How To Learn From Unplanned Travel Nightmares
Ice crystals whipped through my hair as I stood with my back against the cliff wall. I helplessly watched as traffic zipped by, nearly hitting our stalled bus, and barely avoided plummeting to the valley below. At that moment, it hit me – how in the world did I get here, and why did I have to do everything the hard way?
I’m a pretty experienced traveler, and this trip to Peru was supposed to come off without a hitch like my many others. But apparently, Peru had different plans for me. Through a series of unfortunate events, I learned crucial travel lessons about not panicking, embracing the suck, and human nature that I want to share with you.
Start from the Beginning
But, back to the part about me being stranded on the side of a cliff. To really tell the tale, we need to rewind all the way back to the good ‘ole U.S.of A. The day before our flight departed, my wedding day, was our last day debacle-free and couldn’t have been more perfect. We were married at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. with a few family members and several hundred random tourists to cheer us on!
After celebrating, we returned to the hotel around 1am with our flight to our romantic honeymoon departing at 9. And this is when it started . . . As we returned to the hotel, we saw our car was gone! You know, the car with our pre-packed bags, tickets, and passports in it. It had been towed, but fortunately, the impound lot had someone on call, and we managed to jailbreak our vehicle and its precious cargo just in time to make our flight. Disaster averted.
Getting to Peru
However, when we got to Peru, the bad breaks continued. Our original plan to hike Machu Picchu was scuttled by bad weather. So, still in our post-nuptial bliss and channeling some serious carpe diem attitude, we went to the local bus stop, looked at the map, randomly picked a city out of the rain, and bought tickets. For two people so happy what could possibly go wrong?
The Bus Ride
When the bus pulled up, we realized we may have misjudged things. The bus was huge. I mean it was a double decker: the size of the Beatles’ tour bus. Let’s review why this could be an issue: Third-world country? Check. Little to no paved roads? Check. People with livestock? Check. Sure, totally; let’s do it. Of course, our seats were on the top deck, so what was intended to be an overnight ride that we could sleep on turned into being constantly woken up by the sensation of the bus tipping over as it careened through the pitch black night over dirt roads.
Needless to say, our nerves were shot, but as the sun began to rise, my hopes rose with it, and I was able to see that we were in the Andes. My awe at the beauty of snow-capped mountains merged with adrenaline as the bus careened along a one-lane dirt road with two lanes of traffic on the side of a cliff. And as the bus leaned with each hairpin turn taken far and too fast, those of us in the top deck got a nice long look at the valley below us.
But, ever the optimist, I focused on the sun peeking over the lovely peaks. Unfortunately, finding my happy place was quickly interrupted by a disheartening sound from the engine, and the bus shuddered to a stop in the middle of the road.
Anyone who travels knows this: When the locals panic, you should panic. And in this situation, the locals panicked. After a mad dash for the exit, the precariousness of our situation became clear. The bus was dead in a blind turn…on a cliff…with no guardrail.
If a large enough vehicle struck it, let’s just say it would have been our last vacation. So here I am up against a cliff wall asking myself why it seemed like I always had to do things the hard way.
Time to Make a Decision
After an hour of standing in the cold, we were told through broken English and emphatic hand gestures that the next bus couldn’t be there until morning. And to add insult to injury, the lower hatch containing all of our gear was jammed shut.
As camping on a cliff wasn’t exactly an option, we had no choice but to start walking and try to get a ride with nothing but the clothes on our back, a digital camera, passports (thank goodness), and a small amount of cash. About a mile later, a man who didn’t look like a murderer pulled over and offered a ride, so we decided to go for it. He dropped us off outside the next town, named Huaraz, and we trudged in looking about as pitiful as could be.
At over 3,000m in elevation, Huaraz an outdoorsman’s paradise is considered base camp for climbers to summit the Huascarán snow peak – the world’s highest mountain in the tropics. Let’s suffice it to say that with only a hoodie, blue jeans, and tennis shoes we had none of the proper accoutrement necessary for any of these activities. The next bus to Lima wouldn’t arrive for nearly a week. We were stranded.
Freezing cold, we were forced to spend most of our remaining cash on a large blanket at the market, and unable to afford a proper hostel, a local man offered us a place to sleep. With little money and no gear, there was no way we could do the typical activities Huaraz had to offer, so we improvised and woke up the next morning, hopped onto a different local commuter bus, and rode the route to the end and back. At least we got to see parts of the beautiful and mountainous Ancash region.
Back to Lima
In the end, we thankfully made it back to Lima one day before our flight home! We were completely filthy from being unable to shower and wearing the same clothes for a week and were desperate for some luxury. We went to the nearest high-end hotel, but of course, Peru wasn’t done with us just yet. The second we hit the lobby, we were immediately accosted by hotel security who had mistaken us for street vagrants. I’m not exactly proud of it, but it took a bit of waving with my U.S. passport and remaining cash for the manager to finally speak with us. We looked, in his own words, “like we had really been through something,” and he upgraded us to a suite for free. In the end, we made our flight home and survived to tell the tale.
Travel Lessons to Learn
When I reflect on this travel story a few important lessons really stand out that I have made a point to remember in all my travels from that day forward.
First: Don’t Panic
If there’s one thing I learned on this trip, it’s to not panic when you suddenly find yourself outside of your comfort zone. Here’s a perfect example. In Huaraz, when we were riding the local bus routes, we caught one to Chavín de Huántar, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The archeological site was fascinating in its own right, but the part of note was the bus ride. It was terrifying to say the least. So terrifying, in fact, that I had a totally irrational reaction and began laughing hysterically while crying – a true One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest moment. I’m a pretty cool cucumber in stressful situations, so that’s really saying something.
In hindsight, we should have realized something was up from the get-go. Once everyone boarded the bus, a clipboard was passed around and everyone, even the locals, had to write their names and ID numbers down. Then a uniformed officer walked on and took a video of everyone on the bus. We didn’t think much of it at the time, but after the harrowing ride, someone explained to us that it was so they would could identify the bodies if the bus had gone off the mountain. Apparently it happens frequently enough that they took these precautions. Nothing quite like hearing that to sober you up in a hurry! But the point is that we survived. And in the moment, I should have just remembered that the bus driver and many of these passengers took that route every day. They do this every day. So take a deep breath, trust the process, and remember to enjoy the experience.
Second: Embrace the Suck
In travel, things rarely go as planned. Hopefully all of your future mishaps will be minor, but sometimes you will have journeys like ours where nothing went right. But the right attitude can change everything, and for us, the times of our greatest plight were also the sources of our greatest laughter. Some things will happen outside of your control, and you have to choose between laughing or crying. Always choose to laugh (or in my case sometimes both!). Recognize that these trials often make the best memories, and you will have some great stories to tell when you get home.
Third: Kindness is Universal
Even though we survived some very serious trials, there were quite a few moments when things could have really gone wrong, but kind people stepped in to help us. Don’t travel in fear. The vast majority of people abroad, just like the people at home, will stop to assist you if you ask and sometimes even when you don’t. We received help so many times along the way from the driver we hitchhiked with to the hotel manager who upgraded our room. Case in point: When we showed up in Huaraz, we were freezing and had no gear to warm up. But we didn’t even have to ask for help because on the second day a random woman handed us two pairs of freshly knitted wool socks. Those socks made all the difference in our journey and were with us every step of the way. We have even repurposed them, and they now serve as our Christmas stockings. Kindness is universal, so remember that people are generally good. Be brave enough to reach out to a stranger when you need to and be humble enough to accept help when it is offered.
In conclusion, I hope that our many trials and the lessons I learned along the way made you laugh. But most of all I hope they provided you with hope that no matter what you face on the road, you will be fine and will end up with some amazing stories to tell. For updates from the road follow my Instagram @Redheaded_Nomad.
By Talor Stone