A wise friend once said to me,
“Travelling will teach you to love the world, not as you’d like it to be, but as it really is. If that means shitting yourself in the middle of New Delhi, then so be it.”
I’ve always found it to be a somewhat refreshingly honest outlook.
And yet, when you return from a trip, often the first thing people want to hear about is the ‘best part’. Very few will ask about the worst. We have a tendency to gloss over the rough patches, as though somehow they make our experiences lesser than what they were, when actually, it’s often the most challenging aspects of our journeys that make them truly enriching.
As much as I love travelling, I’d be lying if I said it had all been plain sailing. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you have to learn to take the good with the bad. Don’t believe me? Here’s a round-up of my worst travelling experiences. These are the ‘times it all went wrong’…
The time we nearly didn’t make it out of the country
When you’ve spent six months of your life saving, planning and mentally preparing for an epic journey, there are few words which could derail you more than,
“We regret to inform you that your flight has been cancelled.”
And yet, that was the situation my friend and I found ourselves in, two years ago.
It was January 19th, the day we had been looking forward to since booking our tickets. Our hangovers were still raw from our leaving doo the night before, our bags still unpacked, and now we were faced with the fact that our flight – our very first flight – was cancelled. Somewhere, it seemed, during our planning, we had forgotten to take account of the unpredictable nature of British weather, and were now faced with a barrier before we had even begun – the worst snow storm in years.
I stared at the email again, hardly able to believe my eyes.
“Due to adverse weather conditions, we are suspending all internal flights within the United Kingdom. Customers are advised that delays may be prolonged by several days.”
We had just spent the last twelve hours saying goodbye to our loved ones. A couple would be arriving the next morning to begin a sublet on my bedroom. Not only were we now facing the prospect of being stuck in Scotland, we could also find ourselves homeless. And worse still, it was only internal flights that were cancelled; our flight to Bangkok would be taking off in less than twenty-four hours, with or without us. There was nothing for it; one way or another, we had to get to Heathrow.
Thankfully, a window of opportunity opened up; if we were willing to get ourselves to the airport in the next few hours, we could just catch a flight to London – one of the last to go out before the storm hit. Cue a frantic rush to get our stuff in order, say some very rushed goodbyes, dose ourselves up on enough Irn Bru to counteract the hangovers and we were on our way…well, after a fourteen hour in delay in London that is…
Oh well, “If it doesn’t kill you…”
The time I didn’t take out medical insurance
As far as regrets go, this is a cracker.
When I was eighteen – buoyed by the prospect of having left home, and being legally allowed to drink – I decided on impulse to join some friends for a weekend on the Spanish island of Majorca. Reasoning that I would be there less than 72 hours, I decided to throw caution to the wind and travel without insurance – a decision I came to regret on just the second night, as I fell very, very ill…
To this day, I still don’t really know what happened. I had gone from having a quiet meal with my pals (and before you ask, I only had a couple of beers!), to spending a night crippled on the bathroom floor, my body overcome by sickness. The last thing I remember is the room spinning, before faceplanting on the floor.
I woke up in hospital two days later.
I’d missed my flight home. I’d missed my rescheduled flight too. The worst part? I’d been taken to a private hospital. Goodbye, European Health Insurance; hello £1000 bill.
Obviously, my experience is an extreme one, but it just goes to show that having a ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ attitude will not cut it comes to protecting yourself abroad. The worst did happen, and boy did I learn from it. The lesson here? Always take out insurance.
And don’t go to Magaluf.
The time we realised we didn’t have enough money
One of the hardest aspects of long term travel is knowing how much money to bring. Before setting off on our round-the-world trip in 2013, my friend and I really struggled to plan accordingly. We messed up on two counts; first, underestimating just how much everything would cost – particularly in Australia – and second, heading to Asia first.
Lulled into a false sense of security by Thailand’s affordability, we were pretty reckless in the first few weeks of our trip, burning cash we really, really should have saved for later.
“We can live like Kings!” We gloated, as we drank ourselves silly and indulged ourselves at the market stalls.
Fast-forward two months, and realising that you could easily spend upwards of three dollars on a bottle of water in Australia, we were not only shitting bricks, but Georgian townhouses.
I can still remember the sinking feeling which came over us as we had a meeting with a travel rep at the start of our time in Oz. After hearing how little we had in our bank account, he practically laughed us out of the store, before uttering the immortal words;
“Bloody hell, mate! You’d be better using that money to buy yourself a flight home!”
It took all my energy not to punch him in the face.
We managed to get by in the three months we spent travelling across Australia, but only just, and it would not have been possible had it not been for the kindness of friends and family that were willing to put us up. Or the fact that you could buy three pot noodles for a dollar, if you knew the right places to look.
Three months = a lot of noodles.
I’ve always described myself as a pretty amenable, easygoing person. Having worked in customer service for over ten years, I would say that I’m pretty good at dealing with and avoiding conflict. So, as you can imagine, it would take something reasonably big, reasonably extraordinary, to result at my being ejected from a hotel at midnight. And yet, that’s exactly the situation I found myself in four summers ago, as I came to blows with the manager of a hotel in Koh Phang Nang, Thailand.
Long story short; if you don’t want to be ejected from your accommodation, don’t insult the owner by suggesting that their hotel is a cockroach-infested shithole, no matter how true that statement might be. It won’t end well.
The time we got our dates wrong
The only feeling worse than missing a flight through sheer stupidity is nearly missing a flight through sheer stupidity. This is the situation we found ourselves in two years ago, as we came excruciatingly close to finding ourselves stranded in the Canadian Rockies.
The irony of our situation was that up until the Canadian stretch of our backpacking trip, we had been incredibly relaxed about our travel arrangements. For the short time that we were in Canada, however, we knew that in order to make the most out of our time, we would have to be organised. So organised, in fact, that we pre-booked every hostel, bus, train and plane with complete precision. Or so we thought.
In what can only be described as an epic piece of cock-up-ery, we had allowed ourselves three days in Banff when really it should only have been two. The realisation only dawned on us by chance, as I received an email on my phone from our airline, reminding us to check in online for our flight. It wasn’t until a few hours later, as we casually made hiking plans for the next day, that I began to think about that email and wonder why on earth it had used the words ‘twenty-four hour reminder’.
Surely that should be forty-eight hours? I thought to myself, as the reality of our twattery began to creep up on me.
A frantic re-reading of the email confirmed my worst fears, and we were left with a choice; pay a 600 dollar fine to change the dates on our flight, or face a frantic rush to get our stuff together, check out of the hotel, lose out on a night’s paid accommodation in Banff, travel the 125km to Calgary (assuming that there was, in fact, a bus going to Calgary that night), find ourselves an airport hotel, make the flight, and arrive in Toronto with nowhere to stay the first night. We chose the latter, lived to tell the tale, and learned the hard way to always, always double check our dates in the future!
The time I fell down a drain in Singapore
I’ve always been a believer in the philosophy that if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right. Perhaps that’s why whenever I have an accident, I do so in spectacular style. There was the time I fell off my horse and came out of hospital with both arms in slings. Or the time I spent an entire Christmas Eve building a gingerbread Hogwarts for my nieces, only to trip over the dog and send it crashing to the ground. And then there was Singapore, and the time I cut a romantic Valentines stroll short by falling down a drain.
Thankfully, I did not break my leg. I did, however, spend half an hour with it submerged below ground, before spending an evening debating whether or not it would be safe to make my longhaul flight to Australia the following morning as my limb ballooned to twice its natural size. It took weeks for the bruising to go, longer still for my ego to recover. To this day, my companion still enjoys re-enacting my famous ‘disappearing act’.
The time we came face to face with a burglar
I’ve always considered myself pretty lucky that I’ve had very little exposure to crime during my twenty-four years on this planet. I grew up in a community where locking your doors was an act so unusual it was more likely to imply you had something to hide and spark mass hysteria amongst the neighbours than it was to actually protect your property. Prior to our backpacking trip, I had never witnessed a robbery, never been involved in a fight, and had never even phoned the emergency services before. Street smart, I was not. And yet, if there’s one thing travelling will do, it’s open your eyes.
I knew before setting off on our expedition that we’d be extremely lucky to make it through six months on the road without a single hiccup, and yet, our first months passed relatively unscathed. We had made it through the markets of Bangkok with our bags intact. We survived Singapore’s red light district. We even made it past those darn tour reps in Cairns. Then, just as we began to relax and assume ourselves safe in Australia, we decided to go to Surfer’s Paradise. And Paradise it was not.
On our second night, a man broke into our apartment. Not only did he break into our apartment, he broke into our bedroom. While we were in it. Awake.
Why did he barge in with such gusto, and then seem so shocked to find others in a hostel?
Why didn’t he have a backpack?
Why was he arriving at midnight?
The time I got stranded upon a raft in the middle of the Thai jungle
Seriously, this happened to me. You can read about it here.
The journey from hell
In 2011, I made the long journey from the northern town of Chiang Mai to the island of Koh Samui, in the south of Thailand. It’s a journey that could have so easily been made by flying.
“But where”, I said to myself, “was the fun in that?” Determined to see more of the country, and undeterred by the 48 hour journey ahead, I decided to take the long route.
“How bad can it be?” I asked myself. I had much to learn.
The journey started with an overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, a trip that took no less than thirteen hours, and would provide – I thought – fantastic views of the passing country. In reality, I spent ten hours in complete darkness, balancing upon a shelf loosely disguised as a bed, trying not to hurl as the elderly lady beneath me proceeded to munch her way through an entire bag of squid rings.
We arrived into Bangkok at seven in the morning and then came to the realisation that not only had we arrived into Bangkok at seven in the morning, we had arrived into Bangkok at seven in the morning with two hefty backpacks and no hotel in which to leave said backpacks. Cue a ten hour rainstorm in which we were to bridge the gap between arriving and catching our next bus – which, coincidentally, arrived three hours late and had us wait in the middle of a rat-infested roundabout.
An overnight trip later, and we arrived in the port town of Surat Thani. Or, rather, we arrived just outside the town of Surat Thani. For reasons unexplained, our driver abandoned us in a dilapidated roadside café, where we were to spend the next couple of hours waiting for our transfer to the ferry. It was during this wait that we discovered our bags had been robbed. Money, phones, passports – you name it, they were gone.
I sat down upon the dusty ground, the afternoon sun beating down against my unprotected skin, the mosquitoes gathering in their swarms, and watched as a drunk man threw pebbles at a three-legged dog.
Well done, Izzy. I said to myself. You’ve travelled 500km, and ended up in hell.
Moral of the story? Take the flight.
So there you have it…
My worst travel experiences. The moments which made me smile and cry in equal measure, which sometimes made me think of home and question ‘What the hell am I doing here?‘, but which undeniably tested my resolve. It’s been quite cathartic writing about them. I can remember thinking at the time ‘One day I’ll look back on this and laugh…’ – and y’know what? I have, and I will.
I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere…