Travel. I have been fortunate enough to have travelled extensively without any major problems happening to me while on the road. I have miraculously avoided having my luggage stolen even when I used to simply put my passport under my pillow (for years). I have had an incredible stroke of luck and I count my blessings at all the amazing places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit. Including witnessing the cultures and people I have met along the way. That’s not to say I didn’t have my fair share of hair-raising moments, questionable endeavours or downright silly ideas that I was lucky all ended well. Some such instances include narrowly missing a landslide in Nepal on the mountain pass back from the Annapurna Circuit, getting chased endlessly by a pack of street dogs through the jungle in Cambodia and accidentally stumbling upon a black Asiatic Rhino at sundown in Chitwan National Park all alone.
This list is not meant to come across as me being un-grateful for the time I have had abroad but is rather a rundown of some of my lowest moments. Travel, like anything, has ups-and-downs. It’s not always what you see on social media and it can undoubtedly at times be trying, testing, stressful and nerve wracking. This list progresses to my “worst” travel moment, so I suggest reading all the way up to number 5.
A 26 Hour Bus Ride: Colombia #1
Easing our way into the list. Have you ever been on a long car ride? A road trip that seems to never end? Where you get to that you feel your circulation is so poor that you feel tired and beat down just from sitting? I had this experience in Colombia when a 16 hour bus ride from Santa Marta to Medellin turned into a 26 hour bus ride. That’s right, I spent an entire waking day of my life on a bus. A day completely lost. Gone. But the worst part was the bus was uncomfortable and the seats so close together that if I was to sit correctly in the bus seat my knees would hit the seat in-front of me. So I had to sit somewhat diagonally, all while having a passenger next to me, while both trying to respect each-others space. What made the journey hard was not only the seating but the fact that mentally once we crossed the 16 hour mark and we found out we still had hours and hours to go it seemed like the journey would never end. The road from Santa Marta starts at Sea Level and winds its way up to Medellin in the mountains, with constant switchbacks and narrow sections. It is not wide enough for overtaking, but the bus drivers don’t seem to know that. The reason for the delay was terrible road conditions. Heavy rain. Kilometres long sections of the journey had road-works, small landslides and a massive queue of traffic. At times we were brought to a complete standstill for hours on end. When the journey was finally over it was a huge relief. 26 hours on a bus is not something I would recommend.
Lesson learned: Sometimes it’s worth it to pay a little extra for some leg room.
Travel sickness – Kathmandu – Nepal #2
Almost everyone has a travel sickness story. I’m fortunate that mine took a few years to finally happen. I was eating at a street food vendor in Kathmandu, Nepal with some other backpackers from my hostel. The small vendor sold vegan/vegetarian style dishes and it seemed like an enticing spot to eat. I ordered a Paneer Curry which to my surprise came out with strips of Haloumi cheese on top. The cheese had an odd smell, as did the entire dish but I just thought it was the way it was supposed to be. Before I had even finished my meal my stomach began to do somersaults and I excused myself from the table and left the other backpackers. What followed was days of very bad travel diarrhoea, constant vomiting and shivers. Oh and I lost a lot of weight. To make matters worse I was so frail and sickly during my sickness that I didn’t want to leave my room to go and get water or food because any food I ate was thrown back up and being away from the bathroom for too long made me feel vulnerable. So I began drinking tap-water but I was purifying it with purification tablets usually used for hiking, naively thinking this made it OK to drink
My condition did not improve and after a few days of drinking tap water through my metal thermos bottle one day I filled up a clear plastic bottle and looked inside. My stomach turned. The amount of silt and particles floating in the water was honestly disgusting, and the water was a dull grey colour. I could not believe I had been drinking this even with purification tablets. And I realised this was only worsening my condition after 3 days. I plucked up the strength to go out and find a pharmacy and got the strongest over the counter stomach anti-biotic I could find, along with some charcoal tablets to soak up all the toxins in my stomach. I began eating liquid food to be able to get some nutrients and would just lay in my bed and read or nod off, all the while shivering at times and sweating at times. I was pretty weak and looking back I should have got medical attention earlier but was naively thinking my immune system would look after the problem. After a couple more days I flew to India. The whole plane ride and time at the Kathmandu and Delhi airport I was embarrassingly back and forth to the bathroom. After a few days in India sweating profusely in the heat (I think this helped me) the antibiotics seemed to work and I started to feel better again. All in all it was about a week of sickness.
Lesson Learned: Watch what you eat, don’t drink bad tap-water, and look after your immune system properly.
Nearly stranded in the Amazon– Ecuador #3
*For the full story of my time with the Waorani including the panther click here >>
I was returning from a 4 day homestay with an Amazonian tribe called the Waorani whom were located in the Ecuadorian Amazon. To get to this remote location we had to take a long bus ride bus from the town of Banjo to Coca. Coca was the gateway to the Ecuadorian Amazon and located on the dark waters of the Rio Napo river. It was stinking hot humidity with jungle around the town and the river our way into the Amazon. I was with a Spanish and Chilean traveller and we had decided to come out to Coca to find a way into the Amazon. We arranged a guide to drive us a 3 more hours down dirt roads in a 4WD to a spot on the Rio Napo where we could launch our boat (a huge long canoe with an outboard motor on the back) From there we would take the boat upriver another 3 hours until we reached the Waorani tribe.
– Alerting people that going to some parts of the river is dangerous, as encounters with some of the tribes have ended with people being attacked and even killed. *Our guide told us someone had been speared by a hostile group on the river a few years back. At the boat put-in we had to sign a waiver and leave our names and passport number at a police box to alert authorities of our movements in case of an accident. Our guide named Mauro and his two accomplices were out porters and helpers. We were completely in their hands. There are no roads out here just one way in and out which is along the tributary of the Amazon river. It’s hard to describe the network of rivers, you don’t simply chug up-stream in a straight line and arrive. There are multiple forks in the river in which the guide needs to know exactly how to navigate. Along with this there are fallen logs and small eddies to pilot through as we snake in huge S bends upstream. It is however stunning, with huge Saber and Matapouri trees towering over the river banks, turtles sunning themselves on semi submerged rocks and hundreds of butterflies in the air. Sometimes the trees would have branches extending so far out-over-the-river we would motor underneath them and look up to see monkeys howling or flowers, or just revel in the shade of giants temporarily before emerging into the light again. So, what I am getting at is we are remote. We arrive safely at our homestay and are greeted by the Waorani whom have not heard of our arrival as they have no way of being informed when guests will arrive next. The next 4 days are filled with expeditions into the jungle, Cayman catching, Piranha fishing and animal spotting. Not to mention time with the Waorani people. Mauro took us to huge sacred trees hidden in the jungle and we macheted our way through vines to lagoons to fish. It was an incredible experience.
To keep this story on focus what happened when we departed the Waorani commune is what complicated the trip. While travelling upstream on our way back towards the put-in and our parked 4WD. On the boat ride home it had started to rain slightly. This didn’t bother us as it made the experience more authentic and I was happy just using a milk bottle to bail out the Canoe. As we were about half way through our 4 hour journey (upstream is against the flow) home on the river we hit a huge hidden log which was invisible from the surface, and our outboard motor flew off the canoe. We had lost our entire outboard motor in the river. This river is a clay coloured brown and not at all translucent – in other words we could not see the motor. It was lost. And we were stuck. We brought the canoe to a halt and pulled over on a river bank. Our porter bravely ripped his shirt off and started wading through the river trying to feel his way around the bottom for the motor, I was worried for his safety that he might get swept away but luckily it was shallow enough that the water was up to his chest and he was a confident swimmer and if he needed to could swim to the bank to rest. While he was swimming the rain got heavier and the Chilean and Spanish backpackers took cover under a big tarp as I continued to bail out the Canoe endlessly. The Guide Mauro kept his cool and tried to make phone calls but we were out of reception. Mauro and the other guide were talking amongst themselves about what to do. They reasoned that me may have to spend a night or two on the river bank and hope someone comes down this section of the river. The problem with that was we had not seen anyone else in this section of the river during our entire stay. All options were put on the table – could we drag the canoe upriver? No. We were going upstream against the flow so swimming the canoe was out of the question. So, do we spend a night or two here on the riverbank? After 15 minutes of dialogue between the group and no decision yet made the guide started yelling from the river. He had found the outboard motor!! We waded into the river to help him retrieve the outboard motor and re-attached it to the canoe. Now we undertook a task of flushing out the motor. When I asked if they had spare spark plugs Mauro pointed to a box on the floor of the canoe. I opened it to find a spare set of spark plugs sitting in a few centimetres of water. It felt so frustrating to see fresh spark plugs wet. We began taking turns pulling the pull chord to flush the motor and dry out the lines then we put these new spark plugs in and continued trying to start the engine. After about an hour of all taking turns it started to sound a little beefier and we had hope. Another 10 minutes of continued effort though and we started to feel like maybe it wouldn’t work. Eventually I thought about if we had primed the motor, seeing as it had been ripped off the fuel bladder and the fuel line. So I started pumping fuel with the hand pump into the lines and we kept pulling the pull chord. Finally. Miraculously. It started. We all let out a cheer and a sigh of relief and hugged and high-fived in a small moment of both comedy and joy. We managed to continue on up river with no problems for the remainder of the journey and back to our 4WD. The rain didn’t seem to bother anyone as it was better than the prospect of sleeping on the river banks.
Lesson learned: Always pack extra gear – you never know when you might need it.
Stranded at Havana Airport – Cuba #4
In 2016 I visited Cuba after I finished travelling through Central America. The United States Government at the time had decided to start lifting the Trade Embargo with Cuba and I decided it was the perfect time to go before it rapidly ‘westernised’ or ‘capitalised’ and changed. I wanted to see Cuba in its most authentic state.
I diverted my travel plans and booked a spontaneous ticket to Cuba for 10 days, but I overlooked one key detail. On my exit flight from Cuba I was transiting through the USA and I currently had an ESTA visa (valid for 90 days). I thought this meant I could enter and exit the USA for 90 days, but this was incorrect. Each time you enter the USA you must get another ESTA Visa.
I went to the help desk and was told I could not board the plane – for I was not allowed to enter the USA (for my lack of a new ESTA visa). This left me in a predicament. If I missed my flight from Havana – Los Angeles, I seriously risked missing my connecting flight from Los Angeles to New Zealand. This was an expensive flight and not something I wanted to miss. It was about 10am on Friday and my connecting flight from Los Angeles to New Zealand was Saturday afternoon 4pm. I now had to race against the clock to get an ESTA visa approved (which take up to 72 hours to get approved but I had less than 24).
The help desk at Havana Airport asked if I wanted to book another flight, for tomorrow which would get me to Los Angeles in time for my flight. There was one flight left, with Alaska Airlines for $350AUD (for a short flight) This was a dilemma within itself; should I book another flight from Cuba to the USA and risk losing more money without even knowing if I will be allowed to enter the USA – if my next ESTA is denied?
To complicate things further my Australian travel MasterCard had stopped working in Cuba and locked me out of withdrawing money (I had used all of my Cuban CUC and CUP money and had literally $0). To complicate things further again there was no internet or Wi-Fi in Cuba at this point. To get internet you would have to go to internet ‘zones’ which were spots in parks or outside libraries where there was internet. So, applying for an ESTA Visa from on my phone was going to be a tough one. Luckily an Israeli backpacker saw me trying to figure things out and offered me $10USD. I was able to then buy an internet coupon and go apply for my ESTA from on my phone. I left my luggage at Havana Airport, missed my flight and went to find internet. At the internet ‘Zone’ I applied for my ESTA visa and had to sit there for hours and hours checking my email every so-often to see if my ESTA had been approved. It was a hair raising and somewhat stressful time because the situation was out of my control. If my new ESTA took 72 hours to be approved I would miss another 2 flights. I returned to Havana Airport to sleep on the floor and set my alarm for early the following morning. I woke up, walked the internet ‘zone’ about a 20 minute walk away and started waiting and checking emails again. I was beginning to wonder if I was about to lose some more money and be stuck in Cuba.
Finally 1.5 hours before my Alaska Airlines flight was set to leave I checked my email one more time – My ESTA had been approved !! I raced back to the airport, collected my bags from lock-up and checked into the flight. I had not eaten in a long time savouring every dollar of the $10USD for if I needed to buy more internet coupons.
Most long term-travellers will have a “sleeping at the airport story” but this one definitely came with a bit of a twist.
Lesson learned: Double check your Visas people!
Gunpoint in Lake Atitlan – Guatemala #5
This is a story only a few of my close friends and family know but it’s worth sharing.
My final “worst travel moment” and undoubtedly my most unnerving. I was in a small town located on the edge of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Lake Atitlan is formed inside the remnants of a huge dormant volcanic crater (since filled up with water) so it’s a beautiful spot with lush blue water and green forests but it also means the road in-and-out of Lake Atitlan requires hours of driving in switchbacks and zig-zags up the steep volcanic rim and mountains to get out, in an old beaten up bus.
So, because the bus journey to leave Lake Atitlan takes hours, travellers have the option to take an early bus around 3am in the morning to be able to not have to spend an entire day in transit and still get to enjoy their afternoon.
So it’s just before 3am in the morning and I am waiting on the dimly lit roadside for the bus to come pick me up. There is a French backpacker with me who is asleep on his bag – as I had agreed to stay awake for the bus. There is one street light about 50 metres away from me and one directly above me, otherwise the entire street is dark and quiet. I can’t even see any street dogs around. As I am waiting for the bus I see two men walking towards me with hoods pulled over their faces. My first thought was “Oh they must be pretty drunk to be walking home at this hour (3am) at night”. My second thought was then “I hope they don’t come in my direction I don’t really want to talk with drunk people right now”.
As I am thinking this they keep walking closer, but close to me they turn down a small side-street and disappear. I breathe a little sigh of relief. It’s not the hour of the morning to be seeing or really dealing with drunks. But outside of the street-lights glow I could still hear their voices, and I could understand some of what they were saying in Spanish “Why not?, Why not?” one guy was asking the other.
Before I knew it they were walking towards me again and came up and approached me.
“Cien, Cien” the gunman was saying. “$100, $100”. The French backpacker was still asleep next to me.
My Spanish was not perfect but all I could say was “No pistola, no pistola, no problema, no problema” – “No gun, no gun, no problem, no problem”.
I simply reached into my pocket pulled out my wallet and opened it up, unfolding it as if to signify he can take what he wants.
With his free hand the gunman reached into my wallet and pulled out all the Guatemalan Quetzal’s and pocketed them (all the money). The pistol was still pointed at me and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I can’t even remember what the mans face looked like. This was honestly the equivalent of about $10-$15USD. Think about that, all of this for $10-$15USD. The French guy was still asleep. The two robbers walked away into the shadows and disappeared. I woke the French guy and explained the whole situation and he was shocked “Should we move?! Should we run?!” But I honestly thought what had happened was over. Plus were had nowhere to run; there was no police here and everything was closed. We were just on a cold dark street in the morning hours in a remote town, where would we go? The whole ordeal was so quiet, so quick that it almost hadn’t even felt real. I don’t think mentally I had registered the event yet. While we discussed if we should run the bus pulled up and we got onboard. I stared out the window for hours wondering if tears would come, or if I would feel sick or waiting for the rising feeling of anger or adrenaline. But all that came over me was a huge wave of sadness. Was life so cheap? I asked myself. Are there countries were people have been killed for $10USD? I was only 22.
I had thought these guys were two drunks but really they were just out to rob backpackers, and I suspected they had done the same routine before while unsuspecting travellers were waiting for the bus. Sitting ducks essentially.
How would this make you feel? Sad? Upset? Depressed? Scared? Angry?
You have to be in an incredibly dark and sad place to rob others with the threat of violence, you have to be desperate. I think deep down in everyone’s core they know that being human means not causing harm to others, and that causing harm to others ultimately leaves you feeling empty. So how did this gunman feel? I presumed he felt terrible on some level. I felt sorry for him that he must be in such a desperate situation that he has resulted to robbing people, which would come at the cost of losing his own sense of self-respect and dignity just to make a few bucks to get-by. While on the bus all I could think about was how little I truly knew what hardships people were facing across the globe. I ALWAYS knew where my next meal was coming from – I had money to buy food and Australia didn’t have food scarcity. I always had a hot shower, a warm bed, a dry house and electricity 24/7 waiting for me back home in Australia. If I got sick, I would be looked after with modern medicine facilities. If I wanted education, it was free in Australia. If I ever even got lost while outdoors – Search and Rescue would try come find me. Australian communities are safe, my neighbours don’t abuse me. I can wear what I like, pray to any religion I like and even criticise my own government (if I wanted to) I have so, so many freedoms. I had grown up in an environment of luxury and comfort and security compared to some people. Who and What would I be if I struggled every day, never knowing if I had enough money to feed myself? How would I feel if I saw my crying child and didn’t have the money to put them in school? How would it feel to get sick, not being able to afford treatment? How would it feel to toil over work only to have a disaster happen and have everything I worked for taken from me? How does it feel to have war or unrest in your home? Poverty? Hunger?
Think about it.
Lesson learned: Some people have it worse off than we can ever imagine.