Why I should never travel.
When I was eight I fell down a well.
I had been playing with some friends on a farm, and while retrieving a ball that bounced onto some rotting wooden planks, I fell through.
Luckily there was water at the bottom and apart from almost drowning, I was hoisted out with only bruises and wounded pride.
Not many people can say they’ve fallen down a well. I’ve also been hit by a car and have had to be pulled, near-unconscious, from icy water.
I’ve always thought this said more about luck than stupidity, but lately I’ve been re-evaluating.
In October, finally secure in a job and with more than just zeros in my savings account, I went on my first holiday as a fully-grown adult to Thailand.
The trip didn’t go so well.
What the f*** is that? Nail polish?
On my first night I engaged in (what I thought was) some friendly Thai boxing with a mate and got a black eye and lost the hearing in one ear.
Two days later, swerving to avoid an audacious tuk-tuk, I crashed a motorbike. When I finally limped from the local hospital, my limbs, missing a fair amount of skin, looked like a patchwork quilt.
I had been warned about the dangers of drinking Thai water, so kept to water bottles. The morning after my 50 kilometre per hour asphalt tumble, I took a healthy swig from the bottle sitting on the fridge. Unhappily, it was not water. “What the f*** is that? Nail polish?” I spat.
It was bleach the cleaning staff had accidentally left in the room.
Watching the guilty staff member sheepishly return to pick up the bottle, my friend muttered, in between my vomit sessions, “you should say something”. I didn’t.
Kiwis don’t like ruffling feathers. At least I’d given the toilet bowl a good clean, I said.
Aside from hours of trying to wash the bleachy taste out of my mouth and the constant reapplication of bandages to my legs, the next few days were relatively uneventful.
Until I broke my own rule.
I didn’t think twice about the ice in my fruit shake … until the explosive eruptions from two of my most valued orifices started. The worst part of the worst illness of my life was being unable to stomach even water. Until then, I had only thrown up whiskey and undercooked chicken.
By now, you’ve probably already made up your mind as to whether I’m unlucky or simply stupid. If you are in the minority of the unsure, my next pitfall should settle things.
After recovering from the bug to end all bugs, my friends and I set off on a planned five day tour of the north - on motorbikes. A week’s break from two wheels had given me an unwarranted confidence. Besides, I wasn’t gonna bail.
The first day went well - four hours of travel and I was flying. Early on the second day, scooting along at 80 kilometres per hour in driving rain, I came to the type of long, winding, downhill corner that would have furrowed Burt Munro’s brow.
I squeezed the brakes, at the wrong time, apparently, and the back wheel locked. The crash happened very quickly, yet I remember each stage as if it lasted minutes. Swerve, front wheel lock, overturn, skid, roll, roll, roll and finally, rest.
Off to hospital again.
Unfortunately, while being escorted 200 kilometres to the nearest city, Chiang Mai, of The Bachelor fame, I was struck with the second worst bug of my life. Must have been the previous night’s dinner.
The next three-and-a-bit days I spent alone in a crappy hotel room, nothing in my stomach and nothing on television due to the Thai King’s death days earlier. I was too weak to explore.
By the time I gratefully flew back to New Zealand, I had lost about 10kg - significant for someone who already resembled a rake.
I recovered a little faster than my savings account and earlier this year decided to give travelling another go. Europe, this time. More expensive, but with a lower chance of calamity, I thought.
There’s this drink…
Second night in Prague, my travel buddy and I befriended a charismatic couple in line to a quiet cocktail bar. He was loud, brash and British and worked for Shell in London. She, an American of similar character, worked for Citibank, also in London.
They did all the talking, but also paid for the drinks, so we tagged along on their booze odyssey. They berated wait staff for being slow to deliver drinks, but as polite Kiwis, we kept quiet and absorbed the full measure of awkwardness.
“There’s this drink…”, are three words you never want to hear spoken to start a sentence. “There’s this drink you have to try. It involves the bartender smashing you on the head with a baseball bat.”
They weren’t lying. Despite our feeble protestations, my friend and I were convinced to “try” the “drink”. Polite Kiwis. It went thus:
- Bartender puts American football helmet on drinker’s head.
- Bartender pours a (generous) shot. Unsure of substance.
- Bartender pours a tumbler glass one-third full of absinthe.
- Bartender lights absinthe on fire.
- Bartender gives drinker a straw and instructs, “drink fast”.
- While drinker slurps, bartender pours two other spirits into tumbler (Unsure, but one was potentially Baileys).
- When finished, the previously poured shot is downed.
- Bartender retrieves a baseball bat from under bar and smashes the drinker on the head five times.
I was naturally, completely and utterly, boozed.
Luckily, or unluckily, my memory remains sharp. Later on, a seemingly nice Czech lad led me outside at an opportune moment, where I vomited. He then led me down a few alleys and persuaded my drunk self to slouch against a wall, where, I do believe, I vomited. I then passed out.
When I awoke in the early hours, (after vomiting) I glanced down at my stripped wallet and pawed at my empty pockets and groaned. Somewhere else in the city, my friend awoke in a similar state.
The long journey back to the hostel was not a pleasant one. Nor was waking up in a state of triggered panic the next few mornings. I swore off heavy drinking the rest of the trip.
Walking home a couple of nights later, I was sexually assaulted. A local street worker, from whom I had kindly declined the offer of a blow-job, grabbed my crotch and squeezed.
The safest, kindest place on earth.
But my luck (or stupidity) was about to change.
Rather than fighting off the vice-like grip, I reached down to my side and snatched my phone as it was being lifted out of my pocket. Muggers 1, Max 1.
There’s always going to be some degree of risk when you travel. Living in a country tourists often claim is, “the safest, kindest place on earth” imbues a sense of complacency - or at least it does for me.
It’s why I ignored (twice!) everyone at a desk within a few metres of mine yelling “get travel insurance!”
I’ve also come to the conclusion that I’m both stupid and lucky. Lucky, because I survived two 50 km/hr-plus crashes without any lasting effect. Lucky, because I didn’t wake up on a strange Prague street with a kidney-sized hole in my side. Lucky, because I’m able to travel in the first place.
I came home last week and told the same baseball bat/mugging story more than two dozen times. I’d tweak small details for each listener - not good practice for a journalist, but the only way to stop myself going mad.
I started writing this - Confessions of a hopeless tourist, or, Why I should never travel - but by the time I had finished, I’d decided the second part wasn’t true.