Travel Writing Where Stuff Goes Wrong
June 15, 2021 9:03 AM   Subscribe

What are your favorite travelogues, books, stories, magazine articles, anthologies, blogs, whatever, about people having a bad time travelling? (Preferably with an emphasis on bad things of a more humorous nature rather than tragedies or disasters -- think "embarrassing cultural misunderstanding / crummy food / getting lost" rather than "plane crash" maybe?) Also, I prefer 'hapless' to 'smug' but I'll take whatever you got! I love travelling and since I haven't been able to do it lately, I want some stories of people being annoyed or flummoxed so I can be vicariously vexed. Thanks!!
posted by capnsue to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Bill Bryson is your new BFF.
posted by wellred at 9:04 AM on June 15, 2021 [22 favorites]

TV Shows:An Idiot Abroad. Less so: Better Late than Never.
posted by Comrade_robot at 9:13 AM on June 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Yup Bill Bryson.

Check out Travels With Zenobia: Paris to Albania by Model T Ford by Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, written in the 1920s, it's witty and captures a specific time and place very well.

It's pretty tone deaf now, but On Mexican Time was a big one in this genre.
posted by Melismata at 9:23 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Bad Trips
posted by cocoagirl at 9:25 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

All Over the Place is super fun. My memory of J. Maarten Troost's first couple books is that they're like this, but I would guess they don't hold up; it's been a long time since I read them.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 9:25 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

A friend of Ms. Inhabitant, I always love Pam Mandel's travel writing. She always has an interesting perspective, and recently released a travel memoir that I have on my reading list for an upcoming move across country: The Same River Twice.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 9:27 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

It tends a little more towards smug, but “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” by David Foster Wallace might fit?
posted by Night_owl at 9:33 AM on June 15, 2021 [9 favorites]

No Touch Monkey is a fun one.
Shopping for Buddhas is also great.

(Both of these are older - there were a lot of these kinds of books published in the 90s and 00s.)
posted by lunasol at 9:36 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Eeeee the old even older ones are the best ones.
A short walk in the Hindu Kush [1958] by Eric Newby understated hilarity in Central Asia, very British. "Dammit Newby, is that blood leaking from the lace-holes of your boots?" That sort of thing.
Brazilian Adventure [1933] by Peter Fleming . Similar, more leeches, though.
posted by BobTheScientist at 9:37 AM on June 15, 2021

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis by Tony Hawks (not the skateboarder) More than a few cultural misunderstandings. The author is humble but also hilarious. A highly enjoyable read.
posted by jacobean at 9:42 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is great. "But what if it rains?"
posted by SPrintF at 9:43 AM on June 15, 2021 [8 favorites]

Also came here to recommend Bad Trips. Umberto Eco's account of visiting San Simeon alone is worth the price of admission.
posted by adamrice at 9:48 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Came to say Three Men in a Boat and Bill Bryson (esp. In a Sunburned Country for this sort of thing.)

Twain's Innocents Abroad and Roughing It also have their moments.
posted by mark k at 10:10 AM on June 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

As does Tim Cahill, although his books generally have less of an emphasis on "stuff gone wrong".
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:12 AM on June 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

"A Supposedly Fun Thing..." is indeed smug but is truly hilarious. The original article from Harper's is available online.
posted by jabes at 10:14 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Me talk pretty one day, by David Sedaris
posted by you'rerightyou'rerightiknowyou'reright at 10:17 AM on June 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

You might like the 2nd half of David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day, which is about what happens when he moves to France and attempts to learn to speak the language. The book is a collection of essays, so you could skip the first half (which takes place in Raleigh and NYC) entirely.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:19 AM on June 15, 2021

Response by poster: ugh sooo many good answers!!! thank you!!!
posted by capnsue at 10:31 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I haven't been keeping up with it for the past few years, but I remember The Everywhereist blog having some extremely funny travel stories. If you end up liking her travel stories, she's also written a book.
posted by helloimjennsco at 10:33 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Shooting the Boh by Tracy Johnston. From the review:
This story of a journalist joining an expedition down the Boh River starts out as standard adventure travel fare, but the difference rapidly becomes apparent: this journalist is over 40, her luggage is lost on the flight over and cannot be recovered in time, and the expedition has been planned by a company that takes irresponsibility to a new level. Only when they are already on the river do the participants realize how difficult and dangerous their time together will be. All of them must deal with ``insect stress'' caused by bees that feast on human sweat, foot fungus, raging rapids, and perhaps an evil river spirit. On top of that, Johnston begins to have menopausal hot flashes and questions whether it is time to give up the thrill of risky journeys. Her descriptions of both natural phenomena and local customs are lyrical: she compares salespeople in an outdoor market to ``baby birds, mouths open, arms aflutter.'' In writing about the seemingly cursed journey, Johnston keeps her chin up and sticks to what she calls ``the adventure code of travel: go with the unexpected and make do with what you get.'' This engrossing and surprisingly upbeat tale accomplishes much more than that.
(Obviously, she survived and made it home.)
posted by Lexica at 10:35 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

How did it take so long for someone to mention A Supposedly Fun Thing...? That's the obvious answer. Anyway...

Pico Iyer's introduction to the 2004 edition of Best American Travel Writing revolves around a hotel shoeshine operation losing his shoes.

John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote an essay about visiting Walt Disney World that I believe is fairly famous (or at least, famous in my mind), in which it rains and they have to stay inside one day, among other things.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:49 AM on June 15, 2021

Not super adventurous by any means, but "Vacationland" by John Hodgman is a collection of memoir stories about inheriting (and traveling to) his parents' vacation home in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, and then purchasing a place in Downeast Maine and the tribulations of being From Away. There are a couple of other anecdotes of traveling for comedy/speaking gigs and some of the stuff that went on with that.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:52 AM on June 15, 2021

Travel Man is a British show readily available via youtube. Richard Ayoade and a celebrity guest spend 48 hours in various cities pursuing a whirlwind tourist itinerary. Richard Ayoade (at least for the purposes of the show) dislikes almost all aspects of traveling, and the guests are usually very funny and prone to mishap. For example, here's a clip where Chris O'Dowd breaks a snow globe in a museum in Vienna
posted by Wavelet at 11:06 AM on June 15, 2021 [6 favorites]

It's pretty old and pretty widely known, but if you have missed it you might like Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. It's a relocation rather than a travelogue, but it's goofy and fish out of water and rife with cultural misunderstandings and not smug at all.
posted by hought20 at 11:54 AM on June 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

You might like The Possessed, by Elif Batuman, particularly the “Summer in Samarkand” thread.
posted by yarrow at 11:56 AM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

We've been enjoying Travel Man as well, but heads up: the US streaming rights for it are a mess. Hulu apparently used to have it, but now doesn't. Amazon Prime has "3" seasons (which correspond to 4 as counted by other sources) with no commercials. There's some streaming thing called Journy [sic] I found through our smart TV, and that has everything, but there are commercials inserted not in the show's act breaks but entirely at random (like, sometimes in the middle of a sentence). It's weird.
posted by fedward at 12:02 PM on June 15, 2021

Mike Leonard's The Ride of Our Lives is a sweet, rather feel-good account of a three-generational road trip in a rented R.V. which, to get a sense of it, he dubs the S.S. Fiasco.
posted by drlith at 1:48 PM on June 15, 2021

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost is about a stint in Kiribati and the surrounding islands - the author's wife was part of an NGO; he tagged along for the ride imagining a sort of Gaugin-like existence among the palm trees while he wrote his Great Novel.

This is not at all what happened, and it is one of the funniest books I have ever read.
posted by jquinby at 2:24 PM on June 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. It's a joint memoir of their travels through 1920s Europe right after they graduated from Bryn Mawr. I remember laughing a lot when I read it.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 2:39 PM on June 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

A Year at the Movies, a book by MST3K's Kevin Murphy, involves him seeing a film every single day and going all sorts of interesting places to do so. He travels around the world and experiences just about every kind of movie viewing that was available in the early 'aughts, from multiplexes to airplanes to the world's tiniest movie theater. His journey does not always go smoothly - at one point he gets an agonizing kidney stone, for example, and 9/11 happens. It's a funny, insightful and at times surprisingly moving story.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:41 PM on June 15, 2021

I have fond memories of reading Redmond O'Hanlon's In Trouble Again in college. I read it in a class on travel writing that spent most of its time on unreliable narrators / cultural appropriation / exaggeration of adventures &c.
posted by chavenet at 2:49 PM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I’m not sure if this counts as a trip gone wrong in the way you mean it to or not, but it’s delightful. The gone-too-soon David Rakoff’s trip to New Hampshire Climb Every Mountain
posted by Mchelly at 3:27 PM on June 15, 2021

Pico Iyer's books are so good for this, and there were a couple of pieces in Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign in particular that should satisfy well. They are usually books that include all varieties of travel writing and related topics, and many pieces aren't about things going wrong (or in the case of Sun After Dark, are about topics other than travel), but he's just a fantastic writer and storyteller and has such a wry acceptance of things that go wrong, even when he fears for his life. My favorite is Video Night in Kathmandu, but all his books are rereads for me, and I hardly ever reread.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 3:59 PM on June 15, 2021

If you are up for sailboat travel, The Boat That Wouldn't Float by Farley Mowat and The Cruise Of The Snark by Jack London.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:21 PM on June 15, 2021

Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana has some great moments of being stuck and making the best of it. The book is of its time, which means its prejudices show, but the writing is amazing and the glimpse it provides of central Asia in the 1930s is deeply engaging.
posted by Morpeth at 6:06 PM on June 15, 2021

The Boat Who Wouldn't Float by Farley Mowat! Yes! I read that when I was a teenager, and I still use his line about how the compression springs in the motor housing "leapt to their freedom"!
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:11 PM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Tim Moore Is great for this. He concocts little adventures, like walking the Camino de Santiago (with a donkey) or meeting the worst Eurovision acts of all time, and then struggles through them with some level of incompetence. He’s a little snarkier than Bill Bryson but still good-humored and primarily pokes fun at himself.
posted by tinymojo at 6:13 PM on June 15, 2021

Streaming: Travels with my Father.

Stand up comic Jack Whitehall and his dad wander around Southeast Asia (Season 1), Europe (Season 2), America (Season 3), and Australia (Season 4). They have an Odd Couple dynamic; in some ways the show is more about their relationship than the travel, but they certainly have a lot of adventures.
posted by basalganglia at 2:23 AM on June 16, 2021

The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow is a favorite of mine!
posted by The otter lady at 7:37 AM on June 16, 2021

Oh and Mark Twain's Tramp Abroad and Innocents Abroad are good also!
posted by The otter lady at 7:41 AM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's not strictly travel-related, but Douglas Adams' Last Chance to See has rather a lot of such moments in between the bits with animals.

On preview, seconding Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. I can be smug. But, it's thoughtfully, whimsically smug. (Roughing It is also worth a look, but has fewer such moments. I haven't read the rest.)
posted by eotvos at 10:34 AM on June 17, 2021

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