By popular demand, we’re back with more tales of travel disasters…just in time for your summer vacation planning!
One of my travel mishaps took place once again in my beloved Greece. Every other year, we would choose one or two of Greece’s many islands to explore. Our days were filled with sun, figs, grapes, pots of basil, warm, yeasty bread, and sightings of pelicans stealing fish from small local restaurateurs who would chase them, outraged. The pelicans always got away. Our lives felt charmed until one day, our luck almost ran out.
We were in a port hotel lobby at 6 a.m. on the island of Samos waiting for the ticket office to open to buy passage on the first boat of the day to Turkey. Suddenly, a wasp flew out of nowhere and stung my companion on the finger. Without thinking, he put his finger in his mouth to try to remove the stinger – a most regrettable action. His face and neck started swelling immediately. Fortunately, Samos is one of the few islands that has a hospital.
Knowing he was in grave danger, I calmly told him that we needed to get to the hospital immediately. The taxi drivers refused to take us, thinking that the very short distance and, therefore, small fare, did not warrant losing their place in line. I offered them ten times the fare to no avail. They had been burned by tourists before. We had no choice but to walk. Upon arriving, the hospital lobby was dark and the reception desk unmanned, due to the early hour. I called out but no-one came. I yelled. Still no-one. In desperation, I started screaming. Finally, a disheveled-looking doctor, who had obviously been asleep, appeared, struggling to get into her white coat. She spoke no English or French and my rudimentary Greek was unequal to the task. By this time, my companion’s face had swelled up so as to be unrecognizable, his eyes mere slits, and he was having trouble breathing and was starting to panic. The doctor, in her sleep-dazed state, seemed unable to grasp the situation, so using my best “charade” skills, I acted out the wasp sting scenario. She gasped as it finally sunk in what had happened and she stepped closer to look at his face. He was immediately put on a stretcher, given a shot, hooked up to an I.V., and then put in the Men’s Ward, a huge room filled with 10 beds, all full, all Greeks. Families started arriving a few hours later, laden with food, and because of innate Greek hospitality and kindness, we were immediately adopted as one of their own.
One of the patients, a sweet young man with Down syndrome, offered us some fruit from a large platter his father had just brought in. I took a piece and thanked him profusely in Greek. He then happily but painfully walked away to the next patient to share his treat. As he passed, a sweet, sickening odor emanated from his legs. Gangrene was working its way up them. Hiding my shock, I pretended to have noticed nothing unusual. I have never forgotten him.
Needing a break, I went into the hall and saw an old woman crying quietly on a bench. I sat down beside her. Sorrow and pain are a universal language and with a few small gestures to me – pointing to her wedding ring, then pointing to her heart, then pointing to her eyes which she slowly closed – I understood that her husband had just died. We fell into each other’s arms and wept together. I felt honored that she had invited me in to share her grief. I have never forgotten her, either.
Only Greek-speaking doctors and nurses were on duty that day so all of my companion’s treatments were explained to us in sign language. The kind hospital staff let me spend the night in a bed in the children’s ward which was, thankfully, empty.
When an English-speaking doctor finally came in 34 hours later, he told us over and over again how very lucky we were – that if this had been my companion’s second wasp sting, he would have surely died, given the severity of his reaction to this first one. It went without saying that without hospital facilities, he would not have made it, either. The doctor told us that we must always carry shots with us for any future stings, but to follow up their use by immediately seeking out medical personnel. We were finally, after many goodbyes in Greek to our new friends, allowed to leave the hospital.
We found a little square in the town and sat down. My companion was very quiet, a silence I respected after all he had been through. He finally said, “You know what? I would really, REALLY have hated for my epitaph to read, “KILLED BY A WASP IN SAMOS.” We looked at each other, burst out laughing, and once more, we were back in vacation mode, with the almost-disaster behind us.
Read on as first our Osher LLI instructors and then our fellow students share some of their own harrowing travel adventures. BONNES VACANCES, Y’ALL!
Taylor Hagood, Ph.D., Instructor
When I first found out about the travel disaster blog, I didn’t think I had much to contribute, since luckily I have not yet been robbed, kidnapped, or murdered while traveling. I was then informed that “disaster” could mean any kind of mishap, and that opened things up for me, since I have had plenty of those. Which one to tell about?
I guess I can tell one on myself. My father and I went to Rome several years ago. One of the biggest problems we encountered was finding a public restroom: strangely, many Europeans I know constantly complain that they cannot find public restrooms in the United States, and many Americans complain that they cannot find public restrooms in Europe.
As it turned out, there was a stand-alone, self-cleaning restroom near the entrance to one of the Metro stops. These are little container-like buildings with automatic doors that unlock and open when one puts a coin in them. My father decided to use it. He put a euro into the slot, the door opened, and he went in, closed the door behind him, took care of business, and came back out again.
I needed to use the facility too, but it seemed to me that the door would need to shut and the unit to clean itself first. I waited for the door to close. It didn’t. Having never used one of these before, I wasn’t sure how long to wait. I decided I had waited long enough. I closed the door behind me. Then the trouble started. I heard a click as the door locked. The light that had been on inside went out. A noise started. Suddenly I felt water spraying all around me.
I will just end the story by saying you can rest assured those self-cleaning toilets are sanitary.
Kurt F. Stone, D.D., Instructor – From Teddy to Grizzly
Back in early 1979, I was approached by an international Jewish concern working in tandem with American intelligence and asked if I would consider going on a two-person mission of discovery in the then-Soviet Union. The purpose of the mission was to locate and report on about two dozen Jewish “enemies of the state” whose major “crime” was holding underground classes and gatherings for the sole purpose of teaching modern idiomatic Hebrew. After a bit of pondering, I agreed, met my traveling partner (a librarian fluent in Russian and Yiddish as well as a smattering of French and Hebrew), and then began a months-long course in how to be a spy. Our handler taught us code, evasive tactics and how to communicate inside bugged spaces (that’s why the good Lord invented the “Etch A Sketch”), honest graft, and a host of methods to keep us safe in the Soviet underground. We were also “armed” with about a dozen cartons of Winston cigarettes – the Russians’ favorite Western smoke.
Upon our arrival in Leningrad (now, once again, St. Petersburg) and clearing Soviet customs, we were delighted to find that everyone was quite cordial and smiling. It was as if the fierce Soviet Bear had become a lovable Teddy. The reason? The 1980 summer Olympics were to be taking place in Moscow – that’s why.
And then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the “Graveyard of Empires.” Seemingly within the blink of an eye, much of the free world turned against the Soviet Union, threatening reprisals . . . most notably, the boycotting of the summer Olympics, which would cost them untold billions in foreign capital. Almost overnight, the Teddy Bear turned into a Grizzly. No longer would a Winston or two guarantee that “the crones” (the older, uniformed women guarding elevators in hotels where foreigners stayed) would permit us access or egress after hours. Now, our government-appointed tails (theirs, not ours) were as obvious and irritating as a hangnail.
Nonetheless, we had an assignment and had to keep on locating and interviewing the brave men and women who, against all odds, continued teaching Hebrew at a series of underground gatherings.
So, what to do? Weighing our options, we concluded that despite being Communists, the crones, tails and other minor officials who made our lives difficult had two things in common:
a) they were all chain smokers and b) they were all greedy. And so, we took to surreptitiously handing out Winstons by the pack. As a result, we started becoming everyone’s best friend and little by little, they left us alone. Disaster averted!
In retrospect, we in the West could have saved ourselves hundreds of billions of dollars in defense spending if only we had bombed the country with Winstons . . .
Benito Rakower, Ed.D., Instructor – The Altiplano
The altitude of Mexico City is 7,300 feet. The once clear and arid air made it one of the healthiest cities in the world. It also combined three distinct cultures. Originally, an Aztec city built on a lake, it had the most pitiless civilization in human history. The conquering Spanish introduced a new architecture. Under French domination, it boasted the best restaurants in the world.
My mother had the idea that health was the result of sparse diet and healing came from herbs. On Sundays, she would take me and my older sister on excursions into the relatively empty scrub and cactus landscape of the plateau enveloping Mexico City. She was looking for herbs and plants that promoted life. I was four and my sister was ten.
We would take a bus out of the city and get off at some spot that attracted my mother’s interest. We roamed zig-zag with no destination and one Sunday, it went wrong. We were lost. My mother, in her Chinese hat and snugly fitted dress, took stock. Before choosing a direction, she looked toward the sun and regarded the distant mountains. We walked side by side for some hours. Miraculously, we came upon the stone arched entrance to an estancia. There were no buildings visible. A solitary guard wearing a large-brimmed, straw hat was leaning against one of the stone pillars. There were crossed cartridge belts around his chest. A rifle leaned against the stone pillar by his side.
My mother asked if we could cross the estancia, as she surmised there was a road on the other side where we could catch a bus back to Mexico City. With the suave courtesy of the unyielding Mexican character, he said that was impossible. My mother pleaded with him for her children’s sake. He maintained his adamantly courteous but negative stance. A truly frightening confrontation.
My mother became sarcastic. The guard reached for his rifle. I screamed. My mother gave in. We began our silent march around the perimeter to the wire-enclosed estancia before coming to a grove of trees and more uneven ground. I could no longer walk. My mother and sister alternated carrying me piggy-back. I thought we would all perish but my mother and sister were grimly silent as they marched on. There was a road back to the city. And a bus.
I later learned that all women were just like my mother.
René Silvin, Instructor – Aboard the QE2, 1978
During the 1970s, my business was on both sides of the Atlantic and I used to cross from New York to Southampton, England, aboard the QE2, several times each summer.
On one occasion, during a typical “mid-Atlantic” storm, I was in the ship’s casino when, around 1 a.m., we all heard a huge crash and felt an odd, prolonged vibration. Shortly thereafter, I noticed the engines had been shut down. I went on deck only to see crew scurrying around the ship’s “whale back,” the area on a ship’s bow where docking equipment is stored.
By morning, the ship was, once again, under way but moving very slowly and listing slightly forward. Eventually, I discovered that one of the huge bow anchors had come loose and had smashed against the ship’s starboard side. It had pierced the hull at several points just below the water line, as the ship kept moving forward.
We limped into Boston, the nearest port, at a slow speed where passengers had to disembark and be transferred by bus to New York. It was an odd accident, which could have been much worse. Thankfully, there was no loss of life.
Wesley Borucki, Ph.D., Instructor
My one great travel disaster goes back to January 1987. I was a junior in high school in suburban Detroit, and I was invited with about ten others from my school to participate in a delegation to the North American Invitational Model United Nations in Washington, D.C. The day we were supposed to fly there, a huge blizzard hit the eastern seaboard; it affected cities from Boston all the way south to Atlanta, and airports up and down the east coast were closed. That afternoon, Northwest Airlines got word that National Airport in Washington had re-opened, so they boarded us on a plane in Detroit, and we took off. When we were almost to Washington, both National and Dulles Airports closed again. There was no airport open close by, so the plane actually circled Washington, and the pilot announced that he was flying us back to Detroit! When we landed, a reporter from the Detroit Free Press happened to be in the terminal. When he heard our story, he interviewed us, and we got our picture in the next morning’s newspaper as a group. Well, we all went home, and we did get a flight into Dulles Airport the next day just in time for the Model U.N. While we were there, more snow fell in Washington and we could not get out for several days after we were scheduled to leave – the Metro trains were not even operating to National Airport. While we were stuck, it was really brutal because I ran out of clean clothes. As a result, whenever I travel now, I’m always guilty of overpacking!
Barbara DePalma, Student – Near Disaster in Labrador
Austria was experiencing a very warm February when my husband and I went to St. Johann for a week of skiing. Due to the overnight freezing of the melting snow during the warm days, only expert skiers were allowed on the slopes. Instead of skiing, we had a marvelous time touring Austria.
Shortly after takeoff for our return to New York from Munich, we were informed that, due to an engine oil leak, we would be stopping in Amsterdam for repairs. The nine-hour layover allowed us to tour Amsterdam and experience a rijsttafel. No problem as that was something we had always wanted to do. Leaving Amsterdam, the pilot explained that the engine should be fine but, as a precaution, we were taking a longer northern route which flew over more land mass than the previous route over mostly ocean. Excellent decision because hours later, more engine problems necessitated a forced landing. The nearest airport was in Labrador which did not have a long enough runway to accommodate a 747. We were warned to be prepared for a rough landing. The flight crew secured everything possible and distributed pillows and blankets to cushion the landing.
As soon as the landing gear touched ground, maximum brakes and reverse thrust were used to stop the momentum before we reached the end of the runway. The engine was again “repaired” and the crew was faced with a more critical problem. Landing a decelerating 747 on a short runway was easier than taking off. To have a chance of clearing the runway, brakes needed to be depressed and maximum throttle given to the engine before going forward. The roar of the strained engine and the shaking of the plane while reaching maximum power would have woken the dead! Even though it was a short runway, the high-speed blast seemed like the longest ride of our lives. Once committed, there was no way to abort mission.
Upon landing in NYC, our plane was met by emergency vehicles who escorted us to the gate. As we deplaned, we were greeted by cheering newsmen, photographers, and airport personnel. We were spared the ordeal of going through customs because “we had already been through enough.”
Paul Newton, Student – Bad Start to a California Trip
About ten years ago, a couple of my buddies and I decided to take a motorcycle trip to California and back. They decided to start the trip by qualifying for the “Iron Butt” challenge. The ride had to be fully documented using photos and gas receipts showing that you had ridden at least 1000 miles in one 24-hour period. This did not sound like a good idea at all to me but since I really wanted to go on the California trip with them, I begrudgingly agreed. We started in Greenville, North Carolina about 5:00 a.m. and worked our way west stopping only at gas stations for the shortest time possible to refuel. As we approached the 700-mile mark, my body was aching badly and I knew that I was in trouble. By 800 miles, it was hard to stand the pain and I did not know how I could ever finish this self-inflicted torturous task. For the last hundred or so miles, every tenth of a mile was absolutely grueling and almost unbearable. About 10:00 p.m., we pulled into a gas station in Marietta, Oklahoma after traveling 1038 miles. We could hardly get off our bikes, stand or use our hands to fill our gas tanks. This 17-hour ride felt like the longest and most miserable day of my life. We kept the daily distance under 600 miles for the rest of what turned out to be a most wonderful trip.
Barbara McConaghy Johnson, Student – Car Trouble
Back in the ‘80s when I was going to the Fall Fashion Collections in Milan, I had a travel disaster that I’ll always remember… both for fear and for admiration of keeping cool in adversity!
Leaving from La Guardia, our night flight was about 2 hours over the Atlantic when I saw a fireball strike the wing of our plane. It was lightning, and there was lots of screaming, bumpy turbulence and panic. Seemingly without missing a beat, our Captain got on the speaker and said, “Hi, everyone, no need to worry; it seems we’ve had a little car trouble and we’ll be heading back to New York. I’ll keep you posted.” After that, there wasn’t a sound in the huge cabin except for a girl saying her prayers in Italian. As we approached the airport, we could see that the runway was lined with ambulances, fire trucks and hoses in the arms of at-ready firefighters…still not a sound as we made that miraculous landing except for our brave captain saying “Welcome to New York” and then the whoops and applause of grateful passengers and crew who couldn’t wait to be back on the ground.
Paul Brown, Student – London Shopping – An Experience of a Lifetime
After another exciting trip to London, all that was left to do was return once more to Harrods to give my wife, Cynthia, a last try at convincing me to buy the spectacular leather jacket that she had shown me earlier in the week. After disappointing her with my decision, I suggested that she go up to the 2nd floor and settle the VAT tax issues while I sat in one of the “husband” chairs and read the International Herald Tribune. No more than five minutes had gone by before there was a sudden explosion in the street which destroyed the nearest door, approximately 40-50 feet from where I was sitting. The public address system announced that there had been “an incident” in the front of the building and that all shoppers should leave through one of the side doors. People immediately began their departure – no pushing, shoving, screaming or shoplifting.
I was relaxed, just watching the people, knowing that Cynthia was on the 2nd floor dealing with the VAT charges. Suddenly, I was grabbed from behind. It was Cynthia. She had gone back to the men’s department one more time. The bomb had gone off about fifteen feet from where she was standing. Luckily, there were no windows in the men’s department. She was fine.
We quickly decided that the VAT would be taken care of at the airport. As we left the building, the police were on horseback and bodies were on the ground. Walking quickly down one side street after another, we were able to get a cab back to the Connaught. The phone was ringing. It was her dad calling to let us know there had been a bombing in London. Cynthia told him we were fine and packing for the flight back. They would never learn how close we were to that IRA bomb.