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 September 2009

Bored on the Bayou

We tend to go where few have gone before us. Occasionally, this reveals rare treasures worth any amount of discomfort it took to get there. More often, however, we just find more discomfort after all the discomfort it took to get there. Such was the case in this story. Despite the discomfort, the trip left a lasting memory, one we can now share for your benefit. Read and learn, young Opie Wan-derer. —MB & JS

New Orleans, Louisiana, is (or was, before the flood) an awe-inspiring city, full of odd characters—past and present. Few locations can rival this city’s history, music, food, or festivities. The Garden District and above-ground cemeteries draw millions of tourists each year, and the legendary French Quarter never fails to live up to its reputation, unless you’ve sworn off alcohol . . . or fun.

But if you have a broader sense of adventure, then follow our example and tread off the beaten path into the endless bayous—extensive marsh-like regions of endless swamp, drooping trees, and unparalleled wildlife. Bayous embody majesty and mystery, danger and grace. All before lunch.

The locals are mostly friendly, hospitable, and proud of their land. Many enterprising individuals offer guided tours through the deciduous rainforests that surround the bayou, but be forewarned: these tours inevitably start early in the morning. They like to get a jump on the snakes and alligators that are sleeping off a long night prowling for dinner.

Our ride began at a chilly 7:00 AM and ended at a dry, sweltering noon. The riverboats designed for the bayou’s shallow waters don’t use standard propellers. They simply wouldn’t work in the thick, tangled plant life that flourishes just below the surface. Instead, the boats employ above-board fans driven by gas engines so loud you can’t even talk to yourself.

We bumped along for two deafening hours and then sat for a long silent hour, where we found ourselves miles from a Dixie Voodoo Lager, hungry for a glimpse of life-threatening jaws or aquatic aliens, the big fan resembling a bobbing behind us like a grave marker. Like the others on this tour, we expected to see wildlife—hanging precariously from trees, popping snouts out of the water, posing for pictures while poised to grab a nearby snack. Or a hand.

We wouldn’t go so far as to say we were cheated, but we saw precisely one snake, and it wasn’t even very big. It wiggled out of a tree and fell with a plop into the water, where it shimmered in the light for another few seconds before disappearing altogether. We didn’t even have time to take a picture. That was it. No alligators, no waterfowl, not even any fish.

They’re out there, somewhere. Probably hanging out with Bigfoot.

Of course, the hour we spent waiting wasn’t entirely without drama. After a half hour, the driver tried and failed to restart the engine. Several times. Though the noise did nothing to help our chances of spotting wildlife, we prayed for him to succeed. As much as we wanted to see an alligator, we didn’t want it to be the last thing we ever saw. When the engine roared to life, destroying the spooky silence that’s indigenous to the bayou, we actually cheered.

Wildlife doesn’t linger, and there are no guarantees, either in life or in the bayou. The toothless driver—who spoke Cajun, a complex mixture of French and English—said he couldn’t remember the last time his tour didn’t see a single reptile. Our first response, filtered through our years traveling the world, was: “Get a quieter boat, dude!” But we held our tongue until the more rational second response kicked in: “You probably say that to every tour!”

If you want our advice, research your guide before you go. Find one whose dock is near the wildlife estuaries. Ask for the silent treatment—a boat with a quiet engine. Make sure they not only care about their customers, they care about the wildlife, too.

Little Known Fact: If they ask you whether or not you suck the heads, don’t be offended. They’re referring to crawfish, and eating them separates the locals from the tourists.

Lessons Learned: Plan for rain whatever the season. Bring a camera, plenty of mosquito repellent, and a good book, just in case your trip ended like ours. While the bayou can offer an adventure, its charms are often well hidden. Like buried treasure, the reward (a great photo or a vivid spectacle) goes to those willing to dig a little, sometimes into their own limits of endurance.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 4
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 4
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Louis Armstrong International Airport
Native Population: 312,000, half of what it was in 1960
Normal Attractions: Are you kidding? The French Quarter, Mardi Gras, rooting for the ’Aints at the Superdome, the Jazz & Heritage Festival, the music, food, and alcohol, plus the abundance of tourists.
Final Point of Interest: In one nationwide poll, the city was voted the 25th of 25 US cities for safety and cleanliness. Let’s face it: this is a family vacation destination like Siberia is an exotic seaside beach.

18 September 2009

Quote of the Month

Here’s some real travel wisdom. It comes from having traveled far beyond our country’s borders. There are things you can learn only by going someplace strange, awkward, foreign. Like Las Vegas. Then wisdom hits you upside the head like a whore’s purse loaded with nickels. Anyway, here is one of the tidbits we learned:

“Europe is just like the States. Except they speak English with a funny accent. And they have some really old churches. And they are way into soccer. And, oh yeah, they all have health care coverage.”

Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2009)

05 September 2009

The Other Half

We’ve often dropped hints about The Other Half, assuming you knew what we meant. Just to be safe, we thought we’d finally share a story about them. You may be surprised. When we refer to the other half, always make sure you know which half we’re talking about. Confused? Don’t worry, this story will set everything straight. Enjoy. —MB & JS

Maine, in the northeastern corner of the US, keeps a low profile. It’s not because it doesn’t have a lot to offer; it does, in fact. Remember, this is a state whose nickname is “Vacationland.” But advertising isn’t in the budget. It’s a big state with Rhode Island-sized areas populated only by the plentiful moose, the occasional family, and other wild animals. Think Montana, except with a coastline.

Maine is like two states in one: the coastline supports one type of “Mainiac:” urbane, professional, sophisticated . . . or at least literate. The inland regions, on the other hand, provide shelter for an entirely different breed: hardy, shy, independent . . . in other words, dirt poor. And in Central Maine is where we find our next destination.

While Kennebunkport in the southern tip of the state can call to mind yacht clubs, lawn croquet, and lobster bakes, most of us can’t afford the dock fees. Instead of stopping in Kennebunkport, we head to Old Orchard Beach and fight the concert-sized crowds and the model airplane-sized deer flies. Or we trek further up to Portland for the live music and big city traffic. Or we check out Bath or Boothbay Harbor for the waterfront views and the Down East accents. Sometimes, we venture all the way up to Camden and Belfast to marvel at the small cottage life sprinkled amidst the antique furniture sales. Every once in a while, we even make it to Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor (pronounced “Bah Hahbah,” like you’re Ebenezer Scrooge) for some real R&R.

But every one of these places is located on or near the coastline. That just won’t do for two adventure-loving dolts like yours truly. We had to venture into the Great Unknown. For every town like bucolic Camden, there are ten like toxic Rumford, a place that owes its existence—and its horrid smell—to a paper mill. For every scenic Belfast, there are ten like dull Gray, a place that lives up to its name. Then there’s Waterville.

Located in Central Maine 25 miles north of Augusta, the state capital, Waterville is home to two private colleges: Colby College and Thomas College. One is a prestigious liberal arts institution often confused with a former all-girls school (named Colby-Sawyer), and the other is a small business college often confused for a prestigious liberal arts institution. Between them, they account for the main reason Waterville exists today. That, and to make the residents of Skowhegan feel good about themselves.

Known as “H2O-ville” by disgruntled chemistry majors, Waterville caters to the colleges, and rightly so. The Railroad Square Cinema and its art film reruns would never have made it past its first year without the college crowd. The Record Connection, a used music store, owes its life to college poseurs. You Know Whose Pub exists to serve college students when they tire of cafeteria food, which usually starts sometime in October.

But what about the other residents of Waterville?

Watervillains (our term, not theirs) are poor, sturdy folk who dress themselves in the latest fashions from Zayre’s—a cheap local knockoff of a discount Sears—which is now sadly closed. Goodwill’s second-hand hand-me-downs must have forced them out of business.

The locals eat simple foods: fish they can catch, animals they can identify, and plants they can grow in the short season from May to August. They lead simple lives of honest toil with fierce hardiness. They rarely complain; in fact, they rarely speak at all. If you try to start a conversation, you won’t get much past: “You cahn’t get thay-ah from hee-ah.”

Many Watervillains live in a house someone in their family built back in the 1920s. Nothing in the years since has been thrown out past the yard’s border. Anything that can be burned has been. Everything they still own serves two purposes, such as the family pet/hunting dog, snow shovel/coat hanger, and tool shed/outhouse.

If you come across this sign, you’re either completely lost or waiting for Spring Break to end. In either case, we pity you.

On one wrong-turn visit to town, we entered what we thought was an ordinary greasy spoon for lunch. When we ordered a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, the waitress, a plump sweetheart with a moustache, shouted at the kitchen window, “Lebanese pizza!” It turns out that Waterville has a significant population of Lebanese (the Maronite Christian variety, for those of you from Homeland Security).

So if you really want to get away from it all—the affluent jungle, the tasteful stores, the cell phone connections—take a trip to Waterville, Maine, to see how the other half lives. Your own home will never look so good.

Lessons Learned: Waterville is a city, especially compared to the surrounding towns, but it is as rural-feeling a city as any town you’ll find in Iowa. There are good reasons to head to Maine (skiing in the winter, boating in the summer), but you really have to want to go to Waterville to get there. Or anywhere near there.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 3
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 5
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 1

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Portland International Jetport (Portland, Maine)
Native Population: 15,600
Normal Attractions: Colby or Thomas College events, like homecoming, graduation, or $1 beer night.
Final Point of Interest: Waterville was originally a settlement of the Canibas tribe. Little wonder a liberal arts college sprang up there. “Dude!”