Strange Tales of World Travel
What's the strangest thing you've seen or experienced?
Over the years, as international lawyer Scott Gaille traveled to more than 100 countries, he started asking this deceptively simple question — and getting answers that shocked him.
A member of the Omani royal entourage shared the story of a sultan who demanded his servants control the turbulence on his private jet, so he could listen to a live string quartet without disruption. In Australia, a local guide told the tale of a visiting artist who took creative photos of roadkill. And a Mauritian diplomat talked about the feeling of euphoria he enjoyed after eating the flesh of a venomous bird in the middle of the Saharan Desert.
This April, Travelers’ Tales published Scott and his frequent traveling partner Gina’s book, "Strange Tales of World Travel," which shares these and other outrageous stories from across the globe.
Here, we share four of the most shocking and hilarious stories of all — starting with one about a Middle Eastern exec who went to extraordinary lengths to secure, yes, his CEO's underwear.
"The Emperor Has No Underwear" - United Arab Emirates
Hans Christian Andersen's tale The Emperor’s New Clothes has delighted children for almost two centuries. The tale’s Emperor is tricked into believing that he has been sold the finest suit in the world—made of fabric invisible to those who are unworthy. All of the Emperor’s ministers say nothing and allow him to parade around in his new outfit. Then a child blurts out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
Business leaders, too, can succumb to imperial ambitions. This is doubly true in the Middle East, where CEOs cavort with real kings and sultans. CEOs make millions of dollars a year. Middle Eastern sheikhs make millions of dollars a day. Still, the CEOs try to keep up, and that leads to strange behavior. The young vice president of an oil company often traveled as part of his CEO’s entourage. He was there when his emperor ran out of underwear.
Map illustrations designed by Anna Elkins
Story by Gina and Scott Gaille
The Vice President’s Story
“I was sitting at the back of a triangular conference room. My CEO was holding court at the apex of the room, where the panes of glass met to form a perfect point. Behind him was the endless blue of the Persian Gulf, broken only by dozens of oil tankers chugging to and from the Strait of Hormuz. To his right was the CEO of another company. Both men had just arrived from America in their own private planes.
'I’m still waiting on my wife,’ complained the second CEO. ‘She didn’t fly in with you?’ asked the first.
‘No. Since the Tyco scandal, she’s been flying commercial, mostly using air miles.’
After their meeting adjourned, my CEO pulled me aside and asked, ‘What are airline miles?’ I explained to him how airlines have loyalty programs pursuant to which members receive points based on how far they fly each year. These ‘air miles’ can then be redeemed for free tickets. ‘Fascinating system,’ he said. ‘I haven’t flown commercially since the 1970s. There were no air miles back then.’
Just as suburban dads might compare the automatic sliding doors on their minivans, so do CEOs brag about their planes. These babies are not just little Lear jets, but rather Boeing Business Jets, or BBJs—customized 737s, 767s, or 777s. They are outfitted with queen size beds, hot showers, and extra fuel tanks to extend their range to the farthest corners of the world.
Yet I was not allowed on my CEO’s BBJ. Even when we traveled together, he would board his BBJ, and I would be relegated to one of the company’s smaller Gulfstream jets. The two planes would take off together, one after another, and then fly the same route. It was all such a waste.
That night, the Sheikh hosted everyone for dinner at his palace. At the event’s conclusion, he invited the CEOs to join him on a falcon hunting trip in Pakistan. I thought nothing of it until my boss’s secretary knocked on my hotel room door.
‘We have a problem,’ she said. ‘The boss does not have enough underwear for the hunting trip.’
‘So, our Emperor has no underwear. Why’s that a problem?’ I asked, handing her a sheet showing prices for the hotel’s one-hour laundry service.
‘That won’t do,’ she said. ‘He’s worried about germs. The boss would never allow his underwear to be cleaned by a public facility.’
‘Are we working for Howard Hughes?’ I asked. ‘Why don’t you go down to the two hundred-store mall and buy some new underwear?’
‘I already tried that. No one has his brand. Not here. Not even in Dubai.’
‘And what brand might that be?’ I asked. ‘Hermes.’
‘Like my ties?’ I asked. ‘I didn’t even know they made underwear.’
‘It’s the only brand he’ll wear. Hermes boxer shorts.’
‘I don’t suppose you could persuade him to cycle through the ones he brought.’
‘Not going to happen,’ she replied. ‘The closest location that carries his underwear is the Hermes store in Paris.’
‘Perfect. Just have them FedExed down.’
‘There’s not time. The only way is to fly there ourselves tonight, buy them when the store opens, and then fly right back.’ ‘Have fun with that,’ I said. ‘That’s three thousand miles each direction—twelve hours flying round trip.’
‘It’s you who’s going to Paris to get the underwear,’ she said. ‘He sent me to tell you that the pilots are fueling the BBJ now.’
Instead of attending the rest of the meetings in Abu Dhabi, my Wharton MBA was put to its highest and best use of making an underwear run. It was the only time I ever set foot on my boss’s BBJ, but I made the most of it. I napped on his plush bed, took a shower in his flying bathroom, watched movies on the big screen TV, ate his caviar, and drank his 19th-century cognac. My trip was a success, and the Imperial CEO was able to continue on his hunting trip with a suitcase full of brand-new Hermes boxer shorts.”
"Pug in Peril" - Saudi Arabia
The Islamic faithful feel very strongly about pigs. Books celebrating the porcine, such as Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web, have been banned in certain nations due to their depictions of pigs. English dictionaries even sometimes have the word “pig” blacked out with a marker.
Saudi Arabia is particularly sensitive. As the host nation of the Holy Mosque of Mecca, Saudi Arabia bans pork and pigs altogether. Their very presence within the nation is considered a desecration. For this reason, some Saudi citizens may not even know what a pig looks like.
An acquaintance was in the process of moving from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia when he was stopped at the border for a routine search of his vehicle. Accompanying him was his dog. Although legal, dogs also are uncommon in Saudi Arabia because they are viewed as impure or unclean animals.
Story by Gina and Scott Gaille
The Pug Owner’s Story
“The Saudi border police are notoriously strict enforcers of the nation’s religious laws, so I was careful to ensure nothing in my vehicle would run afoul of their rules. The only thing I was worried about was my dog, a cute little pug. I had all of his veterinarian records and health certifications with me and was ready to present them if asked.
When the Saudi guard approached, I rolled down my window, and he leaned in for a closer look at my passenger cabin.
‘What’s that?’ he asked, pointing to my pug sitting beside me on the front passenger seat.
‘It’s my pug,’ I casually replied.
This elicited a look of complete disgust. The officer backed away from the vehicle, putting his white-gloved hand over his mouth.
The guard blew his whistle, and three more guards—these with machine guns at their sides—surrounded my car. They were talking rapidly in Arabic, and I couldn’t make out their concern.
‘Get out!’ shouted one of them.
It was a scorching hot day in the Arabian desert, and I couldn’t leave my pug in the car. I reached over to pick him up—
‘Leave the pig!’ barked the guard.
Unfortunately, I had not thought about how a pug might resemble a pig. It has a curly tail, not unlike a pig’s tail, and a stubby round nose—well, rather similar to a pig’s snout. And to someone less accustomed to the English language, one might hear the word pug as pig.
I let go of my pug and stepped out of the vehicle, smiling and hoping to quickly resolve the case of mistaken identity.
‘It’s not a P-I-G, it’s a P-U-G, which is a kind of dog. You know, woof woof.’
That led to a blank stare. I didn’t think I had gotten through to him. By now, the commotion had attracted other Saudis, who were leaving their vehicles to see what was the matter. They gathered around to look at the pug, each recoiling in horror. My poor pug was panting and drooling in the 115-degree heat.
The guards chattered away in Arabic and then one said, ‘We kill the pig. Take it over there.’ The guard pointed to the desert alongside the road.
‘It’s not a pig!’ I shouted. ‘It’s a dog.’
The youngest guard was putting on latex gloves, apparently in preparation for my pug’s execution. Just when I thought all was lost, my pug was rescued by a good Samaritan. An older Saudi man intervened, explaining to the guard that my animal was, in fact, a species of dog—not a pig. They talked for some time, but a reprieve was eventually won. We were allowed to go on our way, and my pug was no longer a pig."
"The Human Pet" - Qatar
Qatar is the world’s richest nation—per capita. Its quarter million citizens are ruled by the House of Thani, the current Emir being the eighth in a two hundred-year royal lineage. The Thanis preside over twenty-five billion barrels of oil and gas. Westerners seeking to raise capital for their businesses routinely travel to Qatar’s capital, Doha, in search of Thani patronage. One such businessman’s stay in Qatar lasted much longer than he had expected. A prince enjoyed the American so much that he invited him to live at his palace.
Story by Gina and Scott Gaille
The Pet’s Story
“Each morning, the Prince would join me for breakfast beside his Olympic-sized swimming pool. Servants brought me whatever I ordered. Then the Prince would take hold of my arm and start his day. Most mornings we began with online shopping.
We’d participate in auctions of art and antiques at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. He had an insatiable appetite for buying. Tens of millions of dollars were spent without thinking twice.
Around midday, the delivery trucks started to arrive, depositing the bounty of the Prince’s purchases along his circular driveway. We sat in his Rolls Royce convertible, watching as servants used crowbars to pry crate after crate open. Each item was shown to the Prince before being taken away.
The Prince bought so much, so fast, that he actually forgot what he had ordered. It was like watching a kid at Christmas, opening presents, one after another. His attention span also resembled that of a child. He looked at each treasure for only a minute before moving on to the next one.
Lunch in the Prince’s grand dining room invariably followed the openings. Every wall was covered with inlaid marble. Artisans from India, who were taught in the arts of the Taj Mahal, had been imported to create this masterpiece anew.
After lunch, the Prince wandered around the palace. I followed at his side. These afternoons served no purpose other than the passing of time. The Prince went from room to room, rummaging through his collections of art and artifacts. Each room had a theme—for example, 19th-century Impressionist paintings—but the contents seemed haphazard, even chaotic. Instead of being hung, paintings leaned against the walls in giant stacks, dozens of canvases deep. To view them, servants would shuffle the frames, bringing each to the Prince until he sent it back. There were many Monets and Renoirs, but the Prince didn’t even seem to recognize, much less appreciate, the artists. They were just pretty things that he owned.
The price of all things seemed inconsequential to the Prince. This was because he had an endless fountain of money that replenished itself as he spent. Whether a thing cost $100 or $100 million, it made no difference to his wealth. He was on a perpetual shopping spree. The absence of relative sacrifice—that the rest of us experience—had left the Prince unable to appreci-ate the value of anything.
When the Prince got tired of looking at his possessions, he would take me for a swim in his chilled pool. On really hot days, the servants would bring large blocks of ice and drop them one after another into its waters to further cool them. I tried to use the pool as a place to discuss my business investment with the Prince, but he always found a way to delay and defer any commitment.
Each day led into another, until I had been at the palace for two months straight. Repetition does make time fly. We had returned again to the room of Impressionist paintings. The giddy Prince had his servants shuffling them, just as he had done before. It was then that I realized I was the Prince’s Pet—just like a dog, following his owner around.
The next day, my monotony was broken when an order of antique shotguns arrived. I’m an avid bird hunter so I was particularly enjoying them. While I was examining my favorite over-under, the Prince mentioned that his estate was home to flocks of doves. He suggested that we go bird hunting together and put the purchase to use.
That evening we were dropped off at two separate locations, out of sight from each other. Servants clambered through nearby bushes, flushing the doves and causing them to fly over. I was having a great time, blasting away. In addition to shooting many doves, I also bagged several larger pigeons. The only odd thing about the pigeons was that they were all tagged with gold bracelets containing Arabic writing around their legs.
When we arrived back in the palace’s courtyard, we found a great commotion. The courtyard was packed with vehicles, and dozens of men were looking skyward with binoculars. The Prince went over to talk to an older gentleman, who was holding his head with both hands and looking distraught. Upon seeing me arrive, the Prince hurried me away from the scene.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
The Prince described how the Emir’s prized racing pigeons had gone missing. They were participating in a competition and disappeared as they were flying across the property.
I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.
‘Dump out your birds,’ demanded the Prince. I sheepishly did so, spilling a pile of carcasses onto the grass. The evidence was indisputable. The Prince picked out ten pigeons, each with a gleaming gold band, and numbered (in Arabic) one to ten.
‘How did you manage to kill them all?’ exclaimed the Prince. I shrugged. ‘I’m a good shot.’
Later that night, I was taken to the airport and put on the next flight to London—in economy class.”
"Feeding Frenzy" - Galápagos Islands
When we think of the Galápagos Islands, giant tortoises and the comic antics of blue-footed boobies come to mind. Yet the real foundation of the islands’ diverse ecosystem is the ocean. In its waters, three currents converge—from the south comes the cold Humboldt Current; from the north, the warm Panama Current; and from the west, the deep Cromwell Current. Together, they cycle nutrients to the ocean’s surface. All of this results in giant schools of fish, which feed birds and other predators.
Each day, our Galápagos excursions were a mix of both worlds: land and sea. Half the day was spent walking among the birds, sea lions, tortoises, and iguanas. The rest was in the ocean. We had two guides with us, Jose and Maria. We noticed that Jose refused to get into the water. Hearing Maria chastise him for “still being afraid,” we asked Jose what had happened.
Story by Gina and Scott Gaille
The Ex-Snorkeler’s Story
“We were snorkeling in the channel between Santa Cruz and Baltra, close to the airport when I saw boobies and other birds striking the water in the middle of the pass. I was with one of my guests, and I suggested we paddle over to watch the feeding birds. As we approached, we learned what was attracting the birds.
It was a bait ball—a concentrated swarm of fish packed into a spherical formation. The fish do this as a defensive mechanism when under attack. There were thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of fish in the school.
The ball was just below the surface, with a diameter approaching 20 meters. We were observing it from the side. The birds would hit the water at high speed, leaving trails of bubbles behind them as they rocketed in search of a catch. Then the school shifted in our direction, and we found ourselves right on top of the bait ball.
On every side of us, birds were crashing into the water. It was crazy. I was floating on the surface with my face in the water, thoroughly enjoying the show. As I gazed down on the silver mass, a hole opened in its center. It was no longer a ball but a donut, and I could see straight into the deep blue below.
Then I saw something else coming through the hole toward me. It was the head of an enormous shark, its jaws wide open, heading straight up—nearly vertical in its ascent.
Everything slowed down then. It was as if time froze. I remembered a boy I had bullied in grade school. I thought about my mother. She had wanted me to come to dinner the night before, but I blew her off, opting instead to go drinking with friends in Puerto Ayora.
The last thing I saw was the shark’s jaws tearing through an unlucky tuna. Then its nose struck me squarely in the chest, stealing my breath. Everything went white at that point. I don’t remember what happened next."
"But I do," said his colleague, Maria. "I was in a nearby dinghy, watching the birds feeding. I was unaware of any danger until I saw Jose lifted completely out of the water. His whole body was balanced across the snout of a giant tiger shark.
"I turned on the engine and sped to them. In accordance with protocol, I rescued the guest first. He had not even seen the shark. Jose was not far away, floating on the surface. He was still moving but appeared to be in shock. He did not even raise his head as the boat approached. I had to pull on his wetsuit cable to get his attention."
"Maria helped me into the boat," said Jose, "and I was shivering, shaking. I couldn’t get warm."
"He hasn’t been in the ocean since," said Maria.