Halloween is just around the corner so what better time to turn our minds to our scariest travel stories. Travel horror stories are unique in that they’re less about ghosts and ghouls, and often about missed connections and lost luggage, but they are terrifying nonetheless. I’ve been fortunate enough not to suffer through too many truly scary travel experiences, but have encountered some frights on the road nonetheless. Here are some of my most terrifying travel experiences.
Horror Story #1: Lost Luggage in Haiti
After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I joined All Hands Volunteers to help shovel rubble away so people could be set up with a safe temporary shelter. While some people may think that travelling to Haiti by yourself is scary enough, I was not going to be spending a long time in Port-Au-Prince, the country’s notoriously dangerous capital. A driver was supposed to pick me up at the airport and take me to Léogâne, where I would be spending my time shovelling rubble surrounded by lots of other people. Unfortunately when I arrived at the airport, I learned that my bag had not made it Port-Au-Prince.
While losing your bag is never ideal when travelling, doing so in Haiti poses extra challenges, especially in a post-disaster zone. It simply wouldn’t have been possible to go to the nearest market and buy the things I had in my suitcase, like mosquito spray and work boots and gloves. The gloves I would learn were especially important when shovelling rubble since uncovering brown recluse spiders and tarantulas was fairly common. If I needed to replace them locally, I wouldn’t have even known where to begin looking and many goods were simply unavailable, including essentials like food for Haitians. My problems were indeed minor in comparison, but I did still feel a little panicked without my suitcase. It didn’t show up until hours later, but thankfully the driver waited for both me and my bag.
Believe it or not, I went on to have a pretty good time in Haiti all things considered. It was hard to process the devastation and collective grief the locals were experiencing but I met some amazing people and knew that work we were doing was making a difference. I wish I could say though that the scariness ended there, but instead I learned that a car full of volunteers had been chased on the way to the airport while driving through Port-Au-Prince. The people had intended on kidnapping them for ransom. Thankfully, the driver realised what was happening and drove them to the police station which made the would-be kidnappers back off. I had been dropped off at the airport only a few hours earlier that day.
Horror Story #2: When I didn’t Listen to People about Paris
When I was seventeen I went on a formative adventure in the form of a three month student exchange in France. I spent most of the time surrounded by my new friends and wonderful host families in Alsace, but I desperately wanted to see Paris during my time there. None of my host family members or friends could go, so I begged my host mom and real mom to let me go by myself. My real mom knew I was far too stubborn to take no for an answer so she reluctantly gave her blessing. I took an early morning train to the Gare de l’est and began exploring the City of Light on foot. This was junior me’s most exciting adventure yet and I aimed to see as much of the city as possible before sundown. My host mom had arranged for me to stay with her neighbour’s friend in the Barbès quarter and have given me firm advice to get there before dark. After 7pm, the Barbès Métro gets very dangerous they told me.
This was December so sundown was coming more quickly than I would have liked and I was enjoying my solo foot tour of Paris. Emboldened by having figured out the Métro by myself and having visited a few famous landmarks already, I kept pushing back making the journey on the train to Barbès. As I descended into the Métro near the Champs Élysée, the sun was setting and it was completely dark when I arrived in Barbès.
I did not know exactly where to go after leaving the station and only had a piece of paper with the address on it to guide me. I was supposed to go to “XX Boulevard Barbès.” This was in the pre-Google Maps days, so I wandered around for a while in the dark before ducking into a suitcase store to ask if anyone there knew where it was. They didn’t so I asked another person in a different shop. She told me to cross the street and that it should be right there, but she also admitted that she wasn’t sure.
As I walked toward my destination, I saw a guy point me out to another guy and start following me out of the corner of my eye. Nervous, I walked faster which only made him walk faster until I just about started running. Unfortunately the light changed so I had to stop since Parisian intersections are as terrifying as someone following you. The guy came up to me and asked what I was up to. I told him that I was busy and had to get to my destination on Boulevard Barbès. “This one?” he said, taking the piece of paper out of my hand. “You need to go this way.” He seemed very certain whereas the other lady didn’t and backed off after giving me directions (probably to go get the mattress ready), so against my better judgement, I believed him.
I walked in the direction that he pointed to, which was back toward the train station. I carried on that way for a while but there started to be fewer people around, and the street seemed to get more dark. Eventually, fear overcame me and I ran back toward the main street. On the corner of a building that I had already walked by, I saw a sign for Boulevard Barbès, and the neighbor’s friend’s apartment was right there. I had already walked by it and the guy had deliberately sent me in the wrong direction. I still shudder at the thought of what may have happened if I had kept walking down that dark road.
Horror Story #3: Haunted Northern Ireland
A friend and I went to Northern Ireland around Halloween one year and we wanted to do a haunted cemetery tour in Belfast while we were there. It was something that we agreed should be top of both of our must do lists. My friend’s local friend assured us that we simply waited at the bus stop on the night that we wanted to go and paid the driver then. This seemed wrong to me since I thought that I had read to pay for your tickets in advance but I didn’t want to second guess the local, so I said nothing. On the night we wanted to go we waited for the bus for at least an hour before calling the number on the pamphlet and learning that not only did you have to pre-book, the tickets were sold out for the remaining shows. Ghost stories told on a foggy night in a cemetery seemed about as festive as it could get, but we missed the chance. We tried to salvage it by going on a “Ghost Cruise” in the locks which was truly dreadful experience. It cost us close to $75 to be the opposite of entertained on a dingy boat piloted by a drunk Canadian captain. Now that’s scary.
Horror Story #4: Being Stupid in Northern Ireland
We didn’t get our haunted cemetery tour in Belfast and the ghost cruise in the harbour made us sad, so we tried to make the most of the rest of the trip up the north coast. To our delight, there was a music festival going on and all the port towns had live music each night that we were there, including Halloween. We started at a folksy-type place where we met some nice people who invited us to another bar. There we met even more nice people and were fed way too many drinks from our new friends. Judgement sufficiently impacted, we accepted an invite from two of our new friends to tour a “haunted house” that was near our bed and breakfast.
Looking back now, I can see how stupid and scary it was for us to follow two strange men into a vacant old house. But here we were. As we approached the house it didn’t look anything like I had pictured. It was modern-looking, with new siding but still obviously decrepit. The guys moved a board aside so we could slip into the house. Once inside, I noticed candles in front of the fireplace that looked like they had been used recently. “Let’s have a séance” one of the guys suggested, while the other went upstairs to snoop around. “Let’s not” I replied. Instead, I asked him to tell us the story of the house. How did it become haunted? Why did the people who lived here leave?
“Well, there was an ugly separation…” he began.
This enraged my friend who got up and stormed out, having decided that this whole experience was lame since the house wasn’t actually haunted. I ran after her and we made it back to our bed and breakfast unscathed and not scared. There, we continued exercising poor judgement by accepting some “poteen” home brew from the BnB owner which made us both near fall-down drunk. Suffice to say, we were hurting in more ways than one the next day.
Horror Story #5: Eating Poison in Uganda
Speaking of hurting, I am not one of those lucky travellers with an iron stomach and have picked up more than enough stomach bugs than I’d like to remember, but none of them made me fear for my life as much as when I became ill in Uganda. In the boring and far-flung little town of Budadiri that’s only on the map for tourists because it is at the base of Mount Elgon, I made the fatal mistake of trying fresh jackfruit from the village’s market.
Several hours later, I was overcome with severe nausea which led to multiple trips to bathroom to purge. By morning I could not lift my head without feeling the need to purge and this lasted THE WHOLE DAY. A sip of water would make me sick; the owner of the inn brought me juice, which I promptly dispatched from my guts. I had experienced “Delhi Belly”, “turista” or whatever you want to call it before, but this seemed different. 24 hours later and I was still getting intensely sick over nothing and had a fiery fever to top it all off. The hotel owner called the village doctor who gave me some shots of medicine and some pills to take over the next few days.
Eventually I started to feel better, but I had never had such a violent bug before in so remote of a location. It would have been hard to get urgent health care if I ended up needing it. I think travellers tend to be afraid of the big disasters, like plane crashes and terrorist attacks, when more often that not, it’s the little things that can cause the most perilous situations.
So there you have my travel horror stories, what has been your scariest experience abroad?