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.

8 Comments for Seven Travel Stories to Tell Before You Die

Willie Atkinson 10.02.06 | 12:37 PM ET

Airplane story:

I was an enlisted man in the Navy Reserves, and flew from Austin, TX to New Orleans, LA once a month to fulfill my obligation. Fellow songwriter and reservist Fred Hess accompanied me on these flights from Bergstrom Air Force Base to NAS New Orleans on a Navy C-10 passenger jet. Navy pilots are assigned aircraft based on their ranking in flight school, so basically everyone flying a passenger aircraft is a frustrated fighter jockey wannabe. Ours was no different. In the stale “I’m bored but you’ll probably be scared witless” drawl that seems to be the required jargon for all pilots, we were informed that there was a cockpit light indicating a potential problem with the starboard landing gear. “So I’m gonna have one of the crew open a panel in the forward cabin and have a look-see. Nuthin to worry about, folks, we’ll get this little ole plane to the Big Easy without a hitch.” Never mind that a warning light was, technically, a “hitch”. We were informed a few minutes later that everything “seemed” to be okay, so our fighter jockey began a series of completely unnecessary steep banking maneuvers, as well as a few climbs and dives. At one point the steward was fighting her way down the aisle of the cabin, hanging on to the backs of the seats for balance, like a Sherpa scaling Everest, when she paused and asked us if we needed anything. Fred was looking straight ahead, white knuckles almost crushing his armrests. He slowly turned his head and addressed the steward in a tight, no nonsense voice. “Yeah, get me a bible!”

Remember the indicator light for the starboard landing gear? Apparently our pilot didn’t. When we finally landed in New Orleans the starboard wheel hit first, hard enough so that we bounce from starboard to port, and back again before finally getting all three wheels on the tarmac. I spent the entire weekend convincing Fred not to take the bus home.

Jane B. 10.03.06 | 12:27 PM ET

A couple of years ago, I had an unfortunate encounter with what I suspect was “diluted” orange juice in Marrakesh. It was the kind of sick where you seriously ask yourself in the middle of the night “Could I die from this?...”  I later told the guide that Osama didn’t have to send bombs, the water would kill us all.

A few months ago, I was reading Michael Palin’s “Sahara.”  He immediately gets sick in Marrakesh.  While listening to his crew plan their evening, he says all he can think about is death and sleep.  I couldn’t help but laugh.

I’d go back to Morocco in a heartbeat - a place filled with grace and austerity, with the best apples I’ve ever had - but I’d mind the oj.

Maria R 10.22.06 | 8:14 PM ET

My friend Debbie and I were flying out of Dalangzadgad, Mongolia. We had a few hours to kill at the airport and after walking about for a few, I noticed there was nothing resembling a runway. Just dirt. We chuckled about it. Our boarding passes were handwritten, containing nothing but our first names, both misspelled. Security consisted of a guy that shook my backpack twice ( I wonder what he was waiting to hear?) The ride was a propeller plane, no more than 30 passengers, Russian-built. I knew the last part since every compartment on the wing was clearly labeled - oil, electric, etc. We joked about how at least we would be able what was mechanically wrong by which metal door, closed with a twist tie, was smoking. Before takeoff, the stewardess was chatting with a man outside, and he decided that he would lean up against the propeller. When he saw us taking photos out of the window, he turned, smiled, and started pole-dancing with the propeller. During and until quite a while after take-off, a frightened older Mongolian man seating in the emergency seat gripped the big red emergency exit handle, until his companion slowly pried his fingers from it. The engines must have been right under our seats, since I vibrated for the next hour until we landed, safely, in Ulaanbaator. Beneath the dozens of jokes we cracked, we both had to admit of being at least a fraction nervous about the flight - but, man, I do agree - travel isnt about WHERE you visited as much as it is about what you EXPERIENCE along the way.

Jim S 01.03.07 | 2:12 PM ET

Cozumel Mexico was one of my favorite places to dive and we had been traveling there for about 4 years in a row. Of course we had our favorite resturant as well. You know, out of the way, only known by locals. We had been there many times and the food was always great. So on Dec. 31th (not sure what year) the waiter asked if we would like the house special. When in Rome… so I went for it. What arrived was a rather weird looking ring of cheese with ground beef in the middle (looking like it had been sliced off a ball of stuffed cheese the size of a small melon). It was watery and really did not look edible but the waiter eagerly waited for my approval. So I took a bite and nodded. He was happy and sauntered away while I knew instantly that I had just ingested something that was bound to make my vacation unbearable. Sure enough, about 3 hours later, I was hoping for death as it surely would be a far better place to be than where I was. I made it through New Years in bed. Breakfast the next morning would be corn flakes, bananas and milk which, my traveling companions assured me, would settle my stomach. It did for at least 2 minutes. And as I entered that closet of lost vacations, I hoped that the toilet would at least flush!

GreenDaddy 06.06.07 | 3:05 AM ET

My Bus Story: I volunteered at an NGO in Dhrangadhra, Gujarat for four months after the big earthquake in that region in 2002. I took a series of buses to my aunt’s house in Gandhinagar on the weekends, which about a five hour ride. The ticket only cost the equivalent of $1 US, but I had to struggle for a seat. I would wait with several other young guys outside the station on the side of the road. When the bus came in, we’d start running along the side and hurl our bags through open windows into the free seats as the bus pulled in to the station. Then everyone rushed to the door, but I was frequently jostled to the back and didn’t feel like doing the same to people twice my age. So despite my Olympic efforts, I once found my bag tossed onto the ground and all the seats taken. It was the last bus out of Dhrangadhra in the direction I wanted. I was exhausted from a long day of work. I grasped at the handrails and braced myself for the long skull-thumping, no AC ride. After about three hours, I was on the verge of collapsing. It was pitch black outside. Just when I felt I couldn’t take it any longer, a young man got up from his seat and insisted I take it. I didn’t ask him for help. He didn’t know me. I would never see him again. It was a relatively small kindness, but for me that story is the complete refutation of nihilism.

Celia H 10.06.07 | 7:01 PM ET

As we were beginning our takeoff down the runway out of St. Louis, in one of the small Brazilian-made propellor planes to our home.

My husband looked out the windowand noticed that our engine was on fire.  We notified the flight attendant who then informed the cockpit.

The co-pilot came back to confirm that yes, the engine was ON FIRE!!!

We calmly!! then taxied to some far away place on the tarmac so that when we blew up it would just be our plane.

Did they stop the plane?  NO.
Did we abandon the plane with some emergency move?  NO.

They shutdown the engines and the fire went out.

But we had to wait there a VERY long time until they sent the RESCUE bus(uh, dont we need a fire truck?) to take us back to the terminal.

We waited patiently for that to end.  The other passengers thanked my husband for seeing the engine was on fire.

Another story, same airline,

This was recounted to me by my husband as he was coming back from business.

The airplane had had some problems when it tookoff from Texas but what the heck, it should make it.

While in the air and getting ready to land in St. Louis, the captain gets on the intercom and says there is a slight problem with the landing gear.

Once again, a co-pilot is sent back to check things out.  My husband was occupying the aisle seat and the co-pilot came right next to him.

At this point, the co-pilot lifted back the carpeting and there was a small metal round cover that he was trying to get open.  But he was failing. 

Luckily, my husband had a small computer screw driver with him and loaned it to the co-pilot.

The co-pilot took off the cover and that is when my husband looked down the opening, and saw nothing but sky.  He guesses he was above the landing gear bay and that is why he could see the sky, clouds, and the ground far, far, below.

He said the air was rushing up the opening because he wanted to spit down it but thought that the spit would just came back into the fuselage area.  Yes, my husband can be an idiot little boy at times.

He did not see anything and he was not sure if the co-pilot saw anything.  But after flying in circles awhile and buzzing the airport(probably to verify the gear was actually down.) they landed safely.

After they landed there were many upset passengers in the boarding gate.

My husband said he told them, “You will not be flying in that airplane.”  He recounted the story to some nearby people as he called me.

A couple minutes later that is exactly what the gate people said.  There was a “slight mechanical problem” with the plane.  Sorry for the extra delay.

The airline is no longer in business.

Groomsmen 04.24.08 | 7:55 AM ET

I would be grateful if I would be able to say before I die, at least 4 of these stories. I am not talking about the fact that these travels would be expensive, but I have a boyfriend very busy, and I can’t just leave and travel on my own…or can i?

Charles Malkovich 06.21.08 | 2:49 PM ET

The Dulls are back. Has anyone at the TC ever counted how many times Mrs. Dull uses the expression “wow”. The woman is obsessed with being overwhelmed by everything. Wow this coffee tastes good, wow this spaghetti is really good, wow what a view from my hotel in Venice. Surely he and she have to be related to one of your sponsors are an exec at your company.
Oh no she just said it again, stop stop stop for heavens sake get a vocabulary!!!!!

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