The Accidental Tourist

Travel can be unpredictable, but a disaster can turn into a diamond – and a memory to treasure forever.

Whether it’s because of a forgotten passport, holiday illness or bizarre encounter with a local, the road less travelled does not always make for a smooth ride. 

A Slice of Hawaii 

It was more ‘Whoa’ than ‘Aloha’ for Glenn Wheeler 

The Hawaii Tourism Authority have invited me to sample all their islands have to offer. “Is this for real?” I wondered. But there was more. It was to be just me and four female journos spending five days ‘working’ on the fabulous Hawaiian island of Oahu. How could I say no? Henceforth, I became known as TB [the Token Bloke]. 

We were relaxing – sorry working – on the golden sands of Waikiki, with fresh tropical fruits, glorious blue skies and sunshine. It was late afternoon and I decided to go for a jog up to nearby Diamond Head - a dormant volcano and local landmark – ahead of a cocktail party we were attending that evening.

I’ll meet you girls in the foyer at 7pm, “I said as I set out at a cracking pace. The afternoon was balmy and perfect - ideal to watch the sunset from the headland. And when I got there I wasn’t alone, as locals and tourists alike gather around enjoying the last of the brilliant Hawaiian rays. 

A strapping young local was handing out his card which boasted ‘the best relaxation massage on the island’. “He’s outstanding,” said a young woman who observed me reading his card with interest. “Everyone around here knows him”. 

Recommendation enough I thought. So we struck a dead - for an hour-and-a-half - and transport to and from his studio, “My car is just over here,” he said as we walked towards an old Merc. It was then I began to question my decision. Driving off with a stranger to an unknown place? Should I be doing this? 

Casting all doubt from my mind, I got into his car. He locked the doors. And as we drove off, he reached down to the floor and picked up a machete. “I’ll just throw this in the back,” he said nonchalantly. “I stop and cut bananas and coconuts when I see them.” 

That’s when I really starting to doubt myself. We were heading for the hills and my pulse was racing. Who is this strange man? Why does he carry a machete? Where am I going with him? And what if the girls never find my body to send home to my wife and kids? It was now after 7pm and I was sure my travelling gal pals would be concerned for my welfare… as I was. 

My eyes were darting around the interior of his car seeking out any telltale signs that should make me open the door and roll out onto the road in a bid to escape. Was that blood on the car mat or just an innocent mud stain? I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor, unwitting victims who had no doubt fallen for this scam before me but who had never lived to tell the tale.

All the time my companion was chatting like we had known each other for years. But was he just trying to lure me into a false sense of security? Twenty minutes later we arrived at a quaint little house and, inside, I saw a massage table surrounded my framed certificates on the walls - all proof of his competency and professionalism. Relax, TB. 

This guy knew his stuff too. Ninety minutes later I felt fabulous - and arrived at the cocktail party late but incredibly relaxed. I never did find out the machete-wielding masseur’s name but I’ll definitely seek him out if I ever head back to Hawaii. 

Passport Panic 

It’s just as well David Whitley never made it to Madrid

It was meant to be a tour of Central Spain’s great cities. I’d arrange the hotels in Madrid and Salamanca, the trains between Toledo and Sagovia and the restaurants in Avila. The trip was a triumph of organisation - apart from the bit where I left my passport at home in London, where I was living at the time.

By the time I had stopped, whined and moaned my way back from the airport to the bedroom drawer where I’d left the magic book, the flight was long gone. There was no other way of getting to Madrid that day without shelling out the GDP of a small African nation. 

It’s amazing what anger at your own idiocy can spur you to do. The sensible thing would have been to sleep on it, get on another flight the next morning and reorganise the itinerary. Instead, I ended up in Prague.

After a quick internet search, I discovered that the Czech capital was the cheapest place I could fly to that night. And given that I was still furious with myself, I questioned neither logic nor logistics. 

I booked it without thinking, then rushed straight to the airport. With my passport this time.

That week ended up far less hectic than I thought it would - a completely different kind of trip. I feel in love.

After a day in Prague, I got on the train to Český Krumlov, a town that has been recommended by a tour guide I once met. It’s the most gorgeous city I’ve ever been to, wrapped in a loop of the Vltava River. Instantly smitten, I settled in for a week of mooching around the painted buildings, drinking the absurdly cheap beer and rafting down the river with a picnic basket. 

It retrospect, it was exactly the break I needed. I had been close to burnout from working long hours and the week-long rush around Spain wouldn’t have helped. 

It’s my favourite place in the world, and I’d have never discovered it if I’d packed my passport the first time. 

Fijian Fallout 

David Smiedt had to face newlyweds at loggerheads 

There are certain infallible truths that one learns when travelling - there is no such thing as a complimentary bathrobe, there are certain hotels so dodgy that they end up nicking your towels, and the more adjectives an establishment feel compelled to include in its name, the more wary the prospective traveller should be. Needless to say, the title of the Fijian resort in question not only featured more superlatives than you could throw a thesaurus at, but its brochure was a symphony of airbrushed perfection. Water the colour of eyeshadow favoured by drag queens enfolded talc-coloured sands. A couple were silhouetted hand-in-hand against a peach dusk. You could practically smell both the frangipanis and love in the air. 

My wife and I arrived on a boat from the mainland, to be greeted by half a dozen damp staff on the beach. They were singing a traditional Fijian welcome tune with all the enthusiasm of the Rolling Stones going through Satisfaction for the three millionth time. 

On board with us was a honeymooning American couple sporting shiny new rings and veneered smiles. He smoked incessantly and extolled the virtues of Richard Kiyosaki’s investment bestseller Rich Dad, Poor Dad. She told us of her expansive Disney DVD collection and the fact that she had sent her husband a gift of warm socks “just in case he got cold feet” the night before the wedding. 

By the next morning, two things has emerged and, unfortunately, neither was sun. the first was that we and the newlyweds were the only guests at the resort - which looked increasingly ramshackle as the sun rose. The second was that their relationship had turned as volatile as the weather forecast. Of the two couples in the otherwise deserted dining room, only one was seated at the same table. And it wasn’t them. 

Outside, it seemed the palm trees were engaged in a limbo competition as hotel staff hurried hither and yon carrying sheets of Gyprock to be hammered over windows in preparation for an approaching deluge. 

“Not a hurricane,: they reassured us. 

Amid a gathering storm - both metaphorical and otherwise - the groom from Ohio concocted a mini-bar melange in a water jug and trawled the island in a funk of booze a regret. 

For the entire two days of our stay, winds howled and squally showers pummelled the island. Not exactly a recipe for romance, right? Wrong. with nothing but one another for company, the holiday distilled the concept of quality time into a tangible reality. My wife and I talked like a couple who had just started dating yet with the added richness of a shared history. We discovered thing we hadn’t found out about one another despite our years together, and rediscovered much more besides. The familiar became new and the new became familiar. 

When the weather finally cleared, there was no sign of the honeymooners and it emerged that they had cut their holiday short and left. I think about them often and wonder if they are still together. Or, perhaps, like us after our Fijian holiday, even more together than ever. 

Love in the Middle of Cholera 

Jac Taylor battled much more than Delhi Belly 

It all started with a simple ice cube. Soon after arriving in the desert city of Jodhpur on our three-month Indian honeymoon, and before our obligatory camel safari, we decided to sample a local speciality - the traditional yoghurt-based drink lassi. It felt rather adventurous to be in a local joint, squeezed in between bright-eyed babies and bejewelled saris - right up until, on my third sip, I hit the ice. Ice made from Jodhpur’s own questionable water supply. I knew I was sunk.

One-and-a-half days later, it began and, just in case you are currently tucking into one of the airline’s fine culinary choices, I’ll keep it brief. Cholera is a strange beast. You are instantly reduced from a human being to a trembling wreck, weak as a newborn kitten. In my own experience, a great percentage of your body’s water content leaves like a greyhound from a race fate. From then on you can barely lift your head, let alone dress or even stand - and there is little that can help apart from rehydration on a massive scale. 

Our problem, though, was that our hotel was fully booked and needed us out - and hospital was not a serious option, being days away. Bundled into the back of a jeep, the memories are hazy at this point. I remember lying in the fetal position in the back of the vehicle in various, car parks, being the star of several local tourists’ photos, unable to sit up, while my healthier partner ran back and forth to various temples and palaces on ‘the schedule’, taking photos so I could see them later. 

Better than the back of the jeep were the kind but firm hands getting me onto the back of a camel, assisting me back up when I slid to one side, head lolling. After some discussion, I was seized again, back off the camel and loaded into a different jeep. Ignoring our attempts to keep to the schedule, our driver and his family has taken matters into their own hands, and my next coherent memory was waking up clear-headed, in a blessedly comfortable, cast-iron bed. 

Cream-coloured canvas flapping softly around me and I slowly realised that my new home was a beautifully appointed tent, complete with an orange sari laid out for me. 

Dressed and feeling better than I had in years, let alone days, I ventured out into the night air to find the most marvellous sight. Perhaps a hundred locals, clearly part of a few extended families, were set up in a massive tent city. With a crackling bonfire in the middle. 

My new husband came to greet me and explained that we were near the Pakistani border, away from civilisation and the schedule, but among friends. With an ever-present cup of fluid-replenishing electrolyte drink just about strapped to my hand and plenty of bottles of good, tourist-grade water, I started to recover and finally re-entered the land of the loving - charmed by the fact we had been spirited away through the kindness of strangers. 

And so it came to be that I was taken by the elbow by a stranger and coaxed towards the fire to join in the dance that had started up moments before. I’ll never known where the strength came from to move my weakened limbs, but we danced with our new-found friends all night until close to dawn, unable to speak a word of each other’s language, but finally celebrating our arrival in India. 

Beijing Benefactor 

A language barrier was almost Mark Dapin’s undoing 

The taxi driver who picked me up from my Beijing hotel spoke only a few words of English, but we were getting on pretty well, making friendly, tonal noises to each other. That is, until she tried to kidnap me. 

She was supposed to take me to the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution which, according to my guidebook map, was on the eastern side of Tiananmen Square, but she soared past the Square and onto the freeway, and there was nothing I could say to stop her [since the only thing I can say in Chinese is the breathtakingly useless, “Do you speak Chinese?”]. 

I only had RMB60 in my wallet - I thought it was going to be short trip - but at this point the taxi meter was already way over. There was no point in her trying to rip me off, since I didn’t have any more cash. I considered the ‘action-hero option’ of flinging open the door and rolling out onto the road, but decided on the coward’s way out. “Please,” I begged, flapping my money around, “stop the car and let me out.”

She kept on going until finally we pulled up outside the museum. She refused to take anything for the dare and, instead, gave me RMB100. Then she handed me her business card and said, “Hotel.” 

I had fallen victim to a little-known scam, in which a Chinese taxi driver takes you where you want to go, refuses payment, then fives you spending money. 

I look at my guidebook again - the map had placed the museum seven kilometres from its actual location. When I arrived back at my hotel, I tried to explain what had happened to the concierge. She rang the number on the business card, and my taxi driver told her she thought I must be a tourist who had forgotten his money. She knew where to find me, as she had picked me up from the hotel, so she trusted me with her money, rather than leave me at the museum, stranded and broke, asking Chinese people whether they spoke Chinese. I left RMB200 with the concierge for the driver of car B-L8462, the nicest taxi driver in Beijing, if not the world. 

American Dream 

A broken leg wasn’t going to stop Lucy Robertson 

I’m a planner. Why deny it? I’ve been writing meticulous to-do lists since kindergarten, and my year-long holiday through the US and South America was no different. I set out with a pack brimming with carefully counted malaria meds, photocopied air tickets and passport and high-tech thermal underwear for my first stop at the US ski fields of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The only thing I hadn’t planned for was a broken leg in the middle of week three.

Suddenly, there were no plans. There wasn’t even an orthopaedic surgeon within a 200-kilometre radius, let alone one who was willing to be paid in Imodium. 

Of course, my boyfriend seemed significantly less panicked as he packed bags of snow around my swollen leg in ski hut. “Drink more,” he suggested. “It will help with the pain.” I briefly wondered if I’d be sent home for feeding him to a bear. 

At the time, I didn’t realise my leg was broken. Staff at the resort’s clinic told me to see a physio - about as easy to find as an orthopaedic surgeon - or ride the exercise bike at the gym, which made my bones chick with every turn. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t last long. 

And so I found myself faced with an impossible daily mission - staying entertained in a place that has been built around something I could no longer do – ski.

I’d barley ventured further than the chairlift since we’d arrived. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered one of the world’s most fascinating natural wonderlands just 20 kilometres down the road. 

Yellowstone National Park suddenly became my personal winter playground. I was dragged through snow-piled tracks by a pack of huskies on a mushing adventure, I dodged bubbling sulphuric pools fed by the supervolcano that lies under the park, I snapped a thousand photos of steam-spouting geysers and burned my way through three sprawling American states on the back of a smowmobile. The park teemed with elk, bison, moose, bears, wolves and bald eagles. It bubbled with mysterious underground forces that science struggled to explain. And it was all deliciously dangerous, deserted and spectacularly unplanned. 

Here I was, deep within the park, having the time of my life. And I wasn’t even part of the plan. 

Words by Glenn Wheeler, David Whitley, David Smiedt, Jac Taylor, Mark Dapin, and Lucy Robertson - Published in Voyeur November 2008
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