Stranded!

In Mondo Weirdo, Wanderlust readers describe their most memorable adventures -- and misadventures. This week's featured subjects: Readers describe their adventures getting stranded on the Thai isle of Koh Samui and in the wastes of western China.


Joe Tortomasi
May 1, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Cindy Morrison was a bald schoolteacher from Philadelphia who had spent the past eight months in a Burmese monastery, vigorously studying to be a Buddhist nun. My wife, Teresa, and I met Cindy on Koh Samui, an idyllic island located 56 miles off the coast of Thailand. The three of us were having dinner in an open-air, thatch-roofed restaurant one tropical evening in 1986. Incoming waves were lapping deserted beaches as Cindy was calmly (oh, so calmly) telling us how she had lost her passport that morning. Losing this crucial item of international travel can mean excessive government paperwork and extended time in a country that's never heard of boneless chicken. Yet Cindy was facing this political crisis with peaceful resignation.

I was incredulous. It was fine and admirable for the Dalai Lama to possess a tranquil demeanor, but not a fellow American. The institute of stress, as far as I was concerned, was right up there with baseball, apple pie and other star-spangled icons.

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And your passport? I asked. Cindy smiled back at me, took another bite of her combustible Thai meal, chewed and swallowed.

"I went through my luggage for the fifth time and found it," she said.

The next mouthful of tom yum gai struggled down my esophagus.

I glanced at my watch and noticed it was 6:30 p.m. This was bad news because the song taos, pickup trucks with wooden benches for passengers in the back, had stopped running. These vehicles were the only public transportation system on Koh Samui. We were stranded.

I anticipated many hours of heavy hoofing before we would make it back to our thatched hut, assuming we knew which dirt roads to take.

The Buddhist monk from Pennsylvania assured us with her predictable composure that we'd make it home. I informed her that it was quickly getting dark, we did not have a flashlight and my AAA maps were not with me.

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The owner of the restaurant, although he could not transport us home, loaned us his flashlight. "Be careful," he said. "Tourists are mugged on this island, and usually threatened with machetes to help them empty their pockets faster."

We headed down to the beach and started walking parallel with the coastline. Wishful thinking claimed that we would eventually reach our beach-front huts. However, with Koh Samui's dimensions topping out at 90 square miles, a full evening of lower body aerobics was ahead of us. We picked up coconuts to serve as projectiles in case of an invasion by machete-wielding robbers. In the meantime, I tried to let the night soothe me with its bright stars and luminescent ocean waves.

After walking in the sand for an hour, our legs began to tire. The coconuts had become so exhausting to carry that I figured if we saw a robber, we could easily pummel ourselves into unconsciousness before he reached us. Cindy was the epitome of serenity.

"We'll get home," she said as she purposely dropped her coconut. Damn her.

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In time, dark, deserted beaches replaced the occasional bungalow. While Teresa picked up a fresh coconut, I wondered if there was an American consulate nearby.

Farther up the beach we noticed the glow of a lantern light emanating from the open door and windows of a lone dwelling.

"That may be the robbers' hideout. I'm holding on to my coconut," said Teresa.

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We stood on the threshold with the biggest grins on our faces and looked at the half-dozen smiles of a local Thai family. Luckily, a young man of about 30 spoke some English. We explained our predicament and asked if they had a car. He nodded and, with the look of an individual who knew what organ he had us by, said, "My father take you back to camp for 100 baht (about $4)." We accepted.

A wizened old man in his 70s staggered to his feet and motioned us to the back door. The car must be back there, I thought. I could see Teresa's white knuckles clinging to her coconut. And, for the first time, Cindy's expression was not peaceful. We followed our guide down a dirt road that went through groves of palm trees. After about 10 minutes of walking through this scenery, we began to question the wisdom of this tour. Where was the car? Suddenly, the unthinkable happened.

"All right, this is enough!" yelled Cindy. "Where is this son of a bitch taking us!"

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The old man turned around at this outburst, smiled, turned back and kept walking. We had no choice but to follow.

After about 10 minutes, we reached the conclusion that although there was a car in Grandpa's family, we would not be riding in it that evening. We decided to trust our guide as he led us, by foot, down various dirt roads. He never wavered from his pace, except for a couple of times when he stopped to whiz.

For the next three hours a lady with a coconut, her husband, a grumpy Buddhist nun and a septuagenarian kicked up dust. We had no idea how far we had walked, but at the end of our trek we reached camp. We gave our helmsman his money and said, "Thank you" in Burmese, French and English. If it hadn't been for the old guy we might still be carrying coconuts.

-- Joe Tortomasi

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Abandoned by bus in China

"Not a guardrail in sight." Those five words kept dancing through my feverish brain as we skirted the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau in a late-model Soviet-issue monster bus. I was reeling from the effects of intestinal collapse, the driver's wife was pounding the engine with a ball-peen hammer and my companions were wedged among Muslim nomads, World War II rifles, small animals and stray cabbage.

As we rounded another blind, hairpin turn, the bus clipped a small boulder, jarring the passengers and sending the barrel of a loaded rifle into the back of my girlfriend's head.

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Two hours into the journey, the driver stopped abruptly at a dusty fork and demanded that we disembark. This was the end of his commercial leg. The remaining passengers were either friends or family and the driver wanted to continue north to his home in the mountains. We had no choice but to get off and wait for a ride in the middle of western China's barren grasslands -- an expanse more reputed for its renegades and wayfarers than its rest stops and bus depots.

After being stranded for a long time, we ultimately had to negotiate a ride with a vanload of bandits who subsequently ditched us in a frontier town after trying to extort money.

There's nothing like bus travel in China to get the adrenaline going!

-- Christian McIntosh

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Joe Tortomasi

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