Chaos sometimes happens when I travel and in retrospect, it has created many of my most powerful trip memories. Life at home is rarely chaotic; it follows a fairly predictable rhythm and most days I’m a slightly boring creature of habit. Drop me into a foreign locale, though, and I’m usually (strangely) OK with all hell breaking loose after a few days of acclimation.
Kathmandu has to be the all-time winner for daily bedlam. On first arrival, the sensory assault here was overwhelming in an almost frightening way. As I left the airport late at night, alone, I wondered if my days of solo female travel needed to finally come to an end. A good sleep later, I was feeling intrigued by the cows in the street; a few days into it, I was charmed by the jumble of vendors jammed into alleys; and two weeks later, I was truly, madly in love with this colorfully outrageous and unruly city, even when an electrical box exploded a few feet away, sending me and dozens of Nepalis running for cover.
Athens – in full summer, blazing in 100-degree heat, and polluted by thousands of belching vehicles jam-packed into an overpopulated metropolis – ranks a close second. The chaos here was mostly car-based: the sharp and constant cacophony of horns, the shouting of drivers at one another, the parking on the sidewalks, and once, the abrupt and spontaneous gathering of four men to pick up and move, in a fit of pique, one of said cars parked on the sidewalk.
A skinny street in Istanbul, approaching Taksim Square, seemed placid enough – until we rounded a corner and came face to face with the beginnings of a protest. Waving signs and chanting mobs thickened in minutes, and the sudden crackle of firecrackers set my heart pounding, my head panicking, and my feet beating a retreat.
Egg-throwing mobs similarly interrupted a pleasant morning stroll in Buenos Aires, and hurtling rickshaws threatened to cut us down as we tried in vain to cross a main street in Lhasa. Sweaty clumps of young men pressed (a little more than necessarily) close to my college girlfriends and me on a morning ride to class on Madrid’s metro years ago, trapping us and blocking our ability to get off at our station. Perhaps most frightening of all, a dense crowd at Sydney’s Y2K New Year’s celebration caused us to lose our 12-year-old for almost an hour as we were sucked into its vortex at the end of the fireworks show.
We could play it safe. We could skip the crowds and the bigger cities. We could leave the kids at home. I could travel with others to some of the exotic but underdeveloped places I like to experience. Some of the chaos has been simply unpleasant, some horribly frustrating. A few situations have been potentially dangerous, and one or two downright scary. But when push comes to shove (literally!), the deepest imprints of my trips have often been the unexpectedly crazy moments that started the adrenaline pumping and the opening of the veins that take in the lifeblood of a place.