Looking back on some of my travelling adventures, it seems a miracle that I’ve lived to tell the tale.
Tumbling into icy rapids on a mountainside; getting mugged in dodgy Brazilian backstreets; escaping from a burning hotel room, and an up-close-and-personal encounter with a venomous snake. These are among the more dramatic of my traveller’s tales.
Now an older and hopefully wiser version of that devil-may-care adventurer, I’m homebound with the kids during the pandemic that has put everybody’s travel plans on hold.
Nostalgia bites hard when I look back on those days of free-and-easy travel.
Backpacking is not for wimps, and some of the most memorable moments happen when we abandon rigid plans and just let the madness unfurl.
My moments of travel madness make for great stories and, while I might do things differently now, I know I’ll be leaping feet first into adventure again as soon as I get the chance. I’ve never been one to play it safe, and I approach every new situation with an almost toddler-like curiosity and excitement. I can’t wait until I have some new stories to add to these:
#1: Escaping an inferno in ‘Devil’s Point’
My partner Susann and I visited the Uruguayan beach town of Punta del Diablo (literally, Devil’s Point), in the depths of winter. The summer crowds were long gone, but it was wildly, ruggedly beautiful: desolate beaches battered by high waves and howling winds; sea lions seeking shelter beneath rocky outcrops. We were hunkering down for the night with a bottle of wine by the fireplace in our room, grateful we’d been given a free upgrade to a presidential suite (our budget usually dictated the tattiest rooms).
But just as I reached for the corkscrew, I smelled smoke. Dashing to the balcony, I realised the straw roof of our room was engulfed in flames.
Looking back, it was madness to prioritise our personal belongings over our safety, but Susann and I clamoured for our backpacks amid the chaos: they held all our documents and our few worldly goods.
Bags retrieved, we got the hell out: the lobby was filled with thick, choking smoke and cries of ‘everybody OUT!’.
Thankfully, we made it out to the fresh, icy night air, hearts racing. We stood beneath the bright stars, our jaws dropping as the roof burned fiercely against a backdrop of crashing waves as the firefighters’ sirens wailed. Although it turned out that the rather mundane cause of the fire was a pizza box chucked onto the lobby’s fireplace, the moment felt almost magical.
#2: The Indian Job
Less than an hour after arriving in India, we were looking over our shoulders, convinced we were being chased by police. I’d heard all kinds of stories about India: good and bad. Forewarned about dirt, noise, chaos, I felt pretty sure I would hate it. (Spoiler alert: I ended up falling in love with India).
We landed in Bangalore. Swarms of taxi drivers hollered and honked outside Departures, noisily competing for our custom. We normally use public transport while travelling, but the airport’s out-of-the-way location made this impossible. Most of the ‘taxi’ drivers looked like chancers who’d just rocked up at the airport with their battered cars in the hope of picking up a fare. We agreed on a rate with one of the less-dubious looking characters, although his car didn’t look like an official cab either.
After bumping along pot-holed roads, we reached a toll booth, and the driver asked if we could pay. Of course, being naive Europeans, we refused – shouldn’t it be included in the fare?
His response was to slam his foot on the pedal, speeding towards the barrier and hurtling underneath it. Our hearts in our mouths, Susann and I sat in mute astonishment, casting glances over our shoulders and expecting to see police cars on our tail. Instead, we made it safely to our destination and, after checking out the new dents on the roof of his car, the driver pocketed the fare and drove merrily onwards. Welcome to India!
We soon got the hang of public transport in India, and not because we were wary of cab drivers: we came to love the shabby, packed trains, the buses whose slatted wooden floors exposed the bumpy roads below. We travelled on packed but almighty trains. We learnt how to hop off running buses (the first time, it was freaking scary).
#3: Scuffle in Cambodia
The nights in Cambodia were hot. Mosquitos were ferocious, and there were gazillions of them. In the coastal city of Sihanoukville, we had a room on the ground floor, and at night, we had to leave the door open to get some respite from the stifling heat.
One night something woke me up. Susann was next to me, sleeping like a rock.
There was someone in our room – a step or two from our feet. Running on adrenaline and fear, I tapped Susann on the shoulder, and as she blinked her eyes open, I whispered: “don’t speak, don’t move”. Silently, I jumped up and grabbed him from behind. I dragged him out – away from Susann – to our front porch and flung him to the ground. Picking up the glass table that sat outside our patio, I contemplated smashing it on his head. Instead, I yelled at him to “Get the f*** out of here”. Then I went back to bed, assured Susann it was safe, and we drifted back off to sleep.
#4: Myanmar: way too much adventure
So much happened to us in Myanmar. Burst bike tyres in sprawling vast Burmese pagodas; rough nights’ sleep on the floor of a Buddhist monastery, showering on the side of a dusty (and public) road, sleeping in a bamboo hut with mice, getting lost in a thick forest. I had almost forgotten about that time when we decided to take solace under a lonely tree after walking for hours under the torrid sun. Beautiful chanting echoed from a distant Buddhist monastery. Abruptly, something in my peripheral vision shattered the calm. I grabbed Susann’s arm instinctively and pulled her away just as a giant snake lunged down towards us, fangs bared. Pulses racing, we followed the siren call of chanting, hoping the monastery would offer shelter from the beating sun and leaping snakes. The monks greeted us warmly, even offering us a delicious dessert. Not for the first time, we were struck by how easily human kindness overcomes language barriers and cultural divides.
#5: Holy crap! Do not follow this Himalayan weight loss plan
“Kathmandu, Kathmandu, Kathmanduuuu!” The young man was yelling our destination from the doorway of our tiny, already-cramped bus, was trying to drum up even more trade. Susann and I sat with our legs bunched, knees colliding with the seat in front at every bump on the pot-holed road. It was a 20-hour ride from the Indian holy city of Varanasi to the capital, and a fine time to feel the first rumblings of the infamous Delhi Belly. I’d spent a month in India with no tummy trouble, perhaps all the fiery hot food was killing off any bugs. But, after a few days of eating less spicy dishes, I was feeling unwanted effects.
A few days later, I was still splitting my time between mattress and toilet. I managed to keep the stomach gremlins at bay long enough to leave Kathmandu for the Himalayan city of Pokhara. We’d found a Couchsurfing host: a trader of Islamic carpets, but it ought to have been called Toilet Surfing. The only words I managed to speak to him the whole time were ‘Please can I use the toilet?’. We were in one of the most beautiful places in Nepal, and all I saw were the four walls of the loo. Oh, and the flush didn’t work. I had to use a bucket. Every. Single. Time. I felt like my dignity as a guest had disappeared, along with the five kilos I had lost. The combination of dysentery and lifting heavy buckets countless times a day turned out to be the most effective weight loss program I had never asked for. I still feel bad about being a guest in a stranger’s house and spending the entire time on the toilet.
The silver lining? The bug passed, and I managed to prise myself away from the toilet and onto some of the most stunning mountain trekking routes on the planet.
#6: Stranded at the foot of Georgia’s highest mountain
In the foothills of the stunning Caucasian mountains, the Svaneti region of Georgia feels like the gateway between Europe and Asia. Clutching our battered copy of Lonely Planet, we stood in the shadow of Mount Ushba, looming some 4700 meters overhead, between us and Russia. According to the book, a melting mountain glacier formed an icy river that was categorically unsafe to cross on foot during late summer, when the waters were at their highest. The writer’s advice was to enlist locals’ help and cross on horseback.
Instead, here we were in mid-September, taking off our boots and rolling up our trousers. I stepped in first. The water was so cold it felt like sharpened blades, taking my breath away. It was deeper than I expected, and the current much stronger. A sharp tug of water and I was under, upside down in freezing rapids. I have no idea how I reached the other side. Soaking wet, scared and shivering, I clung to the mountainside. There was no track, no riverbank, only sheer granite and thorny shrubs. I couldn’t go back. I clung on while a cool-headed Susann sought help. Finally, a horseback hero managed to wade across on his mighty steed, rescuing the stranded tourist. The water came up to the horse’s flanks, the current battering its legs, but we made it back. I have never felt more grateful, or more foolish. It was a lesson in humility: never again will I underestimate the power of nature or assume advice doesn’t apply to me.
#7: Interrogated by Iranian police
Visas, dress codes, religious and political sensitivities, socially delicate situations: Iran is not an easy place to visit, but well worth the trouble. It’s visually stunning, and the people are incredibly warm and hospitable. True to form, we had a few hairy moments. The time we accidentally hitchhiked on a motorway, for example. There was the underpass filled with needles and what appeared to be a corpse. The Couchsurfing host who turned out to be a serial credit card scammer.
But the biggest rush of fear came on a hilltop in a mountainous region of northern Iran. With our host, we’d been visiting a shepherd who lived a frugal life with his sheep at the top of the hill. On our way down, two policemen were in the village waiting for us. My blood ran cold. I was painfully aware that drug crimes carried a death penalty in Iran, and that knew a video on my phone clearly showed a local man smoking pot. My panicked brain also reminded me that, with dual British-Italian nationality, I’d travelled on my Italian passport and neglected to mention the British part, as Brits are supposed to be escorted full-time by a recognised guide. And we were staying in private accommodation rather than an officially recognised hotel, as Iranian travel laws dictate.
The policemen asked about our documents. Then there was drawn-out chatting between the policemen and various villagers joining in the chats. Susann and I were biting our nails. The only words we recognised were: khoda hafez, khubam, and kheyli mamnoon.
Our host had disappeared: odd, as until that moment he had been like a shadow, always beside us. We were terrified. The police clutched our passports, and I hoped they wouldn’t notice the sweat beading our brows.
Our host reappeared, they gave us the documents back, and we were merrily on our way. I still have no idea what the issue was, but in Iran, friends are friends, and foes are foes. It seems to me we had made many friends in the country.
#8: Brazil is not for beginners
“Be very careful”, “Don’t use your phone on the street”, “Always keep a few reais in your pocket to hand over to muggers.”. We heard this advice over and over during our stay in Brazil.
But advice tends to ring hollow until we experience something for ourselves. In the dark of the evening during the Brazilian winter, Susann was alone and needed to take a bus from the relatively orderly Brazilian city of Curitiba to the Uruguayan border in the south, where I was planning to meet her and make the border cross together.
Her walking options were a well-lit, longer route or a shady shortcut. She took the shortcut.
In a dimly lit alley, two guys emerged from the shadows: “Oi, moça!” (“hi, girl”). One of them, who appeared to have a knife beneath his t-shirt, gestured to her to give him something. She handed over her scruffy old phone and they disappeared into the darkness from whence they came, leaving her shaken but with backpack, money, tablet, passport all safe. With no phone, Susann managed to contact me on her tablet once she was safely on the bus. She had a lucky escape and chastised herself for ignoring the warnings. Muggings are, sadly, a common occurrence in Brazilian cities.
#9: Chased by German cows
Cycling in Germany: what could go wrong? Not much, apart from being on the same side of an electric fence with cows stampeding towards you.
You know those times when you take a wrong turn, then another and another one and your GPS starts working erratically. You have two options: follow your path back to the last known point, or keep going ahead until the blue dot gets close to a viable route. More often than not, I go for the latter, and when I do, the way gets from bad to worse. The bike sinks in the sand, the forest gets thicker, and you think, “ok, it can’t get worse”, and that’s when you hit a dead end. The dead-end, in this case, was a field with cows fenced by electric wire. We could see the road we were supposed to be on just behind the field. The cows were far away, and here came our idea: let’s get ourselves and our bikes behind the wire, quickly get to the other side – the cows won’t care about us. So I lift up our bikes and all the camping gear over the electric fence, and then we get over it ourselves – everything with carefully planned and steady movements trying not to get electrocuted.
No sooner were we inside the field than dozens of long-lashed eyes were staring at us. The herd began taking slow steps towards us. We froze. Cows might be peaceful animals, but it’s not unheard of for hikers to get trampled underfoot. Trying to appear calm while fearing a cow stampede as well as electrocution, I hastily hurled the gear over the fence, and we clambered over as hastily as the situation allowed. From the safety of the other side, we saw an army of hooves, and those big bovine eyes were still fixed on us, perhaps amused.
#10: Walking 850km across Spain
Walking 850km across Spain the whole length of Spain is one of my most treasured experiences. Despite the scorching heat, the lead weight of my backpack, the blisters and the knife-blade pain of tendonitis, it was an incredible experience.
The tendonitis was something that had affected me since the first week and hurt so much I almost felt like quitting. Almost. The first warning sign was a ‘rubbery’ noise from my calves. I immediately sought medical advice and dreaded hearing that I’d have to throw in the towel. It was music to my ears when the doctor said I could continue the walk as long as I took it easy, applied ice at nighttime and took plenty of painkillers. I’m so glad I made it to the end!
I pushed myself to my absolute limits both physically and mentally, achieving mental clarity like never before and witnessing nature in all its beauty and brutality. It’s no exaggeration to say that trip changed me forever.
I have many more stories, and hope I’ll be adding to the collection of travellers’ tales very soon. Pandemics aside, I’d like to keep travelling as long as I am physically able.
Travel opens the eyes and the mind, takes us out of our comfort zone and lets us see the humanity behind cultural and religious differences. Many of us judge those who are different to ourselves, holding on to an unshakeable belief that the way we do things is the only ‘right’ way.
As Mark Twain famously said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” And that’s something the world could really do with right now.