Life Nomadic: Coping With a Travel Disaster

I hold a strong belief that any bad situation can be turned into a good one. The thing about this belief is that it’s only true if you believe it. It’s easy to think this when everything’s going swimmingly, but when plans get derailed and blow up in your face, it gets put to the test. Case in point, here’s a situation I found myself in recently:

  • I got mugged and was robbed of my passport
  • The embassy promised to get me my passport before my 14 day transatlantic cruise left
  • They didn’t get it to me in time, so the boat left without me.

Imagine that. I’m stuck in Santo Domingo and my ride to England is sailing away without me, putting a serious body of water in between me and my British plans.

Step one: deep breath. Step two: examine options. There’s the boring option of flying straight into Saint Maarten two days later. It’s the ship’s only stop before the five day transatlantic push, and a call to the cruise line confirms that I can meet them there and get on the ship. Almost as bad as being boring, it’s expensive. Five hundred thirty seven dollars for a one way ticket.

I could book it and make it on the ship, but that’s not turning a bad situation good; it’s just turning a bad situation into a solved situation. I check a map of the Caribbean and notice that there are a few islands near Saint Maarten. Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla. I’d never even heard of Anguilla before, but a quick check online offers a $325 fare from Santo Domingo.

That’s the kind of situation I like. Two hundred twelve dollars cheaper than my only other option means that if I can spend less than that and turn it into an adventure, I’ve come out ahead. The ferry between the two islands seems to cost only twenty dollars, which is all the US currency I have in my pocket. That’s enough confirmation for me; I book the ticket to Anguilla, which should give me a full 19 hours from landing to boat departure to make my way to the cruise ship.

The layover in Puerto Rico gives me a plane window view of what the country is like. Not a real visit by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m happy to have a face to put to the name, so to speak. Two hours later I’m on another plane headed to Anguilla.

If you don’t believe that friendly and helpful customs agents exist, take a trip to Anguilla. Instead of grilling me when I told her I had no idea where I was sleeping, the customs agent went into an office, made some calls, and wrote down the name of a guesthouse on a piece of paper for me. The best price I’d found online was a hefty $100 a night. Hers was $45.

Right outside the airport I was once again confronted with Anguillan charm and hospitality. The security guards casually engaged me in conversation, asking where I was from and where I was going. When I told them I didn’t know where I was sleeping they offered the airport benches and said they’d watch my stuff for me.

I figured I’d walk around a bit to get the lay of the land, but I didn’t make it far. I cut through the parking lot of the airport and made it halfway across the lawn before I realized I was standing on a perfect little campground. Now that I have a luxury lite cot, every reasonable option to sleep in a public place delights me. The star filled sky and warm Caribbean breeze sealed the deal. I set up my cot, put it my headphones, and listened to Mozart as I drifted to sleep. Mozart has the ability to make anything seem luxurious, even sleeping out in a field like a vagabond.

One of these days I’ll learn that, no matter what, I should always bundle up before sleeping outside. By the time I woke up I was wearing my entire outfit of cold weather gear, and I barely remembered half of the occasions where I’d shuffled through my bag and added a new layer. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon, and I wanted to pack up my stuff before it got bright enough to draw attention.

I didn’t know exactly how far it was from the airport to the ferry terminal, but with twelve hours to go before the ship left, I felt comfortable walking there. I walk wherever I can–it lets me get a feel for the place I’m visiting that a taxi window doesn’t, it costs nothing, and it’s good exercise.

The walk to the ferry was uneventful and pleasant. Road bikers, joggers, and expat power walkers were out in full force, getting in their activities before it got too hot.

Just over two hours later I was first in line for the first ferry of the day. I cheerfully paid my $15 fare and shuffled to the tax window.

“That’s twenty dollars,” the woman scowled. Everyone I’d met in Anguilla so far was so genuinely friendly that I was astonished, but she was the opposite. My patronization of the business she worked at was a major offense, apparently.

I’m a little (too) insane about avoiding conversion rates, and only had five US dollars left in my pocket.

“I only have five. Is there an ATM near here?”

“In the Valley,” she replied, immediately looking away to signal that we had nothing more to talk about.

The Valley was where the airport was. I left my backpack with a (friendly) restaurant owner nearby and started retracing my steps. I did some mental math to assure myself I was in no danger of missing the boat.

Half a mile in I started thinking. Anguillans were so friendly, maybe I could hitchhike. I’d never hitchhiked before, and this seemed like the perfect place to try it. I stuck my thumb out and the third vehicle to pass, a big truck, stopped and let me in. I told him I was going to the Valley and he dropped me off about two thirds of the way there, before he had to turn off the main road.

Fifteen minutes later, as I passed a bakery, I asked a man if he knew where an ATM was.

“Sure, I’ll bring you there.”

He brought me to one ATM, which didn’t work, then another, and then insisted on bringing me back to the ferry terminal. My desperately sincere assurances that I didn’t mind walking weren’t that convincing, I guess.

From there the rest of the trip was easy. I’d been to Saint Marteen before many years ago, but struggled to recognize anything. My friend Phil’s family had rented a beautiful villa there, and most of my time was spent relaxing and playing Cranium by the pool. The French side felt like a tropical chunk of France, the Dutch side felt like Mexico, and I made it to the ship before my friend there finished breakfast.

It’s tough to say that I’m glad I missed the ship in the first place, but I will say this: I had a fun and memorable little adventure through five countries is thirty hours, and I don’t regret it.

(A quick note: My characterizations of these countries are all based on tiny glimpses of them, so take them with a huge block of salt. Except the friendliness… I’m convinced on that one.)