As I climb upward on that rollercoaster known as “reverse culture shock”— yay honeymoon phase!— I can’t help but consider life. Things are about to get permanent. Real permanent. I nabbed a job. We secured an apartment in downtown Boston. Future life is on our minds and for the most part— besides a work trip to Japan in September— international travel is not on the radar. And while this is somewhat saddening and very much unlike me, I am happy to take a break and test out the American system. For so many reasons: family, the ease in communication, a chance to ponder on my existence as an expat gone by. On the travel triumphs and the travel horror stories.
As I’ve bitched about before, travel ain’t no picnic. A lot goes awry. Buses don’t show. Reservations magically disappear. Your Pisco Sour bursts in your bag, creating a delightful aroma, albeit a mess. In my travel and expat career, there have been plenty of “near misses.” Situations that may have earned a place among my travel horror stories below if not for good timing, kind strangers, or plain dumb luck.
But alas, even I am impermeable to shit. There’s been plenty of travel horror stories among the misses.
Based on individual fears and insecurities, your travel horror stories may be much different than mine. I once had my skirt tucked in my underwear while I stood on a busy train platform in Japan. Thankfully, an empathetic woman rescued me… that was easy to laugh off. Meh, but that’s just me. Many of my own travel horror stories involve sexual harassment. Because, well, no one is a big fan of that.
So I thought I would be woefully honest. The following are a hodge podge of the situations that didn’t turn out so great, including a few that still haunt me. And a few I have been reluctant to tell.
1. Travel horror stories: That time I was drugged in Palau
On our annual Christmas trip from Japan, the girls and I visited the gorgeous island nation of Palau. Our days preceding New Years were full of diving, slathering mud on each other, and underestimating UV rays. Being an island, the New Years options were limited but we were told of a party at a ritzy hotel. Perfect. We pre-gamed and ended up at the party fashionably early, and spent a few hours foolishly enjoying the dance floor on own own. The locals eventually showed up— go island time— including a few expats. One particular expat displayed keen interest in our group, fetching us drinks and following us around a bit like a love sick puppy. Eventually he got the hint that no one was going home with him, but at that point (only 3 drinks in), it was too late.
From about midnight until 8 a.m. the next day, I was gone. Gone beyond any measure of alcohol. I supposedly lashed at my confused friends with aggression. I face-planted onto the hostel kitchen. And my “hangover” the next day was unlike no other (note the before and after photos below). Yes, alcohol was involved but this wasn’t the culprit. It was a stranger, and me stupidly letting my guard down in a seemingly safe situation. A common tale it seems, as evident from recent events in Mexico.
Lesson learned: No really, watch your damn drink.
2. Travel horror stories: That time I had amoebic dysentery in Cambodia
Well, we really don’t know what it was. But it was something. And I should have seen the emergency room about it… despite being in Cambodia. I was in the country back in 2008 on a Pepy Ride volunteer trip. We weren’t necessary roughing if, in the least, but Cambodia wasn’t exactly on most people’s itineraries back then. My mistake was brushing my teeth in the bathroom. I had drank plenty of bottled water but being in a third world country for the first time, I didn’t know any better beyond that.
For one week— a whole goddamn week— I purged more than someone with an eating disorder. Nothing went done, but a crap ton (haha) came up. Every night, I rocked around on my bed, moaning about my existence in such a cruel world. Between Macarena lessons and origami practice at the school we were volunteering at, I was running to the squat toilet to continue my purge. You know, the kind of toilet without toilet paper, running water, or a door. Free show for the locals. If I don’t have a lifelong parasite swimming in my gut, then I’ll probably live forever after enduring that.
Lesson learned: Seriously, don’t even brush your teeth with the water.
3. Travel horror stories: That time we watched golden retrievers maul a terrier on Easter Island
You can read the full story here, details of an experience that was so utterly disturbing it temporarily soiled our romantic image of South America. But to sum it up again: Robbie and I were enjoying a sunset Pisco Sour on Easter Island yet again (the evenings were boring otherwise). Joining us was a pack of friendly golden retrievers, strays beloved by the locals. In a scary turn of events, the dogs suddenly decided to attack their non-retriever pal— a terrier— and proceed to rip him to pieces. Attempt to rip him to pieces, that is. Needless to say, the terrier survived with bloody wounds after we scared away the hungry/ now terrifying retrievers. My maternal instincts kicked in and we miraculously found the dog’s “owner” after carrying the poor thing down the street to some friendly faces. The whole fiasco rocked my image of golden retrievers, but mostly pissed me off as I knew it was a result of a much bigger societal problem.
Lesson learned: Stray dogs need help AND physical distance.
4. Travel horror stories: That time my friends and I got crushed in a man herd in Nepal
My girlfriends and I went to Nepal for a conference. Lucky for us, a huge Hindu festival called Maha Shivaratri was happening in Kathmandu the same week and we were told to go check it out. “It’s safe.” “Women go.” “Leave before sunset.” Sweet, we good. Part of the festival involves medicinal men sitting up on a hill, reveling in their own hallucinations in honor of Lord Shiva. We went and had a looksey, making sure to hightail it out of that area long before dusk. However, upon exiting, we noticed that both women and tourists were long gone from the scene. And that our gateway out— a staircase— was becoming crushingly busy (see my picture below). We held hands and made our way through the crowds.
And that’s when it started to happen. First, someone grabbed my bum. I whipped around and literally yelled, “Don’t do that or I’ll punch you in the dick!” But a bunch of strangers looked at me innocently, making it seemingly impossible to pinpoint the perp. Then, my friend’s breast was grabbed and she went ape shit. She started wildly punching a man in front of her. For a split second, it was amusing but then I was falling. Someone was pulling the camera off my neck and I was falling into the crowd and all I could imagine was the headlines for the next day: American girl crushed in mob. Luckily, a random man came pushing through the crowd and pulled us through, under police barricades, and into safety. I promptly had a panic attack. I had never been so scared in my life, nor felt so targeted (we believe this was a planned incident). And sadly, this sort of situation is not uncommon in Nepal.
Lesson learned: No women and tourists= flee
5. Travel horror stories: That time I left my wallet in a toilet stall in China
I have never been blatantly robbed (the day will come, I know this). But I am thoroughly talented at losing shit (aren’t we all?). Or dropping shit. Or dropping shit to then find that it is lost. Thus, the case in China. Beijing has incredible public toilets. And by incredible, I mean somewhat sketchy and rather immodest (see picture below). Toward the end of our trip to Beijing in 2015, we stopped by a cafe for lunch. Naturally, the cafe itself didn’t have their own bathroom so I had to run outside to use the fancy public one. And— like a dipshit— I brought my wallet along in order to inspect the souvenir shop downstairs.
It was left in the bathroom stall and was eventually recovered, an hour later, by the bathroom cleaners. I had knocked on the door and found them going through my wallet, chuckling at who knows what. About $200 worth of Chinese yuan was gone (Japanese yen must have been a hassle to exchange) but the credit cards and all identification was left untouched. I reckon I was lucky in that respect.
Lesson learned: Become that OCD checker in bathrooms and taxi cabs.
6. Travel horror stories: That time on Zanzibar
In 2014, my friend and I ended up on a beach in Zanzibar, Tanzania. The coffee on the island was fantastic. Scenery, unbeatable. And hawkers, damn annoying. For lunch one day, we strolled past the white coral houses of our beach town and found a local place serving up seafood. With no prices on the menu, we assumed similar ones to other meals we had had. Though we were the only customers, our food took a damn lifetime to come out. The cook and waiter actually disappeared for the two hours we sat and waited. Whatever.
When the bill came, it was obvious we were overcharged. So, without the owner present, we told the waiter we wouldn’t pay full price given the circumstances. He found us later that night at our hostel and flipped his shit, accusing us of being racist. “You’re only doing this because I’m black!” Mind you, he directed his anger at me— a white girl— while my African American friend stood next to me, gawking in confusion as having partook in this arrangement. What angered me wasn’t the situation in itself. Getting ripped off is a traveler’s door prize. But my friend, who had traveled to Africa with me to discover her roots, was being disregarded in spite of her color.
Lesson learned: Expect the “walking ATM” stereotype, no matter what.
7. Travel horror stories: That time a stranger said he hated me in Japan
For my “Last word”-esque piece in Metropolis Japan magazine, I decided to write about my experience as a super commuter in Tokyo. I chose the topic sort of as a plea, to point out the every day harassment that happens to women and foreigners on trains. The specific occurrence noted above was after a string of many others. Times where drunken men would daringly ask for my number or to have dinner with them. Times where I was told to be quiet when others were louder. And times when I shielded my own eyes from grampa porn and masturbation.
But for whatever reason, being told “I hate you”— unprompted— bothered me the most. I was elbowed on the train by a stranger whilst reading a book even though I hadn’t touched him. He elbowed me once more, announced that I did in fact touch him just then, then got off the train after declaring his hatred for my kind. It was disheartening to be the object of such anger in a city I called home. It was also infuriating that no one seemed to notice, nor care, that an innocent person was targeted.
Lesson learned: Master Japanese insults.
Do you have any favorite travel horror stories? I liked this article by Business Insider as it has stories from travelers all over the world. The Tongue in Chic has some cute ones too, showcasing the horror of traveling with friends.