Travel isn’t always as seamless and trouble-free as Instagram would have you believe. To prove it, our featured contributor Leon McCarron asked his adventurous friends to share their most memorable travel stuff-ups.
There was a time in my life, in the middle of a long bike tour in Asia, when I got excited about camping in odd places: Sleeping in the middle of roundabouts, on top of unfinished shopping malls and inside kebab shops broke up the occasional tedium of the task.
In southern China, I spotted a large concrete pipe near an old quarry and unloaded my gear just as the hailstones started. It was fantastic, I thought. How clever I am! Unfortunately, the pipe was a lot narrower than I thought, and I couldn’t straighten my shoulders.
Immediately, my back began to cramp, but it was raining outside. What kind of idiot would go out into that? What followed was one of the most miserable nights of my life—made worse by the local rat population who decided to cosy up with me…
While social media has somewhat democratized adventure storytelling, I’ve noticed there’s still a tendency for many of us to share rather manicured versions of our travels; those heartwarming tales and images in which we look heroic. But we tend not to show the moments in which we misjudge and mess up. I know from experience just how often the latter happens, so asked fellow writers and photographers who make a living from their travels to share some of their more embarrassing stories.
Dave Cornthwaite replied to my request almost immediately with a tale of ineptness on what was only his second big expedition. In the wilderness near the source of the Murray river in Australia, he recalls trying to use his new satellite phone, provided courtesy of a kindly sponsor … only to find out it was completely dead. Is there a more rookie mistake than forgetting to charge the battery? To cheer himself up, he decided to cook a hearty meal on his also-sponsored stove. Except he hadn’t filled up the new fuel bottle either.
Solo motorcycling adventurer Lois Pryce wrote to me with a very different type of admission. While motorbiking through Central America, she couldn’t resist nibbling on some complimentary seafood at a bar in Panama City. Within a few hours, the inevitable happened and she had to dash desperately to the nearest toilet. And without a scrap of toilet paper in sight, she had to resort to using a sock. The moral of this story? Don’t trust complimentary seafood, kids.
Food is often a source of trouble for travelers. Adventurer Charlie Walker, near the start of what would turn out to be a four-year bike trip, was chuffed to grab a bargain in a Swedish supermarket in the form of three heavily discounted tins of tuna. After gagging his way through all three on consecutive nights, he eventually made it to another store where he stumbled across the very same brand of food that had so displeased him—in the pet food aisle.
Another of my favorite tales is from a journalist who we’ll call Kim*. In her early years as a foreign correspondent, she convinced an outlet to send her to an unstable place for the first time. On arrival, she quickly found a soldier who was willing to give her all manner of great soundbites on the impending conflict. Keen to impress, she quoted him throughout her story and sent it off to her editors. They responded equally speedily to say that they weren’t entirely sure they could trust this ‘Private Part’, and that she should perhaps spend a little more time considering the credibility of her sources.
Naturally, we hope to learn from these mistakes but I still seem to collect a new batch on every trip I make. Kim* would be pleased to know that I once interviewed the wrong person entirely on a project in the Middle East. But perhaps most embarrassing of all was an incident on an otherwise idyllic hiking trip in the Alps when I pitched camp too close to a river and all my clothes were washed downstream. I wandered four, chilly miles to the next village in the single remaining pair of boxer shorts I owned. Of course it had to be a Sunday morning, and many a devout villager en route to church may still be haunted by the image of a naked foreigner wandering along the street.
So what do we learn from reading about adventurers losing their clothes and eating expired cat food? Well, firstly, all the people listed above are to be admired as much for their honesty as for their failings. And perhaps more importantly, that adventure is a holistic experience. Unless you’re spectacularly suave and cool-headed, you too will screw up once in a while. Enjoy the ridiculousness of it and, if you can bear to, share it with a few of us too.
*Kim has requested to use an alias as she’s still working as a war correspondent and isn’t quite ready to own up in person…