Horrifying Personal Calamity: A Necessary Ingredient in All International Travel


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Climb on board! Each seat comes with a free serving of despair.

“But did you actually like India?” everyone seemed to ask.

It was a fair question. Every time I described India, I usually started with my first impression of the country. The long, circuitous route from the airport into central Delhi, the roadway thick with vehicles diverse in wheels and dimensions, the cow burrowing her head into the flaming pile of garbage while rummaging for some nosh. I relished the grim, gritty details, the number of times I stepped in feces of indeterminate origin, exactly how many times I contracted scientifically-innovative new strains of diarrhea, the many and various attempts to grift me of all of my money and earthly possessions.

The crowning glory in every string of India anecdotes was our journey to Jaipur. The sojourn was a 17-hour ride crammed haphazardly into glass capsules in a rattling deathtrap manned by a driver with an itchy brake-foot. At the terminus of our jaunt was a series of hysterical mishaps involving alleys crawling with braying goats and half-naked children, each of them screaming at us. We climbed into four different rickshaws, each which was trying to rip us for our dwindling supply of rupees, and as we climbed into the last we were sure we knew the face of madness.

I, in fact, really liked India.

But the length of time it takes to say, “The Taj Mahal sure is pretty” is not quite so long. Certainly not as long as a detailed description of the five hours we stood on a dusky train platform waiting for our delayed chariot, or the various riff-raff we shook loose from our beds when we finally boarded.  I can generate dozens of new similes for those few meals that destroyed my insides compared to the few positive adjectives I have for the numerous meals which I processed normally.

The best stories to tell and to hear are those that involve some degree of horror and calamity. They invite embellishment and flair, they require emphasis and expression. To tell a good story about all the easy times while travelling requires a slide show and a peaceful, anaesthetized grin. Regaling an audience with a travel horror story requires a thrill for the telling, an eye for detail, and skill with the dramatic.

This is not to say that people do not want to hear about the good times, that they don’t want to see the pictures or imagine the food. People enjoy hearing about the scent of saffron and sandalwood, about the texture of the sand on the beaches, about the glory of the sun rising behind the ancient such-and-such. You can take down notes, record the best places to find the magical dish swimming in that unearthly sauce that certainly contained the tears of Jesus, write down the directions to that thing with the stairs and the awe-inspiring view of the everything.

But a perfectly happy time spent in a luxury resort has no up-and-down. An endless buffet of foods served in hollowed-out pineapples and coconuts provides no thrill. If it’s all mountains and temples and the majestic beauty of this wacky amazing planet we live on, the story eventually grows tedious. There’s no rise and fall. There’s no adventure to the adventure.

The hero’s journey requires a jaunt to the underworld, it needs its call and it needs its tasks. Where there is tumult and hardship and difficulty, there is a story. Where there are hurdles to overcome, there’s a stalwart hurdler leaping over them, looking impressive all the way. A roller coaster doesn’t ride a long, flat track.

All of this is just as true for the teller as the listener. There’s no story quite so exciting to tell as the one where you endured unthinkable horrors from beyond our realm of space-time and came through the journey scarred but alive. You have survived, you are here to regale, so you must have overcome the obstacles. But how, mysterious wanderer, and with what magical tools?

A person describing their fabulous time hiking and snorkelling sounds like a human having a very nice time after an expensive flight in a jet-fuelled tube of metal. A person describing defeating hordes of fiends at the airport check-in, or doing battle with intestinal parasites, or barely escaping injury or death in cars and on cliffsides and at market stampedes sounds like an adventurer. They sound like someone you want to buy a drink and listen to for a while.

A travel horror story gives contrast, it gives levity. It raises stakes and hilarity, and makes the days in the sunshine sipping margaritas out of a gold-encrusted clamshell seem earned.

The horrors can be diverse and various in severity. A serious encounter with turbulence, an immigration officer drunk with power and hatred for all of mankind, or a quick, surly mugging. Stomach bugs and absurdly long lines to see overcrowded attractions. Heat stroke. Vehicular breakdowns. Blisters and cuts and trudges through boggy pits of brown water.

In the moment itself these events can seem unbearable—far from home and the familiar, you are trapped or ill or holding on for dear life. Your warm bed, your safe food and water, your car and your house and your mom are all far away, and it is only you and the elements. But given enough time, given enough distance, they take on the air of adventure. They become something worthy of the telling. They become a travel horror story, one of the best souvenirs you can bring home from your time on the road.

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29 thoughts on “Horrifying Personal Calamity: A Necessary Ingredient in All International Travel

  1. Great post! If you go somewhere and see something nice and it all goes smoothly, well, wheres the story in that right? Every good travel tale needs a few obstacles in the way, a few problems encountered, or a nightmare bus ride! great stuff!

  2. Love this 😉 I always enjoy a good horror story! It’s part of what makes travelling or living in a foreign country interesting – anyone can read a travel guide.

  3. So true! I guess I never thought of it in this way, about how a perfectly ‘happy’ time takes the adventure out of adventure. Indeed, to me the best stories always include suffering because it is suffering that build character. I hadn’t realized that it could apply to travel as well. Eloquently written as always.

  4. This is very, very funny! I just wrote about a similar adventure on my own blog, which right now is about my road trip through Mexico in an ’89 Toyota pickup.

    I’ve always wanted to go to India, but I’m just not sure I’m up for the horrors, particularly all the digestive horrors one has to endure. I’m pretty skinny, and I worry that enough bouts of whatever would kill me.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
    Where every step down the street is a visual banquet of color.

  5. It’s sad but true that mishaps and mistakes and scary events make a trip more exciting and real. Living in a foreign country provides all of the above. I don’t believe, however, that I could take the intestinal challenges of India that could, literally, kill me. Your description of the country is remarkable. Thank you for this eloquently presented journey.

    • Haha, again, I worry that I make India sound unbearable, when really I loved the time I spent there. Although it gave me some of the worst, most uncomfortable experiences of my life, it also gave me some of the best.

  6. Not sure how I’d feel about trudging through pools of brown water, but I do have great travel stories that arose from missed trains, struggles with immigration officers, and getting horribly lost on the way to the Coliseum! I think good travel should be a balance between the predictable and the unknown.

    • Of course! Not everyone’s personal calamity-cum-cutesy story is acceptable for everyone. Some people’s horror stories sound completely unacceptable to me, and would be right at the point of me pulling the parachute and fleeing a country.

  7. Pingback: Bits of May: How To Look Smart And Alienate People | Journeys of the Fabulist

  8. “Good story for the blog” is what I always comfort myself with as I’m standing in another border queue watching some power-crazed loony chew up the person in front of me or looking out of the truck window at the thigh-high mud we have to traverse. I also have a great story about the time my brother and I accompanied my Mom round Rajasthan for her 65th birthday, that involves a trip to Udaipur on a night-bus (thankfully with curtained, if narrow, sleeping compartments), the dodgy meal she had before embarking and a handy tupperware lunch box, but she’d be embarrassed if I shared. Thanks for your sharing.

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