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I thought that 2016 was bad. This was worse — SO many times worse, universally worse. The year that will be written about forever as the dumpster fire of the early 21st century.
We’re going to look back at 2020 as the year when everything fell apart. But even in the year that brought us COVID, I’m going to remember a lot of the more lighthearted travel moments.
Here are my worst travel moments of 2020!
Everything that COVID hath wrought.
You can’t begin to talk about the worst travel experiences of 2020 without having a big section for COVID.
First off — I am so grateful that none of my family or friends have died of COVID. Not everyone can say that, and my heart is with everyone who has lost a loved one.
At the same time, I’ve watched several of my friends battle COVID. One friend was hospitalized. A few friends have become COVID long-haulers, struggling with frightening symptoms months later.
There was the endless worry. Worrying about my parents. Worrying about my country.
And while money is nowhere near as important as people, it really sucked watching my business of 10 years shrivel down to nothing, my income down by 90%. Most travel professionals in the world saw their incomes nose-dive as well. A lot of travel businesses closed for good this year.
There were the missed trips. My long-awaited trip to Peru and Ecuador was cancelled. Some big, well-paying campaigns were cancelled (and will hopefully be rescheduled in 2021).
The postponed weddings. Four of them I had hoped to attend. (Two were supposed to be on the same day in different countries, so maaaaybe I can still make them work?)
Being banned from my boyfriend’s country, and my boyfriend being banned from my country. Months and months passing before I got permission to return to the Czech Republic.
But the worst part has been not knowing what the future holds. It’s a loss of innocence similar to post-9/11. Who knows what has changed forever?
I’m optimistic for what the next year holds, especially since the vaccines are finally here, but I know that travel won’t be back to its usual levels for a long time. And that affects all of us who work in this industry.
Now — on to the lighter moments.
Erwin and the Bleaching Incident
I fell in love with our Mérida house from the moment I saw it online. It was a designer home, and though it was much pricier than other Mérida properties, I felt like it was worth it, especially since I would be splitting it with Charlie and our friend Klara.
And the house came with weekly cleaning from a local man named Erwin. He washed the sheets and towels each week, and he left pieces of solid detergent in the washer and all over the laundry room.
This solid detergent left white stains all over our clothes. Including on some designer pieces I had bought secondhand and were irreplaceable.
I showed him the spots. “Es bleach. Blanqueador.”
He shook his head. “No es bleach.”
What?! I showed him more pieces. “Es bleach.” I pointed to the label on the detergent. “Mira. Bleach!!”
As for the cleaning, he would wipe down half a table and leave the other half dirty, or would halfheartedly sweep one room and leave piles of dust around the house. The one time the house was actually cleaned was when he brought a woman to help him.
Two weeks before we left, Erwin told us he wouldn’t be cleaning that week because he was on vacation. “That’s fine!” we told him. The following week, for the last cleaning, he told us he wasn’t cleaning this week. He gave no reason. We shrugged. It was fine.
But I did NOT expect our Airbnb host, a French woman, to write the first negative Airbnb review I’ve ever received, saying that we left the place dirty and it was so disrespectful of us to do that!!! CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?!
I’m so glad that Airbnb gives you the option to respond to reviews. I responded in great detail about her cleaner not showing up for the last two weeks, as well as giving her a detailed review of why so much had been wrong with this rental (she had lied to us about the internet speed before we booked, the furniture was unsuitable for working, and she asked us to pay extra for utilities when we arrived, against Airbnb’s rules). I ultimately recommended she hire a property manager, which would solve most of these problems.
Getting our clothes destroyed was awful. But receiving that review was even worse.
The Journey from Ferrara to Prague
Man, was this a mess! When the Czechs finally gave me permission to return, I was in Ferrara, Italy, staying with my friend Katie and her family. I booked a train journey from Ferrara to Venice to Vienna to Prague. I’d leave Ferrara early and get to Prague around midnight.
The first leg, from Ferrara to Venice, went fine. I grabbed what I had hoped to be my final-cappuccino-standing-at-the-bar and made my way to the platform for my connection to Vienna. At Venice Mestre station, you have to go to a basement hallway to move between platforms, then climb stairs to get to the platform.
“Vienna?” an employee asked me at the bottom of the stairs. “Si.” He scanned my forehead with a thermometer and let me climb the stairs to the platform.
I waited for the train. But even when it was two minutes away, the sign on the platform remained blank, as were most of the platform signs in the station. And up on the platform, there were no screens listing all the trains and their platforms; you had to go downstairs to find those.
In short: my platform changed at the last minute, and I JUST barely missed it.
I went to the Trenitalia office and they booked me on the next train, several hours later, for free because the signs had been off. This train would get to Vienna at midnight. Charlie planned to drive to Vienna and pick me up; we’d have to cross the Czech border and overnight there for COVID reasons.
I spent hours killing time, once getting kicked out of an empty hotel lobby for COVID reasons (“Not a guest? You can’t sit here!”), and when it was time for my train, I kept crossing back and forth between the platform and the downstairs just to make sure it wasn’t changed again with two minutes to go.
Then with two minutes to go…it was CANCELLED ALTOGETHER. Come on!!! And the office refused to refund me because apparently the Austrians were at fault, not the Italians.
By that point, Charlie was halfway to Vienna. I ended up booking an overnight Flixbus from Venice to Brno in the eastern part of the Czech Republic, killed a few more hours, and eventually left on time. Charlie stayed overnight in Brno and picked me up at 7:00 AM — and we went back to the hotel to SLEEP.
Figures that I would face one final gauntlet before getting back to Prague!
Not Protesting in Person
When the Black Lives Matter protests began after George Floyd was killed in late May, I became active in the ways I knew best: I donated money. I used my platform to bring attention to the right news stories. I dove into antiracist literature, examined my own failures, and worked on undoing a lifetime of racist programming, a lifetime of benefiting from white supremacy.
But I did not protest on the street.
I wanted to be out there protesting in person with everyone else — SO badly — but I did not. At that time, I was living with my dad and seeing my mom often. Both are seniors and neither could afford to get COVID. They were both being very careful and I couldn’t do anything that risked their health.
The other reason was that I was about to apply for a visa in the Czech Republic and would be rejected if I had a criminal record. Many protestors were arrested, a great many of them unjustly, even those protesting peacefully. I couldn’t risk getting arrested right when I needed to secure my visa.
And so I stayed at home. Had I still been living in New York, I would have been protesting in the streets most days.
I know someday someone will ask me what it was like protesting in 2020, and I’ll have to say, “I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t risk getting arrested or getting my parents sick, so I stayed home.”
It’s worth mentioning that a study in Massachusetts later showed protestors only had a marginally elevated risk of contracting COVID, due in part to near-universal mask usage in an outdoors environment.
Driving down a Terrifying Road in Korčula
On our day of driving around Korčula, we wanted to visit the beach of Pupnatska Luka, a small bay on the southern edge of the island. So we called up Uncle Google, as the Czechs call him, and followed the path that he chose for us.
Korčula, like many Croatian islands, has very steep hills leading down to the coast. Which is why I freaked out when Google brought us to a road that was barely a road.
It was rocky, it was makeshift, and it sounded like it was going to tear the engine out from the bottom of the car. All at a precipitous angle.
We moved downhill at a super-slow speed as I yelped with every bump. Finally, we arrived on a paved road that turned into a parking lot.
There was another road down to the beach. It was perfectly paved.
UNCLE GOOGLE, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!
Ferry Mishaps in Croatia
Have you ever taken a ferry in Croatia? This year showed me how much Jadrolinija, Croatia’s national ferry company, is a mess.
In a day that would take us from Brač to Korčula, we had three ferries planned: Sumartin on Brač to Makarska on the mainland, Ploče on the mainland to Trpanj on the Pelješac peninsula, and Orebič on Pelješac to Korčula. We had booked the tickets in advance. It was all carefully timed with an extra buffer for mishaps.
Well. Our first ferry was delayed by 90 minutes. Had we ordered tickets online? Yes. Did they email us to let us know? No, they did not!!
This would just BARELY give us enough time to get to Ploče. We gunned it as soon as we arrived, and after a stunning drive down the coast, we landed in Ploče just in time. The workers waved us onto the line of cars waiting for the ferry. We parked and got out to grab some food.
Then we passed a sign that read SPLIT. “We should probably double-check to make sure this isn’t the boat to Split,” I told Charlie.
We went up to the men guiding the cars in. No, this was not the ferry to Split, the men said. But the ferry to Trpanj, the one for which we had a ticket, was full. They had directed us into the line for the NEXT ferry to Trpanj, which was in four hours!! WHY had they not told us that? How is it that you can have a ticket for a ferry and they won’t let you on?!
Under ordinary circumstances, we would have been stuck. But luckily we were on the edge of the pier. I carefully, carefully guided Charlie out of our parking spot, keeping him from driving into the ocean, and we were out of there.
That ferry wasn’t totally necessary — you can drive to Orebić; it just requires you to drive the long way, through Bosnia. (This effectively reset my time in the EU at zero days, which we didn’t realize until later. I needed at least 14 consecutive days in the EU before Italy would let me in.)
We drove through Peljesač, passing oyster traps and wineries, driving through some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery we had seen yet. And getting on the ferry to Korčula was so simple and easy, we couldn’t believe it!
Straining my Eyes in Croatia
I had been shooting lots of photos in Grožnjan, and afterward, my eyes felt weird. It was like they were each focusing differently, which lead to headaches and nausea.
After a few days, things hadn’t improved, and WebMD had convinced me I had a variety of deadly neurological illnesses and THIS WAS THE FIRST SIGN!!
Eventually I went to see an ophthalmologist in Venice. He told me that my eyes were fine — I had just strained them. And I would probably be better off shooting while looking at the back of my camera rather than my viewfinder. He was right; my eyes went back to normal 48 hours later.
And as a reminder that healthcare in Europe is SANE — even as a visitor, I dropped into a random doctor’s office and paid just 100 euros, whereas the same situation in the US could be several times that.
The Surtida Incident
On the way to Campeche, we made a stop in Hecelchakán Municipality. Why? Cochinita. This little town serves up some of the best cochinita pibil, or slow-roasted pork, and it was usually gone by midday.
We sped down the highway so we could make it on time. We found the cochinita stand, got into the right line, and ordered some tacos and tortas.
“Surtida?” the server asked.
“Si,” we said, not knowing what that meant, but you say “si” when a local offers you something, don’t you?
We went to eat our food, and the cochinita was delicious. But…there was something else. Something dark.
Turns out “surtida” means “assorted” — we had accidentally ordered a pile of assorted pig parts on top of our cochinita. Definitely liver. Likely intestines or ears or curly tails.
I wouldn’t recommend it!
The Rainstorm From Hell
Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is one of the most beautiful places in the world to be in the summer. One reason? Nearly perfect weather.
Note that I said “nearly.”
Dalmatia has gorgeous sun-drenched days, but it gets one MEGA rainstorm every summer, and it took place in early August.
Charlie and I were staying in an apartment in Pelješac and weren’t feeling that hungry for dinner — so we planned to eat a little bit of the muesli we had bought earlier. Then we saw a trail of ants leading right into said muesli. Ugh. Grocery stores were closed and we had to go out.
It had just started raining, but as soon as we hit the next town, it began pelting down like mad. One of the most intense rainstorms I had ever seen.
We ran down the 80 meters or so into the closest restaurant, getting ourselves completely soaked through. But here we were in an actual restaurant!
The waitress looked surprised when we burst in. “Reservation only,” she said. Ah well. Another rain-drenched run back to the car.
By that point, the rain was coming down so hard that we decided to pull over and wait it out. Peljesač is home to some of the most beautiful driving in Croatia, but what makes it beautiful on sunny days is what makes it terrifying in the rain — small, curvy roads edging alongside mountains, dangling above the precipice.
We waited out — and it did not get better. We were going to be here all night.
We drove down a steep road into another town, nearly drove into the ocean at one point, and ended up making one more run from the parking lot to a restaurant.
And they welcomed us in with thick towels and steaming bowls of tomato soup. And candles, once the power went out a few minutes later.
As we drove back to our accommodation, we were taken aback by the huge chunks of mountain that had fallen into the highway while we were eating our soup.
I’m glad it it only rains like that once a year!
Flying in the time of COVID
I laugh a bit when I look back at the precautions I took when flying home from Mexico City to Boston on April 9. I covered my hair with a tank top; it looked like a do-rag. And I was obsessive about washing: I had read all these guidelines that said you couldn’t even TOUCH your mask or your face without washing your hands, and if you replaced your mask, you had to wash your FACE before replacing it.
So I was in the airport bathroom washing my hands, taking my mask off, washing my face, drying my face, washing my hands again, putting a fresh mask on, and washing my hands one last time. At the time, that’s what we were told we had to do, but it was a bit overkill!
Even so, those two flights only had a few passengers on board, so it was easy to distance.
Flying from New York to Belgrade on June 26 was different. The flight was nearly full and I spent the whole nine-hour journey worrying about COVID exposure. I ate a ton of McDonald’s before the flight so I didn’t have to eat; twice I stuck my water bottle’s straw behind my mask for a few sips of water, and that was it.
It was nerve-wracking — but then I was in Serbia. A long, curvy overland journey through seven countries took me back to Prague, and I haven’t been on a plane since.
Deciding Whether to Stay or Go in Mexico City
But the absolute worst time this year was what we faced in Mexico City. We arrived on March 15, at a time when Mexico just began canceling crowded events, and were originally supposed to stay for 10 days. Shortly after we arrived, two of our booked events were canceled (a Lucha Libre match and a party boat at Xochimilco), as were our onward flights at the end of March (me to Peru, Charlie to the UK).
Our dilemma: Do we stay or do we go?
Looking back, it seems obvious — just go home and lie low! But in late March, things were chaotic. At that time, much of Europe was under lockdown and had closed their borders to Americans; in the United States, COVID was raging in the two places I would have gone: New York and Boston. And flying was seen as one of the most dangerous things you could do. We didn’t even have masks yet.
Staying in Mexico seemed much safer by comparison, at least at that time. Some people had pointed out that all the major COVID outbreaks were in colder climates. Maybe Mexico would stay safe. The first Mexican died of COVID on March 19, and the national media kept talking about his preexisting conditions, as if to rationalize that perhaps that was why he had died.
Plus, as a couple holding different passports — me, an American, and Charlie, a UK citizen and Czech permanent resident — we had no idea if we would end up separated for months.
But what happened if things in Mexico got worse? This is a nation where a lot of people work on the street and would be vulnerable to COVID as well as exponentially affected by a shutdown. What if the disease spread more quickly here? What if it led to violence or political unrest? Could Mexico become the WORST place to be in a pandemic?
We could fly into a pandemic hot zone, separating for an indefinite amount of time — or stay in place as the pandemic worsened and be unable to leave. We began evaluating everything from food delivery options to private hospital access to how to evacuate.
And then Mexico City hotels began to close, and lots of buildings wouldn’t allow Airbnb guests in. If we had to leave our accommodation, there was no guarantee we could stay anywhere.
It was the most difficult decision of my life — and I had no idea whether this decision would result in illness or even death.
Finally, after extending our apartment stay a few times, we decided to leave — and as soon as we booked our flights, they were cancelled. In the end, we flew out in April and Charlie got one of the last flights from Mexico City to Europe.
The Hvar Boat Rental Incident
Well, let’s end things on a funny note. When in Hvar, we decided to rent a boat for the day and explore the Pakleni Islands, an archipelago southeast of the island. You can rent a boat in Croatia without a license, and we figured it would be easy.
Well. We hadn’t planned on it being so hard to start the motor. We took a break to explore one of the coves — then when it was time to leave, we pulled up the anchor but couldn’t get the motor started. So we crashed into a boat filled with a multi-generational family blasting music and relaxing.
Next, we bashed into the rocks and Charlie fell on the rocks, cut his foot, and scraped his right side up (he’s still bearing scars months later).
We decided to head to a mostly empty cove — there’s only one boat in it. Italians. We ended up parking out boat near them. Then we realized that they were alone because THEY WERE COMPLETELY NAKED and suddenly WE WERE THE WEIRDOS SIDLING UP TO THE NUDISTS!
Later, we stopped for lunch in a village and there are no spots to tie up on shore, so Charlie dropped me off with the cameras, parked in the middle of the water, and swam to shore. On the way back, he swam back, but by this point the dock was even more crowded — so he backed the boat up to the dock and THWACK THWACK THWACK! Hit three boats in a row.
By that point important cords had been pulled out of the boat and it wouldn’t start. Charlie called the boat people and apologetically told them what happened. (They couldn’t have been nicer about it, and we got a ride back with a local.)
It goes to show — some people are not boat people. Just because you can rent one in Croatia, it doesn’t mean you should!
What were your worst travel (or non-travel) moments of the year?