When travel goes “wrong” is often much more interesting than when it goes “right.” And the funny thing is, one often leads to the other. We asked AFAR staff to share their tales of woe—and redemption—from the road. Enjoy!
1. Caught between prisoners and Pac-Man
I should have known it was too good to be true: a prime seat on the overcrowded night ferry out of Kusadasi, Turkey. And it was. Once I got a good look at the guys seated across from me, so close we were actually grazing knees, I noticed they were handcuffed to the two men flanking them. They gave me a long look up and down as if…well…as if they’d been locked up in a Turkish prison for years. No way I could spend a night like that. So I reluctantly gave up the cushioned seat and spent the night in the only spot left—under a table in the bar, one cheek pasted to the filthy linoleum floor and a game of Pac-Man on endless loop nearby. I woke up crawling with blood-red bugs and broken out in a nasty rash.—Lisa Trottier, Contributing Editor
2. Now you see me…
I was at a jazz club in Guayaquil, Ecuador, when (way too many) cops came and closed down the place early. While my friend was arguing with them, I waited on the sidewalk. I took a step backwards, and all of a sudden, I was swimming. It wasn’t the G&Ts—I had fallen into a manhole! Thankfully, the cops pulled me out before I could tell what had happened. On the downside, they weren’t willing to go find my missing shoe.—Alex Palomino, Photo Research Assistant
3. Pickpocketed in Poland
I got pickpocketed my first day in Poland, on the bus from the airport. It was such a slick operation that I couldn’t do anything about it. Encumbered by two huge bags and frazzled by the commotion that just materialized in front of me as I was trying to get off, by the time I realized what that tickling feeling in my pocket meant, I’d made it through the now magically parted crowd and onto the pavement.
My wallet, and all my money, was gone.
I had to jump the train to Bydgoszcz, some 300 km to the northwest and the site of the school I’d come to work at. The conductor was beyond pissed, but a Polish girl who spoke English explained to him what had happened, and he waived the fee and the fine. I even bumped into him again on a train a year later, and had learned enough Polish by then to thank him for what he’d done.
Oh, and I got an invite to go skiing with the girl and her friends.—Nick Rowlands, Guides Editor
4. Mugged by little old ladies
Backpacking through South America, I had the genius idea to take an overnight bus from Uyuni, Bolivia to Salta, Argentina. The plan was to arrive at the border town of Villazon, in Bolivia, and then catch a bus an hour or so later from La Quiaca, just over the border. What I didn’t anticipate was that the Argentine border might close before the Bolivian border—which of course it did. I got stuck in between!
I must have really looked like a dope, all alone in the middle of the night with nowhere to go, because two little old ladies cornered me and demanded cash in exchange for help getting my passport stamped. I tried to act tough and told them I wasn’t interested, but they actually force-walked me to an ATM and cleaned me out. They weren’t even scary! I was just naïve. When I could finally cross into Argentina, the border patrol officers looked at my weird fake stamp and just laughed at me.—Lily Soysal, Integrated Marketing Director
5. Don’t blindly trust the GPS
We were in South Africa driving from Durban to Johannesburg, with a stop at a campsite in the Drakensberg Mountains. Turns out the GPS coordinates entered in our rented 4×4 were wrong, and we ended up in a township FAR from the actual campsite. A U-turn later, with the sun going down, we found ourselves stuck in a ditch. Fifteen big, scary dudes approached the car. Five minutes later, they’d lifted the car out of the ditch and we were back on track to the other Monks Cowl uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, with turn-by-turn directions and a personal guide. Every time I think something could go wrong in Africa, I have been so pleasantly proven wrong.—Bryan Kinkade, Associate Publisher
6. Bleeding over airport security
Loaded down with souvenirs from a summer in Venice, I was fishing around in my toiletries bag to throw out heavy liquids and lighten my load, when I sliced open my finger on a razor blade—and I mean sliced. I started bleeding everywhere on the floor of the airport, with no time to find Band-Aids. A nearby good Samaritan gave me a tissue, which I tied around my finger with a hair tie so I could keep unpacking and repacking my bag, now one-handed.
When I landed in London, I was in such a rush to make my connection, and so lost in the largeness of Heathrow, that I somehow skipped customs and security and still made it to the gate. With my injury and lack of security clearance, I got stopped and interrogated right before boarding. Thankfully, they decided I was innocent, and I made it on to the plane just as the gate was closing.—Juliette San Fillipo, Associate Marketing Manager
7. Losing your friend, and then your money
While studying abroad in France, I took a weekend trip to Porto—and promptly lost my wallet (though, thankfully, not my passport). The friend I was supposed to meet had bailed at the last minute, which meant I was truly stranded. We had prepaid two nights at a hostel, so I was at least set on lodging, but I was a little unnerved.
Despite all that, I had a weirdly fantastic time. I met a very punk German woman, who became my weekend sister and even fronted me some cash for a few days’ worth of yummy Portuguese sandwiches. It poured the entire time, but we still wandered around the Duoro tasting port and eating roasted fish. Then one night, a top RyanAir exec—who would fly to Porto and stay in this hostel with his young son—made us an amazing pasta dinner. So I say: Bring on the travel mishaps!—Aislyn Greene, Associate Editor
8. Mutant monster bed bugs
I noticed the red bites my first morning, but thought nothing of them. I was in Morocco, about to hike to a remote lodge in the Atlas Mountains. By lunch my three bites had multiplied to nearly 20. By the time we reached the trekking lodge I was itching uncontrollably. I recalled a friend’s story of bed bugs and knew instantly that the cozy bed from the night before had been infested. The lodge was alcohol-free, so I couldn’t even numb the pain with a whiskey. I was so fearful of any bed, I ended up spending the next two nights sleeping in the bathtub. Back home in NYC, the dermatologist brought in his entire staff to ogle at my pocked body and told me Morocco must have some mutant monster bed bugs.—Jen Murphy, Hotels Editor
9. Arguing with the cabbie mafia
In Hanoi, we had been advised to use only two particular taxi companies. After visiting Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, we spotted a cab with one of the trusted company logos, and hopped in. When we got within a block of our destination, the driver rolled down a window and seemed to ask someone on the sidewalk for directions. But we think he was resetting the meter. Pointing to some street construction, he told us he couldn’t go any further. The fare he demanded was about 100 times what we estimated it should be. When I started to argue, he locked the doors, starting yelling at me, grabbed my wrist and tried to grab my wallet, and shouted “Mafia, mafia,” pointing at himself. I managed to throw the equivalent of $20 at him, which got him to let go of my arm and gave Robin time to reach across me and unlock the door. We jumped out, and he sped off before I could take a picture of his car. Later, we were told that there are a lot of rogue cabbies in Hanoi with fake placards on the sides of their pirate taxis. We got better at identifying the legit cars and drivers.—Derk Richardson, Senior Editor
10. Cruise ship emergency accommodation
We were in the midst of an 18-month backpacking trip and decided to splurge on a Yangtze River cruise. Beautiful scenery, good food, luxurious accommodations—we couldn’t wait. Except the cruise ship overbooked itself and decided to screw us. We arrived not to the luxurious cabin with private bathroom and balcony that we’d paid for, but to two folding cots set up next to the examination table in the ship’s medical clinic, across the hall from the smelly public toilet. We amused ourselves by sifting through the various medical supplies and switching on and off our room light, which also controlled the clinic’s big fluorescent sign in the hall. But the bathroom access paid off when I got food poisoning and spent most of one night doing the old heave-ho. At least it meant less time in my cot.—Jeremy Saum, Executive Editor
11. The curse of the injured foot
No matter where I go, a foot injury is sure to follow. It all began in Peru in 2012, celebrating New Year’s Eve in Cusco having climbed Machu Picchu that morning. Just as things in Plaza de Armas were heating up, a firework landed on my foot! Thankfully, my cousin John was a trained medic; he patched me up and I got back to the party.
Then in Buenos Aires in 2014 I stepped on a piece of glass less than five steps into a crowded bar, and ended up in hospital. The kind doctor took pity on me and waived my hospital fees.
And then Cuba, 2015: I walked straight into a metal pipe while I was gawking at Havana’s colonial architecture. I had a huge bruise on top of my right foot for the rest of the trip, but I managed to avoid hospitals and bandages. The curse seems to be looking up!—Michaela Trimble, AFAR Exchange Sales Manager
12. White-knuckle donkey rides
We were traveling to Verana, a remote hotel on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. You’re meant to park your car and get there via a little boat organized by the hotel. But the seas were so stormy that they cancelled the boat. Rather than missing our opportunity to stay there, we decided to brave the journey by road. After white-knuckling our way in a 4×4 down the very dry and crumbling Pacific cliffs, we had to travel the rest of the way—along another treacherous cliffside pass—by donkey! I’ve never had a more delicious beer in my life upon arrival at a hotel. The next day, we realized that our car was not a 4×4 after all, but more of a “lady that lunches” type of vehicle. A faux by four, if you will.—Mary Garvin, Sales Director, AFAR Collection
13. In Houston, no-one can hear you scream
I was flying from Los Angeles to Houston when we had to make an emergency landing in San Antonio due to weather. We didn’t have a gate to pull into, so we sat on the tarmac for three hours. It was painful. I missed my connection to Nicaragua, so had to stay in Houston for 10 hours until the next flight. I’m not even sure what I did that whole time—but I was bumped to business class on the next flight!—Samantha Juda, Audience Marketing Specialist
14. Stuck in the mud
A friend and I stayed in Los Cabos in 2013, right after Tropical Storm Juliette hit. Our hotel was in complete disarray, with no running water, Wi-Fi, cell service, or pool. Driving back from dinner in Cabo on our second night, I chose the wrong dirt track to get to the hotel and got our tiny rental car stuck in a huge mud puddle. We were miles from anywhere, on an unlit road, and with no phone reception. We had to walk back to the hotel…wearing heels.
We avoided the truck full of drunk bros, escaped from the reliable-seeming person who tried to charge us for the lift after we’d already got in, and eventually made it back safe. The next morning, the hotel staff got the car unstuck in no time, and the rest of the trip went great. Bonus: On the way home, my oversold airline gave me a $500 flight voucher and a complimentary night at an all-inclusive resort!—Breanna Rhoades, HR Manager