You Didn’t Hear It Here First

Aug 21, 2005

Ever since humans started wandering around for business and pleasure, we’ve been big consumers of travel information — where to stay and what to eat, see and do. While the tips have changed, our hankering for good travel advice hasn’t. Likewise our love of travel legends. Though we may no longer fall for cautionary tales about sailing off the edge of Earth, we still get seduced by our own updated fairy tales about travel. Here are how a half-dozen measure up.

Stuck on the Loo

* THE MYTH: A commercial airline pilot, or passenger, takes a bathroom break and attempts to flush while still seated. Bad idea! The powerful suction keeps him or her stuck on the toilet.

* THE REALITY: Nearly impossible. This legend appears to have started at least as early as 1992, when Scandinavian Airlines was forced to publicly debunk a rumor that a female passenger spent part of a transatlantic flight glued to her seat, so to speak. Asked about this legend, Federal Aviation Authority officials demurred, suggesting that inquiries be directed to commercial airline makers. Boeing spokeswoman Mary Jean Olsen confirmed that she had indeed heard this legend, but hers starred an Airbus plane. But of course.

Gnome Man’s Land

* THE MYTH: A yard gnome is snatched one night from someone’s yard. Many weeks or months go by, and one morning the gnome’s owner discovers that the ceramic sprite has returned with a stack of photos of the gnome taken at landmarks around the country and/or globe.

* THE REALITY: This myth’s origins may be ersatz, but it has become so part of general pop culture that online booking outfit fashioned a national ad campaign around a footloose fairy. Even Travelocity spokeswoman Judy Haveson knows firsthand of this myth’s power to inspire imitators. “A friend of mine in college heard about [this myth] . . . and stole a gnome off someone’s yard in New Orleans and took it on a backpacking trip to Europe,” she said. “Photos were mailed to the gnome’s owner from all the places it visited.”

Indecent Exposures

* THE MYTH: A couple returns home from vacation or their honeymoon. A week or several go by, and they have their film developed or check their digital camera’s memory to discover snapshots of a hotel maid posing with the couple’s toothbrushes up his/her rump.

* THE REALITY: Unclear. It also has popped up in at least one novel and a British TV sitcom. Spokesmen Allison Klimerman of Colgate, Fred Peterson of the American Dental Association and David Kassnoff of Kodak all claimed ignorance. Still, after a brother-in-law first told me how this very thing happened to a friend of a friend, I’ve experienced an epidemic of near-first-person accounts. Like the yard gnome myth, it may have found real-world copycats.

Strangeness on a Train

* THE MYTH: Thieving gangs prowl trains in Europe and the Far East late at night, using some sort of military-grade gas to knock out young travelers sleeping in the cabins and rob them of all their money and passports.

* THE REALITY: You may be surprised. The U.S. Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council earlier this year warned travelers of at least one country, Poland, that on “inter- and intra-country train travel, thieves have, in rare instances, used a variety of ‘knock-out’ sprays to incapacitate travelers and then take belongings from their person and accompanying baggage. In most cases the spray is used on sleeping passengers.” Even Lonely Planet warns in its most recent guide to Europe that “several readers reportedly have been gassed while in their compartments and have had everything stolen while they slept.”

Polish Embassy press attache Marek Purowski concedes that such incidents have occurred in recent years but that the perpetrators were not Polish citizens but “Russian gangs.” What’s more, he said, membership in the European Union has meant travelers to Poland must obtain a visa, effectively keeping such criminals out of the country.

Mystery Meet

* THE MYTH: A mysterious and attractive stranger seduces a tourist; the haplessly horny visitor awakens the next day to discover he or she was drugged, and a kidney and/or other organs were removed, presumably to be sold on the black market. This tale is often embellished with nifty details describing victims sporting stitched wounds and lying in bathtubs full of ice.

* THE REALITY: Bogus, but astoundingly persistent. There seem to be as many versions of this legend as there are cultures and countries. FBI spokesman Stephen Kodak said he was very familiar with this myth but that he had “not heard of one single true case of this in all my 15 years with the bureau.” Judging also from the number of movie and book plots it has inspired, it seems to be about the most popular urban travel legend yet.

A Bowwow Wow

* THE MYTH: Vacationers discover after they get home that the funky-looking stray dog they rescued from Mexico (or another country, typically in Latin America or East Asia) is actually a giant breed of rat.

* THE REALITY: Hard to believe anyone could be this dumb. TV sitcom “Murphy Brown” even did a sendup of this myth in a 1995 episode. Still, Mexico Tourism Board official Christine Garsault conceded that someone might mistake a tepezcuintle, a kind of large Latin American guinea pig, for a peculiar pooch.

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