Here goes the first edition of some of my biggest travel hiccups and fiascos from the past four years of travel. Enjoy taking pleasure in my pain!
An Unexpected Outburst
I was an eager 20-year old when I landed in Quito, Ecuador, for a summer internship. Upon arrival, I was taken to my home-stay which was just a 10 minute walk from the city center (“Gringo-landia” as my new family liked to call it). There was no time to spare, and that afternoon I attended my first Spanish immersion class– a one-on-one tutoring course that would last two weeks before officially starting my job.
The school was located in a humble building separated into small classrooms. We started the lesson and I racked my brain for all the verb tenses I had learned in school, but found it so hard to remember.
About 30 minutes into class it became very hard to focus, and even harder to stare at my book. I figured it was just the long day I had already been through, and the fact I had only just arrived in the country. When my ‘profe’ realized I might need a short break, he told me I could get a drink from the kitchen and go outside for some fresh air. I did so, but returned inside quickly, as the smell of barbecuing meat outside made my stomach churn. I returned to the class determined to put mind over matter and get through what was only my first day
It didn’t take long until I was feeling bad again, but I refused to go outside and endure what seemed like a rancid smell of charred flesh. I continued to try and focus on the Spanish past-irregular tenses and let the feeling pass.
Without warning, I was feeling so nauseous that I couldn’t bare it anymore. As I stood up to run to the bathroom, I projectile vomited all over the floor of the classroom. The teacher, nor myself, knew what to do, and I repeatedly burst out, “sorry, sorry” before shuffling to the bathroom.
After some water, I then insisted I mop up my own vomit. As I did so, with disheveled hair and a pale face, I got the pleasure of meeting one of the other new students, Heather, who just happened to be on her break. We then chatted about where we were from so normally that you’d forget I held a mop full of puke in my hands. She must have been deliriously tired herself. (Heather soon became my best friend that summer).
It was a relief when I was called a taxi and taken home, but the worst wasn’t over yet. I would soon realize that I had just begun suffering through what was an awful bout of altitude sickness. Mind numbing headaches and uncontrollable vomiting would categorize the next 24 hours all due to the 9,350 feet (2,800 meters) elevation that was Quito.
Misadventures in dining
We were about 4 months into backpacking around Asia when Simon and I landed in Hanoi, Vietnam. Overly excited to try some authentic Vietnamese cuisine, I scoured our Lonely Planet for a surefire bet. By this point in our trip we had eaten at a lot of restaurants, and it was becoming pretty exhausting. Every meal meant making another decision about places we were unfamiliar with and dishes we knew nothing about. Luckily, most meals were a success.
After reviewing the options in Hanoi, one such place had overwhelmingly positive reviews, and even seemed a bit fancy. We decided to go with it, regardless of the higher prices, thinking it should be worth it. We arrived at the restaurant pretty early and were the only ones there. We peeled open the menu, confronted with what seemed like an encyclopedia’s worth of options.
Well, “the catfish spring rolls were recommended. That’s all I know.”
We decided to ask the waiter what she recommended. After some thought, she just pointed at dish after dish with a corresponding nodding facial expression. After her so very helpful and specific recommendations, we had only decided on the local plum wine. This is where our logic took a strange turn.
“Okay, well, since this place has such good reviews I guess it’s a good place to be adventurous…The Vietnamese were once a French colony and they probably cook French meats well….I haven’t had corn in a while….I love clams and we should choose a seafood dish….”
Somehow we ended up with this:
Minced clams, fried pigeon and fried corn kernels.
Where do I even start. The minced clams were just that, but extremely fishy, and tasted straight from a can. There was no amount of rice or prawn crackers that could be eaten to cover their strong, shell-fishy taste. And then the fried pigeon. Why did we even order this you might ask? Well, at the time I thought of all the Food Network shows where they prepared pigeon. It looked like a pretty tasty poultry dish when cooked with French techniques (which would actually be ‘squab’). This was my ridiculous logic which I decided to apply for the first time in Vietnam, of all places. What landed on our table were not carefully prepared breaded pieces of meat, but the entire bird, all of which was a black color, chopped up with no abandon: legs, head, feet and all.
Lastly, do you know how ridiculous it is to eat individual corn kernels with chopsticks?
Usually, I can force things down to get through a meal, but this one was different. The dishes didn’t help each other whatsoever, and the small pieces of fried black meat, bone, eyeballs, beak and all, were just unappetizing. We left most of the plates embarrassingly full.
When we decided to leave, I cringed with anxiety. One thing that makes me more uncomfortable than ever is leaving a full plate at a restaurant. We were doing this for three plates.
Simon went to go pay and I was ready to make a quick escape. He motioned for me to leave the table, and as sly as possible I darted.
“It was so cheap, they definitely got something wrong!” Simon whispered when he met me at the door.
We were almost free and about the cross the street when we heard a high voice calling towards us. “Mister, mister, wrong bill!”
Embarrassingly enough, we were dragged back in the restaurant past our full plates to sort out the bill fiasco. We paid the difference and it ended up being the most expensive meal we had of all 3 ½ weeks in Vietnam.
As we walked out I saw an American family trying to sort through the novel of a menu.
“Don’t get the pigeon.” I whispered. “Or the clams” Simon added.
A Face Full of Sweat
The 4,000 Islands, Laos wasn’t my favorite destination in Southeast Asia, to say the least. Maybe it was the time of year, the sweltering hot temperatures or the fact I just prefer the beach over a murky river (I’m still bitter) but I wasn’t connecting with the place.
Things got worse when I was having trouble sleeping through the hot and sticky temperatures. As tired as I was, I just couldn’t get comfortable when I felt sticky and sweaty.
“This fan sucks, I can barely feel it! We have to change rooms tomorrow.” I said as I tried to go to sleep. Soon, Simon and I switched positions and put our heads at the foot of the bed, directly under the ceiling fan, hoping it might help.
About an hour or so later, I heard the dreaded sound of an electricity cut– fans slowing down and lights clicking off. This ever-so-frequent occurrence of power cuts had become the worst part of trying to sleep in the hottest season around Asia. I stared up at the ceiling watching the fan slowly come to a stop, trying to contain myself.
It only took about 10 minutes until I was crying. Soon enough, tears dripped down my face almost as much as the sweat did.
I was engaged in a full blown mid-twenties tantrum.
“I can’t handle it anymore! I’m so tired of being so hot, and so tired, and so sweaty all the time! I just want to sleep! I just want to feel clean!”
In an effort to calm me down for the sake of the both of us, Simon rummaged around in the dark looking for a water bottle. He then felt around for some of his laundry and drenched the cloth in water. He handed it to me to put on my face, hoping it would cool me down enough to sleep. I eventually caught my breath and my tears came to a stop. About an hour later, the fan switched back on, and although it provided only the smallest breeze, I was able to get a few hours of sleep before the blazing sun was entering through our window.
“Let’s get out of here. I don’t care if it’s $15 a night. We are getting A/C.”
*Looking back, it’s funny to see how much we suffered in the sake of cheap accommodation. On the other hand, it’s the reason we traveled so long on such little money.*
We packed up, and in the daylight I gathered the still-damp pieces of clothing from the bed which we used to cool us down.
“Wait, you gave me your underwear for my face?!”
“Yes, but they were from the clean….oh wait…nope, these are dirty.” In broad daylight it was easy to see that the dirty clothes were in one pile, and the clean ones were neatly folded in a plastic bag.
Although I was disgusted, we laughed it off, and as we were leaving the room Simon fiddled with the fan switch one more time.
“I just can’t believe they have such crappy fans in these rooms.”
As he turned the knob this way and that way, a nice breeze brushed our backs, and then stopped.
“Oh, no.” he said with a shocked expression. “Level 3 is the lowest and level 1 is the highest! We’ve had the fan on low the whole time!”
As if realizing you just spent the whole night wiping your face with dirty, sweaty, man-boxers wasn’t enough, now I realized we put ourselves through all that suffering for no reason.
Ten minutes later we had upgraded to a nice, new room, which as with most places in Southeast Asia, was only about $5 each extra per night. Still, we made sure we got our money’s worth. That night we kept the air on so high that I was happily shivering and looking for more clothing to put on.
This time, clean clothing.
Travel isn’t always fun, but it makes for good stories! More to come in part 2, and possibly in a part 3!