Young soldiers in Tel Aviv, Israel


get me out of here

twelve tales of travel turbulence


Travelling is fun and part of the adventure is when things don't go exactly according to plan - although fun isn't what springs to mind when it happens to you at the time. Part of the buzz and lure of travel is the taking of risks; heading into the unknown, taking your chances. In travel, it's a fine line to tread between avoiding risks and dangers and missing the opportunities that are out there. You cannot have adventure without risk - the two are intertwined. An overly cautious traveller may have just opted to remain in Israel - and missed the lot. Below are a few of those occasions when I've experienced some unexpected travel turbulence - those moments when risk, adventure and danger all seem like the same thing. Some tales are serious, some just silly. 



Battling the Effects of High Altitude at 10,000 Feet in Kyrgyzstan

Son Kul is a large mountain lake on the top of a plateau 30‎16m (9, 800 feet) above sea level in central Kyrgyzstan. After a couple of hours on the plateau, I began to feel a little compressed - like my head was in a vice, such was the air pressure and shortage of oxygen. Indeed, the plastic ball on my roll-on deodorant popped out and flew across the yurt when I removed the lid. An ongoing headache soon kicked in and, to be honest, I was glad of the descent down the mountain the next day. Of greater concern was what my heart was doing. Trying to sleep my heart had periods where it began to race rapidly - jerking me awake. I felt like I was having a heart attack or a panic attack. Apart from keeping me awake, it was also quite scary because, at the time, I didn't know what it was. It was only back in the safety of our hotel in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek that I researched a little further. Son-Kul's 3,000 metres altitude places it in the 'High Altitude' category. Altitude sickness, which can be fatal, kicks in at around 3,500 metres - we were only a few hundred metres away from this borderline where symptoms begin to present themselves. For me, obviously, they started to kick in a little lower down. A cautionary tale indeed.


Sh*tting the Bed in Uzbekistan

I'm often very careful about what I eat abroad. But I took my eye off the ball just for a moment... Clearly there was something very wrong with the food we ate at the Kochkor co-operative in central Kyrgyzstan. We were there for a traditional rug-making ceremony and ate lunch in a yurt with a local family. It was back in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek a few hours later where everything started to go wrong - and it was only hours before a flight out of the country to Uzbekistan. I'll keep it brief: vomiting, diarrhoea - sometimes at the same time - and, once in the Uzbek capital, in the bed, too. I feel very sorry for the poor member of staff who came to clean our hotel room that day. I was terrified at flying Uzbekistan Airways anyway, but now there was sickness and diarrhoea to contend with, too. Flight fright + sick + sh*t = really bad experience. We managed to hold it together on the flight which, luckily, was only an hour long. We arrived in Tashkent in one piece - but only just... This is one of my lowest points as a traveller. That poor member of staff...


The Big Burmese Bag 'Snatch'

It was in Nya Pyi Taw, the new Burmese capital, that we had what was the scariest experience of the entire trip. We'd left our rucksacks in our driver's boot as we went to visit the pagoda. On our return the driver had vanished. Walking up and down the road in the searing heat I was convinced he'd driven off. Not a problem? All our money was in those bags - and good luck finding a cash machine in Burma that works with UK cards. Stranded in the heat, in a ghost city - and with no money. Terrifying. How could we have been so stupid?! After about twenty minutes frantically searching and stressing, we discovered that our driver had just driven to the end of the street and parked in a car park which was hidden from view - but what a stupid risk to have taken. After that, we made sure that all of our valuables were relocated into our day bags. It did get me thinking, though, about the best way to avoid this happening for real and things I will make sure I do in future. Firstly, get your driver's photograph at the start of your trip and pretend it's a tourist thing. No driver will try anything if he knows you have his mugshot. If your driver refuses, alarm bells should ring. Also, get a photo of the car before you set off making sure you include its number plate. Good, practical tips triggered by being in what could have been a real situation. Phew. 


The Really Dangerous Ukrainian Hostel

We stayed in the 'Really Central' hostel just off of the main Kiev shopping street called 'Vul Kreshatyk'. It should have been named the 'Really Dangerous' hostel as, on the third night there, there was an electrical fire in the ceiling which caused all of the electrics to fail. Not only did we have a lowly electrician traipsing around the hostel pulling down panels and lifting up furniture, but had to shower and take our ablutions by candlelight - there was no window in the bathroom and so everything was pitch black. Trying to shower whilst holding a torch is the best yoga lesson I've ever had. Welcome to Ukraine - we hope you had a nice stay.


Getting a Real Romanian Roasting

We arrived in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, mid afternoon at the end of August. A street-based temperature tower put the temperature at 45°. I glanced away and then back. It had switched to display the temperature in Fahrenheit - 127. Seconds after walking past it, the display changed to 46°. It was unbearably hot. I was rather concerned as this was at 5 'o clock in the afternoon, my reasoning being that if it was 46° now, what would it be like at midday tomorrow?! We dived into the nearest local shop and bought a three litre bottle of water - which was downed by the time we'd arrived at our hotel quarter of an hour later. Soon after seeing this we spotted a makeshift gazebo on the corner of a large boulevard with a medical stretcher inside and two women handing out cups of water to city dwellers. Also, strange yellow shelters which sprayed water downwards, like misting sprinklers, were a common sight in the capital (a cross between a bus shelter and a shower) such was the heat in the city. The best part of our arrival day was spent cooling down in the hotel room and sleeping off the heat with the air-con on max. This was the hottest temperature my body had ever had to endure - and it was not nice.


dealing with Slovakia's Craftiest Waitress 

It all went down hill when we arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia. Bratislava will forever be 'Scratislava' to me; a slightly downtrodden place where too many of the people we met were rude and tried to take advantage of tourists like us. Scratislava was home to Europe's stupidest or craftiest (I still can't decide) waitress. She tried ripping us off several hundred 'Krones'. I was forced to haggle with her for over ten minutes, resorting to an impromptu Maths lesson to argue my case - which, in the end, I won. It was only afterwards that I realised that the notes I had extracted from her, and which she begrudgingly coughed up, (looking like a fortune) amounted to about 30p. I suppose it was the principle of the whole thing. They have the Euro in Slovakia now. Just as well.


A Close Shave with Serbian Soldiers

As we left Hungary and headed into Serbia, things took a darker turn. During our train journey three armed soldiers, in khaki and with machine guns, entered the train following an impromptu and unexpected stop at the Hungary/Serbia border. Soldiers jumped onto the train and proceeded to pull down ceiling panels and grunt at the passengers, all the while marching up and down looking for, what I presume, were illegal immigrants? I couldn't help but think to myself, 'who'd want to sneak into this country anyway? You wish'. The whole thing was rather unsettling. One guard aggressively clicked his fingers at me because my feet were on the chair. I dared not complain - he had a machine gun, you see. The train was held up for about twenty minutes while this unsavoury experience played out. A warm welcome from Serbia this was not.


Finding Myself in America's Most Dangerous City

Having been to many places where warnings had been issued and consequently found them to be groundless, we brushed off the cautionary notes about Detroit. Big mistake. Within minutes of being on foot downtown I was verbally abused and threatened by a man in a car. He was fresh out of jail and on probation. Ironically this all took place directly in front of the Detroit Courts of Justice. Detroit was eerily quiet; the streets were deserted. There were no retail shops - most were boarded up. Without realising it, 'Downtown Detroit' was infamous. There were several 'bums' on the street, the stereotypical ones you see in American films; clumped hair and a bottle of alcohol in a brown paper bag. The steam rising from the road plates just added to the lawless city we'd just walked right into. The city was so bad that our hotel, as a matter of course, laid on a free shuttle to take people staying at the hotel anywhere around the city they needed to go. I have never been to a hotel where they offer what was essentially a safety shuttle. The famous brick skyscrapers I'd come to see were nearly all derelict and empty. There was a real sense that 'The D' had just been abandoned. At this point, having made a daring photo-raid on the buildings I'd wanted to see for about an hour, walking up deserted streets, I googled Detroit from the safety of our hotel: for the last four years Detroit was, according to CNN, the most dangerous city in America. Oops - really should have researched this a bit more.


Being Taken Prisoner by a Georgian Street Child

Whilst taking in the Stalin palace architecture of the Academy of Sciences building, and whilst trying to take a photograph of the iconic structure, I became attached to a little girl who'd decided to link her arms around my ankles and who then refused to let go. Clearly this was a ruse to show she was a desperate orphan so hungry she clings onto the nearest Westerner for help. It was weird. After what felt like several minutes and even after shouting at her, she gripped tighter than ever. I had velcro kid stuck to me - and it didn't look like she was intending to leave any time soon. My only option was to walk away - and drag her along the pavement with me. After giving the girl, who was about seven years old, a fair few metres' worth of free transportation the little velcro blighter finally relinquished her grip and I was able to resume my photography of Stalinist architecture. Just for clarification, no child was harmed in the making of this memory.


Taking a Ride in the Moroccan Death Taxi

Our return journey from Ouzoud was spent in the world's most dangerous taxi cab, an absolute death trap on four wheels which was endeavouring, by defying the laws of physics and engineering, to take us back to Marrakesh. It lacked handles, seatbelts and window levers: I thought we'd never make it. Within ten minutes of setting off, the bonnet had steam rising out from under it. The driver clearly anticipated engine problems, having stashed a huge ten litre bottle of water in the foot well of the passenger seat. Pulling over, he lifted the steaming bonnet and deployed the water so that we could be on our way. Half way into the journey, he pulled over once again: this time to swap with a driver who was passed some of the Dirhams we had paid. It was clear our first taxi driver's car wasn't going to make it all the way back to Marrakesh. He'd obviously arranged the half-point pick-up on his mobile during our first leg. The changeover would have been fine - had we been warned. We were bundled into the back of another taxi - the driver this time scared the life out of me wearing, as he was, an all-in-one dark brown hooded smock (a Djellaba). For a moment we thought we were being ambushed - rich westerners out in the countryside on their own are at the mercy of what these drivers want to do to them! Stories of abductions in Morocco resurfaced in my mind...


Fending off a Spanish Bag Thief in My Underpants

I'd just finished my TEFL in Tarragona, near Barcelona, having spent a month teaching in a shed with an air conditioning unit and fourteen teenagers. I was on my way home and arrived at the airport much earlier than expected. I decided the best use of my time was to strip down to my pants and do some sunbathing on a grass mound outside Barcelona airport. I dropped off to sleep but was stirred by a noise. I opened my eyes to see a man with the strap of my bag in his hands and a moped parked up within a make-off-quickly distance. I leaped up and shouted, snatching my bag strap back. He made off on his moped. Mind you, the only thing he'd have got away with was my bag and a few things I needed for my flight. I had tucked all valuables (phone, wallet, camera) into some clothing I was using as a pillow. I'd heard of bag snatchers in Spain targeting tourists. I wasn't that stupid. I won my battle with the thief - on two levels. But I was still stood there wearing my pants.


Putting My Life in the Hands of a Drunken Serb Rafter

Our last day in Montenegro saw us travel back up north to the Bosnian border to do what many do when in this country: rafting along the awe-inspiring Tara Canyon - the second deepest canyon in the world. With no instruction, and with complete disorganisation, we were piled onto our raft within minutes of arriving - and set off tentatively perched on the side of the raft's inflatable sides, hooking our feet in the elastic cables on the raft's base for dear life. Two Serbian girls were particularly funny, perched on the raft's back with a fag and can of lager in each hand, not doing any rowing and shouting in broken English, "Row, come on muscles!" They helped to translate the instructions from our Serbian lead rafter, who had taken to drinking cans of lager like a duck to water. Soon enough, empty lager cans rattled around at the bottom of the raft as we splished and splashed through the winding 25km long canyon. Our lead rafter was now drunk in charge of the raft - and our lives were in his hands... the white-water rapids were straight ahead! What a risk - but what fun, too. It was ace!



you may also like