“This book contains some of the most astonishing tales I’ve ever encountered. One after another. They make for obsessive reading.” —Tim Cahill, author of Jaguars Ripped My Flesh
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen or experienced?
Gina and Scott Gaille have traveled to more than 100 countries, including many off-the-beaten-path places in Africa, South America, and Asia. Wherever they go, they ask this question. Everyone has a story, and some are truly extraordinary.
Strange Tales of World Travel recounts 50 of these Bizarre, Mysterious, Horrible, Hilarious encounters, including:
- Daring Diplomat, who ate the flesh of the venomous cobra bird in the Sahara Desert
- Pearl Trader, who survived a fever through a harrowing “human honey” treatment in Oman
- Agent Ghost, who was shot and left to die in a garbage dump in Africa
- Death-Defying Instagrammer, who stepped on the tail of the world’s sixth most venomous snake in Australia to take a better photo
- Human Pet, who became a prince’s prisoner in Qatar
- Imperial CEO, who made a minion fly twelve hours to Paris from Abu Dhabi to buy clean underwear
- Gorilla Doll, who broke the rules of visiting Rwandan gorillas and got dragged up the side of a volcano
“The entire point of travel is to encounter the unimaginable. Gina and Scott Gaille have collected some of the most remarkable tales to ever see the light of day. A hoot to read.” —J. Maarten Troost, author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals
Our Infinitely Surprising World
By Don George
“What’s the strangest thing you have ever experienced or seen?”
This simple question beats at the heart of this extraordinary collection.
For more than two decades, Scott Gaille’s work as an international corporate lawyer has taken him to the farthest corners of the globe. Rather than fly home as soon as business is done, he has used these assignments to explore local countries and cultures, frequently accompanied by his wife and partner in wanderlust, Gina.
Through these explorations, they have met an astonishing variety of people. Fueled by a deep curiosity about human nature and an appetite for adventure, they have asked these people that simple question: “What’s the strangest thing you have ever experienced or seen?” Then they have listened—and amazing tales have unfolded.
This book collects 50 of those tales.
The storytellers range richly in geography and social stratum: from a Mauritanian diplomat and an Omani government minister to an Irish farmer and a Tanzanian miner, a British secret service agent to a masseur in Madagascar to a Galápagos wildlife naturalist. They include an Australian road kill artist, an American oil executive, a South African big game guide, the first Hmong lawyer in Laos, the English “fourth girlfriend” of a Russian tycoon, and dozens more.
As this marvelously motley cast of storytellers suggests, Strange Tales of World Travel presents a world you will not find in glossy magazine articles, breathless blogs, or self-adulatory Instagrams. Instead, it’s a world of adventures gone awry with gorillas, Cape buffalos, tiger snakes, and other wildlife, of rare Vodun and Mayan rituals, of intimate glimpses of unimaginable wealth and unquestionable power, of close encounters with the wilder edges of human culture, including Ebola, shrunken heads, and ancient shamanistic rites.
The result is a collection that is, as the book’s subtitle suggests, bizarre, mysterious, horrible, and hilarious—like travel, and life, itself.
~ ~ ~
When Gina and Scott approached me about working with them to assemble a collection of their travel tales, my initial reaction was extreme hesitation. Over 40 years as a travel writer and editor, I’ve met dozens of people who have wandered fervently to far-flung places, penned detailed journals, dispatched epic emails, and become convinced that their accounts were destined to become bestsellers. Great travel writing, of course, requires more than outlandish adventures in exotic places, and I was worried that Gina and Scott might turn out to be two more members of this tribe of travelers whose worldly passions far surpass their wordly talents.
Then they sent me a sampling of their tales—and I was hooked.
From their first story, a sea-guide’s account of a seemingly hapless (but ultimately charmed) tourist’s encounter with a predatory shark, the Gailles’ tales charted a territory that was delightfully different from the travel stories I was used to reading.
Their accounts didn’t focus so much on what they had done as on the people they had met, and on those people’s most unforgettable stories. By turning their spotlight on others, the Gailles illuminated a wide and wondrous world that was new to me—and in so doing, they renewed my sense of just how rich and varied our planet is.
As I worked with Gina and Scott, I felt like I was journeying deeper and deeper into an enchanted landscape. I met characters I could vividly imagine but had never met, listened to stories that I had never heard and that blazed new mind-trails for me.
Now, rereading the completed collection, I realize that while the Gailles may not be professional travel writers, their stories embody three of the greatest lessons I have learned from a lifetime of travel writing.
The first is that after all the monuments, markets, and museums, our most memorable travel experiences almost always involve the people we meet.
The second is that everyone has a story, and often the people we least suspect have the most fascinating stories.
The third is that if we approach people with respect and appreciation, they will warmly welcome us into their lives, with respect and appreciation too.
A fourth corollary truth that this book abundantly proves is that if we ask the right questions, in the right spirit, the world will grace us with tales that we could not have imagined in our wildest dreams.
That’s finally why I love this book. In the age of the selfie and the social mediafication of the planet, it is profoundly refreshing to be reminded that our world is infinitely full of surprises, if only we open ourselves to them, and that the ultimate reward of travel is connection—and the resulting richer appreciation of the human map of the world.
~ ~ ~
Don George has been called “a legendary travel writer and editor” by National Geographic. He is the author of The Way of Wanderlust: The Best Travel Writing of Don Georg” and Lonely Planet’s How to Be a Travel Writer. He has been Global Travel Editor at Lonely Planet and Travel Editor for Salon.com and the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. He is currently Editor at Large for National Geographic Traveler. Don has edited twelve award-winning travel anthologies, including The Kindness of Strangers, An Innocent Abroad, and Travelers’ Tales Japan.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Don George
- Shark Repellent, Bora Bora
- Cobra Bird, Sahara Desert
- Contagions, Botswana
- Honey of Man, Oman
- Beware of Road Surprises, Emirate of Sharjah
- Feeding Frenzy, Galápagos Islands
- No Snake Dies Before Midnight, Kangaroo Island
- The Emperor Has No Underwear, United Arab Emirates
- Road Warrior, Nigeria
- Agent Ghost, Somewhere in Africa
- Here, Little Birdie, Kenya
- The Human Pet, Qatar
- That’s Not a Rubber Ducky, Equatorial Guinea
- Great White Shark Buffet, Southern Ocean
- UFOs, South America and Caribbean Sea
- Shere Khan, India
- The Fourth Girlfriend, Lithuania
- The Dying Giraffe, South Africa
- Smooth Air Decree, Oman
- Evicted, Angola
- The Floating Islands, Peru
- The First Hmong Lawyer in Laos, Laos
- A Pug in Peril, Saudi Arabia
- The Accidental Masseur, Madagascar
- Hello, Mr. Bin Laden, Pakistan
- Prehistoric Forest, Seychelles Islands
- Too Close for Comfort, Rwanda
- Lord of the Flies, British Virgin Islands
- Digging Your Own Grave, Mauritania
- Bush Meat, Cameroon
- The Cat in the Hat, Kangaroo Island
- Ebola, Central Africa
- One Person’s Pet Is Another’s…Dinner, Ecuador
- Be Careful What You Admire, Emirate of Abu Dhabi
- The Red Carpet Isn’t for Me, Gabon
- The Askari, Tanzania
- The Polar Bear, Arctic Ocean
- Tsetse Fly Food, Serengeti Plains
- The Concierge, South Australia
- Valley of Mole Rats, The Rift Valley
- The Real Equator, Ecuador
- The Land of Hospitality, Japan
- The Home of Vodun, Togo
- The Hidden People, Iceland
- Sea of Scooters, Vietnam
- Road Kill Art, Australia
- Don’t Mess with the Cape Buffalo, Malawi
- The Tanzanite Miner, Mount Kilimanjaro
- The Elephant Graveyard, Ngorongoro Crater
- Mayan God, Guatemala
About the Authors
When people picture visiting Bora Bora, they imagine themselves lounging on a long white sand beach flanked by green palm trees, looking onto a turquoise lagoon. They don’t see themselves being charged by a predatory shark. But that’s exactly what happened to the unfortunate traveler in this tale.
This idyllic South Pacific island is surrounded by a ring of reefs, which creates a tranquil lagoon filled with coral and millions of fish. Local tour operators offer a variety of excursions that bring visitors face-to-face with its marine life. One of the most popular is the shark-viewing tour. The best place on the island to see these majestic creatures is the narrow channel connecting the lagoon with the Pacific. Tides rush in and recede through the pass, creating an expressway for marine life. The tidal migrations of fish also attract large sharks, which congregate to partake in a smorgasbord. We decided to take one of these tours, and on our way to the channel, asked our Shark Guide, “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen here?”
The Shark Guide’s Story
“The most common sharks at the channel are sickle fin lemon sharks,” explained our Shark Guide. “These are not the little reef sharks that snorkelers often take pictures of on the lagoon’s coral reefs. Lemon sharks reach upward of twelve feet in length.
“I once had a group of Japanese tourists, one of whom looked very nervous. In broken English, he kept asking about safety. First, he wanted to know if there was a diving cage.
“‘Because the sharks have thousands of fish to eat,’ I explained, ‘there’s no need for them to prey on humans.’
“Next, he asked whether anyone had been attacked by a shark there.
“‘Only once,’ I answered. ‘A lemon shark bit a diver’s arm, but he was not seriously injured.’
“That did not appear to calm him. He started shaking his head and looking even more distraught.
“When we reached the pass, I briefed everyone on how to behave around the sharks.
“‘Enter the water quietly. No splashing. Move slowly. Breathe calmly. Don’t make noises under the water.’
“The questioning tourist was visibly scared. He was the last one in the water, and by that time, everyone else in the group had already swum twenty yards from the boat. They were following a shark that was hunting prey in the channel. When I turned to check on the straggler, I saw another big lemon shark rising from the depths below him.
“Before I could get back and calm him down, the scared tourist saw it too. He flailed wildly with his arms and legs, doing exactly what we had cautioned everyone not to do. It was like watching a car accident happen. His convulsions attracted the shark, and caused it to move right at him, with some speed.
“Just when it looked like he would become the second Bora Bora victim, the tourist turned his back to the shark, pulled off his swimming trunks, and evacuated his bowels—right in the approaching shark’s face. When the cloud of waste hit the shark, it shook its head wildly and then swam off as fast as it could.
“A nearby school of colorful trigger fish then descended to eat the tourist’s waste. My guest furiously tried to slap away the feeding frenzy as their hungry little mouths harmlessly pecked at his most tender regions.
“I’ve been told that the best thing to do if a shark comes in for an attack is to strike it on the nose or gills. Dive shops also sell cans of shark repellent, which can be sprayed in the direction of an approaching shark. But I learned something new that day. If all else fails, just pull down your pants and make your own repellent!”
A few minutes later, we were anchored above the same spot where the Japanese tourist had chased off his shark. The water was crystal clear and deep, perhaps fifty feet. Within minutes of our jumping in, six large lemon sharks rose slowly from the depths, circling us. They were ten or twelve feet long, but they looked even bigger in the water. Our hearts pounded as they swam by us within arm’s reach—and we understood why that Japanese tourist had used the most primitive of defenses.
Gina and Scott Gaille grew up in small towns in central Michigan and south Texas. Even then, both dreamed about exploring the farthest corners of the planet. Gina’s favorite TV show was “Hart to Hart,” whose globetrotting detectives—played by Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers—journeyed to South America, China, and Australia. Scott spent Sunday evenings glued to “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” whose safari-jacketed host, Marlin Perkins, introduced him to exotic landscapes and their peoples. Gina is most passionate about Africa, where she once served as a missionary in a remote part of Kenya. Scott’s career as a lawyer and academic at The University of Chicago and Rice University has taken him to more than 100 nations around the world, including 30 in Africa. It was their shared passion for experiencing the world that brought them together.