If every trip you take doesn’t leave you with a great story or two, then you’re doing it wrong. Two trips around the world have left me with a handful of unforgettable experiences. Here are a few.
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”– Ibn Battuta
My best friend and I met up in London last year. We’ve been friends since college, and every few years we rendezvous in a different international city.
The seven-hour flight from Atlanta to Heathrow was smooth and uneventful, but problems started at the airport. No one warned me about “passport control.” That’s where a customs guy glances at your passport for a few seconds and gets a sense of whether you’re a threat or not. It took two and a half hours in a slow-moving line to get to the guy. That alone wouldn’t have been a major issue, but when you’re stiff from sitting in a cramped airplane seat, it’s pure torture. It took my body a couple of days to recover. In fact, it impacted the rest of my trip. I was too worn out to visit Paris.
Hours after arriving, I found our hotel. My friend had booked it sight-unseen online, without reading its reviews. Big mistake. Imagine two twin beds, with about three feet between them. That’s how wide the room was. The room overlooked a patio, where smoking was allowed, so smoke wafted up through the windows day and night. WiFi was only available in the lobby, where loud unruly children ran and played. Breakfast was included, if you could stomach it. Boiled eggs, cold beans, white bread, sausages, peanut butter and jelly, lunch meats and cottage cheese. Yikes. As such, I breakfasted each morning at the nearby Starbucks. (And I discovered that, yes, Brits do eat beans on toast.)
“Adventure may hurt you but monotony will kill you.”– Anonymous
My Cairo adventure didn’t kill me, but it very well might have. My luggage arrived three days after I did. On the first night in Cairo my friend and I sat down for dinner at my hotel, The Cleopatra. I made the mistake of ordering fish. “That smells funny,” my friend said. I ignored him; being in my late twenties, I was in a serious contrarian age where no one could tell me anything and I ignored everyone’s advice. “Seriously, Alex, I don’t think you should eat that.” I ate it anyway. I don’t remember if it hit me that night or the next morning. Food poisoning worked its way through my body and I spent the next day dry heaving. And for two more days my abs were so sore (from a full day of retching) that the simple act of walking was a challenge.
Eventually, I got well enough to explore the pyramids and the desert. Back then tourists were allowed to enter and crawl through the great pyramids. Groups of local men hung around the area with their camels, offering short rides to innocent Americans. One of the men asked if I wanted a ride. “No thanks, I’m good.” Okay, he said, well just sit on my camel and take a picture. I relented and he made his tall beast set down so I could climb aboard. The camel stood, and I was suddenly twelve feet in the air. After less than a minute I was ready to get down but, to my surprise, the guy wanted a fee to get off his camel! Didn’t see that coming.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all those familiar comforts of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky.”– Cesare Pavese
Instincts and intuition are critical for anyone traveling to someplace new. I took a solo trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico in the eighties. After landing, a cabbie delivered me to my hotel. When I entered the room I was struck with a strange sensation, a feeling of dread. (I’ve actually never told this story to a soul until now.) I examined the room for sprinklers, fire escapes, general safety features. There were none.
Something told me to trust my instincts and to get the hell out of there! I gathered my things and went back to the front desk, where I cancelled my booking. I found a room closer to the water, and had a great week on the white sand and in the crystal blue sea. Oh, and the name of that infamous hotel with the bad vibes? The Dupont Plaza Hotel, where 98 people died years later in an arson fire.