When Bad Things Happen to Good Travelers, Episode 6: A Compendium of Childhood Travel Follies

When it comes to childhood travel opportunities, I certainly can’t complain.  I got my first taste of Jamaica at the age of three; it tasted like pineapple and coconut and I was happy to break my water-wings out of storage and repeat the tropical experience three years later.  Colorado ski vacations weren’t unheard of in the winter, and road trips dominated during the other seasons: Disney World, the Grand Canyon, Albuquerque, and other places that had my parents driving through the night while we kids slumbered in the back seat of our “Wagon Queen Family Truckster.”  (A special thanks must go out to my sisters; their moves to the lovely far corners of the US prompted some of these grand road trip adventures.  To my brother, who went to college in Wisconsin and graduate school in Ohio: no comment.)  Finally, I got my first taste of Europe in high school; it tasted like Nutella® and I was hooked.

So yes, a love of travel was instilled early, but that doesn’t mean I came away unscathed from every voyage.  Up until now, all of my When Bad Things Happen to Good Travelers tales have featured me as an adult, but the truth is, one isn’t born a skilled misadventurer; rather, one must hone one’s skills in a long apprenticeship of youthful travel foibles.  Following are some of my more regretful moments:

Age 10, West Palm Beach, Florida:

Chariots of Fire was at the top of both the movie and music charts; the Vangelis masterpiece drifted out from the resort clubhouse on a seemingly endless loop.  I remember this trip as the first time I tasted rock candy and saw an alligator.  But I remember it even more for bleeding toes and sunburn.  Kids from all over the resort would congregate in the pool every evening and one night in particular several of us enjoyed a lengthy game of water volleyball.  When I emerged from the pool, an intense stinging sensation hampered my ability to walk, a skill I had perfected many years earlier.  A quick inspection of the soles of my feet revealed that the pool’s rough bottom had chewed up the undersides of my big toes as I bobbed up and down in my mostly futile efforts to make contact with the ball.  My painful, bleeding, abraded halluxes semi-ruined the first half of the trip.  Several days later at the beach, as my feet were finally starting to bear weight without pain, I got a bad sunburn, which semi-ruined the second half of the trip.  Somehow, though, despite the physical agony, I recall really enjoying this vacation.  Go figure.

In the absence of a West Palm Beach photo, this odd Disney World snap will have to do.

Age 11, Copper, Keystone, & Arapahoe Basin ski resorts, Colorado:

I must have been a slow learner, because the onslaught of solar radiation I endured just a year earlier failed to impart any lasting behavioral change.  On a wintertime ski vacation with my family, I decided I wanted to get “a little tan” to show off to my schoolmates upon my return.  I didn’t yet realize that, as a redhead, I have only two skin tone options available to me: blinding white and blazing red.  Full of youthful vanity and foolishness, I skied without sunscreen and ended up with a sunburn so severe I developed blisters all over my face.  And yes, it was as horrible as it sounds.  I remember hurtling down the highway in the “way back” of our station wagon in the middle of the night as we made our way home, feeling the blisters pop and send rivulets of pus running down my face.  I know—eww.  So, yeah, I didn’t end up making the envy-inducing impression on my classmates that I’d hoped I would.  But the big question is: Did I finally learn my lesson about sunscreen . . . ?

Jamaica, age 6. Why am I not in the pool? Or the ocean?! Sitting here facing a shrub has got be one of my earliest travel mistakes. I’m not even petting the dog. What the heck is wrong with me?!

Age 15, La Louvièr, Belgium:

My mom had warned me: “You’re not old enough (by which she meant “mature enough”) to spend a month abroad as an exchange student.”  Pshaw!  I was fifteen, for crying out loud.  Hadn’t I proven myself a responsible teenager?  I got good grades.  I didn’t drink (but see next paragraph) or do drugs or engage in other activities that could ruin my future.  Maturity was my middle name, or so I thought.  Fast forward several months.  I was a Spanish-speaking exchange student in the French-speaking region of Belgium, away from home for the first time and lodging with a family of six: two parents and four teenage boys, none of whom spoke much English.  Though my hosts were adequately friendly and accommodating, I didn’t mesh well with them (the language barrier didn’t help—I had memorized approximately six stock phrases in French) and I spent too much time in my room crying, writing woe-is-me letters to friends back home, and feeling homesick.  Fortunately, this was the trip in which I first met the fabulous Belgians (also a family of two parents and four teenage boys), who were hosting another girl from my exchange group.  This meeting would be the beginning of a trans-Atlantic, multi-family, decades-long friendship that continues to this day and made my homesickness—which diminished as the month wore on—worth every tear.

With my fellow exchange student and two of her host brothers, both youthful members of the Belgian clan. Holy Helmet! Look at that hair!

Age 16, Costa del Sol, Spain:

So we’ve established that I was a good girl—an ideal child, really.  I dutifully followed all the rules and regulations of my homeland.  At least, when I was in it I did.  Over in Spain, though, the legal drinking age was lower and not rigidly enforced so, using “when in Rome” logic, I reasoned that I could partake of the local liquid culture without consequence.  The main chaperone of this school trip—my Chilean, Catholic, Spanish language teacher—was surprisingly lax about these things.  Though I’m sure she didn’t condone it exactly, I found myself getting away with over-imbibing more than once (which is easy to do when you have no previous drinking history and zero alcohol tolerance built up).  All this dabbling and experimentation culminated toward the end of the trip in a night of embarrassing drunken debauchery (in the interest of national security, details have been classified) aptly followed by a wicked hangover.  But hey, at least I didn’t get a sunburn.

I don’t even know what Spanish city this is. Enlightened readers, can you, uh, enlighten me?

Age 18, San Jose, California:

In my last travel experience before heading off to college, I flew with my parents to California to visit my sister and meet her fiancé.  As planned, after several days my parents rented a car and continued their travels up the coast to Oregon.  For reasons I can’t recall—possibly due to my important work as a grocery clerk that I had to get back and resume—I stayed on with my sister for a few more days and then flew home alone.  On one of those final days we went to the beach, where idiocy struck again.  I used sunscreen, but failed to be vigilant about reapplication.  Ergo, sunburn—this time all down the backs of my legs.  While annoying and painful enough in its own right, unexpected burn-related difficulties became clear when I found my flight arriving late at my layover airport.  Suddenly I had mere minutes to make my connecting flight, which was boarding from a gate clear on the other side of the not insubstantial Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.  A luggage-laden sprint was going to be necessary, except I could barely walk, much less run, with the backs of my knees seared as they were.  In desperation, I flagged down a driver of one of those golf carts reserved for the elderly and infirm and begged him for a ride.  At first he demurred, thinking I was some impertinent youth pulling a prank.  But after I breathlessly explained my predicament, he not only acquiesced, whisking me through the airport at speeds I never could have attained in my enfeebled state, but also called ahead and had the pilot hold the plane for me.  And with that near miss, I graduated to full-fledged adult travel misadventurer, a post at which I continue to excel.

So many sins going on with me here outside this California winery, but let’s name just two: First, that shirt would hang loosely on a Japanese sumo wrestler. Second, was I trying to have a “Which Is Whiter?” contest between my footwear and my legs? I’m not even going to comment on the hair.

A note of thanks must go out to my mother, who reluctantly (verrrry reluctantly and with much prodding and nudging from me) slogged through a lifetime of photo albums to get me several of the photos I needed for this post.  And extra thanks to both my parents, whose love of travel infected me early and persists to this day.


The tragic tales in the When Bad Things Happen to Good Travelers series:

32 thoughts

  1. I too have had to make a mad dash across the Minneapolis airport (albeit without the sunburn, which was still plenty challenging; I can’t imagine doing with the burn). Why is it that layovers always involve a trek from terminal A to F? Is it so much to ask for planes to be closer?

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  2. You were quite the world traveler from a young age! I didn’t make it to Europe until I was an adult. Like you, I experienced blisters on my face when I was a teenager (and later my shoulders when I was in college) from a sunburn and they are terrible.

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  3. I am glad your mom plodded ‘through a lifetime of photo albums’ – I love seeing pre-Insta and pre-digital era travel photos. Thanks for sharing some of your travel mishaps; instead of that absolutely-perfect trip to Paris, I would rather read – for my educational and entertainment purposes – some horror stories of travel gone wrong. Cheers and have a good day. Aiva 🙂

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  4. Sounds like many of your unfortunate tales have everything to do with sunburns; I don’t burn as easily, but I can vouch that it isn’t pleasant when it happens! Most of my crazy travel stories didn’t occur until I was of legal age, but I will say that I’ve had my fair share of embarrassing myself with having a bit too much booze in my system! 😉

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  5. Never mind the hair, what about those pants!! Great stories, thanks for making me laugh at your expense:) I also went on a student exchange in high school, but mine was to Germany. The German student spent a month at my house and then I spent a month at her’s. I had traveled internationally with my family before, but only to English speaking countries. I studied French in school and I’m sure I knew the family would speak German, but when I arrived at her house, everyone spoke German and were laughing and joking and I understood nothing, I also went to my new strange room and cried! I did however bond with the family, and especially the mom who taught me German as I taught her English. Love all the photos. Maggie

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    1. Thank you! My host brother came to stay with us for a month when my month was up in Belgium.

      As for the pants, believe it or not, I was quite fashion-forward in high school! (Not hair-forward, apparently.) Now I couldn’t care less. Bring on the jeans and sweatshirts. Comfort is key!

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  6. Having spent only 2 weeks in Spain when I was about the same age as you in the photo, I don’t know which Spanish city you were in, but I do know that hairstyle. I had it, too– but now I roll my eyes when I see any photo of me with that style which in my world was called “an elevated wedge.” But on you? So cute.

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  7. Oh, the redhead sun nemesis. Mine’s a subtle red. So many solar learning opportunities and so little wisdom on my part. When I was 13, I went on my first 25 mile bike ride. I applied sunscreen at the beginning of the trip, period. Reapply was not a concept for me. By 2 pm, my legs were bright lobster, burnt 360 degrees as if I’d been roasted on a spit. That night there was no comfortable position to sleep. Yikes!

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    1. That exact same thing happened to me less than a year ago. Even after the burn faded, you could see the line where my bike shorts started for months and months afterward. I knew to reapply, but hadn’t brought sunscreen because I didn’t know the ride would be so long (but really because I’m an idiot).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh no! Sounds so familiar. I’m really good about wearing hats now. However, in the spring as I’m gardening the sun shining on me feels so great. In a freak accident that’s happened at least three times, I get intensely sunburnt on my lower back from my shirt riding up as I lean over!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for this hugely entertaining blog post. Your writing just keeps getting better and better all the time and makes for truly enjoyable excursions away from Covid life. Plus I could truly relate to the number of times that vacations were assailed by a nasty sunburn – ugh, readheadedness!

    On Fri, Jan 22, 2021 at 4:31 AM The Travel Architect wrote:

    > The Travel Architect posted: “When Bad Things Happen to Good Travelers, > Episode 6: A Compendium of Childhood Travel Follies When it comes to > childhood travel opportunities, I certainly can’t complain. I got my first > taste of Jamaica at the age of three; it tasted like pineapple and c” >

    Liked by 1 person

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