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.

26 June 2009

Water Water Everywhere . . .

As promised earlier this month, we’d like to share with you a place we surprisingly liked. We hadn’t expected to like it; it just sort of crept up on us when we were looking for a bar. But there it was: an honest-to-God fun experience. We can’t ignore it. We can’t make it go away. All we can do is pass it along to you and hope for the best. Don’t be mad at us. If you want more twisted travels, come back next month, when we get back to complaining. In the meantime . . . —MB & JS
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Most North American vacationers prefer to go to exotic locales, usually with a nice beach nearby. We’re talking about places like Hawaii, Acapulco, and St. Thomas. Notice anything? That’s right, all of these places are Don’t Even Go There-worthy (and detailed in other posts on this blog).

So what should you do with your lone week of vacation time? Where can you find excitement and adventure within reach and within the budget of the average American? In other words, where can you go?

Believe it or not—and don’t think less of us for saying so—we’d recommend Kansas City, Missouri. Yes, it’s flat. Yes, it’s in the Midwest. Yes, it gets unbelievably hot and humid in the summer. But you have to look beyond all its obvious faults. It’s a beautiful little city with a rich history, great food (especially if you eat beef), a long heritage of great blues and jazz, plus a surprising number of water fountains.

It’s true. We used to think it strange that their baseball field had a “Waterworks Spectacular,” but it turns out the park just reflects the city around it. Kansas City, known as the City of Fountains to quite a few members of its Chamber of Commerce, has more fountains than any other city in the world, except for some backwater burg called Rome. All in all, KC boasts over 200 water fountains: large and small, ornate and simple, public and private. That’s more sprinklers than all of Nebraska, once you discount the ones used for irrigation.

Discovering every fountain on your own would take way too much time, but if you’re determined, you can find fountains celebrating mythology, history, and modern art. One fountain—the famous J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain—features four figures, including one of an American Indian riding a horse while fighting an alligator. You might not believe us, but it’s true. Even more bizarre: this figure is said to represent the mighty Mississippi River. Seems obvious to us. Who can forget the famous Indian-Alligator War of 1665?

A testament to man’s twisted imagination: an American Indian vs. an alligator. It’s art.

Kansas City offers much more than just fountains, though. Its music scene is one of the best in the country, especially for blues and jazz (which you’d know already if you were paying attention). Live performances from the famous and near-famous thrill fans almost every night. And while Kansas City has its large venues, the best shows happen in the small nightclubs, where the musicians play so close to you that you’ll feel like you’re part of the band. You’re not; they’re just humoring you, but you can find an after-hours jam session if you’re so inclined.

The Country Club Plaza (which is less pretentious than its name) offers more traditional fare like restaurants and shopping amidst Spanish tile, early architecture, and of course, water fountains. During Plaza Lights, a holiday season event, the buildings come to life with music and light shows. Then there’s little Westport, a cross between Old Town and Hillcrest (to use San Diego references). In other words, the village evokes culture like a row of ferns evoke a gay bar. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

But the highlight of our trip, the pièce de résistance, occurred on an excursion to a steak house. This place wasn’t one of those common chain restaurants, but a full-fledged Kansas City institution. Sadly, we can no longer recall its name, but it had a blues and jazz club in the basement. (Of course. Where else would you put it?)

After we were seated, our waitress brought by a dessert tray of meats—each pink, uncooked cut wrapped professionally in cellophane. All we had to do was pick the cut we wanted and tell our server how we wanted it cooked. The menu listed the descriptions, from Rare (“The meat will jump off the plate to shake your hand.”) to Well Done (“They say charcoal is good for your teeth.”)

Never before and never since, in any of our travels in any country, have we experienced this level of service. The meal, by the way, tasted exquisite—so good, it nearly made us swear off beef completely. Because after you’ve had the best, you see, everything else pales in comparison.

Lessons Learned: Missouri loves company, and Kansas City is the perfect example. It welcomes wayward wanderers with open arms and treats them to unexpected delights. You’ll enjoy Kansas City so much, you’ll forget you’re in the Midwest. We did.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 2
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Kansas City International Airport
Native Population: 447,000
Normal Attractions: Nightlife, sports, architecture, fine dining, museums, art, shopping.
Final Point of Interest: Some of the locals refer to the Liberty Memorial, a local landmark, as the “Big Dick in the Sky.”

19 June 2009

Quote of the Month

This month, we bring you a quote from a famous dead person. We wish we had met him. By the way he wrote about travel, we think we would have had a lot to talk about. Of course, our travels often ended in disaster, while his probably ended in free drinks and a lap dance. That’s the real difference between a famous writer and us. Still, we can all learn from a master, especially after a few drinks:

“Unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”

–Kurt Vonnegut

14 June 2009

A Tour of Italian Toilets

Welcome to another in a long line of disappointing stories. This one started out optimistically enough, but of course, that was just a nasty tease. We keep trying, though. At the end of this month, we’ll post a story about one of the rare places we actually enjoyed, so stay tuned. In the meantime, sit yourself down and learn from the masters of the “bad trip.” —MB & JS
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As young men, we toured Europe with our parents. You might think we were there to nibble at the rich cultural traditions of the continent or to devour the idiosyncrasies of its people—all to be packed away for a future novel. Ah, if only that were so! As it turned out, what we remember the most from that trip was the food . . . and its consequences.

The journey began with jetlag in Paris. Normally, that’s a minor inconvenience to any trip, but the French have found a way to turn that inconvenience into a major headache. It’s an art form (as well as a source of revenue) for them.

In those first heady days, we’d awake every morning at five o’clock and saunter down to the café, where our parents would later meet us. The café was never open when we arrived, so we had to wait for them to roll up the metal doors. Paris, despite its reputation as an elegant destination, is not such a pretty place at 5:00 AM. It’s all garage doors and harsh lights, like the warehouse district in a B movie. It’s only when the cafés open that the city comes slowly to life.

We’d order coffee, and they’d plop down this big basket full of croissants. Plain, chocolate, cinnamon . . . the works. We stuffed ourselves every morning. Our parents eventually arrived to pay our bill, and then it was off to the cultural events of the day. We didn’t learn until much later that the French cafés—unlike American restaurants—change for each piece of bread you eat, or partially eat, out of the basket. Our parents never said a word, but it was our first lesson in continental cuisine. There would be many others.

After a brief stay in Paris, we traveled east. All along the way, the available or prevalent food informed our opinions about a place. In Frankfurt, Germany, for example, the hotel breakfasts were feasts compared to the French offerings: a buffet of freshly prepared hard rolls, slices of ham, hard-boiled eggs, muffins, and coffee. It was all you could eat, too, included in the room rate. (We asked.) Sure, we might have preferred an omelet, but what the Germans lacked in finesse, they made up for in quantity.

Germans certainly know how to fill up a stomach: plenty of starch with an equal amount of beer. Mix well and let sit for five hours. At first, it was a culinary explosion, but eventually, every German meal began to look the same. Potatoes, meat, and heavy sauce. We missed vegetables . . . until we arrived in Nuremburg in the midst of its asparagus festival. Every restaurant offered “Spargel! Spargel! Spargel!” The Germans made everything with it: soup, salad, casseroles, even dessert. After one meal, we found ourselves longing for meat and potatoes again.

In Nuremburg, the market in the city center did a brisk business. You’d think “Spargel” was the German word for “gold,” in the opposite way that “Gift” is German for “poison.”

In Athens, we fell in love with the fresh yogurt, among other tasty treats (lamb skewers, anyone?). Everything was delicious. Very soon, we felt comfortable enough to experiment. One day before we left Greece, we found a place promising “Eastern Cuisine,” which we took to mean Chinese food. We were wrong.

Greeks, we discovered, think of themselves as Eastern European, thus our meal consisted of stuffed grape leaves, lots of olives, chicken marsala, and baklava. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and we shoveled it down like a fallen vegetarian in a hot dog eating contest. Unfortunately, the meal didn’t stay down. Worse, the taste of olives kept returning on us, without pity. As a result, we cannot, to this day, eat olives. A mere whiff is enough to send us careening toward the bathroom.

But back to our trip. The meal that spoiled our taste for olives ruined more than just our taste buds. Athens is filled with open-air markets—the best places in the world for unusual finds and unusual people. We’d spent many days checking out the wares and the wearers. Most markets, however, also sold food, and guess what many of them smelled like? Olives.

We needed four days to get over the stomach virus. We spent them in a constant panic, searching for a bathroom, a remote tree, or even a reasonably clean hole in the ground. We took to carrying a roll of toilet paper in the backpack. Our majestic sweep through Italy devolved into a tour of bathrooms. The Coliseum? Missed it. The Leaning Tower? Had to use the toilet. Florence? One bowl after another. Luckily, we’d get another chance, later in life, to return to view what we’d missed.

Lessons Learned: Watch what you eat, not just because your waistline demands it, but because the consequences can be severe. In this case, we survived, but with a culinary scar that remains with us today. It affects our every meal choice and leaves us prone to continuous ridicule from our olive-eating friends who have never heard the full story. Maybe now we’ll get some peace.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 2
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 5
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport
Native Population: 2,200,000
Normal Attractions: There are too many to mention. The Louvre is our favorite, but Paris boasts art, culture, history, and of course food. If you go to Europe, there are many worse places to go than Paris. We know; we’ve visited most of them.
Final Point of Interest: The culinary reputation Paris enjoys originated in the melting pot aspect of its inhabitants. As people immigrated from distant lands, they brought their recipes with them, creating the soufflé that is Paris.

06 June 2009

Why We Left California

We used to live in Southern California, where we’d ride our motorcycles everywhere, all the time. Temperatures rarely sank below 50°F, and the only rain we ever got came in early January. We were surprised everyone didn’t ride. Well, this story made us appreciate the price for that kind of freedom. If you ride a bike long enough, you get to see some strange things. Assuming you survive, as we did, you get to write them down, in an effort to exorcise the demons and work though the emotional scar tissue. Don’t let this happen to you. —MB & JS
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California: the Land of Fruits and Nuts. This true story couldn’t have happened anywhere else. While most of the state is motorcycle-friendly, every once in a while, you find pockets of weirdness that even Hunter S. Thompson would have avoided. But unlike Thompson and his vials of illicit chemicals, all we had to help us through this experience was a bottle of cheap wine.

During a week-long motorcycle trip around the state, we landed at a trailer park outside Sacramento, the state capital. As anyone who rides will tell you, camping is the only way to do such a tour. Hotels cost too much, and after a day-long ride, believe us, you can sleep anywhere. So there we were, after a hard day’s ride over the hills and winding roads of Central California, kicking back and lighting up (cigarettes, that is). All we wanted was peace, quiet, and a plot of shaded grass to roll out our sleeping bags.

Before the campground and the cheap wine, there was a rest stop and a bottle of water. We had no idea what we were in for.

As we opened our well-earned bottle of wine, a girl appeared out of the dust to bum a smoke. She was slim and kind of Goth-looking. Straight black hair. Tattoos. Piercings. How could we refuse? While puffing away, she told us that her RV compressor was stolen the night before. Bad luck, we agreed; shit happens.

Then she claimed to have hired some thugs to shoot the place up.

As if on cue, a sheriff’s patrol car roared to stop in front of us. Then two more pulled up. As two officers approached, a third stood back, pointing his drawn firearm in our general direction. We froze. We would have crapped in our chaps, except our sphincters were clenched so tight, anything that escaped would have been turned into diamonds.

If you’ve never had a loaded gun aimed at you, let us tell you how it felt. Our brains stems short-circuited, overloaded with the possibilities of the next few moments. A single hiccup, a badly timed mosquito bite, or a sudden sneeze . . . and our lives were over. That meant—we realized in horror—no blog, no book deal, no movie, nothing. We kept as still as possible.

The lead officer immediately asked for identification, then demanded to know if we were armed. We weren’t, although we did surrender a pocketknife. The officer searched our gear anyway. Finding nothing, he asked where we came from. We began the story of our adventurous tour around the state.

The officer interrupted us. “Is this going to take long?”

“Well yes, as a matter of fact.”

He sized us up. “How did you two end up at the wrong place at the wrong time?”

“A waiter from the diner up the road said this was a nice spot to camp.”

The cop handed back our pocketknife. “You must not have tipped him very well.” Then he asked the girl if she had anything in her purse.

“No, not really,” she said.

“Then give me your crack-pipe.”

We were awed. How did he know she had one? Was the sheriff’s department armed with mind-readers? Do California cops have x-ray vision? Did the officer know the girl from a previous arrest? Or did every local in Sacramento carry a crack-pipe? That would go a long way to explaining how the state was run.

But no, it turned out the sharp-eyed officer had spotted the pipe during our conversation. It all depends on your perspective; we hadn’t noticed at all. The officer accepted the pipe and stomped the glass tube into the ground. Turning back to us, he said, “Sleep it off, y’hear? Then get out of town.”

Maybe it was his deadpan delivery. Maybe it was the mirrored sunglasses that hid his eyes. Whatever the reason, we decided to heed his advice. We haven’t been back since, and we recommend the same for you.

Little Known Fact: When Arnold Schwarzenegger became the state’s governor, he erected a huge tent behind the Governor’s Mansion, full of phones, faxes, and filings. The tent, which he paid for privately, allowed him to legally smoke his beloved cigars. The Mansion, you see, is a public building, and therefore by state law, smoking is prohibited inside it.

Lessons Learned: Every motorcycle trip—in fact, every trip into the unknown—is fraught with danger. We do our best to prepare, but sometimes events arise faster than we can say “To serve and protect,” which in this instance at least referred to our collective asses. We’re still here, so we must have done something right.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 5
Discomfort Level: 5
Grunge Factor: 4
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Sacramento International Airport
Native Population: 467,343 (city only)
Normal Attractions: ARCO Arena (home of the Sacramento Kings), museums, music, history, the State Capitol Building, and nearby Sutter’s Mill, which started the Gold Rush of 1848.
Final Point of Interest: Sacramento hosts the annual Trash Film Orgy, a summer festival celebrating absurd, horror, monster, exploitation, and other B-movies. We missed it.