Drinking from the Tap (and other mistakes travelers make)

01.13.09 - Random 058

Despite having me teeth smashed out of my skull, I’m feeling pretty good. Blame it on all the wonderful drugs my dentist gave me.

To say that I’ve made my share of mistakes on the road is the understatement of the year. Most mistakes are the result of an inane inability to follow rules, listen to direction or use discretion in almost any conceivable circumstance. But that’s just me.

When I sat down this morning to work on a fresh blog post, my mind got to wandering. I started thinking about the time I pepper sprayed a monk’s dog in Laos after accidentally interrupting a prayer ceremony. Then I thought about the time a jellyfish stung me in the face in the Philippines after our boatmen told me not to jump in the water. As I thought about more foolish things that have happened to me and the countless others I have brought down upon myself, I decided to jot down a few notes – with Megan helping to fill in the gaps as needed (she’s not one to let me forget when I’ve done something stupid, bless her heart).

I’ve had teeth knocked out of my head, broken bones, had a gun pulled on me, been attacked by animals, fallen ill and been beaten up – all the things that help make travel great and keep us feeling alive.

So, dear friends and fellow travelers – I present to you the following list of mistakes I’ve made on the road. You should avoid doing the same if you can, though I know some of you have been felled by the very same pitfalls. At least we can laugh about it now.

10. Spending a Night in an Airport

It has happened to everyone I know. No matter what, it always sucks. In 2010 Megan and I were en route from Medan, on the island of Sumatra, to Jogja on the island of Java. It was supposed to be another routine series of flights – we flew from Medan to Jakarta on Air Asia and thought we would buy an onward ticket to Jogja and be on our way in a few hours.

No such luck.

We didn’t realize that Ramadan had started and every single resident of Indonesia was on the move. Not only were there no available flights, but there were no train tickets and no hotels rooms open. Anywhere. So we unfurled our towels and sweaters and curled up on the cockroach-infested benches at Jakarta International and wept softly as passers by farted, burped and tossed cigarette butts at us. This wasn’t the first time we spent a night in an airport, and it wasn’t the last, but it sure as hell was the worst.

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Adam only looks cool here because he didn’t crash his scooter. Smug jerk.

9. Crashing Renting a Scooter

Renting a scooter wouldn’t be such a dangerous ordeal if, you know, you actually knew how to drive one back home. I have been on a motorcycle a few times in my life (I cried during every ride) but I had never been on a scooter before I got behind the handle bars in Cambodia in January of 2010. My pal Adam and I decided that we would drive a few hundred km along the coast to check out a mangrove swamp. I tried to show off. I crashed, flipped over the handle bars and shredded parts of skin I didn’t even know I had.

That crash hasn’t stopped me from renting a scooter in every country I’ve been in since, of course. But it did convince me to wear a helmet.

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Parts of several frogs. One of the strangest things I’ve eaten on the road.

8. Eating Meat

Eating meat in the developing world is such a batshit stupid idea, yet I love to do it. Thailand, Laos and Vietnam would have some of the best street food in the world – if it weren’t for South Korea. Seoul alone has more street vendors than any other country on earth, and the wealth of riches available to your tickle your taste buds is staggering. Yet South Korea is a largely developed nation with pretty decent health standards when it comes to processing, storing and preparing meat (I like to believe this, at any rate). Not so for the rest of Asia. I’ve eaten rat, parts of a frog’s head, rattlesnake, ostrich, the back end of an ox, rotten sting ray, raw sea cucumber, cobra and all sorts of other weird shit that I can’t even begin to describe. I’ve gotten sick off it, too. Mud-Butt haunts my dreams.

What I won’t do, ever, is eat meat in South Asia. Megan and I visited India, Nepal and Sri Lanka this year, and we lived on beans and greens. I refuse to eat garbage goat.

SriLanka_86530This guy knows how to play with animals.

7.  Playing with Animals

Say, you want to pet that cute dog, do you? Then you won’t mind ingesting tablets as big as a camel’s hump after it bites you. The only thing worse than being bitten by a rabies-infected animal is the hell you have to go through after the fact. Thankfully, I’ve never been bitten by an animal while traveling, though a dog did try and get me in Luang Prabang last year. I got him, though, right between the eyes – with two squirts from my canister of bear spray.

I don’t screw with animals. When they screw with me, I take dramatic action. I don’t pet tigers, I don’t let monkeys pick strange shit out of my hair, and I never, ever let a cat lick my feet.

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This is still a better alternative to public transportation.

6. Riding the Bus

My friend Phil once said that riding the bus is for peasants and prostitutes. I have to say that I agree. I will always and forever take dramatic steps to make sure that I don’t have to take a bus someplace remote. I once rented a private mini-bus to take Megan and I from Lake Maninjau to Lake Toba in Indonesia. We had so much free space, and we looked so comfortable during the first hour of our trip, that our driver decided to stop and pick up a family of 11 + all the luggage in the world + 5 sacks of rice + an empty water bottle – the kind you use in an office water cooler – just for good measure. For 18 hours I sat next to a guy who used my thigh as a scratching post while Indonesian pop beats belted my ear drums and Megan cried softly beside me. Twice I pissed my pants. The man next to me shit in his. I swore we would never travel by public bus again.

Then we did it again. We took a bus ride in Nepal that was so bumpy I was once launched out of my seat and hit my head on the roof – four and a half feet above me. One time in Myanmar I engaged in a war of attrition with a man who wanted to spit betel nut across my face and out the window, when I did not want him to. It did not end well for either of us.

Don’t be an idiot. Don’t take the bus. Hire a car and driver, or splurge for the deluxe AC model your hotelier wants to rip you off for. You know you would only spend the extra money on booze, anyway.

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5. Losing my Wallet

You really don’t want to do this. I’ve lost my wallet in three countries and counting. Ever tried to prove your identity in a foreign country when you don’t have a single piece of ID on you? You’ll have better luck running for Syrian parliament than getting out of the country unscathed by the judicial system.

If you lose your wallet, you’ll actually have more luck – and a better chance at getting home – by buying a fake ID off the street, growing a beard and acquiring an accent. Then all you have to do is secure passage on a cargo ship out of Hong Kong, and head for Western waters. Just make sure you’re not en route to Somalia. All the fake cell phones in the world won’t save you from the pirates.

4. Filling up my Passport

Do. Not. Fill. All. The. Pages. In. Your. Passport. When. You. Are. On. The. Road.

Unless you are an American citizen – then it’s totally cool. Megan’s passport was down to two empty pages by the time we landed in Laos late last year. So we headed south for Vientiane and we stopped in at the American embassy. There we waited for an hour, before Megan was presented with 80 (or 40, or whatever, I can’t remember) brand new pages stitched into her passport, to the tune of $83. Not a bad deal, if you ask me.

I knew my passport was filling up, too. I had even called Passport Canada before we left the country and asked if I could get a new one prior to our trip. I was told that I would have to do it on the road, since I had too many blank pages.

“But all my pages will be filled after the first three weeks of our trip!”

“I’m sorry sir, we can’t help you.”

So, we get to Laos and find out there’s no Canadian embassy. Our next option? Vietnam. You would think that a country that shares a socialist system so much like our own would make things easier on visitors. I visited the Canadian embassy and spent the better part of a day filling out forms to get a new temporary passport.

“What the hell do I do with a temporary passport?” I asked the lady at the embassy.

“You exchange it for a real passport when the time comes.”

“The time is now. Please accept this temporary passport on my behalf and give me a new real passport,” I said.

“It doesn’t work that way,” the lady said.

It doesn’t work at all, actually. For those of you who don’t know, a temporary passport is much the same as a real passport, save that it is white, not blue, and contains only four pages. I don’t know why the hell the Canadian embassy in Vietnam went through the trouble of creating a new temporary passport when they could have just given me a new real passport, but that’s the system and that’s how it screws you over.

With my new temporary passport in hand – it only took three days to issue – I was told to visit Hong Kong to pick up my new real passport. Hong Kong, is, of course, the land that created red tape.

First of all, getting out of Vietnam was a pain in the ass. The Canadian embassy voided my old (full) passport, which contained my Vietnamese entry stamp and VISA. So when I tried to leave, I had a fresh and clean blank passport. That didn’t make anyone at the airport happy and I nearly missed my flight, even though I was still in possession of the old passport and had 5,534 pieces of ID to back up my existence (remember when I talked about losing my wallet? I try to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore by taping pieces of photo-ID to my underpants). I was allowed to board just in time to take a swift beating from the Hong Kong immigration officials.

I’ll make this long story a little shorter.

I picked up my new passport at the Canadian embassy in Hong Kong and handed in my temporary passport. Which meant that I was now in possession of another brand new, totally blank passport – with no entry visa/stamp. So we visited Hong Kong immigration, known locally as the seventh circle of hell, and waited FIVE HOURS to get a stamp you get at the airport in five minutes. It cost me nearly $200, too. Nice touch, that. All in all, it cost me more than $500 + a trip to Hong Kong to get a new passport. It cost Megan $83. The icing on the cake? My new passport expires in 2016. Megan’s old passport, the smug little prick bursting at the seams with new pages? It expires in 2017. Sweet.

We were also denied an opportunity to visit China on this trip, since Chinese immigration will not issue a VISA for a temporary passport. Smooth.

So, dear friends – if you are a Canadian citizen, like me, and you live in Canada and you love Canada, like me, you should be extra nice to your local passport official when asking for your new passport. Trust me on this one.

3. Drinking the Water

They told us not to drink the water in Nepal. So we stocked up on bottled water and did our best to avoid the tap. Then I had a shower and brushed my teeth and forgot all about those warnings. so I got sick, and Megan got sick, and  continued to brush my teeth with contaminated water, so I stayed sick.

Don’t drink tap water when you’re on the road. But try your best not to drink tap water, either – if you can, stock up on purification tablets before you hit the road, or better still, buy a bottle with a built-in filter or one of those amazing UV purifiers. Getting sick off food is one thing; I half expect it, and don’t really mind spending a night on the toilet after trying some new and exciting dish. Getting sick off water is just annoying.

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Megan looks like she’s having a lot of fun, right? Wouldn’t you rather be at the world’s most wretched hospital rather than one of the most spectacular beaches in the world? Yeah, sure you would.

2. Visiting the Dentist (or the Hospital)

I’ve had to visit the dentist in a foreign land more out of necessity than anything else, but it was stupidity that sent me there in the first place. New Years Eve 2008; I was partying the night away with some friends in Seoul when a soldier decided to use my face as place to rest his forehead. Six trips to the dentist, a set of dark yellow teeth and a few thousand dollars later, I had a face full of new veneers.

Last year Megan and I visited Sri Lanka. Megan busted some toes on the beach. We had to visit the hospital. We could have had our hotel’s resident doctor check her out, but we wanted to get x-rays (we were about to go hiking in Nepal and wanted to know if there was any serious damage). We sat in a waiting room where nurses used dirty razors to shave patients. We saw bloody needles on the floor. We sat in a long, cramped hallway filled with patients with TB. We visited an operating theatre where we had to take off our shoes and walk through three inches of water – while a man with an open, festering wound on his leg sat next to us.

We probably caught something much worse than a broken toe while visiting that hospital. I swore that in the future I would only buy travel insurance that included free helicopter transport to Singapore or Hong Kong.

*At the end of the day, no one bothered inspecting Megan’s toes, anyway. Doctors were too busy dealing with monkey bites and jellyfish attacks, etc. etc. We would have been better off visiting with that resident doctor in the first place – we wouldn’t have had to leave the beach or expose ourselves to infectious disease.

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Playing with strangers is fun!

1. Riding with Strangers

Generally, riding with strangers isn’t such a big deal – I’ve done it in Laos, in Thailand, in Korea, pretty much all over Asia. Where I wouldn’t recommend doing this sort of thing is in the Western world, where people are in general 100% stranger and more devious.

Visiting Germany back in 2001, I had a few too many Hefeweizens and couldn’t find my way home. I stopped a few cars to ask for directions, but since my German language skills were (are) nonexistent, I didn’t get far. Until I stopped a trucker who was very, very eager to give me a ride. I don’t remember much of that ride, only that it took longer than it probably should have. That I even came out of that one alive is a miracle. I’ve since been a little better at choosing who I ride with… but not much better.

Mexico, New Year’s Eve 2004.

I was at a bar with my friends when I decided I had had enough and wanted to go home. I got into a cab and told the driver to take me to my hotel. The driver told me he had given me a ride before, when some other friends were in the car with me. One of those friends had lost a camera and the driver said he would give it back to me – if I came back to his house with him. I said I would, of course! Sensible.

We drove to this man’s house in a shanty town where armed men guarded razor wire fences and where each house had a resident pitbull guarding the front door. I waited in the car for what seemed like a long time, wondering if my friends would ever find my body, and whether or not my assailants would do me the dignity of leaving my haggard frame clothed or not.

The driver returned to the car and brought with him the camera. Then he drove me to his friend’s house where we had a couple of beers and chatted about life north of the border (north of two borders, I guess). Then he drove me back to the hotel and wished me well – didn’t even charge me for the ride.

I started this by saying you shouldn’t accept rides from strangers. I’m not so sure of that now, to be honest. It seems like a perfectly good idea to me. People aren’t nearly as scary as we’d like to pretend they are. Next time you’re out late at night, do accept a ride from someone you’ve never met before. It’ll be an adventure. Don’t be so afraid of the world.

Part of what makes me a successful travel writer is my willingness to put myself in awkward/stupid/dangerous situations. I wouldn’t be able to write about exciting things if exciting things didn’t happen to me, after all. You can call it negligence or carelessness – I call it adventure. Whatever it is, it doesn’t really matter – it serves to inspire me. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

-flash