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.

28 February 2009

Just 'Shoot Me

There’s no such thing as a perfect vacation in our book. We should know; we’ve tried to find it. Instead, we have tales like the following. It started out fine, as they always do, but in the end, we wish we’d just stayed home. Learn from our mistakes. —MB & JS

It was a friendly town, full of sturdy Norwegians, micro-brew aficionados, and liberal latté drinkers. A small city; you might even call it provincial.

Where was it? Not in France. Nor in Norway, but nice try. Believe it or not, it’s in the United States. You know it as Seattle, a port town somewhere north of San Francisco, in a part of the country called The Pacific Northwest. Yes, people live way up there, people who aren’t Canadian, people who apparently like it when it rains. Often.

Here is Mark enjoying Seattle from aboard a ferry. Is that the Space Needle or a growth in his head?

Despite the wet weather, Seattle actually has a lot to offer. Catch a ballgame at Safeco Field, with its retro look and seldom-opened retractable roof. Stroll through Pioneer Square in search of the original Skid Row (actually, it’s Skid Road, used by the timber industry long ago). Peruse the shops at Pike Place Market, ride the ferry across Puget Sound, or visit the Seattle Aquarium.

Every summer, during the short period of relatively dry weather known to locals as “August,” the city explodes in a series of street fairs. The wildly successful Fremont Fair in particular has nearly outgrown its neighborhood. These fairs culminate in a citywide festival called Bumbershoot, held over Labor Day weekend at Seattle Center, the site of the 1962 World’s Fair. The 74-acre fairgrounds play host to music, dance, food, crafts, art, and crowds. The event draws more visitors than the Playboy Mansion would for the final table showdown of the World Series of Strip Poker.

We first experienced Bumbershoot back when the Seattle skyline consisted of just the Space Needle and “the box it came in” (the Smith Tower). Now, the festival is so well-known, it attracts big-name bands like REM and Elvis Costello. Even Spinal Tap played there. Local and international performers share twenty stages over the four-day weekend, come rain or shine.

When the weather cooperates (which it does more often than not, surprisingly), the festival can be a terrific weekend getaway, full of flavors, sights, and distractions that are guaranteed to delight and engage you. If you’ve never been to Seattle, this might be the time to go.

Assuming you can stand the crowds, that is.

Bumbershoot is Times Square just before the ball drops, twice over. It’s Gay Pride Day in San Francisco times ten. It’s a day game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field times fifty. Bumbershoot is standing-room-only crowded. It’s get-your-tickets-months-in-advance crowded. It’s Rome-after-the-Goths-arrived crowded. It’s the ultimate nightmare for agoraphobics.

The Bumbershoot grounds are literally littered with people. You have step over them just to pee in the bushes.

We tried to keep an open mind, but every direction we turned, we found a stage or a food vendor or an art booth or a busker or a mime or a lost, screaming child. While we generally don’t mind rubbing elbows with our peers, at Bumbershoot, we were forced to rub elbows, knees, and more embarrassing body parts with anyone and everyone—from pierced, tattooed teenagers with spiked orange hair to staggering six-foot-four good ol’ boys sloshing beer to children with runny noses looking for a shirt to wipe them on.

We found ourselves drifting with the tide of humanity simply because it was impossible to fight the current. Then we needed a map (and a canoe) to get to where we thought we wanted to go in the first place. Eventually, we threw the map away and traded the canoe for a brewski in a beer tent, content to let the circus come to us. It did, with all the colors and flavors we could imagine. And then some.

By the time we decided to go, we realized we had overstayed our welcome. We’d just finished listening to the faint chords of a distant band that we really wanted to see, and the carnival food that tasted so good going down now churned in our stomachs. The sun had scorched all exposed skin, and our sense of personal boundaries were forever damaged.

We came away from the festival with a new sense of wonder at the human race, not to mention tangible evidence of the overpopulation problem. We left with bruises and stains from the joyful, seething pack of humanity and its heaping portions of desert foods. We exited with the knowledge that Seattle has many charms, although we questioned whether we chose the right one to explore.

Lessons Learned: Crowds normally don’t bother us, but Bumbershoot crowds scare us silly. If you won’t take our advice and stay away, at least book early and wear your best Seattle Grunge when you go. By the way, to catch one of the well-advertised main acts, you’ll either have to claim your seats hours early or run with the drunken stampede at show time. If you drink as much as everyone else, of course, it won’t matter.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 5
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac)
Native Population: 585,000
Normal Attractions: Seattle Art Museum, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle Aquarium, outdoor festivals, poetry slams, music, and coffee.
Final Point of Interest: Another Seattle festival, Hempfest, regularly draws over 100,000 people.

27 February 2009

Quote of the Month

Today we bring you a quote from an outside source, something we haven’t done much on this blog. This one is really good, though, and it fits our style. In other words, we wish we’d said it. We post this quote without having first asked permission, so please go find all this author’s work and buy as much as you can. Maybe then he won’t sue us.

“The Great Wall, I’ve been told, is the only man-made structure on earth that is visible from the moon. For the life of me I cannot see why anyone would go to the moon to look at it, when, with almost the same difficulty, it can be viewed in China.”

–J.K. Galbraith, from The Sunday Times Magazine

14 February 2009

Celebrate Bad Engineering!

Let’s take another trip to an otherwise popular destination, just to see how disappointing it really is. Shining the harsh (but accurate) light of reality on a place is, after all, what we do best, and it’s what you ultimately want to read about. Enjoy this sad, entertaining, true-life tale. As usual, we didn’t. —MB & JS

Among the classical ruins of the world, very few were poorly made. Time—that vicious enemy of ancient architecture—simply took its toll. The Coliseum? The Great Pyramids? The Welfare System? All were marvels in their day. Wonders of the world. Remarkable feats of humanity overcoming impossible obstacles. These icons still exist, in one form or another, and people still flock to them.

But there is one tourist destination that celebrates bad engineering, one structure that—beautiful though it may be—wouldn’t have lasted a century if it hadn’t been for some last-minute heroics. We’re speaking, of course, of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

People still visit Pisa for its tower, even though they are no longer allowed inside. People travel great distances from their comfortable homes to gaze upon a building that by all rights should have collapsed years ago. What makes it so famous?

While Italians have been justifiably maligned over the years—for their politics, their beer, and their train system—they have also contributed great things to the world. Spaghetti, expensive shoes, and Sophia Loren come immediately to mind. So why admire a building they should have reinforced with foresight? No one visits France to study the brilliance of the Maginot Line. No one visits New Orleans to ogle the levee system.

We went to see the leaning tower as young boys. After a whirlwind tour of Florence that included more statues, churches, and museums than exist in all of Alabama, our family jumped into a rented sedan and drove the fifty miles to Pisa. Along the way, our parents regaled us with descriptions so impressive, the tower took on mythic qualities usually reserved for biblical stories, like Moses living to be 700 or children being stoned to death for disobeying their parents.

By the time we arrived, we were on the lookout for a crooked Tower of Babel stretching into the clouds. Instead, we found a roadside attraction on par with the giant ball of string.

Sure, the Tower of Pisa is a pretty tower, as bell towers go. Sure, it’s an oddity. Sure, it leans a dramatic ten percent, although it’s no longer falling. But the Tower of Babel it ain’t. For starters, it’s only seven arcades (levels) high, not counting the base and the belfry. Its 293 steps fall far short of the thousands needed to reach even the Mount Vesuvius’ peak. It simply cannot compete with the fabled Tower of Babel. We were crushed.

Built over two centuries starting in 1173, the Tower of Pisa began its decline sometime before 1260. We can’t be exact, of course, since complete documentation doesn’t exist; however, we can assume that the tower was meant to be usefully vertical. This knowledge fills us with relief, but it also points to certain, um, design flaws someone made somewhere along the way.

Who made the initial mistake? No one knows for sure, since the architect carefully destroyed all references to his name and skipped town in the dead of night. Well, that’s mere speculation on our part, but as theories go, it’s as valid as any. If your masterpiece started listing to one side, wouldn’t you get out of Dodge before Dodge ran over you? This much we can surmise: just because no one knows the name of the original architect, chances are he’s no longer a card-carrying guild member.

Here’s what we’d do to the Leaning Tower of Pisa if we had our druthers.
[Note: Although this looks like Jason, it’s not. We don’t know who the hell it is, but we like the photo.]

Lessons Learned: Skip Pisa and spend more time in Florence. There’s a city with everything you could want: shops, food, and art. And crowds. It is so crowded, in fact, it makes the Los Angeles freeway system at rush hour look like a garden party. On second thought, avoid both Pisa and Florence. Go north to Genoa or south to Rome. Italy has so many sights to offer, it would be a shame to waste even one afternoon.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Pisa International Galileo Galilei Airport
Native Population: 85,000
Normal Attractions: Architecture (besides the tower), history, churches, scenic beauty.
Final Point of Interest: The great astronomer Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, but he didn’t stay either.