“It is safe to say that the lasting travel accounts are quite subjective, that — within limits — the more subjective they are, the more readable, the more “valuable” they are. Travelers, like novelists, learned long ago the truth of Todorov’s statement of a universal law: “The best description…is the one which is not description all the way.” That is, the best description is combined with, cannot really be separated from, narration, reflection, interpretation.”
–Percy G. Adams, Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel (1983)
Ray, a bearded New Yorker who had recently dropped out of college to travel the world, was convinced that southern Laos was turning into a horrific cesspool of death and disease.
“I’m telling you,” he said to me as we stood outside the small ice-cream stand near the Phonsavanh Hotel in Pakse. “Cholera is completely out of control down here. A French guy I talked to in Savannakhet said the Pakse hospital was full of dead bodies.”
“Did the French guy see the dead bodies?” I asked.
“No, but he talked to a guy who saw the dead bodies.”
“And you’re sure he didn’t just talk to a guy who talked to another guy who saw the dead bodies?”
Ray looked at me with irritation. “Look, I have a sense for this kind of thing. I could tell he was serious.”
I decided to drop the big question. “So if you’re sure he was telling the truth about dead bodies in the Pakse hospital, what are you doing in Pakse right now?”
“Fuck it, man,” Ray said enthusiastically. “This is where the action is.”
By this point, I had been in Pakse for 24 hours and I was at my wits’ end. I’d been hearing the cholera rumors since coming overland from Vietnam, but I couldn’t get any hard facts. Nearly every traveler I’d met had heard there was a cholera epidemic on the Mekong flood plain south of Pakse, but not a single person had gotten this information from an official source. Many travelers were aborting their Laos travel plans and moving on, but others — like Ray — were embracing the cholera rumors with vicarious zeal. For these people, the very notion of the epidemic was enough to turn an otherwise normal trip into an adventure.
On the other hand, all the Laotian government offices and agencies in Pakse were categorically denying the existence of cholera. I visited two different government travel agencies in Pakse, and both insisted there was no problem with traveling south along the Mekong. The woman at the local health office laughed at the idea. “There are some people who have diarrhea,” she said, “but there is no cholera.” Even the officials I phoned at the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane knew nothing of the cholera rumor.
Since there was no hard evidence of an epidemic — and knowing how travelers tend to exaggerate — I continued with my plans to head downriver. As I hiked down to the river pier on the morning of my second day in Pakse, I met a Lao man named Kumsing who was working on a rural electrification project in the area. He was uncommonly friendly, and he spoke great English.
“Where are you headed?” he asked me.
“South,” I said. “I’m going to visit the 4000 Islands on the Mekong.”
Kumsing clicked his tongue. “That’s a nice area, but you have to be careful these days. I was there last week, and many of my workers got sick.”
“Was it cholera?”
“Yes, cholera. You won’t catch it if you’re careful. Not all of my workers got sick, just the careless ones.”
“How many workers were careless?”
Kumsing did some quick math. “Sixteen. But none of them died.”
“But everyone else stayed healthy — no cholera?”
“Yes, the other two are fine.”
“Yes. Plus I didn’t get sick, either!”
On paper, my trip to the 4000 Islands of Laos should have been the easiest journey I’d taken all year. Not only was I returning to familiar territory (I’d traveled the Laotian Mekong in my own boat a few months previously), but I’d also come to write a story on the area for a well-paying glossy print magazine. Instead of randomly vagabonding my way down the Mekong, I would be visiting pre-selected places and interviewing people I already knew. Since southern Laos is a peaceful, enchanting region, my magazine assignment promised no hardships beyond the simple process of collecting story information.
With the objectives so clear-cut, my return to the 4000 Islands was supposed to be — as the pilots in “Catch-22″ said when referring to easy missions — a “milk run.”
In reality, it had been quite the opposite of a milk run. Before I’d ever heard rumors of cholera, the mere process of traveling overland to Laos from Vietnam had been a headache in itself. On a map it looked easy to cross into the south of Laos from the Vietnamese Central Highlands — but there were no legal customs stations along this border. So to get to Laos from the Central Highlands, I first had to take a day-long trip out of the highlands and up the coast to Danang, then wait for the next available bus to Laos via Lao Bao.
Since this road to Laos follows a treacherous route over the Annamite Mountains, I opted to take the smaller, safer, air-conditioned bus offered by a travel office in Danang. Unfortunately, the air-con bus existed only in the travel office photograph; after purchasing my ticket, I was unceremoniously dumped off at the local transit station and ushered into a huge, decrepit old DeSoto bus.
I spent 22 hours on the DeSoto, including a three-hour delay in rural Laos when the drivers stopped to unload a cache of smuggled items into two separate Nissan pickups. I arrived in Savannakhet just in time to eat, sleep and board a morning bus to Pakse, which (including a four-hour stop when the drivers dropped the transmission onto the road and had to reassemble it) took 11 hours.
I arrived in Pakse exhausted, and spent the next couple days trying to confirm the cholera rumors. When I heard Kumsing’s tale, I postponed my boat trip and went back to check with the health department.
“I just met a man from the electric company who says that 16 people got cholera last week,” I said to the woman in the office.
“That wasn’t cholera,” she told me. “Those men just had diarrhea.”
“All 16 men just happened to get diarrhea at the same time?”
“Yes,” she said. “Maybe it was food poisoning. There is no cholera in Laos.”
This sounded a tad suspicious to me, but I felt I had come too far to abandon my journey to the 4000 Islands. Grimly resolved, I returned to the pier and boarded a mid-morning freight boat bound for the island of Don Khong. Granted, I was no longer on my idealized milk-run vacation, but — whatever the facts were about cholera — I figured I’d be safe if I kept myself religiously clean and avoided the local food.
Furthermore, I was personally convinced — after six months on the road in Southeast Asia — that cholera couldn’t touch me. As with Yossarian in “Catch-22,” avoiding doom seemed a mere matter of will power, milk run or not.
Cholera couldn’t touch me, I reasoned, because I had a pure body and was as strong as an ox. Cholera couldn’t touch me because I was Tarzan, Mandrake, Flash Gordon. I was Bill Shakespeare. I was Cain, Ulysses, the Flying Dutchman; I was Lot in Sodom, Deirdre of Sorrows, Sweeny in the nightingales among trees.
I, like Yossarian in “Catch-22,” was miracle ingredient Z-247.
My journey to the 4000 Islands of Laos started splendidly. After spending the first night on Don Khong, I continued downriver to Khone island on the Cambodian border — where freshwater dolphins haunt deep pools and the Mekong suddenly crashes down into the largest complex of waterfalls in Asia. As I hiked around collecting information for my article, I sustained myself on bottled water, peeled fruit and an enormous bag of roasted peanuts. After a couple of peaceful, slow-paced days in the 4000 Islands, the notion of cholera had ceased to be a concern for me.
I probably would have forgotten about cholera entirely had I not suddenly vomited onto my shoes the morning after returning to Don Khong. I had come back to the island to tie up a few loose ends of my story, and at first it didn’t occur to me what was happening. When I vomited again a few minutes later, the gravity of the situation began to dawn on me. After I threw up for the third time, I took out my phrase book and started asking directions to the hospital.
I remember the next part only in bits and pieces. I know I kept asking people where the hospital was, and people kept pointing me up the road — but the hospital never materialized. It had rained the day before, and the humidity made the air quiver in the sunlight. As I walked, my brain rattled inside my skull like a sodden lump of clay; psychedelic fireworks burst behind my eyelids every time I doubled over with stomach cramps.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, the Don Khong hospital was nearly two kilometers outside of Khong Village. By the time a Lao motorcyclist found me squatting beneath a tree on the side of the road, I was still 200 meters away from my goal. The motorcyclist helped me to the concrete-floored hospital reception room, and I sat on a wooden bench while the staff debated what to do with me.
The hospital was constructed entirely of cinderblocks and had no window panes. Since there was no electricity on Don Khong during daylight hours, I sat in the half-light and waited. A nurse gave me a plastic bag so I wouldn’t have to run outside to vomit. Each time I retched, a few more patients wandered in from adjoining rooms to watch me. Before long, about 20 people had gathered to watch me expectorate a clear, stringy gelatin from the bottom of my stomach. As I sat there clutching my plastic bag, I half-expected one of them to ask me for my autograph.
Finally, a young Swedish doctor named Michael arrived. Michael was not really named Michael, and he wasn’t actually Swedish. But, since he was technically not supposed to be treating cholera cases in southern Laos, Michael will be Michael for the sake of this narrative.
“I see you’ve been vomiting,” Michael said, gesturing to my plastic bag. “Do you also have diarrhea?”
“Yeah, it’s killing me,” I said. “Does the hospital have anything that can stop it?”
“This hospital doesn’t have much by Western standards. Nor does this country, for that matter. Your ideal health option would be to get out of Laos as soon as possible.”
“Can the cholera kill me?”
“Technically, we can’t prove it’s cholera without doing a culture test, first. Whatever it is, it won’t kill you.”
“But we know it’s cholera,” I said. “There’s an epidemic going around, right?”
“I think the best thing for you to do right now is get out of this hospital. First we’ll find you a comfortable guest house, and there you can take oral rehydration salts until you get your strength back.”
“Has anyone died from the cholera this year? There’s lots of stories going around Pakse.”
Michael gave me a nervous look. “Like I said, we can’t call it cholera without a culture test. I know of 16 deaths so far. But those are mostly the very young and the very old. This is not something you should worry about.”
Michael got me some oral rehydration salts from the hospital storeroom and had an orderly motor me back to my room at the guest house. I stayed there and drank salt water for two days while the cholera bugs had their way with my intestines.
Though I could describe in colorful detail what cholera does to the inner workings of the human body, such exposition would be neither necessary nor tasteful. In a euphemistic nutshell, cholera renders everything that enters your body — water, bread, strawberry Pop-Tarts, etc. — into pond water. Furthermore, this pond water creation/expulsion process happens at such a terrifyingly rapid speed that I suspect Einstein himself must have suffered from cholera around the time he came up with his relativity theory. I went for hours at a time without leaving the bathroom.
When I wasn’t in the bathroom performing glorious acts of gastrointestinal alchemy, I spent my time stretched out on my bed, staring at the ceiling, which was mint green. The mint-green ceiling featured a brown metal ceiling fan — which didn’t move in the heat of the day, since the electricity didn’t come on until sunset. My bedspread was orange.
I pondered these things continuously for 48 hours.
Michael came to check on me each morning and evening. After two days, he concluded that I was strong enough to leave, and he arranged a ride to take me back to Pakse. I can’t recall ever having been so happy to see a Toyota Landcruiser.
Since my late-afternoon arrival in Pakse didn’t leave me enough time to make it to the Thai border station, I checked in to a hotel and set off to inform the local health department of my demise.
“I just caught cholera in the 4000 Islands,” I told the lady in the office. “Maybe you should warn people about going there.”
“It’s probably not cholera,” she said. “If you’re sick, maybe you should go to the hospital.”
“I’ve been to the hospital. I’ve been vomiting and I’ve had diarrhea for two days now. Trust me: I have cholera.”
“I don’t think you have cholera. Did the doctor do a culture test?”
“Look,” I cried, exasperated, “if what I have isn’t cholera, then what the hell is it?”
“Well,” she said diplomatically, “it’s probably just diarrhea, with some vomiting.”
Retreating from the health office in defeat, I walked to the Sedone restaurant and drowned my frustrations in a glass of lemonade. Keeping in mind my condition, I got a seat near the toilet. After a while, I got up and introduced myself to a guy named Doug, whom I’d overheard warning a table full of travelers about the epidemic. Doug, a Canadian on vacation from his job as an aid worker in Thailand, seemed almost pleased when I told him that I had cholera.
“I knew it would happen!” he said. “You’re the first tourist to catch it, but there’ll be more.”
“Why aren’t there official warnings?” I asked. “I tried to get some solid information before I left for the 4000 Islands, but all the government agencies were denying that cholera existed. They’re still denying it, for that matter.”
Doug smirked. “Of course they’re denying it. I have friends doing volunteer work in this part of Laos — cholera passed the culture tests a month ago. The government is keeping it quiet because this is Visit Laos Year. They don’t want to rain on the tourist parade.”
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a communist government lying to promote independent tourism.”
“In a way, it’s hard to blame the government for doing it. The West has encouraged Laos to go capitalist — and one of the principles of capitalism is supply and demand. In a poor country like Laos, tourism may very well be the number-one source of hard currency. Back when the epidemic started, some paper-pusher in Vientiane took one look at tourist revenues and decided right then and there that cholera did not and would not exist. Now people like you are getting exposed to cholera because the Laotian government is afraid to discourage you from coming to Laos.”
“Catch-22,” I said.
“Right. The same thing happened with AIDS in Thailand in the late 1980s. And just like in Thailand, the people who live here will bear the brunt of the problem. It’s the people living in the 4000 Islands — not you — who are going to suffer the most when doctors aren’t allowed to go down and treat them properly.”
“Sure,” I said. “I don’t need to worry about the quality of local health care when I can just go home.”
Doug grinned. “Well, technically, you can’t go home. Under international law, you aren’t allowed to cross the Thai border if you have cholera.”
“But technically,” I said, “cholera doesn’t exist in Laos.”
“Catch-22″ had finally done me a favor.
I crossed into Thailand at Chong Mek the following day. Continuing to Ubon Ratachani, I caught a night train to Bangkok. There, I checked into the modern confines of a medical clinic and began my slow recovery.
Originally published August 24, 1999 on Salon.com
Hometown: St. John’s, Newfoundland, CANADA
Quote: “Cover the earth before it covers you.”
Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri USA
Quote: “[Her] goal in life was to be an echo
Riding alone, town after town, toll after toll….Remember to remember me
Standing still, in your past
Floating fast like a hummingbird.” – Wilco “Hummingbird”
(I even got a tattoo to honor it – http://indecisivetraveler.com/remember-to-remember-me)
Hometown: Antibes, France and Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Quote: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand” Picasso
“I’ve found that, for expatriates, America-bashing can become a kind of recreational activity (“re-creating,” in a the process, a sense of home), a way of both justifying your choices and reminding yourself, in a playful and not-too-disturbing way, of the country and culture that — despite anything and all you may do to have it otherwise — are yours. Part of the pride and pleasure of being an American, after all, is that there’s so much to make fun of.”
–Michael Blumenthal, “Western Union,” from In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal (1999)
Veterans’ Day in the US and the UK is replete with ceremonies (concerts and parades in the US, red poppies in the UK) to commemorate those who served their country in uniform. Aside from a great opportunity to thank those that fought in foreign lands, it’s a great opportunity to remember some of the historic sites that can give testament to the events they witnessed.
While some sites are now little more than quiet fields that have been reclaimed by nature, many places can still pack an educational punch that leaves the visitor still give the visitor a sense of the enormity and ruthlessness of war.
Here are a couple of my recent favorites:
Duxford Airbase and Imperial War Museum, Duxford, England
Revered as a major Royal Air Force (RAF) base during the legendary “Battle of Britain”, RAF Duxford also boasts an Imperial War Museum. With more than 200 historic aircraft ranging from rickety World War I biplanes to the B-17 Flying Fortress to the SR-71 Blackbird, the collection is arguably the finest in Europe. Also on display is part of the Imperial War Museum’s vast trove of historic photographs, uniforms and documents.
RAF Duxford, situated in bucolic countryside outside Cambridge, was founded during World War I but earned its place in history during the darkest days of World War II. In preparation for his planned invasion of Britain, Hitler launched the full might of the Luftwaffe at England’s factories and cities in 1940.
The bombs killed indiscriminately. His aim was as psychological as it was practical; he sought to terrorize the population and break Britain’s will to fight. It fell to the undermanned RAF to defend the homeland.
As the sector station for Fighter Command’s No. 12 Group, Duxford Air Base was in the thick of the battle. Casualties were immense. The pilots who fought in the Battle were enshrined in lore as “The Few”.
In June 1944 the planes launched from the same runways would protect the Allied fleet as it steamed toward Normandy. It would also gain fame as one of the homes of the fighter escorts for the Allied bombers that pulverized Nazi Germany’s industrial might.
RAF Duxford continued as a fighter station after the war and was decommissioned in the 1970’s. With over thirty authentic buildings recognized by the British government for their historical significance, the base was granted to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in 1976 and has been a world-class center of exhibits and education ever since.
Mulberry Harbors and Museum, Arromanches, France
The tiny French coastal town of Arromanches, perched on the sands of Normandy, holds another of my favorite war sites. Not far from the immaculate rows of gleaming marble headstones of the US cemetery at Omaha Beach, the beach village had its fate permanently altered when it was chosen to be the main port of the Allies.
One of the most vexing logistical challenges for D-Day planners was the issue of transferring the move millions of pounds of Allied soldiers, vehicles, weapons, and supplies from ship to shore once the troops had established a beachhead. At Churchill’s order, engineers were set to the monumental task of constructing giant ports nicknamed “Mulberry Harbors”, designed to accomplish the feat.
Before the blood had washed away from the Normandy sand, the ports were unloaded from ships and attached by brave engineers under enemy fire. While bullets still flew the ports were operational and offloading tons of materiel per hour for the final push against Hitler’s Riech.
Today, a very well done museum perches above the coast and describes the incredible engineering task undertaken to build the ports. It gives even a layman like me a good idea of how this was pulled off, and of the massive challenges (storms, waves, German gunfire) that the Mulberry builders had to contend with.
But this isn’t the most moving part of the area; the really evocative sights are sitting just off the coast and demand no entrance fee. Still visible in the surf are the ghostly hulks of the prefabricated ports themselves. The skeletal iron beasts, now rusted and worn away by decades of tide and salt water, serve as a silent reminder of the world-changing event that came to Normandy’s shores. And they remind us of the ordinary people—most now passed away—who found themselves swept up in the gale force of history.
Wham! After being in transit for so long, that fresh outside air smacks you in the face when you finally step outside of the airport and take that first deep breath of non-circulated stale airplane air. It took forever to get here. After hours and hours you got to the airport, flew on the plane (or for many of us-planes plural), went to more airports, made it through customs, got jostled at baggage claim and finally arrived at your destination. That combination of being completely spent, confused over time changes and excitement for that journey to get underway usually ends in a flop on a bed or a cup of something to pop open those dreary eyelids and jump start the adventure. How do you manage to enjoy your surroundings and embrace the new cultures in front of you without an enormous freak out of culture shock? How do you ease in and lessen the shock to your new surroundings?
Many of us don’t have the time that we’d like to be able to slow travel and take the time we’d want to get fully used to a place and ease in at our own pace. Still, there are things to do to make it easier regardless of time. What if your tour starts the day after you arrive in a country where you do not speak the language? What if you’ve decided to jump in with both feet and take months to immerse yourself in a new land and culture without much research or planning? What if you are not accustomed to huge changes all at once and are starting to feel a bit overwhelmed? Do we find you folded in a ball on the bed or are you ready to attack the day no matter the risk? For those of us who want to greet the day head on and struggle regularly to resist the urge of the fetal position on that bed that is no longer the reclining seat in front of the bathroom in economy class, here are a few tips to make the culture shock as easy as possible.
We’ve all been in the situation at one point or another in our traveler lives. Whether we’ve been the local on the street to help the visitor with a map and directions or the lost soul relying on the kindness of those very strangers we’ve been for others, it’s safe to say that all of us have come out on the other side. Remember, not all places are the same to the ones in which you’ve grown up. I mean, really, if they were, why would you go? Embrace the diversity and keep in mind that we are all more alike than we are different. You will learn as much if not more from the people and place you’re in than they will learn from you. Share what makes us similar and learn about the differences. Take in what the culture has to offer…you’re bound to see the world with new and open eyes IF and when you decide it’s time to leave.
For more of Stacey’s musings, check out her website.
I just spend the last 3 and a half days trying to get from Rapid City to Bangkok. Due to the Polar Vortex (or whatever they’re calling it this year), massive storms blew through RC and Denver, dropping off a foot of snow and plummeting the temperatures. Flights were canceled, delayed and connections were missed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining or venting. Matter of fact, I’m not upset about it – it’s just an experience that is fresh in my mind.
Then, while browsing through photos my photos from this summer, I came across the one above – of the Google Cardboard contraption. If you don’t know that that is – basically it’s a Oculus Rift headset built from a piece of cardboard, 2 lenses and your smartphone. Don’t know what an Oculus Rift is? It’s an advanced virtual reality headset that creates stereoscopic (3-D) images, extends beyond your field of vision (you can’t see the edges of the screen) and has sensors so everything moves as you move your head around. Do a search on YouTube – it’s amazing and hilarious to watch people wearing it react to their virtual environment (like these). This is the VR we were promised when we were kids.
That’s when it hit me – is this the future of travel? Soon it will be difficult to differentiate between real and virtual environments. Imagine being able to go anywhere and everywhere in seconds. Being able to intereact with people anywhere on the globe – and not being limited to a little Skype window. Co-existing in an environment – being able to look into each other’s eyes – key off of each other’s body language. Sharing the experience of seeing incredible wonders. Avoiding long, uncomfortable flights (not to mention the reduction in carbon footprint).
Yeah, it’s far from perfect. Much of the fun and experience of travel is just getting to where you’re going. Learning to deal with the issues you encounter and remaining flexible to overcome them. Plus, I can’t imagine breaking bread with people would be nearly as enjoyable in a digital environment. Unless they figure out some way to replicate smell, taste and texture. It would be like exploring the world via Google Images or YouTube, but totally immersive.
I’ll be clear – I believe I’d prefer “real” travel. Then again, much of my travel is driven by either adventure oriented (seeing if I’m capable of a journey) or breaking bread with friends. I’m less drawn to monuments, sites and structures. I can imagine using it to replace the other travel I do – business trips, collaboration, brainstorming.
I’m excited for where this technology will go – what it will enable. I don’t believe it would be a replacement for “real” experiences. It would leave more time for the travel that we enjoy most. More time to get lost and meander. More time to explore.
What do you think? Is this growing technology going to become a part of your travel experience, or is it blasphemy?
Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.
Travel, for me, has always been an amazing journey into the discovery of what connects us all as human beings. Travel is also hard, exhausting, and seriously trying on the nerves at times. The dichotomy that exists within the experience of traveling is part of what makes it so worthwhile. It’s this dichotomy that forces us to really reflect on Below are my top five worst travel experiences, paired with the the most positive takeaway from each experience. Travel may be difficult, but it is certainly still worth it.
5. The day the car broke down at the amusement park. This one may seem like it wouldn’t be such a big deal but when it’s a group of high schoolers, with no money, who find their car to be utterly incapable of starting after a day riding roller coasters, the scenario looks a little more grim.
After prom (one I did not attend), my friends and I headed to an amusement park to celebrate. We drove two cars and arrived with no incident. Ten hours or so later, we headed back to the parking lot to find one of the ancient vehicles we drove across the state, completely dead. Imagine that. We tried jumping it, we tried starting it, over and over. As it became clear that we were not going anywhere, tempers started to flare and the blame game began. Ten teenagers were standing in the parking lot trying to figure out how to fix this and no one had any good ideas. After much debating we called two parents to come rescue us and spent the late night ride home complaining and blaming. We would find out later that it was the starter that had gone bad, nothing anyone could really have predicted. That incident would flavor our friendships and conversations for the rest of the school year- a couple of people even stopped talking for a while because of what happened. In fact, it’s still a topic that comes up whenever more than two of us end up in a room together.
Positive take away: Problem solving. Between the ages of 16 and 18, none of us was very skilled at calm, effective problem solving. We did our best to get ourselves out of a sticky situation but the reality is that this became a serious learning experience for all of us. With no adults around, we were left to our own devices to figure out a plan. It was messy, not very nice, and involved a lot of drama. As an adult, I realize how important this process was, even the uncomfortable aftermath of so much blame being thrown around. Kids need space to figure out their own messes as often as possible. We definitely got practice in that area, the day the car broke down at the amusement park.
4. Getting stung by a scorpion in the middle of the night. I rolled over in bed one night and jumped up, screaming. In my half-awake state I had no idea what had happened but my leg was on fire. A quick inspection of the bed uncovered a scorpion and suddenly, the pain made sense. This wouldn’t have even been that bad if getting stung by a scorpion hadn’t been on my list of travel fears and if it hadn’t happened IN MY BED. There is something extra awful about being woken up from a sound sleep by a sharp shooting pain caused by an uninvited guest. The stuff nightmares are made of.
Positive take away: Shake your sheets out before you go to bed. Not exactly philosophical but seriously valuable lesson for any traveler. Oh, and checking your shoes isn’t a bad idea either.
3. The day nothing went right. You may be surprised but this was not one day, it is a “day” that happens over and over the longer I travel. Surprised? I didn’t really think so.
The bus arrives 6 hours late, the air conditioning stops working, I see a dead man on the street (not kidding here, people), I slam my thumb between the boat and the dock so badly my ring is embedded in my finger (and a Mayan man wants to use his teeth to get it off), the vegetarian lunch I ordered to make myself feel better comes topped with bacon, the border control agent is about as far from reasonable as one man can get, my quick run to the local market takes over five hours and I miss the Skype call I have been waiting for, it pours so hard that every bag I was carrying starts to break and shred into very unhelpful pieces, and when I finally arrive back “home”, I find that another hostel guest has eaten the food I was planning on preparing for dinner.
We’ve all had those days. The days where we think there would be nothing better than to be home, in a house we never leave, tucked safely into bed, with a cup of tea, as we watch the rain coming down on the other side of a very handy window. It’s these moments when we might think travel isn’t worth it. Not for this. This sucks.
Positive take away: I am stronger than I think I am. Even on the hardest of days, I always get through. It may not go smoothly, but I get through it. Usually I end these days by collapsing into my bed, eating chocolate, or crying until I laugh. But the next day, I am always, up, ready to go again, and once again surprised by my ability to get through the toughest of days. Knowing what I can handle makes me love myself a little more… and that’s never a bad thing.
2. Needing surgery in Nicaragua. I was in El Salvador when a painful boil started to develop and I realized I was going to need medical attention. Since we were moving on soon, I decided to self-treat for a few days, see if it got any better, and go to see a doctor first thing when we arrived in Nicaragua if it didn’t. Well, it didn’t. And after a very uncomfortable boat ride across the border and the longest immigration process I have ever experienced, we found ourselves seeking a hotel that had bathtubs in the bathrooms and a doctor that I felt comfortable taking medial advice from. The first doctor was a no-go and I started to panic that I would not be able to find someone to help me. After a call to our travel insurance company, we decided to seek a second opinion at a hospital in the capital. Further research told me that the hospital we were headed to was “the best in Central America”. Things were looking up. We traveled the distance by cab (a hefty expense on our limited budget) and arrived at the ER. After a brief exam I was told I had staph and needed surgery. Right away. Not exactly my idea of a fun travel experience and certainly the most pain I had been in in a long time.
Positive take away: Health care around the world is not scary. While having surgery in a foreign country doesn’t top my list of things to do, I must admit that my experience was generally a positive one. My doctor was patient, knowledgeable, and kind. The nurses were as well. My surgery went quickly and smoothly and I had no pain afterwards, despite warnings that I would. Not every hospital is as wonderful as the one I was admitted to. Not every person has access to the best care their country has to offer. However, the notion that quality health care does not exist outside of Western borders is a fallacy. Good to know.
1. Getting Robbed in Guatemala. Never have I been so scared as when a man with a machete stopped us on a path in the middle of nowhere and told my husband to hand over his money. I knew instinctively to freeze and remain utterly calm but in the few seconds it took for my husband to hand over his wallet and for the man to run away, I thought of every awful thing that could happen on a secluded path, on a mountain, with a desperate man wielding a machete. Thankfully neither of us was hurt but our nerves and our faith in humanity was shaken that day. Never again do I want to feel that fear.
Positive take away: The ability to recognize the humanity in someone who does wrong by us. After arriving safely in the next town, we realized quickly that the man who had robbed us had taken nothing but money. Our entire backpacks, our camera, and my own wallet were all left untouched. Upon further reflection we also realized that he had never actually pointed the machete at us- we had been scared enough by its presence. As we talked we realized that the man who had robbed us had not been cruel or violent- he was desperate. You see we were robbed at the end of rainy season. None of the locals had been getting much regular work and coffers were drying up. Families were hungry. The man with the machete was also likely a husband and father in a country where social safety nets are not the norm. Suddenly, we could identify and empathize with the man who robbed us. Were we happy we were robbed? No…. and yes. It is a powerful thing to feel empathy for another human being who has wronged you- to see the humanity in your attacker. It was a valuable lesson and one we carry with us.
As an added bonus, we also realized, with utter clarity, that material possessions are absolutely unimportant to us. We would have given up everything we had in a heartbeat if asked. Knowing this to be true with such clarity has been truly freeing.
All travelers have bad days. What’s important is, as much as possible, to not let the negative overshadow the positive. What have been some of your worst travel experiences? Have you gained any positive insights from those bad days?