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Sunday, August 1, 2021

Holidays from hell: Naga Munchetty, David Baddiel, Jon Snow and others on their worst breaks

Charlie Higson, writer and actor

Up in the air, the kids were waving excitedly. Little did we know, they were in fact screaming’: Charlie Higson.
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‘The kids were in fact screaming’: Charlie Higson. Photograph: Chelone Wolf

My son Frank was still a kid when we went on holiday in southern France. He and his friend Sophie went parasailing. It’s when you are attached to a parachute and tied to a rope, then dragged through the air by a speed boat. Up in the air, the pair were waving excitedly, and – pleased to know that they were enjoying themselves – we waved back. Little did we know, they were in fact screaming and flailing, desperately trying to seek the driver’s attention. What they had first thought to be plastic bags polluting the ocean looked increasingly like a swarm of jellyfish as they descended through the air towards the water below.

They were dunked in, unsurprisingly getting very badly stung.

I know I should have been panicking, thinking about air ambulances, insurance and calling poor Sophie’s parents. Honestly, though? I found the whole thing absolutely hysterical.

Worst. Holiday. Ever by Charlie Higson is published by Puffin Books at £6.50 from guardianbookshop.com

Naga Munchetty, journalist and presenter

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‘There it was: a huge snake curled up under our bed’: Naga Munchetty.
‘There was a snake under our bed’: Naga Munchetty. Photograph: Karwai Tang/WireImage

I’ve always thought it’s ironic that my parents called me Naga. In English, it translates directly as “cobra”, yet my father is absolutely terrified of snakes. He’s always told me this phobia came from the fact that he’d never seen one. He’d grown up in Mauritius and because snakes can’t swim to islands from the mainland, Dad always told me, there’d never been any.

Then in 2008, my husband and I were on holiday in Gozo, a small island off Malta. We’d been for a long walk that day and I’d reassured him – and myself – repeatedly that there was no need to worry about anything potentially slithering through the ground beneath us, given what I knew about islands.

As we arrived back to our room there it was: a huge snake curled up under our bed. We ran back out screaming, calling reception from the hall. “There’s a giant snake in our room!” I squealed. “Yes…?” The woman replied. I explained again and again, but she wasn’t bothered. Her solution? Just open the doors and eventually it’ll leave by itself.

Jay Rayner, Observer restaurant critic

‘I had no choice but to get into my sleeping bag’: Jay Rayner.
‘I had to get into my sleeping bag’: Jay Rayner. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Twice in my student years I travelled across Europe by myself and had a fabulous time. There were adventures, sights to be seen, new friends to be made. I regarded the latter as my superpower. Wherever I went I was capable of making instant friends for life, or at least for the three days our paths crossed.

Usually, I went for a month. In 1987, I decided on a third solo trip: two weeks travelling across the Greek Islands. I went to a beach bar on Syros where I’d spent a week in previous years, re-meeting the same people. When I arrived I knew something was up. The management had changed. None of the familiar people were there. Nor did their replacements seem interested in meeting anyone new.

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I spent that first night alone. And the night after that. And the night after that. I wasn’t just alone. I was lonely. My superpower had deserted me. I spent those two weeks wandering the islands, telling myself I was fine with my own company when, clearly, I was not. The holiday reached its nadir in some dusty campsite I stumbled into out of desperation. I had no tent and thought I’d be fine on a bed roll. But there was no lighting and the onsite café, such as it was, closed at 7.30pm. This far south in August darkness fell by 8.30pm so I couldn’t read. I had no choice but to get into my sleeping bag and stare into the inky black sky, waiting for both the night and this failed holiday to end.

Jon Snow, journalist and broadcaster

‘One night the clouds let rip, bringing down our tents’: Jon Snow.
‘The clouds let rip’: Jon Snow. Photograph: Jo Hale/Getty Images

It was one of those remorselessly wet weeks that seemed to pervade every Dorset August of my childhood. My parents were obsessive caravaners and I and my two brothers would be condemned to tents.

Connecting our tents to the caravan was a vast sheet to keep out the rain. One night the clouds let rip, bringing down the sheet as well as our tents. Bedraggled, we wandered about, fighting to extract ourselves from the canvas chaos. My parents slept through and it seemed a lifetime before they would let us into the caravan. They quickly resumed their position in the drop-down double bed while we dripped away on the care-worn sofa. I have never since had to wonder why, as an adult, I have not attempted to inflict camping on my own children.

Rosie Jones, comedian, writer and actor

‘I was throwing up for seven hours and 58 minutes of our eight-hour boat trip’: Rosie Jones.
‘I was throwing up’: Rosie Jones. Photograph: Attitude Magazine/Getty Images

I was 11 when we went on a family holiday to Cape Cod, famous for whale-watching trips. The thing is, I’m no good in boats and never have been. I don’t have good sea legs, mainly because I don’t have good land legs either.

Mum really, really wanted me to have this experience. “It’s OK, Mum,” I’d try to tell her, “I’ve seen Free Willy and know what the deal is.” Regardless, she came up with a plan: one day she and my brother would report back after going on the boat to see how rocky it was. Off they went, meanwhile Dad and I had a lovely day on land eating clam chowder. Mum returned and told us the water was calm and the whales amazing. She was certain I wouldn’t get sick at all.

Dad and I booked tickets for the next morning. As we boarded, the weather was turning. We sailed off into the storm of all storms. Our boat trip lasted eight solid hours. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was throwing up for seven hours and 58 minutes of that time. And I didn’t see a single bloody whale. All I saw was yesterday’s clam chowder.

Michael Rosen, poet and author

‘My older brother started complaining. “I’m bored, I’m bored, I’m bored,” he moaned.”’Michael Rosen.
‘My older brother started complaining’: Michael Rosen. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

It was 2 June 1953 and my parents decided to leave London in an effort to escape all sight and sound of the Queen’s coronation. Committed lefties, they wanted to stay well away. So they hired us a punt way up the River Thames; on board there’d be no mention of the monarch. Instead, my parents rowed relentlessly upstream.

Not long into the jaunt, my older brother started complaining. “I’m bored, I’m bored, I’m bored,” he moaned, lying flat in the boat. Dad decided to pop to the pub for a breather, leaving Mum alone at the helm. We were sailing close to Wallingford weir. Its rushing water – certainly to this seven-year-old, who couldn’t swim – looked fairly scary. Even now, I can picture the signs placed along the water’s edge urging all to stay well away. Still our little boat edged closer, Captain Mum’s control of our vessel slipping out of her grasp.

Far in the distance, a stranger ran along the banks shouting and waving: “Careful! Danger! Stop!” With his help, Mum just managed to steer us to safety. He clung to the boat as we jumped on to dry land, abandoning ship for good.

Dad, meanwhile, was none the wiser. We all thought he’d had a lucky escape. But unbeknown to us, as he arrived at the boozer for a beer, he’d opened the door to find the entire room turn towards him tutting and shushing. Over in the corner was a television set, and at that moment his eyes caught the crown being lowered on to young Elizabeth’s head. The whole holiday’s ruse was totally foiled. The rest of us might have nearly perished, Dad begrudgingly told us later, but at least we’d managed to miss the coronation.

Skin, musician

‘Four policemen burst into the dining room…’ Skin.
‘Four policemen burst into the dining room…’ Skin. Photograph: Arved Colvin-Smith

Back in the 90s, while dating my second girlfriend, we took a trip to Tobago. On our final night, the two of us were walking to a restaurant, when a group of men tried to chat us up on the street. Politely, we made it clear we weren’t interested and thought little of it. We sat down for dinner and ordered our food. That’s when four policemen wielding machine guns burst into the dining room, weapons pointing directly at us. They kicked over our table and aimed right at us, yelling: “Show us your weapons! Where is the gun?”

They dragged us outside, throwing us to the ground, still screaming. We kept trying to explain we had nothing, but they refused to listen. I can still see one of them now, sweating and shaking with his hand on the trigger. A van door was flung open, and they demanded we get in.

I desperately asked to see some ID to prove who they were. One of them grabbed their library card from the dashboard, which somehow reassured me. We got in the van and it sped away. When we arrived at the police station, the reality of their mistake dawned on them. We were put in a room, while the officer in charge explained they’d been tipped off that we were armed. It turned out one of the guys in the street had spitefully called the police on us: revenge for not falling for their charms.

Josie Long, comedian and filmmaker

‘We spent our budget on two beers and a toastie’: Josie Long.
‘We spent our budget on two beers and a toastie’: Josie Long. Photograph: Steve Meddle/Rex/Shutterstock

It was my first year at uni and I was still clinging on to a doomed relationship with a boy from home. In the Easter holidays of our first year, he wanted to travel. Our budget was a couple of hundred pounds each. He came back from the travel agent with two options: an all-inclusive tour of Egypt via the pyramids and a cruise down the Nile, or flights to Iceland with budget hostels and hitchhiking. He lit up when he talked about Egypt. I insisted on Iceland for reasons I still can’t explain… Maybe Björk?

Landing in Reykjavík, we popped into a mediocre pub for two beers and a toastie. It cost us half our total budget for the month-long trip.

There were some good bits: we stayed in some beautiful and remote hostels, and managed a night out in a bar because some locals – presumably millionaires – took pity on us.

But we had to leave – skint – after only nine days. On our last night we stayed at a hostel full of grizzled men smoking pipes and drinking clear spirits out of the bottle. He dumped me a month later and went to Egypt that summer without me.

David Baddiel, comedian and author

‘I called reception’: David Baddiel.
‘I called reception’: David Baddiel. Photograph: Channel 4

The kids were still little when we picked a fancy hotel in Crete for a trip, to spoil ourselves. My wife and I decided we deserved a treat.

We were put in a small villa a long way from the hotel. If you wanted anything – food, booze, water (there was no fridge or kitchen) – you had to walk through the heat, there and back, with children.

I was certain we’d read in advance there would be room service, so popped to see Mr Nikos, the slightly frightening manager. He told me I was mistaken and that this was only offered to guests inside the hotel. That’s not what I’d been told and with two young kids to please would’ve rendered the whole holiday slightly pointless. But he refused to budge.

Back in the room, I pored over the hotel information booklet. I’d found it in a drawer and was determined to be proved right. When I located the line, which said we’d get room service, I called reception. I read Mr Nikos the passage: “No,” he said, “You’re wrong.” I decided to save the next argument for the following day; this was, after all, a holiday. I planned to proudly march up to the office and win.

The next day, after a morning out of the hotel, I came back to our room to find that specific page had been freshly ripped from our booklet. And something told me it had only just been done. Clutching this paperwork, I ran up towards the hotel. And there, sneaking back, was Mr Nikos, holding a crumpled piece of paper in his hand. “You’ve bloody ripped it out!” I said chasing him, but he denied it. We reached a bonkers stalemate, and that was that.

David Baddiel’s one-man show, Trolls: Not The Dolls, is on a nationwide tour from 10 September (davidbaddiel.com)

Ravinder Bhogal, chef and writer

Ravinder Bhogal Christmas Taste Test Hair and Makeup: Juliana Sergot using Bobbi Brown & Tigi. Observer Food Monthly OFM December 2020
‘Two lizards were mid mating call’: Ravinder Bhogal. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

In 2018, my exhausted husband and I travelled to Thailand. We’d opened our restaurant in 2016 and got married just months later. This was our delayed honeymoon. Our villa was exactly what we’d hoped for: a king-size bed with crisp white linens and a big bathtub with ocean views. We got into bed and switched off the lights and, for the first time in months, we relaxed. As soon as I closed my eyes, I heard loud chirping sounds from two corners of the room: two huge lizards were mid mating call.

I grew up in Kenya, a lizard fell on my head as a child, giving me a lifelong phobia. Reception dispatched three porters to come and remove the critters. Glancing out from under the sheets, we watched grown men roll around our bedroom floor. I was stressed out and sleep deprived, my temper frayed and unfurled. That’s when we were finally moved into another villa: high up on a hill where the lizards couldn’t get us.

Greg James, DJ and presenter

‘We camped. Of course we did!’: Greg James.
‘We camped. Of course we did!’: Greg James. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

My worst holiday by far was Newquay 2004. It was post A-Levels, mid 00s. There were four boys and two girls, my mum’s old Renault Clio and Jack’s mum’s Peugeot 206. One of the girls was my girlfriend and the other was one of her friends who my mate Dan was trying to get off with.

We camped… of course we did. It felt quirky for teenagers from Bishop’s Stortford. And we thought it would be a laugh, or at the very least a rite of passage. And to be fair to us, it should have been. Except, that June weekend, Newquay experienced some of its worst storms in years. One of the tent poles fell, smashing a pint glass into my friend Will’s hand. There was a ludicrous amount of blood and he still has the scar.

That didn’t stop us. We persisted, we got drunker, we put the tents up again. Then the tents flooded. Then the tents floated away, along with both our supplies and hopes of enjoying ourselves.

After a night huddled under coats in our mum’s cars (Dan with the girl he fancied, the rest of us squashed into the Renault), we woke up and assessed the scene: Will’s bandaged hand; missing tents; no food or drink. There was only one option left – a miserable and silent six-hour drive to Hertfordshire. It turned out that Dan didn’t get off with Katie, by the way. And I’ve not been back to Newquay since.

Gary Younge, journalist and author

‘Our passports and cash were gone’: Gary Younge
‘Our passports and cash were gone’: Gary Younge Composite: The Guardian

I was trying to grow dreadlocks in the summer of 1987 and was doing pretty well at it. I was 18 and in Sudan for a year teaching English in a UNHCR school. During one break, me and two other British teens hatched a plan to travel to Nyala in South Darfur to hike up the Jebel Marra. Trains left once a week, but we opted for a more adventurous route: paying for a spot in a lorry, which bumped along for a week. Nestled among the onions, we took it in turns to look after the group’s valuables by wearing the painful money belt.

John decided to take the belt off, it was cutting into his side. He woke up and we jumped off to take a break from the desert sun. On our return, it was gone, along with the passports and all our cash.

John had lost our passports, meanwhile I’d gained some little friends. A boy sitting next to me had given me nits – my hair itched unbearably. Finally, when we reached Nyala, I grabbed the special shampoo and a blade, ridding myself of nits and my dreams of dreads. With (literally) nothing to lose, we headed out on our four-day hike. One dodgy jar of pilchards and diarrhoea ensued. They carried on walking, while I dragged myself back to town: no passport, dreadlocks, or dignity, nor a single mountain view.

Paris Lees, writer

‘I had never done long haul before’: Paris Lees.
‘I had never done long haul before’: Paris Lees. Photograph: S Meddle/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

It was technically a work trip, in that it was a press trip I had to write up for a magazine. For me it was this amazing opportunity to go to Thailand. I’d never done lang haul before. To be honest, I hadn’t travelled abroad at all very much, having been poor growing up and feeling way too self-conscious (and still poor) as a student and young trans woman early in transition.

We went in January, but a few days before I had really hurt my shoulder falling over on Hampstead Heath while walking the editor’s dog, of course. I got on the flight in pain and 12 hours scrunched up in a small seat did not help. The “holiday” felt more like a boot camp – we would enjoy ourselves exactly the way the PR wanted us to, whether we liked it or not.

I was in serious pain, but she had zero sympathy. During one evening of organised “fun”, she told me I wasn’t allowed to leave the beach. Needless to say, I jumped on the back of a scooter with some random guy, who took me up a mountain to watch the sunrise. It was the only part of the trip I enjoyed. Thanks, babe, I’m forever grateful.

What It Feels Like For a Girl by Paris Lees is published by Penguin Books at £20. To order a copy for £17.40, go to guardianbookshop.com

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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