Thanks to social media, particularly Instagram's picture perfect photos of various paradise-like locations worldwide, many people tend to think that travel is all butterflies and roses and happily-ever-afters. Travel is many things. It is education. It is memories. It is new people and new places and new foods and new smells. But it is not always fun, and it is not always easy. Continual travel requires continual expansion of one's self to learn new skills and to be more self-aware.
One thing I learned this year is that it is okay to not enjoy every place we go, everything we do, and every food we eat. I do not have to like Beijing's spam-riddled fried rice, for instance. I have learned to categorize my experiences into things I loved, things I liked, things that were neither agreeable nor disagreeable, and things I will never ever do again for as long as I live.
Marvin and I have been traveling together since 2011, and since then, we have encountered a number of not-so-fun, not-so-easy situations as we travel. In an effort to be completely transparent about the downside to travel, I have put together a collection of our best-of-the-worst travel experiences.
Read about our travel predicaments & frustrations, which we can fondly look back at as "bloopers."
1. Living on the Edge
At the start of our 2017 North American road trip, we picked up Marvin's mom in Mississippi and started our trek north. Mississippi is home to a little-known treasure nicknamed the Grand Canyon of Mississippi, a chasm that is slowly growing as the ground around it erodes away.
We pulled in to the small paved parking area, but needed to back Gypsy up an incline in order to turn around to leave. In doing so, Marvin had to pull right up to the edge of a very steep drop-off, and as I listened, terrified, as the truck's engine roared in its attempt to push Gypsy uphill backwards, I looked down the hood of the truck straight into the ravine below and thought, "This is it. This is how I die." But between Marvin's skilled driving and the truck's sheer willpower, we were able to get turned around without going over the edge.
2. Smoke Break
While living in Philadelphia, PA, we found that we could easily visit New York and Washington, D.C. via Megabus, often for only a few dollars. We made four trips to New York, one during Thanksgiving so that we could watch the Macy's Parade, and two trips to D.C., one to catch a flight to Panama. It was on this memorable trip to D.C. that I vowed never to give Megabus any more of my money - a vow I promptly broke three months later when we again boarded a Megabus to New York.
On that chilly morning, we hopped on our bicycles and arrived at the bus station in Philly 45 minutes before our bus was scheduled to leave. We locked up our bikes, grabbed a coffee inside, and walked out to the Megabus stop. And we waited. And waited. And waited. An hour after we were to have left, the bus finally arrived. Half an hour into our three-hour trip, the driver pulled over for an unscheduled stop, with no explanation. We waited. Five minutes later, with everyone looking around, wondering what was going on, I stepped over to the other side of the bus to look out the window and saw our driver, leaning against the bus, languidly smoking a cigarette. Being the problem-solver that I am, I promptly stepped off the bus and told him in no uncertain terms that he had better wrap it up and get us to D.C. to catch our plane.
We did not catch our plane.
* Photo by Megabus
3. Credit Card Calamity
In 2014, we flew to Dubai, UAE, and explored that amazing, glittery city. Arriving back in Atlanta after more than a week overseas, I checked my email only to realize that I had been notified by my credit card company of some suspicious activity. My credit card had not been stolen, but somehow some duplicitous person had acquired my credit card information and made several purchases from SkyMall. Fortunately the credit card company quickly rectified the situation and no permanent damage was done.
Tip: We now keep our passports, credit / debit cards in an RFID blocking passport wallet and have had no problems like this since then. We highly recommend that you do the same!
In Alabama, we spent a night at a Rickwood Caverns State Park. We were less than two miles from the entrance when a downed tree left us waiting while emergency personnel cut it up and removed it from the road. We finally arrived at the park and quickly settled into our space. But we hadn't eaten, so we set off for the town nearby for a late-night dinner. Arriving back at the park, our laughter quickly turned to agitation and then panic as we realized we were locked out. Marvin and I grabbed a flashlight and walked down a very dark, very long driveway, leaving his mom in the truck in case someone came by. We trekked down the path to the security officer's on-site housing, knocked on the door, and asked him to please come unlock the gate.
He was not thrilled. Neither were we.
On the final leg of our 2017 road trip, after more than 9000 miles on the road, just as I was dozing off in the passenger seat, the sound of gunfire startled me into a brief state of panic. Marvin calmly assured me it was, in fact, "just" a blow-out. Two hours later, with a new tire on Gypsy, we were back on the road, headed to South Texas.
6. Currency Conversion Catastrophe
With our often hectic lifestyle, we sometimes run out of time to do the things we need to do. We knew that before our trip to Cuba, we would need to convert our US dollars, which are not generally accepted in Cuba, to Euros, which are. We drove from South Texas to Houston to catch our flight to Tampa. In Houston, our bank did not have Euros on hand. We were to fly from Tampa to Havana two days later, so our backup plan was to convert our currency at the airport the morning of our flight to Havana - until we realized that the currency exchange would not be open before our early morning flight. I called the currency exchange and asked the girl to please wait for us and to hold Euros for us. We then rushed to the airport and exchanged our currency that evening before our flight.
7. Tight Squeeze
In South Dakota, we stayed at a rustic campground in the Black Hills. Our GPS took us up what we later learned is known as Needles Highway, a gorgeous scenic drive that winds its way through the Hills. But during this drive we encountered a terrifyingly short, narrow opening in the rock through which the highway runs. Had Gypsy been inches taller or wider, we would have found ourselves wedged firmly into that rock.
8. The Little Engine That Could
Midway between Rapid City, SD, and Yellowstone National Park, lie the Bighorn Mountains. During our road trip last year, we drove through the Bighorns. With our small V8 pulling Gypsy, there were several times I am certain I heard our little truck whispering "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can" as it chugged its way to elevations over 9,000 feet.
During one particularly long, steep descent, we had to pull over to let our exhausted, overheating brakes take a rest. From that point on, I was on edge during every downhill plunge.
9. This Little Piggy Made ME Stay Home
While in Havana, we had a run-in with a bad piece of ham, which had me incapacitated for days. For a humorous look at a not-so-humorous situation, read Dear Ham.
10. Dodging the Bullet, Part 1
Anyone who has traveled to China has learned quickly that, in China, there is no such thing as a line. There is simply a mad rush, complete with cutting and elbowing, every person vying for a spot two feet closer than he was the moment before.
On our last full day in Beijing, we had planned a day trip to the port city of Tianjin, a beautiful city with a grand Parisian feel. We arrived at the train station and waited for our turn to purchase tickets on the bullet train, which would allow us to travel the 73 miles between the two cities in 35 minutes. Arriving at the window, we explained what we needed, and the young lady issued us tickets for a train leaving in 15 minutes. In order to take the train, one must pass through security, and here is where our trouble began. Crowds of people pushed their way through the security checkpoint, nudging, elbowing, and shoving us, calling out to people ahead of them to let them cut in. After 45 minutes of this chaos, we finally made it through security, only to find, of course, that our train had already departed. Back to the ticket counter we went to exchange our tickets for a later train, and after two hours at the train station, we were finally settled onto the bullet train, en route to Tianjin.
11. Dodging the Bullet, Part 2
After riding the Tianjin Eye and wandering the city, we made our way back to the train station. We purchased our tickets, this time giving ourselves plenty of time to get through security and find our gate. As our departure time approached, we noticed that we were nearly alone at the gate. The time arrived, and the gate was still not opened. No train personnel arrived. We walked back toward the customer service counter and realized, to our chagrin, that we were on the wrong side of the building, and that our train has just departed without us. Sick from a nasty cold I had picked up, with blisters causing searing pain on both of my feet, frustrated from the chaos that embodies China, and near tears, I finally located an English-speaking staff member who issued us new tickets for the next train to Beijing.
12. Going Bananas
In January, 2017, we flew to Belize for a tropical vacation. We had booked an AirBNB in Bermudian Landing, home of the Community Baboon Sanctuary, so that we could photograph Howler Monkeys in their natural habitat. Seeing the monkeys was an amazing experience. Getting there was not an amazing experience.
I had read that we could take an inexpensive bus from Belize City to Bermudian Landing, where the bus stops right in front of the tour office for the sanctuary. Our AirBNB host had (reluctantly) informed us that when we get there, we could just ask anyone to point us in the direction of Isabel Bank. He gave us rough directions from there, the distance we should expect to walk, and a description of the place. He also mentioned that, as there were no restaurants near the house, we should purchase groceries from the store in Bermudian Landing before going to our rental.
So we hop on the noon bus and a little over an hour later, we arrive in Bermudian Landing and inquire about the direction to Isabel Bank. "Oh, it's just down that way, but it's too far to walk. You should take a taxi," we are told. But as our host had told us it was only a mile or mile and a half, we opt to walk. We head first toward the little "grocery store," which, as it turns out is simply a few shelves of canned goods and boxed pastas behind a counter and barred cage. Hurriedly, we make our selections and set off for Isabel Bank. We walk. And we walk. And the sun beats down on us. And as we walk, we see nothing and nobody. No vehicles. No people. No houses. No animals.
"I don't think Isabel Bank is a financial institution like we thought," Marvin muses.
And finally, after more than a mile of walking, we see it - a white sign with red letters painted on it: Isabel Bank, with an arrow pointing down the dirt road to the right.
Another mile later, at the first farmhouse that we see that vaguely matches the description our host had given us, we stop and try our key in the lock on the gate. No luck. "I'm going in," I say. "If this isn't the right place, maybe the owner can tell us where we need to go." I squeeze through the fence and approach the house. Eight large dogs are outside, confined within another fence. They had been watching me, and as I near them, they begin barking in a furious frenzy.
"Hello?" I call out. I wait. "Hello? I'm sorry to intrude, but I think we're lost."
Finally a woman comes to the door. Over the din of the barking dogs, I yell to her that we are looking for our AirBNB and wondered if this might be it.
"Oh, no," she replies in her thick Caribbean accent. "But you're close. It's just down the road a bit on the left."
We continue walking another half mile, past a group of school children playing at the bus stop in front of what used to be the community center. And finally we see what absolutely must be the place. We try our key in the lock. It fits, but it does not turn. We take turns pushing and pulling and twisting and turning, willing the key to turn and grant us entrance to our temporary home and respite from the sun - all to no avail.
I walk further down the road, wondering if perhaps we were still not quite there, but the only other gate on this road does not match the description. I walk back to where Marvin is waiting, still working the key in the padlock.
"I'm going to go ask those kids," and I walk back to the bus stop. I call out to them.
"Oh, yes, miss, you just passed it. It's there!" they cry, pointing at the gate I had just left and Marvin standing there waiting patiently.
"The key he gave us doesn't seem to be working in the lock."
"Oh, no worries, miss. Just hop the fence!" Two of them tag along with me, pointing out a low spot in the fence where we can easily step across.
Our Breaking & Entering complete, we locate our cottage (thankfully the key for the door does work). Tired, hot, and sweaty, our minds are on a nice shower to rinse the grime of the road off our bodies. To our extreme dismay, there is no hot water, and for the next 26 hours, until a repair man comes to fix the problem, we have no hot water and no nice shower.
After photographing two troupes of monkeys, we cut our stay in Bermudian Landing a day short and set off for the beaches of Caye Caulker.
Each of these experiences at the time has been, at best, irritating, and at worst, tear-inducing. But each has a silver lining, if nothing more than morphing into a humorous anecdote to tell family, friends, and fellow travelers.
How about you? What travel issues have you had to overcome? Tell us your travel bloopers in the comments below!
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