I never like to say “never” when it comes to travel experiences, especially adventurous ones, but there are certain ones I don’t care to repeat.
I’d glad I did them — but “did” is the operative word (as in the past tense). I’ll do just about anything once, with the possible exception of bungee jumping. I’m still working up to that one, and admire anyone who’s done it — although I’d feel pretty stupid if that’s the way I kicked the bucket, list or no.
Here’s my “honor roll” of once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime-is-enough-thanks travel experiences:
* Camel riding. It seems the height of romanticism — crossing the Sahara or the Arabian sands on a camel. Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif, flowing robes, Bedouins and all that. My first camel ride, in Tunisia, actually was OK, until we were blinded in a dust storm.
The next one, in Israel, was sheer torture — as in extremely uncomfortable when seated. I don’t think it lasted more than 20 minutes but I was numb for hours afterwards. And the camel was nasty. He had clearly seen one too many tourists that day. Camel riding: check that one off for good.
* Mud walking. There’s nothing even remotely romantic about mud walking, but it appeals to a certain segment of the Dutch, who like to call it “a bit of walking.” I came properly prepared with cheap high-top sneakers that I had bought especially for this experience. Since I knew I was only going to use them for a few hours before tossing them in the trash, I didn’t pay much attention to the fit — which they didn’t. I was with a group of ten Americans and Canadians, and only two of us got more than a few feet into the mud before turning back.
But I was determined to finish — it wasn’t easy to find cheap high-top sneakers — which meant slogging through a muddy lake bed that would fill with water later that day when the tides came in. In other words, after a certain point, it would be too late to turn back or risk drowning.
So, with mud now sometimes reaching up to my knees, my feet blistering from sneakers that didn’t fit, and the tides threatening, I mucked through the miserable course to the end. “And how did you enjoy your bit of walking?” a Dutch man asked me afterwards. Mud walking: done that.
* Cave biking. This was another Dutch treat. Our group mounted bikes and donned helmets to ride through what turned out to be a narrow, pitch-black cave — with low ceilings. Our “guide,” a callow 20-year-old, warned us that if we didn’t keep pedaling, our bike lights — powered by the pedaling process — would go out. So off we went — and the guide soon bolted out of sight. Meanwhile, I kept bumping my head on the ceiling of the cave, so I was forced to bend way forward or risk multiple concussions (the helmet helped, but like in football, you can still get your bell rung.)
When I had to stop at one point to readjust my helmet, the real fun began. The group had gone on, but I found myself in total darkness. Which way to go? But to have light, I had to pedal. After hitting the side of the cave, I saw that the cave tunnels split off into two directions. Stopping to ponder my situation only put me into total darkness again. Fortunately an even more laggard rider approached me from behind, pedaling and bringing light. Eventually we found our way out, but next time I’m in Holland, I’ll stick to tiptoeing through the tulips.
* Hitchhiking through Zambia. This was an unplanned adventure. My wife and I were riding the Tan-Zam Railway from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to what we thought was Lusaka, Zambia, in south-central Africa. But we were jolted out of our seats on the last day of our trip when the conductor announced, “Everybody out.” We were at a station called New Kapiri Mposhi, and it was in the middle of nowhere. Joining a number of Zambians queuing up at signs marked “bus,” we patiently waited in line until people started drifting away. It was becoming clear that the buses would never come.
Following some of the Zambians on a path through the woods, we eventually reached the highway to Lusaka and stuck out our thumbs. A man driving a flat bed truck with raised sides stopped and asked if we had kwatchas (Zambian currency). Desperate for a ride, I pulled out a handful of bills, which, of course, he gladly accepted. So we climbed aboard the back of the truck, with a couple dozen Zambians clambering in behind us. As he careened off down the potholed highway, we bounced like jumping beans on the unforgiving surface of the truck bed. And when the sun went down, wearing only light jackets, we felt like we were being churned in an icy blender.
So we bounced and shivered for six hours of, yes, sheer torture. And when we finally reached Lusaka at 10 that night, we found that every hotel in the city was full. Hitchhiking in Zambia: probably not a good idea.
* Glacier walking. Picture yourself in a group of novice mountaineers tied together with rope in a remote area of Canada inching your way across the top of a slippery glacier facing a fall of hundreds of feet down slick ice if you lose your footing — and risking taking the rest of the group with you. If that sounds like something you’d like to do, you’ll be doing it without me next time.
*Dogsled driving. It immediately became clear that sled dogs love to run. Barking, yapping, jumping for joy, they couldn’t wait to take off. I was driving a dogsled in northern Finland in winter with one female passenger in the front. I had no idea what I was doing, even though I’m sure I duly nodded as the dog handlers issued instructions. How, exactly, was I to turn left, right, or slow the dogs down if necessary? I had missed those parts — but no matter. As soon as the lead dog was properly attached, our dog team took off like a bolt of lightning, and I came within a hair of falling off the sled.
Regaining my footing, I momentarily enjoyed the ride until I noticed we were heading straight toward a tree. “Stop!” I cried, but apparently the dogs didn’t understand English — or didn’t care. “Mush!” Surely that was a word they’d understand. But these dogs were on a mission: to kill us. My passenger was screaming. At the last second, the dogs swerved and we barely cleared the tree branches, avoiding decapitation by inches. As we took a sharp right turn after the tree, the dogs now reaching the speed of sound, my passenger and I somehow hung on.
And before we knew it, we were at the end of the trail. The dogs miraculously stopped on their own. I graciously accepted the congratulations from everyone on a sterling ride. Now, where’s the vodka?
* Jumping naked into the icy waters of the Baltic after steaming in a Finnish sauna. No further explanation needed.