Misadventures, Maladies and Missteps from Mostar to Machu Picchu
We tend to equate travel with adventure. We can plan a skydive, a scuba-dive, and a hike, but adventures that will stick out in your mind when you have returned home are those you never imagined would happen — in other words, the misadventures.
I typically dismiss the hyperbolic travel advisories on state.gov as a bunch of hooey, but those admonitions have undeniably worked on my subconscious and I often question if I’m as safe as I assume I am. I have stumbled into a number of precarious situations — having taken a few wrong turns, I’ve wandered into many a slum garnering a bit too much unwelcome attention from the locals, who would glare at me with suspicion and apparent animosity, eyeballing my bulging pocket that screamed: “credit cards and cash inside!” I’m certain I was a target time and again, but to date, I escaped unscathed.
And then there are those dumb mistakes I’ve made that, while not life-threatening, led to disappointments of not reaching my destination at all or spending much more money than I had budgeted for. There have been health scares and hospital visits, dishonest drivers and broken down buses in the blistering heat.
Here are a few of the more memorable misadventures, maladies, and mistakes from my ongoing journey.
- Thievery - Nazareth, Israel
- Bar Attack - Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Malnutrition - Lao Cai, Vietnam
- Suicide - Kipi Border Crossing, Greece
- Haboob - Afar Depression, Ethiopia
- Coup Attempt - Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
- Perfect Storm - Corcovado, Costa Rica
- Altitude Sickness - Yanque, Peru
- Angry Villagers - Sacred Valley, Peru
I had just arrived in town and was rolling my bag on a rocky road, up a slight hill. Perhaps the GPS was miscalibrated or the satellites were malfunctioning. Whatever the reason, Google Maps was struggling to keep up with my position while I searched for the hotel where I made my reservation.
Two men in a white pickup truck slowed as they approached me. Reaching my position, their truck kept pace with mine. The passenger leaned out the window. Friendly and gregarious, he explained he was not from Nazareth and was wondering if I could help him find the Basilica of the Annunciation. My first thought was that this was an odd request to make of an obviously foreign tourist who was clearly lost himself. But, the man had a kindness that lent credibility to his claims.
The wheels and my feet came to a halt. I approached the window with my phone in hand and at that moment I realized my error in judgment. I clung to the window frame as the passenger yanked my phone from my fingers and the truck started pulling away (albeit slowly).
Perhaps they were empathetic thieves, for they could have easily floored it and sped away with my phone, but as long as I was clinging onto the car, they moved at a jogging pace — though the car would speed up and slow down several times either to gently loosen my grip, or just to screw with me (after all, they did seem to take great joy in the game).
The driver ultimately relented and released the phone from his grip. I clasped the phone in my hands. Laughter could be heard, slowly fading away as the car drove out of sight.
Football-fever is an ongoing global epidemic. The game has irritated me ever since I first traveled outside the U.S. in the mid-`90s. When I visit a bar, I expect to enjoy music and conversation with other undistracted guests; but football (and other sports) spoil this for me. I will never wrap my head around how someone could be so impassioned about any sport, or why someone visits a bar to stare at the TV set. I derive no pleasure from watching other men run around with their balls — perhaps I’m lacking the gene that allows people to enjoy such things.
Black Dog Pub in Mostar met all the criteria I had for bars: a proper counter to sit at, live music outside, and a medium-sized but lively crowd. Sure, there was a small contingent who had their eyes glued to the TV, but most happily watched the band, chatted, laughed and clinked their glasses for a toast. Then came the screams and shattering glass.
Smoke filled the bar area and everyone dove and ducked for cover. The red glow of flares burned brightly, blindingly through the thick, enveloping smoke. We all had every reason to believe this was a terror attack, and we awaited explosions and gunfire, not knowing if the assailants would find their way to our corner of the bar. I found myself crouching under a table with a young woman I’d never met whose eyes were wide with terror, shaking and tightly gripping my arm.
When the attackers fled, an eerie hush fell over the place — pierced by sobs and clinking glass being swept up. Guests and staff ambled slowly, zombie-like around the place in disbelief. “Croatians”, the bartender said to me, trying to make sense of it all with a single word.
But the attack, it turns out, was not inspired by political or religious extremism at all. As reported on the BBC, the assailants were linked to a rival football club, targeting the Aberdeen fans getting their drink on ahead of an upcoming game.
Within a couple of months, I made my way from the frozen northern city of Harbin, China to the southern border town of Hekou. It was already late in the afternoon when I arrived, so I decided to have one good rest before crossing the bridge by foot into Vietnam.
The next morning, I had my final Chinese breakfast before moving on to Vietnam. I was well-rested and well-fed (or so I thought).
Rolling my bag down a rocky dirt road in the morning sun, I walked to my hotel in Lao Cai, just two miles from my hotel in China the night before.
It’s customary for me to opt to walk anywhere within a few miles radius in order to avoid the hassle of dealing with drivers (unless Uber is available in the area). So, I’ve gotten quite a bit of exercise since leaving Los Angeles in late 2016 — walking an average of four miles per day (usually uphill both ways). When I left L.A., I was a bit pudgy. So, I was somewhat proud of my weight-loss on my travels (I weigh 25 to 30 pounds less than when this trip began). The loss started slowly at first, but after a few months of travel, the pounds really started falling off.
But, when I checked into my hotel in Lao Cai, Vietnam and looked at my half-naked image in the full-length mirror, I wondered if this was funhouse mirror. The reflection was unrecognizable, distorted, emaciated.. Where had I gone? How long has this decrepitude gone unnoticed? My ribs were visible, my face was gaunt. It was clear that exercise alone was not the sole factor resulting in me turning into this scrawny, frail skeleton. When I looked at my bony arm, I wondered if it would snap like a twig the next time I lifted my heavy bag off the ground.
Did I have a tapeworm? It’s not like I’m anorexic or bulimic. I’ve always eaten as much as I like whenever I wanted. And, I never purged — certainly not deliberately. Or perhaps I had something worse than tapeworm. Was it cancer? I started imagining my imminent demise.
Fortunately, I was in Lao Cai now — a haven for backpackers, a town replete with restaurants serving fattening Western cuisine. If I had remained in China, it would have been nearly impossible to fatten myself up. (In fact, it’s likely this transformation took place because — as delicious as Chinese food is — it’s perhaps not the most nutritious.)
I remained in Lao Cai for a week, gorging myself on pizzas, burgers and ice cream three or four times a day. Eating and avoiding exercise (for fear of burning calories) was now my full-time job. My new diet worked, and in no time I added a few pounds and no longer appeared like a poster-child for eating disorders. But, for a time there, I honestly fretted that I was nearing the end.
Border-crossings are always some of the most stressful parts of travel. I never know what to expect. Will the officials require an onward ticket that I don’t have? Will they charge me more money than I have on me? Will the bus wait for me if I’m detained for too long?
As it turns out, the Greek/Turkish border at Kipi was as simple as can be. We were not even required to get off the bus (aside from a couple of men who were escorted off to have their luggage inspected more thoroughly). The officials collected our documents and we remained on the air-conditioned bus while immigration stamped our passports. Then we were permitted to proceed to exit Greece, and the attendant handed out our passports as the bus crossed the Maritsa River en route for the Ipsala Border Gate on the Turkish side.
The bus came to a sudden halt, and I craned my neck to see if I could make out what the obstacles were.
The bus ahead of ours had hit a man. His body was limp and a bit of blood trickled from his mouth. A woman — the man’s wife — frantically paced back and forth pleading for someone to help. Our attendant, who had gotten off the bus, reappeared and asked if there was a doctor on board. One man responded and followed the other. As the doctor attended to the unresponsive man on the ground, the victim’s son looked on with a blank expression — no tears and no horror. Perhaps, he had witnessed so much in his life that he had become numb to death.
They were a family of Syrian refugees. My understanding is that they were trying to get to Turkey but were turned away and the man committed suicide by jumping in front of the bus. However, I feel like the story must have gotten lost in translation as I can’t wrap my head around why he would rather die than be returned to Greece, where the family had just come from.
Our doctor could not revive the man and reboarded our bus. We drove onward to the Turkish border gate, and I watched out my window as the woman hunched over her deceased husband and the boy continued staring blankly on.