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 July 2009

Paris of the North?

We don’t have many stories about Canada. That’s unfortunate, because it just seems like the kind of place that’s crying out to be made fun of. We’ve heard that Victoria, British Columbia, is so lush a place that everything turns green, including any exposed metal. We’ve heard Banff is the place to go to satisfy your craving for Chinese food. Then there’s the subject of this week’s post. Hope you’re as disappointed as we were. —MB & JS
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O Canada. It’s just like the Unites States, except with socialized medicine.

And then there’s Quebec. Unlike the rest of Canada, the people of Quebec speak French, not English. All the lakes, rivers, and towns have French names. You’re more likely to meet a Pierre or Claude than a Jason or Mark. We hear they love Jerry Lewis movies, too. Quebec, you could say, is a lot like France. Except much colder.

Montreal, the second largest Canadian city (which is like saying Cedar Rapids is the second-largest city in Iowa), isn’t the capital of Quebec the province, but it possesses a mystique that other Canadian cities lack. Some consider Montreal the Canadian Paris, a sort of “Paris Lite.” It has all the glamour of the original City of Light, but half the pretension.

Like Paris, Montreal has earned a reputation of a “sin city” due to its unparalleled nightlife, but where Paris boasts famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, Montreal boasts an underground city shopping mall. It’s a very pleasant mall, but the Eiffel Tower it ain’t. Then again, putting a mall underground is an ingenious way to combat the frigid winters. It all comes back to the weather.

We had high expectations when we visited this “Paris of the North.” From a distance, the city appeared large and impersonal, its skyscrapers huddled together as if trying to ward off the cold. As we approached, however, the skyscrapers parted and we found our way to Old Montreal, where the narrow streets by the original port have produced a pedestrian-friendly area of markets and galleries. English was common, spoken with that alluring accent. The natives all seemed friendly. Not like Paris at all.

We expected to find nude models and playwrights waiting for Godot. Or for us. We expected to see mimes on every other corner . . . getting beaten up by celebrating hockey fans. Montreal is home to the arts to be sure, but it’s also home to the Canadiens (aka les Habitants), one of the proudest and winningest franchises in any professional sport (well, except for the Evil Empire that is the New York Yankees).

We were to be disappointed. The mimes were nowhere to be seen, and the hockey fans pretty much kept to themselves. Canadians are polite people, not usually given to beating each other up, although we’re still sure they’d make an exception for mimes.

The Rue Saint Catherine (“rue” means “avenue” for you English-speaking rubes) runs through the center of downtown. Its restaurants are among the best in the world, say some. Its women are among the most beautiful. But it seemed like any other big city, where the traffic lights regulate not only the flow of cars, but the flow of life as well.

On our way to Square St. Louis, Montreal’s bohemian hangout, we cut across the campus of internationally renowned McGill University. It was autumn; school was in session. We turned a corner and happened upon a hot-dog-eating contest. This isn’t something you expect to see in a city like Montreal. In fact, it’s not something you expect to see anywhere outside Coney Island or Illinois.

We stopped to watch, transfixed in horror. Only then did we realize how close we still were to the United States. Parisians would never have permitted such a spectacle. They would have strung up the participants and force-fed them pâté de foie gras.

McGill University: Hard to believe that something so ugly could take place in a place so picturesque.

But we weren’t there to judge them; we were there to score free beer. We posed as college students, but we were a few years past college age and were quickly outed. We tried to pawn ourselves off as visiting professors. That didn’t work, either. We left empty-handed, with nothing to sustain us except that memory. Unlike the winner of that contest, however, we feel no pain while regurgitating this morsel.

The Paris of the North? Not bloody likely. It’s a pretty place, sitting on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, but it’s not as raucous as Las Vegas, Nevada, or as picturesque as Savannah, Georgia. While Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world, all that might mean to you is getting to say “Mercy buckets” with a straight face.

Lessons Learned: If you decide to vacation in Montreal, the City of Festivals, remember that it’s just like most other major cities. It has its history and culture, sure, but every major city has a history and culture. Expect to find pleasant tree-lined rues. Expect to eat well. Expect to see beauty in the hills, buildings, parks, and people. But don’t expect anything like Paris.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport
Native Population: 1,650,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: The Underground City (the mall), the Montreal Casino, Olympic Stadium (home to the Canadiens), Mount Royal on a clear day, and many festivals, all held in the short summer.
Final Point of Interest: Montreal is home to Cirque du Soleil, which—unlike the city that spawned it—is an entertaining circus.

18 July 2009

Quote of the Month

These days, we prefer to travel by car. Air travel is just too exhausting, not to mention invasive. Anyone who’s tried to board an airplane with a simple bottle of water understands this. Seriously, we don’t know how airlines stay in business given the way they treat their “customers.” This month’s quote was stolen from a published source. Please don’t tell on us:

“There is not much to say about most airplane journeys. Anything remarkable must be disastrous, so you define a good flight by negatives: you didn’t get hijacked, you didn’t crash, you didn’t throw up, you weren’t late, you weren’t nauseated by the food.”

–Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express (1979)

11 July 2009

Utah Joe and the Temple of Doom

Here we are back to our old ways: dissing whole groups of people for fun and nonprofit. This latest story might upset some of you, but—as they say in New York City—so what? If you’re in that small minority of people who find fault with any slur, then you shouldn’t be reading this blog. Furthermore, you’re obviously not drinking enough . . . because then you’d understand that slurs happen all the time. —MB & JS
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Every year millions of people, not all of them Mormon, vacation in Utah. The National Parks—Arches, Bryce, and Zion, in particular—lure outdoor enthusiasts with their natural beauty and unique charms. The mountains surrounding Salt Lake City (home of the 2002 Winter Olympics) beckon skiers from every corner of the globe. Hollywood’s elite descend upon the region annually for the Sundance Film Festival. Utah has something for every adventurer, unless, of course, you’re a surfer.

People fly in from all over the globe to be outdoors in Utah, and yet Temple Square, sitting smack in the center of urban Salt Lake City, draws more tourists than any other attraction. When you’re in San Antonio, you’ve got to tour the Alamo. When in Philadelphia, you have to stop by Independence Hall. When in Salt Lake City, apparently, you must visit Temple Square. It’s an unwritten rule, like kissing a cop’s ass to avoid a speeding ticket. (Wait, you mean no one else does that?)

Back when we were young and impressionable, we found ourselves trapped in Salt Lake City, so we paid a visit to Temple Square (although it’s actually free). The site is home to the state’s dominant religion: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aka The Mormons, founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. We hadn’t come to unearth our family tree—Temple Square includes a world-class genealogy research center—nor tune in to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We certainly weren’t there in search of the white shirts, black ties, and three-speed bicycles common to their door-to-door salesmen . . . oops, we mean missionaries. Our mission was much simpler: a history lesson.

With nowhere else to go and all afternoon to get there, we dropped into line, eager to learn about Joseph Smith and his religion’s mammoth, spectacular Temple. We followed a crowd into the pristine Square, where we discovered our tour included all the exhibits in two Visitor’s Centers. The tour did not include, ironically, the Temple itself. We could marvel at its six-spire design, we could graffiti its walls (just kidding), but we were prohibited from stepping inside. That privilege was reserved for believers only. We considered converting just to get out of the sun, but we’d given up religion for Lent a few years back, and it seemed a shame to fall off the wagon now.

Beautiful, but not included on the tour.

So we took in the rest of the Square. While we have nothing against Mormons, we expected more from a religion’s holiest of holy sites. Jerusalem has temples, mosques, and a wall you can wail on. The Vatican has Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. Temple Square is comprised of one locked door and two Visitors Centers, neither of which serve alcohol, since Utah is a “dry” state, prohibiting the public sale of alcohol.

As parched as Utah’s deserts, we wandered toward the South Visitors Center, in search of a water fountain, a soda machine, or a fire hydrant. Instead, we found our history lesson. Brigham Young, we learned, selected the Temple site. The hard-working Mormons, we discovered, took forty painstaking years to build it. The South Center taught us more than we wanted to know, more than we could possible remember. It was like cramming for a test. We flunked.

Afterward, we watched a few “educational videos” about strengthening families and building community. Strong male leads spoke while their multiple wives waited silently behind them. OK, we’re exaggerating, but the women really didn’t say a word.

All the while, something besides the lack of alcohol just didn’t seem right. They say youth is wasted on the young, but they weren’t talking about the Mormon young. The youth of Temple Square weren’t wasted at all. As cheerful as we found every guide, however, as casual as he or she inevitably tried to appear, the distinct specter of Stepford threatened the entire proceedings. Every answer to every question sounded rehearsed. Every smile looked deliberate; every nod, wink, and gesture mechanical. It was spooky.

So we got the hell out of there. Far from being an educational tour de force, our tour through Temple Square proved to be a bad trip back in time, to the ’50s . . . the 1850s.

Lessons Learned: There’s a lot to do in Utah besides the Great Outdoors. Salt Lake City is a metropolitan city, much more liberal and secular than the Mormons generally prefer. If you find yourself there, for whatever reason in whatever circumstance, you can find action and excitement. Just not in Temple Square.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 4
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 1

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Salt Lake City International Airport
Native Population: 182,000
Normal Attractions: This Is The Place Heritage Park, Hogle Zoo, Olympic Cauldron Park, Trolley Square shopping district, and everything else you’d expect to find in a big city . . . except a cold beer in a public place.
Final Point of Interest: The second largest city parade (after the Days of ’47 Parade) is the gay pride parade. We bet the Mormons love that.

04 July 2009

On the Road . . . with Mark & Jason

To celebrate Independence Day in the New World (er, we mean the US), we thought we’d share a story that highlights a great American freedom: the freedom to move . . . any time, any place. Americans love moving: for new jobs, for better school districts, or just for fun. We think it has to do with the wind in the face, the mountains on the horizon, and the debts left behind. What follows is a true narrative of a cross-country hitchhiking adventure. Well, it hits some of the weirder highlights anyway. Don’t try this at home, kids. —MB & JS
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Hitchhiking is not without its perils, but it’s the little things you remember, like getting to your destination alive. That and the people you meet.

Out on the road, you are vulnerable. You lack a buffer against the seething, infested mass of humanity. In other circumstances, you can count on a windshield, a TV set, or a loaded shotgun to provide this buffer. Not when hitchhiking. Believe us when we share this insight: the seething, infested mass of humanity somehow intuits this weakness and proceeds to take full advantage.

Years ago, fresh out of college and naively optimistic, we hitchhiked across the US, from Boston to Seattle. In Don’t Even Go There style, we didn’t take the most direct route. Along the way, we met some of most obliging, captivating, and demented people in America. This story is dedicated to them, wherever the hell they are now. We sincerely hope it’s a comfortable, confined space. With bars on the windows.

Luckily, we had exceptional weather during our trip. There’s nothing worse than a downpour to dampen your spirits and prospects while hitchhiking. We had reasonably good luck too. Our longest wait time was four hours, although in the heat kitchen of Nevada, it felt more like four days. To make matters worse, the ride that saved us was in the back of an open pickup, beneath the scorching sun and a very large drooling dog. Beggars can't be choosers.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

We started in Eastern Massachusetts with our large backpacks, our soft bed rolls, and our tiny bank rolls. We made swift work of New York, Philadelphia, and DC as we headed south. In Virginia, a clean-cut 29-year-old born-again Christian picked us up. Obviously, we thought, here was a decent human being, kind and attentive to the needs of his fellows. We soon learned otherwise. Christ, his religion was all he could talk about.

Then he changed the subject to sex. Apparently, these two topics take up most of the space in a breeding-age born-again Christian male’s mind; at least that’s the impression our host left us with. He claimed to be a virgin and fantasized about the proverbial girl next door. He could hardly wait to get married just so he could have sex. My God, he would have had a much less stressful life if only the Pope allowed masturbation. I mean, Jesus Christ! His good will ended abruptly when he tossed us out into the rain (albeit beneath a bridge), where we spent the first of only two nights of the entire two-month trip sleeping outdoors.

In Madison, Wisconsin, while renting a cheap room at the university, we stopped to chat up two girls manning a campus table. Not all the crazies are on the road, we discovered. These girls were avid members of the Socialist Party of America . . . not that it made them any less attractive to two wayfaring, hard-up wanderers. We became somewhat involved. We rode back to Chicago with them and their entourage to protest an American Nazi Party rally in Lincoln Park. Six uniformed fascists (one with a megaphone) tried to talk over the thousand socialists (and others) gathered to stop them. Eight ill-tempered, militaristic mounted policemen stationed between the two groups kept the event from descending into anarchy. Somewhat ironic in hindsight.

After that scene, we were never so relieved to get back on the road.

Next came the “Party Hearse:” a vintage automobile from the 1960s, but a real hearse nonetheless. We slouched in the back, a space never meant to be comfortable for the living. The time passed more quickly once the bottles of booze appeared. You’d be amazed at the number of concealed compartments in the back of a hearse . . . and we needed every one, since a policeman stopped the car and searched us all. He could smell our breath, knew we’d been drinking (except for the driver, thank God), but he couldn’t find any incriminating evidence.

Around Cody, Wyoming, we stopped in to view a free site proudly proclaiming itself to feature an “Historical Mural.” It turned out to be a Mormon Church front group. They gave us an apple, a Book of Mormon, and a lecture. We were glad to get the apple.

In rural California, one driver questioned us before letting us into the car: “Got any weapons? Guns or knives?” We answered, “Just pocket knives, sir.” “OK,” he said, “get in, but put the knives on the dashboard, so we both know where they are.” We spent the next couple hours staring at those pocketknives while wondering what kind of hardware he had. Luckily, we never found out.

In Oregon heading north, we were picked up by a large man in a beat-up sedan. He started talking about robbing a bank. He had a plan, but just needed some help—like a get-away driver and someone to hold the rifle. You know, the basics. What had we got ourselves into? We finally persuaded him to drop us off, with the idea of meeting up in the morning. We were far away by dawn and never did find out if he was serious or just seriously insane.

These are just a few of the fun-loving people we met on the road. If we’ve met them, you can be sure they’re out there waiting for the next fool. If you’re out there, remember, so are they.

Lessons Learned: Times have changed, and hitchhiking isn’t what it used to be. There are generous people everywhere, and if you’re open to the possibility, you might find a great adventure waiting for you, even one to write down. Of course, the other possibility always exists, too . . .
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 3
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 4
Inactivity Guide: 4
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Are you kidding?
Native Population: 2: you and the driver
Normal Attractions: Life on the road is anything but lonely, but it’s a cheap way to travel when you’re not in a hurry and crave as much adventure as a new Internet dater.
Final Point of Interest: We’ve had good experiences on the road, too, but who wants to read the boring stories of the person who bought us a meal, put us up for the night, or introduced us to his horny neighbor? Hmmm, stay tuned.