Where strangers on a train can turn nasty

ON NEW Year's Eve, 22-year-old Erin Langworthy walked onto the bridge over the Zambezi River and bungeed off. Thousands of people do this every year, rebounding in the gorge near Victoria Falls to exit the way they came. Erin Langworthy exited through the crocodile-infested waters below because her cord broke. Much has been written about her incredible survival, though even more incredible, perhaps, is the PR stunt by Zambia's Tourism Minister, Given Lubinda: he jumped off the bridge two weeks later, inviting the girl to come back for a second attempt.

Undoubtedly, Langworthy suffered a serious scare (and has the bruises to show for it). But it's also reasonable to suspect that, over time, she will come to value her harrowing experience. Again and again it will come out throughout her life: "I did this, this happened, I survived." It will become a badge, worn either with pride or as a silent self-reminder of what she's capable of enduring.

It is almost banal to say travel is a "rite of passage". But a rite of passage, at least in the traditional sense, is something that changes a person by putting them through a trial.

Several years ago I spent Christmas in Prague, which is oppressively festive in December. Think fairy lights, mulled wine and tourists numbed by the cold into a cashed-up hoard of shuffling wooden dolls. Budapest had seemed rough and glorious but this, with its aura of theme-park polish, felt oddly intolerable. My friend and I strolled the market in Wenceslas Square, eating sausage and contemplating an escape. New Year's was to be spent in Berlin but we reasoned there was time for a detour to Krakow - and Auschwitz, for a sobering foray into history.

One of the easiest ways to travel between Prague and Krakow is by overnight sleeper train. The most inadvisable way to travel between Prague and Krakow - according to Lonely Planet - is by overnight sleeper train. Our guide noted that the route was a favoured haunt of cunning thieves. We went anyway.

The route was a favoured haunt of cunning thieves.

That we got completely fleeced is probably unsurprising. But the trial was not that we got robbed, it was the way it happened. We went to sleep, woke up - and things were simply gone. The Polish police brought in a translator and he detailed a scenario where a shadowy stranger - which I remembered - peered into our private sleeper, returning later to use sleeping gas beneath the door. Somebody had gone through my pants while I slept. They had rifled through my friend's coat while she lay unconscious. It seemed incredible but it happened often, the translator said.

The implications of what else could have happened filled me with a quiet dread.

That night I saw a man getting beaten to a pulp behind a stall selling Christmas baubles. Krakow is quite a contrast to Prague. And yet all I could think about was my trial: I did this, this happened, I survived.

While I wouldn't want to go through it again, I still turn it over in a quiet corner of my mind.