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When I started writing my “worst travel moments” round-ups back in 2012, it was a funny and lighthearted look back at the year’s most cringeworthy moments on the road. It’s one of my favorite posts to write each year and one of your favorite posts to read each year!
But before we get into the funny stuff, we need to talk about the sad stuff.
2019’s Tough Moments
This year, my travels were entwined with death and mourning.
The absolute worst moment of the year took place on a trip when my friend found out her best friend had been killed by a drunk driver. I have never seen anyone so upset. My friends and I spent the rest of the day comforting her, taking care of her, and getting her on the plane and home safely. It destroyed me to see her in so much pain, knowing that her life was changed forever.
We had several losses in the travel blogging world this year. My wonderful friend Meruschka, Msanzigirl from South Africa, passed away far too young after battling breast cancer. Evelyn of Journeywoman, the godmother of travel blogging who paved the way for us all, also left us after battling cancer. Paula of Contented Traveller, whom I didn’t know but who made an impression on everyone she met, passed away as well.
Two of my close travel blogger friends, Candice and Alex, each lost their mothers and have been sharing their journeys through grief with their readers. Candice wrote about her mother here; Alex wrote about her mother here. I visited Newfoundland a few weeks after Candice lost her mom and I’m grateful I got to spend time with her in those early days.
One of my travel friends whom I met in Croatia, Ashley, passed away suddenly this fall after a struggle with anxiety.
Other travel friends of mine are dealing with serious illnesses.
In this respect, it was a sad and difficult year. I don’t think those moments belong on a lighthearted “Worst Travel Moments of the Year” list, but I wanted to acknowledge them here.
Let’s pick things up again.
Travel isn’t just about the happy moments — you get a lot of bad mixed in with the good. Just as you do in life. Don’t go into a trip expecting it to be perfect — you’re going to have some hiccups along the way! Hopefully you’ll be laughing about them in the future.
And if not, at least they can serve as a warning to your friends.
Here are the worst travel moments of my year.
When a Mouse Pooped on Me in Guyana
If you’re traveling to Guyana, expect a level of roughness. This is a country so new to tourism that some of the major properties don’t even have websites, and they’re not used to international tourism standards.
The highlight of Guyana was the Rupununi, the savannah in the remote southwest of the country. I went in thinking I knew what to expect. No internet? No problem. Windows to the shower that are wide open to passersby unless you wedge them shut? Fine. A toilet that didn’t flush? At least I was only here for two days.
And my room seemed decent for the most part. It was large and spacious with a canopied bed and an ensuite bathroom.
After returning to my room after a day out, though, I noticed mouse droppings all over the bathroom floor. I mean EVERYWHERE. Like there had been a party in my absence and hundreds of mice had come out to play.
Where had it come from? I looked up toward the rafters.
And just then I saw the tiniest rodent foot pushing a poop off the edge. I screamed as it fell to the floor.
THE MICE WERE POOPING ON THE RAFTERS AND KICKING THEM ONTO THE GROUND BELOW.
Thankfully, my bed was covered and had mosquito netting, so I was safely ensconced from getting pooped on at night. But showering was a challenge after that! I tried to aim for the least mouse-y spots.
Note: I don’t want this to reflect poorly on the property or the Rupununi. This is just the reality of traveling in the wilderness of a region just opening up to tourism. It’s still worth going!
Nearly Missing My Flight to Italy
I usually take an Uber to JFK from my apartment, but those $55-70 fares add up FAST. I decided to save money and take the medium-price, medium-duration journey of taking the subway to Penn Station, then getting a train to Jamaica station and catching the AirTrain from there. At $18.25 it’s much more affordable, as long as you don’t mind dragging your suitcase up and down several staircases.
I always leave a LOT of time to get to the airport — I tend to stress out if the connection is tight, so I like to get there a bit earlier than necessary and plan my commute with extra buffers.
I should have known something was up when I got to Jamaica and they weren’t charging us to go through the AirTrain gates. I got on the AirTrain, went one stop to Federal Circle, and we were told that the AirTrain was broken down and we would have to take bus shuttles to the airport.
So I went downstairs…and the line for the shuttles was HUNDREDS of people long, literally. Buses were only coming every few minutes. I waited in the line for 15 minutes and realized that I wasn’t going to make it — even if I managed to get on a bus, with all the terminal stops, it would take forever.
I was going to miss my flight. Shit, shit, shit.
I called an Uber but they weren’t able to get inside the station. I finally ran outside and jumped into the car and had them drop me off at my terminal. I was the second-to-last person to check in (the woman behind me in line was stuck at Federal Circle too and we commiserated so hard, we nearly became best friends), and I ran onto the plane just in the nick of time.
Food Poisoning in Mexico
I’m proud of my cast iron stomach — aside from one bout of food poisoning in Cambodia and one in Thailand, both incidents in 2013, I’ve never gotten sick from the food on my travels!
Then I got it in the most ridiculous way in Mexico.
On the way home from Mérida, I had a long layover in Mexico City airport and was craving chilaquiles. Chilaquiles are a breakfast food and it was after noon, so most restaurants weren’t serving them. I walked around until I found a cafe that had them on the lunch menu.
I knew these weren’t going to be great when the dish arrived — it didn’t look fresh, and the tortillas were warm in some patches and cold in others — a telltale sign that they had been microwaved. Still, I ate about half the plate.
The rest of my journey home went fine. But the next morning, the rumble in my stomach made it clear that all was not well.
I spent the day going from couch to toilet and back. All for a plate of microwaved chilaquiles! What is wrong with you, Kate?!
I’m SO grateful that the food poisoning didn’t hit until I was home in my own apartment. I was able to be gross in peace.
(Side note: I’m connecting flights in Mexico City again in a few weeks. I’ll try to find the restaurant and take a photo to warn others.)
One of my least favorite aspects of this job is hounding people for payment. While most of my display and affiliate income comes in automatically each month, payment for one-off campaigns can be hard to procure, especially if it’s a government-based organization.
Very often, payments take a long time to process and come in overdue. I get that. I plan for that. It sucks, but it’s part of doing business, and even if you have penalties for late payment in your contract, good luck getting any company to agree to that in the first place. No matter what your contract says, if they don’t pay you, you don’t have the money.
This fall it got to a point when four different companies missed payments. I was okay, but just barely — that is the kind of cataclysmic event that can send a freelancer or entrepreneur into a tailspin.
And I still don’t know what to do about this. I’m now working with “easier” banks for international payments and taking credit card payments from companies, but that still doesn’t help when a company tells you they are only able to pay by check. In 2019. Some companies were so bad about payment that I had to pick up checks at their New York City offices because it took them weeks to mail them (!).
The other awful part is that I lost a huge campaign at the last minute in the spring. This was a company I had worked with previously, and it was slated to be HUGE. How huge? Roughly 25% of what I made in 2019.
We were in the final stages of negotiating, getting ready to sign the contract (!!), and then I got an email:
“Hi Kate — we actually just changed agencies and decided not to move forward with any campaigns this year.”
To wait until the last second to cancel the campaign — and a huge chunk of income that I was expecting — was egregious behavior. And I promptly freaked out.
People who mess up your payments don’t realize what it’s like. For them, it’s an act of balancing numbers and pressing buttons and trying not to piss off their bosses too much. For them, pulling someone’s campaign at the last minute is, “Oh, it’s not my fault, that’s up to another department.” Forgetting to pay someone again and again and again is, “Oops, I knew I forgot to do something on my list.”
I wish these brands realized that there are real live people who suffer consequences when you don’t pay them. I think part of it is the stereotype that travel bloggers and influencers are rich, vapid socialites who never worked a real job in their lives. Far from it.
Our jobs are creative, and fun — at least some of the time (and you NEVER see the ugly stuff behind the scenes). But when you decide not to pay someone, you’re not keeping someone from being able to buy a third sports car — you may be keeping someone from unable to pay their rent or mortgage, or buy groceries for their family, or pay for a school trip for their kids, or pay for their hosting or another essential component of their business.
I’m taking steps to make sure I don’t end up in a similar situation in 2020.
The Mud Incident of Kutaisi, Georgia
It had been a long day on the road and we were tired. The day began in Tbilisi with an excursion to abandoned buildings and rooftop monasteries in Chiatura, several platters of khinkali, and a visit to a winery with free-flowing qvevri wine and plates and plates of food. All we needed to do was get to our hotel in Kutaisi.
Then we turned down the road to our hotel…and the road was GONE.
Turns out the local authorities had dug up the road, removing the pavement and only leaving a muddy pathway. Even the sidewalks were removed.
We trudged into the hotel, covering the lobby and stairs with mud (and apologizing — other than a doormat, there was nothing else to take the mud off). Later we spent the evening cleaning our sandals while readying our ugliest shoes for the mud pit.
The next morning, it was raining and our van actually got stuck in the mud (!). We had to get out and walk down the street, through the soft-sinking mud once more, as our driver skillfully steered out of the sludge.
Insomnia on the Road
I’ve never struggled with sleep before — but several times this year I was unable to sleep at all. The first night was before my presentation at Traverse in Trentino, the second was before my presentation at Borderless Live in London. Weird timing, as I never stress about public speaking.
Then in London, I couldn’t sleep TWO NIGHTS IN A ROW. That had never happened before. I was a wreck.
Turns out the culprit was the Italian version of Sudafed. When I have a bad cold, Sudafed is the only thing that makes me feel human — but it can also cause insomnia. I had no idea, but insomnia is a side effect of the medication. Keep that in mind before you take it.
I was an absolute zombie. That photo above is from the town of Ostuni in Puglia, which I barely remember as I was wrecked the whole time.
A Panel from Hell
I speak on a lot of panels about travel blogging, and while people think you just show up and talk, it takes a lot of work to do a panel well. A panel should be planned in advanced and moderated by a leader who keeps the conversation flowing.
If you leave a panel with no structure, it will result in the 3-5 panelists taking turns answering the same question over and over, each of them droning on endlessly, without being reigned in. They are the absolute worst.
And one panel I was on earlier this year exemplified the worst of the worst. There was no preparation or structure beforehand. One of the panelists opened with, “I have two millennial children — kill me,” to great laughter, I’m assuming because adults under 40 are hilarious. And the moderator would ask a question and have us go down in a line, each answering it. I kept my answers quick and punchy, but some of the others took it as an invitation to tell five-minute stories each time. The crowd was nearly dormant.
But the worst part was when a woman came up to the microphone to ask a question. She looked to be in her fifties or so. I don’t remember her exact words but I’ll paraphrase: “I’m a travel writer and I’ve been really struggling to get work lately. It’s been so much harder this year than before. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I keep pitching and it’s just not working. I don’t know what to do.” She sounded nearly in tears.
Since I’m not a traditional travel writer, I chose to sit this question out. Then one of my fellow panelists responded, “You know, you need to make sure you spell the editor’s name right when you pitch him.”
Are you kidding me?!
Traditional travel writing is dying. There’s no way around it. There’s less and less work available and pay has dropped sharply in the last decade. Not everyone who has survived this long will continue to survive. Even making the leap to far-more-lucrative travel blogging is tough at this stage — there are so many new skills to learn and you’ll be competing with people who have been doing this for years.
It’s not because you’re spelling the editor’s name wrong. To say that to someone’s face is an insult.
I decided then and there that I would no longer speak on that panel in the future, despite having done it for the last several years.
The following month, I spoke on a panel at a different event, pictured above — and it was fantastic. We went over the questions and prepared our anecdotes a few weeks in advance. We met the night before and figured out who was going to be asked each question, rather than having everyone answer all questions. The moderator moved us along at a quick, rollicking pace, and the audience was engaged the whole time.
What a difference it makes when people take panels seriously.
Side note, if you need a moderator for an event in the travel/media industry, drop me an email! This is work that I take seriously and enjoy, and I’ll make sure the audience has a great time.
Seeing Notre-Dame Burn
If your early travel experiences are those that leave the most lasting impact, Notre-Dame is my place. Which made it all the more painful to see the cathedral engulfed in flames earlier this year.
My first trip overseas was a school trip to France at age 16. The year before, I had performed in Le Bossu, a reimagined version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame that our drama club had written. Between my drama obsession and my French obsession, Notre-Dame was my own personal Shangri-La.
My friend Chris and I broke away from our group to go to the top of the towers. He had been in the play as well and was almost as obsessed as me. We squealed at the top, calling it “Chez Quasi.” We were late getting back and got in a LOT of trouble with our teachers, as we had almost made the group miss our train, but that moment of teenage rebellion was worth it.
Seeing Notre-Dame burn filled me with so much sadness. The aftermath, even more so. It’s clear that Notre-Dame will be rebuilt; it’s a bit sad that philanthropists and governments will happily throw their money at fixing Notre-Dame (which doesn’t really need any financial help) but refuse to take action on far more serious issues like climate change.
The Bus Ride from Chilaquilá to Mérida
Mexico is LOUD. It’s probably my least favorite thing about the country, despite Mexico being one of my favorite countries. Trucks with drive down the streets as their loudspeakers blare advertisements. Firecrackers explode in the air. Mariachi music echoes from each corner and locals dance late into the night.
But the worst part was on the five-hour bus from Chilaquilá, by the Holbox ferry, to Mérida: the girl in the row next to me had on headphones and sang along with them throughout the entire bus ride.
You know the classic reggae song “No, No, No” by Dawn Penn? (If you’re my age, you’re probably more familiar with the covers by Eve and Rihanna.) The girl kept singing those three words over and over for nearly five hours straight: “No, no, noooooooo…”
And because this is Mexico, people were nonplussed. Far from the loudest thing they had heard that day.
I couldn’t wait to get off.
Leaving Something Important in New York
Ah, the travel mistakes that cost you a lot of time and money. In July I was planning to leave my apartment for more than three months. I went to see my family in Massachusetts and took everything I needed — but left a critical hard drive in my desk drawer. GRAH.
Back to New York on the train. Grabbed the hard drive. Got my nails done. Got a train back to Boston.
$200 down the drain for a stupid mistake. But it was infinitely more pleasant than taking two $15.99 Megabuses.
Getting Stuck in the Rain in Queens
One of my favorite activities this year was a street food tour in Queens with Food & Footprints. Jackson Heights is home to so many different immigrants, from Tibetans to Bengalis to Indians to Mexicans to Colombians, and we sampled fantastic food. I loved everything we tried, especially the Bengali fuchka.
What wasn’t fun was the weather. It was drizzling when the tour began, then the rain continued until it was pouring down in sheets.
And we didn’t have an umbrella.
At first my boyfriend and I thought we could handle it — we were both in winter coats, mine with a hood, and he was wearing a hat. The tour was entirely outside, so we paused underneath shelter whenever we could. At one point I mentioned that I was going to buy an umbrella at a bodega and the guide Greg offered me an umbrella he had in his backpack.
By then, sadly, it was too little, too late. Three-quarters of the way through the tour, we couldn’t take it anymore and apologized to our guides, who were kind about it, and we jumped onto the nearest 7 train. Stripping down in the car, the rain had soaked us all the way through our winter coats, leaving damp patches all over our outfits.
Lesson learned — winter coats are not substitutes for waterproof coats. If there’s even a chance of rain, BUY THE DAMN UMBRELLA AT THE FIRST OPPORTUNITY.
The Drive to Ushguli
A lot of people have written about how awful this road is. The road from Mestia to Ushguli is legendarily rough — only an experienced Georgian driver should attempt it, and only in a 4WD vehicle. (Along the way we saw a few travelers who attempted the drive and gave up halfway through.)
I get nervous on scary drives, and I get motion sickness on bumpy or twisty rides. I lay down in the car with my headphones in and squeezed my eyes shut, just waiting for it to be over.
But it was so worth it. Getting to somewhere as isolated as Ushguli felt like my biggest accomplishment of the year.
An Injured Neck (and more)
When I was in Ravenna, my neck started to hurt — I thought it was the effect of sleeping on it wrong. But it kept worsening and my final morning in Parma, I woke up with pain down my arm and three fingertips in various stages of numbness.
I freaked out, assuming the worst — that this was the first stage of losing sensation everywhere in my body.
But I flew to Prague that day and got an appointment with a physiotherapist. (Fun fact: physiotherapy was invented in the Czech Republic!) After a very painful session, he pointed out that my issues were thankfully fixable, but my bad habits had led me to this injury. At home I was vigilant about working out five times a week, but on the road, my routines essentially disappeared. It was time to get back into yoga at the bare minimum.
After a few more appointments and adopting new exercises, I was able to get rid of the pain within two weeks and the numbness another week or two after that. But it was a reminder that it’s a lot harder to bounce back from injuries as you grow older. I need to take better care of myself.
But the pièce de résistance was when I was packing up my bags, in the same resort in the Rupununi where the mouse poops were everywhere. I had put my jeans down on the second bed the night before.
I picked up the jeans and underneath was a cockroach and dozens of newly hatched cockroach babies.
Pretty much the LEAST CUTE BABY ANIMAL IN THE WORLD is a swarm of baby cockroaches nestling in your jeans!
I screamed and shook the jeans out as best I could. I checked and re-checked for cockroaches and grumbled to myself, “This is going on my list of worst moments of the year.”
It’s good to get off the beaten path on your travels…but that moment was far more than what I’d bargained for!
What were your worst travel moments of the year?