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. Biggest OS moment was definitely having all my stuff (including passport) stolen about 48 hours before flying back home. Emergency passport took 24 hours to be processed and involved flying from Auckland to Wellington to get to the Embassy, then back to Sydney to catch my flight home. As if that’s not OS enough, I was flying through Christchurch on my way back to Sydney and the airport was evacuated due to a bomb threat.

    Good times I tell you!

  2. really bad food poisoning in albania with absolutely no one who spoke english and no bus system to get out.
    cornered by three guys in old Nice (got away unscathed, luckily!).
    motorbike accident in greek countryside…
    well the list could go on, luckily OS moments make the best stories 🙂

  3. One OS moment was when I broke a surfboard while surfing in Bali. I thought I was going to have to pay $400 like in the states, but thankfully it was only $60 for repairs. But it was definitely embarrassing to walk down the beach the two pieces of the surfboard under both my arms.
    Another time was when a scammer in a Paris train station scammed me for a “3 day ticket” when it was only a one time use one. I totally saw it coming, but innocent 17 year old me thought more highly of the person somehow.
    And the last one was driving from South Africa to Swaziland with a group of friends through the mountains. Just as our van was having trouble going up a hilly road, I looked across the valley and saw an old rusted car that had fallen down halfway into the valley, and thought of myself being in that position! scary!

  4. Oh, you know, just losing my passport the day before I was supposed to fly home after six weeks in Paris. Decided to be responsible and start packing the day before, but couldn’t find my passport. Finally had to call my parents, wake them up in the middle of the night (they were thrilled with me) and figure out where the nearest Embassy was. Thank God that I had a photocopy of my passport in my suitcase (now I keep a photo on my iPhone/computer as well) and that I can speak French. It was relatively easy to get an emergency passport since I was in a city with an embassy where I spoke the language, but still. Oh Shit was definitely the first thing that crossed my mind!

  5. Another great post on life lessons via travel. And super well-written too. I love how travel intensifies those kinds of life experiences. And you’re right: things usually do turn out okay.

  6. Crossing snow on a steep pitch at 4,000 meters while on a trek in northern India. Both me and my French companion were clearly having an “oh shit” moment when we realized there were no ropes, crampons, or ice axes for us to use. The way down was harder, and at the highest section, I held the guide’s hand to steady myself.

    It still scares me to think about it!

    Here’s a quick video clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfZUnUIOgP0

  7. My first real “Oh Shit!” moment occurred in Ghana. I was showing symptoms of Malaria for about a week… Blacking out, throwing up, cold sweats, etc.

    A friend of the orphanage that I was staying at helped me get to the closest hospital. I sat in the waiting room (a long wooden bench, outside in the blistering hot sun) for about 2 hours with many others, mostly older Ghanaians.

    When my turn came and I explained my predicament, the doctor walked to the corner of the room and returned with the biggest needle I had ever seen. I didn’t see him unwrap it or clean it or anything… I hate needles as is. It was at that moment that I asked myself what the hell I was doing in Ghana.

  8. Plenty of OS moments!! One was when Craig and I left the Sailing club in Nha Trang, Vietnam to go home at about 1am after far too many vodka buckets. We were staying only a block away but for some reason thought it would be fun to get a cyclo home instead of walk. We later woke up in the middle of a bustling market preparing for sun up which was not too far away. We had absolutely no idea where we where and we were in the worst vodka haze, where thinking was just not possible. No one around us spoke english, I could not put together a plan of action. A small boy came up to me and handed me my credit card which must have fell out on the floor of the market somehow. The cyclo driver couldn’t tell us a thing. Eventually a man on a motorbike said he could drive us back to our guesthouse except we could not remember the name of it. After some time we managed to get it together and communicated to him to take us back to the scene of the crime and we’d work it out from there. The motorbike ride took us about 30 minutes to get back!!! Oh shit- needless to say we don’t drink vodka anymore. Thankfully we still have our kidneys

  9. I guess this explains those little cards all around Amsterdam talking about the available drugs which all carry the same disclaimer “If you get sick or scared while taking (insert drug her) go to a quiet place and have some sugar”

  10. Eeek! Sounds a little like my Amsterdam experience, haha. Thank god for kind people though, right? You’re a good friend!

    1. I think it’s probably more like your Amsterdam experience than I elaborated on here… I’ll tell you more at TBEX.

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