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When Game of Throne’s Tyrion posed the question ‘who has a better story than Bran?’, the world took to social media to express their disdain. Arguably, any of the characters on the show do.
But Tyrion did make a valid point. When I look back at the years I traveled, more often than not, the most vivid memories and the ones that evoke the most emotion involve people and situations.
While I sat in Heathrow airport in 2016, awaiting to board a flight to Seoul, little could my woefully naïve mind even comprehend what lay in wait for me. After all, I’d spent nearly all of my life in the UK. The UK is a developed country, where law and order run the show. We have democracy, a stable economy, and some of the tamest weather on Earth.
When you travel for extended periods, things, more often than not, don’t go quite to plan. Sometimes, they go massively wrong. At the pace I was traveling, and in the places I was visiting, it was inevitable that problems would arise.
But this, through many people’s eyes, is why we travel. Being out of our comfort zone forces us to learn. It helps us to grow and deal with difficult situations. It gives us perspective and helps us appreciate the comforts we take for granted. At the end of it, I believe you come out a far more enlightened and open-minded person.
Before I left the UK, many people asked me if I was going to document the experience. There’s no shortage of inspiration online of those who share their travel stories and knowledge with the world, be it through writing, photography, video, social media, books, art; the list is infinite.
And those questions from friends and family planted the seed for what would go on to become Travel Problems.
At the time, I was drawing webcomics under the name The Daley Doodle. When I first arrived at my hotel in Jeju, I’d already had to deal with a missed connection, chopsticks, and a taxi driver that spoke zero English.
Already, I’d had my first struggles on the road, which was the first thing I spoke about, and laughed about, with my roommate.
So, from then on, I decided to draw webcomics about a Westerner’s naivetes in foreign lands. Little did I know those ‘spare time’ doodles would go on to be enjoyed by an Instagram audience of 11k+ and released as part of a three-book comic series, available via Amazon.
Very few people talk about the negative side of traveling. You almost feel guilty in doing so. You’re on the other side of the world, living ‘the dream,’ while your friends are back home, scrolling through your feeds and liking your pictures. To do so, would appear incredibly ungrateful and selfish.
But the astronomical influence of social media, particularly on the millennial generation, who make up the largest percentile of digital nomads, has created a false perception of travel. In the race for likes, follows, and influence, exotic locations and bucket-list experiences give you a considerable edge when it comes to selling a desirable life online.
A nomadic lifestyle, like anything else in life, has its high points, but also its lows and challenges. Behind the doctored images, there are thousands of people dealing with those challenges, particularly around mental health. Yet the influencer industry demands the façade stay intact so that the monetization can continue.
This is why I love Travel Problems. When I posted those funny drawings online, I often received a hugely positive response to them, particularly from those who could relate to the moments of madness.
The challenges of travel should be celebrated, not hidden behind glossy photos. For this reason, I want to share some of my most memorable funny travel stories with you.
Animal stories always draw big laughs and mortified expressions, no matter who’s telling them. I’ve seen a rat the size of a small dog scuttle across the kitchen floor when I came home drunk and turned the light on in Thailand. Doina witnessed an elephant’s, hmm, how shall we say, ‘third trunk,’ come between a newlywed couple at a sanctuary. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I forget to lather up in bug spray, and stepped out into the humidity a lamb to the slaughter.
But one animal, or reptile, seems to take center-stage in the vast majority’s most hilarious and eye-watering encounters: snakes.
Bali, Ubud, is where I got a little too close for comfort more than once. The first was in a hotel pool, where a jet-black snake made its way into the water. Luckily, one of our group spotted it from afar. We swam away, as though Jaws was gnashing at our feet, and hauled ourselves out of the water. We called over the hotel staff, who told us not to panic and returned moments later with a large net attached to a long pole.
‘Is it poisonous?’ asked one of our group. ‘No, it’s not poisonous,’ one of them replied, clearly lying as the poor staff frantically tried to scoop the snake from the water. The looks of concern on their faces said it all.
The second time, again in Bali eighteen months later, Doina and I were staying in a cozy two-story apartment. As I descended the stairs, my body froze as I watched a small snake slither its way beneath one of her shoes on the landing. Thankfully, I was able to tell her to stay upstairs, dart past to the front door, and let the hotel reception know.
This time, it was a long-handled dustpan and brush, and once again ‘it wasn’t poisonous.’ The guy said it with more conviction this time, so I’m leaning more toward believing him. But I shudder at the thought of what may have happened if I hadn’t seen it, and Doina had unwilling gone downstairs to put her shoe on…
To Lima, and our first week of eight in Peru’s capital. At the time, I was leading a group of thirty-five remote workers. A matter of hours in, and already the noise of the traffic was relentlessly clawing away at the number of hours of sleep I could get every night.
It was a Wednesday, and we received a text from one of our group. They had been at a cooking class with a local Peruvian, who had warned them to stock up on water, immediately. Confused, we got in touch with our contact on the ground. She informed us, via rolling news, that a devastating mudslide in the north of the country had contaminated the country’s main reservoir.
Concerned, we paced down to the supermarket across the highway. One step through those double doors and a wall of noise and confusion hit us in the face. People were darting frantically between aisles, pushing giant shopping trolleys full of water boxes. Staff were doing their best to calm everyone, but you could sense the panic in the air.
Responsible for the well-being of thirty-five people, I and my co-lead re-enacted our best rendition of Supermarket Sweep. We stocked up with as much water as we could, before the security staff told us we were not allowed to buy any more.
Once we’d put our trolleys of water through the check-out, we had no choice but to carry the giant boxes, one by one, across the highway. A plastic bag wasn’t exactly going to be much use here!
Once across, we took them to our apartment on the fourteenth floor, and stockpiled. It took us two hours, but eventually, we managed to get all the water into our apartment. Little did we know, that was just the beginning of a very long, water-less week.
While teams worked around the clock to decontaminate the reservoir, Lima’s main pipeline stayed turned off. That meant the city had to rely on water reserves. Hotels with influence and smaller apartment blocks were able to, just about, manage.
We, however, were a part of a 250-apartment complex and were told the tanks to the entire complex were only a third full. Huge swathes of the city had to manage without water, so you can imagine the smell of toilets and the germs that were spreading.
We were told every day, for thirty minutes, the taps would be turned on. When those taps came on, you had to hoard water as if your life depended on it.
Unfortunately for my co-lead and I, many of our group, when the taps were turned on, were at work. So, we had to manage the water storage for fifteen apartments, in a thirty-minute window. I have never sweated so much in all my life.
The water shortage, in total, lasted around six days. It was a tough start to our time in Lima. In the grand scheme of things, however, we had it easy. Many Peruvians in the north could only watch on as their homes were swept away by the mudslide.
The Peruvian mudslide very much put into perspective how wealth, in all facets of life, can mean the difference between life and death. Hence why, when I ran the Santiago Half Marathon a couple of weeks later, I asked my followers to donate to the Peruvian clean-up effort.
Oh, and I did it dressed as Wonder Woman. Please don’t ask why.
Renting a scooter in Bali is somewhat a rite of passage. Initially, if you’re an over-thinker like myself, you’re skeptical, afraid, and very against it. But in time, amid the tranquillity of Ubud, sweltering in the heat, watching vest-wearing tourists sail past, you come around to the idea of it.
Then you hire one, get used to riding it, and before long, you think you’re Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.
Riding a scooter in Ubud, with its dusty, single-track roads, and bumper-to-bumper traffic on the main strip is very much scootering on ‘easy mode.’ Venture south, however, to Denpasar and Kuta, where the highway connects airport to island, and you’re in for a very different experience.
I have two funny travel stories, to use that term loosely, for you here.
The first sees Doina and I, the idiot tourists that we are, driving down a notorious road for muggings in the late evening. Whenever we drove, Doina would sit on the back, phone in hand, and use Maps to direct me as I weaved along the roads.
We were driving along, innocently enough, when all of a sudden, I felt a weighty bump against my shoulder. My eyes darted up, and a bike was roaring past, with a guy on the back, staring me dead in the eye. Moments later, they motored off into the blackness ahead of us.
It took me a couple of seconds to realize what had happened. I shouted back to Doina, who said she was okay. By some miracle, her iron grip prevented the guy on the back of the scooter from snatching it.
Shaken, I did my best to stay focused on the road. All of a sudden, another bike pulled up alongside us. I could see them in my peripheral, but stayed focused on the road ahead of me, particularly as the light was dim. Doina said when she looked over, the two men on the bike were staring straight at us, smiling, ready to take a swipe. They stayed with us for a little while, before no doubt realizing we knew what they were up to. Then, they powered on into the distance.
When we got back to the hotel, I was shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. No doubt we ended up going down the rabbit hole that evening, reading up on how tourists are easy targets on bikes. Phone swipes are common, and in rare instances, people even pulled from the bike.
Looking back, now, I can laugh about it. But, in hindsight, I realize how incredibly lucky we were to, one, not lose Doina’s phone, and more importantly, two, not come off the bike and get seriously injured.
And this leads me, quite nicely, to a second heart-in-mouth story from my fleeting period as Steve McQueen’s stunt double.
It was our penultimate day in Kuta, and we had booked a hotel for our final night right by Denpasar airport. We’d booked one of those ‘why did we think this was a good idea?’ early morning flights, so the hotel gave us peace of mind, being only minutes away.
Because of this, we had to order a taxi to take all our luggage down to the hotel. However, the scooter also needed to be returned. Hence we decided to drive the scooter to the hotel, and arrange for the pick-up there.
We were a good thirty minutes’ drive from the hotel. Not knowing from memory how to get there, we agreed that Doina would sit in the back of the taxi with the luggage, and I’d follow closely behind on the scooter. All our driver had to do was avoid the highway, and keep to the single and double track roads. We asked him, he agreed, and we went on our merry way.
Around ten minutes into the drive, and the driver veers left on to a slip road. Naturally, focussed on his trunk, I duly follow. All of a sudden, the road opens up. I look to my right, and as the pillar of the bridge above us sails past, an additional three lanes appear alongside me, seemingly out of nowhere.
We were on the highway.
There I was. Thankfully, wearing a helmet, but in a vest, shorts, and flip-flops, in amongst a mass of trucks towering over me, cars roaring past, and other bikes crisscrossing past me. All the while, I’m riding some feebly underpowered scooter that’s barely keeping up with the taxi in front.
Furthermore, he keeps putting his foot down, wanting to hit 70mph plus. Doina, calmly, had to keep reminding him to slow down, all the while nervously looking back at me, saddled between trucks, and bikes, and all sorts, breathing in fumes like cologne in a nightclub toilet.
Twenty minutes it lasted. It felt like twenty hours. I have never focussed so hard in my entire life. One wrong move and I was pretty much hitting the concrete at close to 60mph, with only a helmet for protection.
Eventually, the desperately welcome sight of the airport came into view, and we slipped off the highway and wheeled around toward the turn-off for the hotel. When we pulled in, Doina said I was sweating so much I looked like a tortured eel on a tiny leather plinth.
I wanted to scold the driver, but I barely had the energy to say anything. I simply grabbed our luggage, handed him his cash, and collapsed on to the lobby chair as Doina checked us in.
That twenty minutes of madness drastically decreased my life expectancy; I can assure you!
For two and a half years, my Instagram feed very steadily filled up with an array of funny comics, all based on true stories, from all corners of the world.
For myself, it was a fitting way to show people a relatable, very different side to global travel. No amount of research could ever have prepared me for the unrelenting wave of close-calls, awkward moments, and culture shock that comes with travel.
And all that experience, both good and bad, helped me grow as a person and gave me a completely different outlook on the world.
Travel Problems now sits on the bookshelves of many of my friends, family, and total strangers whom I’ve never met. Currently, I’m at three editions, and I hope to add more to the collection in the coming years. Japan, for example, I think, would make for a phenomenal book!
I’m in no way trying to be some self-help guru here. But, if you take just one thing from this post, I’d like it to be a willingness to tell someone about a time something unplanned happened during your travels.
All of us, trying to live this picture-perfect lifestyle on Instagram, is not healthy. Embracing the chaos and challenges of travel is, I feel, the best part of it. And none of us should ever feel ashamed of it, nor be afraid to talk about it.
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