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…
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 literally thousands of 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.
Funny story, since writing this post, I actually got Dengue Fever in Mexico. Ok, not funny at all but most certainly knocks this off the number 1 spot. Also, I rate Dengue Fever 0 out of 5 stars. Don’t recommend.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
11. Having my passport confiscated at the Mexico-Belize border
There is one thing I’m not very good at and that is being knowingly scammed. So, I guess I could have foreseen that I was going to run into trouble when I crossed from Chetumal in Mexico on my way to Belize. The border crossing was renowned for it’s scamming status, fleecing tourists to the tune of $25USD for an exit fee that you’re not required to pay if you’ve landed in Mexico by air (like I had).
It was 3am when we hit the border and I was grumpy as hell (that’s generally how you’ll find me any time I’ve been woken up against my wishes). What ensued was a debate between me and the border control guy in broken Spanish (me) when he demanded my money. Despite showing him the appropriate documents, he refused to relent…as did I. Ten minutes of “debate” followed until, losing his patience and exercising his power, he took my passport off me and told me it was cancelled.
Even more furious than when I’d been woken, I took some deep breaths before returning to his booth. At this point he was waiving tourists through without the exit fee. And seemed extremely peed off as a result.
At a loss for what to do, I proceeded to take a picture of the guy and threatened to publish his face on the internet. Against all expectations, it did the trick and with a fake exit stamp (he did the motion of the stamp but never pressed the ink to the page), I left Mexico. Fortunately, the border control people in Belize were more amenable and my lack of a stamp didn’t become a problem.
- this is a tough one because on the one hand it’s important to stand up for your principles – but not to the point that you’re going to get yourself into expensive or unpleasant trouble. Gauge the situation and push your point, but be prepared to back down. If he hadn’t handed back my passport when I photographed him, I’d have probably paid the money just to get my passport back.
12. Feeling the aftershocks in Japan after the tsunami (and stupidly drinking the potentially contaminated water)
As I’ve mentioned, I had experienced a tsunami warning in Hawaii. Yet, that wasn’t the first time me and the word tsunami had crossed paths on my travels.
In 2011, I turned up in Japan just a few weeks after a tsunami had devastated much of the country.
I had planned to spend a month in the country, together with my dad and brother, but we ultimately decided to postpone the trip until another time (and I did manage to finally get there).
However, back in 2011 I wasn’t able to re-route my around the world ticket leaving me with no choice by to fly into Southeast Asia via Japan with a layover for the night.
Feeling my hotel turn to jelly and wobble through the aftershocks while I was over 10 floors up was a pretty scary feeling but that wasn’t the worst of it. Too damn budget conscious to buy water from my airport hotel’s minibar, I gulped away on the tap water…until my brain conjured up vague memories of news reports that the water in Japan was potentially contaminated from the nuclear power station that was going crazy at the time.
For weeks after I left Japan, every shed of hair I lost made me panic.
- keep a close eye on the news; and
- errr…don’t drink contaminated water- duh!
13. Getting into a non-taxi in Costa Rica
This story definitely falls under the “entirely my fault” category (and serves as further proof that I’m not at my best early in the morning).
Trying to catch the once a day bus from San José to Santa Teresa in Costa Rica, I set out at 5am by taxi from my hostel. Turning up at the bus station, I quickly realised I was at the wrong one (there are commonly a number of bus stations in Latin America that serve different destinations). Entirely focused on catching my bus, I hopped in the back of a car with a guy who offered me a ride to the correct station for only $1USD. Checking my watch, it didn’t occur to me to check that he was a legitimate taxi driver…which, of course, he wasn’t.
As it quickly dawned on me that I’d just willingly got into a car with a complete stranger, I stared wide-eyed for the journey which comprised some of the longest 10 minutes of my life. Thankfully, nothing bad happened – the guy really was just interested in my $1USD, but it was a valuable reminder to take a lot more care, even when…especially when…you have other things on your mind.
- don’t get in cars with strangers, kids; and
- keep your wits and street smarts about you even when you are distracted.
14. Freaking myself out in drug cartel territory in Mexico
I talked about the difference between actual danger and perceived danger and when I was in Los Mochis in Mexico recently, I was definitely suffering from a serious case of the latter.
Not a single bad thing happened while I was in Los Mochis in the Sinaloa state of Mexico – I was never threatened and the people were very friendly, however, I had let my tiny brain go into “worse case scenario” overdrive. Why? While I was in Mexico, news broke that US backpacker Harry Devert’s body had been found after he went missing month earlier in a state well know for its drug cartels. And, there I was, following my Copper Canyon trip, firmly in one of the well-known drug cartel states.
Instead of upping my awareness, I fed my fear by hitting Google. Even though it was three years ago and things were under much better control, I couldn’t help but focus on the 142 people who’d been killed in just one month in the state.
For my entire 48 hour stay I was as twitchy as hell and panicked every time a car drove past.
- do your travel research before you arrive in a destination to check it’s safe; and
- don’t let your brain trick you into a subjective assessment of the safety of a place when everything else seems objectively fine.
15. Entering Palestine on a day when a fresh wave of violent conflict was possible
When I visited Israel as part of my around the world trip in 2010/11, I knew that I also wanted to visit Palestine…or at least Bethlehem. Leaving my visit to the last-minute before having to catch a bus north, I left myself little opportunity to visit Palestine other than on the day that Palestine made a bid to the UN for recognition as a full UN member.
As one local told me at the time, it was one of those moments in the Israel-Palestine history when further violence could have sparked. Taking advice from the local tourism office, I took my chances and passed into Palestine. I only spent a day exploring but I was on tenterhooks the entire time.
- don’t leave things to the last-minute – in less stable regions, safety can turn on a pinhead so try to do your sightseeing as early in your stay as possible; and
- pay very close attention to local advice as well as the news.
16. Falling into a fire and spraining my ankle on the Gili Islands
The Gili Islands and particularly Gili Trewangan was one of my all-time favourite spots on my around the world trip. Ruled by a chief and with none of the usual trappings of modern life, the island was idyllic…in most ways. However, during my stay, the downsides of such an informal island really hit home when I headed back towards my room after a beach party to find a full row of houses and shops blazing.
People travelled from all over the island to help and every passing tourist pitched in. But, with nothing more sophisticated than bin lids, buckets and beer cups to carry water from the sea to the fire, it took the entire night to put out the flames. During that time, several properties were entirely destroyed.
In the panic, I was pushed over onto the smouldering flames. As well as acquiring some scorches and a hefty bruise, I twisted my ankle, which left me unable to leave the island for about a week. It was a lonely time for me as I spend most of that week confined to my bed, but not nearly as upsetting as it must have been for the Indonesian locals to see their homes and businesses burn to the ground.
There was a palpable feeling of displacement on the island – an emotion I hope never to be witness to again.
- try to steer clear of flailing panicking people – they are more dangerous than helpful in a crisis;
- if you injure yourself, especially your ability to walk, you have to make friends fast. The islanders would come fetch me from my accommodation and help me to lunch and dinner each day when I was unable to walk.
17. Sharing my room with a family of rats on Lombok
As if the Gili Trewangan fire wasn’t enough of a kick to my travel joys, my next stop after the Gili islands took me to Lombok where I was to hit another travel low point. Still unable to move around much, particularly with my heavy bag on my back, I took a taxi to one of the guesthouses listed in the Lonely Planet. Unfortunately me and the writer of the Southeast Asia guide don’t share the same views on a good place to stay.
Woken around 2am by a loud rustling, I opened my eyes and saw a gleaming pair of eyes shining back at me. As I screamed, the owner of the second pair of eyes leapt across the room, scrambled over my bed and climbed up the walls. I heard the scurrying of around three more friends. Switching on the light, I saw that the rats had been dining out on a packet of crackers that had been triple bagged and stowed in my rucksack.
For the rest of the night, I slept upright, hugging my knees to my chest in the middle of my bed with my mosquito net draped over my head (what exactly I thought it would do in terms of protection even I don’t know).
The next day I left at 6am.
- don’t just pick a place out of a guidebook – check the place out before you book and if you can’t do that, at least try to read some reviews.
18. Getting a point-and-stare rash in Pantanal
The second my guide said “whatever you do, don’t walk into that plant”, I looked down to find that I was stood dead in the centre of afore-mentioned plant. “Why?” I asked as I hopped out. “Because it’s like being bitten by 1,000 mosquitos” was his answer. And so it was.
As the days passed, the rash on my legs grew more and more brutal until a Brazilian friend marched me to the pharmacy for some treatment. Trying their level best to maintain a look of calm as they frantically spoke in Portuguese wearing worried faces when they thought I wasn’t looking, I was finally given an ointment. It didn’t stop people pointing and staring at me in the meantime.
- follow in the footsteps of your guide, especially when you’re wading through unfamiliar and exotic plant life.
19. Watching my bus drive off with my bag and without me
Taking the bus to Santiago de Chile was my first solo bus ride in South America my friend left to go home. It was a pretty epic journey stretching for 23 hours and came immediately after I’d been stranded in Chile with no access to cash. In short, I was fairly on edge.
So, when we stopped at a place for food about half way into the journey and I watched as the bus sailed off without me but with my bag, I went into a full-on state of panic. With practically no Spanish to assist, it took two bus company guys to calm me down and reassure me that the bus was coming back – it had only gone off to refuel. Of course.
- learn a few words of your foreign language to find out what time you need to be back at the bus/ask where it has gone;
- always pay attention to where your bus is parked and the registration number – they all look the same when you return to board; and
- remember – buses need to dash off to refuel – no need to freak out.
20. Having a very lucky escape in India
This story is by far the scariest moment from years of travel. It’s something I’ve never written about. And, I’ve no particular desire to write about it detail even now except to say that I was in India. There were four guys on two motorbikes with very bad intentions who pursued me through the dark streets of India.
I made a very lucky escape but it made me realise that your world can turn on a pinhead in seconds.
It’s the only time I felt the need to pull out my knife. And it’s the only time that travel has made me cry.
Having an intimidating experience with men in a foreign country is not your fault, but still there are things I’d have done differently:
- try to travel between places during daylight;
- know exactly where you’re going so you don’t end up accidentally straying into an unsafe area;
- don’t get complacent with your dress standards just because you’re going from A to B – I was more uncovered than I would usually be in India (just over the knee skirt and shoulders on show);
- use your credit card to get you out of danger and into safety: I booked a western hotel than night and took a hotel taxi the next morning to the airport to return to Delhi; and
- try your very best not to let even the worst experiences taint an otherwise great trip – after a solid night’s sleep and a fair bit of wine, I picked up my bag the next day and forced myself to carry on.
Well, they are my 20 worst travel stories. I’ve got a bunch more – like the time a guy in Israel kept trying to touch me because he thought I was his wife…and that time I had a snake in my room in Vietnam. The list could go on and on.
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