An Optimist’s History of Disappointment and Denial

Flores - 1

See all those scuba divers returning to our five-day live aboard after seeing glorious sights under water.  I’m not among them.

When it comes to vacations, there is an essential truth in hoping for the best and expecting the worst.  Yet I never imagined that the worst would occur so persistently over the decades in my travels around the world—from Suriname to Singapore and Kenya to Kazakhstan—for work and pleasure.

Part 1

Despite a string of mishaps, I see nothing like travel as a source of stimulation, respite and new perspectives.

What inspired this fit and healthy older guy to assess the odds is the debacle of my trip to Indonesia in October 2015.  But let me begin at the beginning. . .

Equipped with Frommer’s book about Mexico on $5 a day, I headed to Mexico City while I was still in graduate school in California.  There, I checked into a hotel listed in the volume.  It was irretrievably shabby but, at that age, I didn’t hesitate to take the room I was offered and pop into bed.

Then came a knocking on my door.  My Spanish at the time was almost nonexistent, but it wouldn’t take a linguist long to figure out what the woman on the other side of the door wanted: sex.  And she wanted to be paid for it, insistently.

I exhorted her to go away.  She knocked again after a pause.  I shouted repeatedly.  She was not to be discouraged and kept knocking.  Dimly dawned the light: I had managed to check into a brothel.

During spring break later that year, a classmate and I went on a jaunt to Tijuana.  He got drunk and landed in the Tijuana jaiI, and I, who was only somewhat less inebriated, had to bail him out, singing to myself a popular song mourning that precise situation.  While instructive, the lesson I absorbed from his arrest paled in comparison with my classes at Stanford.

In 1971, my wife at the time agreed with me that a road trip around Nova Scotia would prove to be a nice offbeat vacation, not the off-the-road vacation that transpired.  We made our way in a rented car, admiring the coastline, scarfing down lobsters and marveling at the coast and the wooded terrain we encountered.

1972 VW Beetle

1972 Beetle

A Volkswagen Beetle was our inexpensive and then popular mode of transportation.  It suited us well enough on our two-week excursion until our next-to-last day, when a cold rain falling in sheets delayed and chastened us.

It turns out that, slogging through the rain, our vehicle skidded out of control on an oil slick, rolled and upended in a ditch.  Fortunately, our injuries were nonexistent in my case and relatively minor in Betsy’s.

A priest who had stopped to help while we were still in the overturned VW later confessed, “You know, when I saw your car, I thought you were goners.”  (I chronicled the accident in the New York Times the year it occurred.)

While waiting for help at the accident site, I reflected on my conversation with the car rental agent as he filled out the contract.  Did I want insurance?  It was $1 a day.  What would be our maximum liability without insurance?  No more than $100.  We took the long-shot bet that nothing bad would happen; should it, we decided, the cost would be bearable.

Not since then have I purchased a policy from a car rental agency, though insurance provided free by my credit card has given me reason to regard the price of extra protection as an offer I easily can refuse.

Next: France, South Africa and Suriname




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