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!