Bad things will happen in life. There’s no avoiding this unfortunate fact. Sometimes it happens entirely out of our control, like hitting black ice while driving. Other times it’s a direct result of our own stupid decisions, like drinking too much and accidentally lighting your face on fire while trying to perform circus tricks at a house party (this is entirely hypothetical, of course).
And while some of us can pad ourselves against these moments better than others, nothing can protect you completely.
In travel, the difference is often in the strangeness of the events in question. Yet occasionally, for whatever reason, you get a free pass — a get-out-of-jail-free card you might say. Sometimes, even when things not only could get bad but likely will, you get lucky. And everything works out.
These are important moments. They exist to teach us. And if you aren’t paying attention, and you don’t learn something from them, chances are you won’t get a pass when it happens again.
Here are eleven times things could have gone very bad, but didn’t; and what we learned from them.
Lost Bag in Da Lat, Vietnam
Many years ago, on our first major trip through Asia, we spent a couple of weeks in Vietnam – a place that went wrong for us in many reasons. These were still the days when we were partying a little too often. I mean, we were backpacking Southeast Asia in our early-20s. You’re gonna have a few drinks.
One night in Da Lat, we end up at some bar not far from the hostel, have ourselves a good time, and head back to the hostel for the night. The next morning, I realize that I can’t find my shoulder bag — my daypack that I (stupidly) keep all of my important gear in. I’m talking about my camera, wallet, credit and debit cards… my passport!
Somehow (I was drunk), I was too distracted (drunk) when leaving the bar, that I left the bag sitting under the table. The weight of the realization creeps up from the pit of my stomach as the cold sweat starts beading on my neck. This is the end of the trip. We were barely three months into our year-long journey, and we’re going to have to go home.
“Let’s check the bar,” Kylee says hopefully, “maybe someone found it.” With nothing better to do (like find an internet cafe [ha!] and cancel my Visa), we retrace our steps. And upon arriving, the lady at the counter recognizes me right away — from the passport photo — in the bag she had found while cleaning the bar the night before. Everything is in its place; not a đồng is missing.
Lesson learned | Don’t carry your important stuff on your person, regardless of how tired or lazy you are after a long travel day — especially if you’re planning on drinking.
Eating Raw Chicken in India
Pathankot, India. It’s a big, dusty town that we end up spending the night in during Diwali. We didn’t intend to do so, but we have a train connection here that doesn’t leave until the following morning.
Wandering the crowded streets in search of something to eat, we follow the intoxicating scent of spiced chicken roasting over coals. The staff at the small shack beam with glee as we arrive — this isn’t the kind of town that sees a lot of foreigners.
We order some chicken and grab a couple of plastic stools in the dimly-lit room. The chicken arrives quickly and we dive right in. The staff hovers over our table, jovially anticipating our reaction. It’s outstanding, truly to this day some of the best chicken I’ve ever tasted.
But something doesn’t quite feel right. Kylee tilts the plate into the light and we both gasp in horror as we see that the chicken is almost completely raw on the inside. The staff had been so eager to please us, that they didn’t cook the bird long enough. The outside is cooked perfectly, but about a centimetre in, it’s bleeding.
It’s too late, we’d already eaten a lot. But to avoid crushing the spirits of those so eager to please, we pull the “we’re just too full” card, pay the bill, and leave. The staff waves happily as we make our way to our train station-district dive hotel.
Given our dire situation, and a 12-hour train awaiting us the following morning, we do what any sensible traveller would do: we buy a cheap bottle of local rum. After all, it is Diwali, and time to celebrate. Though there was some logic behind this decision. The alcohol in the rum, we reason, might just be enough to kill any nasty bacteria from the chicken.
And to this day I don’t know if it did or not, maybe the chicken just happened to be salmonella-free. What I do know is that we wake up the following morning with nothing more than a headache.
Lessons learned | Check chicken before eating it, especially when it comes to street food.
And Indian rum kills bacteria… maybe.
Bad Bus in San Salvador
During our first visit to El Salvador, we made a simple mistake that could have ended far worse than it did.
We were doing some exploring around the city centre, following all of the basic rules one follows to stay safe in a foreign city. When the time comes to return to our hostel, we hop on the bus that our host told us to, and are on our way.
However, as you’ll learn by reading the full story, there is one small catch with this particular bus. And long summary short, we walk away unscathed.
Lessons learned | When travelling in a new destination, especially one with higher-than-average risk, attention to detail is everything.
Attack of the Medellín Metro
It’s around 8 am, rush-hour in Medellin, Colombia, when our 15-hour overnight bus arrives from Cartagena. With little sleep, we navigate the crowds at the station, trying to find the metro line to our home for the month in Floresta.
Praise the Medellin metro for being so organized and efficient, it makes for a relatively smooth experience. That is until the train arrives. At any other time of day, this story probably wouldn’t happen. But the combination of tiredness, it being rush hour, and our first time riding the metro, I make a tiny miscalculation that could ruin our first impression of this incredible city.
The doors slide open, and a few people walk onto the already full train car. Kylee goes next and I follow, just as the doors begin to close. The sliding doors push against both of my shoulders and I can feel the motors struggling to force them closed. Unlike most automatic doors, these don’t open when something is blocking the way. Immediately, hands grab at me from all around, pulling me into the car, others attempt to force the door open. My body slips free from the closing doors and my backpack scrapes through behind me.
Judging by the reaction of my fellow passengers, this isn’t uncommon. Thankfully, aside from some scrapes on my shoulders and a bruised ego, I, along with everything I own, make it onboard safely.
Lesson Learned | A newfound respect for automatic sliding doors.
During our six-month adventure across Australia, we spend a lot of time on farms. We tend vines, weed lettuce, and pick broccoli, avocados and grapes. On one such farm, early on in the trip, we live in a barn – quite literally. Our tent is set up inside the barn where equipment is stored.
Now, and I’m sure you’re well aware of this, Australia is home to a few rather unpleasant critters. And one such fella is found slithering around the barn one afternoon.
I’m certain this sort of thing is common across the country, and that we likely weren’t in any real danger. But when the farmer comes walking out from behind our tent, carrying the dangling corpse of a tiger snake, it led to a few nights of restless sleep.
Lessons Learned | In Australia, remember to check your bed for one of the worlds most dangerous snakes.
Cheap Beer and Bad Decisions in Thailand
Back to our first journey to Southeast Asia. Before Chiang Mai became the digital nomad capital of the mainland, it was still just a chilled-out backpacker city.
One night we join a friend, a Dutch expat we’ll call James, for an unintentional evening of debauchery. We’d met James at the hostel a week earlier and he invites us to light some paper lanterns and have a few drinks. He drives us in two separate trips (how responsible!) on the back of his scooter, to an open-air dive-bar on the outskirts of town. For several hours, we sit in a bizarre junkyard-turned bar drinking sweaty bottles of Leo (beer), while a cover band plays classics like Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs’ “Stay.”
Eventually, after finishing a bottle of 100 Pipers (whiskey) and the second or third round of squid jerky, it’s time to leave. But this late at night, making two trips isn’t such a good idea anymore. Leaving someone alone on the outskirts of town for 15 or 20 minutes could be dangerous. So the three of us pile onto the moto, proper Asian family-style.
None of us are wearing helmets, I’m sitting on the edge of the rear fender, and James, our driver, is drunker than any of us. We weave in and out of late-night Thai traffic for longer than we should have, but we arrive back at the hostel in one piece.
Lesson Learned | Figure out how you’ll be getting home before you drink.
Almost Hit by Every Bus in England
Inevitably, whenever we visit England, one or both of us has a dangerously close call with the front of a bus. Every. Single. Time.
It’s because they drive on the wrong side of the road in England. And yes, I mean wrong. When nearly 70% of the rest of the world (including the entirety of Europe) drives on the right, I think my argument is fair.
Regardless, fair argument or not, we’re in their world when it happens, so these close calls are entirely on us. Nevertheless, each time we arrive in London, one of us (pretty much me every time) gives a quick glance to the left before stepping in front of a double-decker death machine. If it wasn’t for our other half pulling us back at the last second, one of us would have been roadkill by now.
Lessons Learned | None. It happens every time we visit.
Scorpion vs Flip Flop
I’m fine with spiders. Spiders are cool. Wasps, and other stingy-things, I’m usually alright with as well, for the most part. But scorpions? No. That’s a big, fat-ass no. I don’t do scorpions.
During our travels in Latin America, we’ve encountered scorpions on a handful of occasions. Most recently, I woke up in the middle of the night and found a big bastard crawling around in the bathroom sink. Unfortunately for it, the death warrant was signed the moment it revealed itself to me.
My first encounter with the venomous eight-legged, lobster-fisted, stinger-tail, was in Nicaragua. While moving into our AirBNB in Popoyo, I examined the cookware situation, seeing what we have at our disposal. Unbeknownst to me, while shuffling pots, a small but deadly scorpion falls out of one of the pots. I only notice after I put the pots back in the cupboard and step on the little fella.
I rarely wear shoes, of any kind, inside. Yet for whatever reason, I was still wearing my flip flops.
Had I been barefoot, things would have been rather unpleasant.
Lessons Learned | Scorpions are not just a terrifying creature from movies. They exist and can appear underneath your foot at any time.
Caterpillar of Nimbin
Back to Australia now; and surprise, surprise — we’re dealing with a pain-inflicting animal.
We set up camp just outside Nimbin, on the property of a hippy-esque hostel (because that narrows it down). Following check-in and some time hanging with the locals, we decide to head back to our campsite for some chill time.
While I start up the car-kitchen to make supper, Kylee climbs into a nearby hammock strung between two immense and ancient-looking trees. Immediately, she springs right back out, and we notice a small, fuzzy caterpillar now curled up in what I can only imagine is the Lepidoptera equivalent of the fetal position.
Kylee remains fairly calm, or at least as calm as one can be when a large, red, stinging welt is quickly growing on the side of your leg. Neither of us are in any condition to drive at this point, having much enjoyed our afternoon in Nimbin. So we sit and panic for a few minutes, ultimately deciding to go to reception if things start to get serious.
Thankfully, it’s no more than a minor sting.
Lessons Learned | Always check hammocks before climbing in.
Football Riot in Amsterdam
On our first trip to Europe, several years ago, we spent some time travelling through the Balkans. Before leaving, I ask a Serbian coworker of mine if there’s anything of importance I should know regarding safety that’s not commonly talked about.
“Stay away from football fans,” he says straight-faced and in a thick Slavic accent.
I laugh; he does not.
“Most people, they are just fans. Other people, they are crazy; like gangs. Football is all they have. They will kill for team.”
Fast forward a couple of months. Serbia (and the rest of the amazing Balkan countries) go off without a hitch. We’re now in Amsterdam, wandering the streets, eating mayo-smothered frites and enjoying the late-evening buzz.
Ahead of us, we hear a bit of a commotion and think that perhaps some sort of festival or show is taking place. Around the next corner, we turn into the main square and see that the ‘festival’ is, in fact, a chaotic football riot. To this day, we don’t know whether their team won or lost the match, but several dozen Irish fans are running through the streets like madmen and clashing with police in riot gear.
By the time we realize the seriousness of the situation, we’re right in the middle of it. We face a large police van around 20 feet in front of us, just as a glass bottle hurls over our heads and shatters across the side of it. Turning around, we realize we’re directly between the police and an angry green mob.
Before we have time to think, we notice a wall moving in our (also the rioter’s) direction. Close to 10 police on horseback are clopping over the broken glass at a steady pace. We run, perpendicular, to the chaos surrounding us, and get the hell out of there.
Lessons Learned | Canadian’s might love hockey. But they don’t LOVE love hockey. At least not in the way Europeans love football.
Also, don’t walk through riots.
Frightening Swim in Nicaragua
I don’t think I’ve talked much about this one in the past. And of all these mentioned, it’s the one that still affects me some.
I love swimming, I always have. In high school, I even spent some time on the swim team. As such, I consider myself a fairly decent and confident swimmer.
I also love playing in waves.
Surfing is a ton of fun, but I’m absolute shit when it comes to staying up. And I don’t always have the spare cash to rent a board. So whenever we’re on a beach with waves I’ll be out there, at the very least, body surfing. It was easy for me to become a little overconfident.
In Popoyo, Nicaragua, there is a long beach right off the edge of town. It has pretty decent sized waves and a nice sandy beach. Yet for reasons we’ll soon find out, all the surfers went up the shore a few hundred meters. This huge red flag goes completely unnoticed, and we make this our swimming spot for the duration of our visit. For almost two weeks, we spend hours in the waves here, every single day. The water gets a little rough at times, but never more than I’m comfortable with.
On our final morning, we go down for one last play in the waves, and I’m out to make the most of it. The waves are some of the biggest since arriving. And while I take a beating, I’m having a blast. That is until the regressing water starts pulling much harder than ever before. So hard that no matter how hard I dig my feet into the sand and try to fight, the weight of the water continues pulling me out.
Once the water is too deep to touch the bottom, I do exactly what you’re not supposed to do: I attempt to swim directly towards the shore. While I am doing this, I know in my mind exactly what I should be doing (swimming perpendicular to the shore), but I’m panicking.
After what feels like a minute, while the shore gets farther away, another huge wave rolls up and absolutely pummels me. It rolls me like a rag doll in a washing machine, tumbling me nearly 40 feet closer to shore. When I finally surface, I can stand again.
Rattled, I walk back to the dry sand and hug Kylee. I can’t think of a time in recent years I’ve been so terrified. And it will be almost two years before I’m comfortable enough to swim in the waves.
Lessons Learned | Pay attention to the signs, if you’re in a surf town and nobody is playing at a specific stretch of beach, there’s probably a good reason for it.
Also, don’t underestimate the ocean.