Denver Bar Association
December 2002
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A Stranger in a Strange Land

by Marshall Snider

 
Thinking of a trip in the new year?

The End of Immortality

The editors of The Docket have asked me to write about my three most frightening travel experiences. At first, this looked like a simple assignment. Travel long enough in the third world and you don’t have to seek out bad experiences; you attract them like a Miller moth to a porch light. I have survived thwarted pickpocket attempts, flights on airplanes when luggage was piled in the first three rows of seats, boat and bus rides in which fellow passengers deposited all manner of bodily fluids on and about my person and belongings, leper colonies, and indescribable foods that do not taste like chicken. All unpleasant and difficult, but frightening? Life threatening? Really scary? I don’t think so.

Still, I have thought long and hard and come up with a few stories to get the ball rolling. We’d like The Docket’s faithful readers to send in their own scary travel stories for future issues.

When we are young we are immortal. Bulletproof. No harm can possibly come to us. That’s why we do such dumb things in our 20s and 30s (and for a number of us, even later in life). That’s the way I used to be about travel. While I was a cautious, conservative being at home, once I was out of the country Ithought my actions didn’t count, and no danger could befall me, because none of this was real. My invincibility ended in my early 40s in Peru.

I was hiking through the mountains with a few guys I had met on the road; the usual assortment of Yanks, Aussies and Israelis. Every day we crossed another pass at 13,000 or 14,000 feet and on the second or third day, I succumbed to altitude sickness. Fortunately, it was not an extreme case, but it left me at times exhausted, disoriented, dizzy and confused. On more than one occasion I lost sight of the trail and wandered off on some imaginary route until my friends found me. On our third day out, I surpassed even my own record for getting lost.

The trail was a shelf cut into the side of a mountain, with a rock face to the right and a major drop-off to the left. Still, the trail was wide and comfortable and not at all dangerous; until, that is, the shelf narrowed to about 12 inches. No one else was around, and I was sure that in my dizzy and disoriented state I would pitch right over the edge if I tried to walk across. One misstep, or a shift in the balance of my pack, and I would say adios to immortality.

I knew that route couldn’t be the trail, but I didn’t know what else to do except move forward. I came up with a plan and spent about 10 minutes just resting and collecting myself before I actually tried it. Then I took off my pack, tied it to a rope and sidestepped along the shelf with the drop-off to my back, hanging on to whatever I could with my fingers. When I made it to the other side I pulled the pack across (fully prepared to let it go if it fell, rather than to have the backpack pull me over). I spent a half hour sitting on the other side while my adrenaline level returned to something near normal.

I met up with my friends at the next camp and asked them how they had gotten across this harrowing gap in the trail. They had no idea what I was talking about. It seems someone had placed branches and a tree trunk across the trail well before the point where the trail had washed out, in an effort to direct hikers to a detour around this spot. In my addled state, I had missed the obvious bypass and stepped right across this barrier.

From that day on, home or abroad, I realized that I was not bulletproof. I have tried to conduct myself accordingly ever since.

Man Overboard

The Zambezi Gorge on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border provides one of the scariest whitewater rafting experiences in the world; there are a series of Class V rapids that could not be run commercially in North America or Europe because of liability issues. Not that Zimbabwe is without a concern for legal propriety; before this run we signed a waiver that would make a Philadelphia lawyer proud.

In commercial whitewater trips in North America they tell you what to do "if" you get dumped in the water. In the Zambezi they instruct you on what to do "when" you go over. They even send guys in kayaks through the rapids ahead of you to pick up "swimmers" before the crocodiles get you.

I was not surprised when I went over the side of the raft in rapid number five (the deceptively named "Stairway to Heaven.") I was not concerned when I got drawn down into a vortex that felt like a washing machine and popped up only to get a mouthful consisting of one-quarter air and three-quarters water, before being sucked down again. I wasn’t even worried when this sequence repeated itself. But when I went under the third time I started thinking: "I know they said we’d get wet, but this actually seems like it might be dangerous." With surprising calm I realized that I could be in serious trouble, but I was being buffeted about so badly, and swallowing so much water, that I never had the time to have my life flash in front of me.

Mercifully, the rapid ended and a kayaker plucked me up and paddled me to my raft. The rafting guide was incredulous. "No one goes over in rapid number five," he told me. And as bad as it was, at least I had been drawn into the left channel; had I been pulled into the right channel, he told me, I’d have drowned for sure.

Now I was scared. We were assured our raft would flip on rapid number 18, if not before, and I was terrified at the thought of a repeat roller-coaster ride through the heart of Southern Africa. Every rapid had my heart pounding and when we approached number 18 without further incident I felt I had run out of luck. I was right. We flipped over in 18, as promised, but it was an easy swim. I climbed out, walked out of the Zambezi Gorge, and vowed never to even get into a bathtub for the rest of my life.

Behind the Iron Curtain

Travel in Eastern Europe in the 1960s, at the height of the cold war, provided a fascinating mix of oppression, fear and unnecessary red tape. In the summer of 1966, friends and I arranged to travel to Russia by train, taking us across the length of East Germany and Poland. This trip required a number of visas that were both expensive and difficult to obtain, but we collected them all: the East German double-transit visa (entitling you to cross the country twice, but not to actually enter East Germany); the Polish double-transit visa; and the Russian entry visa.

Thinking our documents were in order, we took the West Berlin commuter train to the main train station. The train station straddled the border between East and West Berlin; we had to cross to the east side of the station to get on our Moscow-bound train. As we strolled casually across the station we were detained by East German officials who took us to a small room and interrogated us about what we were doing there. I felt like I was in a World War II movie, caught behind enemy lines, and I wished I could recall more of my college German than, "Can you tell me where I can find an inexpensive hotel?"

The East Germans did not think we were spies: we undoubtedly looked too young and brainless for that scenario. But we had committed the equally great crime of not having obtained an East Berlin entry visa. Yes, we had obtained all the visas necessary to cross the length of the evil empire, but we did not have the proper permission to walk across the train station from West Berlin to East Berlin.

We argued with our captors at length, but eventually they confiscated our passports and left us alone in the room to think about what we had done. The East German police ("Vopos") were notoriously ruthless. We had experienced prior run-ins with them for no reason at all, except that they liked to hassle budding young capitalists. As a result, all we could think about was our upcoming summary execution. Then, one by one they called our names to leave the room with them. I was the last one left in the detention room and I was sure that my friends had been hauled off to the gulag, one at a time.

Eventually they called my name, gave me my passport, and directed me down a hallway. Two Vopos were stationed at the end of the hallway so I stopped for the standard baggage and body cavity search. To my surprise they waived me through and even opened the door for me. Now I was really scared: Vopos don’t hold doors open for 21-year-old backpackers, so there must have been an interrogation chamber or some other form of torture on the other side. My heart stopped and fear oozed slowly through my veins.

I was so terrified when I walked through the door that I could not comprehend the frenzied scene that greeted me: a large room with hundreds of people shouting at me. I first thought it was a huge detention hall, and then a more frightening reality came to mind—I had to wait in this line, which was longer than a line on a sunny day at Disneyland.

Finally, I spotted my friends across the room, smiling, and, more importantly, not under guard. I relaxed and then realized that I was no longer in custody; I was in the East Berlin train station. The police had allowed us into the east side of the station and we could catch our train. All the people in the hall were merely train passengers coming and going, as train passengers will do. They weren’t shouting at me in the despair of their captivity, as I first thought, but were just asking me if I had been on the train from Dresden that they were awaiting.

We had several idle hours in front of us before our train departed to Moscow. Because we were in the age of immortality (or not particularly bright) we decided to leave the train station, still with no visas, and check out East Berlin.

East Berlin was bleak, desolate and war-torn. Within minutes, the uninviting surroundings caused us to return to the train station before this significantly stupid stunt resulted in our second arrest of the night. We traveled to Russia as planned and did not risk being taken into custody again until the return trip through East Germany, where the Vopos took exception to my taking a photograph on a train station platform. But that’s a scary story for another time.


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