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Friday, September 30, 2011

Travel Tale: No place to sleep

As I was trying to convey to my oldest daughter, R, after she accidentally fell in a frog pond while tadpole hunting (soaking her shoes and socks with swamp water)... misadventures are not necessarily a bad thing. Even if they upset us at first, give it a little time (and a little bit of resiliency), and not only do they teach you a useful life lesson, they also become a cherished memory that you don't tire of recounting. The initial pis*** off state gives way to hilarity, and you are actually glad it happened to you, for it gives you material for telling tales around the campfire or on long winter nights.

After all, without misadventures, life would be boring!

(I still have to work at convincing R of this, I'm afraid.)

Of course there are different levels in misadventure, and each of us is equipped to deal with so much.

For example, a friend of my parents once embarked upon a solo crossing of the Sahara in a car that was not meant for that endeavour. (Needless to say, that kind of journey is considered foolhardy by even the most adventurous of us.) Soon enough, that friend encountered a group of men whose intentions were far from noble. And so he ended up being mugged in the middle of the night by unscrupulous thieves of the desert. I'm not quite sure how he managed to do that, but apparently (or so the story goes), he ended up having tea and chatting the night away with them. In the end, they only took his money, not his life. Pfiew!

I highly doubt I would be up for that kind of experience. But I have had my share of milder misadventures. And more precisely, I have found myself in the situation of not having a place to sleep, late at night in a foreign city, more than once. At least 4 times, in fact.

1) Paris

Tired after a long red eye flight from Montreal that had been delayed 3 hours, my friend P and I arrived in Paris, anxious to get to our hotel, get rid of our luggage and take a shower. Traveling on a budget, we decided to forgo the taxi and walk what seemed to be 500 m or so between the subway station and the hotel. That was without taking into consideration that we would get lost in the 4th Arrondissement; it took slightly longer than we had planned. When we finally arrived at the hotel, the combination of the flight delay and our long stroll in the city added up to about 4 hours. The hotel employee had concluded we were not coming, after all, and decided to give our room to someone else. So here we were, exhausted, carrying huge backpacks, without a room, past sunset, in a city we were only slightly familiar with. And nobody there was keen at helping us find another place to stay. Luckily, we soon found one on our own, a very nice and clean and central hotel with zealous employees. The only downside, it was about triple the price we were hoping to pay, and we ended up busting the daily budget we had agreed on within 2 hours of our arrival. An auspicious start to the trip!

2) Berlin

This one was clearly our fault. On our way to the train station to catch a late-evening night train, we got caught up in a conversation. When we arrived on the quay... our train was leaving. Since we are no James Bond nor Indiana Jones, we did not run alongside and jump in. This train being the last of the day, we could not simply take another one either. So we located a phone, and we started calling ALL the hotels in Berlin. Now, remember Berlin is a huge city. We were pretty confident we would find something. Well, by the time we were reduced to call hotels 30 km away in the suburbs, and still getting negative answers, we figured out 1) there must be some huge event going on here that we are not aware of, for all those rooms to be taken (it was high season, too) and 2) we need a plan B. By now it was close to midnight, the punks were invading the train station and the streets, and the last subway was about to leave. We ran and quickly got in. While we were being taken to an unknown neighborhood, I feverishly turned the pages of my travel guide, looking for a place (other than a hotel) to spend the night. Finally I found it: the Cafe Voltaire, a restaurant opened 24 hours. At the next station, we got out, walked briskly (punks were everywhere!), hoping it would not be full. It was not. We spent a sleepless night eating pasta, drinking coffee and writing poetry (what else to do?) It ended up being quite pleasant! The next morning, we got on a day train to Munich... and slept the whole time.

3) Toulouse

After spending a few nights in the capital of cassoulet, a rather fatty dish of pork, lamb, sausages and white beans, P and I were ready to go explore new destinations. A friend of P had generously offered to welcome us in his home in Switzerland, so we decided to end our sojourn in Toulouse and pack for a night train to Geneva. Full of foresight as we were, we waited AFTER checking out of our hotel to call the Swiss friend and confirm our arrival on the following day. That's when he sadly informed us that he was actually out of town for 3 days, and could we please postpone our arrival until then? F***, P and I both exclaimed. It was late evening in Toulouse, and when we went back to our hotel, they had insensibly replaced us with new customers; there was no vacancy. So once again, we walked in the dark city with our huge backpacks, until we found a cute place to sleep for 3 nights. This hotel was actually the place where Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had stayed between his transatlantic flights, and was full of aviation paraphernalia. Also, it was conveniently situated on the market place. We ended up enjoying it a lot.

4) Chora Sfakion

Ah! Crete! This Greek island, the largest of the country, is situated in the Mediterranean, a night of ferry boat away from Athens. It is a paradise for both history buffs (Minoan civilisation) and enthusiastic hikers. P and I decided to "do" the Samaria Gorges, a breathtaking canyon on the southern side of the island. The views were incredible, the weather was glorious, the water was warm (even in early April!) We had an awesome time. At the end of the day, though, our bliss quickly faded when we realized that Cretan public transport does not synchronize buses with ferries. We missed the last bus and were stuck in the small town of Chora Sfakion while still paying for a room in Chania, on the other side of the island. This time, we did not have to spend much time considering our options. Recognizing the anxious look on our face, a local guy walked straight to us and asked if we needed a hotel room. Not in the mood to wonder if this was a scam, we followed him. We ended up in the quaintest room of the quaintest hotel in the quaintest of coastal towns. On the restaurant terrace overlooking the ocean, that night, we chatted with globe-trotter, polyglot waiters, who gave us dessert and liquor for free. We never regretted having to pay for 2 hotel rooms at the same time, and the following morning, we were quite sad to leave.

In the end, some of our best traveling memories are related to those misadventures that turned up to be positive surprises.

1 comment:

  1. Traveling as you did sounds like a wonderful adventure!

    I really liked Berlin! I remember going for a long run my first morning there and discovering the remains of a graffiti covered wall. A part of the original "Berlin Wall." It seemed so innocuous as to the stories I had heard. Though when seeing what the original other side was with its barbed wire and tank traps, I began to understand the real significance of its history.

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