No travel comes without risk. Every time you step our your door, you enter a world where tragic and unexpected events take place all the time. No matter how much care you take, you can’t shield yourself from everything.
On the other hand, there are plenty of things you can do to drastically increase your chances of having a dangerous experience when you’re traveling — not that we’re blaming anyone for their misfortune.
The folks below all have one thing in common. They all had scary close calls while traveling that still leave them contemplating how lucky they are. It’s a good reminder that anything can go wrong… but it could always be worse.
40. Camping In A War Zone
39. You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave
38. Thank You, Liam Neeson
37. I Wonder If He Was Telling The Truth…
36. Pinky Swear?
35. Last Minute Escape
34. Don’t Hook Up With Crocodiles
33. Don’t Fight Big Mama
32. The Reddest Of Flags
31. Never Play Chicken
30. The Company You Keep
I was arrested in Japan after only being there for 42 hours. I thought I was there for a wedding, but it turns out my traveling companion had other plans.
My travel companion had decided it would be a fantastic idea to mail illegal substances to our hotel room (without my knowledge). When I got the call from the front desk that there was ‘luggage’ for us at the front desk, I assumed he had forgotten something downstairs. I was unaware of what was going on when he instead brought up a small envelope package. He opened it immediately, and… I was horrified at what was in there.
Five minutes later, 10 Japanese police officers burst into the room and went through all our luggage, took our passports and put us both in handcuffs. The entire time I had a stunned look on my face, and kept asking, “What is going on?” No one answered me.
I was unable to contact any family or friends after being arrested. This is applies to everyone, no matter what the charge.
Then began the worst travel experience of my life. I will make a long story short in saying that it took 35 days, two high powered lawyers from Tokyo and becoming semi-fluent in Japanese to get myself released without charge. The same cannot be said for my traveling companion, who ended up in jail for much, much longer.
The biggest takeaway here (this should be a no-brainer, but just in case!): never ever smuggle anything into another country.
Although I had nothing to do with this case of smuggling, it still took a very long time for me to prove I was innocent. And believe you me, they left absolutely no stone unturned in their investigation. Japan has a 99.5% conviction rate. The fact that I was released without charge further proved my innocence.
I lost 25 lbs, and when I returned home I lost most of my hair from the sudden weight loss and stress.
I have not let this hinder my love of travel, though! Not even a year after the incident, I went back to Japan (without the companion) to explore what I did not get to experience the first time. I will keep traveling till the day I die, and I will tell this story to my grandchildren, along with all the other amazing stories I have collected along the way.
29. Oh, That’s Just Dave
I went to Kiev shortly before the conflict broke out, and the very first thing I saw walking out of the train station was this enraged naked guy savagely striking random passersby with a leather belt, right outside of the station. The most distressing part was that everyone was walking around him like it happened all the time.
28. Strawberry Blonde Forever
27. Too Dumb For The Jungle
26. Full. Metal. Jacket.
The time: August 2005.
The Place: a JFK airport, New York.
I was coming back from Las Vegas, and I spent a few days in NYC before heading home to Tel Aviv. I was 4.5 years into what ended up being a decade-long military service in IDF Military Intelligence. There is a reason I bring up my military service.
Anyways, after a few days in NYC, I packed up my suitcase and backpack (inevitably decorated with various hacker stickers and patches), called a cab, and made my way to JFK.
When I got to JFK, I immediately checked in my suitcase and proceeded to security. The line was long and slow, so I decided to hit the bathroom before queuing up. In the bathroom, I realized it was quite cold in the airport, so I opened my bag to take out a light sweater I packed just in case.
As I was pulling the sweater out of my bag, I heard the very distinct sound of a small, metallic object hitting the bathroom stall floor. Then another one. Then another one.
I knew that sound. This couldn’t be good.
Regardless of how the ammo got there, here I was, in a JFK bathroom stall, with a backpack, that, while not being full of ammo, contained a nonzero number of very real, very live assault rifle bullets. This was only a few years after 9/11 and I’d already started imagining the nightmare (not to mention the probing I’d undergo) if airport security discovered them.
Let’s take a minute and pause the story, to consider the meaning of what I just described. The ammo made it all the way with me from Israel to Vegas, and then back to NYC, meaning it went undetected through no less than three (!) airport security checkpoints: TLV on the way to the US, JFK on the connection to Vegas, and LAS from Vegas to NYC. Don’t you feel safer now? Now, back to our story.
Since I wasn’t going to bet that I’d get lucky a fourth time, I had to get rid of them. But how? I couldn’t just get out of the booth, go to the closest trash can and dump them. What if people saw me? Also, what if people didn’t see me but a janitor or someone discovered the bullets? I didn’t want to be responsible for an airport panic. Not good karma.
So I stayed in the bathroom stall and flushed the bullets one by one. It took forever, because bullets take quite a long time to flush.
After demilitarizing my bag, I went through security and got back home safely. Phew!
25. That Funny Little Feeling…
24. Tinder In Colombia
Medellin, Colombia. Her name was Laura and she was from Canada.
As the sun set over the bustling city our plans were set. I would walk the 10 minutes or so from my hostel to hers, pick her up, and walk her back to the main street which would give us our pick of bars and restaurants.
With the night just starting we found ourselves at a small bar at the far end of the main drag.
Drinks were cheap, we compared tattoos, and speculated on whether Colombian dogs were any more or less happy than dogs from other countries.
We were also scheming of ways to spend the night together, but with our hostels more secure than Fort Knox, we did the next best thing – we went looking for an empty park to spend some romantic alone time.
As 1am approached we found ourselves in a long stretch of park away from the main drag.
As we wandered over the grass looking for somewhere to sit, we passed a group of four men. I didn’t stop to think why four men would be standing in a dark and deserted park. Some might say that was my first mistake; others would say my first mistake was doing any of this at all.
One of the men stepped forward and spoke directly to me in Spanish.
With an evening’s worth of liquid courage fueling me, I rudely dismissed this guy out of hand despite having no idea what he was saying.
Taking Laura by the hand, we walked past them and, several minutes later, found a spot of our own.
With our bodies intertwined and her dress crumpled on the grass beside us, I heard an unforgettable noise. It was the sound of police sirens cutting the still air.
Laura quickly pulled her dress back on and we attempted to make ourselves as presentable as possible as two police bikes swerved from the road and roared across the grass towards us.
One of the cops jumped off his bike with his flashlight in hand and disappeared into the darkness. The other stood before me, a full foot shorter than me but in every other way more dominant, raised his flashlight to my face to trap me in blind confusion, and yelled that word you just don’t want to hear in South America: “GRINGO!”
I didn’t have the money to pay for a huge fine, and Laura was beside herself with nerves, tears welling up in her eyes. “I’ll handle this” I told her, and took a step forward to try and have a conversation with the irate Colombian cop.
He shone a torch in my face and I straight up begged him to let us go. “I’m so sorry mate, please just let us go, it’ll never happen again. Just let us go back to our hostels please.“
My eyes kept darting off into the darkness to see where his partner had gone, turning around to check on Laura, the red and blue glare of their police lights still silently flashing in my eyes.
Still, the policeman kept barking at me in Spanish.
I had no idea what he was trying to say. He kept spitting out the word “gringo” with emphasis. I honestly didn’t know what he wanted me to say so I cracked, “Yes, Gringo, Australia. I’m from Australia.”
He repeated my words, but with a subtle questioning inflection, as if he was asking me to confirm I was a tourist and that I was Australian. “Si, Si, Australian,” I stammered back.
He nodded, put his torch down and I started to breathe again. I tried to walk away but he still wouldn’t let me, he shook his head and kept speaking in Spanish.
But thanks to my man Steve Jobs we found a solution. He got his iPhone out and opened Google translate.
He tapped away on the screen, waiting a moment for the words to switch to English for my benefit, before showing me the result. The words rolled across my vision… WHAT YOU ARE DOING IS FINE… BUT NOT HERE.
Once again, his head dropped to add text …THESE MEN…
“These men?” I thought to myself, what was he talking about, I was the only bloke here.
As I processed what he was writing his partner came back, walking slowly and purposefully, and he wasn’t alone. Before him he led 4 men. The very same 4 men who I had rudely dismissed earlier. They walked in front of him and away from us towards his parked police bike.
The total Google translate message read: “WHAT YOU ARE DOING IS FINE, BUT NOT HERE, THESE MEN KILL YOU.”
These policemen had not come screaming through the darkness to punish us, but protect us.
The hour after that was a blur. I can remember being escorted back to Laura’s hostel, then my own, the policeman ensuring we went home right away and separately. I sat on a hammock in an empty courtyard of my hostel and sipped slowly on a bottle of coke I found in the fridge. Looking down, my hand was shaking, and I’m glad it was.
I was very lucky to survive being that stupid.
23. Unfair Fare
Bangkok, Thailand. October, 2016. A taxi driver held me “hostage” for an absurd fare. He wanted me to pay $120 for a 15 minute ride. I told him to keep dreaming and he claimed he would take me right to the police station and have me arrested big time. He kept driving so fast that I couldn’t open the door and jump out. Thankfully, he let me go after some harsh negotiations and yelling myself hoarse.
22. A Bar Too Far
My four friends and I were in college a few years ago and went on a holiday trip to Cyprus for the summer. It was our second day and we had a few too many drinks after spending the day at the beach. So we decided to go into town and look for some fun.
We found a bar that said “open late” outside. We were young and stupid decided to stop by for a few drinks. It was dark and there were no windows. Although there were plenty of attractive women, none of them were dancing on the stage.
The barman approached us and sweetly said, “My friends! What is it you want? Where are you from?” He picked out two gorgeous women from the back and sat them down with us. I expected a dance, but no — instead they just sat. We spoke with them about mundane things and I noticed the girl next to me had suspicious marks on her arm.
My friend said that the barman told him we should buy two drinks for the women; if we bought a bottle, they would do a dance for us. I asked the girl and she looked perplexed . “You vant dancing before?” At that point, it didn’t take a genius to realize she wasn’t just a dancer.
I whispered to my friends about what I’d discovered; looking around, we suddenly realized how seedy the other customers were.
We all just got up slowly, so as not to attract attention. But the barman blocked us at the door saying, “80 Euros my friends.” This clearly wasn’t the place to start arguing. We gave 20 euros each and my friend said, “Oh we’re 20 Euros short.” He tried to laugh it off. The barman stopped smiling, counted the money and pressed his palm against my friend’s chest.
I’ll never forget this moment as the whole bar just went silent. Everyone started looking at us. I thought we were dead.
My hand was in my back jean pocket and by God’s good grace, I found a crumpled 10. I never leave money in my back jean pocket, and this was the first time I had ever done so and had forgotten about. I handed the note to the guy, he looked at it for a second, then smiled. “Come again, my friends,” he said. We all smiled reluctantly and walked the out of there as quickly as we dared.
21. Oh, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
20. Fit To Burst
19. Play Stupid Games, Win Stupid Prizes
18. Stranger Danger In Istanbul
I was in Istanbul, staying at a wonderful little boutique hotel in the Sultanahmet district, which is near the Blue Mosque and most of the old, traditional mosques and sites of the city. It was evening and, after a long day of walking and visiting the sites around me, I wanted to have a relaxing evening.
I was walking down the street when suddenly a friendly guy comes up to me and starts up a conversation in perfect English.
He was with a friend and after a few minutes of chatting, I felt I could trust them. They told me they knew this great place where we could listen to some authentic Turkish folk music. They could drive me there. I was feeling great! Isn’t this the ideal situation when you are traveling alone?!
We got in the car and drove and wound up in a neighborhood where there were no tourists. We walked downstairs and opened the door and I found myself in a disco. There was music playing and lights flashing. It wasn’t my idea of a folk scene, and to make matters worse I was the only customer there.
We sat down at a big corner booth and immediately afterwards three beautiful women sat down with us. Meanwhile champagne was ordered. That first bottle quickly got consumed and another one arrived right after it, and one after that…
I didn’t drink that much but my mind was cloudy. It wasn’t enough to knock me out, but it was enough to make me confused.
After about 45 minutes, the bill came. And you know who it got placed in front of. I looked at it and saw the total amount of 9,380 Turkish lire, (which equaled about US$3,075). But because of my confused mind I did the wrong math in my head and interpreted the final amount as US$375. I thought that was quite high but chalked it up to a ‘night on the town’.
When the club manager tried to take US$3,075 out of my account, my bank saw that it was a large request coming from a high-risk area of the world, and refused payment on it. The manager came back to me and told me the bank would not accept it. He then told me that there was an ATM machine outside and I could take the money out of it there.
Still thinking that the bill was $375, we went outside to the ATM machine. For safety reasons I had put a $300 maximum withdrawal on my account. So I got the $300 out of the machine and turned it over to them.
They said it wasn’t enough. When traveling overseas I always keep my credit cards in the safe in my room at the hotel.
So now I had to convince them that my credit cards were locked up in the safe in my room at the hotel, and that I could go get them and pay them the remaining $75, though in their eyes I still owed them $2,725! In the end he agreed, and my two ‘friends’, plus a driver, took me in their car back to my hotel.
It was half-way to my hotel, which was a 20-25 minute ride, when one of my ‘friends’ told me that I didn’t owe the manager $75 – that I owed him $2,725! That’s when I finally realized how badly I was being scammed and how foolish I’d been.
When we arrived at the hotel, I told them I would get the card and be right back.
When I got inside, I explained my predicament to the people behind the front desk. The manager told me to go upstairs to my room and he would take care of it. I didn’t want to use the elevator as it would show which floor I got off at, so I walked up the 4 flights stairs to my room. I kept my lights off and my door cracked open, so I could hear if there was a scuffle downstairs.
Fifteen minutes later I received a call from the manager. The guy who was standing outside had come in when I didn’t return and wanted to come upstairs. But the manager was perfect. He let the guy know that he would call the police and that he had to leave now.
It’s too bad that happened because I absolutely love Istanbul. It is one of my favorite cities, and I would certainly return. I have had a lot of time to reflect on what happened, and curse myself for things that maybe I could have prevented, and accept my good fortune with some things that happened, and which, very likely, could have saved the situation from becoming much worse.
17. For The Dogs
16. In The Lion’s Den
15. Very Funny, Officer
14. “Stick” With Us
When I was 13, my parents took me and my 3 younger siblings on a tour of Mexico. We were driving in a rental car one night on a highway through the state of Guanajuato, when I noticed a large Chevy van was following us. I begged my dad to let him pass, because I became frightened. My father pulled over to let the van pass us, but the van also pulled to the shoulder behind us, and the driver turned on the high beams and got out of the van, walking toward us, carrying a “stick.” My father told us to duck down into the seats and he peeled out and drove like a madman toward the nearest town, which was 5 miles down the road.
The van quickly caught up to us, but this time without any headlights on. The poor Buick we were in gave us its all, and we made it to a hotel. My father began honking the car horn up the driveway, and the van backed off and drove away.
Explaining our ordeal to the hotel clerks, my parents were told of local area kidnappings, in which a vehicle would turn off the headlights, run a car off the road, and kidnap the occupants at gunpoint. My dad later told me the man’s “stick” was a rifle.
13. Lost In The Outback
12. The Poorest Lose The Most
11. Truly Terrifying
10. Power Trip
I know US Customs officers are famously ill-tempered, but I’ve been in the country several times and that was the most suspicious officer I’ve met so far. I was really worried she might deny me entry or detain me for absolutely no reason. No idea what her problem was.