What a trip: Retiring travel writer Ellen Creager tells all

Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager reporting from Rome in May, 2016. She was travel writer from 2003 to 2016.(Photo: Christopher Mengel)

Now it can be told.

In nearly 14 years as the Free Press travel writer, many, ahem, odd incidents and mishaps have occurred on my travels around the world. Many of them I have never written about. Or told my editors about. Or mentioned to a living soul.

Until now ....

As I leave the best job in the world and retire from the Free Press after 33 years, I won’t bore you with my philosophy of life or tiresome words of wisdom, except to say that I have had absolutely the best beat at my dream newspaper in the features department, where all the fun stories are written and where you get to meet the nicest readers.

►Related: Retiring travel writer picks 5 spots you must see in your lifetime

Now, after reporting from 47 countries, 38 states and five territories, I am hanging up my traveling shoes. Here are a few of my secret travel stories, never before revealed. Enjoy.

Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen working on a train between Munich and Salzburg in 2011. She was travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Ellen Creager)

Saved by the ring

When reporting a story in Ketchikan, Alaska, in 2006, I climbed a giant boulder pile to get a better photograph of my cruise ship in the harbor. I was just finishing up when I heard a clunk. I’d dropped my cell phone.

I peered between two boulders, then more boulders, then started rushing around the rocks desperately looking harder. I started to panic. I couldn’t see the phone. And it was nearly time for me to be back at the ship.

Defeated, I began trudging back down the path when a couple came walking in the opposite direction. I told them what happened, and the man had an idea.

He pulled out his cell phone. Dialed my number. Suddenly, the boulders began to ring.

I followed the noise to a crevice, reached my hand in, and lo and behold, my phone. My trip was saved. Disaster narrowly averted.

Later, when I got back to Detroit, my editor asked if everything had gone OK. “Sure,” I said. “No problem.”

Don’t tell them you’re a journalist

Many times around the world I have been advised not to reveal my line of work. For a China visa, I was told to put “business person.” For Egypt, I was told to put “tourist.”

But in February 2004, I was dropped off by a private guide at a Syrian border post near Baalbek, Lebanon. I entered a dimly lit, hot little shack. The agent sat behind a high counter, surrounded by at least 10 other men.

“What is your profession?” the agent asked.

“Journalist,” I said. His eyes widened, alarmed. Lebanon had only recently finished a bloody civil war and Hizballah was in control of Baalbek. He shook his head. “No journalists,” he said. My heart pounded. My mouth was dry.

“Wait,” I said. “I am not that kind of journalist. I am here to write about all of your many beautiful things. Tourism. Happy things. Your beautiful country. Beirut. The mountains. The archaeology. Not politics."

Suddenly, the men were all smiles. Tourism! OK. The agent stamped my passport and let me enter Lebanon on a transit visa.

“Don’t ever tell anyone you are a journalist,” he advised.

Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager samples the mud at the Dead Sea, Israel in 2007. She was travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Jacob Firsel)

A kiss in Africa

After a day-long journey on dusty roads in 2007, I was on my way to meet the Hadzabe people who live in the bush in north-central Tanzania. My main private guide turned me over to another guide who would take me through the sandy landscape for about 20 minutes to the encounter. The two of us were trudging along past the acacia trees in the brilliant sunshine, when suddenly he stopped. He turned around and kissed me hard on the lips.

I was so shocked I started laughing, which was probably the best response, given that I was a woman alone in the middle of nowhere with a complete stranger.

“My husband would not like that,” I said sternly “My husband would not be happy. Do not do that again.”

The guy shrugged. “Yes, OK,” he said. He turned back to the path and led me on to the meeting spot.

Later on, the leader of the Hadzabe asked me where my husband was. “In America,” I said. “Where is America?” he asked. I pointed to the west. “Over there. Not far.”

Career saved by AutoZone

The first reporting trip I took for the Free Press as travel writer, in August  2003, was sort of a test run. My plan was to stay the night at the state park in Bay City, then another night at Lumberman’s Monument near Oscoda.

About 30 minutes after arriving in Bay City that evening, the battery of my purple Plymouth Voyager minivan dropped dead at an ice cream stand. Not in the plan! I got a jump from a neighboring car. I coaxed the van, sputtering and dying, as far as Wilder Road. I was praying hard when I spotted an AutoZone sign in the fading light. As I turned into the lot, the van died. Two employees pushed it to their building. They then kept the store open past closing time to replace my battery immediately. I was so grateful I hugged them both.

After I got back to the paper from that first reporting trip, my editor, Dale Parry, asked how everything went.

“Great,” I said. “No problem.”

I never told him I owed my entire career to two guys at the Bay City AutoZone.

Passing out at 38,000 feet

In 2011, I was flying on South African Airways to Dakar, Senegal, on a story. Halfway over the Atlantic, I started feeling lightheaded and woozy. Years before, I had fainted on a plane, and I was determined not to have that happen again. I stumbled to the back of the jet and asked the flight attendant for help. Fifteen minutes of breathing oxygen did the trick.

The rest of the trip went off without a hitch, except for the teenage gigolo who propositioned me on a tour boat on the Gambia River.

I got rid of him by lecturing him about finishing his education and doing something his mother would be proud of.

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Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager in Ilulissat, Greenland, for a story in 2013. She was travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Ellen Creager/Detroit Free Press)

Frostbite and workers comp

When reporting a story in February 2013 in Ilulissat, Greenland, I got severe frostbite on two toes on my right foot. The cause of the injury? Too much time spent dogsledding. When I got back from my trip, my editors asked how the trip was.

“Great,” I said.

However, when they observed me limping around for weeks, they made me file a workers comp claim and go see a specialist at University of Michigan Hospital.

I do believe that to this very day, I am the only Gannett employee ever to file a workers comp claim because of frostbite caused by dogsledding.

The strange resort

Once in 2005, I was reporting a story about new resorts in or near Cancun, Mexico. I had set up an interview ahead of time with one I’d read about.

That day, a big black car picked me up at my hotel and drove me out of town. After a winding drive down country roads, we passed through an archway onto a long dirt driveway.

There, I saw a big cage holding a live jaguar.

Then I realized there was actually no resort to speak of.

Instead, it was a collection of low-slung buildings that looked more like a fancy walled compound than a vacation spot. I interviewed the resort’s manager, a very intense man who seemed more cartel than cordial.

They then gave me a ride on a golf cart to see where the resort’s new golf course would someday be. It was nothing more than mounds of dirt and grass.

I praised the place effusively and got out of there as fast as possible.

Lost things, found things

Occasionally, my husband, Chris Mengel, travels with me on my reporting trips. Strangely, that’s when things get lost.

He left his iPad on a table near airport security at Detroit Metro Airport, and it was stolen.

We both left our credit cards in a safe at a resort in Beaver Creek, Colo., but he also left his driver’s license there. He had to use his State Bar of Michigan attorney ID card to get through airport security.

I once left my camera in a gift shop next to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem the first day of my trip to Israel. I got it back thanks to an honest shopkeeper.

I also have left a favorite jacket in Cuba, my slippers in Lexington, Ky., and I am certain many other items of mine are spread out over the world.

Crying does the trick

My first international trip for the paper was to Egypt in 2004. I had a late connection from Detroit, and I raced to the EgyptAir counter at JFK airport in New York to check in.

“Too late,” the agent said. “You will miss the flight.”

It was my first international assignment. I was going to blow it!

I began to cry.

“I have to be on that plane,” I said through my sobs. “I just have to.”

“Hold on,” she said, and made a call.

A minute later, she escorted me all the way through security, to the gate and onto the plane, and I didn’t miss my flight. In fact, I got a whole row to myself and got a good night’s sleep. When I woke up, we were landing in Cairo. I then reported from the Middle East for two weeks.

When I got back, my editor asked how everything went.

“Fine,” I said. “No problem.”

And you know what? He believed me.

More secret mishaps on travel reporting trips

You may think that a professional travel writer always has a smooth trip. I'm here to reassure you that is not true.

♦Once, I was scratched by live coral while snorkeling in southern Belize. It took two months for the infected scratch to heal with special antibiotics.

♦A cat once escaped on a plane and sat on my head.

♦I once got horribly lost trying to drive out of central Munich, Germany, and ended up where I started.

♦Two huge snakes slithered next to my feet on a path at Pelee Island, Ontario, as I was shooting a photo of the woods. I don’t think they were poisonous, but I screamed.

♦Back when they still let you climb the steps at Mexico’s Chichen Itza archeological site, I climbed up but was too petrified to climb down, except by bumping down on my behind.

♦After 24 hours without sleep trying to get home from Milan, Italy, I yelled at a Newark, N.J., Airport Delta agent who lost my reservation. Suddenly two security guards walked up and asked if there was a problem. Um, no. It wouldn’t look good for a travel writer to be arrested.

♦I once was driven up the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, by a driver and an armed guard holding an Uzi. They also made me duck my head when driving into Nuweiba to a ferry that would take me to Jordan. I did as they suggested.

♦Once, a woman walked into my hotel room, also in Newark. The hotel had mistakenly given her a key for a room that was already occupied – by me. We both screamed. From then on, I always flipped the extra lock on hotel doors.

♦One happy accident? One time I accidentally was given the presidential suite at a hotel in Arusha, Tanzania. The last person to stay there, the day before, was President Bill Clinton.

It was my most cushy moment as a travel writer, until my story just last month about the new $2,800-a-night over-water bungalows at Sandals in Jamaica.

It would be hard to top that.

So instead, I'll just say goodbye.

As of today, contact former Detroit Free Press Travel Writer Ellen Creager at fptravelwriter@yahoo.com. She thanks former Detroit Free Press features editor Dale Parry for giving her the travel beat in 2003; former Features editor Mike Smith for making her a features reporter in the first place in 1987; and current Features department colleagues and editor Nicole Avery Nichols for always having her back.

Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager reported from Monument Valley, Utah in 2013. She was travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Sherry Pass)

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Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager reporting at the Oakland (Pontiac) airport in 2012. She was travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press)

Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager rode the Empire Builder train from Minneapolis to Glacier National Park for a story in 2012. She was travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Ellen Creager)

Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager in Salzburg, Austria on a story in 2011. She was travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Ellen Creager)

Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager in a snomobile suit in Cadillac, Michigan, doing a story in 2010. She was travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Christopher Mengel)

Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager looks through a telescope from the top of the Eiffel Tower in France in 2007. Shew was travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Christopher Mengel)

Working on the beach: Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager takes notes on a beach in Cape Cod, Mass. in 2006. She was travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Christopher Mengel)

Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager fishing for trout and salmon in Lake Michigan off of Saugatuck for a story in 2015. She was travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Ellen Creager)

Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager stands with a Masai in Tanzania in 2007. She was travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Ellen Creager)

Detroit Free Press reporter Ellen Creager takes a self portrait in her cabin on one of the many cruise ships she traveled as travel writer from 2003 to 2016. (Photo: Ellen Creager)

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