We’re all aware that travel is supposed to be about exploring the globe, meeting amazing people and finding yourself. The web is littered with blog posts about life-changing and eye-opening moments. However, it’s not all heartening tales and romantic anecdotes.
I’ve been around the backpacker’s block and I’ve had several excruciatingly awkward travel moments; the sort of experiences that are so cringeworthy, you just don’t know where to look or what to say. Here’s my list of the top six.
Up (too) close and personal
It was a blisteringly hot day in Arusha, as are most days in east Africa. I was on my way to Moshi. Public buses in Tanzania can be pretty oppressive so I was pleased when I boarded early and had a choice of seats. I chose wisely and picked a window seat towards the back on the left.
It didn’t take long for the bus to fill up and a rather, how shall I put this, “heavy set” woman with her baby soon took the seat next to me. As we departed and began collecting passengers, I was encouraged to shuffle up so another person could join our row. I, in the spirit of things, happily obliged. By now the bus was packed and getting stuffier by the second. Pretty soon, the baby began to cry.
The child was clearly hungry and so the mother naturally provided. I like to consider myself a man of the world, but I’ll admit that I was surprised by her openness: her ample bosom was not only out for all to see but unabashedly resting on my right arm!
Packed in like sardines, I could barely move and being British and the only white man on the bus I didn’t have the balls to say “excuse me”, and so I left my arm where it was. No-one else batted an eyelid as I sat there glowing bright red while this woman’s bare breast rested on my arm. For an hour.
Serenaded… badly… repeatedly…
The meal had been delicious: a three-course treat in one of the Caribbean’s most elegant restaurants. The exquisite dessert had arrived and we began to indulge happily. We were the only guests there. Very intimate, very romantic and very peaceful.
In walked a member of staff, with a guitar. And another, clapping. They stood directly in front us. The guitar was out of tune, his voice broke at the end of every note and her claps were sporadic and out of time. They stood about a foot in front of the table so there was literally nowhere to look but at them. We alternated between polite smiles and mortified disbelief directed at our desserts. Romantic moment: ruined. Finally, it ends. I don’t even know what it was, but it was bad. At least it was over.
That is, until the next night. We were there for six nights in total and we endured five excruciating evening meals. We changed the time we had our meals to try and give them the slip. Didn’t work – they still appeared, sometimes with a third member of staff adding “backing vocals”. How such an otherwise classy resort got it so wrong, we will never know.
On our last evening, we noticed that another couple had chosen to have their meal on the beach. Initially, we were envious until we heard the “band” break into song just for them. We smiled smugly and enjoyed our meal in peace.
Witnessing a Finnish secret wedding
We were quite excited about this. Kia and I had booked a room at a hotel in the centre of Helsinki for a long weekend away midwinter. Before we left the UK we had an email from the owners asking if we were willing to witness a secret wedding in the hotel. We readily agreed, speculating on who the mysterious bride and groom may be. “Perhaps they’re celebrities” or “maybe they’re running away from their families and eloping.”
We were given a room number and a time to be at the door. We came home early from a morning of sightseeing and tried to dress as smartly as we could from the hand luggage we had. Excitedly, we arrived at the room and knocked, giggling as we waited in anticipation. The door opened and we were ushered in.
There were four people in the room: the officiator, a photographer and the casually dressed couple. They weren’t celebrities, but that’s all we know for sure. They weren’t exactly what you would call gregarious.
“Are you from Helsinki?” I asked.
“Yes,” came the taciturn reply.
“It’s very unique to have a secret wedding.”
“We feel very special, being invited as the only two witnesses,” ventured Kia.
A nod this time.
We turned to the official and waited awkwardly as she proceeded in Finnish. The photographer flitted about the room snapping us awkwardly. Eventually, they all turned and looked at us. This was evidently the time for us to sign something, so we signed something. More photos of the awkward scene.
“Perhaps you could send us some of the photos?” I asked.
An awkward smile.
“Well, congratulations. We hope you’re very happy together.”
Two nods this time.
“Well then, we’ll be off shall we?”
“Goodbye,” came the reply.
“Okay, well, uh, thanks and, er, yes, goodbye.”
Being ‘asked’ to convert to Islam
“Abdullah,” the driver said, turning to Kia. “That’s a Muslim name. You’re Muslim?”
“Yes, my parents are from Bangladesh.”
“But you,” turning to me, “you’re not, are you?”
“No, no I’m not, I’m afraid.” Was I? Was I afraid?
“What are you? Christian?”
Probably best to just say yes, Pete, I thought. I’m not sure I have the diplomacy to get into a debate on spiritualism, humanism, agnosticism or worse, atheism. I am in Jordan– it’s probably best to play it safe.
“Yes, I’m a Christian,” I told him.
“And are you two married?” he continued.
“No, we are not married,”
“You will convert before you marry, no?”
I chuckled, rolled my head back and met his eye in the mirror. He wasn’t chuckling.
“Oh, yes, I suppose I could convert,” I stuttered more seriously.
“Well, if you are to be married, then you must convert.” A statement – not a question.
“Well, er, we’re not sure if we, er…” I began to flounder, turning red after catching his eye again. “Yes, I guess I better convert.” I smiled weakly.
After a few more awkward exchanges, his attention turned to Kia. He would go on to make her recite an Arabic prayer and, although I sympathised, I was glad his focus was no longer on me.
Evading an overzealous tour guide
I love museums. I love taking my time wandering the artefacts and reading the placards that accompany them. Notice the language I use here: taking my time.
I was looking forward to going to the National Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I knew very little about the history of the country so this would be the perfect introduction. We had organised the visit as part of a tour, not something I would usually do but it was cheap and included a lot. Our guide (I won’t name and shame him) was more that a little… keen.
We arrived at the museum and I looked along the first hall. It was full of statues that pre-dated any history that I was interested in. Further along, in the next hall was more my sort of stuff: swords, big ships, warriors with bows and arrows – boy stuff. I set off in that direction.
Unfortunately, our guide had other ideas. He called me back and motioned me over to the first statue. Okay, I thought, let’s not be rude. Let’s see what he’s got to say. About 20 minutes later, we’d covered the first two statues and I was fast losing patience. Kia was doing better: gracefully nodding whilst also trying to move him along.
“And what about this one?” She’d ask, pointing to one a few statues along, hoping to skip a section. Nice try, but that wasn’t going to cut it with this guy.
After an hour and a half in that same hall, I just couldn’t take it anymore and marched off in the direction of the guns and canons. Somehow, using more tact than I could ever muster, Kia managed to shake him off after about the twentieth statue and joined me, stressed and exhausted.
Later that day, we went on to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, previously S-21 prison and the scene of some of Cambodia’s darkest moments. “We can’t have him with us the whole time,” I said to Kia.
“No I can’t take that again – not here.”
Kia audaciously told him that we preferred to walk through the grounds on our own, promising to meet him once we were finished. As I watched her let him down gently, I’m pretty sure I saw the moment his heart broke and he considered leaving his profession for good.
A request too far
It was a particularly hot day that summer of 2012. We were on commission at a high-end hotel and I was tasked with taking photos to accompany Kia’s article. In general, I offer to share my photography with the hosting hotel so that they can use it for their own purposes. Occasionally, they will request a particular shot (e.g. a shot of the deluxe suite, the gardens or the dining area). Sometimes – well, this one time – the host asked for a little “extra”…
“We could do with a shot of the new showers we’ve just put in,” said the resort manager.
“Ok, no problem,” I replied. “I’ll get some after we check out and the room’s been serviced?”
“Well, it would be great if we got someone in there.”
I was a little bemused. “Er, well, I don’t really work with models so we’ll struggle to get a good shot I’m afraid.”
“Oh, no, that’s fine. We’ll just use people you’re comfortable with.” She gestured towards Kia. “And we’ll get Leo to join her.” She pointed towards one of the staff, a tanned twenty-something waiter.
My eyes widened. Was she asking me to photograph my own girlfriend… in the shower… with another man?
“Er, I don’t think Kia would feel comfortable modelling.”
“Oh, we don’t need to see her face; just her silhouette.”
She continued: “And it would be good to get them both on the massage table.”
I reddened. How could she not see that this was unprofessional and inappropriate?
“So, I’ll leave you to choreograph it all,” she said airily and sauntered off. I stood, dumbfounded. Did that just happen? I spent the rest of the trip trying to avoid her. When she finally pinned me down, she asked me about the shots.
“I got a mixture,” I said vaguely.
“I can’t wait to see them!”
I smiled and backed away… very, very slowly.