Living through a pandemic as a single woman with strained familial relationships has demanded a lot of strength. The last few days, I have been reminding myself of all the terrible times I have had to face by myself in the past. These experiences, though horrid, did make me a stronger being and in times like these I draw strength from knowing that this badass Manisha who handled these 10 of my worst travel experiences in unknown lands, resides within me. I can summon her when need arises.
I have listed 10 of my worst travel experiences below, not to discourage you from traveling, but to remind everyone who needs to hear this that this too shall pass. When we are not left with any other choice, we have to be stronger than we know ourselves to be.
Often times, in such situations people say ‘It’s for the best’, so I have added that to give readers an idea how I view those experiences now.
1. Forgot my phone in a Toilet Booth at Chennai Airport
I was returning from my first international trip (Sri Lanka, 2015) and was severely sleep-deprived. I was waiting for my connecting flight at the airport and decided to take a nap for a few hours. I woke up past the beginning of boarding time and rushed to the toilet only to discover my periods had started. It was around 5 am, everything was quiet and empty but my mind was racing.
I rushed out as soon as I could and immediately heard, ‘This is final call for Ms. Manisha Singh’. Needless to say, I ran out and was rushed to the plane. This was happening 20 minutes before the departure time. Almost like a trigger, the moment I sat down, I realised I didn’t have my phone on me. I had forgotten it in the toilet booth.
I informed the staff to check if someone could fetch it for me. The airport was fairly empty, I believed my phone would still be where I left it. The staff told me they will inform the ground duty and get it sent to my destination.
At my transit airport (Hyderabad), not one person from the airline crew (Spicejet) knew what I was talking about and seemed fairly indifferent to the whole thing. But a person from another airline (Indigo) was very helpful, called the ground duty staff, called my phone which was ringing then. He told me the procedures at the airport that prepared me to handle the situation at Mumbai airport.
What did I do to fix the situation: I spent a few hours at Mumbai airport only to realise the crew hadn’t spoken to anyone or done anything about it. I sought help from other airport staff and no phone had been submitted to the lost and found. Later, someone started disconnecting the call on my phone, and a few hours later, it was turned off.
I wrote to the airlines later, but it didn’t amount to anything.
Lessons learnt: My contacts are now synced with google and so are my photos.
I don’t trust what the airlines staff (I believe they are as clueless as anyone else)
Most of my travels are now via Indigo airlines
Was it for the best: Nope, I could have used the phone for a few month months. There was nothing good that came out of it.
2. Stranded without a Hostel at 11 pm in Argentina
I was hitchhiking in Argentina. It was summers which meant sun set fairly late. My last ride dropped me near the bus stand and from there I had about 5 km to walk to the nearest landmark. Along the way, I stopped at a hostel to see if I was headed in the right direction. I had the address but my offline maps couldn’t exactly find the hostel. A guy at the hostel was headed in that direction and offered to drop me. I didn’t see any harm so I waited the 15 minutes he was going to take to pack up. around 9:30 he dropped me at the beginning of the street. I thanked him and started walking uphill. All the houses/hotels had gate locks so I couldn’t walk into a property to seek directions. I walked all the way up, couldn’t find the hostel, I stopped at a patch which was pitch dark, too afraid, I walked down believing I missed it along the way. Nothing. So, I walked back up all the way including the patch with no lights. Nothing again, there were no houses there either, just wilderness. Too afraid and tired (I had my backpack and daypack on me), I turned around, also tried a different smaller lane along, tried buzzing a house who cut the call after telling me they didn’t know where my hostel was.
I reached back at the beginning of this road for the third time. It was well past 11 pm, I was afraid, along the way some dogs had started barking at me, one caught on to my trousers, and I just wanted to get away from the whole thing.
What did I do to fix the situation: I saw a couple in distance reaching for their car, I rushed to seek help. They didn’t know anything about my hostel but seeing me distressed they just took me under their wings. After a failed attempt at reaching the owners of the hostel, they called another friend of theirs and dropped me there. Needless to say, I was and am extremely grateful to them.
Lessons learnt: I swore to never reach a new place that late in the evening. At times I didn’t have a choice with the bus schedules but for those situations, I was better prepared.
I also switched to a different app (maps.me) that had much better offline data than google maps. This helped me with directions in new places.
Was it for the best: Yes, It’s because I didn’t find the hostel that next day I called the lady who had given me a ride to the town. She had invited me to her farm which turned out to be one of favourite memories from the trip. It’s exactly what I romanticised doing on my travels, cherry picking, making jams, sitting on the green grass with dogs.
3. A government Bus left with my luggage on board
I was headed from Hampi to Gokarna on an overnight government bus which was packed. At around 6 am the bus took a halt at a bus stand. I checked with the conductor regarding how long would it stay and I was told 10 minutes. So, I quickly ran out to use the washroom. I got back 5 minutes later, got on the bus and see my bag was missing and wait, there were other people sitting in my seat. I was confused, I asked the men on my seat regarding my bag and it was then that I understood that this was not the bus I was traveling in. That bus had left.
What did I do to fix the situation:
Panic-stricken me got out, approached the two policemen nearby who were extremely helpful. They made some calls, spoke to others, and first got me on a bus, traveled on the bus for a bit then explained to me that the conductor and driver will help me further. And, like they had some along the way, this bus overtook my original bus and they both stopped for me to be able to board the bus.
My bag was where I had left it, intact.
Lessons learnt: I travel with a fanny pack now so I always have my most important things on me like cash, ID proofs, phone, etc. (This is not something I would do in a country where robberies are common though)
Was it for the best: Ummm, I don’t know. It was just an adventure. I didn’t lose anything so that’s good.
4. Denied boarding my flight to Cuba
I was all prepared for my month-long trip to Cuba which means I had my currency changed to Euros, spoke to a guest house in Havana, read everything I could on how to travel there, and even had a travel friend I was going to meet up with on day 1. Cuba has no wifi and I don’t take local Sim cards so I was preparing for a month of no internet.
I had met a traveler traveling on an Indian passport who flew to Cuba from Cancun (Mexico) a few weeks ago. He was issued a tourist card based on his Valid US Visa on the Indian passport. my situation was the same but I still wanted to be certain so I went to the airlines’ office on the west coast (3 days before my flight) where I was informed that there’s going to be no issue getting the tourist card in Cancun. So, I took their work, flew to Cancun from where I was going to fly out to Cuba in less than 40 hours. I went to the airlines’ office to get a tourist card to avoid last-minute hassle and of course, it’s never easy on an Indian passport. The man behind the counter looked at the list and told me that he couldn’t issue Indian passport holders a tourist card. Rules had changed recently and the only way for me to travel to Cuba was to get a Visa. Getting a visa meant going to Mexico City, waiting for 5 days, and submitting a gazillion documents, none of it I was ready to do anymore. I was tired of trying to go to Cuba and being misinformed (I had a similar experience in Colombia but my fights weren’t booked then).
What did I do to fix the situation: I dropped my plans of going to Cuba, got my flight rescheduled (which costs nearly as much as booking a new flight), and decided to go back to Colombia from Mexico city after 2 months. This time I decided to spend in Belize and Guatemala. Countries I hadn’t been to and had chosen not to visit the only coz I was quickly running out of money.
Lessons learnt: Don’t trust the staff of airline companies unless you have things on paper. I also learned that there are no wrong answers in travel, I would have enjoyed going to Cuba but I also greatly enjoyed my time in Belize and Guatemala and met some incredible people along the journey.
Emotionally, I wasn’t affected in the least bit but I lost money that I was low on already.
Was it for the best: Yes, I instead got to go to Belize and Guatemala, two stunning countries, I hiked an active volcano something that I wanted to do since the very beginning of my trip. I’m sure Cuba would have been good too but that’s the thing, there are no wrong answers in travel.
5. Denied entry into Guatemala at the border
I was going to live on a boat for a few days, excitedly I took the bus from Belize to Guatemala border. Guatemala was also going to be last new country on the year-long adventure in South America. I exited Belize, paid my exit fee of $20, changed leftover currency to Guatemalan quetzal, and walked towards to the Guatemala border.
The short queue had me at the counter quickly, but only to be told that I couldn’t enter. India apparently was a type 3 country and on this passport a valid US visa made no difference to the entry into Guatemala. But I had done my research, I had read on the website, other people’s experiences and everywhere the information was same, Indian passport holders with a valid US Visa could enter Guatemala Visa-free. I tried convincing him to see the website, speak to a senior, or another colleague but nothing worked. So, I walked out, sat on the pavement and realized I was truly in ‘no man’s land’. I did not have a local SIM card from either Belize or Guatemala, there was no wifi, I didn’t know anyone in either of the countries except my host in Belize and my to-be host in Guatemala but I anyway couldn’t reach anyone.
What did I do to fix the situation: I asked an official where was the nearest Guatemalan embassy and was told in the town I had crossed while coming to the border. I sprung into action, walked back to the border, requested the person who had purchased my currency if he would give it back (he did), spoke. spoke to the officials at Belize border and requested them to let me in, took a shared cab to the town and landed at the Guatemalan embassy.
After a good waiting period, a gentleman came out and explained that I was indeed right, I don’t need a Visa for Guatemala with my Valid US Visa. The staff was very kind but I was afraid if I was turned a second time I wouldn’t have money to reach here and the office would probably be closed. I requested them to give me some official document that I can show at the border. The man obliged and gave me a piece of white paper with his signature and something scribbled in Spanish. They also called the border to clear things.
I hitchhiked my way back, exited the border (I had earlier requested them. to not charge me an exit fee again, they did not), joined the international queue at the Guatemalan border and my passport was stamped by. the same man without a word. It was at that moment I realized that none of it was about the rules, he was seeking a bribe.
Lessons learnt: On an Indian passport, be prepared for anything.
Was it for the best: It didn’t change much except that I lost some money but the time I had in plenty anyway. I didn’t get to stay on the boat but I took a different route that allowed me to go to a waterfall (Semic Champey) that was stunning.
6. Being stalked by a stranger in Colombia
Colombia clearly didn’t vibe with me. I had taken a bus that dropped me around the second-hand market lane, the only stop near my hostel. I started walking the few blocks to my hostel and noticed many shops were closed (It was weekly off). Since experiencing another worst travel experience (mentioned later in the post), I had gotten into the habit of watching my back often (literally). I cut a corner and a few feet later, turned around and my eyes met a man’s directly. And I instantly knew it was trouble. I was in a fairly busy block but after this, there was a near isolated section before I reached a central area. I stopped a little further at a stall and wasted time buying something, by this time the man had reached me and of course, didn’t go ahead. Instead, he went to the right and stood by a wall. I had nowhere to go, he was waiting for me to leave and he wasn’t being coy about it. All the shops in the building were closed, so I couldn’t go anywhere.
What did I do to fix the situation: I did what I had to, confronted him, in my broken Spanish but he didn’t flinch. He looked at me with his blank eyes. and then I saw some bikes coming towards me with police men. I started jumping in the middle of the road and spread my arms to stop one. The officer, didn’t bother checking this guy who casually walked away when I started yelling in Spanish that he’s been following me. I didn’t let the officer leave though and made him accompany me to the center from where I walked to the hostel by myself.
It had angered me not because I was in a vulnerable position, I had nothing on me then. I had already lost my phone and camera. I was angry because I had lost my valuables in that very city and someone wanted to rob me again!! I didn’t want another Colombian to rob even a pencil from me again.
Lessons learnt: No matter how rude it feels to turn around and look strangers in the eye, continue to do so.
Was it for the best: Nope, just made me more angry towards the country.
7. Discovering the last currency note gone on a Bus in Guatemala
I was on a chicken bus headed for the highway. From the highway I had to take a few more buses to reach Mexico border. It was my last day in Guatemala and I was headed back to Mexico. As the conductor approached, I dug into my wallet to get my last currency note, a 100 quetzals (~USD 13). I scrambled through my wallet but it was not there, I checked my backup wallet, not there, I checked my daypack pocket where I put away coins, not there. The conductor was standing looking at me probably wondering when will I stop with the act.
I asked him, ‘cuanto cuesta?’ (how much), I scrambled through my wallet and I had the exact change for ticket price so at least I was not going to be asked to leave midway which was also middle of a fairly empty route.
I knew the currency was gone, I had put it in my wallet only 2 days while preparing for a volcano hike. I had very cautiously spent money so I didn’t have to withdraw cash before leaving. Withdrawing cash drew a fee of around 50 quetzals. I felt saddened thinking who could have taken it, could it have been one of the locals when I left my backpack in the tent and went to see the sunrise? Could it be my hosts from last evening? Could it be the guy I shared a bus ride with? All options saddened me.
What did I do to fix the situation: Once on the highway I decided to hitchhike the 130 odd kilometers to Mexico border. I had Mexican currency left to get me through there before I could find a cash machine.
But hitchhiking in Guatemala is a bad idea. Nobody stopped for quite some time and eventually the car that did stop had 4 men inside. I was wondering how to decline the ride when a guy popped out and said ‘we’ll give you a ride but we’d like to discuss bible with you’. It turned out to be one of the most educating car rides on my trip. It was not just because we discussed the bible but we also spoke about each other’s lives and it was in this ride that I found words for my quest. ‘Don’t seek happiness, it’s temporary. Seek peace, it’s permanent. I truly believe in this and live by it.
Lessons learnt: No leaving cash behind, ever.
Was it for the best: Yes, that ride I hitched is a very important event in my life.
8. Finding myself on a Snow Hike Without Crampons
I was in Nepal during late 2018, the trekking season had just ended so I had given up on hiking the Annapurna base camp that year. I especially gave up the idea when I met a guy on my second day in Pokhara who entered the dormitory with such strong stench, he looked battered quite literally, and sought a soap from me. After his shower when we could talk, I learned he had just returned from the Annapurna circuit. That was a no for me.
In my second hostel stay, a few days later, I met another couple who had just returned from the Annapurna base camp and looked like they had returned from a stroll around the lake. They encouraged me to go for it if I wanted to. I met a few other people who said the same.
A few days later, I was hiking the Annapurna base camp by myself.
Towards the end of day 2 I did meet two super nice guys who continue to be my really good friends. I tagged along with and we continued hiking together. On day3, it started raining midway so we cut short our walking hours, it snowed afterwards. On day 4, we saw snow here and there but it kept getting thicker. It was evident I was not prepared for the weather but I was told I could rent crampons in the next village. So I marched on (mostly with the help of my friends) and before I knew it, I was beyond the point of return by myself. I would have needed help to cross certain difficult points.
There were no crampons at the next camp, which meant, I could stay back at this place and wait for my friends to return next day so I could hike back with them or I could continue pushing forward. I was so close to the top, I decided to continue walking plus I felt a lot more comfortable being with my friends than being holes up in a room alone.
The terrain kept getting worse (except the last stretch), we got caught in a blizzard that hampered the visibility but we reached with no injuries. On my way back, I couldn’t wait to leave the snow so we hiked until late evening to a base location with no snow.
What did I do to fix the situation: I took advice from the locals and put the largest pair of socks I had in my backpack and wore it over my hiking shoes. This is supposed to be better than crampons and I did find it extremely useful.
Lessons learnt: Nothing in the mighty Himalayas should be taken lightly.
Was it for the best: I didn’t die, so it’s okay.
9. Being Stalked in India
I am not being precise in the heading because unfortunately, it has happened more than once. I don’t wish to undermine the issue but in my personal experience, a lot of times it’s harmless.
The two times when I felt trapped and threatened was –
- I was walking the ghats of Varanasi (the steps near the holy river Ganga), I paused to get something from my bag when I noticed a man walk past me slowly and looking at me then looking back at me and a few steps later he stopped too. I didn’t think much of it but a few meters ahead noticed he was walking behind me (I was walking very slowly so it was unusual that we had the same distance between us as earlier). I stopped on purpose this time, and unashamed as he was of following me, he stopped too but a few steps ahead of me. This continued one more time. The third time I sat overlooking the Ganga though. I was afraid even sitting there because I had to turn around take some 50 odd steps, cross a few dark corners to reach my guest house. It wasn’t far once I climbed those steps but I am a slow climber and I feared being cornered along the way. One option was to go back and take a longer route that was busier. I sat there evaluating my options when I noticed two tourists walking up the steps. I quickly got up and went past them but continued walking in front of them. Once on top, I ran to my guest house. I had turned around from the steps to assess the situation, he was still sitting on the ghat but was not looking at the Ganga, instead, he had turned around and was looking at me.
- The scariest experience I had of someone following me has unfortunately been in one of my favorite destinations – Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. I was walking in a quiet lane, looking at old buildings. I was working on a project back then that required me to assess properties as potential hostels. So, I would often walk into buildings, speak to the caretakers and inquire about the owners. On such a visit, I was walking around the property but I could barely communicate with the caretaker. I continued checking out the nursery and see if I could gather any details on the availability of the property. Soon the caretaker called me to explain her son was here and he could answer my questions. As soon as I met him, I was afraid. his pupils were dilated and he looked deadpan at me. He said nothing, just stared at me. He was another friend on a bike, I tried to look at him and talk but the caretaker’s son would just not look away. I wanted to run away but I pretended to be all calm and just waited for them to leave. I left soon afterward, at the next property I met a dog who stuck around while I was walking in the vicinity. I took a turn at a road that connects to the lake which is generally busy but this stretch was empty, another turn and I saw the man with dead eyes again. He was standing on the side of the road and continued staring at me. I was scared, really scared. I didn’t know what to do so, I had to pretend to be composed. I pretended like the dog was mine and took an about-turn because I knew I could seek help quicker on that road. But the moment I cut the corner, I rushed and entered the first building, a guest house run by the church. I ran in, make small talk with some guests I saw. When I turned around (I was at an elevation), I saw the man walking on the road I had taken. He had started following me. As a reflection, I ducked and continued sitting on the floor, hidden from the road for some time. The problem with this was, I didn’t know which way he went. There were three roads I could take from there and all of them were fairly isolated.
What did I do to fix the situation: I stayed hidden for a 20-30 minutes and then chose a path that took me to a busier section quickest and I ran through this stretch.
Lessons learnt: Always have a taxi driver’s number handy, in case you need a pick up from such situations.
Was it for the best: Absolutely not. Nobody needs such an experience in life.
10. Being Mugged at Knifepoint in Colombia
This hopefully remains one of my worst travel experiences because worse than this would be too much to handle. I was hiking back from this very popular tourist destination named – Montseratte in the capital city of Bogota. I was accompanied by my local host (a young woman), and it was about 4:30 pm (which means broad daylight). In fact, the reason we were rushing back was so we could make it back to her house while there was still daylight left. 10 minutes from the trail end (which joins a fairly busy road), three masked men jumped from behind a bulging boulder. In no time there was a man in front of me holding a machete to my throat and a man behind me. On my left, I saw another man with a machete chasing my host who was screaming and running backward.
They took my entire daypack (which had my camera, phone, passport, and both my debit cards, among other things that I had carefully picked 6 months ago for this trip of a lifetime). They also took my host’s sling bag which had her iPhone and her identity card.
What did I do to fix the situation: There were many things I had to fix in this situation starting from getting a new passport but the most difficult task was to access my money. The Indian banks I had accounts with had no presence in Latin America, they would not mail me the card either. It was a complicated task and a stressful 2 weeks.
After the robbery, I was left with less than $30 that was in my main backpack. I didn’t know how long I had to go on the $30 so I stopped taking dinner. I would cook lunch with just onion, tomato, garlic, and spaghetti.
I knew it was going to be an arduous few weeks, so the first thing I did was to find an alternate stay arrangement. I didn’t want my hosts to take the brunt of my situation. I knocked on hostel doors in the tourist town to find volunteer work. After nearly losing hope, and breaking down in tears in the middle of a street, I did find reception work in a backpackers hostel.
Two months later, I left Colombia for Mexico with a new passport, new US Visa, money transferred to my travel card, no camera, no phone (so no way to see the time or take pictures), but a great deal of determination to continue traveling.
Lessons learnt: I still struggle with this. I haven’t been able to make sense of that experience at all. Why did it happen, why did it happen to me, and what did I learn from it? I was already being as safe as I could. A few things that I experienced after the incident were:
- The incident, unfortunately, made me slightly indifferent towards the poor, the addicts, the whole glaring economic disparity esp. in Colombia.
- It reinforced the idea to never let the guard down. I was trying to book my exit tickets a day before the incident and had accidentally put my backup card in my daypack after that.
- I learned that locals don’t always know best. I was recommended that place by both my previous hosts and none knew of the situation there.
Experiencing and fixing a situation like that by myself definitely prepared me for everything. Like Cheryl Strayed would say, I felt like a total “hardass motherfucking Amazonian queen”.
Was it for the best: NO. I was never able to buy a camera again (I had bought it when I had a job), now I’m always somehow in survival mode. Trauma from that experience haunted me for months and it permanently changed my interaction with strangers.
I hope sharing these 10 worst travel experiences of mine which required me to go back to those unpleasant moments, helps someone find their strength back.