Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of poor luck when it comes to travel. For a while now, I’ve been resigned to the fact that I possess a bad luck streak that, at the very least, discourages me from entering casinos. Unfortunately, it also usually prohibits me from going just about anywhere. I spent 2/3 of my Christmas break in 2010 trying desperately to get to Bolivia after my flight was canceled due to a freak blizzard that slammed the east coast and shut down all of our major airports.
A few weeks later, in an effort to cheer myself up, I drove over six hours to Vermont for a snowboarding trip only to discover, upon entering the state, that an injury I’d sustained had somehow grown worse. Another six hours later, I found myself in the emergency room scheduling a surgery.
And then there was Egypt, a flight I’d booked early in the summer that had be leaving the States at the end of August. Only the day before my flight left, we got hit with Hurricane Irene, a hurricane that required a mass evacuation of the Jersey shore and had the southbound lanes of the Parkway closed while the skies were still bright and clear.
Now, however, I realize it isn’t a streak of bad luck at all; the more you travel, the more opportunities you have for things to go terribly wrong (or, on the contrary, to go just swimmingly). Besides, my uncanny ability to time serious vacations with severe weather conditions might earn me a part time job as a psychic or meteorologist one day.
In an effort to preserve these little gems of bad luck (and partially inspired by a list-making fever I’ve caught from cracked.com), I’ve chosen six of my top most “cursed” travel experiences to share while I make new adventures here in Egypt.
It should also be noted that an “unlucky” travel experience does not merely comprise bad travel plans; almost every incident involves a uniquely weird person that does his or her best to find me and magnify my travel woes by a million. In some cases, these folks are just strange; in others, they’re the type of people you might expect to find licking benches at your local park or penning ballads about Godzilla. (And yes, I’ve seen both.)
#6 – Leaving Buenos Aires: Language Barriers, Traffic Jams, and Nervous Breakdowns
I spent July and most of August in 2011 living in what I believe to have been a haunted apartment in the Recoleta barrio of Buenos Aires. While my experience was remarkably breathtaking and empowering in the sense that I spent so much time in solitude, I was ready to go home when the time came. And because poor luck was already too familiar for me, I scheduled a cab ride to the airport with plenty of time to spare.
The cab arrived at 5:30, concurrent with the arrival of the apartment owner’s husband, who had arrived to inspect the apartment and make sure I hadn’t kicked holes in any of the walls or burned pentagrams into the floor. Now, after living in Argentina for two months, you would think my Spanish might have improved just a little. But aside from learning how to ask for forty croissants instead of four, the improvements I had made were minimal, and would only be helpful if I were in a situation involving a cat, a bathroom, an empanada, and/or a gate.
Unfortunately, my situation involved none of the above.
Unlike his wife, who spoke some English, Mr. R did not speak a word of English, and so we communicated through botched Spanish and hand gestures. I was able to explain that my cab was downstairs and ask if he needed anything from me, but after that, mutual understanding went out the window. He returned my security deposit and stood rooted to the spot, so I slung my bags over my shoulder and pointed at the money I’d left on the table.
Now, a few hours earlier, David had come over to drink mate and gorge on facturas (while watching Charmed) and while he was over, he’d received a phone call from his maid. After hanging up, he explained who she was, and I mentally noted the word for maid. In retrospect, I wonder if he’d lapsed briefly into German and given me the German word for maid.
This is the explanation I’m sticking to.
Hoping to communicate more effectively in Spanish, I pointed at the money on the table and attempted to say, “This is the tip for the maid. ” What I actually said was “Esta dinero para la duende,” which roughly translates to, “This is money for the gnome.” Mr. R stared at me, so I more furiously pointed at the money and emphasized: “TIP for the GNOME.” When I realized my Spanish was not helping me, I began imitating what a maid might do, from sweeping the floor to wiping the chair and, apparently, the ceiling. Mr. R caught on excitedly and began dusting a mirror. We both nodded enthusiastically at each other and laughed.
“Si, chiquitita, Lucia.”
“Si!” I replied as he extended his hand to indicate that she had been a small woman, which I now realize made my gnome comment even more out of place.
After the debacle, I hopped in the cab only to sit in traffic for over an hour en route to Ezeiza. As we sat, unmoving, I entertained horrifying thoughts of sprinting into the airport while my flight departed overhead. To say I was severely anxious is a vast understatement. While trying to calm myself, I got my last taste of Argentinian radio, a black hole in the universe for neglected Bee Gees tunes and all the other tracks off of Natalie Imbruglia’s 90s hit album. In a row, I heard some obscure 90s acoustic tune, a twangy/techno remake of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” and finally Band-Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Once at the airport, I ran through check-in and security to my gate and quickly onto the plane where I sat, breathing heavily, until the gate was about to close. The seat to my left was vacant, and I wondered optimistically if I’d be without a companion. This hope was shattered when a woman resembling Mrs. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus frantically shuffled her way over to the seat, breathless.
“Hi! Hi! I’m so sorry, I was just…I had a nervous breakdown. I’m having a nervous breakdown.” She continued in this fashion, stuffing her oversized and poorly packed bag in front of her seat. “I lost my passport. I couldn’t believe it, I lost my passport. And they don’t let you fly without your passport, did you know that? I had a photocopy and they wouldn’t accept it.”
I’d been reading a magazine and she hadn’t stopped talking, so finally she asked, “Do you speak English?” This was my chance to feign ignorance, to blink dumbly at her, but I felt bad and said I did, and asked how she finally got on the flight.
“Well I was in line and I was shouting at everybody, I was accusing everybody of stealing my passport, because you know how people are down here. You put your sunglasses down for a second and then they’re swiped. So I yelled at everyone in line. Finally they asked me to just wait on the side, and I rechecked my bag and it was at the very bottom.”
This I could understand. She’d packed the fundamentals for a small village inside what looked like a mail bag. Why her passport would be flattened and crushed beneath all of this was beyond me, but I told her I was glad she had it and made it on. Still, she continued.
“Yes, I was on my knees. I got on my knees and begged them, ‘PLEASE LET ME BOARD!’ And then I got yelled at for crossing over a row of people on the plane. I guess you can’t do that. I was supposed to walk around the aisle. I didn’t know. I need a Zanax. Where are you from?”
We talked briefly, until she noticed the blanket and pillow I’d stuffed in the seatback in front of me. For overnight flights, airlines provide a blanket and pillow, which are both placed very visibly on your seat prior to boarding. The woman pointed at the blanket and said, “Where’d you get that?” I explained that she was sitting on hers, and she pulled the blanket out before pointing to my pillow, where I promptly repeated that she was also sitting on that.
I remained polite with her until she calmed down a little, just retelling pieces of the story instead of the whole thing. I thought we were done until an automaton-sounding announcement came on preparing us for takeoff and she shuddered, saying, “Was that the pilot? He sounded young. I always worry they don’t have enough experience to be flying.”
She continued calling after the flight attendants throughout the flight and hassling the beverage cart, until she suddenly fell asleep somewhere over the Amazon.
Our flight landed, and I managed to politely exchange a few last words with her until we went our way at customs. (She headed left, where I promptly heard her begin to tell her story to the customs agent.) When I finally made it through customs, I was surprised to find that everything was as it should be; the “worst” was over, and it hadn’t even been that bad.
*Because nothing devastating actually happened here, it’s almost a misnomer to call it a curse. But I assure you, sitting in traffic en route to Ezeiza knowing you have only ten days to spend at home before moving away for a year is cause for serious panic.