I’m a pretty cautious traveler. I always arrive absurdly early to the airport, I always drive carefully when I’m in a new vehicle, I always look for a street food vendor that looks like the food is turning over regularly and being cooked to order instead of sitting.
But you can never prepare for what’s going to happen when you’re on the road in a foreign country. Sometimes I let my guard down and eat things that I probably shouldn’t. Sometimes I trust people that are clearly out to do me wrong. Sometimes I make the error of thinking that a place I’ve never been to is going to be set up just like any other place in that country or region. Sometimes I literally just make really stupid mistakes.
These are some of the biggest travel disasters I’ve had since I left home in 2010. Some are minor, but at the time felt major. Some were totally out of my control and some were totally my fault. Some are a little bit gross if you’re not into bodily dysfunction and some are super embarrassing and I can’t believe I’m telling you about them, but here I am.
Travel isn’t always glamorous and it isn’t always fun, but that’s part of the adventure. Getting out of your comfort zone is never easy and sometimes you pay a price for it, but at least it makes for a good story in the end.
1. Almost Pooping My Pants – Bali, Indonesia
I’ll start with perhaps the most grotesque on the list, yet one of the most common issues among travelers. The dreaded traveler’s diarrhea. Bali Belly if you will. I went to Bali in 2013 for five weeks. It was amazing. We traveled around the whole island and headed off to the Gili’s. It was a dream trip and I really fell in love with the Balinese people, the culture of the country, and the food. But I had diarrhea for almost the entire five weeks that I was there.
It was my first ever trip to Asia. It was really my first ever experience with street food that wasn’t New York hotdogs. I loved it. I loved the nasi goreng and mi goreng. I loved the soups and the fresh juices. I even loved the chili. Alas, my body did not. I tried not eating greasy food for a week. I took Immodium. I ate packaged foods that I was familiar with. Nothing worked.
It was my last night in Bali. We were due to fly back to Australia the next day and I thought I was feeling better. We decided to hit up a night market near Kuta for our last meal. We ate chicken feet soup and nasi goreng. I had one last Bintang. Then we started walking back to our hotel. It was about 20 minutes away and as we were leaving the market, I could feel the urge to go to the bathroom begin to creep in. I told Luke that I wanted to find a bathroom, so we looked around the area, but there were none. I said I was fine and would be okay to walk back to the hotel.
About 10 minutes into the walk, it was clear I was not okay. I couldn’t run, I could barely walk. I had a cold sweat. I was clenching for dear life. I thought I was going to have to duck into the woods somewhere. Our hotel came into sight and I booked it. I have never come so close to pooping my pants before or since. Thankfully, I made it without complete disaster ensuing. As soon as we landed in Australia the next day, my stomach went straight back to normal.
2. Projectile Vomiting – Koh Rong, Cambodia
Cambodia isn’t really a country known for its cuisine. Mostly it’s Thai style curries and Vietnamese sandwiches. There are a few really stand out dishes like Lok Lak or Amok curry, but otherwise, I ate a lot of stir-fried chicken dishes and tons of soup while I was in Cambodia. When I think back to meals, I remember it all being very greasy and heavy. Lots of fried eggs and oily rice. It was cheap and tasty, but it was rich. After about two weeks of eating this way, my body had simply had enough.
While we were staying on Koh Rong, a beautiful island off the south coast of Cambodia, I started getting really bad stomach cramps after eating. I cut back for two days to drinking fresh smoothies without added sugar and plain white rice and I started to feel better. On the third day, I thought it would be fine to have a vegetable soup with rice. About an hour after eating it, I was sitting on the balcony of our hostel when I started getting a burning acid feeling in my throat. I knew immediately I was going to be sick.
I made it to the bathroom just in time to get rid of all of my soup and rice (okay and an Angkor beer) into the toilet.
3. Nearly Running Out of Money – Sydney, Australia
Okay, I’m done with bodily fluid disasters, I promise. This was a much bigger disaster, one that could have totally derailed my trip and changed pretty much everything. I’d been living in Melbourne for a few months and had easily gotten a retail job. It was two months before Christmas, so there was plenty of Christmas temp work to be found. Just before Christmas, Luke and I decided to head north to Sydney to meet up with old friends and try to find jobs there instead.
We had an indulgent Christmas and spent over $300 each on tickets to spend New Years on a boat in Sydney harbor. It was worth every penny, but by the time January rolled around, we were almost broke and we needed to find jobs. Luke found a few part-time jobs, but they were on 30-day pay cycles, so he wasn’t due to be paid for a few weeks. I was struggling to land a job. I’d had what felt like 50 interviews and no return phone calls.
I specifically remember logging into our online account only to find that we had a total of $50 left between the two of us. We started talking about the possibility of asking our parents for a loan to book flights back to the U.S. We looked at ways to earn a few dollars, thought about selling some of our stuff. We asked our landlord if we could be a few weeks late on our rent.
That afternoon I got a phone call and got a job from one of the interviews I’d had earlier that week. They paid weekly and we were soon earning plenty to remain in Sydney. I’ve never ever let my bank balance get that low again, not anywhere near it. It taught me a really valuable lesson about the importance of saving and planning ahead.
4. Breaking My Bicycle – Kampot, Cambodia
For some reason this was one of the most frustrating disasters on our month long trip around Cambodia. We’d rented bikes from our hostel and planned to cross the river and ride them around the area to explore. We’d been riding for about an hour when the chain fell off of my bike. I pulled to the side and flipped it upside down to try to put the chain back on. It didn’t budge. It was totally stiff.
After about 10 minutes of trying to fix the bike, oil covering me up to my elbows, a cyclist rode past.
“Hey, you guys need some help?”
Our savior had arrived. “Yes! Please! That would be amazing.”
“There’s a bike shop about a mile back that way,” he said as he continued to ride past us.
Great. So I started rolling our bike back in the direction of our hostel which also happened to be about a mile back that way. I sat on the seat and rolled myself along like a kid on one of those pedal-less bikes.
When we got back to the hostel almost two hours later, the owner couldn’t have been more apologetic. He brought us out his children’s bikes for us to use for the rest of the day and then proceeded to pour gasoline all over my hands and arms to help get the grease off. I smelled like a petrol station for three days.
5. Having the Wrong Currency – Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
One of the biggest money disasters I’ve ever had was when I was flying from the Philippines to Vietnam. We needed to get Vietnamese currency so that we could pay for our visas on arrival. We figured we could take out Philipino Pesos from an ATM and then exchange them at the airport for Vietnamese Dong before leaving the country.
When we arrived at the airport in Manila, there wasn’t a currency exchange in site. We asked a few people and they told us it was in a different terminal. We’d already checked in and gone through security, there was no going back.
When we arrived in Ho Chi Minh, we asked if they accepted Pesos. Thankfully they did. The woman behind the desk took out a pad of paper with the exchange rates written on it. She punched a few numbers into a calculator, then turned it around to face us.
“Is that for both of us?” I asked.
“No, for one person,” she said as she pulled the calculator back behind the desk.
We should have paid $25 each for our visas, but because we had to pay in Pesos, we ended up paying the equivalent of $55 each for our visas. Lesson learned. Now we always arrive in the country with the right currency and a few dollars tucked inside our wallets.
6. Walking to the Airport – Cancun, Mexico
This disaster was totally my fault. We were coming back from Tulum and needed to get to the airport for a flight at 6 pm. Our bus was due into Cancun center at about 4:45 and we weren’t sure what time the next bus from Cancun to the airport would be. So we asked the driver if there was a stop at the airport and he said he could drop us off right outside the airport, it was a short walk to the terminal.
Perfect! Or so we thought. When we got off the bus, we were on a highway. There were no taxis going past, there were no crossings or stop lights that we could use to get to the other side of the road. So we walked up an off ramp and carried on walking along the highway as it led into the airport. It was two and a half miles from where we got dropped off to the terminal entrance.
To make matters worse it was Cancun in August which means it was melt-your-face-off-hot and we had legit luggage, not backpacks. The icing on the cake? We’d bought tons of snacks to eat in Tulum because Cancun airport is so expensive and I’d left them ALL on the bus.
7. Losing Luggage – Seoul, South Korea
It’s only happened once, which is probably a miracle considering how many flights I’ve taken. What this experience taught me was that I should ALWAYS give myself more than enough time to transfer between connecting flights. Also, always pack a spare pair of underwear in your carry-on.
When I was moving to Korea in 2014 to teach English, I was flying from the UK to Seoul via Istanbul. I had a one and a half hour layover which, by the time we taxied, disembarked, and got through the transfer line, meant we were sprinting to our next flight. We were the last ones one the plane.
When we got to Seoul, where we had just MOVED TO, we waited and waited and waited, and our suitcases never came around the carousel. I had to start my first day of work in the clothes that I wore on my 15-hour flight despite the fact that my mother always tells me to pack an extra outfit in my carry-on. I always listen to her now (with that advice anyway).
What’s the Point in Traveling?
Most of these things made me really uncomfortable. Some of them cost me money while others were just really inconvenient. Most of them totally stressed me out. When they happen I often wonder whether I’m really cut out for this lifestyle. I wonder whether or not I’d just be better off going to places that are easy.
But then I keep going, I laugh at the stupid moments and I carry on exploring. Because for all of these disasters, there are a million moments of pure elation. There are those times when I laughed so hard I cried, where I met incredible people who taught me so much about myself and about the world.
I’ve been traveling for over seven years and if I only have seven major disasters to speak of, I’d say those are pretty good ratios. These disasters all made me into the traveler that I am today. They’ve taught me valuable lessons and while there’s no doubt there are many more disasters ahead, I know there are also many more people to meet, more foods to taste, more stories to create.
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