Learning to Deal with Disaster

(This is the last post in a series where I’ve recounted the ways that travel has helped me to learn about myself. For reference check out: How Travel makes us Smarter, Wiser and All-Around More Awesome, Learning to Love Being Alone, and Learning From Our Travel Mistakes )

There’s a particular mental moment that every frequent traveler is familiar with. It’s an overwhelming feeling of sheer panic and fear. I like to call it the Oh Shit moment.

If you have traveled for any length of time you’ve had these moments. And if you haven’t yet, trust me you will. No matter how thoroughly you plan and prepare it’s inevitable that some unexpected wrench is going to appear in your plans and throw you for a loop. At that moment you will inhale really quickly and think “ohhh shit.”

I remember one of my first OS moment. It involved a weekend trip to Amsterdam (practically a requirement for all study abroad students in Europe), a friend’s overindulgence in the local “specialties” and the strange bathroom of a tourist Mexican restaurant.

It’s strange the way fear imprints on your memory: I can picture that dingy bathroom so vividly. The white tiles up the walls, even the ceiling was tiled, the avocado green stall and my pasty white friend puking her guts out in the toilet. I didn’t even know that marijuana could make you ill like that. It was my first time in a foreign country (outside of England), I’d lost my voice due to a bad sore throat (a whisper was all I could manage) and I was absolutely frozen with fear.

I sat there in stunned silence, trying to decide the best course of action (call an ambulance? Did hospitals in Holland even speak English? Would we go to jail?).  It was just the two of us, in a foreign country- what on earth had made me think I could handle something like this?

I was shocked out of my indecision by the angry manager bursting in to tell us to get out of her restaurant. No amount of whispered pleadings on my part could gather any empathy. I could see exactly how we looked to her: dumb American college kids who didn’t know how to behave. Not really that far off to be fair.

It dawned on me that nobody was going to swoop in and solve this one so I better figure it out. I hauled my friend out onto the street and sat her up on a bench.  At this point a random Dutch teenager sauntered by, surmised our predicament and offered to help. He ducked into the restaurant and came out with a glass of sugar water. I’m not sure if it was the glucose or the fresh air but within about 45 seconds my friend was completely coherent.

Then we went and got ice cream.

So what’s the lesson here? Well one, don’t act like a big dumb study-abroad cool guy in Amsterdam. More relevantly though; no matter how bad things seem at a given moment, if you can keep your wits about you then you will probably be okay.

Since then I’ve had plenty of even more dramatic OS moments:

  • The time I got a nasty staph infection and needed surgery 1000’s of miles from home
  • The time Croatian border guards all but strip-searched my friend and I for still unexplained reasons
  • The time I was stranded at a closed train station in the middle of rural Scotland.

That’s the thing about oh shit moments. You will inevitable have them and you will inevitably get through them. And though it will suck at the time, in the end you will be left with the confidence that you can tackle anything. And probably a hilarious story for cocktail parties.

This is the last of my posts in this series, which I’ve really enjoyed writing. All of the stories I’ve related over the past couple weeks deal with experiences I had while studying abroad in London. This is not a coincidence. What I consider my first big solo trip abroad was a life and personality altering experience for me. I went into it a shy and nervous kid who had just gotten out of a five-year relationship and generally lost. It wasn’t an easy trip and there was a lost of trial by fire but it was the beginning of a period of change and learning that continues to this day.  I think that these articles help to illustrate how travel really has helped me to become a little bit smarter, wise and hopefully, more awesome.

What was your Oh Shit moment?

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38 thoughts on “Learning to Deal with Disaster”

  1. I am still 2 months away from my rtw trip (not too long!!), but i left home when i was 19 and changed 5 cities and countless houses, so i can say i have had a LOT of OS moments 🙂
    But one beats them all. Because of this one i always say ” if i made it in Rome i can face ANYTHING”..
    I just moved to Rome, and the only person i knew there was a guy i was “dating” (at least i thought i was!), new job and no friends.
    Well in 1 month i had to face these “disasters” in order:
    -At work they decided to fire me (well, not to hire me really) whilst a week earlier they told me my work was great. Go figure!
    -The guy i was “dating” disappeared
    – My mother fell badly ill and was risking her life and i didnt have enough money to catch a plane and go back home to visit.
    – I just took a new room (as soon as they told me i was doing great at work, so i basically spent almost everything i had in my account.
    I remained with i think something like 100 euros, with 1 month rent just paid in advance.
    Somehow i managed to go back home to assist my mother and, surprising everyone, i didnt stay. I went back to Rome, and using all my will power i started again from zero (i think i lost 8 kg, i was a ghost!), and i managed to find a really god job, to finally take my driving licence and a car and also to live in a studio flat all by myself.
    That was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life so far 🙂

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