Thursday, May 13, 2010

Do Travel Writers Have 9 Lives? I've Used Mine

On the Coconut Radio blog from Tahiti, I was reading another Lonely Planet author's stories about bad, bad border crossings and getting kidnapped (or not) in Costa Rica. It made me think about the close brushes with death that all travel writers and photographers I know have had, including myself. There's something about searching out the next off-the-beaten path destination, or going to that way-out place that maybe no other travelers ever visit just to update a guidebook, that always seems to lead to trouble.

I've been writing travel guides on and off for 10 years. So far, I've had a few close calls with the afterlife:
  • Missing the bus when I got off the ferry in Indonesia. Doesn't sound fatal, does it? Well, I dallied too long getting my backpack off the boat, the next onward bus filled up and I couldn't push my way onto it -- you know how it goes in Southeast Asia. So, I sat down and waited an hour for the next bus. Funny thing is, as we trundled our way across the island, I saw the bus I'd tried to catch earlier overturned and smashed up on the side of the road, with dozens of people hurt. One of those dead bodies could have easily have been me. I resolved right there to get more medical training.
  • (Almost not) landing at Lukla airport in Nepal. The Gear Junkie recently did a great write-up of why this airport really isn't one of the world's most dangerous, although it certainly feels like it when you find out your pilot has never really logged any serious hours in a STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft before. Did I mention we were attempting to land in the middle of a snowstorm, too? It took us 3 fly-bys before wheels touched down on tarmac. I resolved to get back to Kathmandu overland, the old-fashioned hippie way, even if I had to walk all the way from Everest Base Camp.
  • Somewhere on the China-Vietnam border. It's a gimme that this might be a dicey place to be, but I didn't expect to get woken up in the middle of the night and marched off the bus at gunpoint by Chinese soldiers. It did not help being the only obvious foreigner on the bus. But once I agreed to let my backpack, passport and money go, everything was copacetic. (And this in no way compares as a hair-raising experience with a documentary filmmaker friend who was held at gunpoint by Burmese border guards, and saved her own life by flashing a medal of a Buddhist monk.)
And this doesn't begin to cover the taxi drivers worldwide who have tried to trick me into going to out-of-the-way places, hoping that American girls really were that easy. Or getting groped by drunk businessmen on trains in Japan (I always shoved back, ill-mannered gaijin that I am). Or that Malaysian scooter driver who somehow copped a feel while I was riding a bicycle (I drove him off by pelting him with stones.)

Travel is risky, and sometimes the Venn diagram intersection of being a woman and a travel writer makes that risk triple. But I don't regret most of the travel misadventures I've had, because I couldn't have foreseen the majority of them. And at the end of the day, they're the price you sometimes have to pay for the privilege of epic travel experiences, like trekking high into the Himalayas or visiting ancient ruins in Sicily.

There's only one travel accident that I wish I had a do-over for. Patagonia, you and I have a major score to settle. But that's a travel noir story for another day.

Had your own near-miss travel escapade? Tell us all about it by commenting below.

Photo credit: Lukla Airport, Nepal


  1. While not as far-flung as you indietraveler, my handful of hair-raising brushes with danger are from backpacking trips in wilderness areas gone awry... slipping on that slick, weathered granite talus, or an inability to hold up a flimsy tent against a cold mountain snowstorm. Being well prepared with proper gear and quick wits helped me through those scary moments.

  2. Oooh the Lukla airport - I landed there once and yes, memorably scary. It's funny though, I find that I don't want to write about the really, really scary stuff like the black magic guy who tried to hypnotize me in Java, the breaks going out in Jesus's car (really his name) on the road to Batopilas in the Copper Canyon Mexico or getting forcefull kissed, tongue and all, by a cop in Jakarta. Ok maybe I'll write about Batopilas one day, but not the cop!
    Great inspiring post and I'm really honored to be part of the story!

  3. I know what you mean, Celeste. It's hard to write about the really scary stuff -- especially all the fun that our male colleagues miss out on (e.g., that cop in Indonesia), huh?

  4. Yes! Held at gunpoint on a train in Italy (stowaway broke into my private train car and held me as a hostage). Also helped smuggle African refugees past the border police in Austria. Both times I saw my life flash before my eyes!

  5. Just visited and would love you to consider a link exchange.

    My partner Danielle and I are currently traveling to nearly every country in Africa (we are writing now from Dakar, Senegal) meeting with farmers, workers, NGO's and community groups writing about innovations and projects that our working to alliviate hunger and poverty. We travel blog everyday at BorderJumpers ( We are trying to highlight stories of hope and success.

    Thanks so much for your consideration!

    All the best, Bernie and Dani