Most of what you read on travel blogs, including this one, is about all the destinations around the world that are great places to visit. But let’s be honest: not every travel experience is good, and if you travel enough, you end up with a (hopefully short) list of places you’d be happy never to see again.
I end up enjoying most of the places I travel; even if they’re not beautiful, they’re usually at least interesting. But there are three places that left me with a bad memory instead of a warm glow, places I’d return to only to post a sign that said, “Stay away.” And while I’ve been to countries with bad reputations, like Nicaragua and Colombia, these aren’t the places on the list. In fact, all three are places well trodden by tourists, some of whom even liked the experience.
So here they are, the three places I won’t go back to, and the experiences that made them so.
Hordes of tourists pour into Jamaica every year, heading for heavily promoted beach resorts. But a lot of those beach resorts are gated, and for good reason: Jamaica is the land of the aggressive panhandler, and anyone who ventures outside the gates is fair game.
At least, that’s the way it was when I made my one trip to the islands a few years back. Stepping out of my hotel in Montego Bay the first night, I was immediately targeted by one of the local practitioners, who declared himself my guide, followed me around for an hour, and then demanded money for his “services”.
I soon discovered this was standard practice. On my way into town the next day, a panhandler followed me for at least a mile, begging for money, and on and on it went. After a while I pretended not to speak English, but even that didn’t discourage them.
I was startled to find that the beaches in Montego Bay were blocked off from the main road – many were private beaches, and you had to pay to use them. But I soon learned it was well worth the money, to avoid the endless line of hawkers trying to sell you another homemade trinket or roach clip.
I finally decided to take the bus to Negril. That required changing buses halfway, and when I stepped out of the first bus I was swarmed by a group of drivers yelling “Negril! Negril!” Two of them grabbed my bag from opposite ends and started pulling as hard as they could, with me desperately holding onto the middle. The skirmish only ended when I yelled loudly enough to bring the security guard running.
I spent the rest of my stay in Negril, where men offered me their sisters for money as I passed by, teenagers called me a white #^&^#% on the street, and I ran a gauntlet of hawkers to get one short block from my hotel to the beach.
To be fair, I did meet some nice Jamaicans, and had some good (though expensive) food. But Jamaica was the only place I ever started consciously avoiding the locals, and I hope I never have to again.
If there was a competition for the place that deserves the title “Armpit of the World”, my nomination would go to Sunauli, India. This small town on India’s northern border is used by travellers headed to and from Nepal on the overland route, and I passed through on my round-the-world trip, way back when.
I arrived in the early evening, heading south from Nepal, and as soon as I stepped onto the main street, it was evident things weren’t going to go well. If you’ve ever seen a Western movie set in a Mexican frontier town that consists of a dusty main street with a few squalid shops on each side, you’ve seen Sunauli. That is, if you substitute mud for the dust and add a line-up of filthy trucks and buses, plus beggars and touts of all descriptions.
The best choice was to get out of town as soon as possible, so I headed down the line of buses to find one going to Varanasi, my next stop. I was met with contemptuous laughter. “You cannot go to ‘Baranas’ from here,” said one driver, with an evil grin. “You have to go to Gorakhpur, then you can take a bus to ‘Baranas’.”
Fine. I eventually found a decent-looking bus headed to Gorakhpur, and got on. But as soon as I took my seat, I realized my mistake. This bus was never meant for North Americans with legs as long as mine: even sitting normally jammed my knees painfully against the seat in front.
Still, I desperately wanted to get out of Sunauli, so I convinced my seatmates to let me sit on the aisle – upon which a young mother tried to put her baby in my lap. We then waited what seemed like hours until every square inch of the bus was filled with human flesh, and finally, off we went to Gorakhpur.
At least, that’s what I thought. After 10 minutes, the bus entered a small town and pulled over to the side of the road. Everyone started getting off. “There is something wrong with the bus,” someone said. “We have to get on another one.”
My heart sank. By the time I got my bag down off the roof rack of the first bus, I was going to be the last person on the second one. That meant I’d be standing in a crush of people for the full four-hour trip, and that was a bridge too far. I got my bag off the bus and watched as it disappeared down the road.
And there I was, standing on a muddy street in a small town in India, with no idea whether there was another bus coming, or whether it would be any better than the last one. I decided to go back to the border. A young fellow standing nearby volunteered his jeep – for a price. I agreed, and climbed in the back, with my luggage and two or three of his friends along for the ride.
We set off at high speed across the countryside, which was pitch dark, without even a glimmer of moonlight. Five minutes into the trip, the headlights flickered, then went out completely. We were in total darkness, but the driver kept flying through the night at the same breakneck speed, whether he could see anything or not. “My God,” I thought. “I’m going to die in the dark on a country road in the most miserable place in India.”
Finally, good sense prevailed, and the driver pulled over. One of his friends jumped out, opened the hood and jiggled a few wires until finally the lights blinked on. And we reached town with our skins intact.
But now I was back in the black hole of Sunauli. What to do? Almost magically, another young fellow appeared beside me. “I have a hotel,” he said. “You can sleep there tonight and I will get you a ticket on the tourist bus in the morning.”
So I spent the night in a narrow bed in a room the size of a broom closet, and awoke to the sounds of the manager trying to rouse someone who may or may not have died in his room overnight. And by noon I was well on my way to Varanasi, on a big, comfortable bus built for Western folk, never to see Sunauli again – with any luck.
A lot of people consider Rome to be one of the world’s great destinations, so you may be surprised to see it on this list. But as I always say, everyone has his own trip, and my trip to Rome was anything but classic.
This was another of the stops on my round-the-world trip, and I arrived to early spring-like weather, dull and a bit chill. That pretty much characterized my view of the Eternal City. On my way in from the airport, I watched as a street kid, who couldn’t have been much more than five, approached a car with a dirty squeegee. The driver waved her away, and she responded with an obscene gesture that would have looked right at home in Brooklyn.
I found the city rather unattractive: long streets filled with dull-looking tenements, fountains covered with sculptures that to me just looked overdone, archaeological sites with a few pieces left standing. And the people were as cold as the season. I sat down in restaurants and was ignored until I left, con men patrolled the tourist spots, and everywhere, people wanted money for everything.
After a couple of days, I booked my ticket out. I spent the day in the Vatican museums before heading to the train station to redeem my bags and take the shuttle to the airport. But I was a few lira short of the ticket price, and the clerk refused to take U.S. dollars to make up the difference. So I trudged down the street to the money changer, a bag in each hand.
Suddenly a pair of children loomed up in front of me, a girl about 13 and a boy who looked about five or six. The girl held a cardboard sign that I assume said, “Help the poor” or something like it, and as she approached, she held it up in front of my face. While my vision was obstructed, her young accomplice stuck his hand in my pocket and grabbed my wallet.
As I explain in this post about avoiding pickpockets, I don’t usually carry a wallet when I travel in dodgy places. But when I do, I shift it to my front pocket, where I feel it more distinctly and can tell if someone grabs it. So when the little Italian Oliver Twist got his hand on it, I knew it immediately.
Luckily, I have quick reflexes. I dropped my bags and grabbed the two by the scruff of the neck before they disappeared. A crowd – undoubtedly the family members who put them up to it – quickly gathered, pretending to admonish them. Meanwhile, I stepped back and felt something under my foot. It was the wallet: the little thief had dropped it as soon as I caught him.
A couple of years ago I was forced to enter the same train station once again on my way to Civitavecchia for a Mediterranean cruise. And there, a young, dark-haired woman conveniently appeared, to help me use the ticket machine and guide me to my train. Was this the same girl who tried to rob me a couple of decades earlier? I tipped her politely, but let’s just say I kept my hands in my pockets.
So, those are the three places I won’t go back to unless I’m guaranteed a large stack of gold bars — and even then, I’ll think about it. I hope the stories were entertaining — then at least these experiences will bring someone a little pleasure. And speaking of sharing experiences, do you have places you’ll never go back to? If so, leave a comment. I always say, forewarned is forearmed.
Rome photo: “Dioscure Capitole” by Jastrow – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons