Disasters. Near-disasters. Plans that went awry. After many years of writing and talking about travel I've found that the experiences that really grab your audience's attention are the ones that went wrong.
The first time I noticed this was when we got snowed in at the end of an Austrian ski holiday. Husband Tim had broken his ankle on the last run of the day. The road out of the village was blocked by snowdrifts and the doctor in a neighbouring village was unreachable - snowed in also.
The most effective painkillers Tim managed to get were pills from a Tanzanian vet in my ski class (we called them his "elephant knockout" pills). When we finally got home three days later, no-one wanted to hear about the stunning Austrian Tyrol; cool ski instructors or colourful Tyrolean dancing. They wanted the disaster angle.
So being imprisoned in Dublin for a few extra days was a travel setback I'd cheerfully repeat, especially when the hotel didn't charge for the extra time – how Irish is that?
Lost luggage is always a productive travel-disaster subject, witness all the variations on the age-old saying: "breakfast in London; dinner in Auckland; luggage in Sydney". Strangely-enough, in all my years of travel, I have had only one occasion when my luggage went AWOL. It happened when our flight from Europe into Singapore was late, so we literally had to run to make our onward connection. We succeeded. Our luggage did not. It took a couple more days to arrive.
As my mother-in-law did also, on a holiday in Spain. Against the stereotype, my mother-in-law was a gem. A great traveller in her time, she's long since dead, but travelling still, I'm sure, somewhere or other. She had joined my husband and me on a three-week holiday in southern Spain. She wanted to join a bird-watching cruise down the Guidelquevir River, so we duly put her on the boat at Seville's river port, planning to meet her at Cadiz, at the mouth of the Guidelquevir, four days later. We turned up at Cadiz. Right place. Right day. Right time. No mother-in-law. I fumbled with my sparse Spanish vocabulary trying to find out from officials what had gone amiss.
She did attract the unlikely, my mother-in-law. She had previously, on this same holiday, gone off for a couple of days to meet some friends at Gibraltar. She had managed, during the bus trip, to receive a marriage proposal from an Algerian gentleman sitting beside her on the bus. So she had decided to get off the bus before it reached Gibraltar and abandon the visit.
So where was she now? Had the boat arrived early? We checked at a few accommodation places. "I have lost my mother-in-law," I began, in my slow and careful Spanish. Guffaws greeted this statement. I couldn't translate the rapid-fire Spanish that followed but I suspect I was acquiring some mother-in-law jokes.
An English-speaker in the boat operator's local office finally informed us that the boat had run aground on a sandbank and should arrive in a day or so. And indeed it did, two days later. My mother-in-law had had a blissful time, sitting up on deck with her binoculars while wading birds came right up to the boat. That sandbank had been a boon to a birdwatcher.
Not a boon to us, though, on a cruise on the Vistula River in Poland one time. We had boarded a German boat, the Frederic Chopin, at Gdansk, heading for Warsaw, some 400kms away.
Over the next week, we slipped easily into that relaxed cruising rhythm. But then we started to see the occasional sandbank, like a thin streamer tossed on the water. Tacking like a yacht is not an easy manoeuvre for a craft that's 90 metres long. Finally it was announced over the ship's loudspeaker, first in German, then in English. "Your brave Captain has been battling the sandbanks this last couple of days. Today will be our last day on the river." We had to "cruise" ignominiously into Warsaw in a bus.
Last year we had a family holiday in Vanuatu. My grandsons swam with turtles and kayaked in the lagoon; we all zip-lined through the jungle trees and revelled in the sun and the beaches….. So how did I manage to spend that last day in Port Vila's medical centre having my leg stitched up? Simple. While packing my suitcase in the bedroom, I stretched over the corner of the bed for a garment and slashed my shin on the sharp edges of the bed-base. Ouch.
I left a trail of blood as I limped out of my villa for help. Paramedics arrived and I was stretchered into an ambulance heading for Port Vila. Here a French doctor stitched up the gash in my shin, telling me that the repair would see me home but might need to be done again. Back home, he was proved correct. It did need to be re-done, plus a skin graft and five days in Hutt Hospital.
Earlier this year, I headed to Tahiti with my sister. This time, it was leaping up into the back of a tourist truck that proved my undoing. Its sharp edge connected with my leg - the other leg this time - and, again, my shin was being stitched up by a French doctor - in Papeete's medical centre.
"Don't leave town till you've seen the country" was a catchphrase in a 1980s tourist advertisement. It's taken 30 odd years to sink in, but maybe its time for me to travel at home.
Do you agree?
Written by Judith Doyle. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.