Friday, 8 January 2010

Trouble in Paradise

No journey is perfect. Travellers go abroad knowing that, sometimes, flights will be delayed, baggage misplaced, hotel rooms disappointing and meals underwhelming.

And yet, they still travel, knowing that the occasional bungle and hardship is all part of the experience, along with the freedom and moments of sheer inspiration.

And, let's face it, those travel problems provide great fodder for travel anecdotes and even travel articles. Here are a few of my own travel glitches and awkward moments which have made good stories at a later date...

Poland, 1994: “We have here the homicide.” These aren't words you want to hear while you’re living overseas, in this case Kraków. Nor do you want to glance over the shoulder of the man who’s just spoken them, to see a pile of bloody surgical gloves and the body of your naked dead landlord in the living room. Of course, this is a moment of true horror. But as a writer, there's also part of me that's hovering, detached, thinking “What material!”.

French Polynesia, 2005: We've arrived in French Polynesia in search of its legendary tropical tranquillity, but discover that our hotel has closed for renovation - without telling us. From travellers in search of paradise, we've become lowly vagabonds in search of a room – any room – on the tropical island of Mo'orea. But it is a very beautiful place to trudge through with a backpack on.

And... the prices are a shock. Mo'orea is a major producer of pineapples, so I order a fresh pineapple juice from the bar of my eventual hotel. How much could it possibly cost? And it’d have to be cheaper than the imported stuff in a bottle, right? A few days, and a few juices later, I finally ask. It’s 700 Pacific Francs - about $9.50. Ouch.

New Zealand, 2005: Then there's our dodgy Balkan-born taxi driver in Auckland, who greets us with this line: “I am best driver in Auckland two years in row - this is honest truth”. Followed by dodgy detours, hair-raining turns, much passenger map reading, and a comical attempt to overcharge.

Chile, 2005: Walking through the night-time streets of Barrio Bellavista, a district of Chile’s capital, Santiago, my Narrelle and I are accosted by a smooth-talking man claiming to be a poet, supplementing his high university fees by selling photocopied examples of his work in Spanish and English to passers-by. We chat, I give him $5 for the poem; then the next day I encounter a completely different 'poet' selling the same poem.

Chile, 2005: We’re on the third day of a cruise through the glaciers and fiords of southern Chile, and have left the comfortable confines of the ship to ride on a small excursion boat among the ice. Without warning, the pilot sails up to an iceberg and rams into its flank. We're a bit concerned at the collision, but we watch him extract a large chunk with the aid of an ice-pick. A few minutes later we’re milling around, clinking glasses as we toast each other - with 12 year old Scotch containing 50,000 year old ice. So the minor stress was worth it.

Poland, 2006: Having left the minibus at the turn-off from the road to Białowieża, a small village near Poland’s border with Belarus, I’m trudging along a road caked with thick snow. It’s the middle of the day, but the sky is a strange muted grey and the bare spindly trees look like extras from The Blair Witch Project. And I know there are wolves in these woods. And I know the European Bison Reserve must be just a kilometre or so ahead. But my hindbrain isn’t so sure this is a good idea...

Poland, 2008: I've departed the city of Przemyśl in the country's southeast, on a bus across the snowy mountains to the town of Sanok. One of the passengers, a recently released prisoner returning home, decides I should buy him beer from one of the small towns we stop at along the way. He keeps demanding beer, and I kept saying "Dlaczego?" (Why?).

Then he casually threatens violence, but his English-speaking friend says not to worry about it, as he isn't serious. I'm not taking that chance, thanks. When the bus pulls into Sanok bus station at sunset, I zip through the terminal building, then cross a pedestrian bridge to the train station while my new best friends are still assembling their luggage.

USA, 2009: On my first visit to the USA, I kill time between flights one day in Los Angeles by walking from Hermosa Beach to Redondo Beach, trying to reset my body clock with lots of exposure to sunlight. I decide to catch a taxi back, and out of habit sit in the front passenger seat, Australian-style. I get the distinct impression from the look of surprise on the driver's face that I'm expected to sit in the back, and there's an awkward moment in the air... but he lets it slide and we have a good conversation re Australia versus California on our way to the hotel.

COMPETITION! Now it's your turn... share your most awkward or difficult travel moment, and you'll go into the draw for a copy of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, a book I reviewed in 2008. Just email a short description of your travel story (a single paragraph is fine) to me at tim@iwriter.com.au.

Note that by entering, you grant me the right to use your anecdote for free, perpetually and non-exclusively, in a future blog post about awkward travel experiences (but you will be credited!).

Unfortunately entry is only open to Australian residents - sorry about that. But if you'd like to send in a paragraph about your difficult travel experiences to be used in a future post anyway, please do.

That's it! The competition ends at midnight on Thursday 14 January 2010, so enter now!