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Once is enough

September 5, 2010

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A murky swim from Alcatraz, a wrong turn in the Golan Heights, a midnight heist in Spain. Misadventures make for travelers’ tales and the often heard: “I’ll never do that again.’’

A white-water plunge
My mistake lay in my woefully misplaced self-confidence. Emerging unscathed from rafting Chile’s mighty Río Futaleufú, I was soaring on adrenaline and bravado.

Now, paddling a single-seat kayak on the Río Espolón, a comparatively placid tributary, I grew distracted by the passing vista of Patagonia’s forested valleys and snowy peaks. Ignoring the river’s ever-changing moods, I hit an unseen eddy line, teetered off-balance, and plunged headlong into the frigid water.

I have never understood the mathematics of fluid motion, but in two minutes I learned more about the raw power of 20,000 cubic feet per second than in a lifetime of scholarship. Wrenching my face skyward to breathe through the spume, I swung my legs downstream to avoid crushing my head on solid granite. For 500 yards, the surging current bumped me painfully over extruding rocks.

Ahead lay horror. Surging over a cap of boulders, the Espolón took an abrupt turn, forming swirling pools that culminated in a churning, vertical circle of water known as a hydraulic. Getting caught in one can be fatal: It traps the swimmer in an endless series of underwater spins. Experts advise bundling up the body to reduce its surface area, but the outcome is largely dictated by the water.

Interminable seconds passed. I tried to stifle my panic as I went under, holding on desperately to the air in my lungs. At last, my life vest kicked into play and I surged back to the surface, spluttering and shaken. I clambered slowly onto the bank, trembling with cold and fear, before a surge of relief took hold and I broke into a fatuous grin.

COLIN BARRACLOUGH

A forced photo op
Road tripping through Israel, my family took a wrong turn in the Golan Heights, the strategically-vital sliver of land that borders Syria. Without room to reverse course, we climbed a switchback. To our surprise, we arrived at the gate of an Israeli military installation.

Two soldiers with M16 rifles slung over their shoulders approached our minivan. One short and heavyset, one brazenly flirtatious, they presented more of a comedic, than fearsome front. My mother explained the situation. The fast-paced, Hebrew conversation punctuated with hand gestures bounced between argument and negotiation.

The soldiers began pointing toward my sister and me. There was agreement. The gate opened. We drove through, turned around, and stopped. My mother explained: The soldiers wanted pictures with my sister and me.

We posed for several photos, worrying more about what the soldiers would try than their weapons. The soldiers insisted upon both group and couple shots before a backdrop that revealed nothing of the base we had stumbled upon. Despite the M16 magazine poking my side, I smiled gamely. My sister did the same, though she stood at arm’s length from the heavyset soldier.

Pleased with the photo op, the soldiers let us go — after asking us to send prints.

SHIRA SPRINGER

Surf’s up — waaaay up
When my friend Karla and I went to Hawaii, we made a list of the things we wanted to do. At the top of mine: surfing. I had seen “Endless Summer’’ and “Blue Crush’’ and was convinced I was a natural, if given the chance. The day of our lesson the sky over Oahu was overcast. The waves, which had seemed small and manageable, were now huge (to me at least).

After the preliminary lesson on the sand — “paddle, paddle, and then pop up,’’ our instructor Dale told us — we were ready for the water. We paddled into a calm area to practice letting the waves roll over us. I got stuck and panicked, taking in a gulp of water.

We were ready for the waves, Dale said. I was shaking and nervous but couldn’t turn back. We paddled out to rougher waters and waited. Karla was a natural: Years of dance helped her balance and an inherent fearlessness didn’t hurt. Now, it was my turn. As the wave began to swell I paddled with it like we’d been taught. I “popped up’’ and proceeded to pop right off.

The instinct to exhale escaped me and I took in more water. When I emerged, there was another wave about to crash over me. And then another. I grabbed my board and held on tight, letting the ocean’s force push me to shore while fighting to keep my breath — and my wits. It was the only wave I caught that day.

I think I’ll stick to surfing movies.

NICOLE CAMMORATA

High hurdles at Logan
For my daughter’s high school graduation gift, I was taking the two of us to Mexico. We arrived at Logan Airport at the crack of dawn to catch a 6:50 a.m. flight. The agent looked at our IDs and informed us that since Megan was under 18, the airline required a notarized letter from her father saying it was OK to take her out of the country. We were booked on the airline’s only flight to Mexico City that day.

Thankfully, I reached my husband — who had just dropped us off — immediately. Thankfully, the friendly agent called the State Police barracks at Logan and found a trooper on duty who was a notary public. Thankfully, the trooper agreed to write the necessary letter. But he was in a far terminal and the clock was ticking.

Schlepping our bags, my daughter and I ran for the airport shuttle bus, which finally came and, after an excruciating process of dropping others off at their terminals, let us off at ours. After a cross-examination of me and my daughter in person, and my husband over the phone, the trooper wrote and stamped the letter. We once again ran for the shuttle. By the time we got through security, our plane was boarding. The gate agent gave our letter a cursory glance.

Since then, whenever friends leave the country with a minor child, I remind them to check the airline and country policy regarding parental consent.

P.S. The trip was wonderful.

BELLA ENGLISH

Under an Arctic spell
Macherak. Kavacherak. Two strange place names that sound almost interchangeable — but most definitely are not. They’re both lakes in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. And there the similarity ends. The lakes are more than 50 miles apart. This became critically important when my wife, a friend, and I took a wilderness rafting trip on the Noatak River. A floatplane dropped us in the Arctic. We weren’t to see the pilot, or anyone else for that matter, for nearly two weeks.

At the end of the trip, we pulled the boat from the river and waited at Macherak Lake for our floatplane pickup. And waited.

The pilot didn’t come the day he was supposed to. Or the day after. Our food was running out. The problem was that I had told him to meet us at Kavacherak Lake. He finally figured out where we were three days after our scheduled pickup, when our supplies were down to fish from the lake and a few soggy pieces of squash.

We were evacuated in a hurry, and had to fly home in a hurry through a snowstorm in the tiny plane. Suffice it to say, I’ll never be the navigator again.

JAMES VLAHOS

A swimmer of conviction
I’ve been swimming since I was 6. My parents met in a swimming pool, and my brother and I grew up to be competitive swimmers and lifeguards. Even now, whenever I travel, I always cast about for a body of water to swim in. It seemed only natural that I would someday jump into the waters of San Francisco Bay to take on the challenge of swimming from Alcatraz — a notoriously cold and current-filled journey that had stymied many a prisoner. One October morning three years ago, I finally found myself escaping from the Rock. Organized swims are a big draw for visitors and natives alike, and take place year-round in the Bay.

A group of six of us jumped into the frigid 57-degree water; the ice-cream headache that ensued took my breath away. I smiled for the camera, and we began the 1 1/2-mile swim back to San Francisco, accompanied by a boat to ensure we wouldn’t be run over by barges or sailboats crisscrossing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

It was tremendously exciting. But I won’t lie: It was also terrifying, what with all the flinching fear of shark attack every time I hit a patch of seaweed (the infamous great white shark spawning grounds, after all, were just outside the Golden Gate in the Farallon Islands). In addition to being icy, the water was murky; there was no visibility to speak of, which may have been a good thing — who knew what might have been lurking in the depths? The result: I swam as quickly as I could so I could get out.

We finished in a speedy 45 minutes, and when I emerged from the water onto the sandy beach at Aquatic Park, I sighed, counted my fingers and toes, and smiled once more: Happy to have done it, and perfectly happy never to do it again.

BONNIE TSUI

The speed of insight
I had come to Dubai to observe an old Bedouin tradition: camel racing, the sport of kings. Prize steeds from as far afield as Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Pakistan would compete for the Gold Cup, the Super Bowl of the camel world. Local newspapers reported that interest was running high.

The futuristic Nad al Sheba stadium, recently renamed the Meydan Racecourse, rises improbably from the heat haze, 12 miles outside Dubai. Yet something felt wrong: Where were the cheering crowds? Where was the buzz? In the VIP stand, the sheikhs seemed to be having a good time, but just 11 hardy souls sat forlornly in a spectators’ arena built for thousands.

As the starter pistol cracked, a line of single-humped dromedaries lurched forward in a curious, loping gait, urged on by their diminutive jockeys. After 20 seconds, the entire spectacle disappeared into the haze.

At a full sprint, a pedigree camel can touch 20 miles per hour, while the Nad al Sheba course stretches five miles beyond the horizon. I did some basic math: I could expect the winning camels back in view in about 15 minutes.

Maybe it would have been different if I had been born in the Middle East, if I had spent my childhood years frolicking in the desert and sleeping under the stars. Perhaps, then, the sight of a lumbering dromedary would set my pulse racing. Never more conscious of the cultural chasm that divides West from Middle East, I sneaked out of the stadium and drove silently back to the bright lights of the city.

C.B.

Lesson at midnight
Halfway into a study abroad program in London, I took a trip with some friends to Barcelona. Broke after weeks of fish and chips and pints at the pub, we booked a late-night (cheaper) flight that put us at the Girona Airport at about 11 p.m. From there we took a bus into Barcelona, planning to board the Metro and make our way through an unknown city at midnight. My Spanish was not so great (read: nonexistent), but my travel buddy Dania was born in Mexico so I figured we’d be all right.

The distance from the bus station to the Metro was about 150 feet. As we dragged our suitcases to the mouth of the station, a pair of women chased after us, waving napkins, and calling out in what Dania would later deem “broken Spanish.’’ There was something on our suitcases and they wanted to help us get it off. They motioned to the sky. “Bird poop?’’ I asked. They nodded, wiping the yellow-white substance from our bags. We thanked them, and they were gone almost as quickly as they had appeared.

It was then we realized that Dania’s bag had been swiped. Thankfully, I had kept a vice grip on my own purse and was able to get us to the hostel. Turned out that “bird poop’’ was mustard. They had tricked us and robbed us — and we had thanked them for it.

N.C.

Which way to the ocean?
Sticky heat, swarms of mosquitoes, and lots of drunken, chain-smoking tourists. Welcome to the only Club Med in the United States.

At the least, I thought, we’d be by the ocean, given the club’s location in Florida. Then I learned the resort near Port St. Lucie was surrounded by strip malls and landlocked — as close to the sea, for me, as Nebraska.

It was my mom’s 60th birthday, and she wanted a family get-together.

Despite our groaning about a weekend in central Florida in July, we went along, even submitting to wearing pink T-shirts featuring a big, grinning picture of my mom.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a storm that felt like a hurricane. The staff took our bags, and we spent hours huddled in the crowded bar, nursing too-sweet daiquiris to the sound of thunderclaps in a room that had the pungent smell of a fraternity house. When the storm passed, we sloshed through the warren of concrete buildings, which reminded us of cellblocks, to find our luggage outside the door — in a large puddle, everything soaked.

Later, at dinner in a mess hall that offered the ambience of a high school cafeteria, we each announced our readiness to leave. Even my mom — who smiled through our ribbing — agreed.

The next morning, despite a restless sleep on lumpy mattresses and awakening to screaming kids, we resolved to stick it out.

The sun was shining, and it wasn’t that hot, after all.

We ate tasty, French-style breads for breakfast, tried to do some yoga, and took a small boat out on the drainage canal they called a lake.

We even ventured into the suspiciously warm pool.

By the end, it was almost like we were having fun.

DAVID ABEL

Like a rollin’ stone
I was six months pregnant with my first child when I stepped into the canoe, determined not to let my pregnancy affect the outdoor adventures my husband, John, and I routinely enjoyed. But that canoe seemed awfully wobbly.

We set off with our friend Doug on a short swath of the Pemigewasset River in Plymouth, N.H., to somewhere near his condo complex, five miles or so downstream.

It was August, and the Pemi was low — or so we thought. Before long we hit a bend in the river and a faster current. Shortly after that, we toppled over into the water. We laughed, even though it’s harder than it looks to right a capsized canoe.

The second capsizing proved more annoying when I whacked my head on something hard. The third and fourth times, well, things were getting downright scary. I had gulped enough river water to know that we were in over our heads.

I gave in to my worries about crashing into boulders in the river and suggested we call it quits. Since we hadn’t gotten very far anyway, we could portage the canoe back to the car. John and Doug didn’t argue. We made it only a short distance hauling the canoe: John had developed a terrible pain in his lower back. We walked along the highway, soaked and dejected, and came to a diner, where we had cups of tea and called a taxi to deliver us back to our car. We’d worry about the ditched canoe later.

The coup de grâce came that night, when John ended up in the hospital on a morphine drip with a case of kidney stones — which I’m told is more painful than childbirth.

CHRIS MURPHY

Arch of his triumph
I have been terrified of heights since being paralyzed briefly by a bad fall in my teens. But when I had the chance to climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge with a journalist’s exemption from the prohibition against cameras, I did so . . . in a steady, cold sweat. As my wife, Patricia Harris, observes with a long-suffering sigh, I will do anything to get a picture.

Jan Morris once wrote that because Sydney has the world’s most beautiful harbor, it should be approached by boat. The sail-like Sydney Opera House greets arrivals, and the Sydney Harbor Bridge arches across the waters like a heroic tangle of wire coat hangers. Since I couldn’t sail into Sydney for a photo, I swallowed hard and signed up to climb 439 feet above the water.

More than 2 million people have gone on the Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb since 1998 (including a 100-year-old woman), and although we climbed in groups constantly tethered to the structure, terror still kicked in as I stepped onto the first catwalk. When I started up the arch almost an hour later, I was especially glad I had skipped breakfast. “Don’t look down, and you’ll be fine’’ the guide kept saying on the radio headpiece.

But I did — and fired the shutter.

DAVID LYON

The punch line
When in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? Wrong. At least not in New Delhi, when you are hanging out with a bunch of men who trap the wild monkeys that run amok on the city streets.

As a traveler, it was fascinating to meet the monkey catchers and learn about a side of urban life that I had never read about in the guidebooks. But when my new friends offered me a cup of fruit punch — prepared only yards away from the smelly monkey cages — I should have politely said “no.’’

I said “yes.’’ The punch was sweet and delicious. And that night I started vomiting from food poisoning. I didn’t stop for two days.

I’ll never do that again.

J.V.