Oh sure, travel looks and sounds super glamorous. But it can get messy fast.
Oh sure, travel looks and sounds super glamorous. But it can get messy fast.

Horrible truth about long-term travel

IF seeing your mates' glamorous social media holiday snaps fills you with envy, I have some comforting news for you: they're probably full of sh*t.

Before last year, I had never so much as boarded a plane by myself. Consequentially, all of your aesthetically-stunning Facebook and Instagram feeds had me believing globetrotting was nothing but blissful beaches and piña coladas.

To the contrary, solo travel can actually throw you into some pretty darn sticky situations.

Of course, no one wants to admit to pooping their guts out in India or being chased by a cycling loon in Amsterdam, but mushy Eat, Pray, Love-style stories of enlightenment are so passé.

Here are some of the major dilemmas I faced overseas.

HOMELESS IN HONG KONG

Housing in Hong Kong is notoriously expensive, so when I found an ensuite in the party district of Kowloon for just AU$35 per night, I immediately snatched that up.

What I didn't realise was that the hotel was located in the Chungking Mansions - a sprawling international ghetto filled with drug dealers, illegal immigrants and a disturbing history of homicides.

As soon as I rocked up with my suitcase, numerous men swarmed me with offers of dorm beds, restaurant stalls, dodgy electronics and drugs.

There's exposed electrical wiring everywhere you look, and long lines for the rickety elevators, because the stairwells are known as "the dodgy area".

The entrance to the Chungking Mansions at night.
The entrance to the Chungking Mansions at night.

When I arrived at my hotel it was late, but I was still within the check-in time.

Yet the one staff member working there informed me he'd already given my room to someone else. After a heated argument, I left with my belongings. By this point, hotels in the area had either become hugely expensive or were not available, but I found a decent one on Hong Kong Island that was free from the following night.

And so, until check-in 16 hours later, I became a "McRefugee": one of the many people in Hong Kong who use 24-hour McDonald's restaurants as a place to sleep or pass the time.

I spent the whole night drinking putrid long blacks and strolling the humid streets to keep awake, while cursing my general life choices.

Oh, and that room I'd been booted from? My card was automatically charged for it. The owner claimed I didn't show up. Beaut.

FOOD POISONING BETWEEN CONTINENTS

Bali belly. Delhi belly. Peru Poos. Food poisoning is one of the top illnesses affecting Aussie travellers, particularly in South-East Asia.

I'm no stranger to weird street food, and happily tried the strangest insects and combinations without hesitation.

Ironically, it was actually a fairly high-class restaurant in Jaipur, India, which left me inside-out.

Me in India, pre-food poisoning, presumably.
Me in India, pre-food poisoning, presumably.

The bacteria started working its magic a few hours before my scheduled overnight flight from New Delhi to Berlin.

I was packing my suitcase when I felt an innocuous rumble. Suddenly, that gentle warning morphed into a ... malevolent brown volcano, if you will.

I remain convinced the Ibis Hotel chain has put out a specific AVO out against my bowels.

Sweating, shaking and barely able to walk, I stuffed myself full of anti-nausea and anti-diarrhoea tablets and boarded my flight to Berlin. I refused to sleep, too terrified to doze off in case my now out-of-control posterior decided to rebel against me.

Pro-tip: If you're ever travelling through India, NEVER order meat-based dishes, no matter how aroused the word "stroganoff" makes you.

CRAWLING THROUGH SEWERS IN JAKARTA

I was staying in an apartment complex in southern Jakarta, on a quiet residential street.

My Airbnb host failed to mention that the front of the street was barricaded by a large metal gate every night at 11PM. I returned after midnight one night to find there was no way in; the gate was too tall to climb and the bars grazed the concrete.

To make matters worse, a group of gents nearby were standing by a car and laughing as I circled the street in frustration. My host wasn't answering his phone.

It was late at night, and those blokes weren't going anywhere. Finally, I noticed a tiny opening where the bottom of the gate met the sewer on the side of the street (Jakarta is notorious for its giant pot holes!)

It was filled with bugs and green gunk, but in the end I crouched down and crawled through it. In white shorts. Never again.

THAT DAMN LANGUAGE BARRIER

I was in my bed on a long-haul sleeper train through China, when a local man stopped by my carriage and stared in.

I found this common in China; people were more curious and much more willing to engage you directly in conversation for its own sake than in most other countries I travelled to.

The man waved at me and I smiled back, which he took as an invitation to sit down and strike up a conversation.

Which was fine. Only - uh - we didn't speak a word of each other's languages.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," I said in English.

He responded in rapid, excited Mandarin.

"I really, really don't understand you," I repeated pleadingly.

He responded in rapid, excited Mandarin.

We continued this back-and-forth exchange for ... a gruelling 45 minutes.

Eventually I enlisted Google Translate to help us out. We talked about China's history, sleeper trains and spicy pork dumplings. In fact, by the end of it, we were mates.

Alright, I'll be honest: this was actually one of my favourite exchanges of the whole trip.
Alright, I'll be honest: this was actually one of my favourite exchanges of the whole trip.

 

CHASED IN AMSTERDAM

I was staying at a hostel in a relatively sketchy neighbourhood just outside of central Amsterdam. One morning, I was walking down the street and a man on a bicycle bumped into me.

"Sorry!" I said automatically, with a quick glance.

He stopped riding his bike.

"Hey!"

I turned to face him, confused.

"Sorry?" I said again, this time looking straight at him.

I then continued walking, and to my surprise he started following me.

"You stop when I talk to you," he shouted.

When I stopped again - still totally confused - he suddenly revealed a small vial he was carrying, with white powder spilt over his hand.

"Look what you did," he said. "Pay me 20 euros." He wasn't yelling now, but his tone was menacing.

I started protesting, and he cut me off with a warning: "You don't want to make me angry."

At that I just walked away, and - when he began following me on his bike - broke into a run without looking back.

Amsterdam — a city of gorgeous canals, excellent galleries and ... angry men on bicycles, apparently.
Amsterdam — a city of gorgeous canals, excellent galleries and ... angry men on bicycles, apparently.

 

DESTROYED MY PHONE IN LAOS

You don't realise how reliant you are on your phone until you drop it in a murky river while sailing down an inflatable tube.

I was in Vang Vieng, Laos, for a story when I decided to go "tubing", which basically just involves floating down a giant river on a big doughnut-like tube.

With my wallet and phone safely secured in a brand-new waterproof bag, I was ready to go.

Yeah, don't trust the term "waterproof" unless you've tried and tested it on something significantly less valuable than a crappy non-water-resistant iPhone.

As I left the river, my phone screen turned into a sea of green and purple static before dying a miserable death. All my precious holiday snaps, old text messages and Grindr nudes were gone.

I can also now confirm first-hand that the old "stick it in a bag of rice" trick is a mere myth.

While I was never a big social media poster, I didn't realise how much we use our phones for travel now: taking photos, Google Maps, TripAdvisor, accommodation apps, checking in on flights, exchanging details with new friends. The list goes on.

For the next month I went old-school, braving Laos, Thailand and Taiwan phone-free while waiting for a replacement. Trust me, it's harder than it sounds.

The Nam Song River — an evil swallower of phones.
The Nam Song River — an evil swallower of phones.

All in all though, it's the things that chuck you out of your comfort zone are generally what make the best stories when you return home.

Just don't believe anyone who tells you their trip was perfect.

Follow Gavin on Twitter at @GavinDFernando.

A glamorous window view from the Chungking Mansions.
A glamorous window view from the Chungking Mansions.
A group of cops walking through the Mansions. Reassuring.
A group of cops walking through the Mansions. Reassuring.
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