Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tales of Holiday Nightmares (courtesy the Sunday Times travel section)

Isn't travel great? The world is a playground of delights: all hotels are luxurious, all journeys are trouble-free, all meals are delicious and without serious gastrointestinal consequence.

Yeah, right. We may spend much of our time concentrating on the positive – after all, it's our job to bring you the best holidays in the world – but we also know that things don't always go exactly to plan.

When our own trips mess up, they do it in style.

Mishaps leave us stranded on remote antipodean islands; the natives are spectacularly unfriendly; buses take unscheduled detours down hillsides; dinners end up digesting our insides, instead of the other way around.

TASMANIA: debacle down under

IF YOU go all the way to the bottom of the world, you get Australia. If you go to the bottom of Australia, you get to Tasmania. And if you go to the bottom of that, which I admit is a bit of a long shot, you get Bruny Island. Drive to the end of that and you're at Adventure Bay: one of the most romantic camp sites in the world. Romantic... but remote.
What a place to spend not only my last night in Australia, but also my last night with my Australian girlfriend. After three years together, we had finally used up all our visa options. It was either marriage or a thanks-for-the-good-times hug goodbye. Sensibly, we'd chosen the latter, but it didn't stop us squeezing in one last fling. As long as I was on the first ferry to Tasmania in the morning, I'd make my flight to Sydney. There would be time for airport tears before the connecting flight to Los Angeles, then London. I'd be drowning my sorrows at the Fox and Spanner before I knew it.
We arrived at Adventure Bay in the late afternoon and sighed that morose/happy sigh specifically reserved for times when everything is perfect and everything is rubbish at the same time. The beach was incredible, the sunset was lining up to be a corker, the albino kangaroos were hopping around like little marsupial cupids. Not that we needed any love arrows. We were already deeply in love. Oh, cruel world.
Then, it all went wrong. I got out of the crappy old Beetle. She got out of the crappy old Beetle. She went to lock the doors and there was a horrible snapping sound.
No, not her perfect, shapely wrists. In retrospect, that might have been better.
The key. The only key. In the lock. So the car containing all our clothes and camping gear was locked. And we had no key to drive it back the next morning.
"What the hell did you do that for?"
"I didn't do it on purpose. It just broke."
"How can it just break?" "Shut up." "Shut up." "I'm glad you're going back to England."
"So am I." "So am I." Or words to that effect. I stropped off to fetch the camp-site owner but he wasn't there, so all we could do was sit on the perfect beach, not talking to one another, on the last night of our lives together, trying to work out what to do.
Then I stropped off to phone the car-rental company. No, he couldn't come over in a speedboat. Yes, he would charge us £190 if we broke a window and another £190 if we left his car on bloody Bruny Island. But he was mates with the captain of the car ferry. And he would give him the spare key to bring over on the first ferry.
If we caught the second ferry and drove like maniacs, we'd get to the airport 10 minutes before the flight was due to leave. To catch the second ferry, which left at 7.30am, would involve getting a lift at 5am from Adventure Bay to meet the 6am ferry, then getting a lift back to Adventure Bay with the key and driving back again. Since there was nobody around, not even a camp-site owner, any sort of lift seemed unlikely.
So I stropped a bit more. Then, as the sun continued to dip, the camp-site owner arrived. He didn't play the blame game. He went off to get a coat hanger, broke into our car, then gave us half a bottle of whisky to settle our nerves. He then agreed to drive me to the ferry port the next morning.
We held hands for sunset. No, not me and the camp-site owner, though he did deserve a hug. Me and my key-snapping Aussie girl. Apart from everything, it was perfect.
At 5am I was up, but the camp-site guy wasn't. So we left at quarter past. His car was worse than ours and progress on the dirt track was slow. I was willing him to floor it, but he'd been so helpful already, I couldn't insist.
We arrived as the ferry was pulling away. Frantically, I looked around for a key-shaped parcel. Then I noticed the captain waving as he headed for the horizon. He must have left it at the office.
I ran to the office but it wasn't open. I ran to a payphone, dialled the ferry company and got patched through to the boat.
The captain was as friendly as he'd looked. "G'day. Don't worry, I've got your key."
"But I need it here!" "Don't worry, I'll bring it over on the 7.30."
"Why didn't you leave it?" "Thought it would be better to give it to you in person."
"Noooooooooooooooooo!" I reached Hobart airport four hours and three furious arguments later. The plane had left two hours earlier. I was doomed. All my onward flights would be invalid and I couldn't afford another ticket. Maybe I should marry her after all?
Then the desk clerk, who had been tapping away at her computer, said something desk clerks never say.
"I've booked you on the next flight, and I've got you an exit row right at the front, so you can get off quicker. They'll rush you through at Sydney. You should be fine, doll."
And I was. Well, I wasn't. In the panic, we never said goodbye properly. Not me and the clerk. Me and my Aussie girl. All because of a broken key.

ZANZIBAR: a case of ferry belly

IT WAS the start of a six-week trip from Kenya down to the Victoria Falls. We'd spent some time exploring Mombasa, but our journey proper would begin with a two-hour ferry ride to Zanzibar, to take in a spice tour.
The day before, I'd had a delicious meal of locally caught fish and what might have been goat curry. As curries are wont to do, this one was lingering. But still, it was only a curry.
I can handle a curry. So off I went to the ferry.
Now, back then, I'll admit, ferries and I didn't always get on. It was the up and down, you see, and the side to side. But I was dealing with both until the curry got involved.
Just as the boat performed an enthusiastic lurch to the left, followed by a compensatory whoops to the right, my stomach made it known that something was amiss.
The lavatories were at the side of the boat, just so you wouldn't be denied the full rollercoaster effect if you happened to be indisposed for a moment. I entered at a fair rate, dived into a cubicle and felt the blessed thrill of release. I breathed a sigh of relief. Which was my first mistake.
That breath told me two things. First, these toilets were none too well ventilated, and second, they were none too well cleaned. They stank of many days' continual use, by many people – not all of them well. I did what all hardened travellers would do, and retched.
It was then a simple race between me and the contents of my stomach. And while the contents of my stomach only had a foot or so to go to reach the finish line, I had to grasp and secure my shorts, unlock a door and make it to the sinks across the bathroom.
I won. Just. But the effort involved had triggered something downstairs, so I just needed to pop back to the cubicle and... oooh.
This wasn't fun. Still, at least the ferry had stopped rolling all over the plaaa... Oh hell. Quick, where's the sink?
I'll spare you the rest. If this were a movie, you'd fade to black, and then rejoin me, wrapped around the toilet bowl. Sobbing. At some point, I had lost a race and was now wearing my curry. I had, in fact, given up on races altogether and had spent an hour and a half locked in my cubicle, alternating between vomiting and... something else, worse.
Towards the end, with no liquid left in my body save my own blood, I had retched, dryly, for nearly two minutes, totally unable to draw in a saving breath. To anyone unfortunate enough to be watching this movie, it would have looked as if I were trying to expel my toes through my mouth, such was the force of that desperate but empty barf.
Finally, as I accepted this was to be my legacy, that this was how I was going to be found – dead, half-naked on a toilet floor and covered in something that might once have been curry – I heard a blast on a horn. Unless they'd got some fancy new gear on the River Styx, that must mean I'd arrived, alive, in Zanzibar.
I had stared death in the face and it had stared back – confused as to why it was meeting me half-naked and covered in curry – and had turned, at the last minute, away.
I got gingerly to my feet, abandoned my T-shirt and made my way off the ferry to join the rest of my party, having made a silent but profound vow never to get on a boat again. As I walked up to the rest of the gang, one of them turned and said: "Oh, there you are. You look rough. Anyway, we're off for something to eat. Curry?"

NEPAL: a spin in a bus

I'LL NEVER forget that goat. I don't go so far as to pray to him, but I do say a Hail Mary for his salvation once in a while. I owe him that much.
When my wife, Jaqui, and I were backpacking, we always took the local buses: so much more authentic than the tourist jobs, you know (and cheaper). Bit crowded, though. When we boarded in Pokhara, we managed to bag a couple of seats – never an easy thing to do in Nepal, where no vehicle is overloaded until the axle breaks. By the time we moved off, people were hanging from the luggage racks.
The Nepalese like their personal space as much as we do, and nobody relished the crush. In fact, the only passenger who seemed happy with the arrangement was the goat, which had ended up standing next to me in the aisle. To him, the bus was a smorgasbord of culinary possibilities. He started by chewing my trousers, and when I batted him on the nose, moved on to nibble at a stray flap of sari.
"Be nice to him," said a voice. "He will die tomorrow."
The speaker was a kindly, middle-aged man who owned the beast. He was heading for the bus's last stop, the town of Gorkha, in the foothills of the Himalayas. The upcoming Kali festival was a big deal there, and the many-armed goddess liked a ruminant tribute on her special day.
"You are very lucky, you are coming at a holy time," he said. "Many goats will be sacrificed in Gorkha tomorrow."
He gave me a huge smile. Jaqui winced. I smiled back – I'm not big on goats, and I'd taken against this one. The goat gnawed at an armrest unflappably.
Time passed. The man smiled again. I dozed. The goat chewed. And then the driver overshot a turn and we rolled down the hillside.
Being inside a packed bus as it tumbles down a steep slope is an interesting experience. The world goes dark, then light, then dark, then light. The noise is deafening. You see your fellow passengers from intriguing angles. It does hurt, though. In retrospect, it would have been a good idea to hang onto something, but taken by surprise, I spent much of the time airborne, bouncing off seat backs, metal and flailing limbs. I don't know how long it went on, but it made a lasting impression. I still can't look at a working tumble dryer.
With a final crash, the bus came to rest on its roof. (I later heard that we'd rolled three and a half times – I wasn't counting.)
Through the shattered windows, we crawled out onto a patch of level ground by a river. Miraculously, nobody had been killed. Jaqui didn't have a scratch, but deep cuts meant I had a compelling view of the inside of my arm, and passers-by could inspect the back of my skull. A horde of concerned locals packed me and the rest of the walking wounded into trucks, cars and carts to be taken to the nearest clinic, which was located (naturally) in a disused cricket pavilion. Shock can be a wondrous thing: there was no anaesthetic left, but the 24 stitches hardly hurt at all.
That said, I wasn't in a good frame of mind when I hobbled out and almost tripped over the damn goat. He seemed fine, and was grazing on a cardboard box. His owner had his arm in a sling, but incredibly he was smiling more broadly than ever.
"I thought I'd seen the last of your bloody goat," I grunted.
"Oh no, we are all very healthy," he beamed.
"Well, he won't look so smug tomorrow when you kill him."
The man looked shocked. "No, no, he will lead a long and happy life. He is an emblem of our good fortune, the goddess has smiled on him. My goat" – and he turned to the animal with evident pride – "is now a holy goat."
To my shame, I snorted and staggered off. Looking back, I wish I'd been more gracious. There's no way we should all have survived that crash, and a Kali-favoured goat is as good a reason as any.
Perhaps it was just the goddess's way of saying she'd had enough goats for now, thanks. Next time she has a message for us mortals, though, I hope she just sends a text.

FRANCE: a mugger's guide

AT 19 YEARS old, I'd never heard the term Zus. It was, explained the detective, the acronym for "Zones Urbaines Sensibles", or sensitive urban zones, which is what they call the parts of France that the government cannot control. It hadn't felt very sensitive to me, attacked by three thugs as I left a bar on the Rue des Convalescents in Marseille. They'd taken my wallet, my rucksack and my boots, and left me unconscious in the gutter. Which was why I'd woken up in hospital.
I suppose I could have called home, secured emergency funds and been down the Wasp and Badger in time for last orders, but that thought escaped me at the time. Penniless, shoeless and wearing a bloodstained shirt, I was sent to Secours Catholique, a hostel for the homeless in the shadow of the Autoroute du Soleil. They gave me a toothbrush, a pair of secondhand trainers and a bed in a dormitory full of Serbs.
One should always try to escape at the earliest opportunity, and despite my delight at the discovery that French homeless shelters served wine with dinner, I scarpered.
My first lift on my long journey home took me to Avignon, where I slept in a Photo-Me booth at the railway station before jumping a goods train that a trackman had told me was heading north to Lyon.
He was wrong. It took me 50 miles southwest, across the Rhône and through a rosy Mediterranean dawn to Montpellier. I walked out of the city to the A9 motorway, where a morose veterinary-products salesman called Georges picked me up and gave me his sandwich.
It was raining when we reached Lyon and, after chainsaw-wielding psychopaths, heavy rain is the hitchhiker's worst enemy. It was getting dark when an elderly priest gave me a lift to a village bang in the middle of nowhere. His housekeeper served me rabbit for dinner and I slept on a hard bed that smelt of lavender.
I spent most of the next day trying to avoid a weaselly fellow hitchhiker, who said he'd deserted from the Foreign Legion and had a habit of hiding when police cars drove past. A white van stopped during one of his absences and I left him on the outskirts of Villefranche, heading north with flowerpot sellers Eric and Agnès.
I told them my story and they took me to lunch: civet de sanglier (wild-boar stew) in a Relais Routier roadside restaurant. When they dropped me off on the Paris périphérique, Agnès tried to give me 100 francs. I couldn't possibly, I said. Eric insisted. I resisted, so he threw the money out of the window as they drove off.
Then I got arrested for hitchhiking on an autoroute. But instead of taking me to le nick, the gendarmerie drove me around the Paris ring road to St Denis and the A1 north.
Sometime before midnight, Claudia picked me up. As beautiful as she was tearful, she was heading home to Lille after catching her fiancé in flagrante delicto. Chain-smoking, she pushed the pedal to the metal and said maybe it would be better if she just slammed the car into a motorway bridge. We stopped for coffee at the suicide hour, somewhere in Picardy, and she changed her mind. She wasn't going to kill herself. She was going back to Paris to kill him instead.
It took me all day to get to Calais. I walked along country lanes and through battlefields buried in a mist that hung like mustard gas, the tops of the memorial crosses poking through the shroud. I ate apples for breakfast and skipped lunch, arriving at the ferry terminal at sunset.
I'd gathered 190 francs in donations since leaving Marseille, and the ferry crossing cost 220 francs. I explained my predicament and said I'd forward the balance – £3 – once I got home. The clerk refused, the supervisor refused, and the ferry sailed without me.
I could have tried a different ferry line or borrowed from another passenger. Instead, I threw an almighty strop and stomped into Calais to drink my repatriation fund. I was 150 francs into it when the barman asked why I was so miserable. I told him the tale and he cancelled my bar tab. Then he started a whip-round that brought in 260 francs, and said I could crash in the flat upstairs.
Next morning, I caught the ferry and after spending 60 francs on two full English breakfasts, I had 20 francs left, which bought me two spins on the fruit machine. And a £50 jackpot. The truck driver who gave me a lift from Dover told me that with luck like that, I should put the whole lot on a horse. But that would have been reckless.

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