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.

27 March 2009

“You’re American?”

We’ve written a few stories about our hitchhiking escapades—some involve danger, some entail risk—but all of them end happily (i.e., we’re still here to write about them). Hitchhiking is no longer a common travel option, especially in the States. But in Europe, drivers still pass hitchhikers at high speeds. Our advice: don’t pass up an opportunity for adventure, whether you’re the one driving or the one hitching. You might miss stories like this one. —MB & JS

Hitchhiking is not without its perils, but it’s the positive things—like finally getting to your destination—that you remember. Nevertheless, there are always exceptions.

Once upon a time (although this is a true story), we hitched from Munich, Germany, to Zurich, Switzerland. When hitching, the fastest route isn’t always the best, so even though Zurich lies southwest of Munich, we decided to stay on a main Autobahn artery that skirted the Black Forest to the northwest before diving south to our destination. That was our plan.

After a late start, we got as far as Stuttgart, a little short of the halfway mark, and spent the night at a youth hostel: a warm bed in a noisy room. The next morning, we strode to an Autobahn entrance ramp, armed with our thumbs and cardboard signs pointing to our destination, and waited. And then we waited some more. The morning traffic came and went. We must have watched half the city’s population on their way to work.

Of course, we didn’t exactly look our best. After a night at the hostel, we were still a little bleary-eyed and (as always) hung over. We had backpacks and signs pointing to our destination, sure, but our hair was much longer then and we wore flea market army jackets over our jeans and sweatshirts.

Here’s Mark during his student days in Germany. This was a good day; out on the road, he looked a lot worse.

Meanwhile, the temperature plummeted and rain began to fall. The weather not only dampened our clothes, but our spirits as well. A dripping hitchhiker has as good a chance of getting picked up as a bowling ball at a Vaseline factory.

We stood there for hours before a car finally pulled over. Our German language skills were pretty sharp in those days, so we kept up our end of a scattered conversation as the kilos clicked by. Then we happened to mention we were exchange students from the US. The driver, a man in his thirties, replied, “You’re American?”

The conversation immediately switched to English. Our driver insisted we spend the night at his house. We were nowhere near Zurich, but we were the passengers and Horst, as he introduced himself, was our pilot. If not for him, we might’ve become icy stalagmites back in Stuttgart. As it was, we were hungry, tired, and still damp. In that context, acceptance seemed like a good idea.

A number of hours later, Horst’s Audi peeled off the Autobahn and sped through the deserted streets of a nondescript town. A kilometer past the last building, a driveway appeared. It wound up a small embankment to a house at the edge of the woods. A single light shone above a wooden door. As we climbed out of the car, Horst turned and asked, “Do you like dogs?”

A muffled bark drew louder and closer as we approached the house. Horst turned the key in the lock, and something heavy rammed the back of the door, reverberating with the force of a linebacker.

“Nein!” Horst shouted. “Zurück!” When he pulled open the door, a 100-pound German Shepherd leapt at us, straight for the throat. We froze.

The dog landed with enough momentum to knock us back a few steps. But it turned out he was friendly, energetically so. A big paw on either shoulder, the dog proceeded to lick our faces in turn.

Horst pulled the dog off and introduced us to his wife Sabine, who had appeared in the doorway. Two bottles of Riesling later, we felt like part of the family. Such trust, we thought, to invite strangers into their home. We repaid their generosity by telling their two children amazing tales of American life. Peanut butter. Wonder bread. Saturday morning cartoons.

Their hospitality stretched into the next day. They took us into the Black Forest to walk around some of the ruins and experience the trickling waterfalls. We spent the morning learning local German history and customs. Somewhere along the way, we also learned that Sabine had hitchhiked around the US when she was twenty. Their kindness to us was their way of paying it forward. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

After lunch, they drove us out of their way to an Autobahn rest stop where Horst asked around until he found us a suitable ride. Not every story ends in disaster. This one owes a big thanks to Horst and Sabine and their generosity.

Lessons Learned: Times have changed, and hitchhiking isn’t what it used to be. Spending the night with strangers might not sound like a good idea, but on the road, a good idea is anything that gets you out of the cold. There are generous people out there, and if you’re open to the possibility, you might find a great adventure waiting for you. Even one to write down.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: If we had money for airfare, we would have flown
Native Population: 3 of us in the car, including Horst
Normal Attractions: Besides being a relatively inexpensive way to travel (you still have to pay for food and shelter (most of the time), hitchhiking is great way to see the countryside and meet people.
Final Point of Interest: We made it to Zurich a day late but with a story we’ve always treasured. We’ve since hitchhiked in Austria, Belgium, England, France, Germany, and even Turkey.

19 March 2009

Quote of the Month

It’s Quote of the Month time, and for this month’s entry, we again dip into the vast well of what other people have said about traveling—words and phrases that have tickled our fancy or our funny bone. We hope you like this month’s quote. It’s by someone we don’t know, never heard of before, but want desperately to meet.

“I travel a lot; I hate having my life disrupted by routine.”

–Caskie Stinnett

15 March 2009

Jalapeño on the Lam

For those of you who like to travel light and are young enough to do so with few worries, hitchhiking can be a viable and even fun way to go. At least it used to be, back in the days when we each had a head full of idealism and hair. The following true tale isn’t exactly a life-threatening story of kidnap, abuse, or torture, but it can help keep you breathing. —MB & JS

Way way back in the 1980s, when hitchhiking was relatively safe for single young men with a destination in mind, we hitchhiked across the country, all the way from New England to the Great Northwest. Like most trips of this type, we didn’t take the most direct route. Along the way, we stopped for an extended visit in San Francisco, California, where we stayed with relatives of friends, an older couple who had never met us before and had only a vague sense that we were coming their way. Bless their hearts, they still put us up.

While there, we decided to look for work, thinking we might stay longer and get to know the city we’d heard so much about. It was not to be, unfortunately, although we’ve returned many times since. San Francisco is one of our favorite stops when we have both time and money to spend.

On this visit, however, we were decidedly down on our luck—depressed about the lack of employment and living off the kindness of friends and strangers alike. While wandering the streets of San Francisco, we happened upon a soup kitchen off Market Street, the kind that provides meals to the homeless and destitute. Given our state of affairs, we fit right in.

Waiting in line, we struck up a conversation with those around us. One was a Mexican day laborer who took us—inexperienced to soup kitchens as we were—under his wing. He showed us what to ask for and what to avoid. He pointed out the troublemakers in the room and introduced us to some of his friends.

It was truly a touching experience and showed us a glimpse of the universal human spirit. When you are open and friendly yourself, you tend to attract those qualities in others.

When we finally sat down to eat, our trays brimming with salty foods donated from who-knew-where, our new friend produced a handful of jalapeño peppers from his jacket pocket. They were dark green, ripe, and ready for eating. With a genuine smile, he offered them around to his friends, including us.

We didn’t want to appear impolite, and the meal certainly looked bland enough. We weren’t culinary cowards, having eaten and survived almost everything from Thai green curry to Chinese red peppers to Italian garlic pesto. A simple jalapeño couldn’t be any worse, and it might be just the thing to spice up the mashed potatoes and mystery meat decorating our plates.

The first bite triggered no alarms. Encouraged, a bigger bite followed.

That’s when the fire started. The tip of the pepper, we learned later, contains few seeds, and it’s the seeds that burn. Our eyes watered. Our noses ran. Our ears turned a rosy hue. No amount of water could quench the thirst or douse the fire. Our new friend, after he finished laughing, finally suggested cold milk, which did help, a little.

Down on his luck, Mark steals a drink to put out the fire. Unfortunately, the water did not help.

We can’t remember the rest of the meal . . . or the rest of the day, for that matter. The memory of the jalapeño, however, has remained seared in our memories for decades.

Lessons Learned: If a Mexican offers you a jalapeño pepper, and you have reason to believe it’s authentic, be very cautious. Don’t be afraid to say no. Even if you accept the gift, respect the pepper and take small bites. Also, have a large quantity of milk nearby: at least a gallon. Your taste buds, stomach, and intestines will thank you, and you’ll still be able to breathe after the meal.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: San Francisco International Airport
Native Population: 800,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: The cable cars, architecture, and neighborhoods; Chinatown, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and AT&T Park (home of the Giants); there are many reasons for visiting (if you have the money).
Final Point of Interest: San Francisco is a city built on fifty hills, which make it a singularly beautiful place. When you’re down on your luck, however, you have to hike up and down those hills to get anywhere. Beauty becomes relative to the thickness of your soles.

09 March 2009

Fuzzy Tongue

We can find the bad in any situation and on any trip. It’s what we do best. It’s what makes for an interesting story. If you want bright, sunny tales of how great it is to vacation at the best hotels or the best spas, read a travel magazine; they contain such reports, ad nauseum. But if you want to know what a destination is really like, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s another folk tale, by which we mean it’s a story about the people we’ve met, not a fabricated legend. Enjoy, and let us know what you think. —MB & JS

When traveling to a distant land, a local connection can help you ten times more than a travel agent back home. Think of the benefits: a place to stay, a few free meals, and best of all, an eager guide to show you all the best (and often, the most unusual) places. Sometimes, this can lead to an adventure even your local friend didn’t expect.

Once, we spent a few days in a farmhouse in rural Surrey, England—the kind of place that had a name for an address, not a number. The owners were friends of friends, and staying at the complex of thatch-roofed houses felt like stepping into a Thomas Kinkade painting, except without the angelic phoniness. Theirs was a working farm, after all, so you had to watch where you stepped. (Try finding that in a Kinkade.)

One evening, we decided to check out the local pub. Pubs have been in England since England was old enough to drink. The local establishment, we discovered, waited a couple kilometers away. As dusk was approaching and our host had duties to perform, he handed us a torch (a flashlight) and pointed us in the general direction with a subtle hint: “You can’t miss it.”

We followed a narrow country lane, flanked on both sides by the ditches famously used to “sleep one off.” The landscape rolled and pitched like a drunken cow, and darkness descended rapidly. Using the torch, we proceeded with all speed toward our destination, our thirst mounting with every step.

Then a strange noise caused us all to stop. We were from the city; we knew as much about the animals that prowled the English backwoods as we did about shearing sheep. The noise could have gurgled out of the throat of an enthusiastic eating machine a la Monty Python.

The sound grew louder, and we realized it came from behind us. When we turned, we saw a wavering light bouncing toward the crest of the previous hill. We laughed at ourselves, afraid of an automobile. But when the large truck approached, it headed straight for us! We had to jump down into the ditch to avoid being run over. The driver even had the nerve to blast his horn as he sped by.

Then we realized our mistake. We’d been walking along the left side of the road, expecting oncoming traffic to approach from that side, but they drive on the left in England, mainly because Napoleon never conquered them (you can look it up). After brushing ourselves off, we crossed the road and continued our journey.

We made it safely to the pub, a small cabin at a crossroads. Even from outside, we could hear the chatter and unmistakable laughter of the British; the decisive thud of a dart landing in cork; and the clink of heavy pint glasses. The moment we stepped inside, however, all conversation stopped. Pints froze in mid-heft. Even the dart game paused. After an uncomfortable moment, we sidled up to the bar and ordered a round of the local finest. Conversations resumed, as if we’d passed a test: “It’s OK; they’re drinking.”

By the end of the evening, we’d met a few of the local characters. Some actually rounded on us like we were prized collectables or low-priced hookers. We learned that the local brew was nicknamed “Fuzzy Tongue” for its effect on the drinker after a couple pints. We immediately put the claim to the test.

While we drank, we swapped tales. We told the story of how our native state back home (the uptight Commonwealth of Massachusetts) had made Happy Hour illegal in an unsubtle attempt to reduce the number of drunk drivers. Our new British friends were appalled. “That’s Communism!” they cried. Their stories were full of local humor—like the one about the blighter who opened a competing pub. “The fool refrigerated his ale,” one of the regulars laughed into his room-temperature mug. “No one in his right mind would drink there.”

As we left, our new friends toasted the President, the Vice-President, and Homer Simpson. “All great actors,” they shouted. We didn’t take the bait. We left peacefully, smiling like idiots. We had no choice, not because they outnumbered us (although they did), but because we discovered we could barely speak. Fuzzy Tongue, indeed.

Lessons Learned: When you venture into a foreign culture, heed the native warnings. They’re not trying to scare you; they’re trying to prepare you. And if you imbibe, designate someone to be the Designated Walker, to steer you in the right direction and do all the thinking. We had trekked halfway home (uphill all the way) before any of us remembered that our hosts invited us to call for a ride.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: London Heathrow Airport
Native Population: 18,000
Normal Attractions: Small villages in the English countryside have their own charms, but unless you know someone there, you’re likely just passing through.
Final Point of Interest: We helped our hosts corral a truckload of sheep one morning, but when we returned to the States, we had to explain that bit of “stuff” on the bottom of our shoes to a Customs Agent. He almost didn’t let us back in.