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Risky Business

Risky Business
June 2009
Five encounters during our intrepid traveler’s year of living dangerously.

With the same gusto harnessed for the start of the Living on the Edge series in August 2007—for which I flung myself out of a plane with a stranger strapped to my back—I blew out of Charleston in March 2008 on a yearlong circumnavigation of the globe.

The world is a dazzling place with a muskmelon moon hung low across the sea in Mozambique, the howl of monkeys in the heart of Africa, steaming bowls of Fasoolya served on street corners in Syria, the juxtaposition of discipline and debauchery in Dubai, desert skies dappled with stars near the Saudi Arabian border, the clamor of Southeast Asian cities, Punta del Diablo’s surf-swept vista, and so, so much more. Although each day of solo travel across the globe presented its own unique set of challenges and rewards, some days were especially invigorating as I trundled off the beaten path.

Here are five accounts of the more adrenaline-charged incidents that occurred during the year: Sidestepping a vagrant in South Africa (while waiting for the shuttle to go cage-diving amid great white sharks), strolling up to the border—sans visa—in Syria, riding a runaway camel in Cairo, snorkeling through thousands of jellyfish in Vietnam, and climbing Wayna Picchu in Peru.

Sidestepping a Vagrant in South Africa
April 3, 2008

A vandalized streetlamp illuminates a woefully small portion of the sidewalk. The air is still, cloaked in night, and my ears twitch with the sounds of movement on the street. A man appears suddenly, his face peering into the dark courtyard that leads into my lovely Cape Town hotel. One eye is bulged out of its socket—the misshapen orb a milky color and the surrounding skin mottled by gangrene. I recoil, silently stepping back into the shadows. I check my watch: It’s only five minutes past the arranged meeting time, but I mentally will the shark-diving shuttle to appear—quickly. The streets at this hour are a dicey place to be, especially for a woman. A sickening whisper licks my eardrum. Hello, sister. The man with one dead eye is staring at me.

I stare back. A locked gate separates us. I’m uncomfortable, but I’m not scared.

“Sister,” he begins again. He speech is wet with saliva, and his lecherous gaze revolts me. “Where are you from? I am from Kenya. Where are you from?”

I don’t answer.

“Sister,” he begins again, and I imagine serpents slipping out of his mouth with every syllable.

I need him to lose interest, to move on down the street, so I retreat into the courtyard garden, out of his sight. Soon, I hear the shuttle arrive. I locate the security guard and ask him to accompany me to the sidewalk. When I explain there is a man hovering near the gate, the guard winces and gives me a look as if to ask, “What do you expect me to do?”

The man with the dead eye is flapping his arms and grunting as he hops up and down and points to the shuttle. The driver, a tall red-headed man with a ruddy complexion, slowly emerges from the vehicle as he sizes up the agitated man. He spots me over the vagrant’s shoulder and calls out, “Ready to go shark diving, lass?” I surge toward the van and think to myself, “But I’m already swimming with sharks.”

Strolling Up to the Syrian Border—Sans Visa
July 8, 2008

Detained. Briefly interrogated. Yelled at. Ejected. “Go back to Jordan. No visa for you, American!” Momentarily deterred.

That’s what transpires when I show up at the Syrian border without an entry visa. And then the man in line behind me leans forward, breathes heavy in my left ear, and says, “You know Syria no like American. We hate you America girl. Go home!”

My passport has collected nearly a dozen stamps from African, European, and Middle Eastern countries over the past four months, and while I’ve engaged in ideological debates with people along the way, this is the first incident of flagrant anti-American sentiment. The sting of his words feels like a slap across my face. I turn slowly around and detect a subtle shift when I return his stare. I can only hope he is uncomfortable with having a woman look him squarely in the eye. Two young boys, innocent heirs to this legacy of ill will, stand at their father’s feet. Despite the noisy chaos of this border crossing, a small crowd of men is silently watching our exchange. Sweat trickles down my back.

I engage the first and foremost rule for handling an uncomfortable situation: I smile. Then, I thread both arms through my rucksack straps and say, “Insha'Allah, you don’t hate me.” The scorching desert sun blinds me as I exit the immigration building, and my mind screams, “Nobody puts baby in the corner!”

I flop down beneath a scrubby tree, thrilled to have a scintilla of shade, and contemplate my options. It would seem I need to find a ride back to Amman—my dream to visit Damascus dashed—but something prevents me from kowtowing to defeat.

I eat a mango and idly watch a customs agent search the trunk of a car. Before long, the service entrance of the immigration hall swings open, and I glance up expectantly. No, he can’t help me, the clerk explains as he stubs out his cigarette. I thank him, compliment his English, and settle back against the tree. Round two occurs shortly thereafter when another clerk emerges for a break. He doesn’t look as surprised as the first guy to see the “American girl” idling about the back door, but he, too, shrugs when I ask for visa assistance.

I get lucky with the third guy, who knows I’m waiting. He walks out with a booming “Hullo!” He agrees to send a fax requesting a visa on my behalf but warns it may take several hours to hear a response. He pleads with me to return inside, so I head back in and take a seat along the wall. A sea of black with a splash of pink—23 women in burkas plus me all sitting in a row like magpies on a line, while hundreds of men jostle their way to the customs counter. Security surges forward to exert crowd control dozens of times, but the order always crumbles soon after the guards return to their posts.

Two hours pass before I hear a sharp knocking on the glass partition. On the other side, four immigration officials are clapping and pointing at me. One is waving my passport. They wear broad smiles, which I mirror as I hold my breath and hope for good news.

“We help you, American girl. We get you visa! You go!”

A couple of colorful stamps and $16 later, I am on the road to Damascus.

Riding a Runaway Camel in Cairo
July 18, 2008

Last week, I stayed at a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum, also known as the Lawrence of Arabia desert, in southern Jordan. Although Bedouin camels have largely given way to Land Cruisers, there’s something evocative about travel atop the one-humped beasts. From Wadi Rum, I head south via hired car toward the Saudi border, where I book passage aboard a boat bound for Sharm el Sheikh. From there, I catch a bus across the Sinai, through Suez, and over to Cairo.

At every turn through my journey into Egypt, I am faced with camels, so when I find myself the target of a wily pay-for-play camel handler at the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza, I embrace the role of tourist and saddle up for a ride around one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. The best way to view the cyclorama of architectural ingenuity, I reason, is on the back of a slow, trundling pack beast. Fortunately, it’s early and the grounds aren’t yet overwhelmed by the camera-wielding masses. Unfortunately, that means the camel men are fresh, not bargain-weary, and the fee for a ride is the highest it will be all day.

My hired driver-turned-self-appointed guide is an energetic chap who immediately begins haggling with the handler. I balk at the first quote, but the handler, eager to get underway and lock me into paying his exorbitant fee, gives the camel’s lead a steady tug and shouts “Up, Mickey Mouse!”

The beast lurches forward before rocking back on his double-jointed knees, and I’m suddenly thrust skyward. My driver, savvy to this scam, launches a verbal assault on the handler, who volleys back a wave of angry-sounding Arabic. They both cast aside the smoldering butts of their cigarettes and punch the air with their fists. The camel takes one step backward and then another before unleashing an unnerving burst of speed. In a flash, he is bounding away from the men and down a curvy road, toward a gate that opens into old Cairo.

I grab hold of the reigns as the crafty beast does the danse macabre past the Sphinx. A torrent of shouts chases our dust-storm wake as the runaway beast’s handler attempts to alert his brethren idling in our pinball path. The camel lurches left past a pair of unsuspecting tourists wearing wide sun hats, and I clamp my knees against the saddle to avoid a disastrous dismount. With the gate leading into the city looming closer, the camel fires all pistons and gives a hearty charge toward freedom. “Whoa, Mickey Mouse!” I holler as I grip the reigns. “Whoa!”

A young boy attempts to catch us—his adrenaline fueled pace, reed-thin sandals, and long white robe give him the appearance of a dervish—but his sprint is no match for this runaway train. The camel rounds a wide right turn, and I spy a mob of tourists unloading off a bus. “Whoa, Mickey Mouse, whoa!” I yell with greater urgency. “Mickey Mouse! Whoa!” We’re on a collision course—hemmed in by a bus blocking the road and the tangle of people unloading onto the sandy apron. The beast momentarily slows, giving the cadre of camel men opportunity to descend upon us like a Special Forces extraction team. I’m still yelling “Whoa, Mickey Mouse,” when a man grabs the tail of the rope trailing behind the camel’s bit. I continue to repeat “Whoa, Mickey Mouse” as though it’s a lifesaving incantation, and the camel slows in defeat.

My breath is shallow and staccato in response to the wild ride, but the sound of my hyperventilation is quickly eclipsed by the whir and click of a hundred cameras. I look up. Scores of shiny tourists are snapping photos, documenting my red face and the mischievous camel.

Snorkeling Through Jellyfish in Vietnam
October 4, 2008

I need a break from the bustle, monsoon weather, and pollution of Saigon, so I take the train half a day’s journey north to a small gem of a city known as Nha Trang. Here, life revolves around the sea: The white sand beaches lure tourists, while a thriving lobster-farming industry employs locals. It doesn’t take much effort to get on the water, and I hop aboard an old, wooden workhouse that belches dark diesel smoke as it chugs across the bay toward a beautiful archipelago. As I pull on my flippers, a mate rattles off the names of underwater creatures to keep an eye out for, including eels. The thought of writhing, slimy sea snakes gives me such a shudder (eels are the only animal on the planet that I can’t stomach). I gloss over his warning that I may encounter jellyfish, but not to worry since, “they’re pretty tame—little more than a mosquito bite.”

I slip beneath the surface of the mint-colored sea. The water is warm, and the ocean floor glitters with the haul of Triton’s finest. I’m busy watching a scorpion fish several meters away when my arm begins to sting. My other arm begins to sting, as do my legs, my stomach, and my neck. The water is quivering, so it takes a moment for my eyes to focus on the scores of near-translucent globules populating the water. I’ve swum into a swarm of jellies! I kick toward the surface and launch a leg out of the water to inspect the welts. The marks look angry, but the burning is quickly subsiding. The mate sees me bobbing around. He whistles and gives me the questioning “all okay?” sign. I return the affirmative but shout, “Jellyfish!” He casts a knowing expression, nods, and turns back to his business on the boat. His lack of concern tempers my worry, so I submerge myself again.

This time, I can’t miss sight of the jellies. There are thousands upon thousands of them, and they all appear to be swimming toward me. I kick through a cloud of the diaphanous medusae and struggle to remain calm. Hyperventilation is close at hand. It’s a battle between mental grit and a childhood of ingrained warnings: “Do not mess with a jellyfish!” I keep my wits about me until an especially thick swarm envelops my facemask, their gelatinous bodies bouncing off the thin sheet of tempered glass mere inches from my eyeballs. I rocket to the surface, rip off my mask, and shout, “This is like Fear Factor!”

Back on the boat, it doesn’t take long for me to simmer down or for the welts to recede, but I’ve had enough of a brush with the wild kingdom for one day.

Climbing Wayna Picchu in Peru
January 27, 2009

The hood of my yellow rain slicker rims everything in a lemony glow. The world is still semi-dark. The sun has risen but rain clouds obscure the light. A squatty man wielding a machete, which he thrusts into the air with exceptional verve, marches proudly along the swerving stone path. Aside from his occasional grunts, we are shrouded in silence.

A dozen or so people are huddled at the park gate by the time I arrive and a jolt of triumph courses through my body. Each day, only a handful of the keenest early birds are granted a ticket to climb the neighboring mountain, a towering overlook that, after a strenuous hour-long ascent, gives lucky oglers a view spectacular enough to last a lifetime.

I’d risen at 4:30 a.m.; stood in line until I boarded the bus an hour later; cleared the main gate shortly after 6; connected with a capable park ranger, who nodded for me to put away my map and follow him; and earned my golden ticket at the back gate somewhere around 6:20. It’s now 6:30, and I can finally stop to catch my breath. With my passage for entry to Wayna Picchu stowed safely in my pocket, I whirl around and for the first time survey the majesty of Machu Picchu. Hello, ancient Inca civilization. My, aren’t you absolutely spectacular!

After a few hours limning the architectural, religious, and social strivings of the mysterious Incan city, I set my sights on Wayna Picchu’s 8,900-foot peak. I strip off my top layer and stash my slicker as I start the slow ascent. Holy moly, it’s hot! The steamy humidity feels like I’m slogging through wet concrete, and a sudden rain shower impedes my progress. The already steep steps are now dangerously slick, and the steel cables—affixed to the parts of the trail where trekkers have to literally pull themselves up the mountain—are caked in mud. To top it off, a climber ahead of me is scared of heights, and his sudden stops leave me clinging to tiny footholds. A half dozen people are now backed up behind me, and one misstep from the acrophobic man could send us all sliding off the mountain. I offer verbal encouragement and shoot him a thumb’s up when he looks back in my direction. A chorus of cheer—in English, Spanish, and Italian—buoys him onward. It’s steamy, dirty, and exhausting work, but the toil brings great reward: The view from the bald mountain is glorious, humbling, and, like so many moments on this trip, indelibly seared into my memory.