“Nice,” is hardly a thrilling answer. “Lovely,” sounds equally soporific. Because while ‘lovely’ and ‘nice’ holidays may have been pleasant experiences, they hardly ever become memorable or life changing ones. Sometimes, it’s the lousy, morally questionable and emotionally destructive moments that really stay with you. And possibly even change you. And if nothing, at least leave you with great dinner conversation. Soup asked four seasoned travellers to share their worst holiday experiences with us. Ones they look back now and laugh at, if only with a mild shudder.
"Abandoned in the Amazon," Sandeep Madhavan
Fifteen days into a planned month and a half trip of Brazil, things had never felt better. I had just gotten into Jericoacoara on the north east coast, a sandy windswept revelation shimmering with sand dunes and kite surfers. The days were marked by four wheel drive adventures into the desert of dunes behind the village, and the nights were awash with buckets of caipirinha .
The first warning sign that things were about to unravel was a zit on my face that started to take on a life of its own.
“Heat boil, man’, I shrugged when my fellow road warrior Ayappa enquired about the growing monstrosity on my face.
Or so I thought. Since mirrors do not feature highly on a backpacker’s to-pack list, I soldiered on in the faint hope that it would disappear by the time I embarked on a trip down the Amazon.
Fortaleza and Belem are but a blur now, since sleep consumed most of those journeys, hat covering my face as I wondered why the damn paracetamol wasn’t working.
It was in Manaus Airport, waiting for my baggage to come off the conveyor belt that I saw what had become of my face in the interim. Please refer : The Thing from The Fantastic Four.
A panicky rush in a cab later, we were at the Institute of Tropical Science and Medicine, a dour looking government building, smack right in the heart of Manaus.
Remember, it was only fifteen days in, and I still had to master the intricacies of the Portuguese language, so it took me a while to communicate with the doctors there about what exactly ailed me, apart from pointing to my face and acting like I was dying, which in all fairness, was the truth.
The only doctor who spoke any English was a Peruvian, so I was bundled into his room. His English was as good a state in as was my Portuguese, so we used Google Translate on his mobile phone to try and understand each other. In walked an intern, and they made me take my shirt off to come to a deduction. A few moments later, the results were announced, “Varicella”, said the good doctor.
Chicken Pox, said Google Translate
“Chicken Pox? Seriously?,” said semi-delirious me
“You contract it when you are close with children.”
“No, no, can’t be, I’m not that kind of guy!” said severely embarrassed, one-step-closer-to-death Sandeep.
I was then transferred into the OPD, and that’s when I realised that I was the least worst off in a city that is in the heart of the largest tropical rainforest in the world. Across and around me, were the signs that the war on disease is as close to victory as it was thousands of years ago.
But this being Brazil, each frighteningly incapacitated invalid used the opportunity to take pot-shots at his nearest seat occupier.
“Did a pig get stuck in your throat?”, shouted Elephant-Legged Man in the direction of Super-Swollen Thyroid Man.
Even the nurses and doctors passing through contributed their two cents, laughing away the gloom that surrounds a room filled with people whose bodies were unable to cope with the pressures of living this close to the mighty Amazon.
Pumped full of retro viral drugs and having giggled away the sorrow of having a vacation ruined, I felt good enough to get out of the hospital. And standing in the lobby was Ayappa, who loped gingerly towards me.
“So what’s it?”
“Yeah man, seems like I’ve never had it as a kid.”
“Yeah, I’ve had it when I was little. So, is it contagious?”
“No man, don’t think so, but yeah, let’s ask the doc.”
For my luck, the doc was outside smoking a cigarette.
“Possibly” said my South American Saviour.
“See you in Rio”, said my Fair-weather Friend.
And so that is how I managed to shut myself in a hotel room for two weeks in Manaus, shivering off a terrible sickness, losing almost a quarter of my body weight, sleeping through days and nights, punctuated by music that played in the lousy nightclubs of Fortaleza.
Day 1: “She’s got the moves like Jagger, ooo ooo ooo ooooh”
Day 4: “Just gonna stand here and watch me burn”
Day 5: “For all we know, we might not get tomorrow”
Day 14: Quem você ama mais? mim ou minha mãe ?
That’s from the tele novelas I had to watch because there wasn’t anything else on television. In hindsight, that’s the reason I throw down a few choice curse words in Portuguese when those unsettling Maroon 5 and Rihanna songs come bursting through the radio.
"Jungle Boy," Sanju Ayappa
It was May 2006 in Brazil. Having been rendered solo tripper by my buddy Sandeep who had the good fortune of contracting chicken pox, I left Manaus for my long awaited adventure- The Mighty Amazon. I took a ride on a huge creaky boat and was finally deposited into the border of the Amazon jungle. From there, another boat ride through lush forest took me to the Ararinha Jungle Lodge. Tired after my journey, I decided to turn in early.
The next morning, my plans of self-actualization in the midst of the Brazilian rain forest were crushed by the arrival of 2 groups of people who I wish never to meet again. One of them was a 50 strong group of American sophomores. They sounded like an approaching army of Orcs. They had this impenetrable wall of sound around them as they loudly verbalized their unique insights into the Amazon:
“Oh this place is so beautiful.”
“There are so many trees.”
“These trees are so wild.”
Close on their heels was a small contingent of clueless members from the Bangladesh Tourism Ministry. They had come to study how Brazil copes with flooding from the Rio Negro River. Although they seemed like they’d rather be on a cruise.
Spending a few minutes with these privileged dregs of humanity was enough to make me hasten my plans to go into the heart of the jungle. And so the next morning, I set out at 5am on a small boat. For company I had a middle-aged Dutch lady and a silent but knowledgeable boatman named Tukaan. But most daring and impressive was our guide- a stocky ex-bodyguard turned nature scout. After a firm handshake, he revealed his name.
Me: Hi I’m Ayappa. What’s your name?
Him: Jungle Boy.
Me: Ha ha. So what’s you name?
Him: Jungle Boy. Let’s go!
The boat ride was picturesque as long we stayed on the main waterways. But the moment we entered the more vegetated and treacherous parts of the river, we ran into trouble. The rotor of the boat would get entangled in the grass and the boat would stop moving. Jungle Boy would pull out a sickle and pass it to me and with his supervision, I'd lean over and dice off the blades of grass from the rotor, feeling very important. But not as important as Jungle Boy who was standing in front of the boat (shirtless) chopping wayward branches that dared cross his path.
Many hours later, Tukaan finally stopped the boat. We had reached our destination, a small clearing amidst thick forest, close to the riverbank
It was late evening, as I took in the sights and sounds I could hear Jungle Boy and Tukaan chopping things up. They returned with branches and two tree trunks. Jungle Boy then expertly dug holes in the soil into which he inserted the trunks. He proceeded with great dexterity to build a base with the branches above, after which he tied up hammocks for us to sleep in, 15 feet off the ground. He then tied a mosquito net around us and over that made a leafy canopy. “For falling spiders” he added trying to lighten the mood.
Jungle boy had ensured that going to sleep wasn’t going to be easy. He would complement every distant grunt or roar with a whispered, ‘Jaguar’ or ‘Capybara,’ like he was trying to win a quiz contest. Eventually though, we fell asleep.
At around 2pm I woke up quite suddenly. Something didn’t feel right. I felt like I was floating. I just about managed to sit up awkwardly in my hammock when I heard a long creak from the tree. The so far brave Dutch woman shrieked…Jungle boy’s carefully orchestrated castle in the sky was coming apart, slowly moving to one side, almost in slow motion. Suddenly the tree trunk snapped, and all of us went hurtling down. Our 15 foot midnight fall was broken by the hammock and the leafy base. Everyone was in pain but no one hurt.
Jungle Boy, rudely awakened from his sleep was a mixture of confusion and anger. He sprang up and looked around as though tribals had come in the dark of the night and sabotaged his architectural marvel. Tukaan and Jungle Boy exchanged words, and eventually both retreated into the forest with their torches. Again furious chopping sounds were heard as they returned with tree stumps and branches and started building again.
For the next one hour, me and the Dutch lady stood there shivering in fear of running into ‘Jaguar’ or ‘Capybara’ while getting ravaged by Amazonian mosquitoes (thrice the size of the Hill Road mosquito). After 45 of the worst minutes of my life, the mosquito buffet finally ended. Tree house 2.0 was ready. Everyone quietly climbed in and went to bed.
The next morning we woke up at 6am. This time Jungle Boy, the Catcher of Caymans and Penetrator of Piranhas, was more philosophical. His legend had now become a children’s fable. Still leading the pack, he rubbed his elbow, turned to me and said, “My name is Kendrick”.
"The Great Stall," Ryan Hupfer
While staying in Beijing I took a trip to the Great Wall by myself with really no idea of what I was getting into. After walking for a few hours along the touristy part of the wall with an older Chinese man I met on the walk there (I ditched the shuttle), he spoke his only English to me while shaking my hand and smiling — “I go home now.”
Once he left, it was time for me to see the legit Great Wall that most tourists don’t experience. For the next two hours I hiked over and through all of the exciting obstacles it had to offer, but it was starting to get dark and I had no clue where I was. Around this time I ran into the only other humans I saw since leaving the tourists behind, a nice Belgian couple who were walking the other way. After telling them I was too far to get back before sunset, they suggested I keep walking for another hour or so and stay in a village for the night. It sounded good and at that point I didn’t need much convincing, so off I went.
I eventually ran into an old woman who I paid to use her homemade, wooden ladders to get off of the wall (it’s the only way down) and made my way to some village that I had no idea how to find. As the sun crept lower and weather got colder, I eventually did, but there was no one there — just a few empty houses. I wandered around trying to find any sign of life and finally heard what sounded like hammering. I followed the noise to a home up on a hill and found a family doing construction work there. Running into a random white dude looking for a place to crash didn’t seem to be part of their plan that night, which was evident by the confusion on all their faces.
I spent the next several minutes doing my best to communicate I needed a place to sleep by holding my hands together like I was praying and pressing them on one side of my face while closing my eyes. I did this several times and even though I knew they couldn’t understand me I kept repeating “I...need…to sleep…here…” over and over. They laughed at first, then ignored me as I stood awkwardly outside their house hoping something would happen. I’d almost given up when thirty minutes later an older man showed up out of nowhere and motioned for me to follow him. I didn’t have a whole lot of options at that point, so I waved goodbye to the family and walked behind him to wherever he was going to take me.
He eventually led me to what seemed to be his house with rooms for rent behind it. It took me a while to figure out what was happening but I figured where I was going to sleep, how much it would cost, and that his wife was going to make me dinner. I was exhausted and super hungry from the full day of exploring everything the Great Wall had to offer, but I also needed to figure out how to get back to Beijing from wherever the hell I was.
Figuring this out once again proved to be a challenge, but after drawing clocks and buses and other things on a piece of paper while handing it back and forth with the wife, I figured out that there was only one bus at 6am and apparently it would take me to wherever I needed to go. When I asked specifically where the bus would pick me up, the wife pointed casually towards the door, but I didn’t really know that what meant.
After I was done eating, the wife tapped my shoulder and waved me her way. I gathered that she wanted to show me the bus stop. As we walked next to each other from one village to the next the only interaction we had was her gesturing to me that I was tall, me shaking my head yes, and both of us laughing for a few seconds.
Thirty minutes later, without any warning she stopped and pointed to the side of the street and said “bus”. I looked at her and asked, “bus?” and she quickly shook her head in agreement while saying “bus” one more time. After that we turned around and walked in silence for the thirty minute trip back to the house where I wrapped myself in as many blankets as I could find and called it a night.
The next morning I woke up to nearly freezing weather while wearing just a pair of shorts and a thin hoodie since I wasn't prepared for my unexpected adventure. I could see my breath while quickly shuffling to where a bus would apparently be arriving in Wherever-I-Was, China at 6am. After finding the spot she had pointed to I stood there, trembling, and trying to stay warm by hopping up and down and walking around in circles. I was all alone, fighting the internal dialogue telling me that there’s no possible way a bus was going to show up.
I was beginning to give up, when I spotted three figures in the distance walking towards me. As they drew closer I saw three people all layered up in thick hats and coats and a look of total disbelief on their faces. No one out there expects to find a very tall white man shivering in a green hoodie at their bus stop, I imagine. But seeing people renewed my faith in the fact that a bus was indeed coming. Thankfully, a lot of after 6 AM and plenty of jokes about my height later, the bus finally arrived. It took me three more buses and a lot of helpful strangers to finally find my way back to the hostel, four hours later.
"An immodest rescue operation," Rachel
To get away for the summer our parents took us on a long trip to Israel, where they tag teamed it with us, their 4 very New Yorker children. But 'holidays' can be very different with my mom. As the epitome of grit and resilience, she has very little consideration for frivolous things like comfort or food. For instance, if there's a hike in the 104 degree heat in the middle of the day with very little water – we would have to do it.
That's how the day started. As four young tots with our mom and nanny, schedules were not our thing. But we were excited because a hike sounded exotic.
"Bring your swimsuits," we were told. "We are hiking to a pool of natural water," our mom encouraged us as she marched along three steps ahead of us wearing her baseball cap.
But very soon, the morning became the early afternoon and the hike that would have been delightful during sunrise became a trudge through the sandy dry part of north Israel in melting mid-day heat.
We lagged behind the entire journey, struggling to make it through with our undeniably gorgeous, blond-haired, blue-eyed nanny. She was completely out of place in the Middle East, and got lots of attention anywhere. For our journey to the presumed 'pools,' she was wearing a sundress and small bikini, the type you'd wear for pool parties at mansions in Europe. Incidentally this is is exactly what she had done. She had previously only dated models and art collectors, building owners and diplomats. Point being, she was pretty hot.
As the walk became longer and hotter with no one else in sight, we started the "how much longer?" spiral that kids are great at winding down. Not surprisingly, our water soon dissipated. Our nanny had taken off her sundress by now and was hiking in nothing but her perky bikini, making an unusually gorgeous sight in the midst of this barren desert.
We were now getting desperate for water but there wasn't a soul in sight to ask. It soon became obvious that we were in a completely uninhabited stretch of desert land and no one was here with good reason. With the rapidly decreasing morale, we decided that it was enough of a nature adventure for one day. So we turned back to get back home. But without water, my mom and nanny were now worried that we wouldn't make it.
An hour of pointless walking later, we finally heard something rumbling in the distance. It seemed as if a dilapidated old truck was making its way toward us! Civilization! We jumped up and down excitedly trying to wave the truck down. This meant that we could finally drink water.
Thankfully, our New Yorker cab-hailing skills helped, and the truck did stop. We looked inside the over-populated to find a whole bunch of eyes staring at us in disbelief. The eyes were attached to bodies clothed in long sleeves and head scarves. We had just waved down a truck full of conservatively dressed Arabs. Not the best place for a sexy, blond, bikinied nanny.
But the will to survive often transcends social conditioning. And our nanny, being fearless (and thirsty as hell) got right in the middle of the truck and asked them for water. We were nervous, because this isn't the best situation in a country that doesn't take kindly to skimpy clothing. A lot of yelling started as soon as my nanny asked for water. People were really staring at her now. By all standards this was the kind of anti-climatic moment that determines the end of an Oscar winning, 'human drama.' Just when we thought all hope was lost, the inherent goodness of people came through; we were graciously gifted a bottle of water. And along with it, an invitation to ride with them to the pools. We thanked them for saving our lives and decided to just get home instead. It had been a long day.
Illustrated by Sheena Deviah
Contributors; Sandeep Madhavan, Sanju Ayappa, Ryan Hupfer and Rachel.