When travel goes wrong

Travelling is one of my greatest passions. It may end up costing you a house deposit, or your best childbearing years, but I think it’s a worthwhile investment on so many fronts. However, bad things can happen when you’re away from your usual nine-to-five routine. And when bad things happen and you’re a long way from home, it can be a daunting and helpless experience.

We never plan for bad things to happen, and that’s why travel insurance is a good idea. It’s a major pain in the ass if your luggage is lost, your passport is stolen, or you miss a flight. It means spending hours or days waiting around, wasting precious travel time.

However, those are not the worst things that could happen while travelling. Being hospitalised with an illness or a result of an accident can ruin a trip, as well as a bank balance if you don’t have travel insurance. Especially in developing countries, it’s important to be mindful of the water you’re drinking or the food that you’re eating, lest you end up on the toilet for days at best, or at worst, hooked up on a drip in a hospital where you can’t speak the language.

A run in with the local authorities is also not advised, even if it makes a good yarn many years down the track. Being arrested and thrown in a foreign jail would make for a unique travel experience, however there are countries where you definitely want to walk the straight and narrow, unless being thrown into a violent jail where you will be treated inhumanely is your thing.

Speaking personally, my bad experiences include being pickpocketed in Costa Rica, my hotel room being burgled in Honduras (and losing, amongst other things, 4 months of travel photos on my camera), my luggage not making flights, being dumped by a then-boyfriend, having fellow backpackers shagging all around me whilst I was trying to sleep, and being ripped off by numerous taxi drivers.

However my worst travel experience was while I was travelling alone around Lebanon. I was on a day trip to Baalbek, in the Beqaa Valley, to see the beautiful World Heritage Listed Roman ruins. Public transport in Lebanon is often by minibus, and it was on one of these minibuses, as I was making my way back to Beirut, that trouble struck.

baalbek lebanon

I was the only passenger on the minibus, and the driver, Bilal, a tall man probably in his early 20s, insisted that I sit with him in the front passenger seat. After repeatedly rejecting his offers of a seat for about 5 minutes, I gave in just so that we could get our journey underway and I could make it back to Beirut and then to Jbeil, where I was staying. That was a mistake.

Bilal suddenly turned off the highway and drove off road for a few hundred metres before stopping with my passenger door hard up against a small tree. After turning off the engine, he proceeded to stroke my leg and mutter things in Arabic to me. Needless to say, I was starting to run some defence scenarios very quickly through my head, as my heart was beginning to race away in my chest. The clearest scenario that I could imagine was using my years of martial arts training and attacking him with a punch to the throat. However, the thought of then trying to get out of the car, running to the road, and then trying to flag down a car and communicate with them in English when they could probably only speak Arabic seemed a bit risky.

As Bilal continued to touch my leg, my face, my hair, and then tried to roughly shove his hand into my jacket and down my top, I decided that my best defence was just to laugh the whole thing off, repeatedly brush his hand away, and say yellah over and over again – let’s go, c’mon! Thankfully, after what seemed like an eternity but was maybe only 5 minutes in reality, he was fed up with my refusals, started up the minibus, and got back onto the road. It was only when he picked up the next passenger, an older lady, that I finally exhaled with relief, safe and unharmed.

When I finally made it back to Jbeil, I told my new local friends about the ordeal. They were horrified for me but told me that, despite being dressed modestly, it was likely they thought I was sex worker due to being of Asian descent. Great! And it explained why I was propositioned another three more times during that short 7-day trip.

There are many ways for travel to go wrong. Many things can be covered by travel insurance, but the best thing to do is to be careful, look after yourself and your possessions, and if you come home without being sexually assaulted by a dodgy Lebanese minibus driver, then you’re doing well!

This post is modified from my original post on Laugh Lots, Travel Often

Beach hopping

After spending a few days in Tegucigalpa shopping for a replacement watch (a “Casio” watch for only $5), a new digital camera, contact lenses and other essential traveller items whilst avoiding being robbed again walking around the dodgy parts of town, I was picked up by members of the local World Vision office and taken to the steamy town of Choluteca, where my sponsor child Danny lives.

Danny is 7 years old and lives with his parents and 3 brothers in a house that World Vision sponsorship money helped to build.  I was taken around his community and shown the amazing work that they have been doing – building wells for drinking water, building a community centre,  installing water pipes to take away grey water, building more secure housing for the people, planting trees to stop erosion in the area, and promoting young people as mentors to encourage leadership in the community.  I definitely felt that my sponsorship money has made a world of difference already to the lives of the people in the area, so peeps, if you don’t already sponsor a child through World Vision…do it!

Leaving Honduras, I headed to the colonial town of Leon in Nicaragua.  After spending so much time in Tegucigalpa, it was such a relief to actually be in a traveller town where there are more eating options than just eggs, chicken, beans and rice!  Just to have fruit, yoghurt and granola for a healthy breakfast was like heaven!

I signed up for an afternoon of volcano boarding, which I thought wouldn’t be that daunting having had snowboarded a bit and also sandboarded in Peru.  With much excitement and a wee bit of trepidation, our group were dropped off at the bottom of the active volcano, Cerro Negro, and we had to hike about 45 minutes up gravelly volcanic rock and sand to the top.  It was only from the top looking down towards the foot of the volcano that the steepness really hit me, along with the images of having my skin sandpapered away by the abrasive volcanic sand if I wiped out. Ugh!

In the end, I managed to make it all the way down the mountain with all my limbs intact through some wise use of braking.  Much better result than the girl I had seen wandering around my hostel with a cast from a broken wrist!

From one colonial town to another, I bussed to the gorgeous town of Granada, which suits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.  All the planets were aligned clearly because there just happened to be an Irish pub, O’Shea’s, in town in time for St Patrick’s Day!

From Granada, I made a few little excursions such as to the Laguna de Apoyo – a beautiful crater lake, Isla de Ometepe – where the largest volcano Concepcion erupted and spewed ash everywhere before my eyes, and the little islands just outside of Granada on the lake – where we saw spider monkeys.

Ed sadly left to go back to Australia, but I was not to be alone still – I went to Managua to pick up my mate Cheryl-Lee from the airport and also met up with our friend Jakkii.  We then headed to the beachside town of San Juan del Sur, not far from the Costa Rican border.  This place is well known for its surfing, and with that laid back vibe, it unsurprisingly was quite a good little party town too.  Jakkii and I got a ride to one of the local surf beaches, Playa El Remanso, but the surf wasn’t really happening and the sun was scorching hot, so we just retreated to the shade and cooled off with swims and cheap beer!  Still, it was nice to be reunited with the Pacific Ocean for the first time in over a year.  The beaches are still nicer in Australia though!

We sampled the San Juan del Sur night life at the local bar, Iguanas, which was packed with both locals, surfers and backpackers.  Cuba Libres for only $1 – you can imagine how that night turned out.  However it much worse for some – Blain was chased down the road by the bouncers of the club, tripped over and had a fight with the ground.  Sadly the ground won and he was nursing some nasty looking cuts the next day!

The border crossing into Costa Rica the next day was painful, which was not made any better by the searing heat and the lack of sleep.  It took us three hours to cross the border, then the bus driver from the border tried to rip us off, but after 14 hours of travelling we finally made it to the beachside town of Montezuma.

Everyone had warned us about how expensive Costa Rica was, and after 4 and a half months of cheap travelling, it was still a shock.  I kept converting everything from Costa Rican colones back to Nicaraguan cordobas and then back to Guatemalan quetzales and continually being outraged at how extortionately expensive things were!  Still, Montezuma is a really nice laid back place with a beautiful beach and a nice waterfall.  I climbed up some rocks on the side of the waterfall to make a 4m high jump into the pool below, but was so focussed on trying to jump out far enough so that I wouldn’t break my neck on the rocks that I didn’t actually pull my legs in enough and landed with a very ungraceful and painful slap on my thighs.  Oops!

We spent the Easter weekend chilling out on the Caribbean beach of Puerto Viejo, which had a nice vibe, even with the abundance of cliche reggae music blaring out everywhere.  There is a black sand beach here, creatively named Playa Negra.

The beach hopping has been quite a welcome way to deal with the intense heat here in Central America.  It’s so hot that I’m actually half looking forward to returning back to London and basking in some cold!

And then there were three…

For a fiercely independent traveller who likes her own space, I have done pretty well over the last four weeks or so not to have strangled my travelling companions Ed and Steve.  And I’ve even been sober most of the time too!

I picked up Ed from Guatemala City airport and we met up with Steve in Antigua, Guatemala.  It’s a beautiful colonial town heaving with tourists.  One of the best touristy things to do here is to hike the nearby Pacaya volcano and we were in luck – lava was flowing!  Hiking through the lava field, it felt like I was Frodo plumbing the depths of Mordor.  When we finally reached the red hot flowing lava, it was so hot that you couldn’t get too close without feeling like all the hairs on your body were going to be singed off.  It was a really amazing experience – we even roasted marshmallows in the flowing lava!

We then headed up to Lanquín to visit the beautiful limestone pools of Semuc Champey.  Swimming in the pools was quite refreshing – really clear blue water – and there were some little fish in the pools that reminded me of those fish spas that I saw in Malaysia (they like to nibble on your dead skin!).

After another long bus ride, I was back in the lakeside town of Flores, where I had previously volunteered at the animal shelter.  The next morning, we awoke before the crack of dawn to visit the mighty Mayan ruins of Tikal.  We saw spider monkeys swinging through the trees and heard the roar of howler monkeys from miles around.  There were amazing views from the top of the famous Temple IV across the jungle canopy, where you can see the tops of other temples and pyramids poking out.  Apparently the Tikal ruins were the setting for one of the scenes from Return of the Jedi – anyone recognise it??

Leaving Flores for the steamy heat of Livingston, I didn’t even mind here that I hadn’t had a proper hot shower for something like 5 weeks.  We kicked back for a few days, chilling out by the pool and catching up on some holiday reading.  I even slept in a hammock for the first time!  Not entirely comfortable but if you were tired or drunk enough, I’m sure it would be more than adequate!

Finally, I said a sad goodbye to Guatemala and headed to the Bay Islands in Honduras for a week of scuba diving.  We picked up a trio of Swedes along the way and with our group negotiating power, I managed to get myself a really good deal for diving on the island of Utila – 10 fun dives, including all gear hire, and 8 nights accommodation for only US$200!!  The diving here in the Bay Islands is quite good and visibility ranged from 15-25 metres, although there was nowhere as much fish life in Utila as Cozumel, Mexico.  The highlight of the week was definitely coming face to face with a baby whale shark for the very first time.  The shark was around 5 metres long and a dusky blue grey colour, and it just looked so calm and serene.  Absolutely magic!

The lowlight of the whole trip so far was having our hotel room broken into in Utila.  Steve and I had literally just ducked out of the room for 15 minutes to grab some dinner when the thieves broke in through the window.  They nicked off with my iPhone, iPod, camera (with 4 months worth of photos!), my Suunto dive computer and all my spare contact lenses.  They even broke the lock on my backpack and found my passport but, strangely enough, just left it on my bed!  Unfortunately for me, I only bought travel insurance for medical expenses, so only my phone is insured through my UK bank account, but the most devastating thing is really the loss of my photos.  I guess I should’ve been more diligent in posting my photos to Facebook regularly!  Ed was probably more unlucky, with the thieves taking his passport and a credit card.

After leaving Utila, Ed headed to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa whilst Steve and I headed to Lake Yojoa.  The region is apparently well known for the vast number of bird species that congregate here, but we were just here to stay at the D&D microbrewery.  My favourite brew was the Pale Ale over the Amber Ale, Raspberry Ale and the Porter, and the blueberry pancakes here are of epic proportions! And yes, I did finish them.

I am now in Tegucigalpa for a few days to shop for a replacement camera before I meet my World Vision sponsor child, Danny.  It will be interesting to see where my money goes!

Thanks to Ed for letting me borrow his photos for this post!  As for those bastard thieves, get a real job.

Spanish inquisition

Before I arrived in Xela, I was trying to keep a “healthy” travelling lifestyle of two meals a day and no alcohol.  Of course, that all went out the window when I arrived in Xela – a great place to call home for a few weeks while I was studying Spanish and tear it up!

  • I kissed a very hot 22 year old Guatemalan chico, which was perfectly legit because he neatly satisfied the minimum age requirement of half your age plus seven
  • My host mum came out clubbing with me on quite a few occasions and was able to show me a thing or two about picking up younger men – she kissed one of my fellow students that was well below half her age plus seven!
  • I organised an Australia Day party, complete with Vegemite sandwiches and fairy bread, streamed Triple J’s Hottest 100, and even managed to get some random Aussies to show up too

  • I went to a cross dressing party on Lake Atitlan and had many people comment that a moustache looked great on me
  • I went to my first ever live football match – quite shameful considering that I’ve been living in the UK for the last two years
  • I think I may have even learnt some Spanish too!

I was speaking to my dad on my phone this week and telling him about how much I loved Xela.  He asked me what it was about the place that made it special and I just couldn’t put my finger on it.  It isn’t particularly picturesque, although there is a huge volcano that overlooks the city.  There are mangy stray dogs roaming the city, there is a lot of rubbish lining the streets, and I saw a guy wanking on the street at around 9pm at night.

But having said all that, it’s a great city with a fun vibe – not too many tourists, enough foreign students to have a good bars, cafes and restaurants, friendly locals, and a vibrant salsa scene.  Also, my Spanish has improved out of sight.  I would love to find a job or any sort of excuse to come back to Xela to live for another 6 months or so, but preferably during the summer – this Aussie bird can’t hack the highland cold!

I am now chilling out again on Lake Atitlan for a few days before my favourite ginger, Ed, arrives from Australia to travel with me for 6 weeks through Central America.  Keep an eye here for our travel shenanigans!

Monkeying around

Originally when I planned this trip, I had intended to dive the Blue Hole in Belize on my 30th birthday.  However, I’d heard that it was a really short dive due to the depth so chose to dive in Cozumel instead.  Having now dived the Blue Hole, I have a tiny pang of regret at this change of plan.

The Blue Hole dive is just an amazingly different experience, even if I had to wake up at 5am (for two consecutive days even, since the dive was cancelled on the first day due to high winds!).  The Blue Hole itself was formerly a dome-shaped cave tens of thousands of years ago when the sea level was much lower.  Now, the roof of the cave has collapsed and the sea level has risen.  After rapidly descending to around 40 metres, I swam amongst hanging stalactites that were as thick and broad as old oak trees!  It made my mind boggle just thinking about how long these stalactites had been hanging for them to become so huge.  The hole is also protected from adverse weather conditions, so we had amazing visibility of around 40 metres, and we saw two large Caribbean reef sharks.

After a relatively short stay in Belize, I headed to Flores in Guatemala on the beautiful shores of Lake Petén.  I volunteered for a week at the ARCAS animal rescue centre with a United Nations cast of fellow volunteers from Germany, the UK, the US, Denmark, and Ireland.  It was quite an interesting experience, doing work that was completely different to my usual day job in an office!  I was cleaning animal cages, feeding lots of loud squawking parrots, raking sheep poo, carrying supplies up steep hills, but the most rewarding and fun task was bottlefeeding the baby howler monkeys, Tale and Carito.  They were just so incredibly cute that ARCAS were in danger of missing a baby howler when it was time for me to leave (fortunately for them, my backpack was already full!).

I am now in Quetzaltenango, or Xela, in the cold Guatemalan highlands, which is surrounded by many active and dormant volcanoes.  I will be here for the next 4 weeks intensively learning Spanish – 5 one-on-one hours a day, 5 days a week!  Thankfully, I have weekends off where I will be able to do weekend trips to some of the local Mayan towns and sights, and maybe even hiking up a volcano or two!