Sometimes when you are travelling the world things can go wrong, but what is life without a few misadventures? At the time getting attacked by a poisonous snake or getting lost in a jungle may not be so much fun, but a lot of the time those stories can make up our best travel tales!
I have been backpacking the world now for over twenty years, and I generally consider myself a pretty worldly and confident traveller. I have had some of the best times of my life when travelling the world and some amazing experiences too, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t made my fair share of stupid mistakes. I have come across more than my fair share of scams and problems, I’ve had tons of scrapes and near misses and I’ve even had more than a few buttock clenching near death experiences!
Because yes, even despite our best laid plans, sometimes things still go wrong on our travels.
But it is because of these mistakes and mishaps that – in the best tradition of Uncle Albert – I have a wealth of stories from my travels with which to bore people senseless with.
A few start with ‘when I was in…’ instead of the famous ‘during the war…’, but still. Some are funny, some are nice and awe inspiring, some are even a little shocking, but the best ones without doubt always start with that immortal and time honoured phrase, ‘oh shit.’
Because it is when things go REALLY wrong you get your best travel stories!
When I first started backpacking I was as wide eyed and inexperienced as anyone, and like most backpackers I have run the gauntlet of less than comfortable budget experiences. I have endured the long uncomfortable night buses and lower class sleeper trains, been shown hostel rooms that were little more than a concrete cell with a few mattresses and a hole in the floor for … well you can imagine, because I didn’t know back in the day to look around for a better place. I have been chased down the street by incessant touts because I looked like a typical target for them and lost the last vestiges of whatever patience I had left after having scam after scam after scam tried on me.
Seriously, the touts can be really persistent sometimes and it can feel like everyone is out to get you, those bastards really can turn what should be an enjoyable experience into a really stressful one.
I have even in hindsight probably been fleeced out of more money than I needed to spend at tourist markets and fallen foul of taxi mafia price fixing. All of these things happen to everyone at first. It’s all just part of the journey and the learning process of being a first time backpacker. It’s all part of the adventure.
When The Proverbial Hits The Fan.
Slightly more seriously, since that first backpacking trip I’ve been lost in the jungle in Belize, been caught in a Saharan sandstorm, stranded in the Egyptian desert when my vehicle broke down and nearly drowned in Thailand. Twice. I’ve nearly been run over by a boat when diving, been caught up in part of the Arab Spring, barely escaped an earthquake – and a volcano eruption – in Indonesia, caught Dengue fever in India, altitude sickness in the Himalayas and a hundred and one other unlucky experiences, near misses and scrapes.
On occasion I’ve even not listened to my own advice and been in my fair share of sticky moments where things could have turned real ugly too. I’ve fought back in an attempted armed mugging in Colombia, fought back against a drunken street attack or two (not my fault, honest) and on more than one occasion I have lost my composure and argued with taxi drivers who were incessantly trying to rip me off. Hey, who hasn’t?
And no, apparently your first instinct when seeing a wild bear should definitely not be aww cute! Cuddle time!
It is easy to look back and look at all these as negatives, it is easy fall into the trap of saying that gap years are too hard, that backpacking is dangerous or difficult or any other number of depressing and unconstructive labels. The truth is it just isn’t like that at all.
The Good Times Always Outweigh The Bad!
Yes when written down and viewed in black and white like this all of these experiences look negative. They are the exact type of thing that everyone always says will happen on a gap year and parents go into an apoplectic panic attack when they think of their precious offspring heading off into the big bad world. But it isn’t negative at all.
Okay, so a few bad things happened to me over the years, but so what?
Most of the time it was my fault for not paying attention and other times it was sheer bad luck. That’s it. Anything bad can happen to anyone, anywhere at anytime. I nearly got hit by a speedboat when diving in Thailand but I could have just as easily been hit by a bus crossing the road at home and it is infinitely more likely that I will become a victim of crime at home in the UK given that there is a far higher crime rate in London than in many of the countries I travel to.
Okay, I grant you it is highly unlikely that I’ll get lost in a jungle in the middle of Liverpool but my point is these things did not happen to me because I was travelling. They happened just because sometimes shit just happens!
It is important to note as well that these experiences are rare. They may seem like a lot but I have been travelling the world for over twenty years! These experiences are absolutely in the minority compared to the amazing times I have had. A small handful of negative experiences compared to over twenty years worth of absolutely awesome ones!
And at the end of the day yes I have made mistakes on the road, a lot of them, but that doesn’t really matter! The best thing about all this is that yes these experiences may technically be considered bad, but you just have to take the rough with the smooth. Even some of the worst ones are all part of the adventure and if I could go back and change things there isn’t a single second I would change!
Life would be boring without experiencing extreme situations, pushing yourself, testing your limits and triumphing. At the time I may not have been having the best time and some may have been stressful or horrible experiences, but I learned and grew from each and every one of them! For every bad thing that has happened I have gained a wealth of knowledge and experience that has helped me become a better, much more confident, relaxed traveller.
And the best thing about these experiences and misadventures is that they have become some of my best travel stories!
The Best Travel Tales.
When you get home you will quickly learn that people really don’t care about your awesome gap year adventures. People don’t want to hear about the idyllic beach you fell in love with and stayed on for a month longer than you planned, or that gorgeous luxury guesthouse you found for just a few pounds, it doesn’t matter how much you love to make them jealous! You’ll just come across like a demented Uncle Albert going on and on about the war. The only time they are vaguely interested in your awesome journey around the world is when you tell them about the times everything went wrong for you. They want to hear about the time you cocked up and slipped on a river crossing and soaked your entire gear, or like the time those damn monkeys nicked my sunglasses! Evil little sods that they are!
People want to hear stories like the time I nearly caused a full on riot on a train platform in Delhi!
Nearly Causing A Riot In India.
Okay I’ll tell you that one, but bear in mind this one was their fault! Not mine in the slightest! Honest.
Have you ever seen some of the local trains in India? They are the very definition of insanity! Packed to the gills with as many people as possible to the point a sardine – or an average airline passenger on an economy class seat – would feel that they had acres of space. Every seat is taken up at least once with people sitting on top of one another, everyone is then crammed in till you are nose to nose standing up, and then – once the physical limits of the inside are reached – even more people clamber onto the top or hang off the sides by holding onto anything they can.
Like I said, it is insane!
Well I had only just arrived in Delhi, and I was still feeling the sting from the baseball bat to the face that culture shock had given me. India is just like that at first. I didn’t know my way around, I’d been awake for the better part of two days, I was more than a little disorientated and really, really tired and hungry. Not a good combination at the best of times, but especially when trying to negotiate the Delhi public transport system.
But that was okay. I was confident enough to bluff it until I could get to where I was going and find a room.
After becoming very well acquainted on the train with a dozen complete strangers with no sense of personal space, keeping a very close eye out for pickpockets and being more than glad I’m a big 6”2 and nowhere near the height where I would have a dozen sweaty armpits in my face, I eventually noticed the signs for what I thought was my stop. Time to get off.
But there was a problem.
As the train began to slow down near the platform, everyone on the train began jostling to get off, and everyone on the platform began jogging alongside the train to get on. Keep in mind we are not talking about a few commuters on their way to work here, we are talking about dozens of people with absolutely zero sense of what a queue is all clamouring in a scrum that would cause the New York riot police some problems. The term ‘crowd’ really does takes on a whole new meaning in Delhi! So with literally dozens of people around me pushing and shoving to get off and on the train all at the same time, I was literally stuck. I couldn’t move.
Time was ticking away quickly and I began to think I was going to miss my damn stop, and with only the vaguest idea of my bearings and exhaustion making my eyes sting, the idea of the train taking me elsewhere was not appealing. So I did what any sane and rational man would do, I stopped thinking and acted on instinct.
In hindsight, the part of my brain running my instinct is a damn idiot.
I stood in front of the crowd trying to push their way onto the train, grabbed hold of two men in front of me and used them to push the entire crowd back like some big human snow plough. The remaining passengers behind me jumped off creating a wall of people and the train began to move off again. Unfortunately not everyone who I had just shoved back onto the platform made it by running and jumping onto the open doorways and I was suddenly faced with a large crowd of very angry, and very shouty, Indian men.
At this point it is really important to remember the Indian norm of gathering in massive crowds and staring incessantly. Where a crowd of angry Indian men gather and start shouting, an even bigger crowd of Indian men will gather very, very quickly to stare and watch, and perhaps even join in. Pretty soon I was surrounded and severely outnumbered.
Readying my fists in case there was an abrupt and complete failure to communicate, I attempted to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. A tactic that wasn’t going well due to the fact that I was completely surrounded by a lot of angry, gesturing men and couldn’t move in any direction.
So again, the rational and calm side of my brain took over, apparently the same part that is run by my instinct, and I started shouting back.
Luckily for me the police turned up pretty quickly. Unluckily for me instead of calming the situation down they began joining in the shouting too!
Everyone was just shouting, and I had no idea at this point who most of them were shouting at!
I was at least grateful the police were aiming their shouts at the crowd and not me, and soon enough everyone was just shouting and gesturing wildly at everyone else. I’m not even completely sure what they were arguing about was what I originally did to start it all! So after doing my bit for English – Indian public relations, I decided the best thing to do was just back away out of the scrum as best I could, disappear away from the crowd and leave them all to their shouting.
And I did, straight to a private room and a cold shower!
For all I know they are all still there shouting at each other to this day!
Not my finest moment I grant you, but I made it through safely. One thing is for sure, it gave me a good story to tell. One that I never would have had unless I had a spectacularly bad error in judgement, and certainly not one I would have had if I hadn’t decided to go to India!
Staying At Home Never Leads To Good Stories.
That is because nothing good ever comes out of staying in your comfort zone, of staying in that rut you dig for yourself by sticking to the 9 to 5 routine. No one cares about your adventures in trying out a slightly new flavour coffee in Starbucks on the way to work. No one cares about what reality TV show you watched last night. Nothing exciting will ever happen to you unless you face the world head on, follow your dreams and see what experiences the world has in store for you!
You see, I’m not telling you about all of these experiences to scare you or show you that terrible things just keep happening if you travel, or even to confirm all the media driven scaremongering that tells everyone that they should stay at home. I’m telling you this to drive the point home that backpacking is one of the best things you will ever do, that the good points will always outweigh the bad, but even more than that, I’m telling you this so you know that even when things do go wrong on your travels and you do have that almighty world ending cock up, that it can still be a positive experience and it can all add exponentially to your own unique adventure.
If I had stayed in my comfort zone and never travelled, I would have missed out on some of the most amazing, self defining moments of my life. Some of the negative experiences included!
If I hadn’t experienced some of the riskier parts of my round the world adventures, if I hadn’t have been tested, weighed and measured on the journey through my life so far, I would never have been shaped and moulded into the man I am today.
And that is exactly what all this is about.
If I never travelled out of fear of something bad happening, if I had listened to all the scaremongering and stayed at home I never would have had some of the best experiences of my life or seen some of the worlds most amazing ancient, modern and natural world wonders. I certainly wouldn’t have met the cat that saved my life in Cairo!
The Cat That Saved My Life.
Oh, did I not tell you this one? Sit back, this one is one of my favourites!
I was waiting in Cairo train station for the Abella night train to take me down to Luxor and Aswan, and thanks to the stupid check out time of my guesthouse I had a long wait ahead of me for the late departure. It wasn’t too bad though, there was a small cafe with an outside seated area surrounded by a high wall, so I settled into for the long haul. With my pack at my side and surrounded by Egyptians and the occasional backpacker passing through, I lost track of time as I wrote a few chapters of my novel.
All this time there was a little ginger cat that would not leave me alone from the moment I sat down. She was a skinny little thing but so cute, and she wasn’t doing any harm, she was just constantly hanging around me for some reason but never came near enough to allow me to stroke her.
Now I should explain I am a huge animal lover and I tried to entice it down with a little chicken off my plate, but she would have none of it. She simply sat patiently, staring at me. She moved around from time to time, sitting on the high wall looking down at me, sitting on the chair next to me or on the floor glaring at my pack. Since she seemed content simply to be there, I was happy just to leave her be. Maybe she’d curl up and have a nap, at least she’d be safe there next to me and I was happy with that.
After a couple of hours, a good chapter of my book written and a few more drinks and snacks later, I still had a long time to wait so I decided to stretch my legs and go for a walk around the platform. The cat was still there, staring at me incessantly. I said my silent goodbye and lifted up my pack.
Only to find a small snake had somehow nestled itself under it.
Now I am no expert in snakes but from what I can gather in hindsight from the size, colour and general demeanour (as well as the sudden screams and sheer panic from everyone around me) this was an Egyptian saw scaled viper, one of the more dangerous species of snake in the country. Whatever breed it was it was obviously aggressive, most likely scared at somehow being out of its envioronment and very pissed at being disturbed! I have never seen a bunch of Egyptians move so damn fast in my life as tables and chairs toppled and everyone on the tables around me scrambled away to safety with loud shouts of warning in Arabic for me to do the same!
Before the snake could get near me – and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it would have bitten me if it had been just a touch closer – the cat had jumped down in between me and the snake, hissing loudly, and somehow managed to keep it at bay with its paws. If it hadn’t have been for that cat I have no doubt that snake would have had time to bite me, and if it had, I would have been very lucky to survive, even being in a major city!
Long story short, the snake was dealt with (best not to ask), and the cat and I were both fine.
After that, the cat finally accepted a small stroke and a cuddle from me, and then disappeared over the wall as people returned, chairs were picked up and the small cafe – and my heart rate – began to return to a semblance of normality.
I never saw that cat again, but I am convinced that she was watching over me! And the first opportunity I got after that I bought a small statue of Bast, the cat Goddess, in remembrance of her. I still have it now, and I try every chance I get to pay back the karma by helping cats in need.
To this day cats are always alright in my book!
I have no idea how that snake got under my pack, but I do know it is rare to come across them in the Egyptian desert, never mind the built up suburbs of Cairo! It was just one of those rare, unfortunate, can never plan for incidents that can happen anywhere at any time.
But would I let that scare me from going back to Egypt? Of course not! Would I let that stop me from travelling? Never!
Sometimes Bad Shit Just Happens.
Yes things will inevitably go wrong from time to time on your gap or snap year, yes you will face a little risk and maybe even a little danger, but with reasonable precautions and common sense there is absolutely no reason why you can’t face these challenges head on and come out of the other side safe and sound and with an amazing story to tell!
And that is the point. Yes sometimes things go wrong on the road, sometimes you do stupid things on the spur of the moment or come across situations which at the time you may think you can’t handle, but you will make it through the other side. More importantly it is how you deal with those eventualities, how you learn and grow from them, how you let them shape you into a better, stronger, wiser person that counts.
World travel has absolutely been the best thing I have ever done, and the positives outweigh the negatives so much that the bad times seem almost negligible. Small potholes on a very long, very smooth highway.
Don’t Let Fear Of What May Happen Put You Off Travelling!
Don’t let the fact that there is always a chance that things will go wrong scare you into thinking that following your dreams of travelling the world is too dangerous. It isn’t! There is always an element of risk in everything, even staying at home. Embrace the risk! Welcome it! Prepare for it as best you can of course, you should absolutely use your common sense and reasonable safety precautions to minimize the potential risks as much as possible, but don’t be afraid of the fact that you will never reduce risk completely. Life is about overcoming those risks and facing them as an opportunity to grow as a person!
Every bad experience has a silver lining, it is when things go wrong on our travels that we learn more about ourselves, we learn who we are and what we are capable of. We can come through the other side more experienced, more worldly, more capable. We will never again have to ask ourselves what we would do if faced with certain situations because we will know. We will know by experience, and whatever life throws at us we will be able to say ‘No worries, I can handle it!’
One thing is certain, by travelling the world and taking your own risks, you will get a whole list of your own interesting stories to tell, and I will guarantee that none of them will start with ‘that time I stayed at home’.
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