As you know, I’ve been doing this travelling thing for a while now. I’d like to think that I’ve got better at it over the years. That I’ve learned stuff, y’know? Don’t book too far in advance, for instance. Packing light is a virtue. Imodium is a tradeable currency in Africa. That kind of thing.
Every time I start getting a bit too cocky, however, I manage to find a way of bringing myself back to earth by doing something especially stupid. It’s a good thing though, I reckon – while travel confidence is vital, travel over-confidence is not. When you start to think you know it all, bad things start to happen.
Here’s just a few of many, many examples…
Picture the scene. I was 22 years old, on my first ever trip outside New Zealand as an adult. Arriving at Honolulu Airport late at night, my girlfriend and I blearily boarded the shuttle bus into the city. With little sleep and jetlag kicking in, all I wanted to do was check in to the hotel and pass out for a couple of weeks. Apparently I was in a little too much of a hurry to hit the sack, given that I didn’t bother to pick up my passport from the seat beside me as I exited the bus. Thank god for the guy across the aisle who was more awake than we were, and dashed outside to hand the passport back to me. Now that would have been a less than ideal start to my big adventure.
That was kind of understandable, I guess – I was as naive as anything, didn’t have a travel ‘routine’ figured out yet, all that kind of stuff. Sure. It can happen when you’re wet behind the ears, right? So … why did I do exactly the same thing again twelve years later in Vietnam? That was a much more painful experience and although I finally got my passport back due to the kindness of a stranger and a lot of good luck, things could easily have turned out a lot, lot worse. What an idiot.
During my time in Laos last year, some new friends and I braved the rain to head out and see the Kwang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang. After an hour in a songthew we hit the trail and started hiking to the top of the waterfall – at which point I realised that steep tracks, two inches of mud and flip-flops are not a winning combination. Seriously. It was actually bloody dangerous and there were several occasions, both on the climb up and the slide down, where serious injury went from a possibility to a likelihood. I wrote a lot more about it at the time, but suffice it to say that the bruises were still very visible more than a week later.
The lesson I learned from that little excursion? When you’ve walking muddy trails in Laos in the wet season, it’s not a bad idea to get your sandals out of your bag when leaving the guesthouse…
On a trip to Italy many years ago, my then girlfriend and I found ourselves at the station in Padua one morning, awaiting a train to Venice. This was undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights of the trip and amazingly everything had gone to plan – we’d managed to buy the right tickets and had even remembered to validate them before boarding. As the train slowed to a halt in front of us and we stepped on board, I quickly checked the destination screen one more time. “Vicenza”. Hmmm. My Italian was appalling, but I wasn’t quite convinced that was the right name.
“Venezia?”, I asked the elderly woman beside me. “Venezia?”
The widening of her eyes told me everything I needed to know, even before she answered in the negative.
As the doors started to close, I grabbed my girlfriend’s arm saying “We’ve got to get off!”. I made it back onto the platform and she … did not. Crap. With her frightened face pressed against the glass, I watched the train quietly pull away. These days this would be a minor inconvenience at best, but back then, with no mobile phones and no plan B, things went quickly downhill.
In the end I decided to catch the next train to Venice as planned, knowing that any train coming back along that line would stop there. For the next several hours I met every possible train, walking a 20 minute round trip in a random direction between each one. I got to see a lot of the lesser lights of Venice that day – but I didn’t find my girlfriend.
Eventually giving up many hours later as the evening drew in, I headed back to the hotel in Padua to find – you guessed it – a very distraught girl. I’d rung and left a message at reception but it had never got through. She had also eventually gone through to Venice but we somehow missed each other. If it wasn’t for the wonders of gelato, I think that would have been the end of the trip right there.
All’s well that ends well, and it left us with a funny travel story to tell. At the time, though? Yeah, there wasn’t a huge amount of laughing going on.
Every backpacker rides a scooter at some stage during their time in South East Asia. It’s right up there with drinking buckets of whiskey and buying some ridiculous looking fisherman pants on the ‘rite of passage’ list. The ride I took with a few lads from Hoi An to Hue and back was huge fun, although doing 80+ km/h at times in nothing more than a t-shirt and shorts wasn’t particularly smart. When a swerving van pushed me into the ditch halfway up a mountain pass, I expected the worst. Somehow I kept the bike upright and other than a couple of scratches on both the scooter and myself, everything was fine.
You’d think that might have taught me a lesson, at least about what to wear while riding if nothing else. Of course it didn’t, and hence when a badly judged corner left me and my bike at the bottom of a four foot ditch on the side of the road in Koh Tao my flip-flops didn’t save me at all. Blood everywhere and scratches all down one side of the bike. Oops.
The damage to my wallet ended up being less than expected and the damage to my foot only took a week or so to clear up. The damage to my pride, however? Hmm….
My travel companion’s sister happened to be working at a private game reserve in South Africa while we were travelling through the country in 2008, and we were lucky enough to be able to stay onsite there with her for a few days. One evening as the sun went down, we were invited to jump into one of the work jeeps and join an impromptu game drive. Awesome! We spotted plenty of wildlife in the fading light, and then started tracking the real quarry for the night – leopards. They are one of the few animals that really scare me, with a vindictive streak that you don’t find in the other big cats, but there’s no way I was turning down an opportunity to see one up close and personal.
Armed only with a red-filtered spotlight, we eventually spotted a pair of eyes at the end of the dirt track and quickly pulled off the road. Unfortunately we stopped right in front of a small tree – going forward in a hurry wasn’t an option. Damn.
The jeep we were in had no canopy – ideal when it came to views, less ideal when it came to convincing a leopard not to jump inside. As the big male padded closer, we all stopped moving. I’m pretty sure we even stopped breathing as he came alongside the jeep, almost within touching distance. And then he stopped. And sniffed. And looked directly at us.
When an experienced leopard researcher says ‘oh shit’ from the front seat, it’s perhaps time to get a little concerned.
After what seemed like a week, but was probably only about 20 seconds, our feline friend carried on wandering down the track and into the undergrowth and we all let out huge sighs of relief. “I’ve never seen a leopard do that”, was the comment. Oh good, that’s a relief then.
We found out the next morning why that big cat was so interested in us. The jeep we had been in had been used to cart an impala carcass around earlier that day, and half of it was still sitting in the back of the vehicle. Yes, that’s right, we’d been carrying around a fresh kill all night in an open top jeep, and waving it under the nose of a hungry leopard from a few metres away.
Quite frankly, I am astonished we didn’t become a statistic that night. I have absolutely no idea how.
So there’s a few of the stupidest things that I’ve ever done while travelling. Care to share a few stories of your own?
[Leopard image courtesy of Hiasinho (strangely I didn't take any pictures of my own that night), Vietnamese scooters image courtesy of jonwick04]