This week, I submitted a 1200-word article to the CBC/Canadian Council for the Arts Creative Nonfiction Prize. In other words, “Stuff Based on a True Story.” Writing “Shoulder Chicken” inspired me and I got ready to write more travel narratives. I didn’t get as far as I thought.
I thought of the taxi driver in Wuhan who refused to believe we wanted the domestic airport. He was an astounding idiot, this driver. We told him where we were going, and he still took us to the wrong airport. But get this–on the way to the right airport, he suddenly stopped on the shoulder of the freeway.
He turns around and gestures for us to get out of the car. With cars whizzing by, he kicks us out with our bags on the side of the freeway.
Why? We will never know exactly why. In the most populous and polluted nation on the planet, we had to walk to the airport on the shoulder of a six-lane highway. Have you ever walked on a major freeway? No car would stop and give us a lift. Then, Josh and I started to argue because he actually paid the driver. I was like, “You PAID him? For WHAT?”
Finally, and somewhat miraculously, an empty taxi pulled over and for an inflated price drove us to the VIP terminal. The story has a happy ending, because we got VIP’d through the airport’s secret inner corridors to our domestic airline check-in and after all that, made the flight. It was an intense few hours, but I never thought it would make a good piece of writing. It’s just one of those things that was embedded into the natural ebb and flow of travel.
Then there was the time Izmir, Turkey delivered another bad travel day. I suppose a little embellishment could elevate the Izmir experience into something worth reading but it really wasn’t a traumatic enough experience. We were drinking beers and smoking nargile by 4PM.
One of my favorite bad experiences, more of a surreal one, was the House Hunters International-style apartment search in Hanoi, Vietnam. To properly convey the absurdity of this experience, we would have needed our camera. But we were just looking for a fully-furnished short-term rental for anywhere between 3-6 months. We had no way of knowing what was in store.
After a few viewings, the realtor asked us to meet him in a suburb of the city. It took us a good 30-45 minutes to reach the area. It was pleasant, with a small lake, lots of trees, and expats running around.
Then the building. Looked funny as we approached, I wasn’t quite sure why something didn’t look quite right until we reached the flat on the 7th floor and that’s when I saw, it had no walls.
By no walls, I do not mean loft living. I mean there was nothing constructed other than rebar and concrete floors. I mean, if you couldn’t find the bathroom in the middle of the night, you would plummet to your death. Josh took the “I’ll humor him approach,” and pretended to admire the one piece of furniture, a mattress on the floor.
I know you’re thinking, there was a misunderstanding. The realtor thought you wanted to buy it, right? Thought you would be happy to get a good price on an unfinished flat?
No. No. He spoke perfect English. He knew exactly what we wanted. We decided to leave Hanoi soon after that.
One of our worst, and potentially most tragic, travel experiences happened in Albania. We rented a car for about ten days, so we could really see and experience remote parts of the country and got a lot more than we bargained for when Google Maps told us about a road that had not yet been built. For six hours, yes, you read that right–six hours–we drove on a treacherous road fearing that every pothole would be our last and that the best that would come from it was owning the rental car company the price of the car. Unbelievably, though, the car came out unscathed.
After these small mishaps, though, I’d have to hunt and peck for material. The fact is traveling is generally not as exciting as you think. We eat, we drink, we sleep. We meet kittens.
It’s not that we stick to safe places, we just don’t get into trouble. Except for being detained twice at the UK border, nothing bad ever happens.
I did meet a real, live Neo-Nazi in Germany who also happens to be a member of Ratebeer.com. We were at a concert in the zoigl region, and he suddenly pulls a business card out of his wallet. The card has no words on it. It has one image and one image only: the Nazi swastika rendered in black and red. That did a real number on my psyche. I ran out of the room in tears, and I now I have a difficult time trusting that not all Europeans are carrying a card in their wallet. But I also met a Hitler cat and survived.
We’ve been to a few breakaway republics like Northern Cyprus and Transdniester. These are places that aren’t really countries, so you enter without any consular representation if something should go awry. You get a little adrenaline rush crossing a border that isn’t really a border, but once you’re in, you just look around, eat something, find a beer.
Northern Cyprus is one of the prettiest parts of the Mediterranean. What am I going to write about there–flowers? Transdniester is basically a Soviet section of Moldova. It’s interesting in that it allows for time travel to the USSR, but there were no people on the streets, no one to talk to. I even broke the law by taking a verboten photo of the government buildings but did not get caught.
We chewed betel nut with the locals on the Solomon Islands, but we did not get mugged. Drank fermented horse milk in Mongolia, and even ate crap, without tummy troubles.
Borneo–beautiful. In lieu of being attacked by wild monkeys, we danced in the mud with hippies at the Rainforest Music Festival. In Siberia we gorged on smoked fish but spent no time in the gulag.
People warned us South Africa was dangerous but it was tame. We took a tour of a township (code for ghetto) as if we were searching for action. The most exciting thing we saw were flies swarming around boiled goat heads that were to be served at your bar later that night. Apparently goat head is the new fish head. Eat them up yum.
And of course I survived a childhood in the United States.
Bad experiences can make good stories, though. Do you really want to read another article about “the endless expanse of cascading rice terraces in Bali,” “the many beers of Belgium,” or “the time I saw a cow on the road in India”? Please say no. I hardly ever read travel blogs or articles like those because they bore me. If I wouldn’t read it, why would I write it?
I do want to know which back alleys in Taipei to go for good grub. But I often forget where I ate or slept, and end up with sad little to share.
Point is, there’s no story in fun. If I want to write about travel, I need more bad experiences.