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.

29 January 2010

Life Is a Circus

Now we can add Sarasota, FL, to the list of places we’ve visited and written about. Why Sarasota? If you really asked that question, then you need to read more of our posts. Sarasota has a real highlight that we think you’ll be glad you missed. It’s all part of our civic duty. It’s all part of the service we offer here at Don’t Even Go There. We hope you enjoy this brand new entry. Be sure to come back and read from our extensive backlist. —MB & JS
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Like most places in Florida, Sarasota sits along a coast. We believe there actually are parts of Florida that aren’t highway or coastline, but we haven’t found them yet. Maybe it’s like one of those Floridian urban legends we keep hearing about, like hill country or English-speaking policemen.

We went to Sarasota for a specific purpose, and it wasn’t sunbathing, fly fishing, or mosquito-wrangling. We went to see the circus . . . or more accurately, the Home of the Circus. Sarasota, you see, was the winter quarters for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the place where all the animals and performers could rest and train between circus seasons. These days, it’s called The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Yes, there is an art museum on the grounds (one building with many, many galleries), but that’s not the reason most people pay $25 to get in. The real draw are the three museum buildings full of circus paraphernalia and Cà d’Zan, the Ringling family mansion. Despite the fact that the mansion’s name sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings, they tell us it’s actually a Venetian dialect of Italian. It’s all Greek to us.

Anyway, back to Sarasota. Cà d’Zan has 56 rooms, some of which are human-sized. Its ornate furnishings, hand-painted ceilings, and exquisite views make you think that you paid too much to see trapeze artists the last time the circus came to town.

But you didn’t. Even in the age of steam trains, the circus employed thousands. It was no small feat to move the whole affair from town to town, tend the animals (however cruelly, according to some), set up and tear down the big tent, and still put on show that could wow even adults. It boggles the mind to think about it, but in the museum’s Tibbals Learning Center, you can actually see it in glorious 3D. Howard Tibbals created the world’s largest miniature circus, complete with trains, people, animals, and part of the town. If that weren’t enough, the whole scene changes from day to night every few minutes. Try to find the mule kicking a handler, customers peeing in the men’s tent, the boy getting a needle in his ass, the fallen acrobat, and the drunk in the Big Top. They’re all highlights.

The miniature circus includes 59 train cars, eight tents, 152 wagons, 1300 people, and 800+ animals, according to our count.

The best part of the tour by far were the unofficial, off-the-cuff stories told to us by our guide, meaning Mark’s brother. Remember that circus life placed untold pressure on the performers. The circus life was a hard road. It was arguably worse for the so-called freaks who had nowhere else to go. They stayed in Florida during the winter, and not surprisingly did not welcome gawkers.

One such freak, Grady Stiles (aka Lobster Boy)—a man born with limbs that resembled lobster claws—was a heavy drinker and notoriously abusive. Even the other circus people avoided him as much as possible. He murdered his daughter’s fiancé on the eve of the wedding, confessed, but was given 15 years probation because no prison was equipped to handle someone with his deformity. Then years later, he was murdered himself . . . by his own family. His wife claimed it was the only way she could protect herself and her children from his physical abuse.

So next time you hear someone wanting to run off to join the circus, talk him or her out of it. The circus life does something to people.

Lessons Learned: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art: it’s not the only reason to visit Sarasota, but it may be the best reason to do so. If you find yourself stuck south of Tampa with nothing to do, get in the car and drive someplace else. Quickly.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Sarasota-Bradenton Airport
Native Population: 52,000
Normal Attractions: Historic buildings, killer humidity, and institutions of secondary education. Colleges: because normal people wouldn’t want to live there.
Final Point of Interest: Sarasota does have a major league baseball spring training site, and it is almost famous for its golf courses. Funny, just like most other Florida cities.

17 January 2010

Quote of the Month

This month’s quote comes in the form of a very reliable, remarkably uncanny travel tip. Unfortunately, it’s not one of ours. Still, in our effort to bring you the best (and worst) of travel stories and advice, we felt this quote perfectly fit the bill. Read, learn, and enjoy. And come back next week for another exciting tale from the road best abandoned.
“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”

Susan Heller

03 January 2010

We’ll Always Have Venice

For some travel destinations, we have to strain the bounds of incredulity to make them fit our nefarious purposes. For others, like the one described here, all we have to do is show up, look around, and take copious notes. In truth, these are the places we long for. These are the locations that deserve our attention. We hope you agree. —MB & JS
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California is known for its eccentrics, and for good reason. The culture and the climate both encourage people to venture outdoors—people who in other states would remain hiding in the woodwork or at least getting weekly therapy. But where did they all come from? History reveals that the California Gold Rush of 1848 drew dreamers, schemers, underachievers, and neurotics to the state, and despite finding nothing of value in the hills, they decided to stay. Now they’ve had time to produce something like eight generations of inbreeding.

Southern California has more than its share of oddballs. Former child stars, now homeless, lurk on street corners handing out bad poetry for spare change. Environmentalists demanding justice assault mall patrons with protests and new car dealers with explosives. Acting students—working in every restaurant, café, bookstore, and crack-house—care more about their careers than your order. These people have no boundaries and believe the world owes them, if not a living, then at least a large beer.

We recommend you steer clear of the state. On one short ill-fated visit, we swear we encountered most of the region’s nutcases all in one place. It’s called the World’s Greatest Free Freak Show, but we didn’t know that when we arrived in Venice Beach, an ocean-side community south of Santa Monica. We had only heard of the famous boardwalk along its beach, where athletic joggers share space with bikini-clad rollerbladers, where dog-walkers and skateboarders somehow co-exist.

We found the town easily enough and spent the first carefree hour sightseeing for a parking space. Once we made it to the beach, we were immediately impressed with the high quality of its characters. We’re not your average tourists—not by a long shot—but even we could never attain this level of weirdness. The beach area held the cream of California’s crop of crazies. This was no easy feat, considering that rental prices in the community range from “High” to “Oh My God.” Where these people actually slept was a mystery. Maybe they flew in every morning from San Fernando Valley.

The beach scene was a carnival atmosphere, where anything goes. We’re not saying we were solicited for sex or drugs, but we won’t deny it either.

The least deviant people we encountered were the bodybuilders. Flexing and squatting and grunting, they exercised at Muscle Beach, an outdoor gym that sits right on the sand. It seemed narcissistic for someone to exercise in front of curious, funnel cake-eating onlookers, but then bodybuilding is narcissistic by nature.

All along the boardwalk, littering the sand like gnats, were “buskers,” “artists,” and “merchants.” Usually such terms evoke visions of people with talent and ambition, or at least teeth. Most of these “businesspeople” looked like they lived where they sat. Some looked as though they’d somehow survived on handouts without moving since 1972. They certainly hadn’t changed their clothes.

Then things turned worse. A Jimi Hendrix wannabe latched onto us. He played his electric guitar with mock emotion through a portable amplifier strapped to his waist while rollerblading through the crowd at high speeds. He followed us, skating backwards to “Purple Haze” until we paid him a couple dollars to leave. Even then he circled us a few times before darting off. We were glad to see him go; he stunk—not his guitar playing, his body odor.

This stolen image (we never got to photograph our assailant) only hints at the weirdness that is Venice Beach.

Of course, Venice Beach has lots to offer besides the people who inhabit it. Coffeehouses and boutiques line the boardwalk. The shops—with names like Surfing Cowboys, Johnny B. Wood, and The Modern Dog—sell almost everything, from hemp clothing to modern furniture. We’re talking Eclectic with a capital E. Since rents are so high, you might find that one-in-a-million whatever, but you’ll have to pay through the nose for it.

By the end of the day, we felt raw, sunburned, overwhelmed, and broke. All in all, that’s not necessarily bad, but it wasn’t the kind of day we had expected. Sometimes, you just chalk it up to experience. Other times, you realize you just picked the wrong day to stop snorting marijuana.

Lessons Learned: The reputation of a place (any place) gets cemented in the distant past. By the time you arrive for a visit, you’ll often find, as we did on this occasion, that the area has deceived you in a bait and switch. Whatever you expected, you’ll likely find a shallow representation instead. Venice Beach has its charm, but it’s like the grubby, bohemian artist who insists that he’s still relevant. To you and me, he’s not.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 5
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 4
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Los Angeles International Airport
Native Population: 38,000
Normal Attractions: Muscle Beach, beach volleyball courts, the boardwalk and its businesses, plus the people who inhabit it. In other words, it’s all about the sun. And commerce.
Final Point of Interest: Downtown Venice actually has some cool bars, nightclubs, and art galleries.