In Travel

My 9 Worst Travel Moments of 2017

“You’re living the dream!”

“I WISH I could do what you do!”

“Your life is one big vacation!”

These are some of the things people tell me when they hear I work remotely and am a travel blogger.

Although it’s super sweet of them, I always want to laugh and say, “IF ONLY YOU KNEW…” I’m by no means complaining, but I want to show you that life isn’t one big vacation

So, my friends, if you’re in desperate need of some schadenfreude, I gotchu.

Feast your eyes upon my worst travel moments of 2017 (and that’s just TRAVEL—I left out personal life stuff):

#1 I found bed bugs in my Airbnb in Toronto

Okay, my WORST NON-FATAL TRAVEL FEAR is finding bed bugs … and it finally came true on my trip to Toronto in October.

First things first: I have a fear of bed bugs that is borderline phobia. It started in 2014, when a friend in Cusco found some in her apartment. Then, a friend in SF traveled around the world for 3 months and told me he found bed bugs in the NICEST hotel he stayed at. He woke one morning and found his face was swollen and thought it was an allergic reaction. But then a visit to the doctor revealed it was bed bug bites! He ordered the hotel to wash all his clothes in hot water and when he arrived at a new hotel, he dumped all his belongings into the bathtub … and found one bed bug!

It’s funny how nothing really feels real to you until it happens to you or someone close to you. After hearing those horror stories from two of my friends, I became obsessed with not catching bed bugs when I travel. I researched how to check your hotel room for bed bugs, and I maniacally check every nook and cranny of every hotel or Airbnb I stay at now.

So, onto my story…

It was midnight in Toronto. I had JUST landed at YYZ and finally made it to my Airbnb. I had a private room in an apartment. My host greeted me and let me inside but went to bed right after since it was after midnight and she had an important exam in the morning.

I set my bags out in the living room (I NEVER set my bags on my bed when I arrive at a hotel or Airbnb). Ideally, I would have set my luggage into the bathtub (the safest place because bed bugs can’t really crawl on smooth surfaces), but I shared the bathroom with my host so I didn’t want her to walk into the bathroom and find my luggage in the tub.

Anyway, I was exhausted, but began my meticulous inspection of the bedroom. It was clean, though the apartment itself was rather old. First, I checked the nightstands, searching the outside and inspecting INSIDE the drawers (very important, as bed bugs don’t just live in beds. They often make a home inside wood furniture next to beds).

This is where things got weird. I found what I thought was an exoskeleton of a bed bug (again, I’ve done a crazy amount of research on this). As they grow, bed bugs shed, leaving behind their skins that are in their shape. Again—this is something you would NOT find unless you were looking for it. Shrugging it off, I figured I was being paranoid and it was just the skin of some other bug…

Next, I peeled back the covers and checked the sheets. Then I took the sheets off and checked the mattress itself, running my finger along the edge to lift the seams to check underneath. Nothing.

It seemed to be in the clear, and again, I was SO TIRED. I was tempted to just call it a night and crawl into bed.

But … something told me to keep checking.

So I started looking on the floor AROUND the bed—and BAM! I found TWO DEAD BED BUGS!

Bed bugs on Airbnb floor

I kept blinking and blinking and looking. There was NO WAY I was truly seeing bed bugs. I knew what they looked like from photos online, but I’d never seen them in person. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I snapped some photos and compared them with Google images. Yep—these were definitely bed bugs.

I wanted to disappear. I entertained the idea of grabbing my stuff and leaving for a hotel. But … shouldn’t I alert my host? Wouldn’t that be the courteous thing to do?

Long story short: I told my host, helped her carry the mattress to the sidewalk, canceled my stay with her, and Airbnb issued me a full refund. They also reimbursed me for 3 nights at a hotel.

I do not want to partake in fear-mongering: Yes, bed bugs are more common than you think. But no, bed bugs will not kill you. They don’t pass diseases. They are just gross and really hard to get rid of. Just check your bed and surroundings when you travel. No need to stop traveling because of them!

 

#2 I got locked out of the monastery I was staying in in Italy

Church bell tower and storm clouds in Italy

This one is actually kind of funny. So in May, I traveled alone to a monastery in the Italian countryside to live and volunteer there for 2 weeks. When I arrived, I learned that, though they’d been corresponding with me in English via messages, the nuns actually didn’t speak much English (I think they were using Google Translate, which hey, I do too). Plus, the other volunteers spoke Spanish or French, except for one Argentinean who spoke English. It made communicating extremely difficult.

While there, I had this weird fear that I was going to get kicked out of the monastery. I don’t know why (I’m not exactly the wild kind), but I always worried someone was going to think I wasn’t good enough and ask me to leave.

Well, my second day there, I was returning to the monastery after going to the store, and to my horror—my key would no longer unlock the monastery door! It had worked earlier that day. It had worked the day before. But now, for whatever reason, my key no longer worked.

“They changed the LOCKS while I was gone!” was the fear that jumped into my brain. While I was frantically trying to push open the monastery door, a kind Italian woman stopped to try to help me. Though we couldn’t communicate much, it was clear to her that I was locked out. Though I didn’t speak much Italian yet, I could understand she was asking me if I had someone’s phone number. And yes, I told her, I did. Sensing this was enough, she left.

So then I messaged Madre Laura, the abbess (boss) of the monastery via Whatsapp to ask her if she could come open the door for me.

Her response? Again, to my horror: “No.” But it’s not what you think! Haha. She couldn’t come open the door because she wasn’t at the monastery at the time. She had gone to visit some other place. I had no way of reaching anyone else!

As I was standing there on the verge of tears, a familiar face showed up on the road: Nicolas, the French volunteer! I was happy to see a familiar face—but I was still screwed because Nicolas spoke no English. I did my best to explain to him what was happening, and then we tried his key.

His key wouldn’t work either! We both stood there in the street, scratching our heads.

Finally, we went to another monastery door (it has many doors) and rang the doorbell. We heard a buzz and walked into a dark, empty corridor and waited. I wasn’t sure what we were waiting for, or if anyone was really coming. There was a chair in the corner and locked double doors in front of us.

After several minutes, the wooden door to our left slid open to reveal a smiling Madre Bautista (former abbess) behind black bars (these are known as a “grille” and they’re common in monasteries and convents where nuns are “cloistered” and don’t leave the place except for special circumstances).

Again, I was thrilled to see a familiar face, but again we had another problem: Madre Bautista doesn’t speak English either.

So there we were: One person who could speak English, one who could speak French, and another who could speak Italian—but no way to speak to each other about the problem we were having.

To my surprise, Madre Bautista began speaking French. Apparently, she knew a little bit, enough to understand what we needed. Then, perplexingly, she disappeared. I asked Nicolas where she went, and he just shrugged.

We waited and waited. Then Nicolas said he was going to leave to go back to the other door and see if maybe Madre Bautista was going there to unlock it. At least, I think that’s what he said. I couldn’t be sure. Anyway, he left.

So there I was, alone in the foyer. I waited for several minutes, and just as I was beginning to lose hope of ever being let into the monastery, the double doors in front of us swung open, letting in Madre Bautista and the light from the familiar courtyard garden.

I was so happy to see her! But again … another problem: We didn’t know where Nicolas went.

Madre Bautista opened the door to the street and popped her veiled head out into the sunlight. Just then, an older woman was walking by, hunched over and laboring over each step.

“Buongiorno!” Madre Bautista said to the old woman.

The old woman responded and asked if Madre was looking for the young man in a black shirt (Nicolas!). Madre said yes, and the old woman pointed to the door where Nicolas and I had stood puzzling minutes before.

Finally, we were all reunited, back in the monastery, and given the stern warning NOT to deadbolt the door from the inside unless we knew EVERYONE was home.

 

#3 My bag got stuck in a locker at a train station in Salzburg (Also I got accused of breaking the locker)

Luggage locker room in Salzburg train station

Ha. Hahahaha. This one is kinda funny too.

My friends and I arrived in Salzburg Saturday night, and on Sunday morning, I was kinda pissed. One, I hadn’t even wanted to go to Salzburg, and two, my friends had gone exploring without me, and I felt left out. I was being a brat and decided to give them the cold shoulder, ignoring their text messages checking on me while they were exploring the town.

I needed to go to mass (about a 45-minute walk from our apartment rental) but I also needed to check us out of our rental. That left the problem of my backpack. I didn’t want to haul it all the way into town and into the church.

Easy fix: There are lockers at the Salzburg train station, where we would depart from in a few hours. So I took my backpack there and attempted to figure out the complicated task of renting a locker via the automated machine while speaking zero German. As I was trying to solve this puzzle, a man in a yellow vest (an employee, I guessed) kept trying to tell me something in German.

“I don’t speak a lick o’ German!” I yelled, frustrated. Eventually, he walked away.

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to tell the machine which locker I had placed my bag in so that I could pay for the correct locker. But then I realized, the locker had LOCKED, and for whatever reason (I can’t remember), I couldn’t pay for that locker to get the key. Basically, my backpack (which held almost ALL my belongings, including laptop and camera) was locked inside, and I couldn’t get it out. *Cue massive panic*

I flipped out. I tried asking some other tourists how to get the backpack out, but they were just as clueless as I was. The yellow-vested employee was nowhere to be found. Mass started in like an hour. Our train was leaving a few hours after that. Sh**, shi**, sh**, sh**.

Swallowing my pride, I texted my friends to see if they could help. Yep, after being such a jerk that morning, I was getting served a big dose of Humble Pie. One of my friends asked if there was a help desk nearby. There was.

I ran to the help desk of the train station and tried to explain to the employee what had happened, but he cut me off with this snide remark: “It will not open because you stuffed too much into it! You jammed it.”

“No!” I tried to explain. “I didn’t stuff anything into it; it was one backpack and there was plenty of room!”

He ignored me and got on the phone to call a security guard to help me.

Now, if you’ve ever heard German, you’ll know that to a non-native speaker, it sounds gruff. As he was speaking German into the telephone and laughing, all I could think he was saying was, “HAHA THIS STUPID AMERICAN GIRL BROKE A LOCKER.”

I seriously felt like crying.

After he hung up, he told me to go back to the locker room where a security guard would assist me. I ran back there and went back to the locker that had swallowed my backpack …

… only to find it was now OPEN!

Yep—the locker has some mechanism where it automatically opens after a few minutes if you fail to pay. I felt so stupid! I grabbed that sucker, found a new locker, paid for it correctly, and high-tailed it out of there before security came.

And yes, I made it to mass on time. 👍🏽

#4 My friends almost got pickpocketed in Vienna

Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria

After Salzburg, we headed to Vienna. We were so awestruck by the beauty of the city that we spent the first hour in it just walking around with our eyes glued to the buildings and our phones out taking photos.

Since I almost always travel alone, I’m always on the lookout and am extremely cautious. In the corner of my eye, I noticed a man who was alone who seemed to always be where we went. I stepped back from my two friends and watched. He would stop just behind them and pretend to look up at the buildings, but then he would watch them again.

“Come here,” I called to my friends. “I wanna show you something.”

When they came closer and out of the man’s earshot, I told them, “That guy’s trailing us. Let’s go.”

We immediately started speed-walking away from him and toward a well-lit, crowded area. One of my friends subtly flipped him the bird, which made me and my other friend freak out (I am VERY non-confrontational. Haha).

Who knows what was really going on with that guy? Maybe he wasn’t trying to pickpocket us. I joked with my friends that maybe he was just working up the courage to ask for their numbers! Either way, I wasn’t waiting around to find out.

 

#5 We got verbally harassed by a man on the train from Vienna to Budapest

Inside a closed compartment on the Vienna-Budapest train

This was an extremely weird situation because it was deeply upsetting to me, but it didn’t seem to bother my two friends that much.

Here’s what happened: When we boarded the train from Vienna to Budapest, I found a completely empty train car and my friends and I decided to sit in one of the enclosed compartments in the empty car (bad idea). There’s a sliding glass door to the compartment, but it doesn’t lock, so anyone can open it.

While we were getting settled in, a disheveled man flung open our compartment door and demanded: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

“No, English,” we replied.

He laughed angrily and said something about how of course we didn’t speak German, and he seemed angry no one seemed to speak it. Then he asked if we had any money to spare for a ticket. We all said no; then he got belligerent.

He made some extremely crude remarks about the former U.S. president, made gyrating hip movements, and then did a Nazi salute and said how much he hopes the new U.S. president will fix things.

I was horrified. There was no way for us to get out; he was blocking our only exit.

We all just tried to play it cool and didn’t respond. Eventually, he left. I felt so disgusted and scared, but neither of my travel partners wanted to talk about it. One even brushed it off later, saying he was clearly mentally disturbed.

That single event caused me to cancel my long, solo train ride from Prague to Krakow because I was too afraid to travel by train alone anymore.

Again, he probably was mentally disturbed, but for me, a solo traveler woman of color, that touched on my biggest hesitation in going to Austria specifically. I managed to visit the country without incident (for the most part), and I LOVED Vienna (it was my favorite city on the trip!), but that really shook me … It’s hard to explain, and I don’t really want to get into details, but it really played to my fears.

 

#6 We got harassed by a man at the Budapest train station

Budapest-Keleti train station

Seriously, can we not catch a break?? 😂 Right after that Vienna train incident (so this is the same train ride), we ran into another man who did NOT understand personal space or being polite.

When we got off the train in Budapest, we were instantly hounded by a man who claimed to be an employee. He wouldn’t leave us alone and hovered over my friend’s shoulder as she tried to buy tram tickets at the machine. He kept trying to get her card from her and kept saying she was doing it wrong. He yelled and yelled and got into our space until, finally, we sought shelter inside the tourist information office.

 

#7 I got scratched by a random cat in Budapest

Whiskers Cat Pub Budapest

Yikes. I realize this is making it sound like Budapest is awful, but trust me, I LOVED my Budapest visit!

Anyway, this is a bizarre story. My friends and I were walking to get groceries when I spotted a sign that said “Whiskers Cat Pub.”

CATS? IN A PUB? I had to see this. If it was anything like cat cafes, I surmised, they must let you pet the cats. I really wanted to pet the cats. #crazycatlady

Well, I barged into the pub at 2 p.m. Of course, no one was there. But I asked the bartender if I could go up to the room where the cats were, for free. He said yes. I don’t think he spoke much English, so maybe he didn’t know what he was agreeing to.

Anyway, my friends and I went up to the cat room and instantly this big brown tabby jumped in my lap.

“TAKE PICTURES!” I barked to my friend. I needed them for my blog (this is why I sometimes hate travel blogging).

Well, as I was yelling that and trying to pose for the camera, the cat lost its balance and SCRATCHED my left thigh with its hind paws. I was bleeding pretty badly.

Then the same cat jumped into my friend’s arms, and while doing so, scratched her forearm!

We were now both bleeding.

We both put hand sanitizer on the wounds and then ran downstairs to the bathroom to wash them out thoroughly.

I panicked because getting scratched by random cats in foreign countries is, like, exactly how you get rabies. (Well, the cat must first lick its paw, because rabies is transmitted only by saliva.)

Anyway, I was freaking out. I didn’t know this cat. I didn’t know if it was up-to-date with its rabies shot. It was just some random cat in a bar! I couldn’t ask the bar owners because I couldn’t speak Hungarian. Good times.

 

#8 I got sick while camping in the middle of nowhere in the desert and had to be rushed to the ER (the trip to the hospital took 1.5 painful hours)

iv tubing in hospital

Yeah … so, the backstory: My parents and I were camping off-grid in the New Mexico desert about 25 miles from civilization. Daily temperatures shot above 100 degrees, and we were sharing such small spaces. Not my idea of comfort.

Well, I got sick on Friday night after eating leftovers I’d left in the desert sun for over an hour. I figured it was just food poisoning.

But on Sunday night, I got violently ill. I vomited, and my temperature shot above 103 degrees. I was so weak and delirious, I was truly afraid I was going to die. At around 4 a.m., my dad demanded he take me to the hospital.

The closest Emergency Room? One and a half hours away by car.

The entire ride was a blur. I was feverish and nauseated. I ached all over. I had the most painful and strange sensation under my left ribs, as though my very stomach were clenching. It was awful.

The good news is the ER visit showed nothing fatal, my fever dissipated, and they got me on medication that stopped the stomach cramps and nausea. I was discharged about three hours later.

The fevers and nausea lasted for days after that, but I eventually got better.

 

#9 I got “4S’d” at the airport on a return trip to the U.S.

This weird thing happened on the way back to the U.S. from Toronto. First, security seemed to be ON THEIR GUARD that day, because they were swabbing people’s hands left and right, and splitting up people into different lines, even if they were traveling as a group. They seemed to be on high alert.

Anyway, I was breezing through security just fine, went through the metal detectors and body scanners without incident, and then as I was passing one last agent who inspected my ticket, her eyes grew wide and she said, “You were supposed to be screened.”

“What?”

Then she yelled to her colleagues, “We’ve got a 4S!!!”

I was freaking out internally but trying to keep calm.

The demeanor of the agents changed instantly. They hustled me back to the security line.

“WHY didn’t you go through the special line?” they asked me.

Well, the first agent had TOLD me which line to go through, but apparently, it wasn’t the right line for me. Supposedly, there was something on my boarding pass that should have alerted the first agent that I needed to go through special screening. The first agent missed that, but these agents didn’t know that—they thought I had intentionally tried to fool them.

“Stand right here,” agent 2 told me as she pointed to the right side of the security belt. So I stood there.

“Don’t stand there!” yelled agent 3, who then pointed to the LEFT side of the security belt. I was starting off on all sorts of wrong feet with these agents.

“Hey!” yelled agent 4. “WHY are you standing there? Stand back HERE!” She pointed a few feet away from the belt. My goodness, I was trying NOT to make them angry, and I was failing miserably!

Agent 3 told me to place my messenger bag (all I had with me) onto the belt for inspection. Then she asked to see my iPhone.

“It has a case on it?”

Well, of course, it does. iPhones are expensive and break easily. (I didn’t say either of these things.)

“Take the case off.”

This was seriously hard to do, but I managed, and she seemed satisfied.

Then she opened my bag and extracted a cardboard box of cookies from my favorite Toronto bakery; I’d bought them as presents for my brother.

“WHY IS THIS SEALED?” she barked, referring to the beautiful branded seal Sud Forno places on its cookie boxes.

“They’re … cookies,” I whimpered.

“Open the box,” she instructed.

So I broke the beautiful seal so she could see inside. She saw the cookies and seemed satisfied.

After they had thoroughly inspected my belongings, they stamped a red mark onto my boarding pass and let me go.

I had no idea what had happened, but after Googling it, I found out that this is called being “4S’d.” It’s extra screening at the airport that can be triggered if you’re on a watch list, if you booked a one-way ticket (this was a one-way ticket), if you booked last-minute (this was a last-minute flight because my previous flight had been canceled due to bad weather), and many other things. You’ll know if you’ve been selected if you see four S’s on your boarding pass.

While I truly appreciate airport security doing their jobs (they’re keeping us safe!), I felt humiliated.

So what do all of these “worst travel moments” mean for me and you?

Again, I do not believe in fear-mongering. Through all of these events, I escaped mostly unscathed and perfectly safe. What’s more is I met some of the most amazing people and saw great acts of generosity thanks to these very events (I’ll write about those in a separate post).

For me, what these “worst travel moments” mean is that bad things happen—even when you think you have planned for everything.

In light of that inescapable fact, there are two ways you can approach travel and life:

  1. Be so afraid of bad things happening again that you don’t take risks and don’t follow your dreams. You remain safe, but unfulfilled.
  2. Accept that life is full of unpredictability. Embrace that though bad things happen, infinitely good things happen too. And go forth.

I choose to focus on the second option.

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