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.

24 May 2009

Casino Royale with Cheese

As college students, we had a much different view on life. We were optimists back then. Well, that’s not entirely fair. We’re still optimists, but in our own way: we are confident that any travel adventure is bound to turn out badly. That’s optimistic in the face of all those slick glossy magazines out there telling you how wonderful the world is. It is wonderful, when you can spend $1000 a day. For the rest of us, there’s optimism. —MB & JS

Monte Carlo. The name alone conjures up visions of grandeur. Racecars roaring through city streets. Women basking topless in the Riviera sun. Urbane sophisticates playing high-stakes baccarat, tossing around thousand-dollar chips like they were made out of chocolate. Monte Carlo is a playground for the idle rich. It’s a vacation spot for movie stars and other illiterati. It’s an adult adventureland, where fairy tales can come true. It’s not a place to be caught without your tux and tails.

Monte Carlo is one of five districts in the petite Principality of Monaco. An independent state, Monaco is perched on the southern coast of France near Nice and not far from Cannes. Its monarch, Prince Rainier III, you may remember, married actress Grace Kelly, carting her away from Hollywood in a storybook marriage back in 1956.

That’s the Monaco of legend and lore—the Monaco everyone expects to find when they arrive. We arrived by train, in the harsh reality of early morning. Like most college students, we didn’t travel with tux and tails. To us, formal attire meant closed-toed sandals. Evening wear was, like, a clean sweatshirt.

Back in college, I owned one tie and one sports jacket. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to pack them in my overnight backpack.

Still, we weren’t going to miss an opportunity to rub elbows with high society. Not as long as we had patched elbows to rub. We envisioned a sumptuous feast, long dining tables with clean pressed linen, and wide-eyed debutants with plunging necklines. It was a poor student’s wet dream. We couldn’t help but ogle . . . the food. With one quick grab—the rubbing elbows part—we’d snag her dinner roll and ask, “Aren’t you gonna eat that?”

Imagination. What a thrill-killer.

When we returned to reality (the mundane train station), we gathered our backpacks and left to find our lodgings for the next few days. A few days was all we could afford, but we envisioned sunny days at the beach, glamorous nightclubs to sneak into, and if we were lucky, a debutant to show us around.

After settling into our modest hotel, we dressed in our pauper best and headed to the famed Casino. While we didn’t know baccarat from Bacardi, we figured with Lady Luck, we could make twenty dollars last all night. But bright lights bathed the Place du Casino when we arrived. Guards and barriers kept the crowds at bay. Had we stumbled upon the crime scene of the century?

Actually, a film crew was on location, making what we imagined was the next great spy thriller. Before the massive front doors of the Casino stood two actors we identified, somewhat tentatively, as Oliver Reed and David Niven. This was our chance for stardom. We’d wander through security to become extras in the movie. Imagine, while Reed and Niven discussed the Russian economy, two wayward American tourists would interrupt to ask if the Casino required neckties. Perfect!

Alas, it wasn’t to be. We couldn’t get close enough to take a photograph, let alone rub an elbow (patch or no patch). We watched transfixed for a while, but the prospect of no gambling and no stardom discouraged us enough to leave. We wandered the streets of Monaco, planning a future assault on the movie set.

When we returned the following night, however, the film crew had disappeared. Our hopes and dreams disappeared with them. We had no idea it was only the beginning of our disappointment.

We marched up to the Casino’s entrance full of the American ill-gotten belief that all things are possible. The Casino, however, requires not only neckties, but jackets as well. They took one look at us—with our jeans and short-sleeve button-down shirts—and laughed. Well, not really, but that’s what it felt like. We turned and dragged our tucked tails to a nearby video poker tent, where we proceeded to lose our twenty bucks in about five minutes.

Lessons Learned: This adventure took place well before American foreign policy flushed goodwill down the toilet along with most of the Constitution. Back in that idyllic age, the world loved us, or so we thought. It turns out that the world’s been laughing at us behind our back ever since Dallas went off the air. Life is cruel sometimes.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Nice Côte d’Azur Airport (in nearby Nice, France)
Native Population: 33,000
Normal Attractions: The Monaco Grand Prix race, the palaces, the opera, fine dining, museums, spas, gambling, yachting: you know, the good life. Monaco is also a tax haven.
Final Point of Interest: Monaco’s citizens are not allowed to gamble in the famous Casino. Maybe living there is already risky enough: all those beautiful . . . beaches.

17 May 2009

Quote of the Month

Why do we travel? Well, given our experiences, we ask ourselves that same question over and over again. But here’s the real reason:

“We don’t travel because we long to meet strange and fascinating people. We live in Asheville, NC; we can walk out our front door and find all the strange and fascinating people we can stand. No, we travel for two very distinct reasons: to avoid yard work and to try new beers. Everything else is just a bonus.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2009)

10 May 2009

Shop ‘Til You Drop

In honor of Mother’s Day, we decided to share a story that our mothers can relate to: a true tale about a unique shopping experience. Of course, since it’s one of our stories, it’s not about a simple trip to the mall. If you like exotic locales and pre-packaged tours . . . you might think differently after reading this week’s special Mother’s Day edition of Don’t Even Go There. Enjoy it anyway. —MB & JS

Perhaps you too dream of nights in the Caribbean Sea. Perhaps you too yearn to set sail for the islands, to bask in the warm sun, and sip coconut-sized umbrella drinks while topless native girls rub lotion on your back.

No? OK, maybe it’s just us. Ahem. Now, where were we?

Oh yes: the Caribbean, where the sea is always tantalizingly warm and it’s always tourist season. One of our favorite memories comes from the island of Barbados, on a white sand beach far from the crowds. At the base of a horseshoe-shaped bay, behind a grove of shady palms, the beach lay hidden from all but the local inhabitants. The ocean revealed five different shades of blue as the water stretched to the horizon. Beautiful. Exotic. Memorable.

That’s the thing about the Caribbean: everyone longs to go there, and everyone who’s been has a favorite memory.

On one particular trip, we reached the islands by cruise boat, a mode of travel we highly recommend. From what we can recall, life aboard ship is a non-stop series of half-drunk, half-naked days and nights. You can also play shuffleboard.

The only thing better than drinking on the boat is sunning on the beach. When we docked at St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, one of the more well-known and tourist-friendly isles, we donned our swimsuits and grabbed our towels. If we managed to fulfill a dream, so much the better.

We fell in line with the other disembarking passengers, expecting to end up with our feet in the water. Instead, the parade led us straight to the marketplace. Rather than swimming with dolphins, we were shopping with piranha.

The beach was deserted because everyone’s gone shopping.

Downtown St. Thomas is all about retail. Stores of all kinds lined the boulevards. Jewelry. Alcohol. Electronics. Art. Bargains heralded at every turn: New low prices! Will not be undersold! Duty-free! Customs-approved!

We stumbled from sale to sale, dazzled by it all. It was mesmerizing, hypnotizing, and revolting all in the same breath. Stores offered free beer, lemonade, and snacks just for browsing. In fact, they’d do almost anything to keep a shopper in their store. We witnessed vegetarians buy hard-packed salami to stand in front of the fan a little longer. Art connoisseurs bought silk-screened landscape prints just so they could have another beer. Credit cards changed hands as if Visa meant “How are you?” in St. Thomas-ese.

We couldn’t help but get caught up in the shopping spirit. So many goodies, so little time. The hunt ensued for the cheapest portable DVD player and the Caribbean Costco of precious gems. Words flowed from our mouths without first passing through our brains: “I’ve always wanted a battery-operated wine bottle opener.” Before we knew it, we’d jettisoned our suntan lotion to stuff our beach bags with kitchen appliances.

When we finally caught our breath, we realized it had happened again. The heartless reality of commerce intruded on our wet dreams like a cold shower. The vision we came to fulfill had become a nightmare we’ll be paying interest on for the next ten years.

Don’t get us wrong. St. Thomas is a pleasant place. The island has a lovely harbor, and its beaches do exist. If you stay longer than we did (mid-morning to late afternoon), you can do all those island things most people go there for: snorkeling, scuba diving, and swimming with the fishes. St. Thomas is in the Caribbean, after all. But watch out for the Bermuda Triangle of the island’s commercial district. It’s the first thing you’ll see, and the last thing you thought you’d write home about.

Lessons Learned: You can get good deals on the island, and if you stay under your quota (check with the Customs people), you won’t have to pay tax or duty on any of your booty. But if you wanted bargains, you probably wouldn’t have traveled all that way when you can find an outlet mall much closer to home. Retail therapy has its place in the world, but shouldn’t it be far from an island in the middle of Paradise?
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 5
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: St. Thomas Airport
Native Population: 120,000
Normal Attractions: Blackbeard’s Castle, golfing, sun, surf, sand, and … shopping.
Final Point of Interest: Magens Bay Beach is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world (but we never made it there).

02 May 2009

Tijuana and Back Again

We take you now from India (our previous entry) to another wholesome, clean, safe place: Mexico, or more specifically Tijuana, which most seasoned travelers will tell you is about as Mexican as a meal from Taco Bell. (Note: This fast food chain did not pay for this slap in the face. They owe us.) Still, Tijuana has its charms: you can find them on a street corner for two American dollars, but they’re usually broken by the time you reach home. —MB & JS

The United States has so many laws, it’s a wonder anyone can keep track of them all. Someone does, of course. He’s paid by the government and wears a uniform. Still, it’s a good bet that if you’re a US citizen, you don’t follow every single rule to the letter. Which ones irk you the most? The taxes? The drug laws? The drinking age? The speed limits? There are so many oppressive laws to choose from.

Luckily, the US is bordered by two more lenient countries. To circumvent any US law you happen to find inconvenient, take a trip down to Tijuana, just south of San Diego, California. Want to score some drugs (even prescription-free Viagra)? We found them in Tijuana. Want to drink but you’re underage? No one carded us in Tijuana. Want to speed over pockmarked highways until the landscape blurs? Well, we decided to drive past Tijuana because the city streets are crowded with drunk and horny tourists.

On weekends, underage teenagers (and overage slackers like us) escape the confines of the US for the freedom to drink liberally in Tijuana.

Hordes of Americans travel to Tijuana every day, often for legal reasons like sightseeing, art collecting, and practicing high school Spanish. On weekend mornings, whole families cross the border in search of burro rides and cheap gifts for the in-laws. It’s a cultural experience!

A trip to Tijuana requires two passes through US Customs . . . anything less is bad news. Exiting the US is relatively painless. Once we entered Mexico, the pace of life—and traffic—slowed to a crawl. As we inched toward our destination, we saw a sight that made us feel better immediately: the traffic going the other way. It looked more like a camping trip than a highway. Unshaven men ran around, bartering gasoline for food. Toothless old women gummed week-old candy bars. Children finally got to play in traffic. Vines had grown up around the vehicles in the breakdown lane. We think it was bougainvillea. Pretty. Impenetrable.

The sight made us feel better . . . until we remembered that we too had to return that way. To shake the image, we focused on driving, which turned out to be wise, since drivers on this side of the border follow their own rules. Mexican traffic laws aren’t enforced; they’re ridiculed.

Then we arrived. Tijuana! Smell that stench! Of course, Tijuana doesn’t represent real Mexico any more than Hollywood represents the real United States. Mexicans built Tijuana for the tourists, who’ve likely paid for every wooden sidewalk, false-fronted building, and aging burro a few times over by now.

You can find bargains in Tijuana, sure, but if you’re not careful or astute, you can overpay for anything from a two-dollar trinket to a thirty-dollar blanket. We skipped the trinkets, but felt drawn to the blankets. Real wool. Colorful designs. They’re useful, right? We talked one vendor down from thirty dollars each to two for twenty-five. You can do it too. Choose your purchases carefully, don’t drink the water, and always know the location of the nearest baños (toilet).

Tijuana is one of those places that encourage movement, and we’re not talking about dancing, unless you’re a teen with a good buzz-on. No, we were eager to get there to look around, but by noon, after a “gourmet lunch,” we suddenly felt the urge to evacuate. We saw what we came to see and did what we came to do. Also, we feared if we stayed any longer, our chances of getting ripped off would increase exponentially.

While we didn’t need a passport yet (a valid driver’s license sufficed), we did get the fourth degree when we finally reached the border on our way back into the States. Maybe it was the long hair and sunglasses. Maybe it was the car’s bumper stickers. Maybe it was the drug-sniffing dog.

Mark, after a day of drinking, smoking, and God knows what in Tijuana. This is not a person you want to let back in the country.

We were lucky, for once . . . and smart enough to bring back nothing stronger than tequila. You may be questioned, searched, or asked to recite the alphabet, depending on the whim of the Customs Officer. We recommend that you comply. Quickly.

Lessons Learned: If you’ve ignored our warnings and followed us to Tijuana, you probably don’t need our advice. If you find yourself on the wrong side of the border after a trip to Tijuana, you’ll do just about anything to get back to the restrictive, confining, safe, and clean US of A. There’s no place like home.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 5
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 5
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 5
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 1

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: General Abelardo L. Rodríguez International Airport
Native Population: 1,500,000
Normal Attractions: Shopping and nightlife, which covers a lot of ground, both legal and illegal.
Final Point of Interest: Bullfights are held every other Sunday between May and October. Go for the cheap seats or get close enough to see the shit stains on the matador’s trousers.