Now this sounds good. You must have been up all night narrowing this list down to five…
Hey, not so fast. I may have made my fair share of mistakes in my younger years but I like to think of myself as a pretty savvy Grown-up Traveller these days.
Savvy, perhaps. Pretty, no…
All of these situations happened at least 20 years ago and I can’t recall anything on this scale since then, so I guess it just goes to show that travel is a learning experience and you do get better.
Or take fewer idiotic risks?
That too. Having a family does give you the necessary reality injection to think a little more over the consequences of the choices you make while away. It should also be said that given the technology available today there are less excuses – or opportunities – to get into some of the scrapes that I did. Having a mobile phone or a GPS can help you from getting lost in a desert, for example…
You didn’t even have a map…
That’s another story for another day. On with the list, which is in chronological order rather being ranked in terms of thick-headedness…
Losing my ferry ticket from an open top car
Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide
Even I cringe at this one. So here’s the back story – way back in ’89 (I think) I bought myself a convertible – a 1978 Triumph Spitfire. I know, how flash is that? The thing is, it was a bargain at £700 because it had quite a bump in the back end; but I eventually got that fixed on the cheap. It was very cool to be able to cruise around with the roof down whenever the sun was out – although living in London at the time that was unpredictable to say the least but I was happy enough. I even got a comedy number plate thrown in (no, it wasn’t customized, it was just luck – and actually, the car didn’t suck so I considered it an ironic gesture).
During the summer I planned to take the ferry over to France to blast around the autoroutes for a few days of fun in the sun, and the day in question was a fine one. I had to leave early in the morning to catch a ferry at 9 a.m., and this combined with a lack of coffee may go some way to explain what happened. Fast forward an hour and there I was, zooming along the motorway about half an hour from Dover, when I was suddenly a little unsure of where exactly I needed to go when I arrived at the port. I thus took one hand from the wheel (this being England, my left one) to find my paper ticket (remember those) that was in my bag on the front seat. I did so, glanced at it and laid it back on the seat next to me. I then had to change lanes to overtake the car ahead and in that moment a gust of wind took the ticket up, up and away into the air. The last I saw of it was in my rear view mirror as it flew over the fence at the side of the road.
I learned an expensive lesson (because of course I had to buy another ticket) that day. Namely that it’s better to buy your ticket at the port rather than in advance.
Expecting to find my friends at Oktoberfest
Image obtained from Flickr.com under Creative Commons (c) Mabuhay 4U
Ah, Oktoberfest. That crazy week of state-sponsored binge drinking that actually starts in September (oh those crazy Germans!) Let’s just say once is enough – it was fun, although mostly with rosy hindsight. Anyway, this particular year was 1990 and I was living in Berlin at the time. Two of my friends from the UK were driving to Munich and I was going to hitch-hike down to meet them. Indeed we had a rather optimistic plan to meet at a specific place and time, and being young and naive figured that we’d find each other.
I had an eventful journey from Berlin which included an unintended 300 km detour due to a misunderstanding and a slightly ‘tired and emotional’ truck driver. Suffice it to say that I arrived at the Oktoberfest site in an exhausted state about three hours after we were supposed to be outside the Spatenbrau tent. There were also thousands more people than I’d expected milling around a huge area, and given that this was the pre-mobile phone era I realised my chances of finding my buddies were slim, to say the least.
However I did find my way to a ‘message board’ – an enormous wall covered with post-it notes, scraps of paper and scribbled messages. It was then that the Lord of Beer must have decided to help me – I walked towards this wall and my eyes were focused on one particular part as I got closer. As I got nearer I picked out one bit of paper and just kept looking at it. I moved right in close and there it was – a message saying, “Hi Andy. We’re in the Hofbrau tent. See you there”. I made my way there, walked in and the first sight that greeted me was my two rather inebriated friends dancing to oompah music on a table surrounded by equally sozzled Germans in full lederhosen. Shit, as they say, happens.
Hitch-hiking through the Sahara
Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide
Yes, you read that right. And it wasn’t that the bus broke down and I was forced to find another way to travel south through Algeria to Niger. No, I planned this. A little background here: if you open a map (alright, open Google Maps) you’ll see that in Algeria there seems to be a nice road heading down through the country. It even has a name, the N1. The reality is that only sections are actual road, in most places – especially in the desert proper – the route is theoretical and is supposed to be marked by concrete posts every 5 km. As for public transport, well let’s just say that in 1992 it was unpredictable.
I had made it as far as Ghardaia by taking the bus, but getting any further would involve waiting several days for the next scheduled departure so here I planned to stick my thumb out. Or not, as this can be an offensive gesture in Arab countries the thing do to is point to the ground in front of you while you stand at the edge of the road. Being a seasoned hitch-hiker with thousands of miles in Europe under my metaphorical belt, I figured this would be an interesting challenge.
So it was that I walked to the N1 from town just after sunrise, dumped my rucksack and waited. It was already quite warm, to put it mildly, and I had just enough time to contemplate how brilliant this idea had in fact been when a strange thing happened. The first car driving my way appeared on the horizon – as it got closer it turned out to be a battered yellow Citroen 2CV and when it screeched to a halt beside me I saw that there were four cheery Algerians inside and a huge amount of luggage on the roof.
But they made room for me and my gear, and this is where the story changes course – it turns out that hitch-hiking the Sahara is a piece of cake. I never waited long for a lift, I was shown incredible hospitality – Algeria is still the friendliest country I’ve visited – being offered food and a place to stay the night almost every trip.
In the end I was given a lift by a German who was also heading to Niger. If we’d made it all the way that one ride would have been about 3000 km to Niamey but the border was suddenly closed so I had to change my plans. I still smashed my record though, given that we drove about 1350 km. The moral of the story? Sometimes the craziest idea can work out too…
Flying from a coup to a civil war
Image (c) Veronica Sparks via insightonconflict.org
It comes as no great surprise that three of these stories took place during my time in Africa; indeed all of them occurred on the same trip. It’s an amazing continent where the bizarre and unexpected can often become routine and unsurprising – but it’s always exciting. My mantra was that if one day passed where nothing made me laugh then it would be time to head home. That never happened. The infectious happiness of the locals, the overwhelming welcome received by visitors and the natural beauty of each country is an enthralling mix and if you visit once it’s hard not to think about returning.
Obviously you can’t sweep the problems under the carpet either but fortunately progress is being made in terms of democracy, public health and development that would have seemed unimaginable in 1992. Even the two countries in this tale of poor decision-making are now enjoying peace and stability after the chaos that reigned in the last decade of the 20th century and I would love to go back. But you want to hear about my stupid story, right? Right. After the desert incident above and a lot more travelling, I made it to Freetown, Sierra Leone, just in time for the 1992 military coup. How lucky was that? Waking to gunfire and explosions outside was quite an experience, as was drinking in the best hotel in town with a bunch of dodgy foreigners while the local staff served us from their positions under the bar. Their caution was understandable – the top floor of the hotel was hit by rocket fire while we sipped our Star Beer.
Anyhow, the situation calmed down and a new government took over – but still the land borders remained sealed. About a week later the airport reopened for limited flights and this forced another change in my plans; I would have to fly out. I took the cheapest option of the three or four possible destinations: Monrovia, capital of Liberia. Yes, a rather nasty civil war had broken out there but according to the BBC, regional peacekeeping forces had secured the city and overall the country was tense but relatively calm. I sorted out a visa at the Liberian embassy much to the amusement of the staff there (“you’re the first British citizen to apply for a visa here this year!”) and a couple of days later I boarded my plane.
It was a propeller aircraft with about 20 seats and the cockpit had no door, so there was a nice view out the front. Naturally I was the only white guy of the seven passengers, the rest of whom just had to ask why I was going to Liberia. “You’re a tourist? Wow!” I won’t say that the plane ride was comfortable or quiet (those propellers make a hell of a racket) but it was the view of Monrovia as we descended that made me most uneasy. The wreckage of a crashed airliner lay on the edge of the airport site, there was a lot of smoke rising from various places nearby and people were calmly walking across the runway with their shopping on their head as we approached, seemingly unconcerned about being struck by a plane. I soon found out they had other things to worry about in their lives, and my subsequent journey overland to Cote D’Ivoire has enough material for a small book (or several blog posts) which I may well detail in the future. I made it through and had an amazing time, but that initial decision was a textbook example of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
Resisting robbery at knife point in Abidjan
Image (c) tabisite.com
If my experiences in Sierra Leone and Liberia were good for something (besides having fun stories to tell and material to fill articles on this website) then it would have to be that they really toughened me up and gave me some perspective. Having been arrested for being a suspected FBI spy in a jungle town in Liberia (the first British one, surely) and then being released and becoming drinking buddies/friends with my erstwhile captor who then let me drive to the border after several other adventures, I crossed into Cote D’Ivoire and woke up the sleeping guards who had never seen a white man come that way before.
I used the last of my cash to get a bus to the business capital of Abidjan which took 12 hours and I was thus somewhat the worse for wear when I arrived at the chaotic bus park at my destination. The plan was to find a cheap flophouse and then make use of Abidjan’s modern banking facilities to get some cash out on my debit card. Treicheville was the place for a no-star hotel so I duly made my way to the roughest part of the city. I was wandering down a busy street in the middle of the day with my rucksack weighing me down when a tyke who was all of 17 years old appeared before me.
Drawing a reasonably-sized knife from his belt and poking it in front of my face, he demanded that I hand over everything I had (not, admittedly, a great deal). At this point something clicked in my head – I’d had children half his age threaten me with AK47s a few days ago and had bullets whistle past me a few days before that; he’d simply have to do better. I looked him in the eyes and pushed him away from me with a strength that surprised us both, while telling him to do something physically impossible to himself using the best of my gutter French. I’m not sure which of us was most shocked but he did run away first.
I left Treichville and found a better place to stay in a safer part of town. Again, the outcome was in my favour, but this was undoubtedly a very silly thing to do.