My Sketchiest Travel Moments and What I Learned From Them
Do you ever get the feeling in the pit of your stomach that traveling is deceptive? Not in an intentionally malicious way or anything, just in the sense that we only share the perfect moments?
What I mean is that social media creates this vacuum of content that is less than perfect. Heck, even I’m guilty. My following only sees the highest of my highs and the coolest of my cools. The Taj Mahal? Travel gold. Riding horses through the Great Pyramids of Egypt? The diamond of my adventures. Getting invited into and then locked inside small store by locals during a night out in Antigua? Probably not a story you’ve heard yet, huh?
My top four sketchiest travel moments taught me four very important lessons. As I reflect back on things, I hope my mistakes (or strokes of lacking situational genius) strike a chord with you in some way or another, be it through a laugh or a lesson.
Lesson 1: You can’t avert bad situations if you don’t have enough background knowledge to know they’re dangerous.
Where: Egypt // What: A near run-in with a radical Islamic group
It was my last few hours in Egypt. My Egyptian tour guides (and now close friends) Mohamed and Ahmed were touring Allie and I around Khan al Khalili, a market in the heart of Cairo. The two of us had some last minute souvenir shopping to do, and it certainly didn’t hurt that the market was known for its beautiful facade of ornately decorated shops and goods.
We parked in a nearby parking deck and followed the guys to the outskirts of the market. The hours flew by as we drank mint tea and threw money at vendors left and right. On our way back to the car, we took a different route. Mind you, Allie and I stick out: we are most definitely not Egyptian and clearly not Muslim- our heads and bodies were not covered in the full conservative garb preferred by many traditional practitioners of the faith.
As we’re walking back and laughing with the boys, the mood suddenly shifts. I feel a hand grabbing my arm and quickly notice it to be Ahmed’s. He has abruptly moved to the other side of my body and is pulling me along at a frantic pace. “Hurry, hurry! Don’t look up!”
Not totally digesting what Ahmed has just told me, I steal a quick glance behind me, and I realize Mohamed has done the exact same to Allie. Over my shoulder, I see a cluster of men dressed in all white garb, their beards long, and their eyes fixed on Allie and I. I guess it was at this point that I realized what was happening and the panic started to set in- you know, one of those occasions where you feel your heartbeat in your throat.
We made it to the car totally safe, albeit completely rattled. We'd just encountered the Muslim Brotherhood. Given that the Brotherhood party is technically illegal in Egypt, it was rather strange that we saw them in plain daylight, presumably gathered after an "unofficial" meeting. In Egypt in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood has had quite the history, as they had direct involvement in the ultra-violent Egyptian revolution of 2011 that erupted into chaos for the years following. While extremely contested, many people consider the Brotherhood as the predecessor of militant radical Islam.
Well, one, I am outrageously thankful we had tour guides with us. They detected potential trouble and protectively steered us away from a situation that Allie and I would have been oblivious to or just too consumed in conversation to notice.
Research the places you’re visiting and make yourself educated on potential threats. Consider your accumulated information insurance of sorts. Be it tap water safety or a radical religio-political group presence, thorough knowledge and a firm understanding of the city you’re visiting is imperative.
Lesson 2: There are plenty of dangers that exist in other parts of the world that don’t exist back at home.
Where: India // What: A midnight, rain soaked run through a tiger sanctuary
I was visiting Rishikesh for a few days with a bunch of friends I had met while volunteering in India. There are three main things you should know about Rishikesh: one, it’s the yoga and meditation capital of the world; two, it’s hella forested. Like, nestled-in-the-foothills-of-the-Himalayas forested; three, the mountainside of our hostel was a tiger sanctuary. We were advised to avoid foot travel by night, and even given a curfew. You know, to avoid tiger encounters :’)
Anyway. So a big group of us went out to dinner at this treehouse cafe at the banks of the Ganges River. The restaurant ended up being immaculate shelter from the sudden downpour that trapped us at our table long after we finished our meal. During a lull in the rain, our group made moves to head up to our hostel. All but one of the people in my group were staying in my hostel in the mountain; the other girl, Bri, had booked a hostel in the city. Weary of letting Bri walk home alone and in the dark, my friend Tom and I insisted on walking back with her.
Midway through our commute, the rain came back down in buckets. By the time we got Bri to her hostel, Tom and I were soaked to the bone and enveloped in laughter. Turns out, although we had managed to navigate to Bri's hostel in the city easily, we had absolutely no clue how to get back to ours in the mountains. We stumbled through the rainy black abyss, slipping every other few steps, until we somehow located this obscure trail that led to the mountaintop.
We climbed up the pitch black slope with the lights of our cell phones, sliding down rocks and mud until we sloshed to the front door of the hostel. I guess we were either too consumed in laughter given the ridiculousness of the situation or just oblivious to the potential danger, but neither of us even thought about our curfew or the fact that we were climbing through a tiger sanctuary until we were back to safety.
Curfew? Tigers? Late night, rainy mountain hikes? I can’t say I’m particularly accustomed to any of the above. Maybe that’s why Tom and I didn’t realize the negligence of our actions until we were reflecting on things later.
I think sometimes we find ourselves at the most risk in situations we aren’t familiar with. We are far more inclined to look out for danger in environments we're used to. I’d turn my nose up at anyone who'd trudge through a grassy field on a hot Alabama summer day without looking out for snakes. Yet, the tigers in Rishikesh? I couldn’t have been more oblivious. After reflecting on that incident, I make it a priority to stay hyper aware of the travel dangers I don’t face at home.
Lesson 3: Sometimes you don’t think of the worst-case scenario until you’re potentially in it.
Where: Guatemala // What: Too much alcohol and a perfect set-up for a robbery/assault/kidnapping incident
Our night out in Antigua started out with a single cocktail, as many great nights do. Allie and I followed that cocktail with a few more, and so on (whoops) until we had enough liquid courage to take on the Guatemalan dance club scene. At the club and with each round of beer, we’d clink glasses and make a new set of friends. We soon realized that we hated the club's music (who’s ever heard of a Guatemalan club playing American pop music??!), and so we decided to take our business up the street to a nicer bar.
Along the way, the two of us made friends with a group of local guys. At their insistence, we agreed to try out this cheap lemon liquor (a questionable move in the first place) and then proceeded to follow them up the road to a tiny tienda. After an exchange with the shop workers in Spanish, the boys took us inside (our second really stupid move) and motioned for us to wait at the counter while one of the workers filled our shot glasses. I turn around in time to see the shop door being jammed shut and locked. The next thing I know, the lights have flicked off and we're standing in a pitch black, closet sized room with complete strangers (holy sh*t).
In my drunken stupor, I managed to discern that the men had closed the door to keep the police from seeing us while we consumed the alcohol. The darkness, on the other hand, was supposedly for effect. How dumb. Had Allie and I not known Spanish to decipher the situation and demand that the doors to be opened, I can’t imagine how scared we would have been. I mean, in general, this a textbook example of an environment that’s ripe for sexual assault, robbery, kidnapping- you name it.
For the love, be smart when you drink. Especially when you’re drinking abroad. I am the queen of assuming the best in people (or just not assuming anything in the first place), and sometimes that’s just irresponsible. Seemingly innocent situations can go south in a blink of an eye.
More than that- what happens if you do find yourself in a dangerous situation? Do you have a plan? Allie and I certainly did not have a preplanned course of action, and we travel together all the time; she's my best friend. Had things gone differently, I can’t imagine the outcome. Sure you may feel silly about it, but you can react to bad situations more quickly and effectively if you've spent time thinking about your response.
Lesson 4: Trust the Travel Universe. It works in strange and remarkable ways.
Where: More like where I wasn’t // What: Avoidance of disaster… twice.
Where do I even begin? When I first got my start traveling, it was the summer of my junior year. Prior to this, I had never traveled outside of North America, let alone as a solo traveler. As I began to plan my first stint abroad, my itinerary quickly fell into place: I would go to India during May, Morocco during June, I would spend a week in Paris with my mom, and then finish off July in Zimbabwe. I had booked planed tickets, arranged volunteer placements, secured visas, gotten countless rounds of vaccines, and so on.
The red flag was when my flight from Paris to Zimbabwe was cancelled... not once, but twice. The first cancelation email came a few weeks before I was set to leave for India. The email was eerie- something about the airlines not being "partner airlines", thereby rendering my trip impossible. Weirded out, I rebooked the flight with the money I had been refunded, this time through a different airline. Crisis averted- or so I thought. During my second day in India, I received another email saying that the second flight I had rebooked to Zimbabwe been canceled, this time however, without an explanation.
That's when the bad feeling started to sink in. I called my mom, my temperament far more even than I expected. She listened as I explained things, and I felt this sense of calm as we went through my options. Due to India's digital security concerns and immaculately slow internet speed, I was extremely hesitant to purchase anything online. My mom offered to book the ticket for me from the USA, but I had an unshakeable bad feeling.
As strange as it sounds, I felt as though the universe had given me not one sign, but two, that Zimbabwe wasn't in my cards just yet. Having fully resigned myself, I gave my mom the all clear to rebook my flight for a third time- this time, from Paris back home to Birmingham. I was devastated, but I knew the decision felt right.
Here's where things get weird. A few after, I got word of the EgyptAir flight that had crashed in the Mediterranean. It was making a trip from Paris to Cairo- the same airline and itinerary I would have taken en route to Zimbabwe a month or so down the road. As the story unfolded, I realized the plane that crashed was the exact same aircraft that I was set to take, only my flight would have taken place month or so later. My first flight that had been canceled... it's like it was canceled because they knew the plane was going to crash weeks earlier. My heart sunk to my stomach.
Fast forward to the week in Paris with my sweet mom. It was our last night in France when news broke about the bombing at the Istanbul airport. I remember the world flipping on its head, spinning, my mind pulsing. I don't recall how we consumed the breaking news of the terrorist attack, I don't remember writing this post- I just remember this inexplicable sense of devastation and identification with the victims of the bombing. As the universe would have it, if my second flight had not been canceled out of the blue, I would have been in the Istanbul airport for a layover during the exact time of the terror bombing.
I can't make this stuff up. I think back on the series of events quite a lot. I get chill bumps every time. I count my blessings, I think about all the innocent lives that were lost and find myself disoriented in sorrow. Sometimes I wonder "why not me"- truly, I was no more deserving of my fate than the lives of those lost. Somehow, I was led away from crisis not once, but twice.
I think the most important gift we have as travelers is this: we have this great capacity to hear and listen to the little voice inside our heads. When it's our time to go somewhere far or near- or when it's not- it will be obvious. The world has weird and extraordinary ways of communicating. So often, doors to the lands of our musings close- and painstakingly so. On the flip, sometimes they open right before a trip is set to begin. Heck, I booked my trip to Egypt two weeks out! It's our job, however hard, to to champion that inner voice inside our head and heart and trust that God, the universe- whatever you believe in- works in incomprehensible ways.
Do you have any freaky travel stories? Any important lessons you've learned along the way? Share them below.
PS: I have a Facebook page!!!! Follow along with the Resident of the Road travel saga here . If you're more of a picture person, I'm toying around with a new Instagram profile. You can find that over here.