Travelling is exciting,there’s no doubt about that and for many of us, it’s pretty much a rite of passage: hitting 18, finishing school and jetting off for that first serious solo travel. Turns out though, looking back from the ripe old age of thirty *mumble mumble* that I didn’t always make great decisions. Hell, coming of age and finding yourself practically requires making a ton of stupid mistakes, right? Just today I was chatting with a friend about how we both found ourselves blithely calling home from the other side of the world, her from New Zealand and me from Australia, to beg our parents to lend us some money as we were all spent out.
Adult me shouts back across the year: ‘should have just found a job, you idiot’
Anyway, things have improved somewhat since I was 18. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t made some incredible errors of judgement over the past twenty years. Here, for your delectation, are some of my, ahem, finest moments in chronological order. You’ll see that I don’t appear to get much smarter with time:
- Unnecessary Risk
Obviously I grew up being told never to hitch hike but then I got to Israel aged 18 in 1998 and discovered that it was a super cheap way to get around and practically everyone was doing it. It was fine, mostly. I was only scared for my life once when two Palestinians who spoke no English appeared to ignore our request and drove towards the Lebanese border. Luckily they weren’t bad people, they were just driving a route we didn’t recognise but tensions were high around the boarder and we really didn’t know what we were doing.
In 1999 in the Philippines I claimed I could ride a motorbike: I really couldn’t.
This became apparent to all within approximately thirty seconds of me hiring one when I rode off and immediately fell off. Obviously I was then charged to fix the bike and had to make an awesome call home to my parents (because I was 19) that began with those terrifying words ‘don’t worry, I’m fine…’ . I have never been near another motorbike since.
- Messing Around With Romance
In 1999. I bumped in to a Jordanian guy I knew in Bangkok. He decided to come with me as I headed off to Laos for an adventure. Fine. He made advances over supper one night in Vientiane. I was 19 so I let him kiss me. We went on to a nightclub where he grabbed the microphone from the singer and started serenading me. I realised then I’d made a mistake! I ended up having to lock him out of the room we were sharing when he tried to get in to bed with me and didn’t want to take no for an answer! Because he didn’t know what else to do with himself he followed me round Laos for two weeks or so but we never recovered our friendship because he just didn’t know how to listen when I made it clear I didn’t want a relationship with him. I had no idea how to get rid of him. Eventually I decided to head back to Thailand to try and lose him there. This was actually easier than I thought since it transpired that Brits get multi entry visas to Thailand while Jordanians do not. I bumped in to him again later that day and discovered he had snuck across the border illegally.
Never did find out how that ended for him!
- Misreading Airline Tickets
I was 19. I was flying from Singapore to Australia. I was being picked up at the airport by a guy I’d met in Jordan the year before and he was going to take me along the Great Ocean Road. Things didn’t start well. When I arrived in Melbourne he was there, at the gate, looking decidedly pissed off because he’d shown up the day only to find I wasn’t there. I don’t know which of us had got the wrong day but I learned a valuable lesson that day: ensure you give people meeting your flight exactly the right information. If you’re flying overnight, it’s imperative to stress that you land the next day.
- More Taking Unnecessary Risks
It was 2001. I was in the Middle East with three friends from university. We got chatting to two Jordanian guys in a cafe in Amman. They invited us to their country house the next evening for a bbq. For some reason we said yes without really thinking about what this meant as four female travellers and so the following evening around 6pm these two guys showed up at our hostel. By this point we had realised we possibly weren’t making great choices but we got in their car anyway, agreed to buy booze, and then zipped off in to the desert, trying to persuade ourselves that there were four of us and only two of them…probably.
We got there, two of us decided to remain sensible and not really drink, while two of us threw all caution to the wind and got drunk (I’m not saying which I was as I know my parents will read this!). We had an…edgy…time. True to their word, these guys did make us an awesome bbq and luckily, they didn’t try anything untoward at all, they genuinely were nice people. We ate, chatted and then we made them take us home earlier than they’d wanted, but we just needed to be out of there. We were out of our depth as we had no idea where we were, we spoke no Arabic and had told no one where we were going.
We were lucky. We weren’t smart but we were lucky. I never again went off the beaten track with people I didn’t know, unless I’d told someone else where I was going.
- Poor Planning
I’m still not great at planning trips, to be honest, but I honestly did learn a lesson here.
In 2002, a friend and I spent a summer in China, we taught English for a while and then went travelling round the country. On the spur of the moment we decided to leave Xi’an and take a bus to Huashan, a sacred mountain about 120km away. We figured we’d get there, walk up it and return to Xi’an the following day. Things didn’t go to our incredibly comprehensive plan, at all.
We arrived and discovered that you are only meant to climb Huashan in the early evening so you can get to the summit for sunrise. We could probably have learned that from a guide book but we hadn’t read it very carefully, I guess.
Oh, ok, we thought, so we’ll do it like that then.
We had day packs, no warm clothes, no food and not even decent torches with us.
We hung around all day, and as dusk approached we started climbing. We quickly met two young Chinese guys who, despite no common language, took us under their wing. They clearly thought we were total morons. To be fair, we pretty much were. So, with these two young men, we climbed, in the pitch black, up a fairly difficult mountain path. Their map was drawn on a hanky. Yeah, a hanky.
I guess we climbed solidly for five hours or so before they made it clear to us we needed to find somewhere to sleep. They kindly lent us their army coats that I think they had rented somewhere around there. So we bedded down on the side of the mountain under these rented coats while the two guys used their sleeping bags.
We awoke just as it was getting light. I looked around me and my heart nearly stopped when I realised we were literally on the edge of the mountain and had I rolled to my right at all, I’d have rolled right off the edge. Nothing to do but put my fear to one side and keep on climbing though.
The view from the top was spectacular and the walk down was much easier than climbing up in the dark following a hanky-map but I’ll never forgetting that moment of cold dread when I realised where we’d slept.
- When Safety Measures Go Wrong
By 2008 I was working for an NGO and I had set up a number of projects in Georgia so when war broke out I, of course, wanted to go and see what more we could do for our communities there. Ever the sensible traveller (ahem), I set up the emergency system on my phone. This meant that if I pressed the buttons in a certain order, a message would go to my boyfriend and parents telling them I was in danger and they should alert the authorities. I spent a fairly uneventful week in Georgia and totally forgot about the safety system on the phone.
About three weeks later I ran home from work. As soon as I got home I took a shower and got dressed. Suddenly the police were at my door looking for me. My parents and boyfriend had all called to say I was in danger because they had received my emergency message. I guess the phone had some how activated itself in my bag when I was running. My mum had called the police immediately who had told her to call my phone and stay on the line if I answered even if I didn’t talk. Apparently the phone had picked up her call and she’d heard traffic and heavy breathing so she thought I had either been hit by a car or kidnapped. I don’t think that my parents or my now husband have ever quite got over the fear they felt that day.
The moral of this story is: if you do activate these sensible systems, please ensure that they can’t accidentally turn on and scare your loved ones to death.
- Not Taking Care Of Machines
When we lived in Ethiopia in 2006 I was lucky enough to have the use of a car for my job. One weekend, we took off with some friends and the four of us drove out of town to a ´party’ hotel. We had a fabulous time but on the way home, as I was overtaking a lorry, I felt the power drain away. My boyfriend (now husband) crossly told me I should never stop accelerating whilst overtaking and while I appreciated this piece of helpful advice (!), I knew that wasn’t the problem. Five minutes later we discovered that the radiator had overheated and something or other had broken too. Luckily enough we broke down on the edge of a small town so the guys headed off to find a mechanic while the other woman and I stayed in the car and tried to smile and be friendly with the myriad fascinated Ethiopians who had come to see what was going on.
Lesson learned, always check the water and oil before a long journey.
- Forgetting How Hot The Sun Can Be
It was 2006 and we took a trip from Ethiopia to Tanzania to visit my (now) sister-in-law who was living in Dar es Salaam at the time. We also spent a week in Zanzibar where I burned my feet worse than I have ever burned anything before or since. I had been using sun lotion but forgot to check if it was waterproof or not. People, you need to check! After a day sunbathing and playing in the perfect sea I was in serious pain and couldn’t wear shoes or even really walk, for about another week.
- Not Listening to Advice
Obviously we don’t have to take advice if we don’t want to, but sometimes, it is a really good idea to pay attention. Like, for example, in 2010, when my husband and I went trekking in the Himalayas for a week as part of our random ‘we don’t feel like working at the moment, let’s take six months and go travelling’. We were told it wasn’t a good idea to drink whilst at such a high altitude. Good advice, right? Yes, totally, and we completely understood that…or so we thought.Then, on about night three, we were in Namche Bazaar acclimatising. I guess we thought we were hardier than we were because that evening we decided to have a shot or two of brandy (??) whilst playing cards in our hostel. We thought nothing of it until later, in bed, I awoke in serious pain. I felt as if someone had dumped an elephant on my chest and was hammering nails in to my head. Col was a bit better than me but still fairly miserable.
Our guide wasn’t the friendliest of chaps and this did not improve his opinion of us. Instead of the long acclimatisation trek we had planned for the next day, we managed perhaps 2km with Col having to carry my pack as well as his while I pretty much crawled on my hands and knees. Not my finest moment.
- Blogging Errors
Yes, even on our 2010 trip we kept a blog. I wish now that we’d kept it going and realised we were on to a good thing. If you want to see our early efforts, check them out here, at our hilariously named blog, ceeing the world. Because our names both begin with ‘C’, truly brilliant, right?
Anyway, we kept this blog. We decided to do some volunteering in Kathmandu. Col is a computer man by trade and I have always worked with women and children in developing countries so we figured we could easily find somewhere that would work for both of us. We quickly found an orphanage and signed up for a few weeks work. Because of our skill sets we were quickly taken in to the heart of the organisation, however, I had grave misgivings about what I was seeing. I spoke with a volunteer there who confirmed some of what was worrying me. And here comes my error: I wrote about it in my blog, including that the volunteer agreed with me but I didn’t realise the owners of the orphanage had my blog address in my email signature. They read it, the volunteer was sacked and was rightly really angry with me. I learned a lesson there: never write anything that can hurt others. I will never forget this error of mine.
- Considering Local Sensibilities
This isn’t my error but it did impact on me. It must have been 2002, I guess, and I was back in Israel. I had been travelling with someone very important to me. He’d been in Egypt for a long time and we met in Israel before flying home together. At the airport in Tel Aviv, this person was discovered to have, in his bag, a copy of ‘The Elders of the Protocols of Zion’, in Arabic.
He’d bought it in Egypt, partly in horror that it was readily available, partly to practice reading Arabic and partly to see what this infamous book had to say. This person is in no way a racist or an anti-Semite, he was just young and naive then. Needless to say, the Israelis were not happy to find this. We almost missed our flight as we were taken away for questioning and had our bags thoroughly searched. It was terrifying even though neither of us had done anything wrong or had anything to hide.
I could probably write two or three of these articles and still barely have scratched the surface of the ‘mistakes I have made whilst travelling’. You know what though, as long as things don’t go horribly wrong (and yes, I know I’ve been lucky there), I’ve got some great anecdotes and hopefully I’ve even learned something from my travel mistakes. While I know my kids are never going to learn from mistakes I’ve made, I’m trying to incorporate my own learnings in to what I’m teaching them about the world and travelling in it.