Thursday, January 7, 2016

Comments On When Traveling Sucks

A lot of travel blogs are extremely -- even overly -- positive about the joys of travel. You don't find many posts about when travel just plain SUCKS. When things go wrong. When you get screwed. When you feel like crying. When you DO cry.

We did a 90-day visa run to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico, from Panajachel, Guatemala, these past three days and it was not the best of times. Many things seemed to go wrong and I was hard-pressed to maintain my positive outlook. In fact, I failed on many occasions! Bert was an immense help most of the time, but also lost his composure as well. Sometimes things just go wrong and you need to deal with it as best you can and hope you get out relatively unscathed.

As problems go, ours were relatively mild. I've heard horror stories from friends about being robbed at gunpoint, losing their passports and money, getting violently ill and ending up in a foreign hospital, and many other such tales of woe. I even remember back in the 90s when I took a tour of Europe there was a poor American girl who broke her leg on the first day of her trip!

So from that perspective, our three days were practically perfect. Stressful, but not so bad. We were unexpectedly broke due to the exchange rate and a big miscalculation on my part, we suffered through two bad shuttle journeys, and I got violently ill. However, we visited a beautiful city, had each other to lean on, and ended up safely (and gratefully) back home in Panajachel.

I'm not sure how to phrase this but I think that being a polite Canadian can be detrimental to some travel situations. I'd never really noticed how gosh-darn NICE Canadians are until I left Canada. It's weird but true! We really are raised to be polite.

An example: we had to switch shuttle buses several different times during our trip. When we switch buses, my thought is that you get on the new bus and try to take the same seat you had on the last bus, as best you can approximate it if the seating configuration is different.
But nope, that's not how it works when you're dealing with other travelers. The people who had the crappiest seats -- on the wheel well, no window, or right up against the driver's chair -- rushed out of the shuttle to claim the best seats on the new bus. So THREE times we went from having decent seats to absolutely horrible ones. The last leg of the trip from the border of Guatemala to San Cristóbal was literally painful. We ached for a day afterwards!

Now if we had been rude, perhaps we would have gone to the seat-switchers and said something like, "That's my seat!", which would have resulted in angry disputes and bitterness among passengers. Instead, we took our bad seats and suffered. (And I must admit I grumbled a little bit loudly, hoping people would hear. So passive-aggressive!)

My inner bitch came out on the last day though. When our shuttle arrived at 6:30 am to take us back to Guatemala, we climbed aboard and took some nice seats. Sure enough, that shuttle took us to another bus where we had to switch. (Ugh, not again!) But when we climbed aboard the bus -- last of course because we were too polite to push -- there was only one free seat left. I stood in the aisle as the other passengers pretended not to notice the problem.

We got off the bus to talk on the sidewalk. The driver knew no English, and my Spanish was woefully lacking. I tried to remember the word for "seat". Much stuttering and charades on my part, and the driver could do nothing but stare blankly and unhelpfully at us. There was only one seat. We were two persons. He shrugged and told Bert to sit on the wheel well at the front of the bus by the stairs. "No!" I said. It was all I could think of to say. I wasn't feeling well at that point, was tired, hot, and my stomach was giving me pains. It was four hours to the border. "No!" I repeated. "Pago por dos..." (I pay for two...) Dammit what is the word for seat??? I poked my head into the bus and asked for help translating. A lovely kind woman at the front told us the driver had offered us a wooden chair for Bert to sit on in the aisle. WHAT? She asked the driver if we could get our fare back if Bert did that. The driver shrugged and shot back something rapidly in Spanish. The lady shook her head at me sympathetically.

I tried to explain to the driver other options: who was on the bus that shouldn't be? Did he just count wrong? Could he get everyone's tickets to see who didn't belong? Could he call another shuttle for us? Could he drive us to the nearest town for another shuttle?
No, no, no, no.

That was it for me! I wasn't going to take it. I had paid a lot of money for a shuttle seat and I wasn't going to sit on the floor and neither was Bert! (Meanwhile, Bert was telling me that he was fine sitting on the floor. I was furious with him for arguing with me! But he really just wanted to go home, he didn't care how.)

So we took our bags and left. As we walked the few blocks back to our hotel, I started crying and smacking Bert in the arm. Why did he embarrass me by arguing with me in front of everyone? Why did he think it was okay to sit on the floor? Why didn't they have seats for us? How are we going to get home? Do we have enough money for a room for another night? (Ooh, big pity-party! But sometimes you just gotta cry and get it out to have a clearer head.)

When we got back to the hotel, I used their Wi-fi to get on Facebook to ask for help. (Our phones don't work in Mexico and the hotel desk clerk wouldn't call long distance to the travel agency in Guatemala.) Lucky for us, our friend Stray Cat was awake early in Panajachel. Bless his heart, he went down to the travel agency and talked to the guy there. Several frantic Facebook messages later, and they arranged for another shuttle bus to come to our hotel and pick us up. We were unclear about what was going on but the travel guy assured us we were going to a bus with two seats. All right, let's go!

We hopped on the shuttle, which turned out to be the original guy who picked us up in the morning. It was empty save for us. I huddled in my seat, feeling worse by the minute. Slowly it dawned on us that the driver was racing to the Guatemala/Mexico border to meet our connection. We didn't stop for gas or pee breaks or food. Geez, we barely even SLOWED for the numerous speed bumps and deadly corners during the four hour ride to the border.
At Mexican immigration, our driver got us to the front of the line and fast-tracked us through. He then drove us to a dirt side-alley and motioned vaguely with his hand, "Frontera." We stumbled off the bus into the heat and dust, speedwalked in the general direction of the driver's arm-wave, and found the border. Across we went -- you just walk thru, barely any security -- and we were back in Guatemala! YAY! We got our 90-day stamps -- double yay! -- and then found a bus driver from Pana that we recognized from a previous trip. We showed him our crumpled ticket and he found our name on a list. A quick visit to the filthy, seat-less toilets, and we were on a bus back home.

Most of the passengers were the same folks who had silently watched our dilemma that morning. Two girls asked what happened to us. I was embarrassed to be recognized. All I could think was how they must think I was some crazy stuck-up bitch, but they seemed impressed that I had commandeered a private shuttle to the border.

Well, things got even worse. My stomach was giving me shooting pains, quickly followed by waves of heat and nausea. Bert prepared for the worse and got out a plastic bag. Sure enough, about an hour into the winding roads of Guatemala, I barfed up breakfast plus dinner from the night before. (That so-called salad I ate is a whole 'nother story.) I was impressed that I was getting it all in the bag and being rather quiet about my hurling... when I realized that the bag was leaking. EVERYWHERE. Bert grabbed the bag of puke and flung it out the window. We were covered in it -- our shoes, pants, backpacks. UGH.

Being silly Canadians, we literally sat there quietly arguing about whether we should tell the driver to pull over. The roads were narrow, twisting, without curbs, and with gaping tree-lined ravines on one side and rocky cliffs on the other. (Quite lovely! You should see it!) As I blearily watched my vomit seep out into the aisle, I hung my head over a new hole-less plastic bag and prayed for a town.

Finally, we arrived at a small village. I got the attention of the helpful lady from the morning and asked her to get the driver to stop because I had been sick. Then the uproar started. (Funny how we had sat there for at least 10 minutes without anyone noticing I had tossed my cookies!) The bus pulled over in this tiny town and everyone scrambled outside. I got up, mortified, soaked with puke, sweating, staggering, and squished my way off the bus in wet sandals. Bert stayed on the bus and used his sweatshirt to start mopping up the mess. (What a guy! OMG, he was my hero that day.)

The couple sitting in front of us were angry. My vomit had leaked into the woman's backpack that had been sitting on the floor. I leaned against a building and simply tried not to fall over. My head was spinning and my stomach was clenching. Pain was shooting through my eyeballs.

Mayan children gaped at us. The spoke excitedly to each other. The only word I understood was "gringos". A nice man let everyone use his bathroom and pila. I rinsed my shoes, then stripped off my pants and changed right there in an alley by a tuk-tuk. Bert did the same, feeling grateful he hadn't gone commando that day. HA!

The majority of the people on the bus were sympathetic and kind. Many good karma points to them! One lady offered me a banana; another gave me tissues; a young Guatemalan man made a joke about bad Mexican food. I smiled weakly at them as I reboarded the bus. A young woman suggested that I sit at the front next to the driver. I told her it wasn't motion sickness but rather food poisoning. But it seemed the consensus was that I be banished to the front. I guess they were fearful of another episode.
I meekly climbed into the passenger seat and cried quietly, humiliated.

Luckily, there was no more puking, although I came close several times. I clutched my plastic bag, water bottle, and roll of toilet paper as we hurtled across the country. My knees were bruised from banging against the dash at every speedbump and sharp corner. (And there were many.) Even more so, my pride was bruised. Embarrassing enough to be sick; worse so to do it on a crowded bus of strangers.

One another incident of note occurred before we got home. At a quick rest stop, the couple who were sitting in front of me when I threw up approach the passenger window. In accented English, the woman spoke angrily about how she had a problem that I had "spit" on her bag. "What are you going to do about it?", she demanded. I stared at her bleakly. "You can wash it." She got even angrier and proceeded to tell me how her backpack was ruined and she was going to have to throw it out. She was disgusted! Her vacation was ruined!
I got the impression she wanted me to buy her a new backpack. I told her I had no money. I told her I was sorry. I told her she could wash the bag and I'm sure it would be fine. She glared at me. "I bought this day pack brand new for this trip. It is ruined. It cannot be washed." Bless my feverish mind but all I could say was, "Why would you buy a backpack you can't wash?"
At this point, she realized that she was getting nowhere with me. Her eyes drifted sideways to her boyfriend, looking for help. He stepped up and said something to me about being stupid. She asked me why I was being so selfish. I said, "Trust me. My day is worse than yours."

I didn't have the energy to argue with them. I didn't even have the energy to close the window so they'd leave me alone. I was sitting in the front of the bus in puke-soaked sandals, grimacing around stomach pains, and concentrating on breathing so I wouldn't barf again. Some inner part of me was furious at them for approaching the girl who just vomited in the bus and thinking they should be compensated for their troubles. But I didn't have any spirit in me to get outwardly angry. I think that was probably the best thing, as they huffed and puffed and insulted me some more before moving away and switching to their own language. I stared straight ahead until the bus started off again, then cried some more.

I am truly sorry I puked on their bag. I know that must be disgusting and an awful way to start a trip. But honestly, did they think their troubles that day were worse than mine? Did they think I honestly wasn't sorry? Did they think I WANTED to puke on a bus full of strangers? I was totally humiliated, mortified, ashamed. I wanted to disappear. I sat in the front of the shuttle and focused on the gorgeous view I had of the scenery as the bus sped onwards. The hills darkened into shadows, the valleys sparkled with lights, and finally we were careening down the cliffs of Lake Atitlan and home. Bert and I got off the bus at the first stop and walked away as fast as we could.

So that's my story. Travel isn't always wonderful. You get sick. You lose stuff. You get screwed over by unscrupulous people. You get misjudged. You get angry. You get sad. You get frustrated.
But hopefully in all of that mess, you get to see the world. You get to see the craggy green hills of Guatemala rising up to a pure blue sky. You get to see volcanoes towering above the world's most beautiful lake. You get to see the most gorgeous and curious children -- barefoot, wide-eyed, and unabashed. You get to meet new friends who offer help when you need it. You get to find inner strength. You get to discover parts of yourself that make you proud.

Please, all I can say is if you're out there traveling, help each other. If you see someone struggling with the language and you know more, help them translate. If you see someone sick, offer them a kind word. If you see someone lost, show them the way. We are all humans in this mad world together and we have so many opportunities to show each other the best sides of ourselves.

Be excellent to each other, my friends! (And avoid the salad in Mexico.)
A mural in San Cristóbal that I swear is me!
For those looking for more pics, check back in here tomorrow. I swear it will be more upbeat. :D


  1. Awe Cristel your story almost made me cry!!!!!! I am so sorry you had to go through all that my friend. Fuck I would have died on that trip for sure then!! LOL. I am glad you are home safe and sound and you are dead right about a lot of things, but most importantly, being a stranger in a country where language can sometimes be a barrier, is hard, very hard!!!

  2. I enjoyed reading this entry Cris. It felt real to me. I'm sorry you had such rough time and I'm glad that you got back safely.