The following piece of satire is based solely on my personal experiences and first-hand accounts of visiting each place.
I’ve come to notice that, when travelling, backpackers feel a certain obligation to enjoy every place that they visit. This may stem from the guilty fact that they are finding themselves in a privileged position envied by others, because certain fellow travellers have regaled tales of how amazingly beautiful a certain destination was, or because they are a stranger in a strange land. How dare they make such presuppositions about somewhere when they’ve barely even scratched the surface of what it truly encapsulates?
Truthfully, however, not all places are nice and I don’t find it right that we must try our hardest to find hidden quirks and delights in towns where they simply don’t exist. Some places are genuinely just shitholes and no amount of flowery language attempting to explain their ‘character’ and ‘soul’ should be able to deflect away from this. If a place is overpopulated and full of gridlocked traffic we say that it’s ‘bustling’; if it’s sleazy and dirty we say that it’s ‘hedonistic’; if it’s tacky and brash we say that it’s ‘cosmopolitan’; and if it’s tourist trodden and commercialized we simply describe it as a ‘resort’. Scrap this. The all-encompassing word that you are looking for is ‘shithole’.
Thankfully, shitholes are much more easily identifiable that you may initially think, so it is easy to spot them coming and aim to spend as little time in them as possible. Unfortunately, however, they are not so easy to avoid. From my extensive research I’ve found a causal link between them and, as the detailed annotated map above shows, shitholes are overwhelmingly likely to be gateway cities or towns; necessary stops for travellers trying to get from Point A to Point B but in order to do so have to obligatorily pass through Point C. Having scoured the globe, here are five said gateway towns that I’ve had the displeasure of passing through. Henceforth, here are five of the world’s biggest shitholes.
With snake charmers arousing serpents with parseltongue melodies; rogue chefs cooking up whole pig heads in fly-infested street stalls; and drum corps punching holes in their bongos in an attempt to create something called ‘music’, Marrakech is a hotpot of confusion, dirt, and disgust. Taking a gold medal in the ‘Shithole City Awards’, I had the displeasure of spending two days in Morocco’s fourth largest city upon return from a week-long charity trek across the Sahara. My friend Alan and I had wandered into the labyrinth of souks on our first day only to find ourselves being accosted by every single local, each claiming to be a tour guide, taxi driver, or vendor of the cheapest tapestries and garments in Northern Africa. We spent the entire morning palming off beggar children with outstretched arms as we leapt over puddles of shit and squeezed ourselves between rows and rows of stalls packed high with such crap that even your gran would turn up her nose at it if you brought it home as a souvenir present for her.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for this shithole, however, came when we were chased by some psychopathic tailor who took a dislike to us shunning his products. Ducking and diving our way through the bazaars we managed to eventually shake him off, so I can only speculate as to what his motives may have been, but it was enough to keep us firmly locked inside our hotel until it was time to board our flight out of there. Perhaps he wanted to skin us like in Silence of the Lambs to produce unique high-quality leather products; perhaps he wanted to straight up rob us, or perhaps he genuinely did just want to help out a couple of lost tourists. Whatever it was, I’ve never felt my safety threatened as much before when wandering around a city.
Kuta, Bali, Indonesia
If you want to spend some quality time in the resorts of Nusa or party on the Gili islands, you will have to fly into Denpasar Airport in the south of the Balinese main island. The immediate area surrounding it is called Kuta, and I had the displeasure of spending two nights there upon landing in South East Asia due to the late arrival of my flight from Sydney. From your first step out the hotel door, until you are safely back in the sanctuary of your air-conditioned room, people are relentlessly hollering at you. ‘Hey brother, you need a taxi?’ topped the tally count of heckles I received, closely followed by, ‘Hey, boss, you want to rent a scooter?’ Being British, I politely declined these requests at first, replying to each hopeful punter with a meek, ‘sorry not today’, but it soon became too much for my temper. I was a short fuse burning, and when simply ignoring them didn’t help proceedings I resorted to the good old Scottish response that was bound to make me plentiful friends. Here is a brief conversational example of what it’s like to walk down Jalan Kartika in Kuta:
Some Kid: “Hey brother, you want cocaine?”
Crobs: “Fuck off.”
Some Woman: “You want massage?”
Crobs: “Fuck off.”
Some Dude: “Hey boss, you want girls that will show you good time?”
Crobs: “Fuck off.”
Some Twat: “Hey brother, you want mushrooms.”
Crobs: “Fuck off.”
Billy Connelly, one of the greatest comedians to ever have lived, had a brilliant routine where he explained why ‘fuck off’ is his favourite phrase in the English language. He said that it was, “such a lovely pair of words, and it’s international. I don’t care where you are. If somebody is fucking with your bags at Lhasa Airport in Tibet and he’s got a shaven head and saffron clothes on and you say, ‘hey, fuck off’, he knows exactly what you meant. He will fuck off. Off he will fuck.” Never has this been more applicable than to the pestering and poisonous locals of Kuta i came across.
Don’t ask me why, but despite being on the opposite side of Fiji’s main island from the nation’s capital and largest city, Suva, Nadi is the principal location of entry for air travellers to Fiji. And due to the largest tropical storm to hit the island in over a decade, I found myself stuck in this shithole for four whole days. With the rain relentlessly battering down, I spent the first three of these sat at my hostel’s beachfront bar getting very drunk until severe boredom and cabin fever lurched me on a bus into the city centre. Bad mistake.
I was with four other pale tourists, and disembarking at the main bus terminal we were immediately targeted by the locals. One guy started chatting to my mate Connor about taking us on a personal tour of the town centre, and before I even had the chance to dismiss him we found ourselves following his cronies through a fruit market, down a grotty alleyway, up a rickety fire escape, and into a traditional handicrafts shop that looked more like a living room than a place of commerce. Taking off our shoes at the entranceway, we were asked to form a cross-legged circle on the woven rugs that covered the floor and the guy brought out a tattered poly pocket folder filled with clippings and photographs. He then proceeded to recite a memorised sales pitch spiel about how a horrific storm had blown through a few years ago and devastated his village, leaving the entire community with nothing.
“All of the ornaments and souvenirs that you can see in this place were done by these villagers,” he said, casting his arm around the living room. “The paintings were made by the local school children during their art classes and the carvings were all hand-made by the adults. Everything we make from the sale of these products goes back to funding our relief efforts. Don’t feel obliged to purchase anything, but please look around and see if anything takes your fancy. Everything has already been 100% approved by international customs and you can take it to any country in the world.”
I nodded with gratitude, slipped my shoes back on, and headed back out into the damp and humid afternoon. If I’d stayed in there any longer I’d have started questioning him as to why the locals decided to waste their time carving wooden elephants and doing finger paintings as opposed to actually undertaking the much-needed repairs. Somehow, I don’t think he would have appreciated that too much.
Before embarking on a two-month South American adventure, one of the main pieces of advice provided by a well-travelled uncle of mine was to get in and out of Lima as quickly as possible and meandering around the sewage infested back alleys of the Barranco district I could see why. In only two blocks I passed a burned-out police car and numerous wild dogs whose growls and stares made me extremely thankful for the rabies injections I'd paid a small fortune to get. My sense of smell was also nearly obliterated from the stench of urine puddles that turned walking the pavements of the Peruvian capital into one endless game of hop-scotch.
Prancing along, a kid then came flying out a side-street on a skateboard only to be T-boned by an oncoming car. Before I could even comprehend what has just occurred, and as quick as the crash had happened, the boy then stood up; dusted himself off; and legged it, leaving a 14-year-old shaped crime scene imprint in the bonnet of the busted hatchback. The driver got out from behind the wheel looking absolutely perplexed, and as a security guard from a nearby building came over to analyse the situation I quickly headed back to my hostel before being asked to give a statement and testimonial.
Woken up the next morning by a regiment of the Peruvian Army marching down the street, I hailed a taxi to take me straight back to the airport for an internal flight to Cusco. Peering out the window with a turned up nose was treated to a mobile circus performance that the whole city was seemingly involved in. When stopped at traffic lights and crossroads I witnessed juggling unicyclists, fire breathers, and a man pulling a wheelbarrow full of wheel-less wheelbarrows; shooed away street vendors trying to sell us refreshments for the show; and admired the severe patriotism expressed through every political building being draped with the red and white vertical slithers of the Peruvian flag as if a blanket had fallen from the sky. For the grand finale, my driver almost ripped his exhaust open as he pulled into the airport over an enormous speed bump. Never mind sleeping policemen, this thing was the size of a small rhino. When anyone now asks me what the best thing to do in Lima is I tend to echo my uncle and respond with the five letter word: leave.
Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
This shithole isn’t the ‘hottest spot north of Havana’ as sung by Barry Manilow, nor the world famous Balneario beach in Rio de Janeiro, but their crummy namesake town that straddles the Peruvian-Bolivian border on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Being the highest navigable lake in the world is not quite a selling point, but considering its surroundings Copacabana hasn’t got much to supersede this meek claim apart from being an almost necessary stop for anyone entering the west of Bolivia.
The main attraction for those tourists finding themselves here is to visit Isla Del Sol, a rocky island scattered with ruins and home to approximately 800 families. Our two-hour boat ride to the ‘Island of the Sun’ was spent chatting to an Irish couple who were on a round-the-world trip. This would be the most enjoyable part of the whole excursion. From the moment we debarked until the second we re-boarded every single one of these 800 inhabitants swarmed us for money like bees in a hive. This was not in an amiable and affable way either but in the sheer greed for Boliviano, the currency we had now converted to. Checkpoints were positioned along the main trail that cleaved the landscape, each with the goal of swindling cash from ignorant tourists. Revolting the ‘Gringo Tax’ we simply marched on, uncurbed by the toll operators. A Spaniard who followed closely behind could be heard shouting furiously at the locals when they also asked him for payment. All in all, I cannot see the attraction of Isla Del Sol. People aside, the landscape is barren and desolate. The dusty track is bordered by nothing but rocks and sand, and vegetation fails to grow dense in such a dry environment.
Where is the biggest shithole that you've ever had the displeasure of visiting? Send us a message and help other travellers dodge the holes and traps which you've been unfortunate enough to fall into.