Dusk is setting in. I am in the third-class compartment of a train, travelling from Simon’s Town to Cape Town. I opt for safety in numbers, seating myself near the door with my bag securely around my shoulders. Seemingly insulated, I plug my earphones in and settle in for the hour-long ride. Two stations later, a hand snakes in and snatches the phone. By the time I gather my wits, the doors have closed. I can only watch in horror as my one link to the world disappears from sight. Around me, people cluck with sympathy: “You’re lucky you escaped with your life”. My fear increases. As I sit there helpless and just that bit afraid, a man comes into my face yelling. He calls me a “stupid foreigner who doesn’t know how to behave” and tells me to always stay prepared, like him. Then, he shows me his gun. Though it’s safely tucked into his jeans, it is the first time I’ve seen a gun up close. It leaves me terrified.
I’m on the solo leg of my journey in South Africa, and, finally understanding why people everywhere told me to “be careful”. I dismissed the caution as well-meaning advice hinting at my general absentmindedness. I’m always cautious when I travel, more so when alone. I thought I was prepared. In reality, I was not.
It’s because through all the pages of research, stories, and social media posts I read before the trip, no one prepared me for what to do when you get mugged. Travel, they say, is about experiences. There are things and places to tick off a bucket list, adventures to capture, landscapes to pose in front of, history to understand, festivals to participate in and memories to make. It’s a positive picture, full of bright colours, filtered scenery, and Instagram-worthy adventures. Travelling the world can change your life, bring meaning to it, and help you appreciate the promise of a bright new day.
Travel can also suck.
There is a less glamorous side to travelling the world. It can get tiring, frustrating and overwhelming. You can get burned out. You can get robbed or lost. You may meet people who will con you. You can injure yourself. The weather can turn out bad. You can lose your luggage, or worse, passport. There’s a lot that can go wrong leaving you clueless and unable to deal with it. You may not enjoy it. It doesn’t mean you are doing “travel wrong”.
In the eight years since I started travelling for work and enjoyment, I’ve had my fair share of incidents. On my first trip to Europe, I sprained my ankle on the second day of a three-week vacation because the shoes I took weren’t good enough to tackle cobbled streets. I hobbled through the rest of my trip, a crepe bandage wound tightly over the injured foot.
On a recent trip to Mauritius, my overconfidence with a quad bike meant I took a sharp turn badly and fell off the bike. In Vienna, a friend and I got locked in at a cemetery on a rainy evening with no help in sight. In Warsaw, I got stuck outside the apartment building of my couch-surfing hosts at midnight for over an hour with no way of contacting them. In Brno, in the Czech Republic, a bus dropped us off at 4 am in the middle of the city and we had to walk in the freezing cold to our destination. In Vietnam, we had to survive an overnight bus journey in cramped box-like seats with no food or water.
I have been lucky to get out of every bad experience with a few bruises, to the body and, sometimes, my ego. Every bad experience leaves behind a mark, a fleeting one or a long-lasting memory that turns into a lesson for life. Sometimes, they can bring out something positive. In my case, it has been the people — friends and strangers — who invariably came to my rescue. In Cape Town, a woman in my train talked to me the entire journey, calming my fears. Before getting off, she even found me a chaperone — a lad whose credentials were thoroughly checked before he was approved to accompany me home.
I usually recover enough to allow me to enjoy the beauty of the place: learning about the African penguins in Simon’s Town, falling in love with Prague, following in Chopin’s footsteps in Warsaw and seeking our share of Brno’s subterranean treasures. This is why, a year later, the mugging incident has become a story I can narrate without any fear. In hindsight, all bad experiences make for good stories and cautionary tales. And, every one of them reveals something wholesome about the country, something that will make you want to return.
I don’t sugarcoat travel any more. As with life, it’s important to realise and accept the highs and the lows because they both matter. If you want travel to be that truly life-changing experience, chances are, something about it will be difficult.
Joanna Lobo is a freelance writer based in Mumbai. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The Blurry Picture’