The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

First Time

When you are young, you believe that your life will be an adventure. Thrill and excitement await you. Your life will be exceptional. None of these will happen. You will end up drinking through college, then slaving away in an office, and you will be content with your life. Adventure starts when you move out of your comfort zone and something unexpected strikes you. That is when the test of character begins, and it is for the same reason why you should not be afraid of getting lost, getting drugged, or getting robbed while on the road. Let it all happen and see what you can do with the situation.

The first time I got hopelessly lost was in Finland. If it was a test of character, I failed miserably. We flew in to the middle of Finland with two friends; one of them also had a girlfriend permanently attached to one of his extremities. Our plan was to hitch-hike through Eastern Europe, but we had no money, no experience, no maps, and no clue. We started off with hiking through the lake district, which, in the pre-GPS era, was a precarious thing to do. We were doing fine for the first few days, but then one fine rainy day we could not find a nice spot to pitch the tent. Our bags were not even vaguely water-proof, and slogging in the rain with no sense of direction got the worse of my frustration.

Eldorado in Finland

Forests in Finland are full of surprises.

To our great surprise, a ski resort emerged in front of us in the forest. This was the middle of the summer, the buildings were abandoned. We found a shed which was dry inside and had enough space to pitch up our two tents. Our suffering would have come to an end, if the girlfriend attachment had not had objections. She did. She declared the place haunted and forced three adult men to carry on — one of those adult men was in a murderous mood by then. The ski resort was close to acquiring a whiny ghost to haunt.

The weight of our bags kept increasing as the rained soaked our belongings deeper. We were only getting more and more lost when a highway popped out of nowhere. A pedestrian underpass guided hikers across. The girlfriend checked for evil presence, and her spiritual authority approved the location. The only problem was that the water flowed across the floor of the tunnel. We could not be bothered, we pitched up the tents, and shivered in wet sleeping bags until the morning.

We woke up around 5am when joggers started passing through the tunnel, hinting at the proximity of a human settlement. I could not open my left eye: the eyelid was swollen from the cold dampness. With my remaining eye I looked as wicked as I could. Getting lost is never an issue. Having an unreasonable travel companion is. Also: be water-proof.

Makeshift water-proofing of horrible tent from hell.

Our solution to a problem: tent water-proofed by a plastic sheet and clothes-pegs.

Water is not always bad, it can be to your benefit. Drinking excess quantities helps removing unwanted chemicals from your blood. My views on recreational drug use are liberal, but when you are drugged unintentionally, you want to wash out the substance from your body as quickly as possible.

I was on my way to the northern reaches of India when I was drugged for the first time — with malicious intent. I arrived at the train station early in the morning to get my ticket, so I had about five hours to kill in Delhi. Having breakfast was high on my list of priorities, so I started looking for a hole-in-the-wall eatery in Paharganj.

I had the usual assortment of unidentifiable spicy side dishes with oily bread, and washed it down with a lassi. That lassi turned out to be a special one.

The realization hit me the moment I stepped out and saw the buildings twisting and arching over me, eating up more and more of the light that was trying to reach my retina. All my belongings were with me, of course, including my laptop, passport, and dance shoes. I had just enough sanity left to estimate the gravity of the situation. I made my way back to the train station, taking about two hours to cover the 500-metre journey.

Street in Paharganj

Where lassis are special.

I purchased two large bottles of water from a dessicated orc with three ears. It was paid for with Canadian maple leaves that had Gandhi’s head engraved on them. Gandhi blinked as the transaction took place. Entering the cavern of the station, I perched on a horizontal surface. Millions of eyeballs belonging to greedy goblins were fixed on me. As I was filling up my body with the gallon of water, I nervously jerked my head left to right, trying to spot my enemies.

I had to make frequent visits to the restroom, which was up to sparkling Indian train station standards. Various types of excretions were waiting there to ambush me. They crept closer every time I took a leak.

Eventually, I made it to the train. Thanks to my foresight, I was travelling first class. Clutching my bag, I fell into an exhausted slumber. There will always be rapscallions eyeing your possessions, and they will attempt to drug you. As long as you realize it early, the chances are good that you will survive intact with not much lost.

Getting robbed is a common fear. Growing up in a grim capital city where petty theft was more common then smiles, I naturally strive to be inconspicuous. It works most of the time. Pickpockets did not target me at La Rambla in Barcelona. Your guide book will advise against visiting Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro after sunset; I had my evening jogs there without any problems. Atlanta is a den of sin, but I commuted through some shady neighbourhoods on foot — even the beggars ignored me.

My travelmates were not always that lucky. The standard distraction trick removed my friend’s wallet from his pocket in Peru: a flash mob crowded around us, squeezing everybody together. He immediately noticed his wallet slipping away and shouted out some expletives. Peruvian people are nice: they got hold of the thief, and the wallet was magically returned in about two minutes.

"Do not assault the tourists" billboard

In Peru, even the government assists you in not getting robbed.

Another travel companion was less lucky: she kept fussing with her enormous purse at the bus station in Jaipur, and the purse did not make it to the bus. It contained every single credit card she had ever owned, her passport, cash, and so on.

We had an entertaining time reporting the crime. The officers were self-important but adorable. Locked up evildoers stared at us from crowded cells as we wrote the report. I found myself useful for the first time in my life, serving as a landing platform for flies. When we finished, we were asked to contribute comments on the efficiency of the tourist police.

The solution to such theft is simple: do not have a wallet or purse. I have not owned a wallet for a decade — I carry a wad of currency in my pocket. Once a clumsy pickpocket tried to relieve me of my wad in Bangkok. I noticed it and attempted to head-butt the perpetrator. He was quicker and ran away with his loot: a ten-baht note. I let him go; he could buy the third of an ice cream with his hard-earned cash.

Then my time came. I was innocently returning from sightseeing in Caracas when I was robbed. I knew it was a dangerous city: I had nothing on me but a few dollars, a copy of my passport, and my camera.

The identity of the robbers was the real surprise: they were policemen. They stopped their motorbike a few metres ahead of me, and walked up to me. They checked my identity, frisked me, took my camera, and rode off. The entire incident took all of ninety seconds. The camouflage of confidence, the shabby looks, and the lack of a wallet will keep you from getting robbed in most cases. And if it is the police that robs you, well, you cannot do much anyway.

Caracas city scape

If you want to get robbed by the police, Caracas is the place to visit.

Calamities are the beginning of real adventure. Most of the time you get away unscathed, and with a great story to tell. Still terrified? Picture the worst-case scenario. Spend effort on making it as bad as you can imagine. You will realize that even the outcome of the worst case is something that you can handle. Stop worrying. Embrace unexplored forests, drug-laced yoghurt drinks, and thieving policemen. Staring at your screen reading blogs is among the least inspiring things you can do with your life.

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