January 15, 2012
It’s been said that I’m bad luck as a travelling companion. In my defence, I’ve rarely had any problems when travelling alone, although this post will mostly be about the single major exception to that claim.
I’ve started by making a list of the main mishaps I can think of that have occurred while travelling in the safety of a group:
1. Interrailing robbery #1 – 1987. In my second undergraduate summer vacation I toured Europe with two friends from Mauritius, Yusuf and Sadek. I’ve always loved train travel and spending many nights speeding across France, Italy and Spain with no hotel costs was brilliantly convenient and fun. Unfortunately the local thieves had caught onto this and there was an epidemic of robbery from sleeping students that year. My camera and a few other bits and pieces were nabbed in the night en route to Nice, so I can’t share any pictures from the trip. I can clearly remember the policeman: “que’st-ce que la marque de la camera?” Some poor sod was even fined for pulling the emergency cord.
2. Interrailing robbery #2 – 1987. That was just bad luck, but it was arguably quite careless to allow the same thing to happen again two days later. I can’t remember what was stolen but it was while travelling overnight into Rome.
3. Interrailing robbery #3 – 1987. And then, later the same day, waiting in a tourist information office to book a hotel, the bag containing my dwindling collection of valuables was stolen from right between Yusuf’s feet. My passport was gone, so this caused several days delay, but the saddest thing was that lost with the bag was also the police report from the previous robbery. It took me quite a few years to recover my goodwill towards Italy and Italians!
In retrospect the most astonishing thing about that trip was that we travelled by train to Athens and back. I recall that with Interrail you could pay extra to go by boat from Brindisi, but instead we went overland right through Yugoslavia. It’s strange to think that this was before the Yugoslav wars. We spoke to people in broken German; I don’t believe that’s necessary any longer.
4. Driving into a brick, USA – 1993. In the dark, on the way out of Yosemite. Wrecked the automatic transition and had to get a new car. A minor obstacle really.
5. Bubonic plague outbreak, India – 1994. This didn’t directly affect my group, except that the railways in Gujurat seemed even more full than usual with people despetately trying to flee the affected areas. We decided it was best to just get on with the trip and hope for the best. Worst affected were probably those back home hearing all about the spreading plague on TV. To be honest, I doubted the veracity of my memory on this, but it is confirmed here.
6. Dysentry in Nepal – 1994. Unfortunately I didn’t escape the effects of this one. I quite enjoyed being the subject of tropical disease quarantine procedures back home and having to ask around the office if anyone was pregnant or otherwise at high risk.
7. Street robbery in Peru – 1995. I was the victim of a classic push & shove & snatch type robbery in the beautiful city of Ayacucho. The highland route from Lima to Cuzco had only recently opened up to tourists following years of violent threat from the Maoist Sendero Luminoso, and so it was a pretty risky area. Plus it felt a punishment of sorts for eating guinea pig the previous evening. I lost my second passport in this incident (the one that had been issued at the Consulate in Rome).
8. Taxi robbery in Venezuela – 1998. This was really spectacularly bad and stupid. My only justification in retrospect is that it was at the end of a three week trip and I was very much softened to the friendly Venezuelans. Nevertheless, accepting cups of coffee from a taxi driver in Caracas was a classic mistake. He drove round and round until my friend Jeremy and I were nicely dozy and then politely invited us to get out. And drove off with all the luggage. I half-remember surreal hours wandering around Caracas getting strange looks from locals, at one point buying and then quickly dropping an ice cream. No lasting damage (I think!), and of everything that was the lost what stood out most as irreplacable was my Venezuela Monopoly set. It featured Casualidad and Arca Comunal cards and I hope our taxi driver was caught out by a swift Váyase a la Cárcel!
I’ve been inspired to write about this today for two reasons. Firstly, I’ve just read Julian Barnes’ book The Sense of an Ending. I found it really quite unpleasant. I tend to empathise strongly with characters in well-written books and often notice myself invaded by their emotional preoccupations and speaking with aspects of their voice (points to another possible blogpost). Well, I’ve rarely found a narrator more unpleasant company than the unreliable hero of The Sense of an Ending, and I hope I can forget him swiftly. But the point is that the book revolves around documents from the past resurfacing which radically challenge the first hand memory of events.
I’m old enough now to have a few documents that could potentially do that, and as I was reading my thoughts turned to one in particular. I travelled the world for about 18 months in 1995-96 and, very unusually for me, I kept a diary every day, in a notebook covered with frogs. I tracked it down today and have been checking my memories of people, places and events, such as the Ayacucho robbery mentioned above.
The second reason for writing this today is the news of yesterday’s sinking of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy.
So I’d like to share some choice excerpts from my travel diary written during the week or so I was touring the Galápagos Islands, which could reasonably have been expected to be one of the highlights of the whole trip. Interspersed are a few scanned pictures from that trip, taken with a quite basic camera that I conclusively dropped into the ocean a few months later while stretching for a special shot on Bora Bora.
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5th July 1995 – “To my great relief I have not been completely ripped off: a boat actually does exist. In addition to a Spanish-speaking guide there is a Fleming who looks like Siegfried.” … “The Lumabeda is currently moored, taking on water, beneath a brilliantly-illuminated alien sky.”
6th July 1995– “Last night the boat ran aground on submerged sand at about 9pm. We all took to the lifeboat which proceeded to try to pull the boat free for two hours. We boarded a nearby boat for coffee and humour and watched ours gradually fall over as the tide lowered until it was completely horizontal, which left the Dutch lady artist weeping for the destruction of her drawing book in the inundation which appeared inevitable” … “But the ship was successfully unwrecked and cleaned up remarkably well.”
7th July 1995 – “Still rather stunned and newly bonded passengers attempted to continue with naturalistic pursuits. I fall sick and narrowly avoid vomiting on a hill walk.” … “We sail all evening to Puerto Ayora; dolphins circle the boat en route.”
8th July 1995 – “One of the Germans is injured boarding the boat due to it being dangerous. It is a boat which seems to encourage people to fall down staircases or into the sea. Today, in fact, my third hat does just that.” … “I have been unable to eat for two days because of illness compounded by seasickness compounded by terrible food. Play Monopoly.”
9th July 1995 – “Awaken mid-ocean to a depressing silence and seasickness all round. The engine has broken down terminally. The situation inspires the cook to new horrors, which fall on the floor due to the sway” … “A fishing boat arrives at 3pm to tug us to San Cristóbal.” … “By 1am we are in sight of port but the boat is lurching and taking on water again. Flares are lit, but we succeed in limping to port with the aid of a water pump.” … “The hotel appears to be owned by an appalling disgusting character who also owns the Lumabeda and probably other crimes.”
10th July 1995 – “We take a day trip on a small boat and much argument breaks out, principally the German and Swiss males against Fate. They have long zoom lenses and strange motorists’ goggles.” … “Española Island tomorrow. Wine and appalling cake.”
11th July 1995 – “We sail at 6:30 but after 30 minutes the boat begins to take on water, and we turn back with six of us in the lifeboat and the remaining passengers and crew still in the boat removing water by bucket. Disconcerting.” … “Dinghies arrive from a naval base and rescue the other people. Minutes afterwards, we watch the Rábida sink. We return to the Hotel Chatham for another day of recriminations and negotiations. The survivors of the wreck are the centre of attention.”
12th July 1995 – “Third attempt to reach Española is successful. I am transferred to the good ship Seaman which appears to be from a different world and proves that none of the discomforts and incompetences of the week were remotely universal in Galápagos.”
13th July 1995– “I succeed in playing an almost complete game of Monopoly since no-one is seasick on this boat and the pieces do not fall all over the floor.”
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Well, my memory of the events was just about perfect. But I’m fascinated by how much my voice has changed. There is such a mischievous energy, and also so much mockery and judgement.
These events are all long in the past. I do love travel. And I intend to return to the Galápagos Islands someday.