Saturday, February 27, 2016

Three slightly crazy things we've done while travelling

We're pretty conservative as travellers go. Sure, we like to do our own thing. We book all our own transport and accommodation online. We've used AirBNB with only slight (and unwarranted) trepidation. But we're not big risk-takers. Sometimes though, things don't quite work out as you plan.

I give you my top three "Well, that didn't go quite as we planned" moments from our overseas adventures:

1. Lifts are for wusses

There are 704 steps to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, which is 115m from the ground. There are perfectly good lifts, but nope, we took the stairs. Bike Boy had a raging chest infection as well, so bonus crazy points to him!

I had originally wanted to do the behind the scenes tour, which included the machinery room and the underground "bunker" beneath the Champs de Mars, and also allowed you to skip the line. Unfortunately, when I tried to book just before we left home, there were no tickets available on any of the dates we'd be in Paris.

Not to worry, we said; we'll just rock up early and beat the crowds. Ha! We got there a full hour before it opened and the queue at the north pillar (the only one allowing non-group entry) was at least 200 people long. Luckily I'd done quite a bit of research into the best ways to tackle various attractions. I turned to Bike Boy and said "There is another way. Follow me".

So we made our way to the south pillar, where only about a dozen people were queuing. We had to wait for the ticket office to open, but within ten minutes of the window sliding open, we were starting our climb. About three flights up, chest heaving, I started to think we'd made a huge mistake. Bike Boy was coughing up a lung, and I swear our pace was so slow, a few septuagenarians overtook us, but we eventually made it out onto the first floor. After a look at the view and a bit of recovery time, we tackled the next flight to the second floor. We loitered for a while there before locating the ticket window for the lift to the top floor - where, I might add, THERE WAS NO QUEUE AT ALL.

It may have taken superhuman effort, but we stepped out onto the top level while more than half of the people who had arrived before us were still on the ground queuing for the lifts. Totally worth it. We also saved about 8 euros, so all-around win.

That view!

2. "Je ne parle pas Anglais"

While we were in France, we hired a car. It was the only way to get to the places we wanted to visit outside Paris without being stuck on some godawful group tour, or trying to negotiate local bus services to remote locations.

I wasn't keen on driving on the wrong side of the road, but Bike Boy was pretty gung-ho about it. Turns out, that was the easy part. We loaded our bags into the car in the railway station car park at Lyon, got in and sussed out where the controls were before easing out into the organised chaos that is the French road system. The tricky thing was, the GPS was (of course) programmed to speak French. Changing the language seemed like it ought to be simple, but all of the instructions were on-screen in the electronic audio system, and also in French. Gah!

We eventually managed to program in our destination, and set off. We could understand droite (right) and gauche (left), but mostly had to just follow the visual cues on the map. The bloody thing kept giving us instructions we had no hope of understanding, so we just crossed our fingers, kept going and hoped we weren't about to break some road law and end up in a French jail.

Once we got to our first overnight destination, I spent some quality time with Google and eventually managed to get the stupid car to speak English for the next leg of our trip.

That would have to be the most stressful road trip of my life.

Nice view, but HOLY SHIT, where are we going?!

3. Travel like the locals, they said. It'll be fun, they said.

On our brief visit to Vietnam, we had to get from Da Nang to Hue. It's less than 100km by road, so we could have organised a driver for a pretty reasonable cost. But no. "Let's take the train", said Bike Boy. I gave him my best sceptical look. "I've looked it up, and it's FINE", he said. The descriptions I read of the view as the train travelled through the Hai Van pass persuaded me. It was also stupidly cheap, and I do love a bargain.

Booking train tickets ourselves wasn't all that easy, but luckily every business in Vietnam offers multiple services and the nail salon/laundry across the road from our hotel was also a travel agent. Of course. So a lovely Vietnamese lady got on the phone and organised our tickets for us.

"You want soft seat or hard seat? Soft seat better." It was organised quickly and we left clutching a receipt with instructions to come back tomorrow to collect our tickets.

On the appointed day, we took a taxi to Da Nang railway station and manhandled our suitcases into the foyer. We stood for a minute, trying to figure out where we should go and how it all worked. There were glass sliding doors barring the way onto the platform, and piled-up luggage to one side of them. People - a mixture of locals and backpacking tourists - were sitting on hard chairs in the un-air conditioned waiting room. There were no signs indicating train departures or anything else useful.

We attempted to ask various staff where we should go, showing our tickets, but a hand wave and a stream of Vietnamese was all we got. Eventually, Bike Boy found a man who grabbed our suitcases and parked them right in front of the sliding doors, and told us to sit and wait.

Eventually we heard the train arriving, and people got up and began to mill around in front of the doors. Our man appeared out of nowhere just as the doors opened, grabbed our bags and pushed through the crowd, beckoning to us to follow him. He elbowed past all the people in front of him, hoisted our bags up the steps into the carriage, climbed up after them and disappeared. We followed to find him waiting at our seats, our bags shoved up onto the overhead luggage racks. People were pouring in behind us, and within a couple of minutes there was no room for any more bags. We were very grateful for our porter (official or not, I have no idea, but frankly, I don't care). We tipped him generously and he vanished.

The "soft seats" weren't all that soft or spacious, but at least they weren't hard wooden slats, which I believe was the alternative. The air conditioning struggled and we were pretty soon sitting in a puddle of sweat. The next two-and-a-half hours were a bit uncomfortable, but I was cheered by the thought of that view... As it turned out, the windows were so filthy and the condensation so bad that you couldn't see a damn thing.

What view?
We both agreed that it was an adventure, but one that we didn't care to repeat. For our return trip to the airport at Da Nang, we booked an air conditioned car and driver.

We've been lucky in that none of our adventures resulted in any negative repercussions. And honestly, I find that the things that go a bit wrong on a trip often become the most hilarious stories afterwards.  Do you have a favourite "didn't go as planned" travel memory? Name and shame Share your stories in the comments.


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