Last week I met Albert.
Originally an engineer from Egypt, Albert now owns an Egyptian restaurant in downtown Montreal. After I finished my lunch we chatted for a few minutes. I told him about the time I spent in Egypt five years ago when I was traveling round the world.
Albert told me his dream is to travel the world like I did.
Of course I pumped it up and highlighted all the great things about travel. Traveling is something I believe everyone should experience if they’re capable of doing it.
But is traveling always rainbows and unicorns?
Of course not.
There is a dark side. Sometimes my travels were not much fun at all. There were days when I wanted to throw in the towel and would have done anything to be home.
Today I want to share with you some of my most difficult travel experiences and unveil the ugly truth.
Birthdays without family and friends are the shits.
I spent my 29th birthday in Shanghai, alone.
Typically, traveling is a great way to meet new people, especially when you’re traveling solo. Travelers and locals are drawn to people who are alone.
But my birthday in Shanghai was not one of those times.
I sat in the lobby of my hostel drinking cheap rum, trying to smile and make eye contact with anyone who walked past, but nobody joined me. I went out for dinner to a local hole-in-the-wall noodle joint but nobody spoke to me. I checked out an expat bar with live rock music but the white men were more interested in the young Chinese women than talking to me. Finally I hit the dance floor at a late night club and danced by myself.
I had been on the road for months and I’d got used to being alone. I enjoyed it most of the time. But as I ate my street-meat outside the dance club at 3:00 am, I realized I don’t like being by myself on my birthday.
I sulked back to my guesthouse and thought about my friends and family half a world away. I wished I was with them. I felt farther from home than ever.
Traveling solo is a great way to meet people and make new friends.
But my 29th birthday was not one of those times.
There are bad people out there.
My buddy Joe and I met two local guys in Cairo who seemed really cool, at first.
We befriended them and followed them wherever they wanted to take us like two trusty Labrador Retrievers. One of the guys was a ‘taxi driver’; the other an ‘English teacher.’
They took us to a slummy area of Giza where people lived in concrete buildings without windows or doors and the smell of smoking piles of garbage hung in the air. We followed our ‘friends’ into the basement of a building. They told us it was a bar.
Down in the so-called ‘bar’ we were quickly surrounded by booze, drugs, and ‘waitresses’ who we realized were prostitutes. Our new ‘friends’ turned out to be drug-dealing pimps who were trying to get us drunk, stoned, and probably take everything we had.
After a couple hours with these guys, Joe and I made up an excuse of why we had to leave. Luckily our friends were more intoxicated than we were which gave us a head start. Joe and I got out of that basement as quickly as we could. As we walked down the sidewalk away from the building we heard our ‘friends’ behind us. They started to chase us and Joe and I ran. Like something out of a movie, we jumped full stride into a moving cab. We told the driver to “Go, go, go!” and the taxi pulled away from the sidewalk, narrowly escaping the grasp of our supposed ‘friends.’
You want to trust people when you travel. Some of the best interactions are with generous, friendly locals, who want nothing more than to show you their part of the world.
That day in Cairo was not one of them.
STIs + Foreign Medical Clinics = No Fun
Although I always practiced ‘safe’ sex, the fact is shit happens.
Sexually Transmitted Infections happen, to be specific, no matter how little we want to talk about them or admit that they exist.
I learned this lesson the hard way.
Christmas 2010 on an island in Thailand won’t be remembered for sandy beaches and full-moon parties. I remember Googling STIs on Christmas Day with a fellow traveler whom I’d been sleeping with for a week. Neither of us had ever had an STI before and we were struggling to figure out what was going on with our bodies.
When our situation wasn’t improving on Boxing Day, we drove 40 minutes on a rented scooter to a doctor’s clinic in the next village.
After being handed our diagnosis from a Thai doctor in five broken English words, we bought our medication and hopped back on our rented scooter. We felt frustrated and embarrassed.
As we drove back to our guesthouse, my mind wandered and I lost control of the scooter. We were thrown off the machine and slid along the gravel covered road in our shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops. When the dust settled my reaction was to laugh, even though I was covered in blood.
I thought Christmas on a remote island in Thailand with a beautiful blonde would have been paradise.
Christmas 2010 did not turn out that way.
Food poisoning is one step away from death.
On my last day in Syria, I ate something that didn’t sit well.
I woke up the next morning in severe pain. My stomach was in knots and Joe and I were about to travel to Lebanon.
The bus ride from Damascus to the Lebanese border was typical: bumpy, sweaty, and packed like sardines. At the border crossing they made us walk across no-man’s land with our 40 pound packs in the searing 35˚C heat. I didn’t think I would make it. I felt like I was going to faint, shit my pants, and throw up, all at the same time. I struggled through customs and jumped on another rickety bus to Beirut, my stomach still screaming in pain.
After a couple more agonizing hours we made it to Beirut and found a guesthouse. I almost didn’t make it to the bathroom in time. I positioned myself in a half squat between the toilet and the sink, and exploded from both ends at the same time. When I was done, the scene looked like something out of a horror movie. It took me an hour to clean the bathroom when all I wanted to do was pass out and die.
I spent the next three days in bed, unable to eat. I could hardly get out of bed and walk to the bathroom.
I love trying new foods and discovering new flavours. I eat what the locals eat and usually it’s great.
My Damascus/Beirut experience was not one of those times.
I hope this post hasn’t discouraged you from traveling. If you think about it, all these hard lessons I experienced could have happened anywhere, including in my own backyard.
My most difficult travel moments might sound shitty, but they’re also the source of my best travel stories.
I also learned that I’m resilient and capable of grinding through the tough times. Sometimes life throws us curve balls. It’s how we react to these moments when we learn what we’re made of.
Traveling is full of amazing experiences, but it’s the most difficult experiences when I learned the most important lessons. Although my roughest travel moments might sound terrible, I wouldn’t trade them in for anything.