Solo Travel Disasters
Tales of Woe, (Mostly) Overcome
Are you scared to travel alone? Maybe you’re also unwilling to go to a restaurant or a movie alone, in which case I can’t help you. But if you won’t go anywhere because you don’t have a partner, read on.
I’ve been to 26 countries, nearly all of them by myself. I don’t speak any languages other than English. You can do it! You can have adventures, too, even by yourself. Sometimes shit did happen, though, and I have those stories for you here.
Is Solo Travel In Your Future?
The travel industry is all over this, “this” being “solo travel.” You can find articles on “how to travel alone” here, here, here, and lots of other places. And yet here you are, still reading this! So there must be something about all those happy-happy “discover yourself” pieces written by 20-something “journalists” that didn’t quite make it for you. Maybe you just want some entertaining stories of travel disasters. I’ve got ‘em.
The obvious person to travel with is your spouse. Bad news here: almost a quarter of the households in the U.S. were composed of a single person in 2010.
And yet the stereotypical idea of travel is a cruise ship, and the picture of that is something like this: happy, well-dressed, over-40 couples dressing up, sitting at a white tablecloth table, and ordering from a well-dressed waiter.
What Does “Alone” Mean?
You’re probably picturing your solo travel like this poor soul, with everyone thinking “Loser!” when they see him:
(It’s not like that.)
What If Something Goes Wrong?
The absolute worst fear is of something terrible happening! You’re alone in some country where you don’t speak the language and disaster strikes. If you have a partner, they can help you out. If the airline loses your luggage, maybe your friends still get theirs, so you can borrow their stuff. If your wallet gets stolen, well, they can lend you some money. But what if you’re alone?
Accidents do happen on a trip. Now I’m going to tell you about some that happened to me when I was alone, and how they turned out. These are not your stereotypical “our car got broken into in Oahu” or “I got pickpocketed in Rome” stories. I was never a victim of crime and never lost my passport (those are bad things, though, just to be clear).
Air Rage Before There Was Air Rage
During the pandemic, incidents of “air rage” skyrocketed. People refused to put on masks, and things sometimes got violent. Maybe you’ve seen that photo of the passenger duct-taped to the seat?
People got unruly even before the pandemic. In June 2014 I was on a flight from San Francisco to Toronto, connecting to a flight to Iceland. A man stood in the aisle facing the passengers and began screaming. Terrorists had stolen his luggage in LAX, he yelled. “You people… [expletive] [expletive] don’t know what’s going on [expletive]!”
I’d never seen anything like this. What happens now? I wondered. A voice came over the intercom: “Are there any off-duty policemen on board?” There were two, who volunteered to help. They came and quietly grabbed the guy and tried to lead him back to a window seat. The person who had been in that seat was quietly relocated.
I didn’t look at Crazy Guy. When he’s a few feet away, the last thing you want is to make eye contact. He might lunge at you and say,“What the f**k are you looking at, asshole?” I avoided his gaze. Most of the other passengers did as well.
He sat for a second in the row behind me and said to one of the cops, “Do you understand what I’m telling you?” I guess he meant the terrorists at LAX. The cop said, “Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
Apparently that was, “Come on, big boy, you’re going to sit in a window seat.” He did, and the two cops took the other seats so he couldn’t get out. The crew announced that we’d be making an emergency landing in Denver. I had plenty of time to get my camera out, so I could video the struggle when the police took him off.
When we landed, a police vehicle was waiting on the tarmac, and the police came to take him off. He went meekly without any fuss. No viral video for me!
We were two hours late getting into Toronto. I still made my flight to Reykjavik but my luggage didn’t. It came to my hotel the next day (in fact, the airlines have lost my luggage at least three times, and it was always delivered the next day). Beautiful country, Iceland.
What if I’d been on the plane with someone instead of being alone? I don’t think it would have made any difference. Maybe we’d have reminded each other not to make eye contact. But I didn’t do that anyway.
Verdict: no harm, no foul.
Mama Grizzly Rears Up
Note: I will be obscuring or changing some details about this trip, out of respect for the trip operators.
I went on a 4-day grizzly watching trip on Kodiak Island, Alaska with five other people. We joined the trip at Kodiak Airport. There was no tour bus and no dinners on white tablecloths like the cruise picture earlier. We flew on a float plane to the tour group’s off-the-grid camp, where they had cabins. No hot showers, but they did have a sauna where you could get clean.
We got into a couple boats and went even deeper into the bush, to a spot where Dave and Margaret, the operators, had a tent camp.
Kodiak has many, many grizzly bears (3,500 according to one survey), very few people or roads, and plenty of salmon for the bears. So they’re not looking to eat you or your food, as a rule, and they’re not afraid of you. Most of the time. (This photo was with a zoom lens; he’s not charging at us.)
It’s very different from Yellowstone, where tourists get attacked all the time because the bears don’t like them being there, or smell their food. The licensed tour operators on Kodiak know what they’re doing, and they carry rifles if things really go south.
When I say the guides know what they’re doing, they really do. We got within 10 feet of the bears, usually when we sat still and they came near us. They never came close enough to touch (which is a big no-no), and if they had, Dave and Margaret would have chased them away. More on that later.
In the tent camp, we were sternly warned not to go wandering around in the forest if we got up in the middle of the night. The next day we set off with Dave and Margaret and their Labrador. I asked Dave if the dog was going to get excited if he saw a bear, and he laughed, “No, he’s seen so many bears he doesn’t even notice them!”
There were several close encounters with bears, and I do mean “close.” This one was filmed with a normal lens (not a zoom), with the camera on my chest while I was lying on my back:
Did the bear know we were there? Of course he did. Bears can smell way better than we can. But as I said, they don’t care.
We were lying on a small ridge up from the beach where Mr. Bear was walking. After he passed, I put my camera away. Just then, Dave gave an order: “Get up the hill, get down, and don’t move!” A mama grizzly came along, trailed by her two cubs. We watched, motionless. A mother defending her cubs is just about the most dangerous bear you can encounter. But Mama Bear ignored us, just like the male bear had earlier.
Suddenly the dog jerked, caught the bear’s attention, and the bear turned towards us and started walking. It didn’t rear up and roar, like you might see on TV. None of us moved. Since this is one of those heart-in-your-mouth moments, it’s worth an aside to tell you what I felt right then:
“I wonder what happens next?” Honestly, I felt as if it was a Nature show on TV and David Attenborough was going to explain it all any second. I really didn’t feel like I was going to die. With hindsight, that could easily have been the outcome. Of course, there would have been nothing I could do in that case anyway. No one can outrun a bear.
None of us moved, but Dave and Margaret stood up, raised their hands over their heads, and they both yelled at the tops of their lungs, “Enough!” I don’t know why they yelled that word in particular, but that was what they yelled. Mama Bear turned and ran away, followed by her cubs. Margaret said to me, “So did you get that on video?” I shook my head.
We collected our things and walked up the beach, all of us a little shook, no one saying anything. I finally said to Dave, “You didn’t even load your rifle for that, did you?” Dave said, “No, I wasn’t going to kill a bear for that stupid dog. He shouldn’t even have been there.” So the dog was expendable. Dave said that in 17 years of guiding, he’d only even chambered a round in his gun once.
If Dave had killed the bear, he would have had to file a report, and maybe lost his license or had it suspended. So losing the dog would be regrettable, but life is cheap in the Arctic.
Since that trip, I’ve seen several shows on Nature (none with David Attenborough, though) where they get extremely close to grizzlies, like this show. On some Alaskan islands with a lot of bears but not a lot of tourists, one can do this, if one is licensed and trained.
What would have been different if I’d had been with someone on that trip? We’d have been worried about each other, obviously, while I only had to worry about myself. I did the right thing, which was “nothing.”
Two of us walking around with the group might have been more fun, depending on the person I was with, or it might not have.
Verdict: no harm, no foul.
Getting Sick in Paris
In 1996 or so, I had a business trip to Paris, and I stayed over for a week to be a tourist. One particular French dish I thought I wanted to try was pot au feu. It was Friday night and I was flying out on Saturday morning, so I went to a restaurant that was famous for it. This was my last chance to try it!
Uh-oh! I should have thought more about that. I hate boiled beef, or indeed any kind of stewed red meat. The squishy, stringy texture: hate, hate, hate. I’d literally rather go hungry than eat that stuff. I would make a rotten prisoner-of-war, or maybe the enemy would consider me a good POW, since I’d starve to death in short order.
Why? Who knows why we have those food phobias? Something in my childhood, undoubtedly. Anyway, here I was with a whole plate of it. What was I going to do: send it back? “Monsieur has ordered it! Is it not to Monsieur’s satisfaction?” What in God’s name was I thinking when I ordered this?
I choked down a bunch of it, I’m sure not even making a dent in the total volume of food.
Around 4:00 am, I woke up with diarrhea. I mean, I had to go over and over again, maybe a dozen times. I’m not blaming the restaurant for this at all: I think that when you have a physical loathing for something and you eat it anyway, it’s going to come back out one way or the other, if you get my drift.
Europeans are always telling us how great their universal health care system is, and I gave serious thought to cancelling the flight and calling a doctor. I’m pretty sure they’d have come to my hotel room.
The logistical details of this, staying over an extra day in the hotel, etc. seemed daunting, and finally I took a cab to the airport and got on the plane for the 8-hour flight to San Francisco. I didn’t eat anything, just drank some tea, and had to go to the bathroom twice. I got home, felt terrible, started eating again the next day, and eventually felt fine again.
This is a case where a companion would have made all the difference. He or she would have said at the restaurant, “Why the hell would you order that? You hate that stuff!” Maybe swapped their dish with mine, or noticed my discomfort, and told me to stop eating. Or talk to the waiter. A companion can keep you from making terrible decisions.
Of course, once I was actually sick, they probably would have played things conservative, cancelled the trip, and called a doctor. That would have been the wrong choice, with hindsight.
Verdict: being alone was a loss here. But toughing it out was the right choice.
A Disaster Back Home!
In October, 1989, I was in Australia, on my 7-week sabbatical from 3Com. Companies used to give sabbaticals after you’d been there some length of time, usually 4 or 5 years. I don’t know if any do now.
I’d gotten another 3Com employee to house sit for me (this part actually appears in my book, The Big Bucks). Thus I didn’t need a stranger to drop by every day and feed the cat, and the house didn’t have that “unoccupied” look. She could call my parents in LA if she really had to get in touch with me (because of course we didn’t carry cell phones back then).
I was in Melbourne in the late morning, and suddenly I heard the news “Major earthquake in the Bay Area!” This was we now call the Loma Prieta Quake, for its epicenter near Santa Cruz.
You have to remember, this was before the Internet. In Australia, it was certainly a news story but it wasn’t a major emergency. Normal TV programming was not interrupted, and on the hourly radio news they’d just mention it.
There was no news. I had almost no idea how bad it was, or whether I needed to cut my trip short and fly home. You couldn’t call into the Bay Area because that was impossible. Everyone was trying to do that.
I was staying in a bed-and-breakfast in the suburbs. The lady running it let me call my parents, who didn’t know anything either. I waited for the 6:00 pm news, and the earthquake received about 5 minutes of coverage. Of course they just showed the freeway in Oakland collapsed
and the Marina in ruins:
over and over.
I had the feeling that the whole Bay Area was in flames.
That night, the landlady woke me up after the phone rang. My parents were on the phone. The house sitter had called them and told them the house was OK. Although you couldn’t call into the Bay Area, people inside could call out.
So I didn’t cut the trip short, and continued on to Thailand and Hong Kong.
In fact, I was with other people in Melbourne: I’d met a couple guys from the Bay Area earlier on the trip and reunited with them in Melbourne. However, they weren’t staying at the B&B with me, and I actually don’t remember what they did after we heard the earthquake news.
The verdict: Uncertain. If I’d had a companion, say a spouse: it’s hard to say if I would have handled this disaster better. She might have panicked and made us cut our trip short, on the minus side; or she might have thought of some clever way to get news from home, on the plus side. We might have amplified each other’s worries instead of tamping them down.
If you wait until you’re retired or the kids are grown and out of the house, you might never go. Your health might preclude it, or you might just not like traveling anymore. Go now, even if you have to go alone. If bad stuff happens, you can deal with it.
A lot of retirement-age people are too tired and risk-averse to do anything more dangerous than that cruise picture at the beginning. Don’t be boring like those people. Go.