Friday, April 4, 2014

My worst travel experiences (and how you can learn from them)

Do not get me wrong, I love to travel. And I talk about travel as if it is all unicorns and rainbows because 99.99% of the time, it is.

But then there's that pesky 0.01% which could not be any further from mythical creatures and optical phenomenons. It's that 0.01% where your innocent naivety and illusion of dignity are shattered all at once. It is the lowest of the low where all you want to do is go home, curl up in the foetal position and have your mam sing Soft Kitty or something to the same effect.

I'm not trying one-up your travel stories, I'm sure you could probably one-up my stories under the table but I have had a fair few howlers which usually either involves me inadvertently crossing paths with the craziest of crazies, having sheer bad luck or just utter stupidity on my behalf. Now because I'm a kind, selfless soul, I am going to divulge my travel shockers so you can learn from my mistakes.

Moral of the story and all that

Missing my hostel curfew in Paris. I should have known that Paris is not known for its nightlife. Bar culture, sure. Enjoying a bottle of wine, maybe with some canap├ęs or some pungent French cheese, with friends by the Seine, even better. But clubbing? Not particularly. I was 18, on my gap year and I thought a pub crawl would be a great way to meet people. It was until I realised my sodding hostel had already closed its doors at 2 and wouldn't be opening them until the morning. Putain. One by one my newly-made friends bit the dust and I was left in one of the most typically Parisian locales ever. Everyone was beautiful, everyone was too cool to look like they were having fun and to say the least, no one was welcoming me into their friendship group. Well, with exception to typically sleazy guys including two Canadian guys who tried to coerce me into going into a strip club with them, erm no thanks. I managed to stay in the club until the metro opened at 5 and headed back to the hostel where luckily the receptionist had just opened the doors. Needless to say, this didn't give me the best first impression of Paris.
Moral of the story: Find out your hostel curfew before going out, or even better, go to a hostel that doesn't have curfew.

Living (briefly) with a small-time drug dealer in Colombia. As much as this seems to uphold the Colombian stereotype, let me start off by saying, this is far from the norm and the landlord/small-time drug dealer was Spanish. Basically, finding accommodation in Colombia first time round, I panicked. I didn't want to keep jumping from hostel to hostel so I found a post in Couchsurfing advertising rooms free in a house, went to view it and said immediately I would take it. Wrong decision. The place was a dive, the landlord was antisocial and a bit weird. It took me a while to twig as to why the door bell was constantly going but no one was coming in. Then, it clicked and the references to drug that I brushed off as jokes beforehand made sense. Luckily, I managed to find an amazing student residence after, REM which I couldn't rave about enough but oh my days, that experience taught me a useful lesson.
Moral of the story: Don't rush into long-term accommodation. Try to find out as much about your potential flat-mates as much as possible. Use your contacts or social media to find out if there are recommendations.

Getting hit on by a letchy taxi driver in Nicaragua. I should have known, getting a colectivo (shared taxi) without knowing if everyone was going to the same location was not the brightest idea. I was on my way to San Juan del Sur from Monteverde in Costa Rica and it had been a mammoth journey. I had already been on 3 different buses and whilst waiting for the bus, a colectivo popped up with two others getting in. I decided to come along for the ride, as I didn't want to wait any longer. Quickly, the two other passengers hopped off and it was just me and the taxi driver. He looked like the toad out of Pan's Labyrinth with dodgy rose-tinted sun glasses.The awkward small-talk began and at this stage, my Spanish was shocking but I still understood the jist of it when he very kindly invited me back to his to 'smoke weed' with him. I rebuted him kindly but persistence is a common trait in Latin American men so I had to endure him pestering me for half an hour until we finally arrived at San Juan del Sur. Luckily, nothing more happened but that experience was enough to realise I had been an idiot.
Moral of the story: Don't get in a colectivo unless everyone is going to the same destination. Or even better, just wait and get the bus.

Being stranded in Panama city. Again, another story of my stupidity. Right before the end of my Central American travelling, I had to take a flight from Guatemala to Panama to get my connection back to the UK. In a massive rush, getting from Livingston to the Guatemala city airport, I had forgotten to change my leftover quetzales into dollars. How much of a big mistake that was. Unbeknown to me, I had no money in my account so when I tried taking out dollars in Panama, my card was of course flat-out rejected. I had no dollars and I had stupidly already spent all my traveller's cheques which my mam and dad had clearly specified that they were to be left for emergency use only. I didn't anticipate that the day before going back home, I would need them. I had nowhere to go and obviously nowhere was going to take me if I had no money. By sheer luck, a very kind Panamanian lady allowed me to sleep on her living-room floor, I even was given a lift back to the airport. I could not be any more grateful to her and it taught me the kindness of strangers. But, I had to endure a long series of "I told you so" from mam and dad when I got home.
Moral of the story: Listen to your parents. They are wise people and you are young and stupid. Also, always have an emergency stash of money, always.

Metro: The place where nightmares are made of. Image via Roman Laskin

Being hit by a tramp on the Paris metro. Now this story isn't about my stupidity, naivety or anything to do with what I could have done differently. This is just pure bad luck. I will set the scene: 4:30pm Friday afternoon, Paris. I had managed to finish work early and was headed home after a busy week at work. I was absolutely shattered and miraculously, I had managed to grab an empty seat. As I sat down, I glanced up, as I did by habit, to look at the metro map, count how many stops I had left (maths is not my forte) and switch off. I looked down, glancing quickly (we are talking milliseconds here) at the woman in the opposite corner before fixing my gaze on the floor, as you do on the metro. All of a sudden I heard, "Ca c'est suffisant! (That's quite enough)" Oh shit, someone's kicking off on the metro I thought. It wasn't until I looked up that I realised that someone was kicking off at me. It was the woman in the opposite corner, who I now realised, was approaching me and shouting all colourful words under the sun about me. Or at least I think she was, because she only had two front teeth and was shouting in rapid Parisian slang. "Ta guele! (Shut your gob)" I hadn't said anything. She then proceeded to swip me around the shoulder, whilst everyone else just sat and watched. It is probably the only moment when I have vehemently wished that the ground would swallow me whole. It was only when she decided to get off the metro and probably start on someone else, that people asked me not even if I was OK but what I had said to her in the first place. Thanks guys.
Moral of the story: Always look at the floor, never look up on the metro. But seriously, sometimes you just have really bad luck.

This by no means an attempt to fear-monger. This is just a demonstration of how travel is a constant learning curve and I am nowhere near finished. Take heed from my advice, learn from my mistakes (the above example isn't even an exhaustive list!) take the usual precautions and you should generally keep out of harm's way.

What's your worst travel experience and how did you learn from it? What's the best travel advice you could give to someone?

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