Terrible Travel Tales


Trump-travellers just can’t help themselves. Give them a captive audience at a dinner table, or around a crackling log fire, lubricate the mouth parts with some high-octane brag fuel, and stand back. Then away they gush, like West Texas Crude Dudes on pay day.

I’m talking about people who talk about their horror holidays whenever an opportunity arrises. They happily deliver tales of terrifying bus rides and starless hotels to any receptive shell-like appendage as long as the lubricant flows; or, more likely, until the audience wilts. The terrible tales are usually heralded with predictable openers like: “That’s nothing….”, then hair-curling stories are regurgitated in glorious technicolour. It’s a game; a game of Trump Travel, where the trump card is the biggest brag, or the worst travel story.

Now I should know what I’m talking about here because I am, I hate to admit, one of the worst offenders for mine’s worse than yours stories. Take the well-honed trumper of ‘Otel Orriblé’ in Guayaquil, Ecuador for instance; a sure contender for The Worst Hotel In The Universe Award if there was one.

It started with a terrifying bus ride over precipitous mountain passes that went on forever. They told us it would only take eight hours, but it blew out to twelve, and felt like twenty. The journey may have been tolerable in a modern ‘western’ bus, but the thirty year-old rattler turned the trip into an endurance test of mind and body. Our knees were squeezed in a vice-like grip by the brutal wooden seats in front, and our spines were compacted on every bump. But that’s the way it is with local travel in many parts of the world. Options are invariably reduced to none, so you just have take whatever is on offer and make the most of it.

We eventually arrived at our destination, tired and battered, in the middle of a very dark night.
So there we were: Penny – my long-term partner and lightweight tripster, Karl the Swiss global-heavyweight trekker, and myself – a die-hardened adventurer. Despite our qualifications, we were lost and vulnerable in a strange city with no escape plan and few options. It was one-am, the streets were dark and deserted, and there was no prospect of help. The word ‘hostile’ is an understatement for our situation; downright dangerous is a much more accurate description.

Within minutes we attracted the attentions of several unsavoury local youths. They were prowling for prey in the dark and empty streets and we looked like a triple-treat on a tray. Our collective nose smelt trouble and, sure enough, they soon began circling like hungry wolves weighing up a trio of woolly white lambs for slaughter. Mercifully, they didn’t appear to be organised, and this almost certainly saved us from being rolled on the spot.

We instinctively formed a defensive triangle arming ourselves as best we could, but our arsenal was improvised. Penny had a police whistle, although there were no police within earshot at such an uncivilised hour. Karl pulled out a length of chain with a large padlock embedded in one end. He began twirling it like a Roman gladiator on steroids and it was impressive to watch. I followed Karl’s lead, swinging my knotted chain and padlock like a Roman Gladiator about to be dismantled by hungry lions. I also had a pair of hairdressing scissors that looked like a dagger in the dark and these were brandished with all seriousness. The combined effort was sufficient to keep the youths at bay. They knew we meant business, but their ranks were swelling and we had to act fast or fight to survive.

Still maintaining a defensive triangle, we managed to shuffle to a nearby intersection where we huddled together under the protective umbrella of a solitary street light. Our new position added an element of risk for our predators and they slithered back into the sinister shadows of their suburban underworld to regroup.

A lone taxi soon appeared, but the driver refused to stop, presumably wary of trouble at such an indecent hour. Several more trickled by, again without stopping. This forced us to employ a different tactic: Penny played the part of a damsel in distress, while I hid with Karl in a nearby doorway. The trick worked well and a battered taxi soon skidded to a halt. Penny quickly opened the doors, then we pounced into the back seat from our hidden position. The driver was obviously surprised by our sudden appearance, but not rattled enough to eject us. We were thankful to be on our way. The traumatic ordeal was regurgitated for the driver’s benefit as we headed for the sanctuary of the nearest hotel, but he had heard it all before. “They kill for one dollar”, he said with chilling conviction, as if we needed convincing.

A short and bumpy drive found us at the door of a decidedly seedy hotel. It was in darkness with absolutely no sign of life. A pair of imposing wrought iron gates barred our entry and security grilles filled every window. It looked more like a gloomy Victorian prison that had been abandoned, but we weren’t going anywhere.

A prolonged assault on the night bell eventually yielded some activity. We heard someone grapple with a number of drawer bolts from behind a heavy panelled door. It opened slowly, like a movie prop about to reveal something horrible, then a dishevelled middle-aged man appeared like a ghost from the shadows. He was cloaked in a depression-grey blanket with matching trousers that terminated well above the ground in a tattered fray. His sockless feet were encased in a pair of medieval moccasins and a collection of keys rattled at the end of a long chain as he walked slowly towards the gates. He studied us for a while before disarming a number of rusty padlocks and we were finally on safe ground. Something was muttered to the taxi driver, then he disappeared into the darkness leaving us in the hands of the jailer.

It is customary to inspect the standard of hotel rooms in South America before handing over any money, but we had no such intention at 2am. Any refuge from the hostile environment outside was welcome, or so we thought.

We were handed some well-worn keys in exchange for a small amount of equally worn and grubby notes. Our rooms were on the second floor at the top of a perilous staircase and they even featured the luxury of a private toilet – an important item for wayward travellers in starless hotels.

The smell on opening the door is a very difficult thing to describe, although anyone who has hyperventilated inside a rock festival cesspit will have an insight. The offensive stench was soon tracked down to our ‘luxurious’ private toilet. It did not have a door, or even a wall to accommodate one for that matter. But the night had aged and we only had to put up with it for a few hours. The fearful area was inspected with some trepidation and the actual receptacle, a heavily encrusted dark brown hole in the floor, looked like the entrance to Hell, or how I imagined it. A thigh-high bund surrounded the bottomless abyss, no doubt to contain any spillage of the gravy-like sludge that erupts periodically during the early morning gush hour. What goes down must come up, or so they say in South America.

To help prevent such incidents, it is common practice to place used toilet paper and sanitary products in a nearby bin. Recycled paint drums are often favoured, although plastic bins are also popular. The drums are usually old and rusty, and the plastic buckets are invariably split. Few had lids, most were full to the brim, and too many had spilled over. Toilet training takes on a whole new dimension in such places. Not only should travellers learn to hold their breath for prolonged periods, they should also be trained to survive an eruption whenever a blockage occurs.

Our luxury toilet harboured a rusty and battered 20-litre can surrounded by soiled toilet paper and other unmentionables that had accumulated up the sides like a heavily polluted snowdrift. The bin had obviously not been emptied for some time, possibly months, and I preferred to ignore the area theorising that one becomes accustomed to a smell, no matter how horrible, given enough time and attitude. Penny did not share my complacency and she immediately set about the task of removing the dreadful object and its surrounding nasties. This was not easy, but Penny was a strong woman in more ways than one and she soon evicted the bin to the landing. This was done with clenched teeth and only a few convulsions, much to my everlasting admiration, although I had to pay for it with numerous favours later.

With the fearful poo-bin evicted, we were able to focus on our room, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. The dilapidated walls featured a shoulder-high tidemark of body dirt from past inmates and crusty cakes of mould camouflaged the flaky ceiling. The rotting floorboards supported thickets of tiny mushrooms, their domed heads uniting in bubbly canopy. Our mood was anything but bubbly as we continued to assess the squalor.

A rusty iron bed supported a truly horrible sagging brown mattress that appeared to have been deep-fried at some stage of antiquity. Closer inspection revealed a thick layer of dirt and body grease deposited by countless unwashed travellers and courting couples. But pimps and prostitutes also hire such rooms on an hourly basis for cheap gratification. The pillows were stained Macassar-black and we winced at the thought of contaminating our heads on the sorry items. We searched in vain for sheets or pillowcases, but they are highly prized trophies in impoverished areas and none could be found. Determined to make the best of a very bad situation, we smothered the deep-fried mattress with our sleeping bags and swaddled the pillows with our own towels. They were damp and musty after weeks on the road, but it didn’t matter; they were ours.

An ancient metal light switch dangled menacingly from the wall on perished wires. We discovered, somewhat surprisingly, that it was actually related to a bare light bulb that had grown out of a damp patch of mould on the flaky ceiling. The suspicious switch also doubled as a cue for the animation of local wildlife, most of which appeared to be in our bedroom. Ferocious mosquitoes and scuttling cockroaches suddenly came to life after the light was relieved from its short spell of duty, and the straw-filled pillows began broadcasting strange scratching noises. The sound was amplified on contact with our ears and we imagined cockroaches as big as mice after harvesting the interior. Then armies of bloodthirsty bedbugs sank their deprived mandibles into our tender pink flesh until any hope of sleep was extinguished.

We lay prostrate in our torture chamber as several large rats appeared from a hole near the bed. They didn’t appear to be concerned by the human occupation of their room and we were fearful of being attacked. This was certainly not our idea of a memorable night in a hotel room and we spent the remaining hours swatting and scratching with a watchful eye on the hungry rats.

Daybreak brought a welcome relief from the rats and hordes of parasites, but the early morning sun also highlighted the squalid state of our room. The deep fried mattress may have yielded a regular income as a grotesque installation piece in an up-market New York gallery, but the logistics were daunting. The tiny translucent mushrooms almost looked pretty when back-lit and we wondered if the species had been recorded by western botanists. The temptation to harvest a few sordid souvenirs for identification was strong, but their bed of dirt was frightening. Bloated blowflies circled the terrifying toilet in a low orbit; their precious poo-bin was gone and they protested with a monotonous mantric drone.

A shrivelled pipe stub ejaculated a miserable dribble of water after some coaxing. It was freezing cold, but it was better than nothing. We made the most of our invigorating ‘luxury shower’ before fleeing the room and its horrors.

Karl was waiting for us in the hotel lobby, hollow eyed and exhausted. His distressed condition confirming a similar experience, but without the benefit of companionship. Our collective mood was one of prisoners who had escaped a death sentence, only to suffer a night of torture before being released for a spell in the exercise yard. The sloth-like manager was aroused once again. But instead of a greeting, he received a torrent of abuse. Like the taxi driver (who was almost certainly paid for referrals), he had heard it all before and failed to show any sympathy. We escaped through the prison like gates into blinding equatorial sunlight determined not to return.

And what a difference a day makes. The terrifying alleyways were bathed in the purifying light of a new day and the footpaths had been reclaimed by street vendors. Innocent women and children weaved amongst the stalls without fear as old ladies swept their doorways in a symbolic cleansing.

The narrow streets were awash with an unbroken stream of noisy cars and motorcycles. They appeared out of a thick curtain of pollution from stage left to parade past our hotel-hovel for a brief moment in time, before plunging into the swirling brown curtain on the other side. A cacophony of horns broadcast their progress, like ships feeling their way through a fog bank.

It was a surreal scene of normality, but we knew it was only temporary. The wolves were waiting to return on the evening tide of shadows, when icy fingers of moonlight probe the alleyways once more.

The first taxi stopped without hesitation and we were swept away in the raging torrent of rush-hour traffic. We found ourselves instinctively looking through the dusty rear window of our battered escape capsule as the hotel faded from sight. Had this all been a horrible dream? we wondered, pinching ourselves. El no, ‘Otel Orriblé’ was real all right. What a trumper!

c David Fryer (2370 words)