Certainly, traveling around the world can offer deep, meaningful, powerful photos and stories. Yet, there are also plenty of those not-so-glamorous moments. Traveling can likewise produce cringeworthy, awkward, uncomfortable photos and stories.
Recently, an old friend asked for the later of those two extremes.
On June 11th, I made a playful offer to my Facebook followers:
I left the US on November 5th, 2016. Pick any date between November 5th, 2016 and today. I’ll look through my pics from that day, post one, and tell a story. Ready? Go!
The responses from my friends started rolling in. I posted some touristy pics from downtown Rome, Italy; a video of a unique toilet in Danang, Vietnam; a beautiful sunset from Christmas Day in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, and many others from Germany, Cambodia, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the UK.
Then an old friend, Jill, had to throw a wrench into things. She told me to choose a photo that made me uncomfortable to share.
Touché, Jill. Touché.
I accepted her challenge and discovered something about my journey. The more I went through my photos, the more I realized my travels had produced quite a few moments I’ve hesitated to share with you. Until now!
I’ve decided to share 10 of the most uncomfortable photos and stories from the last year and a half of traveling around the world. Fair warning: some of you may feel uncomfortable, too.
(click any photo to enlarge it)
1. International crisis averted!
I’ve visited many incredible places on my travels, yet there’s only one that can be considered the most powerful place on earth: the Ecuadorian embassy in London, UK. Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, has been kept there since June 19th, 2012.
I got to see the famous Embassy Cat, take a selfie next to their call button, and give them a “thank you” card with a hand-written, personal note.
On my last night in London, I couldn’t resist going back one more time to the embassy. I was glad to see that things looked safe and sound.
Then, I proceeded to define the word “oblivious”. As I was lining up one last picture, a car with dark, tinted windows drove up and abruptly parked right next to me. At that moment, I realized the gravity of what I was doing: taking pictures of the Wikileaks/Ecuadorian embassy at night.
I immediately took a few steps back from the car. I didn’t run away or do anything else suspicious, I just started doing things on my phone. After a few minutes, the car pulled ahead and parked next to the embassy (the car is pictured here – I blacked out the license plate).
Were the people in the car friendly to Wikileaks and concerned for the staff’s safety? Or were they part of the opposing, evil parties – the governments of the US, UK, and others – wanting to know who I was? I’ll never know.
2. Stay to the right!
Additionally, I’ll never know how Julian Assange truly feels – to have my life hanging in the balance. On the other hand, I’ve had several “hang on for dear life” moments of my own while traveling, as the photo to the right demonstrates.
I posted this photo back in February as part of my 8-day tour around Sabah, Malaysia (Day 1; Day 2 & 3; Day 4; Day 5, 6, & 7; Day 8).
This is a relatively short hike called Trig Hill. The trail is privately owned. It’s properly maintained and has many ropes, poles, and markers for safety and navigation. Admission cost: RM3 ($0.74).
While the trail is certainly well-taken care of, there is one place that’s a little sketchy. In the picture, you can see the safety rope on the right. Then, you notice the only thing that’d help save you from going over the edge on the left is a set of brittle, decaying twigs. All I could think of was that famous quote from The Goonies: “Stay to the right!”
Oh, and that big gap? It kinda makes you wonder: “How did that section break? Did somebody fall over the edge? Did they survive? Does their ghost haunt the hill?”
3. They believe
I never really believed in ghosts. Then, my beliefs were challenged when I stayed in a haunted house for a few weeks while I was in Swindon, England, UK – most of the time, I was by myself! You can check out the full story here.
The owners of the house had a lavender plant in the one room in the house that had the most activity.
A quote from my blog post:
Lavender has been said to drive off the evil eye and chase away demons and evil spirits. The lavender plant stands over a small desk. Matt said he had always had this feeling that he shouldn’t stand in that spot – that he shouldn’t be where the small desk is – so he never went to that corner of the room, unless it was to quickly throw something in the trash.
4. Pork what?!
My way of thinking continued to be challenged in other ways while traveling in the UK. When I was in a grocery store on the Isle of Wight, I found a particular box of food with a word on it that shocked me. Without question, I wasn’t prepared for it. I saw this again in Cardiff, Wales.
Sometimes British English is a little different than American English. This is one of those occasions.
Moments like these make me wonder about the development of language. I wonder, at what point did that word become a derogatory term for gay people? Why did it happen in the US, but not the UK? That’s an internet-search rabbit hole I don’t feel like going down at the moment!
Let’s continue the theme of sexuality with #5!
5. “Um… wait, I’m not gay.”
There have been many moments when I’ve had to be comfortable with my heterosexuality – the drag queen MC at a family-friendly bowling night in Cardiff, the countless ladyboys in Thailand, holding a rainbow umbrella in Malaysia, and that time when I accidentally went into a completely empty gay bar in Cambodia (let’s just say the bartender was happy to see me in more ways than one!).
Another one of those moments was my last night in Hanoi, Vietnam.
My housemates and I went on many intoxicated expeditions to find a bar that legally stayed open well past midnight. Finally, we found a place near our house that brilliantly broke the rules. The two times we went there, the employees closed the security garage door at midnight and we all partied inside with unlimited free food and alcohol!
We were all having a lot of fun, when seemingly out of nowhere, one of the male employees gave me a bouquet of flowers! Not wanting to give him mixed signals, I hesitated but reluctantly accepted them out of respect. They were giving us unlimited free food and alcohol, after all!
When I asked the employees why he gave me flowers, the confusion really started. Some of them told me he’s undeniably gay. Others would say they’re just picking on him – he’s actually straight. Adding to the confusion, one person said he bought the flowers for me, while another said he was given the flowers by somebody else and now he was giving them to me.
Regardless of whatever the truth was, when my housemates and I finally stumbled out of there at 3am, the employees were still going strong. From what I’ve seen, most Vietnamese men love drinking alcohol!
How are you feeling after the first five uncomfortable photos and stories? Are you ready for one more sex-related story?
6. An erotic sex museum?!
I’m a fan of history and learning more about local cultures while I travel. With its rich, complicated history, I figured Spain had a lot of museums to offer.
One museum definitely stood out among the rest – Museu Eròtic de Barcelona (fair warning: that link goes to a Google Maps listing with a lot of NSFW photos).
I’d heard that Spaniards are generally more free, relaxed, and libertine about sex compared to most of the rest of the world. But did I really want to visit an erotic sex museum by myself? I figured, since the words “sex” and “by myself” perfectly describe much of my adult life, why not?!
As soon as I walked into the museum, the craziest, most shocking exhibits were already in front of me. Among those is what I’d call a “sex see saw”, which is pictured here. I think we all know what’s underneath that black bar!
The museum continued to surprise after that, but not how you might expect. There were many professional, informational plaques in multiple languages – like the kind you’d see in any museum. Timid exhibits on Marilyn Monroe, Cleopatra, and tasteful artwork were on display. Of course, so were hand-crank dildos, chairs with feathers that stroke your naughty parts as you peddle, and the craziest, iron S&M gear you’ll ever see!
I’ll be honest, when I see stuff like that, it makes me wonder who amongst us has these types of toys in their house? Have I stayed with an Air BnB host with similar tastes? I have a feeling that my first Cardiff, Wales host enjoyed looking at her guests in the shower. That story will have to wait for another day. Until then, I’ll tell you another crazy story about that same host with photo #7.
7. I lived with an eco cult member
After 30+ stays at Air BnB properties around the world, my host in Cardiff, Wales is still the only host that I left early (I moved out of her house before the end of my reservation).
On my second day in her house, my host told me to put my plastic yogurt container in the dishwasher for cleaning before throwing it in the recycle bin.
I thought she was kidding. She was absolutely not kidding. I opened the dishwasher to the sight of actual trash that she washed with other dishes, then threw away. I watched her do this. Obviously, the green religion has caught some more than others.
Furthermore, she had pro-communist magazines on her kitchen table and proudly proclaimed her ultra left-wing beliefs in our few conversations.
Despite my pro-peace beliefs, at no point did I ever disagree with any of her morally repugnant, violent, abhorrent language. I simply remained silent. I suspect most of her other guests loudly agree with her when she gives her thoughts, whether they actually agree, or they’re just trying to be nice. That’s why our conversations didn’t last very long.
But none of that had anything to do with why I left her house early. I’ll tell you that drama-filled story another day!
8. Hammer or 15th century bug killer?
Perhaps my eco-cultist Cardiff host would be proud of me, after all! I found a rather unconventional, environmentally safe alternative to insecticides in Budapest, Hungary!
Spotting a bug problem is one of the potential downsides to low priced accommodation. Don’t get me wrong, my Air BnB studio apartment in Budapest was a great value! It had a cool loft-style bedroom, a washer, kitchen, living room, very fast internet, and plenty of space.
However, I must admit, that place had a sizable bug problem. Luckily, the bugs were almost entirely in one spot. I’ll put it this way: careful inspection was always required prior to taking a shower!
When I saw the first bug, I searched for bug spray. No luck. In that moment, looking at the options nearest to me, the only thing that made sense was a hammer. As you might expect, it worked!
After that, the thought of killing a cockroach with a hammer was funny to me. I continued using it throughout the week I was living there. About 10 bugs (mostly cockroaches) were flattened with that hammer.
Heartlessly killing bugs is one thing. Treating human beings with the same coldhearted disdain is something completely different and should not be accepted by any person who doesn’t support murder. That leads us to a much more serious photo #9.
9. What would a real hero do?
Many people around the world, especially Americans, automatically default to calling their country’s military veterans “heroes”. But are they, really?
The photo to the right is only part of one wall in the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, Vietnam. That room details a fraction of the victims of Agent Orange – a chemical weapon designed to burn the flesh off the human body, create horrific birth defects for generations, and contaminate the food supply for decades. The United States military dropped this chemical weapon on hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Vietnam War.
During the war, 3,000,000+ Vietnamese were killed (among them, 2,000,000+ were civilians), 2,000,000+ were injured, and 300,000+ were declared “missing”. The US military finally admitted defeat and the war was mercifully declared over in 1975.
The US government left Vietnam with 6,100,000 hectares of land contaminated with bombs and explosives. After 1975, 42,135 people have been killed by those leftover bombs and explosives; 62,143 have been injured.
Whether you’re pro-war or pro-peace, I sincerely encourage every reader to click on this photo to enlarge it. Stare at each of those eight photos on the wall. If you’re pro-war, don’t look away until you realize that war “heroes” didn’t do this.
You may be asking yourself: if “heroes” didn’t do this, then who did? People who were just following orders. People who didn’t think – or, more likely, didn’t even care – about the consequences of their actions. Incontrovertibly, people who wanted to kill as many civilians as possible. Mass murderers. War heroes? No, war criminals!
This is war. This is what war does. If you support war, this is what you’re supporting. Real people die. Real people suffer.
10. “I shouldn’t be eating this”
I realize that last photo might have made some of you uncomfortable in a way you didn’t expect prior to clicking on this post. There’s no easy transition to make here, except to show you an example of how I’ve personally transitioned as a traveler.
This is a photo of a street food vendor in Jakarta, Indonesia. As you’ve probably already heard, street food is very popular in Asia.
When I first got to SE Asia, I thought, “I guess I could try some street food, assuming it’s sanitary.”
That mindset slowly evolved into “I’ll eat anything”. This pic is Exhibit A. Exhibit B might be that I ate duck blood yesterday, and it absolutely wasn’t the first time (yes, “ate” duck blood, not “drank”).
When looking at this pic, on the right, you can see the spoons, bowls, a dirty rag, and two drawers. On the left, a pot and its lid.
As soon as I saw this guy, I thought, “ya, this is my guy. This is the guy I’m buying from today.”
I ordered my food. He grabbed a dirty bowl, wiped it off with the dirty rag, put a spoon in the bowl, used his bare hands to grab some pre-cooked noodles and beans from the drawers, put the noodles and beans in the bowl, poured a big scoop of hot water and beef balls into the bowl, and handed the bowl to me.
As I watched this happen, I thought, “I shouldn’t be eating this.” I remember paying about $0.80 for it.
I ate it. All of it. No stomach ache whatsoever. Asian street food has toughened up my stomach, for sure. I used to be a picky eater. Then, I visited Asia.
Bonus uncomfortable photos and stories!
Craving for more tragic stories and awkward moments? Recently, I posted three other uncomfortable photos and stories on my Facebook page. The story about how I crashed my rental car in Rome is here. The story about how I crashed my motorbike, hurt myself, and hurt my friend is here. And the story about how I confronted my host for sleeping in my bed while I was out of the house is here.
And of course, there’s the wildly popular story about how I got punched in the balls by an 8-year old girl while volunteering at an English school, and how that led to my eventual termination.
I suspect more people will be interested in this post than most of my others. Why do most people prefer to hear about bad, tricky, awkward experiences? “Hold the thoughts on London, tell me about when you were jumped by a paddy wagon full of cops!”
Of course, there are two sides to that equation. Often, people elect to tell the tragic stories rather than the positive stories.
I’ll throw one theory out there: uncomfortable photos and stories make us stronger. Sure, those kinds of stories could be more entertaining. More than that, I think most people have an internal desire to learn from other’s mistakes or struggles.
To better understand this, let’s draw an analogy. When a person lifts weights, the muscle tears. As it heals, the muscle builds itself back up again, but even stronger than before. This is how I view going through challenging life experiences. If a person never exercises, their muscles start to atrophy. The same could be said about a person’s self if they don’t push themselves in other ways.
So, here’s to putting yourself out there, seeing where things go, and growing. Here’s to doing things that make you feel uncomfortable. Let’s take more uncomfortable photos and tell more uncomfortable stories.