When your camping trip ends with you spending two years in an Iranian prison, I think it is safe to say that you made a poor vacation choice. While we are all glad that Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer have been "released" and are now back home - and let's be clear that, all political posturing aside, they were ransomed, plain and simple - we should not forget that these two were in prison because they decided to go backpacking in Iraq, close to the Iranian border. What the hell? Did these two mouthbreathers grow up on Planet Pollyanna?
In truth, bad vacation choices, like Josh and Shane's, are made all the time and I am tempted to start up an annual award for the worst vacation choice. But first, what constitutes a "bad" vacation choice? Let's rule out vacations that are ruined by force majeure - or acts of God, if you will. For example, a vacation in Thailand is not necessarily a bad choice, even though vacationing on the Thai coast on December 26, 2004 ended up being an egregiously bad idea. Let's also rule out vacations ruined by the unknown and people who deliberately put themselves in harm's way. Case in point, the Farralon Islands, off the coast of California, were discovered to be the home of one of the largest great white shark populations in the world when a tour boat full of divers suddenly realized that there were a lot fewer divers getting back into the boat than had initially jumped off. It's hard to say this was a bad vacation choice - unlucky, to be sure - because none of the divers realized they were serving themselves up for a sharks' buffet. Nowadays, however, anyone diving near the Farralons is clearly in the "thrillseeker" category. So, for the purposes of discussion, a "bad" vacation choice will be one where a reasonable man would look at the situation and say, "That's not just foolish, it is borderline insane." and when I say, "reasonable man" I mean, me.
Without further ado, here are some recent examples:
Hendri Coetzee - Kayaking on the crocodile-infested Lukuga River in the Congo. What could possibly go wrong? Well, getting eaten by a crocodile kind of comes to mind...which is exactly what happened to "legendary" kayaker and adventure guide, Hendri Coetzee.
Bicycle touring in Lebanon - Most people would hesitate to tour Lebanon in an M-1 tank, let alone on a bicycle, but a bicycle tour of Lebanon's Bekka Valley seemed like a good idea to seven Estonians who subsequently were - wait for it - abducted by armed gunmen.
Pleasure boating in pirate-infested waters - You have a sailboat. Don't you just want to stay far, far away from the Pirate World Headquarters, also known as Somalia? Apparently not, since Somali pirates have captured private yachts sailing off the Somali coast, not once, but twice in the past few years. The first was a British couple who were held hostage for over a year and were released for a $1 million ransom...and the pirates kept their boat. The second was a yacht with four Americans, who the pirates killed before the Navy could mount a rescue attempt. Just so.
Any vacation anywhere near Somalia - An exotic safari at a luxury resort in Kenya. What could be better? Well, almost anything, as it turns out...if that luxury resort happens to be near the freaking border of Somalia!! Per the BBC story, "Tourist resorts have not been targeted before but the site is near Somalia and Somali pirates could be involved." Ya think?
Dances with polar bears - I've written about this before. Camping when there is nothing between you and a hungry polar bear but a few layers of ballistic nylon? Bad idea. But this is not just the case in the Great White North; right here in the western U.S. of A., grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park have started gobbling up tourists like they were pick-i-nick baskets with legs. Yeah, I know you're thinking, "Damn! That's scary. Next time I go to Yellowstone, I'll be packing heat." Let me make a few points here. First, it may not be entirely legal for you to have a firearm in a national park. Second, if you worry at all about the previous point, what part of "concealed carry" are you not understanding? But, finally and most importantly, even having a gun probably won't help, as this particular "feel good" article points out.
Any place Paul Theroux has written about - This man is a gifted writer and a ruthlessly adventuresome traveler, but he also seems to live a charmed life in that he has traveled through some of the most lawless parts of the world and has never had anything really bad happen to him. I suspect that there are few other people who would be that lucky. My advice? Let Theroux make the bad vacation choice and then you can read about it. A couple of his more recent books I would very much recommend are Dark Star Safari and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.
This is my current list of bad vacation choices I don't doubt that there will be further additions as the year progresses. Your nominations for what I plan to call the Hendri Coetzee Memorial Bad Vacation Award are also welcome.
UPDATE: Our two intrepid ex-Iranian prisoners, nee' carefree hikers, held a press conference today wherein they announced that they were held by the Iranians for two years purely because they were Americans. Wow. That is exactly the kind of deep thinking I would expect of anyone who plans a vacation in northern Iraq. Holy crap, Skippy, where have you been for the past 20 years? Did you think the Iranians were going to give you a big, wet kiss when you wandered into their country? A little bit, I am beginning to think that the Iranians really had these guys in protective custody because they recognized that any Americans hiking in northern Iraq were clearly too stupid to walk around without supervision.