During this pandemic, there is much handwringing and whining about the inability to travel. Eventually, though, all this crying becomes boring, and I need to focus on other things. To cheer myself up recently, I made a list of my top, most awesomely horrible travel moments.
- Emergency Plane Landing
My plane had just taken off from Washington, DC. I am the scared, annoying person sitting next to you who gasps at any unexpected shudder or sound a plane makes. I fancy myself the watchdog of every possible problem that can happen in the air. That fateful day, I gradually came to the conclusion that the plane was not ascending at the expected rate. Am I an aeronautical engineer? No. Could I tell you how to use a power drill or turn on my own oven? No. BUT, I know what I know. I nervously told my traveling companion that there was something wrong with the plane. He patted my hand in a placating gesture and told me he’d buy me a drink as soon as the beverage service started.
I had only one option under the circumstances. I reached into my carry-on tote, and popped a double dose of Xanax. The calm settled over me immediately. It lasted through the pilot getting on the intercom, clearing his throat, and announcing that the landing gear appeared to be non-functional. It lasted through circling over the Atlantic Ocean and dumping fuel at a furious rate in an attempt to avoid a fireball. I remember my scientific detachment while being coached on how to assume the crash position and noting with intellectual curiosity the array of ambulances and fire trucks arranged on the tarmac to meet us.
To this day, I feel smug. Smug that I was right about the plane, and smug that I had packed the one item crucial to an emergency landing–anti-anxiety meds. I am, of course, eternally grateful that it was the landing gear light that was broken, and not the actual landing gear.
- Naked German Swimming Pool
I studied in Tübingen, Germany, in the Spring of 1993. As a 20-year-old, this was my first foray in the cultures of other countries. In our current, technologically connected world, there is no excuse for ignorance about every glorious detail in your intended destinations. Back in the 1990s, though, you pretty much left for Germany with nothing more than a guidebook and stories your grandpa told about World War II.
As you may have heard about the United States, we trace our colonial origins back to the Puritans. This is a group that was so lacking in fun that they outlawed Christmas celebrations as heretical. While we have come a long way since then, Americans are notoriously prudish about nudity. We are not a naked people. This girl is no exception. As a kid, I changed clothes in the closet instead of the room that I shared with my two sisters.
Fast forward to my first outing to the public pool in my new German community. All seemed in order at first. I had been told that bathing suits were required for the swimming pool, no exceptions, which filled me with relief. Germans strictly adhere to rules, and, as expected, they dutifully wore their bathing suits in the pool. Here is the catch: The rules say nothing about wearing a bathing suit on the pool decking. Without warning, without preamble, I soon found myself surrounded by naked people of every age and body composition confidently lounging in the bright afternoon sun. Hence, my education in human anatomy was complete in an instant.
- Rescue in Korea
I traveled to Seoul, Korea, in 2004. This was in the days right before iPhones, translation apps, or online language programs became ubiquitous. Sadly, I did not speak a word of Korean. On my first day in the country, I asked the hotel staff to write down my day’s destination in Korean. I handed the slip of paper to the cab driver, who nodded knowingly, and then we were off.
Approximately 30 minutes into the journey, the cab driver indicated in universal gestures of hopelessness that he had no idea where I wanted to go. I was unable to communicate further with him. It was a stalemate, and we just kept driving around for an extended period of time. Without Xanax, this situation obviously was not ideal. Long, long story made short: Law enforcement officials eventually pulled over the cab in a dramatic but friendly manner, affected a rescue, and the cab driver and I parted in relief. Seriously, that happened.
- Italian Train Robbery
I frequently slept on trains in Europe to save money on hotels. A train route that ended in Brindisi, Italy, was notorious for little scamps stealing passengers’ belongings while they slept. As a precaution, we tied the straps of our backpacks to the luggage racks with many knots. Throughout the night, we slammed the compartment doors shut against would-be thieves trying to sneak into our space.
At some point, the train’s motion must have lulled us into a deep sleep, for I awoke to someone standing on our make-shift bed untying the last of the knots on my bag. He hopped down, ran away, and took my bag with him. I was so angry, I forgot to be anxious or scared. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself chasing down the train robber, tackling him to the ground, and snatching my bag back with all my belongings intact. To this day, the escapade plays like an action-adventure film in my head.
- U2 Concert in Germany
This story is a bit delicate, but I would be remiss if I did not include it. It involves armpits and the rock band U2. The city of Stuttgart, Germany, hosted U2’s Zooropa tour on June 6, 1993. (Thank you Wikipedia for filling in that historical detail.) This was back in the good ol’ days when event organizers across the world legally could fit one gazillion people in an open concert space with no concerns for safety.
That morning, some friends and I arrived early to stake out our spot near the stage. The day was hot, the outdoor festival grounds were packed by morning, and the crowd sat around for the next ten hours baking in the sun chugging beer. By nightfall, the audience was a sweaty, smelly, drunk, dehydrated mess all pushing and crushing each other towards the stage.
One small detail that becomes very important in the telling of this story is that Germans, in my experience, tend to be taller than Americans. So, my girlfriends and I often came to armpit level when standing next to tall German men. That night, U2 finally walked on stage. As the band triumphantly started to sing, every person in that audience simultaneously raised their arms to the sky in exaltation. Being at armpit level for such a joyous display of humanity overwhelmed the olfactory senses of one my girlfriends. She immediately started to faint. With the help of some compassionate members of the crowd, we were were able to haul her out of the fug of bodies. We watched the concert that night from the sidelines.
For more awesomely horrible or horribly awesome travel experiences, please see:
Italian Train Incident (A totally different, non-robbery-related, Italian train incident!)