Somewhere in the middle of Alaska Month, as I was gushing over the beauty of the 49th State and waxing nostalgic on my golden years there, I had a revelation.
I’ve never really talked about the difficult parts of travel.
I’ve raved about the beaches on Vieques. I’ve swooned over the Scottish countryside. I’ve used superlative after superlative to describe a Chilean sunset. I’ve fallen under the spell of the Yukon. I’ve been enchanted by Paris, humbled by Vietnam, and awed by Belize.
But it hasn’t always been rosy out on the road.
When you write about travel for a living and doing your best to help people see and experience the world in the best way possible, it’s easy to default to the good stuff. But I don’t want to paint an inauthentic picture of my experiences or be so overwhelmingly positive that I come across as phony or insincere.
Don’t get me wrong, I have been incredibly fortunate in my travels. On the whole, I’ve been safe, healthy, and blessed with great experiences. But I’ve also had my fair share of mishaps and bad times. Some were self-inflicted, the result of poor decision-making or misjudgments. Some were freak occurrences, like natural disasters or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were the result of traveling on a bare-bones budget, like finding bedbugs in your cheap hostel room or getting sick from bad street food. And some were just plain old bad luck.
Happily, I can look back on most of my bad travel experiences and either laugh or chalk them up as great stories. Because of this, I want to share some of my worst travel moments both to prove that things haven’t always gone perfectly in the world of Gwen and also to (hopefully) entertain you with some of my merrier mishaps.
When all was said and done, I ended up with enough “worst moments” to fill two posts. I’m sharing part one today, with part two to follow in early 2022. I hope you enjoy this little glimpse into some of my less Instagram-worthy travel memories!
Mom, you may want to stop reading now.
My Worst Travel Moments
The Gunfight in Ecuador
Let’s start with a big one. While studying abroad in Ecuador in 2008, the majority of my classmates and I were celebrating the impending end of our trip when a gunfight broke out in the club. Two of my friends had walked in on some guys doing drugs in the bathroom and were chased out at gunpoint. Amazingly, the shots missed them – though another club-goer was hit – and an all-out brawl ensued. Some local friends hurried most of the girls into a back room while the rest of our group rushed to the aid of the guys.
We learned all too late that the club was the scene of frequent gang activity and that the cops were paid off the look the other way. When police arrived to respond to the melee, the gunmen sauntered right by them and out the door. My friend Jeff – one of the guys who was shot at – ended up in the back of a cop car and was only saved from an Ecuadorian jail by the quick thinking and persuasive words of the teacher running our trip. Another of our guys suffered a broken nose and cheekbone, and the same teacher ended up taking a half dozen students to the hospital for minor injuries. Although we – thankfully – made it safely home to the USA two days later, our university launched an investigation, and the entire Ecuador program almost got shut down.
Thankfully, the program survived, and I’m grateful to have had nothing worse to show for the night than a stolen wallet and a tear-stained face. Despite the incident, I was elated to return two years later, and to this day I would go back to Ecuador in a heartbeat. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Broken-Toed Ballerina
Ok, let’s follow that heavy-hitter with a lighter offering. After spending the day tubing the Nam Song River in Laos and stopping at numerous waterfront bars along the way, I was feeling delightfully tipsy and enjoying hanging out with some new friends. The subject of dance came up, and I foolishly attempted a pirouette to emphasize a point about my eleven years of dance experience. Hours of tubing overrode years of ballet training, and somehow half of my supporting foot got left behind. I heard and felt a crack, and the next morning, my pinky toe was swollen, purple, and painful. I couldn’t wear sneakers for weeks, and it was days before I could walk without limping.
The Border Crossing Debacle
When crossing the border between Argentina and Brazil, an Argentinian customs officer claimed that there was a problem with my friend Kyle’s passport and that he wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country without paying an $80 “fee” (read: bribe). Apparently, the customs officials had failed to stamp Kyle’s passport when we returned to Argentina from Uruguay, so there was no record of him having entered the country. I’m not sure how 300 Argentinian pesos would have fixed this, other than lining the pockets of the officers who were now laughing in our faces and preventing our entry into Brazil, but we were stuck until we paid the bribe.
What followed was an annoying waste of time and money. I had already been stamped into Brazil, so I had to walk across the street and re-enter Argentina to be able to take Kyle to an ATM. (I was the only one who spoke fluent Spanish, and Kyle has a terrible sense of direction.) We left our other traveling companion, Curtis, behind with the bags while we caught a cab back to the nearest town, withdrew the money, and took a bus back to the border. Upon reaching the desk hours later, however, we were told that Kyle’s information had been found in the computer and we were free to enter Brazil.
The Tour that Saw Nothing
Wildfires are common in Alaska, part of the natural cycle of regeneration and rebirth. During any given summer, there are usually multiple fires blazing in various parts of the state, often with little to no intervention because of their remote locations. Unfortunately, one of my three years working in the Great Land saw a large number of significant wildfires that spread across the entire state and into the Yukon. At one point, the situation was so bad that one of my tour groups saw and smelled nothing but smoke the entire way from Skagway to Denali: a distance of almost one thousand miles. Looking out our motorcoach windows was like looking into a cloud, and all the beauty of the region was completely obscured for almost a week of their vacation.
Thankfully, we emerged from the smoke into bright blue skies around Denali, and my guests had the most glorious weather imaginable for the final days of their tour. They even got to see Denali’s summit, an Alaska bucket list moment that more than two-thirds of visitors never experience. In the end, however, it was small compensation for an otherwise highly disappointing vacation of a lifetime.
The Hanoi Taxi Hostages
After spending the day exploring some of the sights in Hanoi, Vietnam, my two traveling companions and I hopped into a taxi to return to our hostel. The meter started going crazy as soon as the taxi started moving, and before we’d even made it around the corner the fare was three times what we had paid to get to our destination that morning. Recognizing a scam, we asked the driver to pull over. Kyle, who was in the front seat, told Katie and me that he planned to toss the guy 50,000 dong – about 30,000 less than the meter demanded – and leave it at that. Unfortunately, however, he was able to get out more quickly and handed over the money before Katie and I were able to fully exit the car. Incensed, the driver spun around, slammed down the backseat lock, and prepared to speed off with us trapped in the backseat. Thankfully, quick-thinking Katie threw more money at him and I managed to wiggle the lock open so we could fling ourselves out. The driver peeled out, and we were left shaken on the side of the road.
The Earthquake for the Record Books
While backpacking through Chile in 2010, my traveling companions and I were sleeping in Valparaiso when we were shaken awake by the fifth-largest earthquake on record at the time. It was a terrifying night that you can read more about in this post, and it reminded us just how powerless you can truly be on the road.
The Christ Under Construction
One of the most disappointing things in travel is when you finally make it to an iconic spot only to find it either closed or dramatically altered. That was the case when we arrived in Rio de Janeiro to discover that the famous Christ the Redeemer statue was covered in scaffolding as part of a massive restoration effort. While the views from the feet of the statue, which is located on one of the tallest peaks in the area, were still impressive, it was disappointing not to experience the iconic statue in all its glory.
The Irish Lemon
Renting a car in Ireland is known to be a bit of a hassle, mostly thanks to expensive insurance add-ons, narrow roads, and having to drive a manual car from the opposite side of the vehicle. During our multi-generational vacation to Ireland with M’s parents, we had the added delight of receiving a complete dud of a car. Almost as soon as we hit the highway, our car started rattling alarmingly, with the steering wheel vibrating right along. We ended up having to stop on the way to Belfast for repairs – the first of multiple detours to service the vehicle. Although we were eventually able to swap out the car halfway through the trip, it caused us enough delays and my in-laws enough stress to put a bit of a damper on our week in Ireland.
At first, everything was going swimmingly – pun intended – during our beach day in Paraty, Brazil. Curtis and I were sunbathing on the sand while Kyle went for a swim in the calm blue sea. It was peaceful and pleasant until suddenly we heard someone cry out, “There’s someone drowning out there!”
My heart slammed into my throat as Curtis and I leapt to our feet to find Kyle bobbing out in the middle of the bay. He was waving his hands and shouting for help. I’m not a strong swimmer, so I could only look on helplessly as one man dove into the surf and two others worked to pull kayaks into the water. It seemed to take forever, but finally one of the kayaks reached Kyle and he climbed aboard. Thankfully, he was ok – he had swum too far out and then was unable to get back because of the strong tide – but it was still a terrifying ordeal that could have ended very badly if we had been alone or there hadn’t been kayaks nearby.
The Tale of Two Islands
This is another story I’ve shared before, but it was a huge disappointment when I arrived on Isla de la Plata, Ecuador, to find that the island that had been so lush and beautiful two years earlier was now a dry, barren wasteland. We had traveled to Puerto Lopez specifically on my recommendation that we take a trip to the island, spent more money than we wanted to on the tour, and then returned with disappointment and one of the worst sunburns of my life. For the next few days, the pain of my backpack straps on my angry, red shoulders was a constant reminder of our misfortune.
Well, there they are: the first ten of my twenty worst travel moments! Stayed tuned for Part II coming soon. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your craziest travel stories in the comments!
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