The 'WTF' moments of travelling

The lake in Udaipur is famous, a shimmering expanse of water that hems in the famous Taj Lake Palace hotel. Except when I was there, there was barely any water in it.
The lake in Udaipur is famous, a shimmering expanse of water that hems in the famous Taj Lake Palace hotel. Except when I was there, there was barely any water in it. Photo: Ben Groundwater

There are moments on almost every journey when there's just nothing else to say but, "WTF?"

The world is a strange place, and these chance sightings of the bizarre keep it interesting. Here are a few of my personal favourite WTF moments from recent times.

The "bucket truck" in Thailand

Spectacularly inappropriate ... a girl dances at Istanbul's Blue Mosque.
Spectacularly inappropriate ... a girl dances at Istanbul's Blue Mosque. Photo: Ben Groundwater

My mate Andrew lives in a tiny village in north-eastern Thailand, where every couple of weeks a large truck lumbers through town. "That's the bucket truck," Andrew once explained to me. "If you've got a dog you don't want, you give it to them, and they give you a bucket in return." The dogs go to Vietnam (for research purposes, I'm sure). The buckets, one assumes, are put to good use as well.

The dancing girls at the Blue Mosque

Picture this: Istanbul's Blue Mosque, one of the most important Islamic edifices in the world, and it's Ramadan. Just outside, in broad daylight, are six Western girls in very short dresses, writhing and wriggling as a camera team records them. I saw this, last year. They were shooting a Bollywood film in what has to be one of the most spectacularly inappropriate locations in the world.

The dinner with Mel Gibson in Malawi

Well, not the Mel Gibson. But there's a guy in a lakeside village in Malawi who calls himself Mel Gibson. He's friends with Don Bradman, George Bush and John Howard (who by now has hopefully updated his name to Julia). The monikers, obviously, are fakes intended to titillate tourists, but there's still something surreal about sitting down on a mat in the middle of nowhere to dine with Mel Gibson.

The seven people on a scooter in Vietnam

I could write a whole post about the strange things I've seen strapped to the back of scooters in South-East Asia – two live pigs on top of each other; a leopard cub in a cage; about 1000 eggs – but the winner is the entire family of seven cruising around the countryside near Dalat. Mum, Dad, Grandpa and four kids on one clapped out scooter. Impressive.

The two men scrubbing each other in Russia

Russian bathhouses are discombobulating at the best of times, but my initiation was a humdinger. I walk into the bathing area, still without a clue what I was supposed to be doing or wearing, and there's a naked man under the showers, down on all fours, while another naked man scrubs his back with a soapy sponge. That's just the done thing here – if you can find a willing partner, of course.

The Superman busker on the Paris Metro

OK, so this is definitely a case of "you had to be there", but here we go anyway. I'm on the Paris Metro – people are reading books, or staring at the floor. In walks a guy dressed entirely in orange, clutching a toy keyboard in one hand, and a Superman puppet in the other. He breaks into song, doing high-pitched raps while jiggling Superman above his head and jumping from foot to foot. Pretty soon everyone on board has lost their Parisian cool.

The circumcision ceremony in Uganda

I was never quite sure what was going to happen when I followed a group of locals through the fields of Sipi Falls in eastern Uganda, but I certainly didn't expect to watch teenagers go under the knife in an ancient ceremony. The boys closed their eyes, didn't say a word, didn't flinch... and chop. It's like nothing I'll probably ever see again.

The lake with no water in Udaipur

Most people have looked at the photos, or seen it in the Bond film Octopussy. The lake in Udaipur, India is famous, a shimmering expanse of water that hems in the famous Taj Lake Palace hotel. So I rolled up there with my camera, all set to capture the majesty, and found ... a field. Barely a drop of water. You could walk to the hotel. You gotta be kidding me.

The fried weird stuff at Wangfujing Snack Street, Beijing

I'm sure it's passé for longtime Chinophiles, but your first visit to Snack Street is usually an eye-opener. Mine was. I mean, I've always longed to eat starfish on a stick, so it was nice to finally have the chance. But sheep testicles? And fried scorpion? And pigs intestines? And cockroaches? Ah, what the heck.

The guy with the shotgun in Mexico

I'm a deep sleeper. I've slept through thunderstorms and earthquakes and even shattering glass. In my room. But if there's one thing that'll always get me springing out of bed it's a guy in a balaclava carrying a shotgun. And that's exactly what I awoke to find walking towards me on the night bus I took in Mexico. Scary stuff. Fortunately, it turned out he was a cop doing a regulation check.

What's been your best "WTF?" moment while travelling?

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Email: bengroundwater@gmail.com

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