Seven Travel Stories to Tell Before You Die

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  10.02.06 | 6:43 AM ET

I’ve never been too enamored of the 1,000 Places to See Before You Die approach to travel—or at least the approach that the title of the book suggests. Among other things, it emphasizes quantity over quality. But the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Flinn has offered a modest alternative checklist that I can get behind: seven travel stories you should be able to tell before you die. It puts the emphasis where it belongs, I think: on experiences and stories. Flinn just concluded a series of columns exploring the seven stories he believes are essential for every traveler, and he recounted his own version of each. “Go ahead and visit every one of those ‘1000 Places to See Before You Die,’ as catalogued in the best-selling book,” he wrote. “But spare your friends the description of the Taj Mahal. Yes, it’s beautiful. And, yes, of course, the Great Barrier Reef is awesome. Everybody knows this. And we don’t need to hear about the seventh hole at Pebble Beach. What we want to hear are stories.”

So what are those seven stories? According to Flinn, travelers should be able to tell a good bus story, bathroom story, airplane story, animal story, hotel story, food story and guide story.

A few weeks ago, he covered the bus story, or rather the Third-World-bus-trip-with-chickens-or-goats story (in Nepal, “I was convinced my obituary would be one of those one-paragraph bus-plunge stories at the bottom of the newspaper’s World Briefs column”) and the bathroom story (“We were at a camp on an island in Lake Baringo, in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, and I had an all-night case of Kenyatta’s Revenge”).

Two weeks back, he wrote about the airplane story (“Your go-to aviation story, if you ever traveled in the old Soviet Union, is probably an Aeroflot yarn”) and the animal story (“Nothing is as competitive as wildlife viewing”). On Sunday, he explored the hotel story (“I put the key in the slot, pushed open the door—and found a naked man and woman on the bed in what used to be called flagrante delicto”); the food story (rancid yak butter tea); and the guide story (a guide’s tale of shouting “Dude—the pot!” when approaching a checkpoint at the U.S.-Mexico border).

Flinn’s columns inspire all of us reflect on our own stories, I suspect. I don’t have a good guide story, and I’m not convinced one is essential. But here are my other six stories, in brief:

imageBus story: It was in western China and involved a yak—a very dead yak. High in the mountains of Sichuan (not far from where I shot this photo), the driver pulled off the road in a tiny village, right next to a freshly cut yak carcass, complete with the ill-fated yak’s head artfully displayed on its hide. Moments later, the driver tossed a Hefty-bag full of fresh bloody yak meat into the bus aisle right near my feet, where it sat, and warmed, and then oozed—for the next 12 hours. It made the tire blow-out near the curve in the road next to the 2,000-foot drop-off seem like a minor maintenance problem.

Bathroom story: Spending the night in a toilet-less room at the old Wawona Hotel in Yosemite, I headed outside at 3 a.m. to use the communal bathroom 30 yards away. When I was ready to return to my room, a hotel worker told me a bear was foraging nearby and that it wouldn’t be prudent to return at that particular moment. I spent too much time that night waiting by the bathroom door, sleepy and shivering, until the bear finally moved on.

Airplane story: The flight from Australia to Fiji to cover an ongoing armed rebellion. Travel warnings were up. Passengers were anxious. Yet the airline insisted on playing the light-hearted in-flight tourism video recounting Fiji’s violent cannibal past. Few on the plane were chuckling.

Animal story: Has to be my stint at bullfighting school.

Hotel story: Hands down, a night in Bangkok’s Atlanta Hotel, where I spent the evening vomiting as a fight ensued in a nearby room involving a transvestite hooker and a very disappointed customer who was shouting, “I asked you! ‘Are you a girl?’” The police were called. The customer was removed. My vomiting continued.

Food story: In Singapore, at the insistence of a local friend, I delved into some durian, the Southeast Asian fruit that smells like stinky feet. Afterward, I understood as never before why it has been banned on Singaporean trains.

What are your top stories? Do tell. Post a comment below.