Monday, April 23, 2012
Readers' Revenge: Your Worst Experience in a Foreign Country
By Shane Ryan
It's time for Readers' Revenge, the weekly feature in which we turn Grantland over to YOU, the unpredictable reader. This week's topic was Your Worst Experience in a Foreign Country. I'm happy to report that we received a record number of e-mails, and so, so many of them centered on the theme of digestive problems. I'm literally delirious from reading them all, and I'll never eat food again. But thanks for all who submitted — it was the hardest one to narrow down yet. I can't believe how many great stories got rejected.
Below are the top nine e-mails, and you can check out past installments in the box below. The topic for next week will be Your Best Prank. It can be one you played, one played on you, etc. Send your very best to firstname.lastname@example.org by Sunday for a chance to make the cut. Stories can involve you or someone you know, and anonymity is allowed. Those with a high degree of hilarity and humiliation always do well.
We begin, as usual, with the Seth from Conway Honorary Story. Enjoy!
Seth: I have set foot in exactly two countries in my lifetime. The first being the greatest country in the history of human civilization the second was Mexico. A few summers ago, I went with a couple of friends on a week-long trip to Cancun. We rented a hotel room and placed ourselves in the middle of the typical debauchery that takes place there and doesn’t require explanation. Later on in the trip, we were growing somewhat tired of just getting hammered all day and going to seedy clubs at night.
We found the adventure we were looking for when our hotel concierge mentioned Chichen Itza. None of us had ever heard of this place, but were told that it was an ancient Mayan city with huge mystical temples and statues. Other locals informed us that it was a magical landscape that was one of the Wonders of the World and a "can't miss" when visiting. Upon making the three-hour drive, we found that there were indeed large pyramids and stones that were kind of cool but as my friend Steven so eloquently said: “It ain’t no shit you couldn’t see at Six Flags.” Also, the 100 degree temperature and sweaty tourists detracted from the overall experience. After briefly touring the area, we decided to head back to the city.
While driving back our vehicle was stopped by the highway patrol. We were quite puzzled. Steven, who was driving and also about to graduate from law school, arrogantly told us, “don't worry, I got this.” Walking toward the officer he got about three words out while reaching for his wallet before the patrolman pulled his sidearm and began shouting. Although we did not understand what he was saying we immediately realized that a man in uniform with a gun yelling at you is the international symbol for “Get out of the vehicle immediately and raise your arms as high as possible.” We were searched, our IDs were confiscated, and we were handcuffed in the back of the police car.
After explaining ourselves, we were eventually told we could leave. I asked the officer about our IDs, and was told that there would be a small fine but we could pick them up at the station Monday. Except this happened on a Thursday, and we were leaving the next afternoon. We explained that this was not an option. The other officer again asked us if there was anything else in the vehicle. We again said no. “Are you sure?” he asked. Steven responded “Well there’s some beer in the trunk but that’s it, nothing illegal.” The officer then said “Is there ANYTHING else?” It was then that we immediately realized that 2,400 pesos and a half case of Tecate was the international symbol for “Thank you for visiting Mexico gentlemen, have a great day.”
9. My worst experience in another country started out as one of my best.
I was studying abroad in Rome for a quarter my junior year of college. I went to the same university as one Amanda Knox, and was in Italy the year after her whole debacle started. (We were actually advised not to bring any University of Washington clothes with us I didn’t listen.) So we were all supposed to be on our best behavior.
I met this girl from Arizona at this bar we hung out at a lot, and one night I went home with her. By this point, I knew the transportation system pretty well, but at 3 a.m., there aren’t a lot of bus options. I hung out at her place for a while and then went home. At 4:30 a.m., there are even fewer options.
Somehow, I managed to get back to the bar where we had hung out, which was still about a half-hour walk from my apartment. And I really, really, really had to pee. So I ventured down what I thought was just an alley like any other to relieve myself. I unzipped my pants and began to do my thing when all of a sudden four officers came out of nowhere pointing guns at me. I’m not a gun expert, so I don’t know exactly what kind they were, but they looked like the ones all the bad guys carried around in Die Hard.
Turns out I had started to relieve myself on the Italian equivalent of the White House.
So I’m mid-pee on an important government building, and four people with heavy duty artillery are yelling at me in Italian. It’s a good thing my pants were down, or I probably would’ve peed in them. They started yelling at me in Italian “You’re pissing! You’re pissing!” I played the ignorant American and just shrugged and asked “English?” Eventually, after getting me to the point where I have no doubt I looked like I was going to cry, they shook their heads, holstered their weapons and told me to leave.
I obliged and ran home. Made it there in about seven minutes. My roommates asked me what happened. (I was visibly shaking.) I told them. They laughed. About an hour and a half later we got up for class and found out we had a pop quiz, which I fell asleep during.
Needless to say, during this quarter abroad I got the worst grades of my academic career. I wish I could say it was the only time I had a gun pointed at me, but that happened again when I had an internship in West Africa. At least I had pants on that time.
8. In 1989, some students, a few parents, the principal, and a teacher from my high school traveled to the Soviet Union, back when it still was the Soviet Union. We were there for 17 days. The first leg of the trip was a one-night stay in Copenhagen, Sweden. I was 13, my mom was a chaperone, and our hotel was directly across the street from an establishment called "The International House of Sex."
Onto Russia: Night 1 St. Petersburg has what's known as White Nights, where there are 22 hours of daylight. That's enough light to see the roaches scamper across your hotel walls.
In one city, the water was unfit to drink, due to contaminants. You needed to boil the water before it could be consumed, or you could just buy soft drinks like Pepsi. Most of us opted for the latter, but all carbonated beverages were re-carbonated upon entering Russia, for whatever reason. Can you imagine multiple thirsty teens downing Pepsis that were re-carbonated? I'm not sure Booger from Revenge of the Nerds could keep up with some of our belches.
Onto Siberia, where after so many days of eating fourth-rate Russian mystery meat, I sprinted to a kebob vendor and quickly paid him a few rubles for real food. I hurriedly ate it, and then cut my lips on each corner, not realizing the skewers were metal and VERY sharp.
While flying to another city, we notice our first-class seats have no seat belts, the airplane missed the runway somehow and then had to pull up at steep incline to make another pass. This caused my eardrum to do weird things; I lost my hearing in one ear for 30 minutes or so. When we landed, we couldn't help but look out the window at THE CHARRED AIRPLANE WRECKAGE LEFT ON THE ADJACENT RUNWAY as if it never happened. Seriously.
Throughout the trip, I had been rationing granola bars that I had packed for the trip as extra sustenance, since the food there was terrible, to put it mildly. With two nights remaining on the trip, I rummaged through my bag and was exasperated to find out my mom had given my last two granola bars to a girl on the trip. I was beyond pissed.
On top of everything: A few weeks after the trip, I found out that my mother had an affair with one of the other chaperones.
If anyone has a story that tops this, I'm all ears.
7. A few years ago, a friend and I were hitchhiking along Portugal's Atlantic coast in the bed of a pickup truck, on our way to a nature reserve that we wanted to go hiking in. When we saw a dirt road and a couple of official-looking Portuguese signs we couldn't read, we decided we were at the right place, and thanked the driver for the lift. When we found the road blocked by a pretty serious gate and even more signs, we somehow reasoned that this was probably just to keep cars out, and climbed over. And when, after an hour or two of hiking, we stumbled over the most amazing deserted beach we'd ever seen, we went for a swim.
On the way back, though, we had kind of figured out that wherever we were, and it wasn't a national park. We heard dogs barking in the distance, but hadn't seen a single other person — so, when we came across a lookout tower, my friend decided to climb up there and check out our surroundings. At the time, it seemed like a good idea to wrap his hands in our T-shirts so he wouldn't leave behind any fingerprints. So I'm watching from below as he sticks his head up onto the observation platform, and IMMEDIATELY starts climbing down again. It's just a few seconds before someone on top is aiming an assault rifle at us and barking commands in Portuguese.
I raise my hands over my head, and my friend does the same, nearly falling off the ladder in the process. (Hands still safely protected by dirty laundry, though.) Two black jeeps full of angry soldiers show up and start yelling at us, and I'm pretty sure they were about to arrest us before they saw how stupid and pathetic we were.
It turned out we had accidentally broken into a Portuguese paratrooper training facility, and had tripped a silent alarm. While we'd been casually going for a swim, their entire base had been looking for us with dog patrols. They escorted us back off the grounds, forcing us to walk between two cars while all the soldiers inside glared at us. And the first thing we did once we were back in civilization was crack open a beer and appreciate how lucky we were to be alive and not in jail before high-fiving and feeling like bad-asses of international espionage.
6. Because this story involves the Netherlands and plenty of pot, it’s tough for me to describe any of this as "my worst experience,” but it is certainly embarrassing. First, I must remind the reader that this took place in 2004 and our Irish cell phones obviously didn’t work outside of the country. Also, I am incredibly stubborn.
In the spring of 2004, I was a sophomore in college and studied abroad in Galway, Ireland. Plenty of stories took place there but this one occurred when me and some friends decided to head to Amsterdam for a few days. Thanks to scheduling and flights, a large contingent of our friends left early with me and another friend having to meet up with them upon arrival. So we fly into Brussels without incident, have some beers and crash, having to get up early to catch the train to Amsterdam. We both nodded off on the train (mistake) and I awoke as we were approaching a bustling metropolitan area. Announcements on the train were in Dutch, French and English and all I could make out was “Amsterdam,” so thinking that we had arrived, I rouse my friend and we hurry off the train, thinking that our friend is waiting for us. He’s not there, but no big, we wait for 15 minutes or so we catch a cab and check into a hotel.
I’m carrying an Amsterdam guide book and while we check in am going over places we want to go when the nice girl behind the desk tells me: “You're in The Hague, not Amsterdam.” I took this information from an obvious local and — instead of rushing back to the train station to get to our destination — told my friend “I’m pretty sure that’s just a borough of Amsterdam, like the Bronx.” Somehow he bought this, and we used the computer in the lobby to set up a meeting place and time with our friend, who was waiting patiently in Amsterdam. We soon find a place with a neon sign that says “HARD DRUGS,” assume we’re in the right place and after smoking some soft drugs, we go looking for “the big monument in the main square.”
Over the next four to eight hours, we waited at every single monument that has to exist in The Hague. I waited by statues of guys on horses, by stone monuments near canals, all the while staring into my guidebook of Amsterdam and wondering why none of it made any sense. Three or four times, we would go back to the hotel, e-mail our friend who, just as bewildered would respond with “It's the huge monument in the center of the city.” We split up and must have walked for miles but eventually as night began to fall we smoked again, went to KFC (yay culture!) and headed back to the hotel bar.
My buddy and I were lamenting our luck over Heinekens when another young traveler down the bar piped up. “You know you’re not in Amsterdam right? It’s like an hour away on the Eurorail.” With my dream of navigating officially crushed, we did what was to be expected — my friend smoked himself silly and I found a small pub with euro pints and got hammered. The next morning, we finally met our other friend, who had nothing to do but smoke and wander Amsterdam alone the previous day, and we did have a lovely day full of coffeehouses, bars and all the town had to offer.
Except our friend got robbed that night and me and my other buddy had to pay for everything until we finally got back to Galway.
5. Summer before my senior year, I was doing research on my own. I was traveling a lot, doing interviews, and was in Australia when this happened. After a really long bus ride, I decide to overnight in Townsend on the east coast before continuing north. My hostel is totally empty except for one other guest, who, while I’m out for a run, picks the bed directly under mine. This guy, we’ll call him Steve, is in his 60s, wears a Crocodile Dundee hat, and I can only understand every other word he says.
Steve also wears opaque sunglasses, has numerous bruises/wounds all over his body, some of which are wrapped in bandages and openly weeping. (Imagine if this guy from O Brother, Where Art Thou? joined Fight Club.) In other words, he looks scary. Talking to him, I gather that he’s just moved back to Townsend (his hometown) to be a woodworker; he then proceeds to try to sell me something, which looks like it was crafted by a 7-year-old. He only relents when he looks back into his toolbox and starts screaming that someone stole his medication. At this point, I’m petrified of Steve, and move toward the door, mumbling something about going to get food. He snaps out of his rage, and offers me the leftover Domino's pizza he’d bought that day for lunch.
Now, my mom taught me not accept pizza from strangers, but my repeated refusals, however polite, have Steve insisting in a strained, low, but angry voice – I can almost see the fury bubbling behind those horrible glasses, and rather than risk getting impaled by the dorsal fin of a miniature tiger shark or worse tonight after I sleep, I reluctantly accept. Eating as little as I can, I thank him profusely, to which he responds that it was no problem, and maybe I’ll get a cup of coffee with him sometime. I kind of laugh, and say that I’m leaving the next morning, so maybe with breakfast (no chance). At this point, I just want to go to bed. When he suggests that he knows a great place downtown, and why don’t we go get that coffee right now, I almost choke.
Again, my mom taught me never to go strange places with strange men, but my repeated evasions (I’m tired. It’s late) are met with that beady (I think) gaze and insistent rage. At this point, the thought of going to sleep with an angry Steve below me scares me even more than whatever could happen, so I (again) accept.
The next four hours are kind of a blur, but they involve, in no particular order, visiting an man living in a trailer in an alleyway, playing Keno at a casino, sitting with a group of bums around a trashcan fire, going to a midnight buffet, getting yelled at for loitering, and, yes, a cup of coffee. By 3 a.m., when we finally get home, the whole situation has flipped so quickly from horrible to weird to surreal that I’m almost laughing inside. When I leave in the morning, I’m almost sad that Steve is still sleeping.
Anyway, I know that doesn’t sound horrible. Sounds like an adventure, right? Well, a week later, I’m in Darwin, hundreds of miles away, sleeping in my rental car while I drive to some out-of-the way interviews. I get a phone call waking me up; it’s the Townsend police department. Turns out they found Steve’s dead body in an alley the day I left Townsend, thought it was murder, and I happened to be the last person they knew was with Steve before he died, and would I mind coming into the station for some questions?
4. A year and a half back, I traveled to Oktoberfest with a buddy of mine from college. Along the way we stopped to visit a friend in Paris for a few days before taking a train to the festivities in Munich. After a long night out, the buddy I had made the trip from the states with had met a young lady and went back to her apartment, while our host in Paris (a friend from my college hockey team known as The Creature) and I took a cab back to meet up with some more people at his place. En route he whispers to me that we are going to "Voldemort" the cab, and my drunken self has no idea what he means. Sure enough when the cab stops, he takes off and ducks down a few alleys that he knows. (He must have done this before.)
I'm shocked and in turn start to run, except I have no idea where I am going, after a few blocks in the 12th arrondissement I think I have lost the cabbie, who to my good fortune is waiting for me around the corner with one of those special boards from outside a cafe. He proceeds to knock me off my feet with one swing and yell at me in French. He starts to kick me while I'm down, and I struggle to hold up 20 Euros as my surrender. He gets in a few more kicks and it takes me a solid 15 minutes to pull myself off the ground and wander back to the apartment. Needless to say, the next morning, my friend comes back all chipper from a night with a lucky lady only to see my face all cut up and bloodied, he loses it and can not stop laughing about it the rest of the trip.
Moral of the story: cabs in Paris are not free.
3. It must be kept in mind that this story immediately follows the first leg of my vacation in Mali, where I was diagnosed as being inhabited by the devil, subsisted on nothing but bagged water and rice for four days, and witnessed an actual demonic exorcism until — having seen enough that I know when I have seen too much — I bribed the djinn doctor (who had become sick as a result of his contact with my satanic possessor) to let me go. I arrived at the Senegalese border (after a 22-hour trip which included sleeping on the side of the road) hoping to travel onward to the Ziguinchor, capital of the southern Casamance region and site of infrequent rebellion attempts. Again, this was my vacation. I headed off in a mightily uncomfortable grande-taxi around 5 p.m. toward Tambacounda — a major crossroads for West African traffic. We got into Tambacounda around 10 p.m. and the first thing that happened upon setting foot outside the taxi was the transformer at the gare blowing up and plunging the entire south side of the city into complete darkness.
I ate a bowl of cassava by flashlight and caught a moped ride to Tambacounda's other bus station, from which I hoped to leave for Ziguinchor. As it was nearing midnight when I got there there was little available transport, so I asked at a tea shop if I could sleep on their floor and if they could wake me up if there anything headed for Ziguinchour arrived in the night. I bargained them down to $2 and threw my sleeping bag on the concrete. As luck would have it, a bus passed through an hour later and I hopped on and was charged an extortionate amount, judging from the disapproving remarks the other riders were giving the teenager tasked with collecting from new passengers, but I kept my momentum. At dawn we reached Diaobé, the worst place I have ever been, and all the riders got off the bus.
It turns out that there were local elections that day and, as a result, no intercity traffic was permitted, so I had to spend the next 24 hours there. I had been on the road for almost two continuous days without really using the bathroom, so this was not news I wanted to hear. I made friends with the Nigerian barber and gave him my cassette of R. Kelly & Jay Z's "Unfinished Business" as recompense for lunch and letting me take a bucket shower at his house. I spent the rest of the day drinking tea and wasting time with two dudes from Liberia who were heading up to Casablanca to find work.
They had a bunch of crazy stories about being put in Mauritanian jail and I was tasked with getting in touch with one guy's lady in Monrovia, but not under any circumstances, both of his ladies in Monrovia. I tried to give a kid who was following me a high-five, but he ran away screaming and his mother threw a chunk of bread at me. We met a woman with a 5-month-old child who had been kicked out of Diaobé's only hotel, so we scrapped up some money to put her up in someone's house. We fell asleep on two chicken coops — me in the middle — and one of the guys told me to tie my shoes together around my neck since that was the only way to guarantee that they wouldn't be stolen off my feet.
I woke up in the bluish pre-dawn fog to take piss and — with the good lord as my witness — saw the trash pile next to me spontaneously combust; there was no one else around to either pin the blame on or verify what I had just taken in, so I began to harbor suspicions of the ultimate delusion of sensory perception. I left in another grande-taxi, but not without first promising to meet up with one of the guys in Nouadhibou, Mauritania (we didn't) and not without both of them hitting me up for cash. (They were unsuccessful.)
2. This was probably not only my worst moment in a foreign country, but probably the worst moment in my life. I was in Sophia, Bulgaria at the Under-18 European Championships for basketball representing England. My teammates and I had made good friends with the lads from Iceland and on the last night of the tournament, the Iceland lads were heading to a club. Obviously, we wanted to join them and we pretty much begged our coaching staff and manager to let us. They allowed us to go on condition that we didn't drink and we had to be back at the hotel by 1 a.m. They would wait up and we had to check in.
Of course, we had a few drinks with the Iceland lads in the hotel and we went to the club drinking and singing songs along the way. We got to the club and immediately started checking out the women. The club was huge, four floors and each floor was a different genera of music. I tend to wander on my own around clubs and it didn't take me long to lose the rest of my team, but I was drunk so I wasn't worried at all. I began chatting up this woman, who is probably the best looking woman I've ever seen. Things seemed to be going well and I decided to move in for a kiss. Before my lips even touched her two enormous men grabbed me and dragged me into a back room. I was a pretty big kid, but I was only 17 and these guys carried me off as if I was nothing.
They sat me down in a chair in front of a desk and tied my arms behind the chair. It was dark in the room, it really felt like and interrogation room, and at that moment I began shitting myself. There was a guy sitting at the desk but I couldn't make out what he looked like and he started yelling at me in his native language. I yelled out "I only speak English" and he paused and laughed. He asked me what I thought I was doing with his wife. I replied that I had no idea it was his wife. I tried to explain that I was only 17, and I was only there for the tournament. He laughed some more and then said something to the two guys who brought me in. They grabbed me and threw me out a back door and they told me to never come back. With that I ran as fast as I could back to my hotel.
The worst part was I got back to the hotel about 1:30 a.m. to an extremely pissed off coach who didn't believe a word I was saying because my breath stunk of alcohol and he thought I was just trying to cover my ass for being late and drunk. When we eventually got back to London he pulled me aside and explained that I would not be needed on an English basketball squad again. There was no way I could prove my story so I didn't bother arguing and that was pretty much the end of my basketball career. Not that it was much, I averaged about two minutes a game for them.
1. A few friends and myself went on a guys' vacation to Mexico. Naturally, a group of guys vacationing at an all-inclusive resort are out for two things; to party and get laid. We were no exception. Unfortunately for us, it was the off-season so there were hardly any girls at the resort. By the fourth day the only friends we had made were the hotel staff and a creepy single Peruvian dude who kept following us everywhere.
Day 5 was a breakthrough, though. A group of smoking hot girls checked in and were giggling and eyeballing us the whole day. I went to break the ice, and lo and behold, they spoke no English whatsoever. They were from Mexico City. No one in our group spoke any Spanish. The party was over before it even started.
Luckily, Creepy Peruvian Man decided to act as translator, and copious amounts of tequila helped no one care that we couldn't communicate with each other. Through hand gestures and Google translation apps, we all decided to rendezvous at the clubs that night. Much dancing and partying ensued. The hottest Mexican chick was all over me and I was having the time of my life. She and I decided to leave the club early together. On the way out, Creepy Peruvian Man said something to her in Spanish, then in English told me she was a hooker. The alcohol had had its effect on me by that time though, and I paid him no mind. We went back to the room and fooled around till the wee hours of the morning.
The next morning, I got up before she did. While I was lying in bed, what the guy had told me hours before hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn't communicate with her at all, and I didn't know what to do. When she woke up, I had to literally pantomime the act of prostituting to her, and then ask her if I had to pay her, and if so how much.
Turns out she was not a prostitute. Peruvian Man was just jealous that I had gotten with her and not him.
She slapped me and left the resort.
The resort staff had me pay an extra $80 for an extra night of all-inclusive because they saw on the surveillance cameras that I had brought a guest back to my room.
Because of that, my friends claim that technically I paid for sex and thus by definition, I did in fact sleep with a prostitute.