It’s fun to blog about when travel goes well: Lovely sunsets and photos of luscious food and wine (perhaps combined into a wine-glass-with-sunset combo). Winding alleys and stairs that are uneven in the most picturesque of ways. Finding the most splendid pottery shop, and meeting a local artisan. Talking over a meal with friends for hours. Stumbling upon a postcard-perfect beach, all your own. Or just passing a relaxing hour in a foreign cafe, reading a book.
I’d better just stop, or I’m going to get carried away.
In addition to a learned skill and a certain amount of savvy, good travel experiences rely in part on luck. The unseen pickpocket passes you by. The bus doesn’t break down. The flight isn’t delayed. You don’t get food poisoning. Today, on my first run of 2014, I found myself thinking about the times when travel has gone “wrong.” Thankfully, this has rarely meant anything drastic. “Wrong” on one of my trips usually means wasted holiday time—a wild goose chase trying to find a site that sounded cool in the guidebook. An argument in the rental car about who failed to follow the GPS correctly. Buyer’s remorse over an overpriced meal. Sometimes bad travel can become, after a waiting period, humorous. Other times… not.
We begin with buses to nowhere. Roads to nowhere. GPS maps to nowhere.
On two different occasions in foreign countries we’ve ridden a public bus way too far. Once was on Santorini, Greece. Either the driver wasn’t calling the stops, or we didn’t understand the pronunciations and missed the one we wanted that was going to take us to a certain beach. We rode the bus all the way to the end of the line before realizing our mistake, and had to turn around and ride it all the way back. Impatience resulted.
On our recent Budapest trip, I’d been captivated by photos online and in a guidebook of Art Nouveau memorials at the Kozma Street (Jewish) Cemetery. Our B&B host didn’t seem to know what we were talking about when I expressed interest. The woman in a tourist info booth told us we could get to the cemetery via a 30-ish minute tram ride. Though it was our last afternoon and there weren’t many hours of daylight left, we hopped on the tram and rode it, for a long time, through some questionable-feeling suburbs (I tried to consider it instructive seeing a small piece of Hungary outside the city center). We hopped off at the end of the line near the New Public Cemetery, knowing Kozma Street was supposed to be adjacent to this. Confused by the busy road it seemed we had to walk down, we jumped on a bus to take us further (and got yelled at by the driver for not knowing we were only supposed to board at the front doors). (Luckily I don’t mind being yelled at as much when I can’t understand what’s being said.) From the bus we passed the cemetery—behind its walls, looking vast and absolutely closed and unwelcoming. Unlike the New Public Cemetery, it had no obvious point of entry, parking lot, information booth. (At least, not visible when we were there.) Daylight was fading and there didn’t seem much point or sense to disembarking and poking around for a way in. Frustrated at the waste of time (and not being able to see the monuments), we decided to get off at the next bus stop and turn around.
Only, the next bus stop wasn’t exactly around the bend. Just when I became concerned that the bus was getting on a highway and we’d never get back to Budapest, the bus came to a halt and we ran out the appropriate doors, to repeat our journey in reverse. On the up side, I think Tim took a nap.
We’ve been booted from a public bus taking us from Croatia into Montenegro, where after a lengthy stop at a roadside cafe, the driver simply announced that the bus wasn’t going any further, and that everyone should offload their baggage.
When we travel in non-urban areas we often rent a car, and we’ve gotten to know our GPS the way you might know a friend who gives you directions. When they start to seem suspect, it’s OK to question the technology. This, and having a backup map, can save you from such events as backing down a narrow, winding medieval street that dead-ended abruptly, while the GPS insults you and small-town cops watch eagerly for you to make a mistake and dent something.
Having better information and a map might have spared us a travel headache resulting when we could not figure out how to reach and park at an Italian beach we could literally see (mirage-like) from the car windows.
I asked Tim to reflect on “travel gone wrong” and thought he would groan about the time he had a terrible stomach flu on an Italian train, or the run-in with the Carabinieri when the rental moped broke down (I was not a part). Instead he talked about expectation management. Sometimes a guidebook or friend will talk something up like it’s the one thing on earth you must see before you die: a church, an art exhibit, the view from a certain point. You go there with anticipation, only to discover: the site doesn’t resonate with you, or there’s a construction project where the nice view is supposed to be, and you wonder why you put time into this expedition in the first place. Conversely, sometimes by following our noses and allowing the day’s plans to change, we stumble onto something that becomes one of our best memories.
Another area of bad travel involves luggage, packing, and clothing. Regardless of how much I travel, I seem consistently unable to pack light, and to pack “for the weather.” I am always the person who wishes they’d packed one layer warmer, or who didn’t throw in the rain jacket because the chance of rain was only 20%. I am the person wearing the same ill-fitting sweater in all the photos because I had to buy it at the local department store. My suitcase has only been lost once, and it was years ago when we flew to Greece. It was my first time in mainland Europe, and I was blown away by how effortlessly classy Mediterranean women seemed to be—while I spent the first days of our trip borrowing my boyfriend’s clothes. Whatever my travel accomplishments may be, I’m pretty sure effortless class is not among them.
But from 2013 I’ll count to my credit a long solo journey to southern Italy, and the absorption of a minimal amount of Italian. I’ll remember the delicious meals we’ve enjoyed abroad, most recently at Zeller Bistro in Budapest (I made my reservation via their Facebook page, and you should too… they were certainly full when we were there. As we sat at our table, a couple nearby were finishing their meal and asking the host if he could squeeze them in the following night—we thought this was a good sign). Last night in Delft we raised our glasses with friends from a variety of nations, over food we’d all prepared. To the journeys of the past year, and those of the coming one—proost!