Being afraid of all the ways something can go wrong is what prevents some people from traveling, or even taking a chance on other aspects of their lives. To be sure, things can and sometimes do go wrong, but that doesn’t have to break your trip experience. In fact, many of the unexpected things or mistakes I’ve made have become the best memories and travel stories. I try to avoid pitfalls and prepare as much as possible to prevent things from going wrong, but eventually something will go awry. So the best way to prepare, as the old saying goes, is to “expect the unexpected.” I typically hate this kind of vague advice, but really it means that you should not be too surprised or hysterical when a mistake is made, a bus doesn’t come, or something else happens that is out of your control. There are basic “stupid mistakes” that could happen anywhere, but often occur because of unfamiliarity with local rules or culture, or are a result of not using common sense because your senses are on overdrive from trying to speak a foreign language, converting currencies, taking pictures, eating food, and all of the other wonderful things that happen when traveling the world. See below for some of my “dumb mistakes” on the road. Even being a seasoned traveler does not make me immune.
Then there are the mishaps, accidents, incidents, and a host of other crazy things that can go wrong, most of which are totally beyond any predictable control. These are the inevitable things that can be horribly frustrating at the time:
- Hopping on a bus you think is going to where you want to go but does not
- Accidentally buying the wrong type of train ticket because there are 15 different fare types and rules that aren’t well explained
- A freak storm cancels all ferries and leaves you stranded
- Riding in a taxi that goes through 8 different out-of-the-way stops, getting you to your destination several hours later than expected
- Spraining your ankle trying to walk up the steps to the Parthenon
- A national holiday you hadn’t been aware of shuts down the entire country
- That hotel you booked online does not have your reservation
- You are asked to pay hundreds of dollars extra at the airline counter because your ticket did not include checked luggage, seat assignments, “foreigner rates”, etc.
You get the idea…there are tons of things that can throw your itinerary off. The best way to roll with them is to be prepared and have some scenario planning under your belt. That hotel reservation they didn’t have? Be courteous at all times, but show the email confirmation of the hotel booking and request they help you find a place to stay if they’re sold out. Allow flex time in your schedule. I almost always stay in the city nearest the airport the day before I fly out of a place, just in case getting there doesn’t go according to plan. Not sure if the bus stop you’re waiting at is where you want to go (or even running that day)? Ask! You don’t need to know the local language, but try to find someone–anyone–to verify that the bus is going to where you want to go. Just a name of a street, building, or landmark should be sufficient. They may not know, but at least you’ve tried. Then when the bus arrives, ask the driver.
The chances that something awful is going to happen is really rather rare, so don’t let that preoccupy your mind. Prepare the best you can, try to roll with whatever changes come your way, and enjoy the experience. Far worse things could happen to you, even sitting at home on your living room couch.
Below are some slick moves, er, mistakes I’ve made in my travels. At least you can laugh at my expense and hopefully won’t make the same ones I have (or, like me, you will have some good stories to tell your friends…but maybe not your family)!
- Mongla, Bangladesh: after hand washing my laundry, I was looking for a place to hang my clothing up. Running within easy reach over the balcony of the hotel there were power lines that seemed perfect to hold up a bunch of wet clothes. Lesson Learned: public electrocution is not fun!
- Islas del Rosario, Colombia: on a boat tour of the Rosario islands near Cartagena, a fishing boat pulled up along side of us and was selling some ceviche for super cheap. Being hangry on the road definitely alters your perception of common sense. No one else on the boat bought that ceviche, and we should have known better. Lessons Learned: never trust unrefrigerated, uncooked fish sold from a hot boat, and Colombian pharmacies are plentiful.
- Ankara, Turkey: my hosts gave me a bunch of goodies to take home with me from Turkey, such as filberts, raisins, spices, etc. On the declaration form, I didn’t put anything, but was pulled aside for an additional security screening. Internally I was freaking out that they’d find the fruit and nuts and I’d be going to jail. It did not help that others in the detention room were having their suitcases emptied out, being interrogated, or were from the Middle East. It turned out that they only singled me out because I had been traveling in Central Asia to a lot of “stan” countries. I was released after about 30-40 minutes. Lessons Learned: never bring fruit or nut products back in case you have to go through additional screening.
- Heidelberg, Germany: one of my first few days of traveling overseas solo, I had never been on a city bus before in my life. For some reason, I thought buses made circular routes, so I bought a bus pass for the day and thought I’d get a tour of the city out of it. While I did get to see some things, the bus ended in a field and I was the only passenger left. The driver didn’t speak English and as luck would have it, I recognized a spire of a tower that was near where I was staying, so I just hiked across the field to it. Lessons Learned: always check the bus routes and know your destination, or be happy with getting totally lost.
- Guliston, Uzbekistan: during my Peace Corps training time, we learned that bread was sacred and should never be thrown away. I figured this did not apply to moldy bread that was inedible, so I tossed some pieces in the trash. The entire group received a lecture about the cultural faux pas that someone created by throwing bread away. Lessons Learned: never transfer your assumptions interculturally, as they may not be accurate. Even moldy bread can be given to animals. Ask a local for guidance, especially if you know there is a related taboo.
- Ouidah, Benin: having run out of local currency, I went to the bank to access more cash; however, they did not handle credit card withdrawals and would not exchange US dollars. I only had 5 euros, which was enough to be combined with the meager amount I had left, check out of my hotel early and grab a seat in a shared cab back to Ghana via Togo. Lessons Learned: always be sure to plan out how much money you think you might need, and have an “escape plan” in case you run out.
- Ciudad Juarez, Mexico: my friend Tim and I were driving around El Paso, Texas, and ended up on the wrong road. Before we knew it, we’d entered the lanes to Mexico. We decided to proceed and then just turn around and head back, but in our attempt to do so, we got totally lost and drove into a shantytown at night in Tim’s brand new gleaming white Sierra truck. It was super scary, but we somehow found the main road again (this was in the days before GPS and smartphones, and we had no map) and safely back to El Paso. Lessons Learned: be sure you know where you are going, especially near sensitive border areas. Do not pull over in a neighborhood comprised mostly of corrugated metal and plywood buildings.
- Valka, Latvia: I was walking around and accidentally crossed the border into Estonia. The border checkpoint staff was not interested in processing my passport, so I thought there might be another border crossing. Not wanting to get stuck without a proper entry stamp, I decided to go back to the original border guard and demand to be stamped. It worked. Lessons Learned: don’t inadvertently cross international borders and be sure to get that entry stamp!
- Juliaca, Peru: I thoroughly removed all traces of and products with coca leaves from our belongings before boarding our flight to Lima, as we would not “need” them for the elevation there. Or so I thought. Upon returning to the US and doing laundry, I found a little bag of coca leaves stuffed in a jacket pocket. We had not wanted to take any chances with a known illegal substance, but thankfully nothing happened. Lesson Learned: always check ALL pockets before packing to return home.