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.

25 April 2009

Welcome to Delhi

In March of this year, someone calling him- or herself “Anonymous” left us the following pearl of wisdom as a comment for our story Indian Finger Food (June 2008), and we quote: “Yep India is not a place for an ignorant redneck racist like u.” We didn’t exactly know how to respond to that (although we did and you can look it up), so we decided we had to post another story based in Mother India. This one might show our age, but we’re not proud. Obviously. —MB & JS

India in 1987 was a much different country than it is today—different, but not necessarily cleaner. Its economy was closed, and the tourist industry, such as it was, catered mostly to hippies looking for cheap weed and spiritual emancipation, preferably from the same dealer. We were exceptions: two backpacking travelers looking to conquer a new country. Of course, if cheap weed and spiritual emancipation happened to find us, who were we to fight karma?

We arrived in Delhi early in the morning, jet-lagged but confident. After a successful sweep through Europe, we felt prepared to engage the chaos of India, the world’s largest democracy. Seasoned amateurs, we eschewed travel agents and tour guides, preferring to find our own way along the crooked path.

Because of India’s currency controls, we couldn’t obtain rupees in advance. We needed to exchange money in an official transaction where the receipt proved compliance with the law. But we’d arrived on a Sunday, and all the banks were closed. That left us with two choices, both of which might have soiled the shorts of less experienced travelers. We could either live like locals—begging for our supper and sleeping on the street—or we could take our chances with the notorious black market.

We opted for the latter choice, but it wasn’t a decision we took lightly. We were good citizens back home. We paid our taxes, fed the meters, and stopped for pedestrians most of the time. We were hardly criminals.

Luckily, the first taxi driver we met volunteered to help. As he tore up the carpets of his cab looking for the right denominations, he revealed a hefty stash—a first-hand lesson in free-market economics. Twenty minutes into our Indian adventure and 10,000 miles from home, we’d already broken the law.

The transaction complete, the driver offered his services as a tour guide, but how could we trust him? A taxi driver who doubles as an illegal money-laundering operation might be capable of anything. Besides, the idea of a tour guide made as much sense to us as a silk bathrobe on a Himalayan expedition. Feeling somewhat vulnerable, we asked the driver just to take us to a modest hotel we’d read about.

Five minutes after the driver zigzagged into the swirling traffic, we began to relax. Five minutes after that, the police pulled us over.

As we shrunk into the fuzzy back seat, our driver engaged the policeman in a heated conversation. We had no idea what they were saying. Palms sweating, we thought of running. Grab the backpacks and hightail it out of there. It seemed foolish, but so did spending our first night in Delhi in jail.

A lull in the argument made us clutch our bags and our sphincters, but apparently, they’d reached an accord. The taxi driver doled out what we later learned was a standard baksheesh (a bribe), and we were underway again. The funny thing was that he apologized to us for the delay.

Fifteen minutes later, we pulled into a hotel, but it wasn’t the one we’d requested. “This hotel is much better!” the driver insisted. “Take a look. If you are not happy, I will remove you for free.” After all he’d been through, we felt we owed him this much and ultimately acquiesced. We paid him after he promised to wait for us.

The lobby was littered with hippies who’d found at least half of what they’d come for. If any of them did in fact find spiritual emancipation, we couldn’t tell through the thick, purple haze that overwhelmed the place. We decided immediately to stick to our original plan, but when we returned the street, our bags sat on the curb and the cab was tooling away.

As our taxi’s dust settled on this road less traveled, we realized that the wheel of karma, greased with rupees, had just rolled over us. We were strangers in a strange land, where one handout washes the other. Black markets and bribes had delivered us from the airport to a waiting bowl of hashish. We picked up our packs and headed back to the lobby. It seemed as good a time as any to start practicing acceptance.

Lessons Learned: Mother India has a history that predates most of Europe. Its exotic ways—sacred cows and painted elephants, for example—will keep your camera clicking. But it’s not a trip for everyone. Even though the country now welcomes tourists with open arms, make sure you still have your wallet after the big hug. India finally has a free market, and it’s a free-for-all.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 5
Communication Breakdown: 5
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 5
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 5
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Indira Gandhi International Airport
Native Population: 13,000,000
Normal Attractions: Old City architecture like the Red Fort and Jama Masjid, history, markets, fine exotic dining, and lots of crowds.
Final Point of Interest: Delhi is said to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.

17 April 2009

Quote of the Month

OK, first an admission. The following quote does not come from an actual experience. It’s based on an actual experience, however, and that ought to count for something. We here at Don’t Even Go There headquarters think the quote is funny, accurate, and real. And it’s all ours.

As our devoted readers know by now, we currently reside in the city of Asheville, North Carolina, which is just a mountaintop removal away from the subject of this month’s quote:

“While driving through West Virginia (the only way to see the state, by the way), you can see billboards that read: ‘If you don’t use coal to heat your house, our miners have died in vain.’ ”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2007)

11 April 2009

The Opposite of Skiing

We once again bring you one of those rare places we actually enjoyed visiting. Of course, it was a long while ago, and things often change for the worse. This is another of those “out of the way” places that can be hard to find, but stay with us: this story is worth it. Hope you like it (both the story and the location). —MB & JS

Skiers, like golfers, tend to be passionate about their sport. Both will pay exhorbitant sums of money on equipment. Both will go to great lengths to find new places to test their skills. Both will talk for hours on end about their sport’s intricacies. If you let them.

You can find ski resorts all over the world, regardless of your level of incompetence. But what if—like us—you don’t ski? What if—like our wives and girlfriends—you don’t like to vacation where it’s cold? What if—like many of you, our faithful readers—you simply want to do something different?

Leave it to us to find an offbeat alternative: visit a ski resort during the off-season.

Imagine the difference. You can leave your parkas behind. You can ride the ski lifts to the top of a mountain for a hike or a photography trip. You can stay in lodges that are nearly empty. Plus, you might pay about half the rate you would in January.

Stowe, Vermont, is our favorite off-season skiing destination. A sleepy little town that caters to skiers in the winter, Stowe empties during the summer, and that’s the best reason to visit it then. Once the skiers have fled, the town’s inns and bed-and-breakfasts often offer money-saving deals to attract travelers, tourists, or anyone with a pulse and a wallet.

Sensing a good bargain, we decided to check it out. We were not disappointed. For once. Stowe doesn’t roll up its sidewalks and go into hibernation just because there’s no snow on the ground. There are other attractions.

The town is home to a famous ice creamery—Ben & Jerry’s, if you really have to know, not that we would stoop to crass advertising, especially for a large company that produces such creamy delights as Ben & Jerry’s. [Editor’s note: We did not receive any Ben & Jerry’s compensation for plugging Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but we will accept Ben & Jerry’s coupons.] The summer weather persuaded us to stop at the factory each and every time we drove by, sometimes four or five times a day. We went for a tour once, but usually we just wanted to load up on sugar. It’s the Great American Addiction (well, besides oil).

We didn’t lack for real activities in town either. Stowe opens up during the summertime. When we went, in early July, we got to witness the Stoweflake Hot Air Balloon spectacle. Hot air balloon rides can be exhilarating and dramatic because, depending on the prevailing winds, you never know where (or even if) you will land. Oz suddenly seems like a possibility. Bring your toothbrush.

Another thing we tried—and fell in love with—was the cement luge. Flying down a cement track on a little go-cart/luge is an experience you’ll never forget, assuming you survive. Let your hand ease off the brake, lean back, and let it go! We were thrilled so much that we never wore those underwear again.

Even though Stowe is situated in the middle of an otherwise remote state, it is the perfect spot to act as a base camp for day trip excursions throughout the mountains. Vermont is a rural paradise just waiting to be discovered. Head into the Green Mountains for a day hike or an overnighter. Check out the “big city” of Burlington, where you can peruse the local crafts, sail on Lake Champlain, or enjoy one of several summer music festivals. Drive south to see Queechee Gorge and the state capital at Montpelier. Even Montreal, Quebec, is only a short drive across the border.

One year long ago, we stayed at a place called the Pub at Stowe (sadly no longer there), owned and operated by Ed, a British expatriate. After a full day of sightseeing and fun, we returned for steak and kidney pie and English ale on tap. By the end of the night—we always closed the bar—Ed would turn down the lights, crank up the music, and serve a free last round. All we had to do was crawl up the stairs to our rooms, but it was still a task we just barely managed on some nights.

Your experience may vary, of course, but small Vermont towns are happy places during the short summers. After huddling inside all winter, the natives joyfully hit the outdoors. They’re almost always willing to help people find their way. Unlike Maine (“You can’t get there from here”) or New Hampshire (“Go back to Taxachusetts”), Vermont is a friendly state populated by a mix of old hippies, young Republicans, and many, many sheep.

Little Known Fact: While it’s true that there are more sheep than people in Vermont, that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Dinner and a movie is still the going price, and it helps if the movie features other animals (but please, not Dances with Wolves).

Lessons Learned: Stowe is an out-of-way spot in an out-of-the-way state that will charm you enough to want to return. If the people don’t win your heart, the Green Mountain terrain certainly will. If the sightseeing bores you, the summertime activities won’t. Stowe in the summer: it’s the opposite of skiing.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 2
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Burlington International Airport
Native Population: 4,800
Normal Attractions: Skiing, the Trapp Family Lodge, Vermont Mozart Festival, foliage viewing.
Final Point of Interest: Stowe is becoming more and more popular during the “off-season,” so book your trip before it becomes completely overrun by New Yorkers.

04 April 2009

Second-Class Cabin Fever

Hitchhiking isn’t the only way we’ve traveled. We’ve taken multi-day motorcycle trips, we’ve hiked across state lines, we’ve driven a car four days straight, and we’ve even ridden in a biplane (landing on a frozen lake, which ironically was less bumpy than the country airport runway). Then there’s this true story, about a long overnight trip—and when we say “long,” we don’t just mean the distance involved, we mean the interminable duration. —MB & JS

If you enjoy spacious homes, this story might cramp your style. If you prefer Blockbuster to a midnight flick in Greenwich Village, stop reading now. If, however, you crave adventure and like to watch the world pass you by, then pack your bags and grab your caboose. Your train is about to depart.

The Coast Starlight runs from Los Angeles, California, to Seattle, Washington. On paper, the journey takes 35 hours, but Amtrak keeps to a schedule about as well as an Italian driver keeps to his side of the road. Although the train departs LA’s Union Station promptly the morning of Day 1, the rest is up to God. If He’s willing, the train will pull into Seattle’s King Street Station on Day 2 before the hotel cancels your reservation and the rainy season begins again.

With train travel, as the saying goes: it’s not about being there, it’s about getting there. The Coast Starlight is a lavish (and somewhat expensive) mode of transportation. It has a parlour car, a kiddie car, a sightseeing car, even a movie theatre. With mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, you’ll never lack a breathtaking view. There aren’t any seatbelts and you’re always free to move about the cabin.

This is just one example of the gorgeous views you can expect. Believe it or not, it gets old after the 25th hour.

The only question is how much you’re willing to spend on the trip. Overnight trains offer three classes of travel:

1. Mug me, I’m loaded
2. Too close for comfort
3. You expect me to sleep where?

First class boasts the “best” of everything. But while a first-class cabin includes its own bathroom and shower, the whole compartment isn’t much bigger than a walk-in closet. It makes a camper shell feel like the presidential suite at the Plaza Hotel.

Coach class, for the budget-conscious, offers the luxury of reclining seats and leg rests. After a night of dueling elbows, a cold-water paper-towel sponge bath awaits you. Meals cost extra, but you can always brown-bag it if you plan ahead.

As a compromise, we recommend what Amtrak calls a “roomette.” You get a private room, which is the good news, but the room is so small, you’ll have to step outside to change your mind, which you won’t be able to do because your ship has already sailed. In one of these cozy roomettes—once the beds are tucked away—you can stare out the window, gaze into each other’s eyes, play a game of cards . . . and that’s about it.

After the porter (yes, a porter) pulls down the ultra-slim bunk beds, you’ll be able to settle in for a series of short naps in between the bumps, grinds, and other noises of the train as it makes its way along the tracks. Secure the bottom bunk at all costs because the top bunk has such a low ceiling, whoever sleeps there has to squeeze him- or herself in like a hot dog into an uncut bun.

You say you’re on your honeymoon? The rocking motion of the train got you all hot and bothered? In short, you have the itch to do the deed? Well, make it quick and you’ll both still be able to walk in the morning. Otherwise, your charley horses may become permanent.

On a train, you’re free to leave the cabin, of course, but then you’re just asking for trouble. Once you abandon the sanctity of your roomette, you open yourself up to . . . the other passengers.

Passengers on an overnight train all have stories, long stories, stories they feel a compelling need to share with you. An innocent “hello” can lead to an hour-long conversation about dental hygiene. Murder mysteries occur on trains for good reason, as these stories can turn even the most mild-mannered gentleman into a temporarily insane killer. In some states, it’s even a valid prosecution-defense strategy.

To stop a potentially life-threatening conversation from picking up steam, try these exit lines: “I’m sorry; this is where I get off,” or “I have to go polish my eight-inch hunting knife,” or “It’s not you; it’s the voices in my head.” Whatever you do, under no circumstances utter the following six words, because they will come back to haunt you for the rest of the long trip: “Care to join us for dinner?”

Passenger stereotypes to avoid include the drunken businessman who claims a fear of flying, the hanger-on with the nervous laugh who “just wants to meet people,” and the hopeless romantic who’s seen too many Hitchcock movies. These passengers should scare you. For all we know, the government has secretly hired them to keep passenger trains from becoming too popular. Don’t laugh; it’s working. After all, how many people do you know who’d spend two days trying to get somewhere only four hours away by plane?

It’s a question you’ll ponder all during dinner, while the traveler sitting across from you (invited or not) rambles on about toothpastes, toothbrushes, and the proper chairside manner of a good dentist.

Lessons Learned: Train travel can be romantic—in a nostalgic, not erotic, way. Riding an overnight train is a lost cultural experience. It’s also not for everyone. Research the trip before you go so you know what you’re getting yourself into. Consider combining the trip with another adventure, since your fare allows you to disembark along the way.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 5
Rent-Attainment: 4
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Los Angeles International Airport or Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
Native Population: Capacity varies with the number of passenger cars
Normal Attractions: The sights, the adventure, the movie theater, the well-stocked bar, and, surprisingly, the food.
Final Point of Interest: It takes the Coast Starlight 23 stops to reach Seattle from LA. Get used to waiting. Then again, if you were in a hurry, you wouldn’t have taken the train.

Portland’s Union Station, not to be confused with LA’s Union Station, is one of over twenty stops along the way. If you don’t like train stations now, you’ll hate them by the end of the trip.