Travel tales from hell: Disease, machetes and the lessons we learn

Eating insects in Phnom Penh with my Cambodian friend and insect advisor, Samnieng Bee.

Eating insects in Phnom Penh with my Cambodian friend and insect advisor, Samnieng Bee.


To truly travel, one must truly suffer.

It’s a backpacker’s creed, one I’ve preached throughout an international travel career spanning 41 years and 100 countries. Break out of your comfort zone like it’s a prison cell. Stroll through new, unfamiliar worlds that make you wake up wondering, “What could possibly happen today?”

When you see the crowd walk one way, walk the other. Enter bars where no one else has your skin color. Go white-water rafting past crocodiles. Eat an insect. Take chances and go through Door No. 2.

Then lose your earphones and take in the sounds of your new surroundings. The arguments of Cairo cab drivers. The music in the streets of Havana. The eerie growls from a pre-dawn jungle in Belize.

Playing it safe is for vacationers, people going on holiday. I knew a woman in Colorado who every year went to the same all-inclusive Mexican resort. She only left the compound on her last day to shop. I don’t think she ever met a Mexican.

Outside my ger in Mongolia.

Outside my ger in Mongolia.


I once asked a travel writer — writers who travel in packs with other writers taken by the hand by tour guides — to give me her worst travel experience. She said one time her flight out of Nairobi was cancelled and she had to spend the night in the city alone.

Come on!

Travel without surprises is like a margarita without tequila. It’s refreshing but there’s no kick. Take a chance. Make an effort. Sometimes Door No. 2 opens up a whole different world.

A deserted, exotic beach in Sri Lanka. A fantastic home-cooked meal in a rural home in Yugoslavia. Watching the sun rise above Africa from the top of Kilimanjaro.

Keep in mind traveling off the beaten path is much easier for a guy. The New York Times recently ran a story chronicling some horrid attacks women have suffered traveling alone. These women travelers suffered too much.

Men don’t get sexually attacked. Hookers do take no for an answer. Then again, men still can suffer. While I’ve experienced all the above, I’ve also walked through the new doors and fallen face first in a pile of Third World trouble. Odds are if you spend enough time off the beaten path you will lose your way.

In cooking class in India.

In cooking class in India.


In other words, I’ve suffered.

Yet, I’ve also learned. I’ve also laughed. It becomes part of the fabric that is travel abroad. It puts your own life in perspective. It helps you handle mundane problems such as the flu and a flat tire. No date on Friday night? Who cares?

I have talked to groups about travel and I always ask, by a raise of hands, how many have had bad experiences on the road, or, as I call them, travel tales from hell? Then I ask what are the travel stories they most often discuss around the dinner table or bar? It’s the time they got shaken down by cops in Indonesia or spent the night in a brothel in Malaysia or thought you got kidnapped in Iron Curtain Hungary. That has all happened to me, too. Yet I rarely tell those stories.

I have better ones.

With spring here and travel season approaching, this is a good time to share three favorite travel stories from hell. Try not to read while eating. Parts are disgusting. Parts are funny. All are enlightening — I hope.

Trekking in Borneo.

Trekking in Borneo.


Just keep in mind that suffering on the road isn’t usually tragedy. As I so often heard from coaches in my sportswriting days, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” To travel is to suffer.

This is how I suffered (Unfortunately, there is no photographic evidence. Read on and you’ll see why.):

Typhoid in Thailand. There’s a saying among old Asian hands that if you travel long enough in Asia, you will get sick. It just depends on what disgusting disease you get and for how long. I met a guy whose girlfriend picked up, at the same time, hepatitis and ringworm. Lovely.

In 1978-79, during a year-long solo trip around the world, I spent four months backpacking through Southeast and East Asia. After a freelance writing assignment in Bangkok, I spent the beer money trekking in Northern Thailand. I was hiking through thick jungle among the Lahu and Lisu hill tribes north of Chiang Rai, heading toward the Golden Triangle, back then the world’s leading source for heroin.

One night, I woke up with nausea, a blistering temperature, a serious migraine and the worst thirst of my life. I would’ve given five years off my life for an ice-cold 7-Up. But I was about a two day’s hike from the nearest road and figured this was just my time. I didn’t know until later what I had contracted.

Are you familiar with typhoid? It is a disease of the digestive tract. It’s when all your bodily functions simultaneously say, “FUCK IT!” and quit working. Soon vomiting attacks and diarrhea joined my own personal torture chamber.

I spent two days walking back to civilization, accompanied by a local guide who didn’t have a clue what I had or what to do. I could keep nothing down, not even water, particularly boiled, purified water that had the same temperature as some of the more cooler Jacuzzis. The air temperature was in the 80s with humidity more appropriate for African violets than human life.

When we finally reached a village, I sat down at an outdoor table. I was so weak my head crashed atop my folded arms. I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours for fear of food coming back up again. I had vomited so much my stomach muscles hurt. I was spitting up bile.

I ordered a bowl of soup. I took three sips and the slow groan familiar to Third World travelers began growing in my stomach. The little cafe had one outhouse. I stumbled in and it was nearly pitch black. The lone light was the searing sun piercing through holes in the bamboo.

Then came the double whammy: vomiting and diarrhea at the same time. I was a human volcano. Oddly, I started feeling pain in my feet. Now what? I looked down and would’ve screamed if I had the energy.

Slightly illuminated by the fractured sunlight, rats had crawled out of the hole in the floor and were biting my feet.

Dizzy, weak and disgusted to the point of vomiting more than I already was, I managed to open the door and escape back to my table. A young girl of about 12 or 13 walked in with a mop. I tried to warn her but was too weak to even raise my hand. A few seconds later, she flew out of the outhouse screaming.

A horror film director couldn’t get this scene past any studio in the world.

I eventually took a bus to Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand’s major city, and the clinic pumped me full of glucose, penicillin and antibiotics. No help. I spent New Year’s Eve 1978 throwing up my guts in my guesthouse’s outhouse.

I finally reached Bangkok. Keep in mind the late ‘70s was pre-AIDS and the sex industry left over from the Vietnam War was still alive and very well. Every guy (except me) had sex; every guy got VD. Bangkok, particularly around the backpackers’ neighborhood of Lumphini, had a VD clinic on practically every corner.

I walked into one hoping to get a cure for a disease that’s a lot less fun to catch. I looked like I’d spent a week on a slave ship. My skin had an orange tint, my long hair was everywhere, my eyes were bloodshot, my tongue was swollen. I stumbled into the office and slumped onto a plastic chair.

A Swede waiting to get checked looked at me and said, “My God! Who were you with?”

The doctor diagnosed it as typhoid. He told me that the innoculations I got in Athens earlier that month doesn’t prevent you from getting typhoid. They merely keep you alive.

His dose of glucose, penicillin and antibiotics kicked in the next day. But the end of the ordeal, I had lost 20 pounds in eight days and stood 6-foot-3 and 138 pounds.

Postscript: When I returned to the States and settled into my first job, I got a checkup at my local clinic in suburban Seattle. The doctor said typhoid may build up my immunity system. She was right. In 40 years, I never missed a day of work due to illness.

Machete in Morocco. The Third World has great shopping. However, bargaining is often the rule and you’d better know how to do it. At 22, I didn’t. I learned in a hurry.Thankfully, I was able to bargain again.

I was in Fez, Morocco, home to North Africa’s biggest medina, a marketplace filled choc-a-bloc with everything from fragrant spice stalls to smoky cafes to carpet dealers of various repute. Back then it was a dark and mysterious place, lit mostly by candles, making night shopping like lurking through a haunted house. I’d heard stories of tourists wandering in and never coming out.

It’s a labyrinth covering 540 acres. No accurate map existed. I spent one day taking continuous right-hand turns as I explored only the outside rim. Wanting to delve deeper, I reluctantly hired one of the plethora of men offering guide services.

What I didn’t know is these guides guide you to their merchant friends. Whatever you buy, your guide gets a cut. It wasn’t long before “Abdul” led me into a copper shop. The place was beautiful, filled with plates of every size hanging from the walls. Abdul told me the merchant’s father designed part of the door on the king’s palace.

Now what in the hell would I do with a copper plate? I was backpacking. Where would I put it? Slip it in my shorts? The merchant showed me a gorgeous, shiny, highly embroidered plate about two feet in diameter. It was obviously out of my price range and he confirmed it.

It was the equivalent of about $40. That was more than four days budget for me. I didn’t even want it free. So I decided to insult him.

Five dollars.

I quickly learned you can’t insult a Moroccan merchant while bargaining. He scoffed, shook his head and told me to make a serious offer. I didn’t. He said $30. To make a long story short, in five minutes he had dropped his price to $10. I said sorry and started walking out.

“OK! OK!” he said as he began wrapping the plate in newspaper. “Five dollars!”

Then I made a mistake that nearly cost me my life — or at least a limb. I turned to face him. I told him I still didn’t want it.

Then he felt insulted.

He went behind a curtain and pulled out a knife the size of a Louisville Slugger. He began screaming in Arabic. I screamed in a language I didn’t know I knew and ran out, my guide in chase and so was the merchant’s right foot which barely missed me. He had the good sense to use a shoe as a weapon instead of a machete that could puncture the Goodyear Blimp.

I told the guide, “Why did you take me in there? I told you I didn’t want a copper plate!”

He said, “Sir, he could’ve killed you and there would be nothing anyone could do about it.”

Lesson learned: If you shop in the Third World, you’d better want it before you price it.

Wharf rats in Indonesia. Speaking of rats …

… no, they are not omnipresent in the Third World. They’re omnipresent everywhere. New York. Las Vegas. Rome. You just don’t always see them. And some places they grow bigger than others.

Take any waterside village with lots of garbage and you’ll see rats the size of dachshunds. Which brings us to Tentena, Indonesia.

Tentena is on the island of Sulawesi, the dragon-shaped island just east of Borneo. Sulawesi is an exotic, beautiful island with gorgeous beaches, terrific scuba diving, fantastic food and interesting culture.

Tentena was none of these things.

In 1995 I spent five weeks traveling the island and after about seven hours in a bush taxi through the Sulawesi interior found myself in Tentena. Tentena had no refrigeration, no cold water, no beer and sits on the edge of Lake Poso.

Dead tired, I checked into a budget hotel and after a simple dinner went to bed on a hot night. I left the window open to get a breeze off the lake. Closing my eyes, I heard a thump from inside the room. It sounded like a fallen atlas. I turned on the head lamp. Sitting on the floor wasn’t an atlas.

It was a rat, a giant wharf rat, almost two feet long without the tail. It raced across the room and through a hole in the opposite wall. My threshold for Third World squalor is pretty high. Give me a door lock, clean sheets and a shower and I’m pretty happy. I once stayed in a hotel in rural Egypt where the shower drained doubled as the toilet.

But I draw the line with rats that must drop weight to go three rounds with my cat.

I went to the manager, who spoke no English, and pantomimed my problem. I used a “TSEE! TSEE! TSEE!” sound to mimic the noise rats make and bared my teeth.

“AH!” he said, “TIKUS!” I then added the word for “rat” to my growing Indonesian vocabulary. He indicated he’d find something to get rid of it. He didn’t respond when I asked if he had an Uzi.

I went for a short walk and returned to the manager who put me up in another room. Too tired to ask if he nuked the rodent, I went to sleep — with the window closed and my eyes open. Suddenly, like the ominous music of a Grade B horror film, I heard the noise again.

“TSEE! TSEE! TSEE!”

Oh, my God. It’s back!

Then I heard, “TSEE! TSEE! TSEE! TSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEE!”

There’s more than one! There’s more than two! I can’t count them! I can’t see them! Then it dawned on me.

They’re mating. Rats wildly copulating behind my walls! Well, I thought, at least they’re occupied.

I rolled over and after what must’ve been a mass orgasm of the rodent orgy — one sexual fantasy I somehow missed growing up — the room grew quiet. I could not sleep, especially after I glanced at the window. Behind the frayed curtain was a long shadow that wasn’t there before. It looked as long as the rat’s tail but much thicker.

I precariously approached the window. I suddenly related to the guy in the movies who opens the door at the frat retreat before the disfigured psycho disembowels him with a power tool. I turned back the curtain and hanging down was some kind of insect, about a foot long, brown and red with thousands of little feet.

It raised its bulbous head at me. I didn’t need a translator or an entomologist to tell me what I thought it was about to say.

“GET OUT!”

This was “Terminator” Indonesia. I didn’t get out. I had nowhere to go. I eventually went to sleep and the next day at the bus stop, I met an Aussie who was sleeping in a nearby room at my hotel. He said he heard through the walls me say three things that perfectly captured Third World travel.

“GET THAT RAT OUTTAHERE!”

“OH, MY GOD! THEY’RE FUCKING!”

“WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!

Thursday I leave for my birthday in Beirut. In May I spend three weeks in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, etceterastan).

Bring it on.

6 thoughts on “Travel tales from hell: Disease, machetes and the lessons we learn

  1. I’ve had dysentery in India, with the thought that no on in my life knows where I am, and I’m not sure I’ll leave here on my feet; and big rats running around at a restaurant in Malaysia; and a constant official follower during the protests in China, but nothing as terrifying as these tales. As a woman traveling alone, there was one attempted assault (I was in a boat alone with a man on the Ganges), but I prevailed and intimidated my would be attacker, got us back to shore and ran off, no harm done. And there have been a few times when I turned down expeditions I wanted, because it became apparent to me the guide would expect privileges along the way. And I’ve poured the tea out the window on Indian trains, because it was kindly and eagerly offered by strangers, and I didn’t know what was in it. Happy birthday in Beirut, and enjoy the Stans. Hope to see you in Italy.
    Celia

    • Good Lord, those are tough tales. I’m glad I included the New York Times link about solo women travelers. That just doesn’t happen to men. So how did you intimidate your attacker on the Ganges? India once was a safe place for women travelers. No longer. Morocco never was. The problem is every Moroccan has a friend who scored — or SAID he scored — with a Western babe who wanted an exotic weekend. Therefore, they think all the women want it. Not true. Same thing is true, to a lesser degree, in Italy.

  2. I can’t compete with your “horror tales” John but they made me laugh (the Morrocan merchant) and cringe (the rats). My husband and I traveled to Colombia in the late 70’s and were periodically stopped by young soldiers to see our passports and train travel had soldiers with guns, we were there when cocaine was at its peak. The airports liked to target us and my husband was strip searched when we were island hopping in the Dutch Antilles.
    We spent many years traveling in Mexico and camping on the beach, we always enjoyed staying where the Mexicans stayed, they were cheap and dives but never encountered rats. I know my travels sound tame compared to yours but I really get a
    Kick out of your adventures! Look forward to more, Happy Birthday and have fun!

    • Thanks for the tales, Christine. I like cheap Mexican hotels, too. Best fish tacos are where the locals go. Colombia in the late ’70s … that would be an adventure. Late ’80s would be worse, though.

  3. Loved the stories! The 2-foot rat would be too much for me. Something about that nude, ringed tail just churns my stomach upside down.

    Enjoy Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are my “stomping ground”, but I’m also partial to Taj and Uzbekistan. Hope you’re seeing the Gorno-Badakhshan region and you’re spending an inordinate amount of time in Bukhara. Both are worth it. As is the Georgian on Batyr street in Almaty.
    Fabrizio

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