Most social media accounts and travel blogs are full of travel highlights and “living your best life”. The pretty photos, the perfect sunset, the unforgettable dive or the latest hike up that beautiful volcano. What we don’t talk about are the lows that will inevitably happen because that’s life, and life doesn’t take a break when you go on a trip. They are just as much a part of your travels as the good things, and will probably teach you twice as much. For that reason, and so that you can learn from my mistakes, I will be telling you about my worst travel experience.
Traveling to San Francisco
I had just spent an incredible couple of days in Los Angeles with my new friends I met at a social justice conference at UCLA. Since this was my very first time in California, I decided to visit San Francisco. To save money, I booked an overnight bus that would drop me off at my destination in the early morning. I had booked my hostel in advance and I sat down in my seat, ready to get some sleep and happy about the fact that I wouldn’t have to worry about anything once I arrived in San Francisco.
Making the wrong decision
When I finally got off the bus after a long and cold night, I headed over to the closest Starbucks, got some breakfast and coffee and waited for the sun to come up. According to Google Maps, the hostel was only a 30-minute walk away. Excited to explore the city and wanting to save every dollar, I decided to skip the taxi and public transport and walk. Off I went!
I was amazed by everything I saw, enjoyed the sun and smiled to myself: how lucky was I to just hop on a bus and go see this incredible city? When I finally got to the street my hostel was supposed to be on, I was astonished to find fancy stores and even the Hilton. But as I continued walking, the scenery quickly changed. Homeless missions, people sleeping on the street or making rather nasty comments as I passed them. I had only six blocks to go, so I continued walking and ignored the uncomfortable feeling that was building up in my stomach. Here’s some advice to all of you and my future self: always trust your gut feeling!
Stay calm and protect yourself
A block further down a group of guys standing on a corner pointed at me and one of them started walking with me.
“Hey, I think you got a bit lost there, this is not a neighborhood you should just be walking through. But don’t you worry, I’m just gonna walk with you.”
“Yeah, see, I used to be one of the bad guys. See this? Feel those muscles. Feel them! Do you see that tattoo? That’s my gang. But I’m a good guy now. I watch out for the cars on this block and people like you.”
“People like me?”
“People like you. You really shouldn’t be here on your own. But don’t worry, I can protect you.”
This is when he lifted his shirt a bit so I could see the gun hiding underneath. I didn’t want to seem upset or give away how scared I really was, so I just continued walking and being nice to him. A block away from the hostel he stopped me, and as I turned around I saw that the rest of his group had followed us.
“I know exactly where you’re staying. I think you owe us for getting you there safely.”
“I owe you?”
“Yeah, I can’t just do that for nothing. And give me enough for the guys as well.”
“…or someone’s going to have to protect you from us.”
And he points at the gun under his shirt. On the inside, I lost it. I pulled out all the cash I had and handed it over to him. He made me hug him, feel his muscles one more time and told me he’d meet me again the next day.
I hurried to the hostel and was shaking uncontrollably. The response I got from the girl at the reception was “There are no guns in this neighborhood! But we tell all our guests not to walk down that street. Here’s a map so you know better next time.”
Well, she should have told me this before I got to the hostel. The icing on the cake: they told me to leave the hostel until check-in, which wasn’t until 4 hours later. They made me go outside, although I told her what had happened and that I was scared.
Research well where you’re going. Are there any places you should avoid, especially as a tourist?
If you have a big bag with all your valuables on you, take a taxi. It is not worth risking your life or possessions to save a few bucks. Know when it is advisable to spend that extra money and have a backup plan.
Tell someone! If the people in the hostel don’t believe you, go to the police. I did not do that. The lady at the reception somehow managed to make me feel completely ridiculous so I didn’t do anything. I felt very alone and without any friends by my side, didn’t really know who to turn to.
Don’t let it ruin the rest of your trip. Don’t let just one experience define an entire place. I walked off my shock (in a safe area of the city!), got some lunch and started over. In the end, I made some really great memories in San Francisco!
That was my scariest travel experience so far. I know very well that I was lucky and things could have been much worse in that situation, but it was enough to really shake me up. What have you experienced on your trips so far?