Travel is not always smooth sailing
Travel disasters: Not all the thieving is done by humans. Picture: John Borthwick

Ah, the joys of travel. Robbed in Paris, attacked by machete in Mexico, and worse. Anyone who has pursued decades of travel, either professional or amateur, is sure to have a swag of disaster tales sufficient either to thrill or kill a dinner party.

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There are a few that I still wince to recall.


Paris, city of lights, platform of thieves

Forget Carla Bruni or Nicolas Sarkozy. The most important people I didn't see on a trip to Paris were the guys in hoodies whose traditional job is to rob tourists.

The easiest way into Paris from Charles de Gaulle Airport is by train. Homeboys prowled the carriages but my daypack sat on the non-aisle seat right beside me secure. Yeah, right. As the train pulled into a station, one of hoods dropped his keys and coins beside me.

I stooped, helping to retrieve them. And in seconds my pack was gone, complete with camera and laptop. Bienvenue a Paris, suckeur. The bag had evaporated, whisked from behind, then probably straight out a far-side window. Other passengers, of course, saw nothing. I pursued the hood on to the platform. He stood empty-handed. Any accomplices were nowhere in sight. He shrugged and blew that insouciant, signature, Gallic plosive that sounds like a mouth fart "Pwoofff!". English translation: "My friends are looting your bag right now. Want to make something of it?"

Seething, I continued to Gare du Nord where the cops have heard it all before, same train, same mugs, same mob. The only compensations were that my passport was in my pocket, not the stolen bag; my insurance was solid and that the delightful Parisian policewoman who took my statement looked agreeably like Scarlett Johansson.

Insurance can help a traveller out of a pickle but there is plenty that can go wrong away from home. Picture: John Borthwick

In Africa with Bean-on-Speed

Sometimes if you're lucky, disaster happens to the person next to you. Later you can dine out on it, a dish spiced with schadenfreude.

Once, on a long train tour through Namibia, I was thrown in with a hyperactive British reporter - think Mr Bean on speed - and an equally highly strung tour guide - think Basil Fawlty on rails.

Young Bean, witty and weird, had his sights set on a passenger, Hanna, blonde German lass in the Rubens mould. Basil, 40-ish, angular and anguished, also had his desperate eye on her.

Tensions in the bar car rose. Hanna, as coquettish as she was curvaceous, delighted in dropping provocative double entendres before both Bean and Basil. She smiled winningly at each and then had dinner with me.

A tour train is a rumour on rails. I retired alone to my blameless bunk, but reports of our soiree saw me added to Basil's "daggers" list - which Bean thought was even jollier fun. "Let's wind up old Basil again," was his favourite war cry.

Meanwhile, Markus, a dour local accountant, had been pressganged into an unaccustomed role: barman. As a bean-counter he could not accept why anyone - especially a foreign tourist - should be trusted to volunteer a true cabin number for a bar tab. Getting a drink at his bar without cash became a blood-out-of -a-stone exercise.

We rolled on to the old German colonial town of Ludertiz, a sunny port that looks like Bavaria-by-the-beach. With Basil jealously fuming at Bean and Hanna smouldering at them both, it all hit the punkah on the night she enjoyed one too many drinks with Bean and one too few with Basil. In the middle of the desert Basil attempted to have Bean put off the train. Bean mugged hysterically: "No! There are lions out there. Tigers! Dingoes!" Hanna intervened, batting her eyelashes and whispering something wicked in Basil's ear. He was torn, but Bean was reprieved, temporarily.

Did either Basil of Africa or Bean on Speed win the hand or whatever of the femme fatale? Who would say? (Actually they both would have, loudly - so I assume that neither Casanova did tempt the temptress.)

Meanwhile, when we were served tongue for lunch one day an American woman cried "I'm not eating that. You never know what it might have licked!" And thus our train rolled on like a ship of fools across the magnificent Namibian desert. At some point amid those stunning ochre dunes, Markus the too-retentive barman disappeared overnight. No explanation was ever offered, but after that it became a breeze to get a drink.

Some holiday behaviour puts travellers at extra risk in Noong Nooch, Pattaya. Picture: John Borthwick

Mexico: Machetes R Us

"To be a gringo in Mexico - ah, that is euthanasia," wrote Latino novelist Carlos Fuentes. Hitchhiking through Mexico many decades ago, my friend Charlie and I almost found out what he meant. We found ourselves in the midnight streets of Villahermosa in Tabasco State. As we sniffed for the cheapest possible hotel ($2 a night), we encountered a gang of corner boys.

Their leader, Miguel, peered at us through chemical pupils. We made it clear we weren't Americans. No matter. Resentment can't read a passport. We're all gringos to him.

Suddenly, Miguel is swinging a machete. His three pals grab at our backpacks. We start running, but all doorways in the street are locked.

A hotel! We dive in, slam the front door and bolt it. The crazies charge. The hinges are buckling. Our only way out is up - the ancient elevator.

I stab the call button. But wait! Enter authority: Jose, the hotel night clerk. If, on his shift, anything gets broken, it comes out of his pay. So Jose opens the front door. The loons erupt into the lobby as the old lift arrives. We scramble in. The main loco, his eyes filled with insanity, swings his machete as the doors close.

The lift creaks upwards. At the fourth floor we hop out, jamming its door open. Charlie pokes his head out a window, looks down to the street and gives a hoot "Hey! The cavalry's here!" Below is a vision impossible: the Villahermosa constabulary, en masse. Dozens of authority figures pounding up on foot, in squad cars and riot wagons. With revolvers drawn, they pour into the hotel.

Still keeping a wary eye on the stairwell, we watch this spectacle. Great. They collar Miguel of the machete and sling him with an appropriate lack of human rights into a paddy wagon. In a crescendo of revving and sirens, the posse roars away. Charlie and I look at each other in dismay. They got only one of them. The others are still in the building. We lock ourselves in a vacant room. By far the best - at $4 a night - that we've had in Mexico, the room even has a telephone. I call the redoubtable night clerk and tell him that we've just checked in.

He wants us to come down and register. No way, Jose. Footnote: in the morning the cops returned to announce: "You are free to go - same as the machete guy is. And, gringos, just like him, we won't charge you with any crime."

The West Australian

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