Don't Even Go There—Travel Writing for the Rest of Us

Even if the world is your oyster, you can still chip a tooth on its shell. While travel magazines feature exotic locales of breathtaking beauty, we expose sites so depressing that no traveler this side of Edgar Allan Poe would venture there without a tub-load of tranquilizers. Take Las Vegas (please) and the $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet line at Sam’s Town. That's the world we explore at Don’t Even Go There.

On this site, we tell of places we’ve visited but wish we hadn’t. We reveal vacation plans gone awry and relate horror stories from the road best abandoned. These true stories reflect where we’ve chosen to go. We only have ourselves to blame. We rarely needed to exaggerate—the truth really is stranger than a Dan Brown novel.

Don’t Even Go There: travel tips for those of us who aren’t escorted by security guards, pampered by wealthy benefactors, or provided a generous per diem. This blog is for seasoned travelers and armchair tourists who want the real world first-hand and head-on, with all its drama, horror, and humor. You’ll laugh at us, cry with us, and decide to stay home more often.

29 June 2008

Indian Finger Food

Here it is: another ugly food experience overseas. You’d think we’d learn. If we ever do, what will we write about then? Where to get the best foie gras? You can get that information in any reputable travel magazine—you know, the kind that won’t publish our stories. —MB & JS
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Let’s get something straight right away: India is not a clean country. The pollution raises serious health issues, and the notorious overcrowding leads to all sorts of—shall we say—unclean habits.

Like bathing in the Ganges River. We realize the act has religious and cultural overtones, and we wouldn’t want to offend any religion or culture. But haven’t the locals any sense of self-preservation? The river carries the flotsam from millions of people upriver. You can see it float by. Yet the people who bathe in (and even ceremoniously drink from) the river don’t seem to care. Maybe they’re just used to it.

We weren’t, and the sight sent us backpedaling as fast as a conservative Supreme Court from Roe v. Wade. But this is a story about food, not hygiene—although the two sometimes collide with enough force to make a devout atheist tremble with the Fear of God (or Shiva, as the case may be).

We turned away from the ghat—steps leading into the holy river—and went in search of inexpensive accommodations. As it turned out, they were as easy to find as a street beggar. We unpacked in our small room but didn’t linger; we had a budget and a schedule to keep.

The ancient city of Varanasi boasts almost as many temples as Seattle has coffee shops, and despite the heavy influence of tourism, every one still oozed with authentic charm. Have you ever noticed how some religious places can withstand the degrading effects of prying tourists to maintain a kind of solemn dignity? It’s not just having the money for maintenance. Consider the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, which probably has more money than Paris Hilton and about as much dignity. Where else can you find a Hall of Fame for “Christian Capitalists?”

After a full day of sightseeing, we returned to the hotel, looking for an early dinner and a late wake-up call. From the doorway, the hotel’s restaurant seemed safe enough. Relatively clean. Crowded with locals and tourists alike.

We were seated at a table by the wall, where we began to relax. We ordered beers to wash down the day’s dust. Famished from our afternoon excursion, we needed an appetizer, and the enthusiastic waiter recommended something we could barely pronounce. He impressed us as a sincere fellow, so we took his advice.

When the dish arrived, it resembled a cross between pig knuckles and raccoon ribs. Dipping the finger food in the accompanying spicy sauce, we could hardly taste the meat, just the spices. It was delicious, and we dug in.

Suddenly, an argument erupted in the kitchen. Something large and heavy, not unlike one of the sacred cows, thudded against the other side of our wall. A glass of water spilled. While we dealt with the mess, unused to the constant cacophony that is India, a sudden murderous screech split the air. Two men—one with a bloody towel wrapped around a hand, the other wielding a very large knife—burst out through the kitchen door, zigzagged around the tables, and dashed out into the street, screaming the whole time.

After a moment’s pause, the other restaurant patrons returned to their conversations, as if the scene were just street theater repeated every half hour. We wanted to emulate them, to fit into this foreign culture even if just for a moment, but we couldn’t ignore how closely our food resembled the digits of a man’s hand.

There comes a point at which not knowing what you’re eating makes a foreign delicacy easier to digest. We had crossed the threshold. Now we knew (or imagined) more than we wanted to. Our appetites dashed out of the room after the two men and didn’t return for two full days.

Lessons Learned: Food definitely reflects an area’s culture. If you find yourself in a place where people bathe in polluted waters, you know you might be in trouble when it comes to food. Our advice? When you travel to Mother India, order the soup. Even if it has an unpronounceable name, there’s very little chance that you will ever discover—or recognize—what’s really in it.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 4
Communication Breakdown: 5
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 5
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 5
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Varanasi (Babatpur) Airport
Native Population: 1,400,000
Normal Attractions: Besides the temples and ghats, Varanasi is a Mecca for Indian wares like fabrics, jewelry, carpets, and woodcraft.
Final Point of Interest: Varanasi is a major stop for foreign tourists, with posh hotels and fancy restaurants. Most of the food there is actually quite good, but as this story illustrates, there are always exceptions.

23 June 2008

Quote of the Month

Here’s a quote to go with the next story we’ll post—a food story from an exotic locale. However, before we go there, this quote deals with food much closer to home:

“We thought about going vegetarian once, but since we wanted to ease into the diet, we started eating a lot of fast-food hamburgers. They contain a lot less meat than you think.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2007)

17 June 2008

Local Color

Occasionally, we like to write about the more “unusual” people we meet on our travels. Sometimes, we’ll share how a specific individual screwed with us. Other times, we’ll write about an experience with a whole generalization of people (either to reinforce it or smash it to tiny bits). Are stereotypes wrong? Read on to find our answer. —MB & JS
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An acquaintance from our college days—he must have been a math major—used to say that there were three types of people in the world: those who could count, and those who couldn’t. He was a real jerk now that we think about it, but he had a point. Rarely if ever can you separate people into categories that offer any meaningful insight. Even the male-female division has a gray area now.

Numerology insists on nine distinctive personality types; astrology has twelve signs; Myers-Briggs offers sixteen archetypes . . . as if any system can effectively put people into boxes they couldn’t scratch their way out of. Categorization may be tempting on paper, but—like classical economics—it’s coldly predictable, unlike real people.

Then there’s Hawaii.

Categorizing the people of Hawaii isn’t merely justified; it’s essential. In Hawaii, there really are only two types of people: Islanders and Mainlanders. Unless you have a tribal lineage, you will always be a Mainlander, no matter how long you visit (even if you never leave).

You can learn the Hawaiian language beyond “aloha” (hello or goodbye) and “mahalo” (thank you), and you won’t be any closer to Islander-hood. You can climb to Mauna Kea’s peak 13,796 feet above sea level, hike the Haleakala Crater from sunrise to sunset, or sail from the island of Hawaii to the island of Niihau (about 1,500 miles) and still not be considered a native.

Mark, near exhaustion, in the middle of Haleakala. Nowhere to go but back up, and after all that, he’ll still never be a native.

You might as well accept it. Life is too short and there’s so much to do on the islands. Hawaiian activities cover the land, sea, and air. You can hike, drive, and bicycle. You can swim, fish, and snorkel. You can hang glide, parasail, and even helicopter. There’s always sightseeing, shopping, and fine dining, but if you’ve come to Hawaii just for a seafood dinner, you deserve to get scrod.

Each island has its own attractions. On Oahu, you can partake of Honolulu’s big city amenities, surf the world-class waves off the North Shore, or check out the world’s largest maze at the Dole Plantation. On Maui, you can kick back with an umbrella drink in the port town of Lahaina or spend a day on the Road to Hana, driving through a rainforest that hides waterfalls at almost every turn. And that’s only two of the eight islands.

It’s not so bad being a visitor. Islanders can be charming, open, friendly, and giving. They’ll help you find your hotel. They’ll recommend a good restaurant. They may tell you a story from the distant past or even offer to act as your tour guide.

We attended a luau, expecting a tourist trap the size of Williamsburg. Instead, we found that Hawaiians genuinely love to show off. Their smiles entranced us and the fire tricks dazzled us. One lovely native in a coconut-shell halter assured us that both the coconut and its contents were real. Unfortunately, we can only attest to the shells.

We’ll never think of coconut milk in the same way ever again.

We tasted Hawaiian poi, a purplish mush made from the taro plant, but found we didn’t have the stomach for it. We drank Hawaiian rum, a dark liquor designed to make you smile, and found we barely had the liver for it. All in all, it was one of the best nights we can scarcely remember.

That’s the thing about Hawaii. The Islanders know that drunken, happy guests will spend more cash than cynical, sober ones. Everyone smiles. Everyone parties. Everyone leaves contented … as long as you leave. Don’t believe for an instant that if you moved to their little island paradise, you’d feel as welcome. There are miles and miles of beautiful beaches, and many invisible lines in the sand. You’d be well advised not to cross any of them.

Lessons Learned: More and more people visit Hawaii—for vacations, conferences, or romantic getaways with four or five of their loved ones. If you go, bring lots of cash and be ready to spend it. Don’t skimp; you’re in Hawaii! Enjoy all that the islands and the Islanders have to offer. Just don’t think for a minute you’ll ever be one of them.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 5/5 (believe it or not!)
Vibe-Rating: 5

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Honolulu International Airport (among others)
Native Population: 1,285,000 (counting trespassing Mainlanders)
Normal Attractions: Each island has its own attractions. Boat and helicopter tours, hiking, water sports, fine dining, luaus, and much more.
Final Point of Interest: The Aloha Festivals, an annual celebration held for six weeks every September and October, is the only state-wide festival in the US.

08 June 2008

From Soup to Gnats

Many people—including us, unfortunately—stay in a timeshare while on vacation. Having a timeshare is like owning a second home (or in most cases, a condo) with fifty of your closest friends. If you can’t quickly name fifty people with whom you’d like to share a home, you just got the joke. Read on for the punch line. —MB & JS
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You can find them all over the world—anywhere there’s an island, a mountain, a golf course, a lake, or just a historical plaque. Timeshares pop up wherever lots of people like to vacation. However, if you’re the type to go backpacking through Ireland, trekking in Nepal, or kayaking down the Royal Gorge, you probably won’t find a timeshare where you need one. But if you love the resort life—if you love riding the waves or skiing the slopes—timeshares might be perfect for you.

Timeshare units offer amenities hotels don’t: a kitchenette, a pull-out sofa, even laundry facilities. Once you own a timeshare and an exchange membership (which are not inexpensive), you can get a room for a week for free. For the right person, a timeshare can be a good vacation investment. That’s the rub. If the phrase “vacation investment” appeals to you, we have a timeshare to sell you.

Most timeshares are pristine. If cleanliness is next to godliness, timeshares are the holy Mecca of recycled lodging. But like all blanket assertions, there are exceptions. For us, despite some memorable vacations in exotic (read: warmer than home) locales, we had one horrific experience. Here’s the story.

Everything looked promising when we arrived. The timeshare we had reserved online, built sometime in the 1970s, seemed well groomed from the outside. Several golf courses and other amenities were close by.

Our lovely view: a parking lot and a fairway. We spent time on both.

The first problem arose when the women left us to fend for ourselves. They had serious sunbathing to attend to. We enjoyed our freedom until noon, when a potential life-threatening issue confronted us. Could two cave-dwelling Neanderthals like us manage lunch without a grill?

Our timeshare had a working kitchenette. A quick trip to the grocery store could have provided anything we needed, but like many American men, we usually grilled our meals. Without a grill, our cooking skills devolved into reheating, boiling, and toasting.

We eventually decided on soup, an easy meal that required only heating. But who wants to eat soup on a hot summer day? So we did what any intelligent person would do: we cranked up the air conditioning and pulled on long sleeves. Hey, we had to eat. After lunch, we played a round of golf to warm back up.

This became our daily routine. During the following days, we spent time with our favorite authors, consumed hours watching every available bonus feature on the ultra-expanded, 12-disc Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and successfully decompressed from our hard-scrapple lives as self-unemployed writers.

The next problem appeared gradually, like syrup leaking onto a refrigerator shelf. You don’t notice it for days, but when you suddenly realize what’s happened, it’s a real mess. We were halfway through watching how makeup artists create orcs from rubber and paint when we discovered hundreds of tiny insect bites on our legs. At first, we thought the little varmints were bedbugs, but the women were completely untouched (and totally unsympathetic, but that’s another story). We eventually tracked the problem to the couch, where we spent most of our mornings.

The couch, it turned out, was a breeding ground for gnats, a self-serve restaurant for “no-see-ums.” They crept onto our skin and had their way with our flesh. Apparently, the air-conditioned cold from our lunchtime meals forced them to seek warmth more vigorously than usual. By mid-week, our swollen, itchy legs looked like they belonged to sunburned orcs after a bad day with an angry wizard. At this rate, we’d need medical attention by the time we returned home.

The timeshare management offered to asphyxiate us with pesticides, but we refused; we’d rather be bitten than poisoned. So we did the only thing that made any sense: we invited friends for the weekend.

Lessons Learned:
Timeshares aren’t meant to be kept to yourself. That’s why the sofa expands into a bed . . . to share the love.

How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 5
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Douglas International Airport (Charlotte, NC)
Native Population: 1,050
Normal Attractions: Golfing, Chimney Rock Park, and Lake Lure, with its recreational lake activities like sunbathing and waterskiing.
Final Point of Interest: Chimney Rock, despite its appeal, is shaped like a penis. See for yourself: