Confessions Of a Less-Than-Savvy Traveler

by gigigriffis

Bathing suits in the snow. Savvy? No. Hilarious? Yep.

The most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to me happened when I was seventeen years old and volunteering for two weeks in central Costa Rica.

The trip was almost over and it had been amazing. I learned a lot about myself. I successfully wrangled a group of teenage girls through the trials of volunteer work. And I ate a metric ton of rice and beans (Costa Rican rice and beans is one of my all-time favorite meals).

But suddenly, as the trip was drawing to a close, I found myself violently ill and stuck on a multi-hour bus ride from some pretty coastal town where we could go swimming back to the capitol where we’d been staying for our two-week stint in the country.

My whole group was there, crammed into every seat of the bus laughing, talking, singing. And I was just sitting quietly, closing my eyes and trying not to vomit.

Of course, when you’re spending all your energy thinking about not vomiting, Murphy’s Law predicts that you’re probably going to vomit. Or worse, shit yourself.

And so, only twenty or thirty minutes away from home, suddenly my body called it quits. It wasn’t going to keep its cool anymore. Something was going to come up (or down) and soon.

I quietly and urgently made my way to the front of the bus and begged the group leader to please stop the bus so that I could vomit/have an extremely unpleasant bowel movement (I still wasn’t sure which) somewhere with an actual bathroom (because, surprise, surprise, the bus didn’t have one).

The leader asked the bus driver to stop.

The bus driver said no.

I sidled up to the bus driver myself and, in broken Spanish, with tears forming at the corners of my eyes, tried to explain that it was an emergency.

Still, the bus driver said no.

I begged.

Still, no.

And so I returned to the leader and told her that we were out of options. The shit (quite literally) was about to hit the fan. And it was going to happen whether I had a toilet or not.

Rather than let me crap in my pants, she found a couple towels and a trash can and her and one other person held up the towels while I squatted over the trash can and had the worst explosive diarrhea of my life.

On the bus.

With all my friends just steps away.

About five minutes after I’d re-buttoned my pants and returned, in complete humiliation, to my seat, the bus driver stopped the bus to throw out the trash can.

(Because apparently that’s a big enough emergency to stop for.)

Why am I telling you this story–the thing that mortifies me most in the world?

Because I want to make an important point:

There’s no such thing as a 100%, always-on-top-of-it savvy traveler.

There’s no such thing as planning for every contingency.

You can be as smart and savvy and confident as you want. But sometimes you are on a moving bus when your body decides to have explosive diarrhea into a trash can. And then your cover is blown. Turns out, you’re just a human being.

A human being who loves to travel. Granted, one who is willing to endure some intense humiliation (not to mention an unhappy body) for the experience of travel. But a flawed and embarrassed and sometimes less-than-savvy human being all the same.


Ziplining upside-down

A month or two ago, I had an email conversation about the idea of savvy travel with two girls who have traveled all over the world. They’ve volunteered in Africa, wrangled a toddler through Paris, hiked large portions of the Grand Canyon.

When I think Savvy Traveler, I think of these girls.

Until Anna said that the word savvy intimidates her and then sent this email:

Well, have you ever…

  • Cried in a foreign airport because you didn’t have any coffee that morning and it was unlikely that you would get any?
  • Melted down at the sight of long immigration lines and thought to yourself that surely, SURELY there has never been so much misery heaped upon one person in the entire world as you at that very moment?
  • Went grocery shopping in London for ingredients to make spaghetti and meatballs- and instead of buying raw beef you went with pre-cooked beef schwarma because you were maybe a little bit afraid of Mad Cow disease (even though it has been 15 years since the latest “incident”)? For the record, beef schwarma does NOT go well with tomato sauce.
  • Taken it as a personal affront when the museum closes an exhibit you were REALLY looking forward to seeing?

Probably not because you guys are much cooler and much savvier than me.

Which was followed up by Emily’s similar confessions:

Well, no…. but I’ve got the following on my “Savvy Traveler” resume:

  • Recently ordering six breakfast dishes on accident in Chamonix, because my French is that good.
  • Spending most of my time “with the family” near Oxford wandering around by myself in non-historic locations due to an all-family fight. Because better to waste several days in the UK than admit fault for anything.
  • Spending all of a very bumpy flight to Sydney PANICKED not about dying, but about the fact that IF I died, everyone would remember me as “that girl I knew who died in a plane crash on her way to her honeymoon.” Because that’s the kind of thing well-adjusted savvy travelers worry about.
  • Going to the airport to catch my flight ON THE WRONG DAY.
  • Sitting down on the snow and crying because of the difficulty of a ski run
  • Having a full-on emotional breakdown because of the difficulty of a mountain bike ride.

Total Savvy Points: -273. And this is only a sampling.

And, finally, I chimed in:

Ooh, I wanna play.

I’m soooo savvy:

  • Sitting in a French coffee shop bawling loudly about my UK immigration troubles to the chagrin of the panicked Frenchman who kept bringing me tissues
  • Hiding from a giant spider who was living in my bathroom in Mexico, choosing to hold it all night rather than face off with him again (I figured if I gave him the bathroom, perhaps he wouldn’t emerge and kill me in my sleep)
  • Taking a bus to the wrong tiny Italian town and then sitting on the doorstep of a shoe store and crying because I didn’t want to go all the way (45 minutes) back to Florence
  • Getting closed in the metro doors in Paris and having to be rescued by several baffled French people. Waiting until I got off to have a good cry about it.
  • Vomiting bright pink pepto bismol vomit on Macchu Picchu, because, hey, every world-renowned ruin needs a little something


 


The point? Travel is an adventure. For all of us. Even the person you think has it all mapped out perfectly.

We’ve all had our tear-filled meltdowns, our horrifying illnesses, our frustrating delays, and our heartbreakingly sad moments on the road.

But still we choose to travel. Because, for us, it’s worth it. What we get from travel is more valuable than what it takes.

I feel about travel like I feel about my business. The hassles and humiliations are worth it to me in exchange for the freedom and experiences.

So, just in case you were wondering if my own travels have been all roses and butterflies, the answer is sure they have. Roses, butterflies, and public shitting.

What are your less-than-savvy travel moments?

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34 comments

Montecristo Travels (Sonja) March 3, 2014 - 8:10 am

Omg’s… Perfect post. And yep! Experienced a few like that. Trying not to cry when things go horribly wrong is a big one. I have pissed myself on a train in Germany. With no fresh clothes to change into. Missed not one, not two but three trains to my next location in France because of explosive shit. Not cool in a country that charges you for each toilet visit. And been sea sick more times than I can count and yet still sail… And that is not even going into the fun of “with dog” travel. The savvy traveler gets over it and red faced – keeps going.

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gigigriffis March 3, 2014 - 11:37 am

Oh man, seasickness is the worst. (Or, in my case, bus sickness, which strikes much more often.)

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martha binner July 16, 2016 - 6:53 pm

Can so relate to emergency runs with no place to go in my 20’travels. Now in my 70’s, it is decided, depends will be my companion!

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Brief Roommate March 3, 2014 - 8:40 am

I once spent the equivalent of $100 in London for a limousine to take me about 10min away to my friend’s apartment because I had decided to fly in from Spain to visit her in the middle of the night, arriving at an airport an hour outside the city, with sketchy directions to her location and no clear plan as to how I would actually get there from the airport at 2am when the Tube was closed and most cabs were not in service. Despite getting ripped off by the limo driver I ultimately found in central London after a long bus ride from the airport, I nearly wept with relief when I improbably made it to my destination and did not have to sleep under a bridge, so perhaps not the worst (although quite possibly the least savvy) $100 I ever spent.

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gigigriffis March 3, 2014 - 12:10 pm

Oh man. I’ve so done that before. Actually, my breakdown outside the Italian shoe store ended with me paying some really high sum for a cab ride twenty minutes across the Italian hill country. Worth every penny, though.

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Maria March 3, 2014 - 9:00 am

Pre 9/11 I was going to Aruba with what I thought was my official birth certificate. Found out it was the hospital issued one. Luckily the Bureau of Stats was near the airport and I was flying out of the State I was born in. I was able to reschedule the flight for Monday when the bureau was open. It opened an hour before the flight so we ged no time to waste. I asked fir a copy of my certificate giving my name and birth date only to be told no one with that name and date existed. I showed her my hospital certificate; it has two dates on it because I was born at daylight savings time. Here my official date was not the one I had Bern using all my life. I took it and went to Aruba praying no one would need 2 forms of id.

I can not get a passport with the date that is on all my official documents. I have to get one with the official date. There is a whole other story as yo why my mother used the unofficial date.

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gigigriffis March 3, 2014 - 12:11 pm

Oh goodness! That’s quite the saga.

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rob March 3, 2014 - 11:03 am

I’m sure that’s all funny in hindsight (pardon the pun).

Too bad it wasn’t just an urge to vomit. They you could have vomited in the lap of the bus driver that refused to stop. Sometimes people need to learn lessons the hard way.

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gigigriffis March 3, 2014 - 12:13 pm

I think the poor guy had instructions to drive through with no stops and he probably thought I was exaggerating the seriousness of the situation.

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Rebecca March 3, 2014 - 11:15 am

Awesome post and thanks for it.

For me my less than stellar moments have been in car rides (aka torture) with my mom having a major meltdown because we are lost gotta love AAA and the maps they sent my mom.
The other less than stellar moment has been yelling at my mom because she hit a chipmunk/squirrel and could have avoided it.
Almost getting sick on an airplane because our flight was delayed in Dallas TX with 100+ degree heat and the pilot decided to turn off the engines which meant no AC. I was the ONLY person to “thank” the pilot and crew for making me feel like a TV dinner and to next time leave the AC on. My mom was horrified and I said well at least I was the only one to say anything and besides someone should complain.
Being scared whit less because lightning struck the wing and I saw it.

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gigigriffis March 3, 2014 - 12:15 pm

Holy crap! You saw lightening strike the wing?

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Tegan buss March 3, 2014 - 5:04 pm

Yes I have had many of embarrassing moments I had a few too many wines in Camden town and thought it would be smart to catch a taxi home to Wimbledon South …. After spending 200 aus dollars it didn’t seem so smart….

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gigigriffis March 4, 2014 - 12:00 am

Yeah. Eek!

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Christine March 4, 2014 - 6:27 am

It wasn’t me! … Our family went on a trip to the Dominican Republic several years ago, and not wanting to spend too much time lying on the beach crisping ourselves, we went on an excursion. (Gotta love those excursions!) We opted for the Quad adventure. Sadly, my driving skills didn’t include a manual drive vehicle, so I opted to take the small child with me in a dune buggy. Can you say “Wheee!” while driving through the biggest horse manure filled puddles?

Anyway, to return to the point of this tale, we hooked up with a couple from the UK who had just arrived on the island and whose tummies were just commencing to deal with the change of environment. I suspect that Mister had done the unthinkable and chosen to brush his teeth with the local water. Bad move. My own experience with that faux pas the day after our arrival is still engraved in my memory banks. Let’s not go there.

Many bumps and turns ensued on the “excursion” before we finally hit our lunch stop in a tiny village that boasted hot and cold running puppies. Crawling out of the little death machine, Mister assumed a shameful look on his face, and said loudly enough for all to hear, “I think I sharted.” It was hard to tell, as we were equally coated head to foot in brown mud, but yes, there was an additional stain on the unexposed portion of his anatomy that had supposedly been seated in the dune buggy.

You can bet your butt I made sure to get back into my own dune buggy after lunch!

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gigigriffis March 4, 2014 - 10:45 am

Oh man!

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Montecristo Travels (Sonja) March 5, 2014 - 8:39 am

I have suffered from IBS for years (now under control) so I think folks that organize tours need to be more tolerant of these things. I had the BEST experience with GAP Adventures relating to that. 2006 I did an inland tour of Greece with them. I was doing great until day 4 when IBS hit like never before. And you know what the guide did? Instead of insisting we do the next leg on a bus with no bathrooms (a 12 hour trek) he spent then entire night organizing a driver, and mini van. The next day he knocked on my door and told me not to worry that we would be able to stop as often as I needed.

I CRIED IN HIS ARMS FROM RELIEF!! That my friends … is service. And they never charged us extra for it. 8 people in that mini van and yes, we stopped a lot – but everyone was so pleased that we were in a mini van instead of the big public transept buses that they said never a word. We made it early to our next stop. I slept like a baby at the hotel and was good as new the next day.

Will NEVER forget that.

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Melissa @ Suitcase and Heels March 6, 2014 - 8:26 am

Wow, that really is great service. Most would probably say “suck it up buttercup” and make you deal with it yourself. Good know accommodating companies are out there.

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gigigriffis March 7, 2014 - 7:01 am

That’s amazing of him!

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Melissa @ Suitcase and Heels March 6, 2014 - 8:31 am

Crying does tend to be my go to reaction (out of frustration, happiness, sadness, you name it) so I was super proud of myself when I managed to deal with some lost luggage on my way to Seoul without shedding tears. Maybe it was the jetlag.

I did however cry when a flight was cancelled and the earliest I could be rebooked was almost a week later which would mean cancelling my entire trip and losing out on a few hundred dollars. In the end I spent 21 hours on a bus and 7 on a ferry in order to make it to another airport that could fly me out the next day.

I don’t think being a savvy traveller means that nothing bad ever happens to you but it’s all about how you can deal with the situation after the fact (when the tears have dried).

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gigigriffis March 7, 2014 - 7:02 am

Agreed!

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Where in the World is NIna? March 9, 2014 - 8:04 am

Absolutely hilarious! We all have out crazy, uncomfortable, terrifying, clumsy, and down right sick moments abroad. Nothing can stop it.

My very first day off the plane three years ago in Bangkok, began with vomiting the fruit shake I just bought all over a cafe bathroom. Conning the familiar boy who was on my plane to take me to the pharmacy. Then thinking I was better and shortly after ended up in a cell phone store nearly passing out and vomiting again. After I got my act tother the people at the phone store fed me fried rice as I sat on a kiddy stool in the middle of their shop.

World 500 Nina 0

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gigigriffis March 9, 2014 - 8:40 am

Oh dear! The vomiting I’ve experienced, but I think it would scare the crap out of me if I passed out – yikes!

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Weekly links & wrap-up (Mar. 9, 2014) - Here There Be Books March 9, 2014 - 2:35 pm

[…] confessions of less-than-savvy traveler over at The Ramble are both comforting (I’m not the only one who has traveling mishaps!) and […]

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Christine March 15, 2014 - 8:26 am

So I am Soooo savy….

I had been wanting to get laser eye corrective surgery for a couple of years but couldn’t afford the $5,000. After doing some human research it turns out 2 of my colleagues had gone to the same doctor and loved their results. I had heard that Monterrey had some of the best doctors in the world. I had also heard that there are even more PHONY ones! After 2 years of waiting to see if either one had regrets or lost their vision, i took their reference and headed to Monterrey, Mexico on the overnight bus ride from Houston.

What an adventure, and how exciting to have a friend from the region to accompany me as she herself was on her way to see her family there. Everything went smoothly. Slept on the bus, arrived in beautiful Monterrey at 10a, and quite proud of myself that I was “traveling as the locals do” at only $60 roundtrip for a weekender. By noon, I was in the doctor’s office, consulting with a charming and handsome doctor, and enjoying the fact that I was a commodity there – an asian woman that spoke perfect spanish. By 1p, the surgery was done and i could already begin to see clearer.

Spent the next 24 hours under close surveillance but still walking around town and enjoying the mountain view with my terminator glasses to protect my eyes. I am seeing 20/20 and it only cost me $500 for both eyes, including the prescriptions!

Within 36 hours, I at the bus station to head back to Houston. Now, the SNAGS…
—> evidently, when i entered Mexico, I should have gotten entrance papers at the border… Somehow, that didn’t occur to me because I just followed “the sheep” from one side of the border stop to the other. So as the driver amusingly stated the irony, that I “am a wetback in Mexico”
—> No worries, just stay cool on the bus, don’t cause a scene, and we should be ok… “Unless the bus gets stopped by the police or bandits,… Then be sure to hide my passport and don’t be seen, or be ready to hand over some bribe money…” WHAT??
—> Now on the bus, by myself (i was proud to be so brave to be so independent), all went well, UNTIL…. The bus stops somewhere just within view of the US border. Don’t panic, maybe just an inspection of the tires by the driver….
—> 5-10 minutes pass and we are still stopped…Uneasy because the “locals” are getting uneasy. So I asked what was happening, they didn’t know either. I asked if this was normal; they said no. Noone was sure if the people whomstopped the bus were undercover police or a local gang. Finally, they told me to stay cool and quiet, and hopefully the situation will pass… SITUATION? I’m thinking to myself, damn those entrance papers! Why do I have to be unintentionally illegal on the one bus that gets stopped by hijackers?
—> At this point, i am planning an exit strategy,… I can see the border with that amazing red, white, and blue flag of freedom flying overhead. Pondering over the many movies I had seen in my past – the ones where the American, being chased by drug cartels, runs to the border, arms flailing in the wind, screaming, “I am an American!”, and a band of loving and protective US soldiers come to shield me from my would-be captives – I ask myself, “Could I outrun this?”
—> I flashback into reality as i realize that the flag waving at me is an illusion,… It is NOT the flag we hang in our classrooms and on our front porches,…. That damn thing is probably the size of a football field, which means the border is NOT as close as it seems. “A mile? Two miles?” I’m in good shale,… I can run…. Would i be shot and killed before I even got there – a famous scene from Platoon…. Worse, would I be captured, tortured, raped…..?
—> Who am I kidding? That flag teases me, waving at me, but not something I could ever reach from here. So I settled lower in my seat, and waited….
—> FINALLY, after what seemed like an eternity, the drivergets back on the bus and starts to drive off. EVERYONE, let’s out a relieved sigh and I just wanted to pass out from all the energy I had exerted just thinking about what I might have had to do.

All is well that ends well, and my laser eye surgeryis STILL a success! Would I do it again? HECK YEAH! :P

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Gigi March 17, 2014 - 3:02 am

Hahah!

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Ali March 19, 2014 - 5:09 am

I would have DIED. I can NOT believe you had to go through that! I already have enough mental hang-ups about bathroom issues due to my colitis, I can’t imagine having to crap in a garbage can on a moving bus in front of people.

I’m a big crier. Stressful situations definitely make me cry, and when I’m traveling it’s usually something that seems so dumb even 5 minutes later.

I feel like this kind of thing isn’t written about enough. I read so many travel blogs that tell you how wonderful everything was, or if they do tell about the bad stuff it’s some kind of crazy thing that happened, but not so much about how stressful things can get and how taking the wrong bus CAN result in a pile of tears.

No one is perfect. No one travels perfectly either.

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gigigriffis March 19, 2014 - 5:12 am

Yep. It’s taken over 10 years for me to even be able to tell that story. I was utterly mortified for, uh, forever. Only now has it become somewhat amusing.

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Marli June 20, 2014 - 4:57 am

I’m so excited to contribute!

– Projectile vomited on a Barcelona metro, to the point that they called the police to escort me out at the next stop
– Missed my flight out of Paris because I forgot that Veteran’s Day meant a holiday train schedule in France. (Armistice Day!)
– Bawled on the side of the road at a pay phone in Grenada while calling my father collect because I had just realized that, traveling without phone or laptop, if someone killed me, no one would think to look for my body for two weeks.
– Begged charity from a motel owner in Ghana when my friends were not there to meet me, and I had shown up with no money, no water, no food, and no sunscreen – and no way of getting any of them for 24hrs.

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Marli June 20, 2014 - 5:02 am

Oh! And I forgot one: I got a ticket in New Zealand for driving TOO SLOWLY!

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gigigriffis June 20, 2014 - 5:26 am

Hilarious! Thank you. Do you mind if I use this in an upcoming Part II post?

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Marli June 20, 2014 - 5:35 pm

Not at all. In fact, I can add two more.

– A few years ago, I had a flight into Heathrow, and four hours later a flight out from Luton (long story short I booked a round trip to London and then a round trip London to Barcelona rather than a 3-legged trip). The only problem was that when I arrived in Luton, I took out my ticket and realized it was out of Gatwick. Luckily, with my four hour layover, I had exactly enough time to travel to Gatwick and rush through security. Most expensive layover ever.

– That was my worst London travel moment, until this evening, when I went to Luton for a flight to Budapest (this time I had double checked, and my flight was, indeed out of Luton). After waiting in a long line to get my boarding pass, and then a longer line to have the boarding pass signed by the people who sign it for non EU citizens, I was ready to go upstairs to departures. Before heading upstairs I made sure to buy a big bottle of water and a little bottle of wine for the flight. Then, of course, I got upstairs and remembered that I had not yet gone through security. London is always an expensive travel city for me, somehow…

I’ve also got plenty of “you won’t believe this happened” stories, from funny (Algerian strangers proposing) to embarrassing (shouting out the wrong – much higher – number while haggling) to scary (being chased by a drunken Frenchman), but the ones that really get me are the ones I’ve shared – nothing awful happened, but in spite of having visited 28 countries across 6 continents, I did NOT feel I deserved a savvy-traveler label in the moment.

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