I’ve dealt with countless tribulations as a traveler and as a tour guide, but travel disasters often make the best stories once enough time has passed to soften the blow. At least that’s how I comfort myself when I’m in the throes of one. I hope you’ll be inspired by the fact that all these misadventures were successfully overcome, survived, or dealt with, and haven’t dampened my wanderlust one iota!
That time I didn’t bother with a head count
I’d stopped my tour group at an Italian hilltown for a lunch break. As we all piled off the bus, one woman asked the driver to open the luggage storage area underneath the bus so she could retrieve something from her suitcase. Heading off to show my group the town and find lunch, I heard a muffled, “Help! Help!” Sure enough, the driver hadn’t realized she’d crawled way back into the compartment to find her bag, and, eager for his own lunch break, he’d slammed the hatch closed and locked it up. Lucky for her we hadn’t gone more than a few steps. And you can bet I did more frequent “buddy checks” after that incident.
Passed out on a plane
When I was 28, my beloved mom was hospitalized after struggling for a long time with her health. Her treatment for Hodgkin’s Disease when I was a toddler was state-of-the-art at the time–and bought her almost 30 years–but the harsh radiation treatments eventually took a toll.
Flying home to Seattle after staying by her bedside in Phoenix, I was emotionally drained, exhausted, and heartbroken. Sitting in the window seat, I started getting claustrophobic during takeoff. In an irrational panic, I clambered over the passengers next to me to get to the aisle. My vision went black and white…and then nothing. When I revived, I was lying on my back in the aisle, with everyone looking at me in shock. And I was a mess: as I’d fainted, my stomach and my bladder had…emptied.
A flight attendant helped me to the bathroom and I did my best to clean myself up, but my clothes were ruined. To my embarrassment, an announcement went over the PA system: Did anyone have clothes they could offer me?! I—the queen of carry-on—had for once checked my bag since I’d had an extended visit, so I had nothing with me to change into. Some kind woman produced a minidress (and, understandably, told me she didn’t need it back). The flight attendants moved my poor trod-upon seatmates, laid me down across all three seats, and strapped an oxygen mask on my face.
When we landed in Seattle, my husband was waiting at the gate. (This was pre-9/11, when you could do that.) Increasingly confused and worried, he watched as every passenger disembarked—except me–and then medics boarded. I felt better by then, but apparently the airline required I be checked. Finally I emerged to meet him—pale, disheveled, and wearing an unfamiliar minidress.
No flight since has been as eventful…thank goodness.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
The bus drivers who chauffeur Rick Steves tours generally know our routes like the backs of their hands (and, nowadays, use GPS), and as a guide I don’t need to pay close attention to the road. However, mistakes can still happen.
It was the very last leg of a two-week family tour; everyone—myself included—was excited for our last stop, Rome. Without any problems (ha!), it would be about a two-hour drive from our Tuscan hotel to our midmorning stop—the surreal “monster park” in Bomarzo—and then a little over an hour on to Rome, where we’d arrive in time for a late lunch.
After the kids and their parents had fun exploring Bomarzo, we all hopped back on the bus, eager for our Roman grand finale. As we headed back to the freeway, I noticed the on-ramp signs: “Rome” (south) and “Orvieto” (north)—but didn’t give them a second thought because, obviously, we’re going to take the one to Rome, right?
Wrong. Not if the driver gets momentarily confused. He took the one marked “Orvieto,” I gasped, and Rome faded into the distance. Because once you’re heading from the Bomarzo exit towards Orvieto, you are going ALL the way to Orvieto. There is no intermediate exit. And it’s about 40 minutes away.
I pasted on a happy face and pulled every trick out of my tour guide’s hat: Trivia contest! Singalongs! Passing out candy! Bomarzo had been fun, but it had also been hot, humid, and mosquito-ridden. My tour members were sweaty, itchy, and eager to get to lunch and our air-conditioned hotel. They’d be needing bathrooms soon. And we were getting farther away by the minute.
Finally we reached the Orvieto exit, and we were funneled into a couple lanes for the tollbooths. Only one car ahead of us…we’re almost there…and then our toll-taker abandoned his booth for his lunch break, with vehicles still in his line and no way out. Our big bus was hedged in by concrete lane-dividing walls on both sides. All the drivers in our lane were going to have to somehow convince the drivers in the open left lane to let us cut in their line.
I’m sure you can imagine the drivers in the open lane–avoiding eye contact with us, pretending they can’t see the vehicles next to them—including me, the urgently gesturing tour guide riding shotgun in the giant bus. With a growing sense of desperation, I leaned over my driver, lowered his window, and shouted at the driver in the car next to us, in my fractured Italian, “PLEASE let us in! I have 28 people who need a bathroom!” I don’t know if it was my plea that convinced him, or the crazed look in my eyes, but he allowed us to cut in front of him, and we got through the tollbooth.
The troops were restless, and I knew we couldn’t wait until Rome for lunch. I’d spotted an Autogrill rest stop cafeteria and ordered the driver to pull over there. Continuing to act the part of cheerfully optimistic tour guide, I told the group my new plan and enthused about Autogrills: “This is actually a fun opportunity, folks! This isn’t the cinder-block restroom and vending machines of a US interstate rest stop…these Italian ones are sparkling clean and have delicious fresh food!” I talked up the pasta made to order, the custom-grilled steaks, the well-stocked fresh salad bar, the modern restrooms.
No such luck. The workers at this Autogrill were on strike. My frustrated and hungry group poured into this place that I’d hyped only to find tables and chairs askew, dirty dishes and discarded napkins stacked high on tables, lines long for a slim selection of food, and restrooms that hadn’t seen a janitor in recent memory. My assistant guide and I scrambled, bussing tables ourselves, and assertively bustling our people through the lines for something, anything, to tide them over ’til we’d get to Rome.
Needless to say when we at last arrived in Rome that afternoon, I gave everyone some extra down time for much-needed snacks and showers…and then bought them all double-scoop gelati.
Attack of the caterpillars
I always reassure my tour members that if there’s a weird or embarrassing ailment, I’ve usually had it, or I’ll get it, so they don’t need to be shy about asking me for help.
I arrived in Amsterdam a day before my tour began, and was excited that some fellow Rick Steves guides were also in town. We met at a sidewalk café and enjoyed a leisurely evening of drink, dinner, and chatting for several hours, sitting outside in the perfect evening temperature.
When I woke up the next morning, my vision was blurry. A weird symptom of jet lag, I assumed, and I powered through the day in spite of it, doing errands and preparing for my tour. By the time of my first tour meeting that afternoon, my vision had improved, but I noticed I’d gotten what I assumed were mosquito bites. Several were on my face, and swollen, so I was rather embarrassed to look this way when I first met my group.
I’m a mosquito magnet; this was nothing unusual. I always carry cortisone cream and allergy pills to deal with the itchy and unsightly reaction I often have. I was baffled, though—I wasn’t seeing any mosquitoes, and over the next few days, instead of my bites improving, they seemed to get worse—and multiply.
In the middle of the night, a horrifying thought came to me, and I called the emergency contact in the Rick Steves office. “I think I’ve gotten eaten by bedbugs!” I sobbed to her, panicked. She gamely looked at the photos of my bites that I emailed to her and helped me calm down. She didn’t think they looked like bedbug bites, and encouraged me to visit a doctor the next morning.
Ah, the European medical system! Even in the tiny German town where our group was staying, a sparkling clean, modern little clinic was only steps away, and the staff’s fluent English made my lack of German medical vocabulary a non-issue. And the doctor was able to see me right away.
The nice young doctor took one look at my spotty skin and pronounced, “Worms!” I was aghast. But then he remembered the right English word and corrected himself: “The worms with feet….caterpillars!” Still creepy to think of them biting me, but not quite as disgusting as worms. Then he explained: Caterpillar poisoning! With climate change, the winter hadn’t been cold enough to kill off a certain kind of caterpillar, and Europe was overrun with them. Their “fur” contains poison to discourage predators—but it can also affect people. They shed these little poison hairs, which waft in the breeze…and whatever overly sensitive person is in their path is in trouble. That nice mild breeze keeping us comfortable when we’d relaxed outside in Amsterdam had apparently carried this caterpillar curse. My friends hadn’t been affected, but obviously it’d gotten me.
Grateful and relieved to have a diagnosis and a prescription for a cure, I picked up super-strength itch-relieving cream and steroid pills at the nearby pharmacy, and was back at our hotel before my tour members even realized I’d skipped out on breakfast. The almost invisible little caterpillar hairs can stick in hair and fabric—that’s why I’d continued to get more spots—so I threw out some of my clothes, sealed the others up in plastic bags—and bought a fresh new travel wardrobe at our next stop.