At Frayed Passport, we generally keep stories fun and educational, or reflective and personal. Once in a while, truly weird and terrifying things happen on our travels. I’ve been around the world a couple times and fly somewhere new every six weeks or so, and this is the story I usually tell people when they ask, “What’s the craziest or scariest thing you’ve encountered?”
At 19 years old, on my first solo trip abroad, I traveled to a sea turtle conservation program in Costa Rica. I was prescribed Lariam as an antimalarial – the travel clinics I go to nowadays don’t prescribe it anymore because the side effects can be dramatic and terrible. Not just headaches and that kind of thing, but rather “feeling of dread” and “psychosis.”
A group of about 30 of us from all over the world – solo travelers, small groups, and couples – were living together in a very small jungle village on the Caribbean coast. All day and overnight, groups of us would trek out to the beach in shifts to track nesting turtles, collect eggs and bring them to the hatcheries, and do a bit of beach cleanup. I started to get a feeling that something was “off,” but couldn’t figure out what it was. Everyone I met on this project was incredibly nice, and the project was well-run, as far as I could tell at that time.
Then I started to have awful nightmares. I would wake up drenched in sweat, not just from the heat and humidity, but in a near-panic. And the jungle gets oppressively dark. I’d wake up blind, waving my hands in front of my face, not able to see anything, but I could feel the mosquito net around my bunk, and I could hear the insects and other animals outside.
Some nights I woke up and a girl from Quebec in the bunk below me was crying in her sleep, saying “Please God, don’t let me die here alone,” alternating between French and English. That didn’t help things. She was always peppy in the morning and had no recollection of being scared during the night.
Shortly into what was supposed to be a three-month trip, I was consumed day and night with this absolute feeling of sinking, black dread – I was certain that I was going to die. There was no logic to it, and it was terrifying because I couldn’t find any reason to feel the way I did. It reminded me of walking into a sketchy situation, unsure of exactly what was wrong, but feeling like I needed to get out now – and finding out later that something awful happened there. It was a Spidey Sense that wouldn’t go away, and my brain could not process what was going on.
The breaking point happened while I was on the 12:00am to 3:00am beach patrol, looking for nesting turtles with a group of four other people – my whole cabin. When we came back, we found the place had been robbed. Thankfully no passports were taken, but toiletries, clothing, some money, and other basic supplies were gone, including my toiletry bag, which had the Lariam in it. We figured it was someone passing through and “traveling for free.”
I couldn’t bear the thought of staying there any longer. I was afraid someone was coming for me, and I was lucky we were out on patrol when they ransacked the cabin. I told one of the coordinators I needed to leave, and he put me on the 5:00am bus back to San Jose. For two nights, I stayed in an airport hotel and had the worst screaming nightmares of my life – I dreamt that a pale woman with black eyes and angler fish teeth was chasing me.
After flying back to Washington, DC the creeping paranoia and dread started to dissipate, and the nightmares went away after a few weeks. The worst part was feeling myself go crazy, and having no idea why or what to do – I felt increasingly helpless, but focused intently on acting normal, happy, and productive. Having my toiletry bag stolen was an annoying blessing in disguise.
Despite all of that, I absolutely would recommend that you visit Costa Rica. I’ve been back a couple of times since then, and even though I nearly went bonkers on my first trip to a new country by myself, the interesting and beautiful outweighed the scary. I do pay a lot more attention to listed side effects when my travel clinic gives me a choice in vaccinations and medicines, though!