t have a weapon, there were three of us and it was daylight (not that that necessarily means much in Belize), I firmly said no. Although the guy didn’t react (pull out a gun or otherwise get violent), he pursued us all the way back to our guesthouse asking for money with escalating anger. I’m certain that had any of us pulled out our wallets, he’d have helped himself to the entire thing but thankfully we were able to fend him off for long enough until our guesthouse loomed into view.
Back in our private, triple room, which had been locked using the padlock supplied to us by the guesthouse, my brother checked for his iPod only to find it had been taken. It just so happened that the son of the guesthouse owner had moved in that week and had just gotten out of prison.
When I raised the missing iPod with the owner, she refused to help us call the police and told me (in a more threatening way than the guy who’d tried to extract money from us) that if we started to spread rumours about her guesthouse, we’d be in trouble. We took her on her word and left the city the next day never to return. Fortunately, my brother was able to make a claim on his insurance for the loss.
- don’t go to Belize City;
- if you go to Belize City, don’t stay at North Front Street Guest House;
- if you ever stay in a guesthouse with a padlocked door, use your own lock; and
- make sure you have decent travel insurance for your valuables.
So, they are 10 of my worst travel stories – you’ll find the remaining 10 in part 2 here.
Want to share some of your worst travel stories? Leave a note in the comments below.