Five horror stories from a travel writer
My life is one long holiday. At least, that’s what most people assume when I reveal I’m a travel writer.
Other writers moan about punishing schedules: early starts, late nights, boring “site inspections”. I struggle to sympathise. After all, I holiday for living.
That’s not to say travel writing is a cakewalk, especially not when you’re in the middle of those unforeseen horrors that inevitably plague your travel experience.
Here are five of my most memorable.
The world’s most dangerous flight route
Flight paths over The Andes are among the world’s most dreaded flight routes. Photo: Getty
“Oh, my God! We’re gonna crash! We’re gonna crash!”
Horrified American tourists behind me scream as they watch crew crawling down the aisle.
They clearly haven’t heard that flights across South America’s Andes are widely regarded as the world’s most dangerous.
Aircraft wreckage lies buried in snowy wastes. Pilots rate the turbulence as the earth’s most extreme.
Bouncing across the sky on an early-morning flight from Chile’s Santiago to Argentina’s Buenos Aires, breakfast hits my nose more often than my mouth.
Crew decide conditions are worse than usual. On their knees, they dump trays into black garbage bags.
Most passengers stay strangely silent, perhaps praying that we reach our destination.
Then, finally, the captain’s voice is heard.
“Sorry, turbulence was worse than usual. We’ve been busy up here. But don’t worry – we’re though the worst.”
Left holding a stranger’s baby
From a train pulling out of an Indian station, I watch platform activity through an open window. A woman suddenly appears, thrusting a blanket-wrapped package at me. Instinctively, I grab it.
Where did this baby come from? Photo: Shutterstock
Suddenly, I’m holding the baby. It’s peacefully asleep, neither crying nor crapping. We gather speed. Other passengers smile and shrug.
I’m panicking. Should I get off at the next stop and hand this infant to the stationmaster?
Just then the mother appears in her bright red sari. She smiles a thank-you, scoops up her child and scurries off.
She wouldn’t have been able to board a moving train in her sari while cradling a baby – so handed it to me for safekeeping.
A few months later, I take a shared West African taxi – from Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, to a place called Paga at the Ghana border.
From the front seat I watch a woman, reflected in a side-mirror, struggling to board the jam-packed minibus.
Through the window she hands me her baby, a contentedly gurgling little critter. Then, to my alarm, she disappears. We travel for 30 minutes, with me wondering what I’ll do if the baby needs changing or feeding.
Then there’s a tap on my shoulder. It’s mummy! But why had she waited so long before retrieving her little darling?
The world’s worst airline
It’s fair to say North Korea’s national carrier wasn’t particularly luxurious. Photo: Shutterstock
Banned for mechanical reasons from European Community airports and routinely called the world’s worst airline (with ratings agency Skytrax giving it only one star), Air Koryo is North Korea’s carrier.
Aboard my Soviet-era Tupolev Tu 204, there’s no in-flight entertainment. Far more alarming: no safety briefing or even a simple “welcome aboard” from the cockpit.
Heavily made-up cabin crew are uncommunicative from behind plastic smiles.
Reading matter on my 90-minute Beijing-Pyongyang flight is limited to the hermit nation’s English-language newspaper and a magazine depicting political delegations visiting factories.
Lunch is anchored by a slab of pink processed meat which I wash down with a bottle of North Korea’s Ryongsong beer.
A pig walks into a nightclub
Pigs need to party too. Photo: Shutterstock
We’re talking a real pig. I watch her saunter into a nightclub in tiny Ban Lung, capital of north-eastern Cambodia’s remote Ratanakiri province.
After a day exploring a temple-studded hinterland, it’s time for a beer. A bar, becoming a nightclub after dark, is the only venue I can find. I’m the only customer.
Then the pig walks in.
She stares at me before sticking her snout into a peanut bowl on the table and scoffing the lot.
Each time the bowl is emptied the bar owner refills it.
I’m wondering whether this enormous sow will follow me back to my hotel. How will I get rid of her?
Just then, my four-legged companion wanders off.
“She comes in every day,” explains the bar owner. “She loves peanuts.”
Light reading ends in disaster
Light reading can land one in hot water. Photo: Shutterstock
In a very English way, many of my British friends used to wrap the upmarket Observer around the scandal-filled but now-defunct News of the World when travelling on London’s Tube – in case people they knew spotted their secret vice.
A mate and I adapt this peculiarity when we ride the Tube, wrapping the Pyongyang Times (the world’s most boring newspaper, bought from a communist bookshop in London) around The Guardian.
Usually, our faux-English eccentricity is not remarked on by other passengers.
But, one day, four tough-looking guys follow us onto the platform. They announce they’re South Koreans who’ll punish us for reading North Korean propaganda. A knife gleams.
Shaking with fear, I open my paper, to reveal that only the wrap-around is North Korean. They find this “English joke” hilarious, disappearing down a pedestrian tunnel.