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.
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.
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?