I miss traveling. Clearly, it’s a privilege, both to have traveled and to be missing it. Still, cabin fever has me reminiscing about places I’ve been and more specifically, some of the misadventures I’ve had. Usually these happened because I did the one thing I try not to do while traveling – have expectations.
There have been disappointments, like the idea that something will be amazing and it turns out to only be ok. We visited Victoria Falls during a season of limited rainfall in Zimbabwe, so the historic thundering falls turned out to be no more than a trickle – relatively speaking. I once spent a week with a guy on his spring break who lived in Idaho and invited me to visit him. I’m not sure where I thought this relationship was going but I certainly didn’t plan to spend the long weekend consoling him about a heartbreak he’d experienced months earlier. I also found out that his beautiful curly hair was nothing more than a box permanent. I did end up learning how to ride a motorcycle though, so it wasn’t a total wash. There was also that morning Jackson and I woke up early in Cambodia, ready for our full-day tour of Angkor Wat, to realize that a dog had run off with one of his Birkenstocks.
There have been other little things, like doing laundry, that tested my patience. In India, I would wash the dust out of my clothes at the end of the day then hang them to dry on the roof – only to be caked with dust when I went to pick them up hours later. In Brazil, I would wash the stink out of my clothes from the hot, humid weather and hang them on the porch, only to have an early morning rainstorm soak them through again.
While I’ve written before about getting stuck in a muddy rainstorm in Costa Rica and unknowingly sitting in a shocking bath in Kyoto, here are a couple more short travel stories where I barely made it out with my dignity, or body, intact…
Years ago, on a work trip to Dubai, I had a long layover in Frankfurt so I decided to leave the airport and stretch my legs. I left my carryon in a locker and took the train downtown. It was 8am on a Saturday morning so there wasn’t much going on but I was still grateful for the fresh air and exercise. Back at the airport, I picked up my suitcase and got in line to go through security again. You know that feeling when you’ve walked your body through the metal detector and you’re waiting for your bag to come through and you’re thinking, please don’t let there be an issue with my bag, and as soon as you think that, you watch your bag be diverted to the other conveyor belt that delivers it to an agent for inspection? In the U.S., they ask you to follow the agent with your bag and bring you to another area both to prevent a logjam and also, I think, to not be quite so conspicuous. In Frankfurt, there would be none of that. My bag came down the conveyor belt and an agent was by my side in seconds, opening the bag and rifling through it, all the while holding up the line behind me. I carry a small leather pouch on the plane that has important items like my passport, an emergency inhaler for a misdiagnosis of asthma (which I’ve never used,) a tiny photo of Jackson, earplugs, that sort of thing. The agent couldn’t find what he was looking for until he opened that pouch and pulled out my travel-sized bullet vibrator. At the time, it was pretty high-tech – no batteries, USB rechargeable, and looked like a tall tube of lipstick. He pulls it out of its sheath and starts investigating, asking me questions about what it is exactly. I explain but then he pulls over another agent for confirmation and now they are laughing and speaking in German. I glance at the line of people behind me, also snickering or exasperated so I shrug my shoulders and mouth “Sorry.” My items were neatly put back in place and returned to me, however, it was advised that I check my luggage as the security officials in the UAE might not have such an open mind about my sexual freedom. It was sound advice.
I can’t say I loved Dubai, though it was fascinating and I did have the opportunity to have dinner in a private room in the world’s highest restaurant. Atmosphere is on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa, which means one hundred and twenty two floors, about 1,450 feet up. I did not know these details before meeting my colleagues at the ground floor entrance. I did not truly wrap my head around these facts until we were all in the elevator, shooting rapidly toward the sky. I was conscious that I was smiling along with everyone’s nervous laughter, though I wasn’t breathing. I felt a panic attack coming on… palms clammy, head spinning, guts rumbling. Fortunately, that lift was so fast that just when I thought I would either pass out or soil myself, we had arrived – like being jettisoned from a trebuchet yet with a buoyant, gentle landing. I made it to the restroom and tried not to freak out at the fact that it was all windows overlooking the city. Wine and cocktails were waiting for us at the table and by the time we finished dinner, I had enough in me to numb the terrifying descent back to earth.
A few months later, I was in India. After spending a week in Rishikesh but before I ended up with dysentery in Agra (never even seeing the Taj Mahal,) I had to spend a night in Haridwar to make a train connection. I made a reservation with the hotel owner to have a car pick me up at 4am, as I had a 4:45am train to catch. She confirmed and promised to knock on my door when the car arrived. I was up on time but by 4:05am, she hadn’t knocked so I brought myself and my stuff to the front desk. There was no one, nowhere to be found. I tried ringing to wake someone, no answer. At 4:15am, a motorcycle pulled into the parking lot and a young man walked toward me and asked “Station?” Clearly, there was some kind of mistake. I pointed to my large, heavy suitcase and said “But how?” He didn’t respond but picked it up and told me to get on the back of the bike. I noticed he had no helmets either but without anyone around to help me and the clock ticking, I put on my backpack and climbed on. He threw the suitcase upright between my legs and got on in front of it. I squeezed the suitcase between my extended knees, one hand holding the side and the other holding the back of the bike, as we whipped through the dark streets along the Ganges. There is a thin line between sheer terror and excitement. I felt both. I kept pushing thoughts out of my head like “You are going to die being thrown from a speeding motorcycle in India with no helmet on,” and focused on my breath. It was pitch black, so I couldn’t distract myself with the goings-on of street life. Soon enough, though, we arrived at the station and if I hadn’t ever seen the ground in daylight, I would have kissed it.
And there was the time on a day trip to Vieques, Puerto Rico, that a friend and I spent a glorious day swimming, never wondering why the others at the beach weren’t enjoying the waves. It wasn’t until later, at a nearby food truck, where someone explained that it wasn’t safe to be in the water after a storm because the earth below – which was once the site of nuclear testing – gets churned up and releases more radiation than normal. Not really a concern to visitors but it made sense then why the locals were looking at us like we were loco.
If I have any lesson here to make sense of your own travel stories, I think it is to face your fears, invoke your humility and breathe. It is always better to just say yes to everything that won’t knowingly harm you and see what happens. Sometimes, saying yes means inviting a little stupidity into your life. Sometimes the right thing isn’t always the safe thing, and we have to leave some things to chance. Otherwise, how will we ever learn?