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 November 2009

Locks, Stalks, and Broken Props

Talk about a good thing gone bad, this story epitomizes the luck we’ve had while traveling. It’s almost enough to make us want to give up our search for the perfect near-miss of a perfect vacation. Actually, this experience comes as close as any. Maybe you’ll agree. If so, leave a comment and let us know. —MB & JS

Our favorite cruise story occurred on a ten-day journey from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Acapulco, Mexico. In ten days, you can really let yourself go: everything from the midnight buffets to the efficient pool service encourages you to eat and drink more than your fill. We’ve documented the perils of a cruise vacation elsewhere, however. This story describes a real event during a real cruise.

Our trip from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean included passage through the Panama Canal. Most people don’t realize that to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the canal, you actually travel southeast. We learned this—along with mountains of other useless facts—in the days before the crossing.

We rose early the day we were to enter the canal’s first locks. Practiced tourists, we wanted to see it all. We jostled with the crowd in the ship’s bow, ordering umbrella drinks and baking under the equatorial sun. Well, that’s not quite true. The equator was still a long way away, but the umbrella drinks made it more and more difficult to find on a map.

Our ship, which like most other cruiseliners looked like a floating hotel, sat unmoving in a shallow bay. Half-sunken trees near the shore appeared to be wading into the sea to greet us. In the distance we could see the first lock, a mammoth tub with doors swung open to welcome us. We could hardly wait. But wait we did. Wait and drink.

Before a cruise ship enters the canal, a Panamanian pilot has to come aboard to guide her. It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law. Even after the pilot boarded, though, we saw little sign of movement. Cargo boats and pleasure craft cruised past us to ride the locks while we watched in envy. The only movement on our ship belonged to the waiters and busboys, pushing food and drink like hawkers at a ballgame. The passengers, including us, laughed off the delay in a haze of alcohol. At least from what we remember.

Then the engines roared to life and we started to move. A cheer rippled through the ship like a pebble tossed into a still pond, growing louder the longer it lasted. But it didn't last. We sliced through the water for less than a minute, and then we stopped. That’s about the time we decided to head inside to care for our burnt skin and emerging hangovers.

Four drunken hours later, our cruise ship finally reached the first lock. We learned later that shortly after the Panamanian pilot took control, the ship hit “a submerged object”—a flooded tree trunk, unmarked on maps and unknown to local pilots—that damaged one of the cruise ship’s massive propellers.

On a cruise, it’s all fun and games . . . until someone loses a propeller.

Nonetheless, the show must go on, especially if you’re a Norwegian cruise ship full of impatient passengers. Powered by a single propeller, the massive cruise ship limped into the first lock. It barely fit despite the lock’s immense size (1,000 feet long by 110 feet wide). We marveled at the snug fit. Only a swimmer could have shared the lock with us. (Swimming the Panama Canal is considered an extreme sport, albeit a discouraged, dangerous, and demented one.)

After the gates behind us had closed, it took ten minutes to fill the lock with enough water to raise the ship 85 feet to the next level. Six electric-powered “mules,” three on each side, guided our ship through the three locks.

The crossing should have taken eight hours. Ours took twelve. It was pitch dark by the time we left the last lock on the Pacific side. In the morning, we found ourselves at an unscheduled stop in Balboa, Panama. The ship could not make the open sea voyage up the coast to Mexico with only one working propeller. We bemoaned our fate. We’d miss volcano-hiking in Costa Rica and whale-watching off Guatemala.

Then word came down from the bridge (or wherever word originates, maybe in Scandinavia): The cruise line had decided to fly all the passengers and most of the crew to Acapulco while the ship went into dry dock for repairs. Suddenly, things began to look up. A free stay in a hotel on the beach! All the Mexican food we could eat! We’d miss the volcano, but we’d get to see the cliff-divers.

Early the next morning, with everyone packed, they shipped us all off the boat onto a fleet of buses to the airport in Panama City. They did it in stages, of course, performed with Norwegian precision. How else can you move 500 people?

The bus ride taught us not to visit Panama City. Sleek skyscrapers rose right next to tin-and-cardboard shantytowns. Life might not be fair, but this sight threw that fact right in our faces. Even if we wanted to help, we couldn’t. Our windows were sealed to prevent us from interacting with the vendors who stalked the streets, fearless in the heavy traffic. We were captives in a prison of our own wealth . . . which, come to think of it, felt an awful lot like being a passenger of a cruise ship.

Lessons Learned: Our tale had a happy ending, though, and not just because we enjoyed our stay in Acapulco. Our troubles with the broken prop eventually paid off. Big time. The cruise line refunded a full third of our fare.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 3
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Tocumen Panama International Airport
Native Population: 3,300,000 (in the entire country)
Normal Attractions: The canal and its museum, Casco Viejo (the Old Quarter of Panama City), Palacio de las Garzas (Heron’s Palace), fine dining, pickpockets.
Final Point of Interest: Panama La Vieja (Old Panama) is the first city built by Europeans on the Pacific coast of the Americas. The second is Who Cares.

21 November 2009

Quote of the Month

This month’s quote comes in three pieces, although all are related. By the way, all three are by other people, and we’ve used them without permission. That doesn’t mean we’re bad. It also doesn’t mean we’re cheating. Digging up these quotes takes almost as much time as writing our own. We hope you enjoy these, but if not, come back next week for a new installment of Don’t Even Go There.

“The saying ‘Getting there is half the fun’ became obsolete with the advent of commercial airlines.”

–Henry J. Tillman

“I did not fully understand the dread term ‘terminal illness’ until I saw Heathrow for myself.”

–Dennis Potter, 1978

“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression ‘as pretty as an airport’.”

–Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988)

14 November 2009

The Cleanest Bars in the World

We like to drink. You could say that our worldly travels are just an attempt to find a new beer, a new wine, or a new martini. That’s not really the whole truth, of course, which you’d know if you’ve read more than two of our stories. Still, the theme (alcohol) keeps popping up from time to time. Here’s another example, while shining too bright a light on a new location. Read on. —MB & JS

We’ve been to all kinds of bars, from lounges that serve 20-year-old port in crystal stemware to dives that serve flat beer in plastic cups. With experience comes opinion, and in ours, English pubs are the friendliest (maybe because of the familiar-sounding language they speak), but German beer halls offer the best brew in the world. American bars run the gamut, but our preferred haunts favor the exotic tastes of microbrews over the usual blandness of multinational corporate offerings. Otter Creek’s Copper Ale? Yes please.

Assuming cleanliness is indeed next to godliness, however, the most “heavenly” bars belong to the Swiss. Without a doubt, the Swiss have the cleanest bars in the world. This should come as no surprise, since the Swiss are known for their meticulous nature. The trains run on schedule. The buildings look freshly scrubbed. The citizens are fit, fashionable, and refined. Even their soccer teams never play dirty.

This is a candid photo; the streets of Zurich are so clean, you could eat off them!

When we visited Zurich, we felt an initial twinge of envy for the way the city sparkled, but the feeling didn’t last. After a multi-day hitchhike, we looked as well kempt as Albert Einstein on a bad hair day. Even the Swiss punks—sporting precise green mohawks and glinting metal studs—gave us the cold shoulder.

We were visiting a friend, and luckily, he didn’t live far from city center. But a few minutes as the crow flies became a painful half hour as the way rose gradually steeper and steeper until we were literally crawling hand over foot up the last stone steps to his abode. Later, after a power-nap and a shower, we decided to “paint the town red,” a quaint expression that has more to do with changing our own complexion than the town’s. Tom, our local host, led us downhill, using the funiculars to speed our trip. We made it in about five minutes.

Tom thought an American-friendly bar would impress us. It didn’t. We’d come to Europe to escape the smug American psyche. Although the place was as spotless as a shaven Bernese Mountain Dog, too many customers looked like transplanted Yuppies. Overheard conversations revolved around baseball, politics, and worst of all: discount shopping. We left immediately.

The next stop, a dark but tidy nightclub, pounded its patrons into submission with loud, electronic dance music. Tom bought the first round, and we settled into a corner booth. Lithe, young Swiss girls danced all around us, attracting our attention and then dismissing it. One round led to another, and soon we were dancing all around the lithe, young Swiss girls—who deflected our attempts to engage them in a subtle European way: French-kissing their girlfriends.

By the time we dragged ourselves away, dazed and sweaty, we found that balancing on two feet was more a function of momentum than conscious will. With Tom in the lead, we set out for a clean, well-lighted place. One last drink before the long uphill trek to bed. At a promising tavern, Tom pulled open a heavy wooden door to find a Swiss gentleman of imposing proportions. The man took one look at us and—before Tom could open his mouth—shook his head and pointed us away.

We waved Swiss francs at him, to prove we could pay for our drinks. He shook his head again and blocked the doorway with his girth. We’d never been refused entry to a bar before. Never. Not in Turkey, not in Paris, not even in Trenton, New Jersey. So why now, and why in Zurich?

The bouncer’s explanation, in heavily accented English, was short and sweet: “You are too dirty,” he said.

Lessons Learned: Switzerland is a beautiful country surrounded by rugged mountains. Situated right in the middle of Western Europe, the country offers many treats of its own, plus it’s a great jumping-off point for a longer European vacation. You’re bound to have fun there, as long as you keep your nose as clean as the Swiss keep their bars.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Zurich Airport
Native Population: 372,000
Normal Attractions: Lindenhof (a medieval castle), the Bahnhofstrasse shopping district, museums, churches, gardens, and of course, the Alps.
Final Point of Interest: Every spring, the Zurich Swiss hold a parade and then burn an effigy of Winter called a Böögg. What a college town!

07 November 2009

Back to the Present

Here’s another of our frightfully amusing theme park adventures. This one encapsulates its host city so well that you’ll feel like you’ve really been there (even if you haven’t) and immediately need to take a shower (even if you’ve just had one). That’s the kind experience we hope to attain for you, our loyal readers: one that’s so real, so funny, and so insane, you’ll repeat it to your friends as your own. —MB & JS

For some people, a trip to Universal Studios is a trip to Hell itself. The crowds. The blatant consumerism. The pandering to our lowest common impulses, like sex. For others, and we count ourselves among them, a trip to Universal Studios is close to Heaven. The rides. The thrills. The pandering to our lowest common impulses, like sex.

Universal Studios offers up almost every conceivable entertainment. On one hand, you have to admire the energy and resolve to pack so much fun into one place. The park’s infrastructure is so sophisticated, city governments should hire its engineers to design public transportation. We’d all live in a happier, more efficient place.

On the other hand, despite the efficient design, long long long lines plague the park. People are waiting everywhere . . . for rides, for food, for toilets, for the exit. Everywhere you turn, you’ll find lines, each longer and slower-moving than the last. It’s a nightmare for the ADD-challenged among us. Imagine the horror, the horror, if city governments hired its engineers to design public transportation.

While you can whine about the prices—and they are outrageous—you should have known what you were getting into when you paid your admission. It’s the lines that will stick with you like a bad burrito. Those lines will haunt you deep into the night, assuming you make it that long. For the good rides, the ones you came to experience, the lines can stretch into an hour-long, bone-numbing wait.

But that’s not the really bad news.

As you’re enduring that wait, shifting from one tired foot to the other, trying half-heartedly to keep your kids from starting a major international incident, you might notice a few people somehow bypass the line altogether and make their way stealthily but straight to the entrance. Who are they and how can they get away with this? Where are the park police when you need them?

Welcome to Los Angeles. Those “chosen few” are likely movie industry insiders. They know all the tricks. Don’t ask us how they do it. Life isn’t fair. You’re stuck in line, boiling inside, for another forty-five minutes just to catch a glimpse of the Jurassic Park ride, when a couple of hot blondes and an industry mogul out to impress them cut right to the front.

You somehow persevere to enjoy the ride, but the vision of those blondes etches itself onto your brain. The whole experience irks you. It helps explain why people enjoy the tabloid stories of movie stars in compromising positions: it’s the satisfying feeling of revenge.

But back to the present. While Universal Studios has its drawbacks, any thrill-seeker worth his salty dog has to go, to experience first-hand the rides that have won the park fame and stature. Because despite the wait, despite the long lines, the rides are worth it.

When preparing for your visit, develop a plan of attack. Decide which rides you absolutely must hit, then using a map of the park, devise a strategy for the day. The order you do things can make a huge difference. For example, during one visit, we made the mistake of sweating it out in the Backdraft ride first when the obvious move was to get soaked on the water toboggan ride and then dry off by the fire.

The rides change year to year, so make sure you have a current list. The major exhibits change constantly, too. When you need a rest, take the trolley tour for a relaxing hour. And we didn’t even mention CityWalk, the food-and-entertainment pedestrian-friendly stroll at the park’s entrance/exit. Want a beer? Want to see a show? Want both? CityWalk might be the answer. Just remember, you’re in LA. There’s lots to do out there.

Lessons Learned: If you can’t score those VIP passes and the blondes that come with them, wake up early, pack a lunch, and bring every major credit card you own (you’ll need them). You won’t regret your trip, and it’ll give you a reason to check the tabloids.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 5/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Los Angeles International Airport (aka LAX)
Native Population: 4,100,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: Are you kidding? Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Dodger Stadium, the culture, the food, the population, the Valley, the architecture, the drugs. You could find a worse place to visit. We certainly have.
Final Point of Interest: LA actually has a subway system. It’s not as extensive as New York’s, but whose is? Just don’t get caught on the subway during an earthquake.

01 November 2009

Witch Way

This is the very first time we’ve missed a deadline. We were supposed to post the following story yesterday, on Halloween. That was our intent. Then Halloween happened. The next thing we knew, we were waking up with dry, bleary eyes and puncture wounds in our necks. Well, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but that’s how it felt. Forgive our tardiness and enjoy this special story. —MB & JS

“Holiday travel” usually makes us think of Thanksgiving or Christmas, when folks traditionally journey home for the holidays, but popular travel times also include the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. But what about the other holidays? Where would you go for, say, Presidents Day? Mount Rushmore? Come on, South Dakota is not that alluring in February.

One holiday, however, begs for a road trip: Halloween. We recently returned to Massachusetts (the scene of our adolescence) to participate in the Haunted Happenings in the seaport city of Salem. Spending Halloween in the Witch City, we discovered, is like celebrating Christmas at the North Pole: full of all the pomp and pageantry money can buy.

Salem spends the whole month of October in party mode. That means special events, live shows, music, mayhem, and, of course, more useless stuff on sale than during a Hannah Montana concert. You have to admit that’s pretty scary.

If you know US history, you’ll recognize Salem for its famous (or infamous) 17th century witch trials. But a lot’s happened in the last 350 years. Witch Way is the name of a street now. Laurie Cabot (the city’s “official witch”) ran unsuccessfully for mayor a few years back. Today, Salem is equally renowned for the wayward witches, warlocks, and goth vampires who roam the streets every day of the year. Halloween just brings them out of the knotty pine.

Why stay home handing out candy to ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, when you can run into the real things in Salem? Why dress up in a rented costume to attend a friend’s drinking party when you can go to Salem’s Vampire Ball to hang out with some tasty vamps and vampires for a little active “necking.” Why go to a party with people dressed as witches when you can attend a gala with people who actually are witches? For a price, they’ll read your palm and tell you your future (however short it might be). For a few dollars more, they’ll teach you how to brew potions, make a broom, or use amulets, charms, and tokens for your own devious ends.

Salem in October is overrun with “eerie.” We’re talking about really strange stuff here, not your run-of-the-mill stranger in strange clothes. We were solicited on a city street—not for sex, but for our bodies. They needed two more for their séance. A local turned her innocent courtyard into a torture chamber, complete with a guillotine and gushing blood. We happened upon it during an otherwise normal day. In Salem, during the month of October, almost anything is possible.

The Festival of the Dead includes the Official Salem Witches’ Halloween Ball, a Dinner with the Dead, the Vampires’ Masquerade Ball, the Annual Psychic Fare and Witchcraft Expo, as well as seminars, art exhibitions, and ghost-hunting expeditions. There’s also the Bizarre Bazaar, the Official Salem Séance, parades, costume balls, tours, museums, and more. Salem has sold its soul to the devil of commerce. You can find almost anything for sale—from T-shirts to torture devices, from real antiques to fake eyeballs.

Then again, in Salem, the art of the scam knows no bounds. Many “museums” feature unmoving wax figures given dramatic, flickering light while a guide reads from note cards. Town center now has a monument to that most evil of all witches: Elizabeth Montgomery. The Halloween Parade to kick off the season featured school bands, toilet-seat-clapping members of a local plumbing service, and other equally scary fare.

We tried to behave. Honest. We wanted to see all the city had to offer without resorting to that type of photograph of us standing in front of an historic landmark, as if to say: “We were here!” How cheesy is that?

How cheesy is this?

Ultimately, we broke down and bought stuff. Lots of stuff. Stuff we threw away when we returned home to sanity. Five-dollar T-shirts! Two-dollar refrigerator magnets! Witch costumes! Spell books! Crystals! Knives! Goblets! Fake blood mix! My God, it was an ugly display of shopping frenzy. But we did it for you, so you won’t have to. You’ll thank us someday. In the meantime, want to buy a slightly soiled ritual blade?

Next year, forget about the neighborhood kids and treat yourself. Ditch your friends (figuratively, of course) and travel to Salem, Massachusetts. Bring a funky costume and a full pocketbook. Get ready for fun, but watch your back, for every mummy has a method and every witch has a way.

Lessons Learned: Since October coincides with the foliage season in New England, make it a longer vacation and take a day trip up to the Kangamangus Highway in New Hampshire to view the vibrant color of the White Mountains. If you feel the need to escape the witchcraft weirdness, take the short drive to the quaint harbor town of Marblehead right next door.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 1
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: Logan International Airport (in Boston)
Native Population: 41,000
Normal Attractions: Shopping, architecture, history, Salem Willows Park, Winter Island, Pioneer Village (a working village simulating Salem’s early years), drinking heavily at Salem State College.
Final Point of Interest: Nathanial Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables is still a popular draw and one of Salem’s best tours.
Elizabeth Montgomery: The Personification of Evil?