Excerpt from Chapter Four:
The Sun Never Shines in Prague
Fe and I had decided to try a river cruise in Europe. No photo assignment. Just a great time eating too much and visiting all the “ias” in Eastern Europe . . . Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Serbia, Austria. You get the idea. The only exception was Hungary. I’m not sure how that one got in there.
There had been some devastating storms that had flooded many parts of Europe before we arrived for our trip, but we were fortunate. We boarded our boat at Constanta on the Black Sea, and we quickly grew accustomed to one of the ship’s little touches of hospitality. Each time we returned to the ship, crew members were waiting for us in the lobby with refreshing fruit drinks. Everyone agreed it was a nice gesture, and we all lined up as we came aboard to enjoy the refreshments.
There were still a few remnants of the recent storm systems lingering about, and one of them caught up with us in Bulgaria. It came in the form of a deluge that was so intense it reminded me of Iguassu Falls. The storm battered the roof of our bus until I thought it would cave in, and the roads quickly became flooded. Thunder boomed over our heads and lightning lit the dark skies with brilliant bolts of angry energy. My first thought was . . . could we make it safely back to our ship? Water was quickly gathering in the saturated fields where peasants could be seen frantically herding their few precious cows and donkeys into shelters. The livestock was saved, but there was little they could do about their crops of sunflowers, which were flattened by the intense wind and heavy rain.
Fortunately, our driver knew the roads and demonstrated great dexterity in navigating the flooded terrain. He brought us back to the ship without incident. Those of us in the front of the bus got off first and made a mad dash for the boat. The wind nearly blew us sideways, and the rain pummeled us until we felt like those sunflower stalks in the peasants’ fields. We burst onboard with wet faces and heaving chests, thankful that we had reached our shelter without getting completely drenched. And there were our fruit drinks waiting for us on trays held by our smiling cabin crew. We all stopped inside the doorway and accepted the offered refreshments, not realizing the chaos that was about to unfold behind us. By now, everybody had exited the bus and was making a frantic dash for the boat, but the line for the fruit drinks blocked the doorway.
Imagine sixty people arriving late for church and everybody trying to forge a path inside, only to discover that the doors were locked and someone was standing on a ladder pouring water on their heads. That’s pretty much what it was like. Bodies slammed into one another as they came to an abrupt halt in the rain. Voices cried out in consternation. People pressed forward in a desperate attempt to push their way onboard the ship. By the time the crew realized what had happened, several dozen angry vacationers were ready to mutiny. Space was quickly cleared, and the bedraggled troops stumbled onboard where they stood shaking themselves like over-watered terriers. Those of us who had caused the melee slunk away to our rooms in hopes that no one had recognized us.
Sometimes our travel guides misjudged the weather. That’s what happened to Fe and me when we went bowling in the Chitwan Jungle in Nepal. Since I doubt there are any bowling alleys in Nepal, an explanation is in order. I should begin by mentioning that Chitwan is more of a forest than a jungle. You’ll see why that’s important in a moment. We were staying at a lodge and having a great time. One of the highlights was riding elephants through the savannahs and forests looking for rhinos and Bengal tigers. Saw lots of rhinos, but no tigers. The relationship between the elephants and rhinos was interesting. They tolerated each other as equals, and more or less ignored one other. That allowed us to approach to within a few feet of these fierce, horned animals and observe them up close from the backs of our pachyderms.
On the last afternoon, our guide suggested a ride in an open jeep into the forest for one last attempt to spot the elusive Bengal tiger. I should point out that these beasts are nocturnal, so the odds were slim. Still, we approached the ride with a sense of adventure. Perhaps, we would see another rhino or a bear. We were joined by the guide’s sister and an Indian couple. As we were about to depart, I heard the sound of rolling thunder in the distance. It sounded like somebody was bowling strikes up there, and I asked our guide about it. No problem, he assured us. The storm was a long way off. Being the gullible traveler that I am, I took him at his word and left the protective rain gear for Fe, me, and my cameras back in our room.
As our jeep probed deeper and deeper into the forest, clouds formed overhead. They grew steadily darker until a light rain began to fall. The driver shifted from a leisurely pace to a faster gear. I placed my cameras under my shirt and tried not to look worried. Soon, thunder and lightning joined the melee, and the light rain turned into droplets the size of golf balls. We were quickly drenched, and the only thing that saved my cameras was a small hat that Fe had brought along for protection from the sun. What irony! The driver’s pace increased from faster to frantic, and we weaved around trees along a road not much wider than a deer trail. Then it happened. No, we didn’t see a Bengal tiger, although that would have been far less exciting. The wind suddenly whipped into a frenzy, thunder banged overhead, rain pelted us with the consistency of a waterfall, lightning snapped at our heels, and fifty foot trees began tumbling down around us like bowling pins.
We leaped from the jeep and huddled beside it while the guide’s sister began screaming that we were going to die. I thought it strange that she screamed in English, but I knew she might be right. Trees continued to crash to the ground all around us; one thumped down not twenty feet away. Thankfully, the wind quickly dropped from gale force to a level one associates with hats flying through the air, and the rain settled into a steady downpour that no longer seemed intent on drowning us. Best of all, the guide’s sister stopped screaming.
We found ourselves surrounded by downed trees and pools of water. Our forest had become a swamp, and our deer path was hopelessly blocked by all the fallen timber. Despite the threat of more falling trees, the guide urged us to begin walking as quickly as possible towards a ranger’s station that was located about a mile away. I could tell from his furtive glances and worried frown that it wasn’t falling trees that concerned him. This puzzled me until I remembered that we were in the middle of a forest filled with wild bear, rhinos, boars, and Bengal tigers. This was not the time to meet our first tiger!
We slogged through the water and mud for a good twenty minutes before we caught sight of the ranger’s station. At that point I spotted several large boar staring at us from a nearby clearing. I supposed they were too surprised to attack us, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out. Miraculously, we all came through the ordeal, which I likened to survival training. This took place in the days before reality television programming, but I have a pretty good idea what it must be like to be on one of those shows. One thing I knew for certain. I would never again believe a guide who said “no problem.”
I'm Travelling as Fast as I can - Excerpt
Excerpt from Chapter Four: