On Getting Stuck

Getting stuck somewhere isn’t usually what you have in mind when dreaming of seeing the world, but if you do much long-distance backpacking it’s bound to happen at some point – in fact, it’s all part of the fun.

You might get stuck somewhere you never planned on staying and end up falling in love with it, or perhaps even a person you end up meeting there. Or you might get stuck in some random shithole but come to see it has a certain charm, lovely locals, a great music scene or whatever; or you might get stuck in some random shithole and find no redeeming feature at all to your time there, but rather a test of your patience or maybe your negotiating skills as you try to get out of there.

But the rough always goes with the smooth when you’re travelling and playing things by ear, and these unplanned stopovers can be some of most memorable experiences you have on the road.

Rickshaw ride in Siliguri
A rickshaw ride through Siliguri

Like the time my friend Danny and I got stuck in the Indian town of Siliguri for several days after leaving Darjeeling, days we spent in frustration failing to buy tickets at the train station before going back to the hotel to eat copious quantities of dopiaza while watching heavily censored gangster films and arguing over Scarface quotes. Despite all the wonderful and crazy things we saw in India, it’s always those few days stuck in Siliguri we talk & laugh about the most when we reminisce about that trip.

A couple of years before that, Danny and I (plus 2 other friends) found ourselves stuck in Rome for a few days after our passports were stolen on the night train from Vienna while interrailing around Europe (I’ve shared quite a few scrapes with Danny!)

The Vatican

But really, Rome is as good a place as any in which to get stuck. Those extra few days were not unpleasant at all, other than the sweaty and frustrating first day we spent visiting a police station and the embassy; once that was out of the way we enjoyed a few days of coffee & pizza, sightseeing & partying while we waited for our replacement passports.

The downside was that we blew too much money and never made it to Barcelona and Gibraltar (where our friend lived) as planned.

The upshot was that we met an American girl in Rome and a Canadian girl in Brussels (where we broke the journey home) who I now call dear old friends, and who gave shape to further travels – the following summer two of us went and road-tripped around the States with Anna (when we had this intense encounter with a psycho hillbilly, and also visited Ginny in Victoria) and I later was roommates with Ginny for a year in Vancouver during my ski bum days.

So getting stuck in Rome was one of those times when it actually turned out to be a positive; be adaptable, go with the flow, and it often works out well.

But not always. On another more recent solo trip I got stuck in the western Chinese city of Xining when my Tibet tour got cancelled at the last minute. Tours & permits are required to enter the Tibet Autonomous Prefecture, and my permit couldn’t be transferred to join another tour so I couldn’t board the train to Lhasa.

Labrang Monastery
Labrang Monastery

Nothing good came of this whatsoever; I didn’t fall in love with Xining or anyone in it, and it didn’t prove to be a sliding doors moment that led me to some other serendipitous chain of events. I’d already travelled all over China (all but a couple of provinces) in previous visits, and while the alternative route I took through the Tibetan regions of Gansu & Sichuan prefecture was nice, it wasn’t what I’d specifically gone to China to do. The whole trip was a waste of time & money, and the few days spent in Xining absolutely sucked. While I can’t say Xining has no redeeming features – it’s a sizeable city and I barely know it – my time spent stuck there had no redeeming aspects to it, and it didn’t lead to any silver linings.

I also once got stuck at the Thai-Malaysia border following a nerve-wracking bus ride through the military checkpoints of Thailand’s restive south-east. I was only stuck overnight, but after some initial alarm at the potentially very dodgy situation it ended up being quite an amusing experience when I was put up for the night by a porn-surfing border policeman. Hardly a tale for the ages, but I’m kind of glad it happened and that’s what I mean when I say it’s all part of the adventure.

Perhaps all this doesn’t only apply to getting stuck somewhere while backpacking; you can get stuck in so many ways as you travel through life, stuck living in a place you don’t like or stuck in a dead end job. And sometimes you may find the positives or learn a valuable lesson, but sometimes it might just totally suck and you just have to deal with it as best you can. That’s life.

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