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.

23 October 2009

Quote of the Month

The way you travel says a lot about you. For example, we are former hitchhikers who prefer trains to planes, and our stories reflect this inclination. All this experience has led to some insights and revelations over the years. Let us share one with you now:

“When in doubt, buy the second-class ticket. First class will be too expensive and third class too uncomfortable. That doesn’t make us moderates, by the way.”

Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2009)

18 October 2009

One Thumb Out and Two Thumbs Down

Here is another story from our many, many hitchhiking adventures. This true story proves once again that even knowing the lay of the land can’t always protect you from the unimaginable. Sometimes, you’re just on your own. That’s the thrill and the beauty of traveling: you never know how the journey will end until you reach your destination. —MB & JS
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Germany has an excellent train system—its cabins are neat, its passengers are polite, and its trained crew are ruthlessly efficient. But for adventure and economy, you might consider hitchhiking. Unlike hitching in the US, thumbing a ride in Europe is still a fairly safe and viable travel alternative . . . most of the time.

To get anywhere in Germany by car, you have to take the Autobahn, the nation’s souped-up interstate highway. Traveling on the Autobahn means never having to say “Geschwindigkeitsgrenze,” which is a lot of syllables that mean “speed limit.” Drivers on the Autobahn average 100 miles an hour, regardless of the weather. Accidents, when they happen, involve everybody. There’s no such thing as a fender-bender in triple-digit driving.

Did you see that car just disappear into the distance? That was us once.

For obvious reasons, pedestrians aren’t allowed on the road itself, which limits hitchhikers to entrance ramps, rest stops, and the prize of them all: Tankstellen (gas stations). This law, however, does not limit hitchhikers’ success stories.

Experienced hitchhikers—like us, the ones who live to retell the tale—have fond memories of their time on the road, but if you are among the faint of heart, you might want to dig deeper for train fare. Hitchhiking is not without its inherent risks, which goes double for hitchhiking on the Autobahn (picture trying to score a ride from the pit stop during a NASCAR race). While you can get lucky and reach your destination in record time, you might also end up on the ride of your life. All you know about your host is that he or she had the decency to pull over and open the door.

We’ve been lucky. Hitchhiking has taken us to brave new worlds. We’ve ridden the waves of centripetal force in the back of an empty dump truck skidding around sandy corners on a Turkish mountain byway. We’ve sweated bullets while bumping along in a gas tanker marked EXPLOSIVE. We’ve crawled along a road in an old pick-up going slower than we could have walked. We’ve been left at the side of the road in the middle of the night with nowhere to sleep but among the trees. We’ve even been picked up by the driver of a stolen car speeding toward the border.

We’ve been honked at, faked out, and passed up by caravans of Brits when our sign clearly read “London.” We’ve been given a lift by the Dutch Highway Patrol when stuck at a crossroads and nearly arrested in Austria for soliciting a similar service. We’ve been put up for the night, invited to parties, introduced to artists, taken to breakfast, and seduced by married women. Some of our greatest travel memories started with a long walk and ended with a ride to remember.

Which brings us back to Germany’s Autobahn. It was the setting for our scariest ride ever—a few hours that forced us to review our past, repent our ways, and swear off hitchhiking for weeks.

It was late at night. That was one problem. We’d been drinking. That was another. But we somehow scored a ride going all the way to our destination. Silly grins. High-fives. We got in the car. The next thing we knew, we had entered the stratosphere. We had unknowingly booked passage for a pre-dawn flight in an Audi rocket cruising at 150 miles an hour through a fog thicker than Egyptian cotton.

Our fingernails dug into the upholstered leather seats. Our hearts crawled up into our throats for protection. Our breath came in quick spurts, as if our lungs sought to remind us we were still mortal. The driver straddled the center line to keep safely away from the Soft Shoulder of Death. We’ve never been so glad not to see another car. At a Tankstelle stop to refuel, we actually fought for the right to sit in the back seat.

We made it home in record time, but with damaged nerves and soiled underwear. It was a ride we’ve never been able to forget. Not even with alcohol.

Little Known Fact: Germans find it offensive if you join your index finger and thumb together in the “OK” sign. Don’t do it!

Lessons Learned: When hitchhiking on the Autobahn, you get to ride in some of the highest-performing automobiles in the world as they try to exceed the speed of sound. Hitchhiking isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve got more time than money, there’s no better feeling than seeing a car slow down and pull over, especially if the wind is blowing and the pavement has spent the last two hours sending shivers through the soles of your feet. You’re living on the edge, balanced precariously between hope and despair, safety and danger, life and death, a rock and a fast lane. You’ll probably be fine, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 5
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Most traffic to Germany still goes through Frankfort Airport
Native Population: 82,500,000 (Germany), not that you’ll meet them all on the Autobahn
Normal Attractions: German history, culture, art, museums, and of course, the automobiles.
Final Point of Interest: Twenty years of debate and study haven’t proven the Autobahn any more dangerous than other roads.

07 October 2009

The Cannibal’s Feast

This story comes from a friend of ours who travels (as you’ll soon see) to more exotic places than we normally go. That’s why we like her so much. That, and because she shares her stories with us freely. Here’s an adventure we have never even dreamed about, and yet it’s one our friend Heather undertook without a second thought. Maybe she’s having second thoughts now. —MB & JS
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In the archipelago country of Vanuatu, just below the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, an indigenous tribe inhabits the northern hills on the Island of Malakula. The tribe is known as the “Big Nambas,” which translates to—as strange as it might seem—the “Big Numbers.” But that’s hardly the strangest part. The tribe’s name, you see, is in reference to the size of the men’s penis sheathes.

The Big Nambas are famous (or infamous) as former cannibals who, back in the 1980s, still lived as they did thousands of years ago, far from civilization. While they’ve since been exposed to Western culture and religion, they held on to their ancient beliefs, although they had apparently ceased practicing cannibalism. At least that’s what we heard. The world’s last cannibals? We decided we had to find the Big Nambas.

Doing so proved to be a challenge. After we landed on Malakula, we had to navigate through the island’s other natives—the Small Nambas, who apparently suffer from penis sheath envy. Half of them spoke “pidgin English” and the other half spoke “Français de pigeon.” We eventually discovered that the Big Nambas’ village was a solid nine-hour hike up into the mountains.

Two hours into the journey, we met a Westernized (some would say corrupted) islander with a pickup truck who agreed to drive us the rest of the way, for a price. A short negotiation followed, in which we persuaded him, for a slightly larger fee, to rendezvous with us for the return trip as well.

When we arrived at the village, Virhembat the Chief greeted us with his seven wives and 23 children. He showed us each wife’s hut in turn, from the most ornate (which belonged to his first and most honored wife) to the most humble (which belonged to his youngest wife). It was a time-consuming custom we feared might end in a more intimate one.

That night they honored us with a feast. Wild boar, they told us, but it could have been anything . . . or anyone, since their word for all meat was “boar.” We decided not to risk offense. Never anger a cannibal, even a former one. With exaggerated delight, we ate. It tasted suspiciously like chicken.

Virhembat turned out to be quite charming in his own way. Since he only spoke his own language, we had to communicate with gestures and the occasional word. Somehow it worked. He “told” us (miming an airplane) that his eldest son was in France. We learned later that France to him meant Tahiti.

That’s how the world works; your concept of distance all depends on your perspective. While driving across Texas, for instance, doesn’t it seem that you’ll never again see the ocean? Or Chinese food?

When it came time to leave the Big Nambas, we learned some valuable lessons, like how kind and generous these “primitives” were, how much we really liked their simple ways, and how much we wished we hadn’t paid the full amount for the return trip in advance, because the driver never appeared at the rendezvous point. Maybe we had him for dinner.

At least the nine-hour walk back was all downhill.

Little Known Fact: On another island in the same archipelago live the Cargo Cults. During World War II, the Red Cross dropped supplies on the island, and the natives thought it was manna from heaven. They even adopted the US military medic symbol. Ironically, they’ve come to despise Americans, who they believe don’t share their material goods readily enough.

Lessons Learned: Adventure—whether cultural, culinary, or both—always involves some risk. When you’re out in the Great Unknown, trust your instincts and remember what drove you there in the first place (not the pickup truck, but the desire for new and exciting experiences).
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 5
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Norsup, Lamap, and Southwest Bay Airports, all on the Island of Malakula
Native Population: 30,000
Normal Attractions: Malakula has a rich cultural diversity (European and indigenous), but the real reason to visit is that it’s a remote tropical island, far from the maddening crowds.
Final Point of Interest: Pigs, particularly those with rounded tusks, are considered a symbol of wealth throughout Vanuatu.