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.

30 April 2010

The OC

We return now to the United States, in particular to the “Left Coast,” so named as much for its geographic location as for its politics. We used to live in Southern California, land of outdoor hot tubs and perpetual sunny skies (except for the “June Gloom”). We’re here to tell you it’s not all champagne and roses. Heck, it’s not even all beer and carnations. Read on. —MB & JS
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When you think of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, you probably think of the Kingdom of Make-Believe—because almost everything in the park is an illusion. Under the cartoon character costumes are miserable, sweating park employees. Buried next to the Pirates of the Caribbean, according to legend, is the Disneyland Jail, where trespassers and other miscreants are brought to be tortured by an unforgiving Mickey Mouse. And behind the Main Street façades lies the true heart of Disney: a greedy and sadistic taskmaster. Ask anyone who’s ever worked there.

The streets that surround the park are lined with overpriced motels and bad restaurants, a subversion of the American dream. Anaheim is not a place to be caught after dark. If the thugs don’t get you, the cops will. Ask anyone who’s ever lived there.

Orange County, of which Anaheim is a part, reflects the same sentiment as the amusement park: a veneer of cleanliness covering a lack of soul. It’s especially true in South County, as the locals call it, where new stucco buildings exhibit all the character of a stick figure drawing. Everything in South County, it seems, is new and pristine. Like Disneyland’s Main Street.

“The OC,” which none of the locals call their home county, is not the paradise of the television show. Orange County is mostly a cultural desert, a whitewashed urban development run amock. The picturesque orange groves are long gone, bulldozed for housing developments or office parks, all of which look remarkably similar. The houses invariably feature a two-car garage surrounded by a few rooms. The offices are mostly white boxes surrounded by a parking lot. The county has become a nightmarish parody of planned communities, gated developments, and chain stores. The primary characteristic of the architecture can be termed “Post-Modern Boredom.” The culture has devolved into Fast and Cheap.

The OC is home to the Trinity Broadcasting Network headquarters, aka Jesus’ Birthday Cake (whose main stairway is pictured here). It’s everything God could want . . . covered in gold leaf.

So if you find yourself traveling to The OC for a vacation (or a mistake), what can you do? Well, a two-hour drive north to Los Angeles or south to San Diego is always a possibility, as long as you can stand the traffic. Our advice is to take a trip to the beach—Laguna Beach. It’s a liberal arts colony of a town down the coast from ritzy, glitzy, neon-bright Newport Beach (whose motto is: “Our women have more silicon by age 30 than most cars”). Laguna is a breath of fresh air, at least on a good day when the smog hasn’t blown south from LA.

Laguna Beach features the usual assortment of tourist traps and souvenir stands, but it also has many authentic art galleries (ones that sell more than landscape paintings), unique craft stores, and excellent restaurants. Ask five locals about their favorite Laguna Beach restaurant and you’ll get five different answers, and each one will be worth a meal.

Home to summer art festivals—the Sawdust Festival, Art-a-Fair, and the Pageant of the Masters (worth a story all by itself)—Laguna is a great place to hang out for an afternoon or for a week. Food and entertainment are all within easy reach.

You can walk the beach or play volleyball on it. Park yourself on a bench to watch the mix of locals and tourists, young and old, and straight and gay (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Enjoy a margarita at the Las Brisas Restaurant in time for the sunset. Take a leisurely drive up Pacific Coast Highway (“PCH” to the locals) to Newport Beach to stare in awe at the trophy wives. Drive down the coast to Dana Point, where a picturesque harbor awaits. No matter what you do, you’ll realize “The OC” is centered not in Anaheim, but in Laguna Beach.

Lessons Learned: Make sure you have enough quarters to stuff into the Laguna parking meters. Twenty-five cents doesn’t buy much time during peak tourist season. If you plan to stay for a while, park in a lot. You’ll pay more, but you won’t have to rush back every two hours to feed the metered beast.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: John Wayne Airport
Native Population: 3,100,000
Normal Attractions: Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, professional sports (like the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), top-notch and high-end shopping, plus all those gas stations that help you get somewhere else.
Final Point of Interest: The University of California at Irvine was used as one of the locations in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Because it was an educational movie.

22 April 2010

Starving at Hunger Wall

Good things come to those who wait . . . or at least to those who return to our little blog. We recently dug up an old report from our European Vacation, which you’ll be relieved to learn is in no way associated with Chevy Chase. We apologize for the recent bout of inactivity, but you must understand that as self-unemployed writers, we occasionally have to stoop to (gasp!) working for a living. We hope this story will sate your appetite for our quirky travel tales. At least for a while. —MB & JS
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Europe has some great cities, but while Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, London, Paris, and Rome all have their charms, all of them have been bombed at one time or another. War scars cities, and those scars mean more than lost neighborhoods. They translate into lost history.

One city, however, was spared. One city endured while others were shelled. It’s not because this city wasn’t important or wasn’t large enough. Perhaps it was luck, perhaps it was blessed. We think it was both. What city are we writing about? Prague, in the Czech Republic.

No one carpet-bombed its architecture into Swiss cheese. Its palace of a castle still stands, looking as it did in the thirteenth century. Only pigeons have attacked its public sculptures, and those attacks, we’re pleased to report, have done only moderate damage.

Walking through Prague, you can imagine the year is 1912 or 1856 or 1780. The buildings—ornate masterpieces of individual and collective pride—still stand as they did then. The town square hasn’t been crowded out by fast food, subway entrances, or modern superstores. It’s a wonderful city rich in history, art, music, and good food.

But take a lesson from us: it’s a city that awakens slowly.

During our visit, we consulted a travel book (which shall remain nameless) that recommended viewing the Charles Bridge—famous for its religious statuary as it spans the Vltava River—early in the morning. Wake up and see the sunrise, the book said. Avoid the crowds. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

So we rose just after the sun. Five AM. Intrepid travelers, we’d endured worse for the call of adventure. The travel book, we soon learned, was correct: the only people we encountered at the bridge were an amorous couple who kept giving us dirty looks. You’d have done the same; after all, we had cameras.

We enjoyed the quiet and took many unimpeded photos of the guy copping a feel. Then we got a few pictures of the views and of the bridge’s statues in the early morning sunlight. It was peaceful and warm there in the heart of this ancient and beautiful city. We felt strangely nurtured. We had nowhere to be, and we had coins of the realm in our pockets. We basked in the glory of a rare success. Everything seemed right with the world. This was what traveling was all about.

Our preliminary plan was to cross the bridge to Prague’s “Lesser Town,” wander the curving streets, and then have a full breakfast in at a quaint café. Once our bellies were full, we’d tour the magnificent castle high on the hill. It was a good plan, as plans go. After all, we had all day.

Unfortunately, it seemed, so did Prague. Every café was closed, every restaurant shuttered. Even the little neighborhood kiosks were still awaiting their delivery of fresh baked goods. We couldn’t bring ourselves to buy some week-old, shrink-wrapped muffin. We wanted Breakfast: eggs, fresh bread, meat, stuff like that.

So, like the experienced travelers we were, we altered our plans to fit the circumstances. We searched for the John Lennon Wall—the site where, legend has it, revolutionaries gathered during the Communist years, inspired by the songs of the ex-Beatle. People sometimes forget the impact music has in other cultures. We wanted to see it first-hand.

After a few wrong turns (and with no one around to ask directions), we eventually found the wall tucked away in a nondescript courtyard. Graffiti and spontaneous artwork covered the cement like vomit on a Grateful Dead T-shirt after a three-show weekend. At least it suppressed our appetite, momentarily.

The John Lennon Wall: a piece of history or a mural gone too far?

After a snapshot or two, we wandered aimlessly in search of food. Ironically, our trek led us to Prague’s Hunger Wall. A stone wall ascending Petøin Hill, it essentially divides nothing and goes nowhere. The wall was built by the city’s poor in the 14th century in exchange for food. Sadly, we would have done the same, given the chance.

With nowhere else to turn, we headed toward the castle. Uphill all the way. The castle didn’t officially open until ten o’clock, but we hoped to find food somewhere in the neighborhood. Bureaucrats have to eat, don’t they? We’d even settle for a street vendor selling borscht, as long as it was relatively fresh. As we neared the castle, the city began to come alive. We didn’t know whether it was the passing hour, the proximity to the castle, or the power of positive thinking.

We eventually found a three-table restaurant. The hard wooden seat felt like a thousand cushions. The bitter coffee tasted like 100-year-old brandy. When we asked for a menu, though, the waitress raised a bushy eyebrow at us. That should have given us a clue, but we were too tired and hungry to pay attention. The food came and we consumed it quickly. We didn’t really taste it then. We didn’t have to. We tasted it for the rest of the day.

Lessons Learned: Enjoy the charms of Prague, but forget making plans. Pack a lunch instead.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Prague Ruzyně Airport
Native Population: 1,250,000
Normal Attractions: Old Town, Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, the old Jewish quarter, architecture (including the new Dancing House), as well as fine dining, museums, and lots of shopping.
Final Point of Interest: Franz Kafka lived and wrote in Prague. If you stay in the city long enough, so the story goes, you too will develop a paranoid tendency to rival his. Unless you refuse to sober up.

16 April 2010

Quote of the Month

We recognize we haven’t posted in a while. We apologize. We’ve been researching . . . er, we mean traveling to . . . new places. In the meantime, we’d like to share the saying off a T-shirt we saw in Mexico. It’s in English, and it fits our little blog to a “T.” We hope you enjoy it.
“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2010)