If there is one thing that I’m sure about… it’s my unquenchable love of travel. I love (almost) everything about travel: airplanes, packing, researching new destinations, walking until my feet hurt.
But if truth be told, travel is often more glamorous in retrospect. I have an uncanny knack for forgetting about the stress, the misconnections, and the little disasters when it’s all said and done. Especially when recounting the tales to friends and family. It’s all hyperbole about the most stunning sunsets, most delicious food, and best time of my life.
Now, I’m a planner by nature and most of the time, my plans are executed to perfection. But travel is an unpredictable beast and the unexpected is bound to happen when navigating foreign cultures and languages. In the moment, I tend to have a colossal meltdown when things go wrong but the payoff is usually a great story. Yeah for silver linings!
So, in the spirit of keeping it real… here is a list of the top 6 worst travel moments that have happened to me in the recent past.
Getting stranded in Bologna
I didn’t know much about Bologna until I saw it appear in my book of the Top 100 Most Beautiful Cities in the World. I am a sucker for recommendations like that so I added it to my itinerary. It was the perfect midway point between Venice and Florence so why not? Well, to this day it is one of my least favourite cities of all time. Why you ask?
Well, for starters, we arrived there on some random Italian holiday that we knew nothing of, meaning that the very few buses that were actually running were few and far between. I’m pretty sure my friend Diana and I waited two hours for a bus from our remote hostel on the outskirts of the city (the only one we could find sadly) into the centre. So our day got off to a lack luster start but little did we know that the worst was yet to come. After walking around all day in search of something interesting (we didn’t find much) we finally decided to head home after a very disappointing dinner of Spaghetti Bolognese. How can you have bad pasta in Italy? Clearly luck was not on our side.
Unfortunately, the early morning bus predicament continued when we realized that the only bus that would take us to our hostel had stopped running for the night. To make matters worse… our hostel had a curfew (lame) so we would be locked out for the night if we didn’t make it home by 9pm. We started rushing from stop to stop hoping that the schedule was wrong but alas our bus was done for the day. In fact, there was nary a bus to be found. Our meager backpacker budgets could not afford a pricey taxi ride and I was distraught. I had all but given up hope when we stumbled across the bus depot. We saw a flurry of buses and hoped to flag one down. One saintly bus driver stopped for us but was out of service for the night. He clearly didn’t speak English but observed our frantic hand gestures and calmly replied in Italian. We eventually got the message that we were to wait. He drove away and once again we were convinced that hope was lost.
But, then, out of nowhere comes our guardian angel bus driver in his personal car. He motions for us to get in and miraculously drives us to a bus stop where a bus would soon be able to pick us up and take us exactly where we needed to go. We made it to our hostel just in the nick of time. As horrendous as the whole ordeal was at the time, I’m still blown away by the kindness of this man. I may not be Bologna’s biggest fan but I’ll always have a warm place in my heart when I think of this story.
Missing the train in Rome
Knock on wood. WHY DIDN’T I KNOCK ON WOOD? I’m not usually a superstitious person but sometimes I wonder… like on my 2013 visit to Rome. My friend, Mindy, and I were on our way to the train station and no sooner had I uttered the words, “I’ve never missed a train before” and the unspeakable actually happened.
After five days in the eternal city, we were headed to the Rome train station to catch our 2:50pm train to Bari, Italy where we were scheduled to board an overnight ferry to Dubrovnik, Croatia. This of course had been carefully researched and booked in advance to secure the cheapest and best way of getting there. After our 20 minute city bus ride we were watching the giant train screens to see from which track our train would be departing.
The number finally came up on the screen about 20 minutes before our train was scheduled to depart: Track 18. Great! It was right in front of us. This was very good news since Rome boasts the second largest train station in Europe. Unfortunately Track 18 was actually 400 metres further down. We started walking but then quickly began to feel uneasy as we thought we heard that our train had been switched to another track. This happens quite often and they announce the changes over the speaker in Italian and English if you are able to catch it. We stopped and I stayed with the bags while Mindy went ahead to check. Nothing was showing on the sign so we gambled and decided to stay. Wrong decision. It was not our train but since we were 400m away from the main screen and now only had 5 minutes we knew we weren’t going to make it.
We started running and calling for help like hopeless idiots. The police, customer service, other passengers, and a poor travel agent named Marina couldn’t help us. We had missed the only train that could get us to Bari in time to catch our ferry. The next ferry didn’t leave for 2 days. After switching our train tickets twice, going to an Internet cafe, talking to a travel agent for about an hour, and waiting in line for customer service for about an hour we had a new game plan. We called our landlord Sergio and were able to get another night in our same apartment in Rome. We also had new train tickets (this time to Ancona, Italy) and a new ferry ticket from Ancona to Split, Croatia for the next day. We would still make it to Dubrovnik but it just meant a lost day, a 5 hour bus ride down the coast, and a lot of extra money.
Being sexually harassed in Egypt
So, I’ve received quite a bit of unwanted attention while travelling abroad over the years.
- The classic pickup lines in Italy: You look like Jennifer Lopez. Really? Do I?
- Marriage proposals in France.
- Cat calls (sounds like hissing) in Spain
But the absolute worst thing that a stranger ever said to me happened in Egypt while visiting the city of Luxor.
It was a hot day (really, all the days were hot), so my friend, Stef, and I ventured out on our own (stupid perhaps) to find ice cream. We were in port for the afternoon on a Nile River cruise and for some strange reason there were no snacks or refreshments on board. The harassment and crude comments came within seconds of leaving the ship as some older gentlemen nearby noticed us passing by. We ignored them and sped forward only to be followed by a young Nubian man. We tried to ignore him but he really wouldn’t leave us alone with the questions. It seemed harmless at first. Where are you from? The basics. But, when we refused to come with him to his Nubian village the conversation took a turn for disgusting. We had already decided to head back at this point (ice creamless) but we still had a ways to go. He asked if we wanted to BE with an Egyptian man. We told him we were both married (lies) and our husbands were on the ship (more lies). This did not deter him though. Do you want to kiss an Egyptian man? Um… let me think about that… no thanks. At this point we were practically running when we were asked this gem. What about BUM SEX? Excuse me WHAT?!?! That is so not okay. NOT OKAY! Ew… What was his thought process? Oh, so they are married and said no to a kiss, but bum sex, oh yeah, they will totally go for that… Ugh. We made it back to our ship in one piece but I will absolutely never forget that walk.
Crossing the Border from Ecuador to Peru
While researching my options to get from Ecuador to Peru, I learned that the cheapest way was an international bus from Guayaquil to Lima. The cost to fly was over $400 more so it was an easy decision even if it meant a 28 hour overnight bus. How bad could it be?
We left Guayaquil at 11:30am and we were actually pleasantly surprised that the bus was much nicer than we expected. It was not, however, without its medley of quirks. The lights occasionally flickered as if we were in a lightning storm. It rattled and creaked like the roof could’ve flown off at any moment. And, the bathroom was wretched. I mean so terribly disgusting that it was not even an option. Give me a hole in the floor over the state of that toilet seat any day.
Our first “excitement” of the trip occurred at our first petrol stop. The women all rushed off the bus to use a real bathroom and then I decided to grab a bottle of water as well. I was just about to pay, when my friend Laura cried out… Our bus… it´s leaving! The water suddenly became insignificant and we ran after the moving vehicle. We were screaming WAIT but that was fairly useless since our driver didn’t speak English. We both leapt onto the moving vehicle and breathed a sigh of relief. Apparently, this bus waits for no one. Although we did make him stop for the fellow passengers we had almost left behind.
The next major adventure was crossing the border itself. We arrived at the Tumbes crossing and were told to take our passports and get off. We lined up and everyone got through quickly until Laura. The computer system magically stopped working… and we had to wait for about 15 minutes. At least the border official found a use for Laura´s passport, which he used to fan himself while we waited. But, we were not home free yet. This was just permission to exit Ecuador. We still had to go through customs again 3 miles down the road. We continued on and drove through a flee market village until we were told to get out again. This time Laura and I were first in line and luckily experienced no technical difficulties.
Back on the road, it was getting late and we were watching another terrible movie, when suddenly the bus stopped and the lights went out. We assumed this meant bed time even though we hadn´t eaten dinner and it wasn´t even 8pm. Then everyone at the back of the bus started getting off… we had no idea what was going on. Were we entering yet another country? We were then told to take all our belongings and get off the bus. So we frantically gathered our stuff and got off. We then walked through a small building and ended up outside again. Minutes later our bus pulled up and we all got back on. We still have no idea what that was even about. They didn´t even check our bags or ask to see our passports.
The rest of the trip was uneventful but excruciating. We made no legitimate stops for the next 15 hours and since I couldn’t enter the toilet room without gagging… that meant dehydrating myself and holding my blatter the entire rest of the trip. We did have reclining seats but I could not get comfortable and I was afraid to relax for fear of… well you get the idea… so I spent a sleepless night staring at the dark desert counting the minutes until we could get off the bus.
Dropping my camera in Lucerne
I received my first digital camera back in 2005 as a going away present before embarking on an 8-month European odyssey. Can you believe that I had actually planned to bring my film camera on a trip that long? Needless to say I quickly learned to love my little Panasonic and couldn’t fathom traveling without it.
Three months later, while gallivanting around Switzerland in chilly December, I fumbled with my camera as I tried to take a photo with my gloves still on. The lens was open and it landed with a crack on the icy ground. DISASTER! My travelling companion had partially broken her own digital camera two days prior and now mine was rendered completely useless. What was I going to do? I had 5 more months of travel ahead of me… I needed a camera.
My meager backpacker budget was incredibly insufficient to cover the cost of a camera replacement. Not to mention the fact that I was in SWITZERLAND! The most expensive country ever! But, I had no choice. After a tearful call home (because sometimes you just need your mom) and a mug of hot chocolate (because chocolate is always a good idea) I decided to bite the bullet and buy a new camera. My Swiss hosts took me to their local shop and made sure I didn’t get ripped off. It was a tough pill to swallow but I definitely learned my lesson when it comes to handling equipment. The photo of Chapel Bridge (above) in Lucerne was the photo I took right before dropping my camera.
Getting Home from Lima
You know that saying When it rains… it pours. Well I got caught in a figurative hurricane on my trip home from a month in South America. It was just one thing after another after another… almost laughable if I wasn’t so frustrated. It all started at our hostel in Miraflores.
My friend Laura and I had ordered a taxi to take us to the airport. We made sure to leave lots of extra time and it was a good thing we did because our taxi was at least an hour late. We were a bit anxious as we arrived at the airport but we still had enough time. Then began the arduous ordeal of getting to our gate. First they had passport control outside the airport, which of course meant we had to queue. Then we had to wait in a seemingly endless line to check our bags. After that we rushed to security but before we could go through we had to pay the airport fee. Once again we got in the queue but it turned out that they only accepted cash. Since we were on our way home we had conveniently spent all our remaining soles so we got out of the line and scurried off to find an ATM. We took out just enough money for the fee and got back in line. Once we reached the front, the agent rejected our Peruvian money and informed us that we must pay in US dollars. WHAT? It didn’t occur to us to check the currency since WE ARE IN PERU! Why would they want US dollars in Peru? So back out of the line we go to exchange our currency but of course we didn’t have enough soles to reach the US fee so we had to take out more money at the ATM. Just ridiculous. All of it. At this point (if you’re counting) we had already waited in 5 lines.
After our third attempt to pay the airport fee, we succeeded! Not my finest travel moment. We hurried through security, quickly bought bottles of water and arrived at our gate minutes before boarding. Phewth. Home free we thought. Wrong! They then proceeded to inform us that they would be screening our carry-on baggage prior to boarding and no liquids were allowed. Oh good… I’m glad I just bought a bottle of water. We chugged our waters and got in line again… feeling a bit queasy.
We finally took our seats on the plane and were ready to relax. That’s when the show began. One of the flight attendants was having a heated discussion with a passenger who didn’t seem to have a boarding pass. They argued and shuffled around for a solid 45 minutes before the passenger was allowed to sit down. It was all fine but now we were late. Very late. And now I was in for an anxious plane ride to Newark airport where we already had a tight connection that had just got a lot tighter.
I was trying to rest my weary mind when all of a sudden Laura grabs her barf bag and starts throwing up. What is happening? Did someone put a voodoo curse on us? We landed in Newark, tired, sick, and apparently ready to run. We moved through customs as quickly as possible but got stuck again at baggage claim. We had to retrieve and recheck our luggage. This is why only taking carry-on is the best strategy. My bag came after what seemed like an eternity but Laura’s bag did not. I decided to run ahead and try to hold the plane for her. With only 15 minutes to go I threw my bag on the conveyor belt and asked if my luggage would get on the plane or if I could wait for my friend. The agent said I had to go right then or my bag wouldn’t make it. I decided to go for it… sorry Laura. I rushed back through security and to my gate which was of course at the very end of the terminal. But once I got to my gate, it had a different departure city on the sign. Had I read the sign wrong? I turned around to find a screen when I saw Laura running up… and yelling that they had moved our gate. We ran up to the gate just as they were closing the doors. Breathless. Sweaty. And completely drained both physically and mentally. But we made it. My bag made it. Laura’s did not. What a gong show!
What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you while travelling?