Updated 19 February 2013

Travellers' tales

The best travel stories are actually the worst. What was your top holiday health disaster?


No one really cares too much about the fabulous meal you ate at that quaint Parisienne bistro, but those who didn’t get to go are usually up for listening to how violently ill it made you afterwards.

What’s your best (i.e. worst) travellers’ tale?

I get the sulks hearing that yet another acquaintance has returned from yet another AWE-some trip to India. (I've never been.)

No, I don’t want to look at their breathtaking photos of the Taj Mahal, thank you, and I certainly don’t want to hear them droning on about how uplifting and life-changing it all was.

Feel-good travellers’ tales just aren’t the most interesting ones for those back home. I can’t off-hand bring to mind many positive anecdotes worth relating; it’s the dark, dramatic ones – like this winner from my friend Niko, who was stung by a highly venomous scorpion and had to be airlifted from the desert – that make the most lasting impression.

Part of the satisfaction of listening to these tales of woe is because they leave you feeling less grumpy about not getting to go yourself, sure; but honestly, the most compelling stories are born out of trips that bear zero resemblance to the happy fallacy of the travel brochure.

A sizeable proportion of travel disasters concern assaults on the human body, rendered even more vulnerable than usual by the stress of foreign environments: ingesting evil microscopic organisms; being stung or bitten by larger ones; suffering accidents ranging from the ludicrous to the deadly serious; or ending up at the mercy of foreign medics who may or may not be competent...hard to gauge when you can't comprehend a word they're saying.

If you have a tale of illness or injury far from home, please send it in and we'll publish it. Here are a few classic "Holidays in Hell" for inspiration:

Hobbling around St Lucia
- Mandi van den Berg, Health24 reader

My story didn’t happen in a foreign exotic country, but was just as embarrassing and memorable.

Years ago my husband and I decided to take a couple of days off to go see St Lucia as we’d never been there before. Upon our arrival we decided to immediately begin exploring. Of course by this time we were jovial and acting like two teenagers. We started chasing each other down the sidewalk of the main road when I suddenly realized: I’m going down. It's amazing how many things can go through your head in a millisecond. My thoughts went something like: “No! Stay on your feet! We’re on the main street! How embarrassing! C’mon, stay upright! Why would they tar the pavement?! Oh my, this is going to hurt!” And all this happened before I even hit the ground.

After I came to a slow-motion, skidding halt on my stomach I looked up to find the entire street frozen with all eyes on me - my husband carrying on with the race oblivious of my fall from grace. He even let out a mighty “Whoo-hoo” when he thought he'd won the race. (In his defence he managed to reach me before the closest bystander was able to close his gaping mouth). So, with a lot of fuss from everybody and a lot of bleeding from my knees we managed to reach our apartment and after hobbling up the two flights of stairs I fell down on the couch bawling my eyes out.

By the following morning every muscle in my body was protesting every move and both my knees had huge bloody scabs (disgusting – I know) which started bleeding every time I bent my legs. Hubby dashed to the pharmacist (who by this time knew about the lady who'd taken a dive on main street) and got some very pink ointment, which smelled suspiciously like fish, to put on my knees.

For the next 4 days I hobbled around St Lucia and Richardsbay with shocking pink, fish-smelling knees as a reminder to the entire town that I was the lady who'd bought the farm on the main street of St Lucia.

From then on I made sure that my shoelaces are always tied…

30 gastric crises, 2 loos
- Heather Parker, Health24 Editor

I was in Istanbul, fresh off the 26-hour bus from Athens. Turkish lire, we had been told, was a rubbish currency, and no-one in Athens would exchange any for us. “You’ll be able to get some at the bus terminus in Istanbul,” they had said.

Fine advice, unless you’re arriving at night, during Ramadan, with every money changer home with his family, breaking the fast.

My friend Jeanine, blonde and persuasive, managed to scrounge enough lire to get us to a backpacker’s lodge we’d heard about in the Sultanahmet district, right by the magnificent Blue Mosque.

“Come,” said the Danish boys we met there, “we know a good restaurant. It’s on us tonight. We all go there.” It wasn’t an offer we’d normally go for but, you know, food is alluring when you’ve not had any for a day.

We did all go there; about 30 of us from lodge, and we had a fine time, dipping into the myriad piquant little dishes that make up a traditional Turkish meal. Masses of flavours and textures in a neon-lit restaurant with plastic tables. A truly authentic experience. Really.

Then all 30 of us got home, and went to sleep. Or tried to. There were worrying abdominal rumblings in the dorms. One by one, roommates groaned and fled for the loos.

There were only two loos.

I have a cast-iron constitution, but those myriad little dishes got to me too. Hell is the unwanted intimacy of 48 hours in a loo queue, strangers all grimacing with various degrees of cramp, while the “lucky” person behind the door tries to keep the noise down.

I pack Imodium, these days.  

Where blondes do not have more fun
- Ilse Pauw, Mind Editor

I travelled through Europe on my own for over a year when I was 24. Against all warnings, I decided to travel through Turkey before my return to South Africa. Many people warned me against the unwanted attention I might attract from men, not used to seeing young blonde women walking around on their own.

What they didn’t warn me about is the world’s worst pick-up line:
“Lady, you dropped something.” Followed by, as you turn around: “My heart!”

By the end of my first day approximately 20 men had tried that line.

After a week in Istanbul, I felt I had mastered the art of dealing with unwanted attention and thought it was time to head inland to explore this magnificent country. I booked a room in a guest house in a little village – a visit which turned out to be a little bit of a nightmare.

I was the only guest there and the owner took it on himself to check in to see whether everything was fine – right through the night. By 1am, feeling more and more uneasy and scared, I moved the cupboard in front of the door because there was no key. This didn’t stop him from trying to enter the room. On the second night, I moved the cupboard again. By 3am, I was bursting to go to the loo and thought it would be safe to pop out quickly. I moved the cupboard as softly as possible, only to find him waiting for me outside the door.

He grabbed my belongings, pulled me by the arm and threw me in his truck. He then drove a bit and then dumped me and my belongings next to a road in the middle of nowhere. It was pitch dark and took two hours before a bus arrived to take me back to Istanbul.

- Compiled by Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated July 2011.


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