Run, Run, Run, Run-a-way

Travel writing is supposed to provide practical information, so I’m finally going to attempt to provide some.

This is about airport safety; not flying safety or even airline safety – those things are different and involve complicated statistics and sprockets and lectures about how your Kindle is going to bring down a 747. Besides, when it comes to airline safety the answer is always “Fly Qantas” because it never crashes and Waltzing Matilda is always playing in the first class bathroom.

Once upon a time, one’s main concern when flying was that the plane was going plummet from the sky or explode like a Molotov cocktail stuffed in a small town mailbox. On rare but more disturbing occasions, the entire roof of your plane might peel off, in which case you’d find yourself unceremoniously dumped on the deserted island from Lost where you’d spend the next six years trying to figure out what happened to the giant mechanical smoke monster that appeared in the first episode and then never showed up again. This rooftop peeling occurs because of something called “metal fatigue,” a condition I always hope my plane and my seatbelt buckle don’t get at the exact same time.

But no, the problem these days is that airplanes are, quite literally, getting into car accidents. They’re rear ending one another, not looking both ways, clipping wings on take-off, skidding down the runway on discarded packs of peanuts, and having eight-plane pileups every time it rains (when in doubt it’s the cargo plane’s fault.) It is also true, however, that accidents on runways make for much better news stories than planes that inconveniently crash out of sight over the Pacific Ocean. Nothing will make a reporter weep with joy faster than footage of a Cessna caught up in the spokes of an Airbus. So the issue is at least getting proper attention.

Given the focus on practicality, it is of course not practical to advise travelers never to fly into thus and so airport. As far as I can tell, “My plane might have a fender bender” has never worked as an excuse not to attend your wife’s stamp collecting conference in Tacoma. What is practical, however, is knowing the airports in which it’s best to leave your shoes on until you’re safely in the air – or which airports’ safety records are so poor that you actually should turn off your Kindle before landing (rather than just pretending to) because if you descend atop a Learjet and cartwheel down the runway, you’re going to lose your electronic bookmark.

So here is the official list of America’s least safe airports, in no particular order because the order in which they actually fall is boring.

 

 Cleveland Hopkins

First of all, never make an airport sound a little bit like a hospital. It invites problems and the airport in Cleveland has had lots of them.

Forget the jokes about Cleveland being gray and depressing and home to a baseball team that broke my heart. The frank fact about Cleveland Hopkins is that the runways are too short. Studies show that this is much more dangerous than having runways that are long enough. In 2010 alone, lack of runway length caused 286 billion near misses in Cleveland…or something like that…the most recent incident occurring when a novice Emirates Airline pilot realized a fraction of a second before landing that his assigned strip of runway was only slightly longer than the plane itself. He pulled up and went back to Dubai, where he’s now invested in an innovative shopping mall with main concourses expansive enough to – you guessed it – land a jumbo jet. This has increased both his life expectancy and the sales figures at the Louis Vuitton that sits at the north end of the mall.

Not so lucky was the next pilot to discover Cleveland’s “runways the length of a Slip n’ Slide” phenomenon. He skidded right off the tarmac, through the perimeter fence, and onto the highway where the plane still sits because it was the most interesting thing to happen to Cleveland in years.

Chicago O’Hare

It’s not surprising that Chicago has a dangerous airport. It’s cold. There’s a crosswind. Barack and Oprah are gone. And nobody is actually going to Chicago anyway: it’s a hub, which means that everyone is simply connecting through Chicago to get to somewhere better. Either way, between the inhumane temperatures and the desire to “grab the connecting idiots and go,” pilots have been known to cut corners and I mean this in a frantic and ill-advised literal way. They will drive commercial aircraft across patches of grass just to escape the wind chill in January. So intense is the need to flee that the majority of planes that do have runway collisions at O’Hare choose to take off anyway.

If you see a plane over Lake Michigan with one wing dangling, this is what’s going on.

Charlotte Douglas

This one’s easy because a recent survey of working pilots revealed that most of them think Charlotte Douglas is the name of the person who wrote Jane Eyre. Sometimes they hear it and wonder if it’s someone in Economy Class who they used to know in the 4th grade; or maybe a niece for whom they’ve forgotten to buy a birthday present at Duty Free. But they certainly don’t think it’s an airport. The last major disaster happened when air traffic controllers instructed a plane to “descend to Charlotte Douglas” — the copilot thought he was supposed to settle for the fat girl he met on OK Cupid; the pilot thought he was supposed to leave his wife for the babysitter.

All-in-all, this airport needs to get a bit more serious about sounding aviational.

 

Miami International Airport

If you didn’t head off on your Miami vacation expecting a rabid lack of foresight and accountability on the part of everyone at your destination, you deserve to be run over by a refueling truck while on foot. Don’t laugh because this has actually happened. Plus the cargo planes in Miami are always in a hurry because, just a hint, they’re not carrying oranges and snow globes.

In fact, I really do want to stress that most accidents at Miami International Airport are due to large scale criminal activity and not silly things like flight crews doing lines of coke off the flip-top armrests. (This armrest rumor only got started when FAA officials blamed a 2008 collision on a plane “blowing a tire,” which everyone figured was code for “the pilots doing donut-shaped lines.” This is not true because doing lines in that fashion is actually called “blowing o-rings” – although, yes, that is what caused the last major incident at Cape Canaveral.)

I also want to stress in an especially vehement way that planes in Miami do not, as rumored, have “small accidents” on the runway when they’re found to be carrying unusually unattractive passengers. While this was a brief campaign the city of Miami requested the airport enact, they found out in the end that it was better to let the unattractive people deplane and wander around the city so that South Beach bikini models coming down off four-day Ecstasy binges could see them and have something to feel good about. In the struggle between preventing low self-esteem and preventing bikini model suicide, the latter wins out and the blowing of o-rings certainly helps.

JFK

Listen, we’re just pissed that we’re not in first place. It doesn’t matter the list or superlative: best, worst, filthiest, communist. If there’s a list out there, New Yorkers want to be at the top of it – except any list that sounds exceptionally boring. “Doing pretty well on runway incidents” and coming in 20th place does, indeed, sound rather dull. So we either want to be in first place on this list or we want off it entirely.

San Francisco Airport

SFO’s troubles are also easy to explain because it’s so foggy that someone at the airport once mistook me for Abe Vigoda. It gets even easier when you realize that the world’s foggiest airport also has the world’s most tangled configuration of runways. SFO from above looks like somebody dropped a pile of Swizzle Sticks then let loose a hoard of blind carpenter ants hopped up on amphetamines. It’s chaos.

On the upside, the FAA recently announced that they were looking into the problem. On the downside, their analysis showed that the only way to untangle the runways was to extend the airfield into San Francisco Bay – something that’s never going to happen because the plan “is vehemently opposed by Bay Area environmentalists and windsurfing enthusiasts.” When asked for comment on the tradeoff between hippy sensibilities and human life, a representative for the windsurfers noted that flaming balls of airplane wreckage in the bay might at least burn off some of the fog.

 

Newark Liberty Airport

It’s Newark for god’s sake. Most of the runway incidents are muggings.

 

LAX

Los Angeles is worried about this. They’re number 3 on the list, getting worse every day, and the FAA is launching “an intensive outreach program” to educate airport staff on best practices, proper procedures, and situational awareness. In other words, The Air Traffic Controllers Guide to Not Being a Sleeping Tree Shrew.

But the truth of the matter is more insidious than ignorance and more intractable than a lack of willingness to stay awake in the tower during rush hour. The truth is that planes at LAX smash into one another because as soon as the pilots find out there isn’t anyone famous on board they sort of just…give up. The last recorded runway collision occurred when two despondent Korean Air pilots pulled away from the gate thinking they were carrying either Dr. Phil or Dr. Drew, only to find out that the doctor in first class was actually just a neurosurgeon. The neurosurgeon, in turn, failed to prove useful after the accident because he’d sunk into a depression when he realized the man sitting next to him was neither Denzel Washington nor Samuel L. Jackson, but just a black guy who ran a hedge fund. Apparently the doctor had been quite excited to ask the man if there were “mother fuckin’ snakes on the plane” when he was interrupted by a loud crashing sound, followed by the hedge fund manager shouting out some sort of panicked “I drink before breakfast!” confessional to the man he, of course, thought was Dr. Drew.

 

Honolulu Airport

STOP HANDING OUT LEIS AND START WATCHING THE RUNWAY.

And slso the runways aren’t lit very well.

And sometimes they overflow with lava.

 

Phoenix Sky Harbor

They are two main problems at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport. The first is that many pilots hear the term Sky Harbor and think that the world of The Jetsons has finally arrived. In response they attempt to land hovercraft-style on the roof of the nearest control tower and this rarely goes well.

The other problem is that sensible pilots who do try to land in Phoenix in the regular fashion invariably discover that the tarmac has melted due to an oppressive and life threatening heat index not even Dante could have dreamed up. The wheels immediately stick, everything else onboard continues forward at 200 miles per hour, and that’s why Phoenix baggage claim is located in the parking lot of a nearby Olive Garden. Please note that many Olive Gardens look alike and they’re the only place to eat in Phoenix, so just keep life easy and take whatever piece of luggage looks like it contains a ticket back to the East Coast.

 Las Vegas McCarran

When asked about the airport in Las Vegas, FAA officials announced (and I quote), “Runway status lights are part of the airport’s program to improve safety.”

Now…I don’t know why the runways didn’t have lights before. Did Steve Wynn take them all? Were people wearing them on their heads? Were airport administrators taking part in some kind of “What happens on the runway…” Las Vegas hijinks? No one seems to know. All that’s clear is that the FAA told them to cut it out or they’d remove all the slot machines from the airports, including the teeny ones that fold out of your tray table and crawl straight into your wallet to breed.

Boston Logan

Commuter jets really need to stop mixing it up with the big boys.

Boston Logan is a major airport where, you know, proper planes come and go. Yet the number of commuter jets swarming around Boston’s airport has made it resemble a sort of cinematic long shot of the Death Star, with so many tiny aircraft seeping into and out of invisible seams in the structure that you wonder if anyone is in charge and how they don’t all smash into one another. The answer is “There isn’t and they do.” But there’s nothing Boston can do about it. Taking a regular-sized plane from Boston to New York or Baltimore or Bangor…well, it always seems like overkill. There’s nothing worse than trekking to the back of Economy, compressing your incompressible rolling bag into the overhead bin, sitting down to read SkyMall and wonder “Who buys this shit?” – only to realize that you’ve already arrived at your destination.

So yes, everyone in Boston takes small regional planes. And yes, the occasional big plane going to London runs one of them over. It’s just the risk you take – and quite honestly it’s worth it to go to Bangor, Maine. I once spent a long weekend at a Bed n’ Breakfast-cum-portal to Pet Cemetery and Stephen King wasn’t making any of that scary stuff up…

(Strangely enough, the airports in Bangor are quite safe.)

 Dallas/Fort Worth

Would someone please make a decision here? Pilots don’t know whether they’re landing in Dallas or in Forth Worth and the ensuing arguments on approach often cause them to crash into other planes being piloted by bickering flight crews.

Also, if they approach too low over Mexico they sometimes get “Illegals with Magnets” underbelly hop-ons and the Texas governor’s suggestion that such planes simply land without their wheels down didn’t go over very well with the liberals.

When asked for comment both the FAA and GOP just rolled their eyes. A GOP representative later added “maybe they should go land at SFO.”

Philadelphia Airport

I once heard a great insight about Philadelphia, more specifically about the New York/Philadelphia rivalry. It came from a good friend – Brooklyn born-and-bred – who spends a lot of time in Philadelphia and is constantly being harangued by diehard Philly types who approach him, unbidden, and launch into semi-accusatory rants about New York City. How Philadelphia is every bit as good as New York. How Philly has the same shows and museums, world famous attractions, sports teams, great restaurants. How Philadelphia is basically every bit as good as New York and don’t you forget it.

Whenever confronted with these rants my friend listens patiently until the Philly type runs out of air and vitriol, and then responds quite simply: “Hey, guess what? In New York City we ain’t talking about Philadelphia.”

 None of this has to do with airport safety. The point is that Philly sucks and don’t you forget it.

Conclusion

On December 3rd, as this essay was being written, the head of the FAA was arrested for drunk driving. Apparently he was twice the legal limit, tooling down the wrong side of the street while singing Tom Petty’s Free Falling. I don’t know what this says about planes or safety or the FAA or even people. I just know that it is a strange thing we do – this flying business. Aside from major surgery, flying is the only time we blithely hand our lives over to complete strangers who might or might not have healthcare benefits, have an axe to grind, be sleep deprived, or be sleeping with Charlotte Douglas. And it’s not just our lives; it’s our basic Geneva Convention rights. O’Hare was just the epicenter of a $900,000 lawsuit brought by passengers who were trapped on the tarmac with no food or water for longer than the legal maximum, which is something like 58 hours. For a species that won’t put up with TiVo-proof commercials, we put up with a lot of shit at the airport. “Give me your shoes, your watch, your wallet, your toddler, and your dignity –here’s a $20 soda in return. Now give me the soda because you’re on the wrong side of security. And also we might kill you because there aren’t any lights on the runway.”

Quick: Are airports privately or publically owned? All of them? Just the ones in the US? Are commuter planes really being piloted by college kids? Does Alaska Airlines even go to Alaska? And is the Chief Operating Officer at LAX seriously named Steve Martin??

He is. And we’re idiots. But we’ve got to get to a conference on stamp collecting and we’ve got to get the hell out of Phoenix in July – so we don’t really have much of a choice, now do we? The only good news I can think of is this: with each passing day and every hair-raising taxiing debacle down the runway, we are one day closer to the world of The Jetsons. I’m a believer. It will come. And in my lifetime. And all of these problems will be replaced by new ones that are at least more fun. We’ll hop in our customized luxury escape pods with cell phones, intact nervous systems, and many many ounces of liquid, and we’ll be computer-navigated all over the world by advanced algorithms and Chinese technologies that actually know the difference between Dallas and Fort Worth. The only thing we’ll have to worry about then is the drunken head of the FAA and our own already disproven sense of good judgment. My escape pod will play Waltzing Matilda – and if I can order one those wasp-waisted Mrs. Jetson outfits, all the better.

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Where to Stick the Baby

Having a child, from what I’ve heard, is a miraculous event in which you and a loved one create an entirely new and utterly loveable little being whose every gurgle bonds you closer to your partner, whose tiny toes are so cute you (oddly enough) want to bite them off, and whose first smile erases all memories of not having been invited to your high school prom. Then one day the baby starts crying. And it doesn’t stop until the mother weighs 300 lbs, the father stays out all night drinking with other fathers, the toaster is broken, the mother and father hate each other vehemently, everybody hates the baby (who at this point is still crying), and then the baby turns fourteen and announces that it hates everybody and is leaving to go to its prom. Parents, particularly mothers, repeatedly tell me this story and then thrust out their lower lips and give me that look that says, “I’m so sorry your existence is small for not having one.” Never being sure what to say to that look of pure pity, my kneejerk response has always been, “Please go wash the throw up off your shirtfront.” That part is in my head. What comes out of my mouth is, “Maybe someday – although I’ll be one of those cool parents who just sticks the baby in a papoose and travels around South America.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what that would actually look like. For one thing, I don’t think the neck problems I developed while snowboarding would appreciate the weight on my back (or front) and for another thing my sister has pointed out that this would literally only work for the baby’s first few weeks of life. After that they start demanding things like food and iPads and the whole plan would fall apart.

But I’m not ready to give up the dream just yet. Perhaps the Andes were a bit of a stretch. I actually hate the great outdoors (which are not that great to begin with) and I assume any progeny I put forth might also object to tents and bugs (plus a baby without access to a hairdryer is just obscene). I’ve also seen that Kevin Costner movie where the mother falls off the waterfall and an isolated tribe of leftover Aztecs raises the baby until the mother’s ghost shows up in Seattle to complain, and Kevin Costner is basically tormented into going back to the waterfall to kill himself – where he instead finds the damn baby. Of course by that point the baby had gone decidedly “native,” as they say, and while they rolled credits about 30 seconds after the reunion, I have the feeling things weren’t going to go well when they all returned home and the baby started spearing other 4-year-olds in its Seattle preschool.

Still needing a response to these non-stop parents with all the pity, joy, and throw up, I have finally decided to explore some non-papoose options for travelling the world with this eventual infant. I’m a non-traditional kind of adventurer anyway – and staying home to bang my head against the wall while watching All My Children for the next 20 years is no longer an option because they pulled the show off the air.

Please note that I have also disabled the comment button for this particular essay.

Cruises

This seems like the simplest option because as soon as you step on board a cruise ship they give you a buffet ticket and take your baby away. I have seen this happen, although I don’t know (nor did the parents on my most recent cruise seem to ask) where they take the babies to. I have a feeling they actually whisk them out a side door, off the boat entirely, and leave them in a San Diego daycare center. If any overly attached parents do manage to pull themselves away from the conga line long enough to try to visit the baby, ship personnel just hand them the one “trick baby” they keep below decks. The daiquiri fountain in the ship lobby is actually designed to make such obsessive parents drunk enough not to notice that the baby isn’t theirs (they’re all very alike before age three, no?), plus the baby is trained to vomit on cue at which point the parents immediately give it back and hurl themselves into the nearest group hot tub without rinsing off first. This is why I tend to go on Singles cruises, but once I have this baby I’ll need to make certain sacrifices.

Now, because I wouldn’t want to risk coming back with sunstroke so severe that I actually take the wrong baby home (someone else’s baby might have IQ issues), I am leaning more toward Norwegian-style cruise lines where the babies are enrolled in “Viking Training Camp” off the coast of Greenland. This is great exercise, fun for the babies, and the only incident I can find of this going horribly wrong took place in 2001 and was clearly the mother’s fault for trying to breastfeed before removing the baby’s Viking helmet. Around-the-world cruises are also a good option because you can stop in China and have someone teach your baby Mandarin so that it can get a job when it leaves college.

Cultural Tours

By this I mean a long series of structured trips involving wine, museums, and lectures about why we still can’t seem to get all of those stolen masterpieces back from the Nazis. As far as I know, most of the Nazis are dead or in prison; it seems like even my baby could wander into East Berlin and simply load the paintings onto its big wheel and leave. This issue aside, a trip focused on culture and art history seems like a wonderful plan because the baby will be learning about chiaroscuro and I will be drinking. Suddenly I understand how new mothers feel when they keep yelling “What was I thinking!?” as a baby in a papoose now seems like the wrong plan all along. This, if anything, is the trip I myself was born to take.  By the end of two weeks I will have a baby who can stand at a lectern and wax philosophical about Michelangelo then lead me back to the hotel in a drunken stupor. If I’m not mistaken, this is why Italians have babies in the first place (that and the Catholic birth control thing, which is easily overcome by leaving any “accidental travel baby” behind in a monastery, which in turn are what monasteries are for in the first place, etc. It’s all very cyclical. See Circle of Life.).

My only concern, I suppose, is the noise level. Museums are places of quiet reflection; perhaps quiet conversation about why pointillism is a cop out. They are for strolling and Giotto not strollers and drool — and the last time I laid eyes on a child under five on the Daru staircase at the Louvre I believe I called the authorities. But I was young then too – and, to the child’s credit, humans of all ages are supposed to sob the first time they see The Winged Victory of Samothrace. If my baby didn’t sob…well, let’s just say “See Monastery.” For those who do desire some time alone with the Titians, I should also note that a baby left alone in the Prado gift shop is far less likely to be kidnapped than a baby surrounded by adults in an Anaheim Toys “Я” Us. And, of course, if you really want to cater to the baby (and if you can stomach it) you could instead take it to a museum of modern art where it can run freely, slop Kool-Aid on the drivel, and point at all the Rothkos and say, “I could do that.” It would be one of those wonderful and rare parental moments when you realize that your baby is right and it’s the rest of the world that’s insane.

The Balkans

At first glance, this seems strange. But the fact of the matter is that babies get into trouble in certain types of places. Places with working light sockets, for example, or places with bright colors to distract them or happy music that they’ll then sing over and over and over until you call Lufthansa and change your return destination to Bellevue. Balkan nations have none of these things – and to be honest no one will notice you and your baby because they’re all far too focused on the only thing that actually matters in the Balkans, which is making money illegally. A recent study showed that 96% of Macedonian men between the ages of 12 and 82 are involved in organized crime, which sounds dangerous until you realize that most of that organized crime involves three and only three black market commodities: cigarettes, caviar, and girls. The bad news is that all of this is true. The good news is that babies 1.) are bad with lighters and don’t tend to smoke until the second grade, 2.) are chronologically close enough to having been an egg that caviar makes them a bit nervous, and 3.) if you have a girl baby it won’t be eligible to be kidnapped until it’s at least out of diapers. Having a boy baby is no concern either, because Slovenian shopping outlets are not yet selling Adidas tracksuit onesies and your baby can’t be recruited into the criminal lifestyle unless it’s wearing one. Please note that you actually can buy Adidas baby outfits on Amazon.com, but for god’s sake don’t bring one as a joke (see Russian Mafia Sense of Humor).

While the avoidance of bad things is all fine and good, what – you may ask – is the upside to this Balkan baby escapade? Well the answer of course lies in Serbia, where my baby would have a 9 in 10 chance of becoming a professionally ranked tennis player in the next 10-12 years. Serbia, a country roughly the size of SoHo, currently has the number 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 15, and 106th player in the world (the 106th guy has no arms). Given that Serbia has very little money, no tennis courts, and balls made of rocks tossed over from Bosnia, this is really quite impressive. If Ana Ivanović can learn to play tennis in an empty swimming pool between NATO bombings, surely my baby can learn to play tennis at my Belgrade Best Western. All of this suddenly makes the Balkans a close tie with the cultural tour. Learning about art is all fine and good, but smoking black market cigarettes and eating caviar while my baby wins Wimbledon wouldn’t be half bad either. Of vague consideration is Croatia, where my baby would instead be destined for the NBA, but I would only set foot in that country with a boy baby because a lifetime of watching the WNBA ranks right up there with being in the Balkan sex trade.

 

A Deserted Island

Putting my baby in a papoose and traveling around South America is, of course, a metaphor; a refusal; perhaps a denial. What I actually mean is that I refuse to consider having a baby until I meet a mother who has not become a frizz-haired walking hobo of baby paraphernalia. You see, the lack of sleep isn’t necessarily my issue, nor is it the tragedy of watching people who were once literate and sophisticated quickly reducing themselves to the single repetitive act of shoving a tissue at a writhing baby’s face and telling it to “Blow.” I am confused by the fact that babies’ noses are constantly encrusted with some sort of disgusting substance despite all of this blowing business – but my real issue is the stuff. It’s the stuff that makes parent-people no longer people-people. People-people explore and take vacations and discover and have curiosity and peace and bubble baths. Parent-people have stuff. And more stuff. They have bottles and baggies and pumps and teething-rubber-thingies and nine types of extra everything and enough binkies to pacify Detroit. They have wet stuff to make things dry and dry things to make stuff wet, and they cannot leave home (let alone the country) without seven kinds of pontificating Elmo and 85 flavors of Fig Newtons because they never know what this bouncing bundle of bad manners might turn beet-red and commit Harikari over next. All-in-all, there’s a reason we won’t get behind these folks at airport security – assuming of course that parents would ever do something as asinine as travelling with any 10-lb creature that requires that much stuff. It takes less brouhaha to transport yellowcake uranium from continent to continent than it does to take your baby to your neighbor’s house.

Despite the appealing nature of lolling around Tuscany with a baby who can distinguish a Malbec from a Merlot, I am not an idiot. I must face the fact that it’s very likely my cultural tour plan would still leave me with one of these screeching Seppuku 7-month-olds, because there would invariably be something it had…and then dropped…and then life would be over. And since Eastern European gangsters don’t appreciate it when your baby pees on their shoe, I would also very likely still end up as one of these hobo diaper bag people if and when I ever left the Belgrade Best Western.

So, as far as I can tell, the only way to have a baby and truly avoid the things that worry me the most is to raise it on a deserted island. Taking into account statistics on typhoons, tsunamis, and killer jelly fish, the safest bet would be a tiny Greek Island somewhere between Paros and Mykonos. (Paros has a hospital and Mykonos has a Calvin Klein.) And by “deserted island” I do not mean tents and bugs, for I would build a lovely cabin of bamboo and what not, and I wouldn’t constantly have throw up on my shirtfront because I’d be wearing a string bikini and the ocean would be oh-so-close. My baby would grow up like I did – fairly naked, fairly primal, swimming before it can walk, and catching lizards through the cunning use of an attention span. It would only suck its thumb until I got it busy climbing trees. And if it screamed in the middle of the night (well for one thing no one’s going to work in the morning) but I also assume that carefully walking a baby into crashing waves would either distract it or scare the shit out of it long enough to change the subject. I would, quite simply, be Tom Hanks in that shipwreck movie except that my volleyball named Wilson would be a baby (named Wilson) and I’ll be damned if I’ll let it float away. I have yet to recover from that movie scene.

Which actually brings to mind a rather crucial final point. As diverse as these baby travel plans might be, they are all shockingly bereft of one very important thing: Walt Disney. It will sound like a stretch to say, but if you travel the world for long enough and go to remote enough places and meet enough mothers wearing nothing but sarongs and smiles, you will quickly come to wonder if it is Disney movies that are teaching our babies to be assholes in the first place. I expect my island infant to cry from time to time. But I do not expect my island toddler to scream bloody murder in the night because scary things might be coming to kill it, nor do I expect my island 8-year-old to have low self-esteem the first time it sees its own reflection. Perfect princesses, tiny waists, monsters in the closet, things that go bump. Witches who put you in comas, circus freaks who put your mother in a cage, fires that destroy everything your Bambi-heart holds dear. Terror, greed, death, lying, envy, sloth, and endless violence. My baby would be better off in an Adidas tracksuit.

All of which means that – yes, perhaps the papoose was keeping me away from the diaper bag – but it was also keeping my baby away from all the binkies and Barbies and DVDs that would be in it. Strapped to my back, climbing a mountain, holding my hand in a museum, or splashing around the waves in the moonlight – all of these plans seem to involve isolating my baby from the modern world and none of them involve quick-edit cartoons that ruin neural pathways or the psyche-searing horrors of Snow White. Except for the already discard Viking Training Camp idea, I might actually be onto something. For if I’m going to spend the rest of my life chasing a screeching beet-red baby around the beach with a palm frond yelling “Blow,” it’s at least…one day…going to be a good person.

Left to Right: Big Sister, Little Me

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Looking for Lugosi

The best thing about traveling while a vampire is that the red-eye is actually preferred. The only tricky part is fighting the taxi line before dawn breaks at your destination. Yet the question really must be asked: If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself “undead,” where the hell should you go on vacation?

The following is written, therefore, from the vampire point of view, 1.) to pay homage to my favorite TV show (True Blood) which takes place in the deep Louisiana bayous, 2.) because of my general if not pathological interest in the literary-historic phenomenon known as vampirism, and 3.) because Expedia pays vampires far too little attention in terms of summer specials. I would also like to note that my somewhat intense interest in this subject has little to do with blood and a lot to do with being aristocratic and immortal, but I would hope that goes without saying.

For the past few hundred years, the presumptive epicenter of vampire life has of course been the Carpathian Mountains, but the myth of the mysterious vampire actually dates back to the earliest human civilizations. By the time the first caveman stood erect and realized he had blood, he was accusing his creepy neighbor of drinking it. Greeks, Egyptians, Sumerians, and Albanians all had their vrykolakas, vetālas, and lugats (and don’t get me started on Catholic communion… hello?) The bottom line is that vampires have been with us for a while – and forever is a long time to rack up frequent flyer miles. No they don’t want your bags of little peanuts, thank you. But they do need to pick their travel stops with care. Nowhere too balmy or obnoxious (i.e., Sandals), nowhere with too many vegetarians (residents low in iron), and nowhere like Zurich where all the shops close at 4:59pm. Supposing that this was…say my…first vacation as a newly minted and fragile-fanged young vampire, I would also want to go where I could meet more seasoned and drop-dead sexy vetālas, for there does seem to be an enormous difference in temperament between vampires who are lonely and those who are not. In other words, I would go where all the other (civilized) vampires seem to be hanging out, making friends, learning the ropes and jokes, and waiting for film crews to arrive and yell Action: new fangled New Orleans or good old Transylvania.

And make no mistake, this is not just a theoretical exercise. My desire to become an enchanting blond vampire will one day come true if I have to break into the coffin of the tormented kid from Twilight and shove a body part at him before he has time to wake up and get all Puritanical on me. I believe this is known as nosferatu asexual assault, but in exchange for living forever I’m more than happy to wait out a short prison sentence.

Transylvania

No geographical locale, real or fictional, carries with it more misconceptions or strikes more terror in heart of god-fearing man than “your local Walmart.” Running a close second would be Transylvania.  The word itself comes from the Romanian phrase for “land beyond the forest,” which is strange given that it’s mostly wooded and technically not beyond the tree line whatsoever. But it is far away from everything if that helps. Its largest city is a place no one has heard of (Cluj-Napoca), most of its leaders have been clinically insane (see Ceaușescu), historians have yet to agree on its people’s true ancestry, and its only UNESCO world heritage site is the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler – a man who, despite the cheery moniker, wasn’t as pleasant as you’d think.

To start, it does get disconcerting because technically everyone in Romania is named Vlad. You will deplane to find your skycap named Vlad, your cabdriver, your bellboy, Vlad the Concierge and the married guy in the lobby bar – and they will all tell you “Hello, I am Vlad” and that there’s nowhere within 600 miles to convert your dollars to LEU. Vlad the Impaler, however, told people very little except “Please jump onto this sharp stick.” While we know he was a Prince of Wallachia, experts don’t seem to know if he was a Magyar, Visigoth, Dacian, Hun, Gepid, Bulgar, Avar or an Avatar. That’s how many tribes have ruled the area throughout its long history of violence, war, conflict, land grabs, minority rule, majority flip flop, name changes, and general “who runs this joint” confusion. If being Transylvanian was like being married, they’d all be Elizabeth Taylor. For ease of reference, however, Vlad was sort of Romanian-Hungarian and despite being an impaler he at least had the good manners to opt for the horizontal rather than vertical form of the torture. This is a man who once littered a field with 20,000 impaled (yet alive) enemy soldiers for the sole purpose of discouraging the advancing brigade behind them. Needless to say the tactic worked and the phrase “conscientious objector” was born.

To be clear, however, Vlad was not a vampire. He was not a count. He never occupied Bran Castle (marketed to tourists as Castle Dracula) and even had Vlad lived there, “Bran” the Castle has zero to do with “Bram” the Stoker, who was simply a British novelist who one day found himself wildly upstaged by Mary Shelley. Coincidentally, this was also around the time that all of Enlightened Europe was being overrun by displaced Romany gypsies who carried with them a long history of folkloric oral traditions (otherwise known as mumbo jumbo) involving ghouls, witches, and creatures that drank your blood if a virgin horse mounted by a virgin girl wouldn’t walk over a fresh gravesite. (This is all true, so please make sure your horses get busy.)

It was also, of course, the time of disease. Disease, disease, and more disease – and of the lovely kind like consumption, rabies, and the plague – make that several kinds of plague – all of which involved bodily fluids being unpleasantly in places they shouldn’t. Consumption (otherwise known as tuberculosis, otherwise known as “for God’s sake hack into a hankie”) was the main culprit and its victims often perished coughing so hard they were found dead with blood around their mouths. We all know what rabies is about (um…they bite you) but your average 17th century European did not. Where’s Dr. House when you need him, pointing out that rabies sufferers are often seriously and painfully averse to bright light. Add all this together and you end up with most of Western Europe so thoroughly wrought with vampire mania that citizens were banding together nightly to disentomb the recently deceased in order to take general attendance and drive stakes through the hearts of the dead…just in case.

 To underline the obvious, however, all of this still has jack to do with vampirism. The only connection…I repeat only connection…between Transylvania and what we hold so dear in the trope of vampire history is that Vlad of Wallachia occasionally signed his name on Latin-language documents as Wladislaus Dragwlya or Drakwyla – as in “Dracula meets Daffy Duck.” How disappointing. If I already had a boarding pass, I’d by now be quite depressed. Would I really arrive in Transylvania to find porcelain-faced prospects in all-night cafes drinking plasma-flavored lattes? Or would I simply find a bunch of confused ex-Communists who’d never heard of Count Dracula in the first place? While Bram Stoker’s novel was a raging success in England (think Harry Potter with fewer volumes and far more Marxist undertones) not many people in contemporary Transylvania were even aware of the book. Those who did manage to get their hands on a copy tended to read five pages, scream “Wtf!” and immediately move to Palm Beach. The entire Dracula story could have, quite honestly, been set anywhere distant, mountainous, creepy, and constantly dreary. All Stoker was really trying to do was scare the British, and nothing does that more than a place with worse weather than Leeds. This one-hit wonder of a novelist might have put Transylvania on the map, but he likely couldn’t locate it on a globe – and the only thing we know with certainty is this: He was about as good for Transylvanian tourism as FEMA was for the 9th Ward.   

NEW ORLEANS

Which brings me to New Orleans, where absolutely no further Katrina jokes will be made because nothing about it screams funny-ha-ha. I will say only this: If the government had just had the good sense to call upon Louisiana’s vampire community when the hurricane struck, everyone could have been rescued within hours – and for humanitarian reasons (or if asked very nicely) they wouldn’t even have bitten anyone in the process. I’m just saying.

Now, as much as I hate to give away endings, I had by this point in my studies already chosen New Orleans as my undead destination of choice. The football team is called the Saints; they clearly have something to hide. There’s a town called Sulphur and a town called Sunset – and while the humidity will be a bitch, I assume my hot roller curls will hold for eternity because I will have vampire-powered hair. It’s the land of Anne Rice, the land of Eric from True Blood (could you die?!), and the entire state is full of the descendants of Creole slaves who swear blind that their people have been hunting vampires for generations and that their food is much better than Cajun fare. This is all nonsense of course (Creole and Cajun food are basically the same damn thing) but the vampire part is accurate. Unlike Bram Stoker, Anne Rice actually lived in the place she wrote about – and according to her 963 best selling Lestat novels, vampires are not goth-looking losers with pasty miens and the tendency to turn into bats. They’re handsome, charming, can pass for anachronistically human, and occupy every third house in the French Quarter. (I went around knocking, it’s true.) Stray a little outside the main city and you’ll also discover that vampires run every bar and strip joint from Meraux to Lecompte to Bayou Blue. If the name of the town is French-sounding enough (see Jean Lafitte) immortals can even run for mayor. (Go figure it’s a “Red State” but vampires tend to register as Independents.) Add to this things like Mint Juleps and Mardi Gras and you’ve just found yourself a holiday where you can quench your thirst for drunken debauchery and find college coeds willing to let you bite them for little more than a string of cheap beads and a shot at the DVD cover of the next Girls Gone Wild.

Yet this isn’t about wholesome American fun. It’s about a profound heritage of uniquely southern factors and a decidedly colonial conflagration of shocking facts. Put more simply: all the stuff from the 1700s that made New Orleans New Orleans. (Please note that you’d better be hearing this in your head as New-Or-Luns.)  And here’s where it gets highly cool, because here’s where Transylvania and New Orleans – as opposed as they might seem – begin to line up on all the particulars necessary for a flourishing vampire community.

First, you need a horrendous clash of cultures and people. I don’t mean horrendous as in bad, but horrendous as in overwhelming enough to prevent the establishment of a dominant way of life. The birthplace of modern jazz, yet named for a French regent in 1718, La Nouvelle Orleans was founded on land already occupied by the Chitimacha, who’d been there for 3,000 years. Its initial utility lay in smuggling guns from the South to the North to fight the British, until some raving fool gave it to the Spanish before Napoleon stole it back because he was short. The Irish went there in droves, as did the Germans and Greeks, who were all struggling in New England because the people in New England were all fleeing to America to escape the vampires planted in Leeds by Bram Stoker. Everyone brought African slaves and after the Haitian Revolution of 1804 the influx of refugees from Haiti and Cuba was so massive it made the Elian Gonzalez debacle look like a CNN blip (although it will unfortunately and forever look like U.S. Special Forces aiming machine guns at a 5-year-old…even the moody vampires were appalled). The Brits, fought off only by Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, tried to wrestle New Orleans back at some point because nobody told them the Treaty of Ghent had already been signed – and suddenly you had this city, as newly “American” as they get, that had no idea what it actually was.

Oh yes – and factor number two you had disease. At one point in the 1820s, everybody in New Orleans was dead. Everybody. Including the vigilantes who were sitting up all night with shotguns keeping watch over the dead in case the dead rose from the dead and oozed disease onto them in the form of phlegm, goo, and psycho-sexual hypnosis. (It’s quite stunning how sexually paranoid these people were over creatures that have no pulse.) The Europeans from New Hampshire were still telling the story of poor Mercy Brown, a girl who died of TB only to be dug up and beheaded because someone thought they saw her corpse sucking on her cousin’s cat with one boob out. They even made her little brother drink blood from her dead body for protection, yet he somehow wound up with tuberculosis anyway. If you think the vampire frenzy in England was intense, its manifestation in the colonies was downright Salem-ish. Maybe it was all the smallpox or the fact that they occasionally buried people a bit too soon, only to wonder why they heard banging and screaming coming from inside the coffins. Perhaps it was the fact that, indeed, a person who died pale and frail in the 110° Louisiana heat would inexplicably appear more bloated and purple after three days of everybody sitting up to watch over the body. When you look at it this way, it makes perfect sense that people started taking precautions and beheading their dead relatives. If you’re terrified a diseased corpse can hurt you, by all means skewer it with the same shovel you use to plant cabbage.

 I could go on. Did I mention that the Eastern Europeans who made the long journey to America often did so in such a state of poverty that they didn’t even have luggage? The only thing they could get their hands on to transport their meager belongings….were coffins. Those looked just dandy being unloaded off the ships at port. Some of these coffin-émigrés were even Romany gypsies whose long list of “Things We Have Spells to Protect You From” was rivaled only by the voodoo priestess’s list of  “Things You Didn’t Know You Needed Protection From to Begin With.” Cajuns had superstitions even spicier than the Creoles’ (this being known as gumbo mumbo jumbo) and all of them had been screaming “Vampire!” since Vlad the Impaler was in diapers ripping the heads off his sisters’ Barbie dolls and mounting them on swizzle sticks in the backyard. No wonder they all changed their names to Nadia and ran off to Romanian gymnastic camp.

Yet…to all of this human-induced horror and uncertainty…vampires are totally immune. They are very tidy and very dry. They neither cough nor suffer (except existentially) and they cannot be killed by ordinary means. They are perpetually well-dressed and always clean-shaven, and they don’t even break a sweat in the swampiest dog days of Belle Rose. They might steal your soul and cast you to hell-fire metaphorically, but compared to the daily torments of plantation life, or one more spear-first invasion by the Magyar Huns…suddenly an Interview with a Vampire doesn’t sound all that bad. Which might mean (on a more positive note) that vampires are everywhere – or at least everywhere that history has blessed with the right ingredients: Take a lot of displaced people of staggeringly divergent backgrounds, provide rounds of plagues that kill everyone they love, throw in some unwashed old ladies who claim ancient wisdom, and – most importantly – foment mistrust and social isolation for a few hundred years and watch what happens to all of these scared and sickly people who for the love of Christ just want it to stop raining.  

When a death you don’t understand is a lot better than the life you do, the combination of dread and appeal is quite bewildering. And when you live in a war-torn land with a power vacuum just waiting to be filled by a well-heeled villain who speaks all languages, rises above earthly pain, and fulfills your every desire…who cares if the sun never shines again? Who could possibly refuse that extended icy hand, offering you wine that looks a little too viscous but comes with a passionate kiss?  

Not this romantic.

So there you have it – the reason “vampire me” would vacation (and perhaps even set up shop) in the bayous of Bon Temps, with a second home nestled in an ivy-covered nook of the French Quarter,  and definitely with a hot Vlad I’ll have dragged back from Braslov in a coffin.  And FYI, while there is currently a small pocket of vampires living in the suburbs of Seattle, this clan consists only of the cast of Twilight, whom I’d bring with me to Louisiana anyway because the cast of True Blood is having a whole lot more sex. In fact, if these doe-eyed teenagers don’t stop going on and on about one another’s purity and take their clothes off soon, I’m going to send my Vlad to kill the head writer, just on principle. Life’s too short and the entire point of being a vampire is the promise of eternal pleasure.

Although, given than much of pleasure is really just the avoidance of pain, I’d say the real takeaway is this: In every twist and turn of all these stories – real and fictional, historic and contemporary, nasty or scary, both lore and alluring – each and every good guy and bad guy, living or dead, conquering army or virginal beauty spellbound and terrified by the radiant full moon…each and every one of them was looking for exactly the same thing: a place to be safe and belong.

Except for the Impaler. He was just an asshole.

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A Royal Mess

On April 29, 2011, a truly momentous event will take place – and I won’t be there. Somewhere in the heart of London, in a church I know well, the wrong Kate will be marrying the wrong prince, as 1.) I am not a Middleton, and 2.) it’s been my life’s goal to convince redheaded Harry that he and I would have very attractive children.

Of course, the momentous event will not be the royal wedding itself but will instead be the elaborate “William & Kate Wedding Party” my older sister will be throwing in Salt Lake City, Utah. Yes, Utah. The party will be a grand affair full of crumpets and weeping, my sister doing all of the weeping and everyone else eating crumpets and wondering what the hell they’re doing there. You see my sister, while American, is what some would call a Royal Watcher, what others call an expert in the British monarchy, and what I only sometimes refer to as a “stalker nut job.” She is home to a brain that not only holds the entirety of the vast and complex royal family tree dating back to the Battle of Hastings, she is also home to a brain that has spent the last several decades telling her “I am obsessed with Princess Diana.” While this has been mildly amusing over the years (who can forget the never-to-be-outdone “Charles & Diana Wedding Party” she threw in 1982…at 3 o’clock in the morning EST), it was far less fun during the month-long period after Diana’s death in which my sister did not eat, speak, or at any point remember that she was not, in fact, a British royal subject. Yet even through the grief, she could still tell you how many days Lady Jane Grey sat on the throne and what they found under Mary Queen of Scots petticoats after they beheaded her. (Answer: Nine days and a tiny terrified dog).

What does all this have to do with travel? Well, it puts me in mind of the day I woke up all alone in an Oxford Square youth hostel at the just-traveling age of 18 and announced to myself that today would be Royal Day. With no help from my sister, a tour guide, a Lonely Planet, a map, an umbrella, a pair of proper shoes, or an ounce of prior research, my itinerary instead involved knowledge I’d gleaned from books and movies, and a strong desire to see what all the fuss was about. Plus I knew Harry was out there somewhere. So off I set to discover where this long line of filthy rich and sometimes just plain filthy British royals had ever slept, dined, married, divorced, launched crusades, poisoned uncles, pissed off Spain, and eventually died publically, horribly, or both

Please note, this is not a walking tour I would recommend to others…

 

BUCKINGHAM PALACE

 

I knew enough to start my tour at Buckingham, as this is where the Queen sleeps. Buckingham has, in fact, been the official residence of the reigning monarch since 1837 and is considered to be…very full of Persian rugs. Each rug is assigned its own servant, with junior servants assigned tassel duties and anyone from a Colonial country assigned backroom duties that involve not being seen. At last count, 16.3 million people work at Buckingham Palace, making it the second largest employer of British citizens (the first largest being Hollywood movies). Buckingham also has the largest private gardens in all of London, which is good considering that royals and young servants seem to spend a lot of time chasing one another through hedge mazes in slow motion with flowing locks and bursting britches. This is what I knew of Buckingham.

I also knew, of course, that Buckingham is where the guards in the black fuzzy hats are—so do go there first, if only to establish that you are capable of seeing one of those black fuzzy hats atop the head of an unwavering royal guard and not having your picture taken with him. Save yourself the time because he won’t move, you’ll lose your dignity, and the guard will spend the entire incident wishing he’d gone to medical school like his parents wanted.

Now, in days gone by the Queen did a lot: waged wars, created treaties, and had people killed without Anderson Cooper finding out. Today’s Queen, however, does mainly ceremonial things such as throwing parties and pretending to have influence over the Houses of Parliament. She greets people, conducts state visits, and disapproves of everything except fine cashmere, hot scones, and The Real Housewives of Northern Glasgow. The only strong maneuver the Queen has made in the last three decades was to banish her sister, Princess Anne, from Buckingham when one of Anne’s bull terriers attacked one of the Queen’s beloved corgis and royally ripped off its hind leg. The corgi was put down and nobody really liked Anne anyway.

Yet standing there peering through the bars of the palace, I felt for Anne. I wanted inside, if only to mess up the tassels. For those who feel the same way, my suggestion is to forget your Lonely Planet and instead follow the tour route established by one Michael Fagan, who in the early ‘80s managed to scale a back fence, climb through a window, blithely pass King George V’s $20 million stamp collection, and make his way to the royal bedchamber where the Queen awoke to find him holding a broken ashtray and bleeding all over her 800 thread-count sheets. The Queen greeted Mr. Fagan cordially, realized he was about to commit suicide, and promptly rang for tea. When that didn’t work she yanked on the “Christ Help Me” cord, and when that didn’t work either she finally called down to order Mr. Fagan a cigarette at which point a well-spoken maid wandered in with, ironically, a Parliament Light and shouted, “Bloody hell ma’am what’s he doing in here?” and ran away screaming. (This is actually what she did, please look it up.)

If you do manage to break into Buckingham, however, I would suggest doing so at exactly 5am when the Queen’s bodyguard is off walking her remaining corgis—and for god’s sake take something on the way out besides a cigarette and a broken ashtray. The $20 million in royal stamps would be a good start.

 

 

WESTMINSTER

 

After Buckingham I went, as you do, to the next most famously named site I could think of and ended up at the Palace of Westminster, because a whole hell of a lot seems to happen in that Abbey. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that Westminster no longer has anything to do with the monarchy, instead being home to the Houses of Lords and Commons who occasionally get together and scream at the Prime Minister like he’s a peewee football player running the wrong direction. It turns out that the Palace of Westminster was the main Royal residence from the 11th to 16th centuries but (in what would quickly become a running theme of my tour) the palace was almost completely destroyed by fire in the year 1512. So they cleaned it up, moved the King, and gave the whole estate to Parliament who said they didn’t want it. Parliament eventually relented when the monarchy threw Big Ben into the mix, as the Lords serving at the time were diehard Steelers fans.

And I suppose the detour was not entirely un-Royal, as the Abbey does indeed hold the relics of most of the Kings and Queens of the time period, including those of Edward the Confessor, who was fantastic except for his annoying habit of calling up local media outlets and claiming to be the Unibomber. A King named Harold was also buried in the Abbey, but the Brits later dug him up, cut off his head, and threw his body in the fen. Given that Westminster Abbey is soon to be the site of the wedding between William and Kate, it’s too bad they didn’t keep the head, which would have served quite nicely as something old, borrowed, and blue and yes that joke simply had to be made.

 

WHITEHALL PALACE

 

Thus far my self-guided tour had a success rate of 50%, but I assumed Whitehall would make up for it—a palace to surpass all palaces—its jousting runs, bowling greens, and gilded glory on full display in Showtimes’ The Tudors, where everyone is a lot hotter than they could possibly have been with no toothpaste or self-tanner. At the time of my tour, however, all I knew was that Whitehall was enormous (its 1,500 bedrooms surpassing the sleepover capacity of Versailles, the Vatican, and Elton John’s house combined) and that it was basically Henry VIII’s Buckingham after he got sick of Westminster, called a realtor, and arranged for a subprime mortgage. As the story goes, Henry toured the complex arm-in-arm with his beloved Anne Boleyn, after which he purchased the estate, expanded the grounds, and immediately installed three guillotines. Anne was a little disconcerted, but having been raised rather sheltered she assumed it was a contraption for cutting potatoes and moved on. It is also a little known fact that Henry managed to kill more wives in Whitehall Palace than he actually wed, this after a particularly bad opium trip in which he ran around the palace cutting the head off every woman he could find in case he one day accidentally married them and they caused a problem.

My problem, of course, was that Whitehall served as the main residence for British monarchs from 1530 all the way until 1698 when it too burnt down in a flaming heap of “not surprising.” My problem, in other words, was that I walked there to find nothing left, as the only section of the sprawling complex still standing after the fire was a Banqueting House belonging to a man named Indigo Jones who, with a name like that, shouldn’t have been trusted with matches in the first place. If you do care to visit the location and what’s left of the palace, you’re sure to win bonus points with the Contiki-ite standing next to you by dropping the fact that the Whitehall also has the distinction of having hosted the first known performance of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Casting Oliver Cromwell as the female lead was ill-advised, but it was still an historic occasion.

 

KENSINGTON PALACE

 

By this time it was well past lunch, my success rate was dropping, and I considered skipping the next site just to piss off my sister. Kensington Palace was, of course, home to Princess Diana—a fact I knew because Diana once got so upset about Camilla that she hurled herself down the palace’s grand staircase in a temporary fit of “Notice Me.” Apparently Charles had missed the other signs of his newlywed’s discontentment, such as body language, bulimia, and the giant I Hate This Shit tattoo she had emblazoned across her forehead.

Rather than focusing on sad things, however, I chose to peer through the bars at Kensington Palace thinking about happier things, such as my dear Prince Harry, once a young cherub running up and down the hallowed halls of the palace, now a grown man who spends far more time in strip clubs, the tabloids, and Hitler Halloween costumes. Granted, it must be difficult being the second son—and perhaps my recommendations are self-serving—but staring up at the grandeur of Kensington, imagining how incredible it must be to royalty of any kind, I couldn’t help wondering why Harry hadn’t spent his entire life focused on one and only one goal: NOT LOOKING LIKE JAMES HEWITT. Hewitt, of course, is the man Princess Diana had an affair with in the 1980s and if Harry has made efforts in the direction of not looking like him, those efforts have failed wildly. While there is no real proof of anything, it is somewhat suspicious that Harry hasn’t visited Buckingham since the Queen had a DNA sequencer installed in the palace basement.

Please note that none of this should be mentioned to my sister.

 

ST JAMES PALACE

Next up was St. James Palace – and I really needn’t have bothered. While St. James Palace is currently the home of Charles and Camilla, and while it is considered to be the administrative centre of the monarchy, the building is boring, the guards are less impressive, and no one interesting lived there when I visited. The only notable things inside the palace are the heart and bowels of Queen Mary I, which you will find interred in the pantry just off the main kitchen. The rest of her was used to put out a fire.

 

WINDSOR CASTLE

Unlike the London-based sites discussed thus far, one of the most famous names in English castledom is in the middle of nowhere. Granted, everything that isn’t London feels like the middle of nowhere—feeling, in fact, like the middle of nowhere’s middle, only with really big stones from Wales that no one can explain.  Either way, the above facts will derail a day-tour in a hurry. I stopped walking after about four hours and looked up the following facts in a book years later….

Nestled in Berkshire County, Windsor Castle it is both “highly medieval” and “the Queen’s preferred weekend home.” I’m not sure what this says about the Queen, but if there are photos of her on the internet in leather collar, I don’t want to know about it. While inconveniently located, the castle does hold many distinctions, being both the longest-occupied castle in all of Europe and the largest inhabited castle in the world. (Although to be fair to other less impressive castles, the majority of its 500 inhabitants spend all day polishing chafing dishes and waiting for Cate Blanchett to arrive.) Windsor has also survived a lot including bombings, invasions, neglect, 95 Henrys, 300 Georges, and, you guessed it, a fire—this one sparked by spotlights on a curtain. Apparently William the Conqueror insisted not only on the Norman domination of Britain, but also the establishment of discotheques in all pillaged strongholds.

Standing in the middle of nowhere’s middle in inappropriate shoes, however, I did long to at least see Windsor, 1.) because I wanted to know the difference between a palace and a castle, and 2.) because I will one day be Mrs. Harry Kate Windsor and have the feeling this will quickly become my preferred weekend home, as well. Being non-photogenic and highly short-fused, I don’t think I will do as well with the paparazzi as Ms. Middleton. Here I will slowly back out of the discussion, as mentioning princesses and paparazzi in the same sentence will inevitably lead to the referencing of a certain Paris tunnel and my sister (who might be reading) will collapse like corseted chambermaid and never reach our final destination…

Balmoral Castle

…which is Balmoral – also not the best stop on a walking tour as it turns out to be located in Aberdeenshire, an area of Scotland where no one should ever go for any reason because it’s damp and dreary and the local Best Buy only sells sheep shears. The current Queen does tend to retreat there a few times a year, usually during quiet and uneventful news cycles—like, say, the entire five-day period after Princess Diana died in the tunnel we don’t mention. It was during this agonizing period of silence, in fact, that Balmoral acquired its new official title of “Where the Fuck is the Queen Castle.” (Thank you Tony Blair for fixing that and very little else…)

Thoughts of Balmoral also made me a little sad, as we had all seen the Charles and Diana honeymoon photos—truly the first, last, and only images in which I actually believed in them. She loved him. She loved something. But he was already too busy sending sexy messages to Camilla and wondering when the hell the Queen Mother would die. Sadder still is the fact that Balmoral is where they tend to send Prince Philip—the Queen Consort, otherwise known as the Queen’s husband—whenever he opens his mouth and disaster spills forth. Being the husband of a reigning Queen has always been a thankless task full of no responsibilities, no power, and nothing to do except screw up. But of all the Queen consorts in history Philip does seem to excel at this, having once greeted a Nigerian official (who was wearing traditional garb) by exclaiming at the top of lungs “You look as if you’re ready for bed,” and once telling a group of British students in China that if they stayed much longer they might become “all slitty-eyed.” There are entire websites devoted to Prince Philip quotes.

Perhaps another well-known consort—Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria—made similar gaffs, as his one great goal in life was to run Balmoral, or any other castle for that matter. His exact quote was “I am very happy and contented, but the difficulty in filling my place with the proper dignity is that I am only the husband, not the master of the house.” But alas, Victoria instead put her former governess in charge of the castle, a woman Albert referred to as “the house dragon” until he grew tired of being emasculated and chose to die young. (This is also all true and was leaked to the press by Edward the Confessor.) Upon Albert’s demise, Queen Victoria famously fell into a deep depression and ordered the non-stop damp and dreary weather that lingers to this day. It is also worth noting that Albert and Victoria were first cousins and had nine children (eleven if you count all the extra limbs) and these people now run the country.

And, at that, darkness had fallen and my Royal Day walking tour had come to an end. Wandering back to the youth hostel all alone in the rain, I wondered what I had learned and why I felt such a strange and empty ache. What I’d discovered wasn’t so much a royal tour as a royal mess full of lies, murders, fens and affairs, oppressed servants, amputee lap dogs, and headless wives who never asked to be on the throne for nine days in the first place. Did I still want to marry Harry? Diana’s brother was a redhead after all; perhaps there was hope for his DNA. Did I now have an understanding of what all the fuss was about—or just more vexing questions, such as “When will the monarchy invest in some smoke detectors?” Most importantly, would my sister have me marched to the guillotine for not visiting the Tower of London, where most of the royals spent most of their lives anyway? For god’s sake, in 1647 they found two little bodies beneath a long-forgotten Tower staircase – and the mystery of what happened to the Duke of Gloucester’s nephews was finally solved. What was wrong with this family?

The hollow feeling, however, had nothing to do with any of this intrigue and tragedy. It had to do with the dying nature of this dying breed; the perhaps coming end of this royal family that had somehow, through all of this, been keeping up the madness for more than a thousand years. There’s a comfort in knowing that someone else’s family is crazier than your own. There’s a comfort knowing that someone in this world still wears a tiara; still gets bowed to; still gets buried next to a relative from the year 1512. Mostly importantly—at least for the 18-year-old me on that particular day—there is a comfort to the thought of a world in which one is never, ever, ever…alone. When you’re royalty, it just doesn’t happen. The system prevents it. Between the guards and servants, the scheming cousins and screaming paparazzi, being royal means being surrounded by people whether you like it or not. They polish your dishes and listen to your conversations, but they’re also there in the middle of the night when you need to pull the “Christ Help Me” cord.

So I retired to my not-so-royal bunk bed in an Oxford Square youth hostel, feet blistered and heart slightly broken, and listened to the sleeping sounds of 25 strange backpackers from around the world, all grappling with the same Lonely Planet. It might not make me royalty, but for the moment it helped just a bit.

And I say let’s all celebrate April 29th, if only to eat crumpets, honor tradition, and wish William and this Kate bitch the very best.

If they build a new castle, I’ll kill them.

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Craps v. Crêpes

As gambling destinations go, Atlantic City and Monte Carlo should not rightly be in the same phylum let alone the same category. South Jersey, South of France. Yet they are, for better or worse, among the world’s top spots for casino-themed vacations.

Now, as everyone knows, people who take casino-themed vacations tend to be quite rational. They would likely compare and contrast their destination options across an array of key variables: the likelihood of winning money (supposedly the whole point), the appeal of the surrounding city (i.e., your life savings will be gone by lunch), or the opportunity to enjoy fine dining (as opposed to falling face first into a labyrinthine buffet the size of Trump’s ego and quality of his ex-wives).

And yet that is the dilemma, isn’t it: On what basis do you choose what’s right for your particular desires, delusions, tax bracket, and mental stability? Despite the odds makers’ likely kneejerk, I say the decision of whether to gamble in Atlantic City vs. Monte Carlo is not as “hands down” as one would think. Because it’s all so relative, you see, like cell phones and morality; it all boils down to what you want and what you’re lacking in the first place…

The Basics

I choose Atlantic City and Monte Carlo because I know them both quite well and because Las Vegas can bite me. It’s splintered and confusing and is no longer about gambling at all (somewhere around 2002 having become about Celine Dion, pyramdis, dyspeptic tigers, and wanting to leave as soon as possible).

Atlantic City, on the other hand, exists solely because of gambling. Trust me, had gaming not shored it up in the 1970s the entire city would have collapsed into a dismantled crack den of hookers, mobsters, and badly bribed dead mayors.

Monte Carlo, of course, is known the world over as the pinnacle of high stakes, high fashion, and men in eye patches who may or may not be MI-6. (They are. I checked.) Whereas Atlantic City specializes in aggressive pigeons, unionized showgirls, and busloads of Philadelphia semi-fatties with barrels of nickels and a three-day weekend. In short, Monte Carlo is where you go in search of leggy Latvians with immaculate hair who will stroke the shoulder of your tuxedo while staring blankly into space wondering how they got from their tiny village into a designer gown worth more than their country’s GDP; and Atlantic City is where you go when a night of drinking leads you and three friends to simultaneously realize that, deep down, you all hate the people you’re dating. These are the basics of these two places.

In a belated disclaimer, I should also disclose that I grew up in Atlantic City, the daughter of a casino executive, moving there at five and eventually fleeings state lines at 13 with tall hair, teal eyeliner, a fistful of Dairy Queen coupons, and very little in the way of a formal education. Monte Carlo, on the other hand, was the site of a fairly recent trip overseas—a romantic and spontaneous five-day whirlwind with a man I’d known for exactly twelve hours. Handsome, British, precise, and self-possessed. We cooed like lovebirds, painted the town, and were about as well-suited in the long run as Dick Cheney and Cher.

The Specifics

One of the first things you notice about Atlantic City is how unattractive the people are. This is also true of the casinos themselves and there are many to choose from. Bally’s, Harrah’s, Bedbug’s Blackjack Inn. The range of options is overwhelming—although, to be fair, casinos are a lot like bad marriages: They all look the same from the inside.

The first thing you notice about Monte Carlo is how unattractive you are. And also that your casino choices are limited to just the one. But oh what a one it is. The casino in Monte Carlo (cleverly named The Monte Carlo Casino) is a feast of Empire architecture and beaux arts design, regally perched at the end of a grand roundabout lined with the world’s rarest and most coveted cars—Bugattis, Ferraris, Reventons, and Roadsters—all constantly being photographed by awestruck tourists while the Barons and Sheikhs who own them mill about the valet stand sipping champagne-flavored espresso and trying to figure out whose keys are whose and whether it even matters.

If you want to drive around Atlantic City, on the other hand, there is something called The Jitney, a sort of golf cart-cum-Short Bus that shuttles liquor-filled revelers up and down the Boardwalk, enabling Atlantic City visitors to cheaply combine their two favorite activities: ogling Cape May pre-teens in ill-fitting half-tops…and avoiding walking.

The Timing

Another thing to note is that you can’t possibly compare Atlantic City and Monte Carlo without taking into account the timing. Monte Carlo’s weather is ideal…basically always. But if you aim for late April you can catch both a Masters Series tennis tournament and a star-studded Grand Prix event involving insanely hot Italians relaxing along the race route at outdoor cafes, smoking cigarettes and making very good arguments as to why one should never get engaged to British people they’ve only known for twelve hours.

Atlantic City is either too cold, too hot, or too humid all year round—but autumn does hold the ever-popular Miss America pageant, a once-a-year Boardwalk procession of powder blue Cadillacs carrying anachronistic Barbi dolls in satin sashes who wave adoringly to the crowds and only sometimes get hit in the head with beer bottles. (Ok, maybe it was just the once but I was there.) And if you wait until springtime, you can instead participate in Atlantic City’s annual “Around the Island Swim,” a grueling test of courage and stamina in which well-trained entrants leap off the Steel Pier, land on used syringes, and wash up in Brigantine with Hepatitis C.

Your Life

When I say timing, I’m also of course referring to what’s going on in your life—or, more specifically, your bank account. You go to Monte Carlo when you have $500,000 to either lose or quadruple. You go to Atlantic City when you have $250 to either lose or to lose six times over. Monte Carlo is where you go when you have enough money to buy a diamond watch, procure a beautiful woman, and purchase a steak that would cover most mortgage payments. Atlantic City is where you go when you’ve sold your watch for petty cash, your wife is bleeding you dry on QVC, and you haven’t made a mortgage payment in two years. I should also note that after your casion-themed vacation to either of these destinations, the Monte Carlo leggy Latvian will continue to speak no English and ask no questions, while your wife will ask many many questions and then never speak to you again.

The Winner

The apple crepe vs. orange sherbert nature of things thus far does, indeed, leave us far from a winner—and we’ve bearly tipped the iceberg when it comes to the cities themselves. Nowhere have we mentioned Grace Kelly, the famed Monte Carlo opera house, or perlious yatcht-things off Prince Albert’s quay. How can one begin to fathom a trip to Monte Carlo until they’ve stood beneath the rococo ceilings of the European Salon and blown on the dice of a freshly disposed Duke? How can one begin to appreciate Atlantic City without knowing about Lucy, the six-story concrete elephant who’s been patiently letting tourists enter her faux intestinal tract for fifty years without once raising a complaint or stopping to point out that female Indian elephants are genetically incapable of having tusks.

To me the winner is clear but clearly I’m biased, having stacked the deck too early and spun the wheel too recently. When I hear the words “Atlantic City” I think of glittering lights, eccentric magicians, and running across the casino floor in tap shoes and poofy dresses—too young to be around liquor, joyous and bleary-eyed, on my way to meet Frank Sinatra, wondering how life could be so good. When I hear the words “Monte Carlo,” I think of fast cars, warm breezes, and standing in a French airport wearing linen pants I couldn’t afford, heartbroken and stunned, wondering how I could have been such a chump in the firstplace.

All of which brings me to the revelation that we’re talking about the wrong things entirely. For the average gambler, tourist, courtesan, or king, the contest between Atlantic City and Monte Carlo simply comes down to one’s definition of The Good Life. Which means the only advice I can provide is to tell you this: Envision a trip to Monte Carlo as a dream-like collection of lazy days in which you’ll lap in luxury and fall in love—with the city, with yourself…maybe even with a Latvian beauty who’s too terrified to open her mouth lest she split her dress and show her hand. Envision a trip to Atlantic City, on the other hand, as a long hazy weekend in which you’ll guffaw your way down the Boardwalk with five drunken friends, mercilessly ridiculing girls from Cape May and—with any luck—being completely content with the $20 in your pocket.

Know your limits, hit on 18, and travel hard my friends.

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A Greenish Hue

The annual contest to crown Europe’s most environmentally friendly city seems, to my mind, a little misguided. Clearly the greenest city is the tiniest, most remote one with no electricity, no espresso, and no labor disputes involving flaming tires. It’s the city tucked into a hillside with three people on unicycles sharing one waffle made by a free-range goat.

But…given that the European Commission currently weighing the 2012 eco-candidates has insisted on short-listing eight finalists with baseline carbon footprints the size of Henry Ford’s, these are the eight cities garnering praise and attention. Most have been reviewed by every travel magazine and Al Gore website from here to…wherever the internet and Al Gore end. And yet I feel it’s my duty—as an observant, mentally functioning human—to point out that several of the finalists have potentially troubling issues and should be removed from the running faster than an NRA member at a lesbian beauty pageant…

Nantes

This seaside city in Western France certainly scores points for its name, which calls to mind all things technologically slow: bugs, Nanas, and your mother’s elderly sister. And Time Magazine did name Nantes 2004’s “Most Liveable City”—assuming, of course, that one speaks French. It’s unlike Time to miss something so obvious, but apparently they were focused on factors like good looking mayors and buttered baguettes. The reason Nantes concerns me is because of how intensely it’s taking this competition. The city has always had a strong educational system, but has recently begun sending its young children 1) to farms, 2)  in the countryside, 3) with the express purpose of learning to grow their own food. Yes, food. Nantes has a festival called La Foile des Plantes (loosely translated, “Crazy About Plants”) and has a botanical museum dedicated to endangered foliage (loosely translated, “S’il Vous Plaît Get a Grip.”)  It’s all too much. I’m declaring Nantes disqualified.

Barcelona

Of course Barcelona is green: everyone is too drunk to drive. Yet, from my experience, they’re mostly drunk on sangria,  and flying all those oranges into town can’t be very eco-friendly. Citrus-rape of the planet aside, Barcelona does score green points for the fact that its most famous construction project (La Sagrada Familia) has been on hold for nearly a century. Not only is La Sagrada my favorite site in all of Western Europe (aside from the site of Italian soccer player Luca Toni shopping for milk while wearing a tank top), the one-of-a-kind cathedral has stood, gorgeously half-finished, since the day artist/architect Antoni Gaudí took a few steps backward into the street to get a better view of his burgeoning masterpiece and was promptly hit by a trolley car. He died and no one else could interpret his blueprints. But the trolley car was environmentally sound, and just think of all the tractor gas that’s been saved ever since. Barcelona also scores points for having fostered social cohesion in local parks and squares, and having designated a large number of “People Spaces” around the metropolitan area. Although by “social cohesion in parks and square” they mean the gay underground, and by “People Spaces” they mean “dive bars inside youth hostels.” Either way, Barcelona is definitely in the running.

Malmö

Sounds like a company that manufactures pretentious T-shirts. But no, Malmö is a lovely city in Sweden that I’m concerned about in terms of its intentions. It seems little Malmö has only stepped up its green game to spite big sister Stockholm, who won Europe’s eco-contest in 2010. Envy might be a green emotion, but as a motivator for environmentalism it seems a little juvenile. Malmö is so invested in winning that it recently began encouraging residents to participate in bike riding by installing enormous, unsightly gray “cycle barometers” all over the city. They literally count you as you ride past—and that’s just creepy. Disqualified.

Stockholm

See above. Stockholm won in 2010 and incumbents are incredibly boring. I’ll also mention that one of the main issues Stockholm tackled in the run-up to the big 2010 win was noise pollution. I’d have to check with Mother Nature, but I’m not sure boom box volume is high on her To Do list. Overall—been there, won that, disqualified.

Hamburg

Hamburg has already been announced as the winner of the 2011 eco-contest, primarily due to the fact that its Prius-style tram literally stops in front of every resident’s front door. It takes seven weeks to get to work, but gas consumption is measured in midget-thimbles. Hamburg is so efficient it actually absorbs carbon monoxide from surrounding townships.  But I worry that naming someone the winner, twice, for a contest-year still set in the future would reflect quite badly on the competition. It is also likely to discourage other cities who will very quickly find themselves uninspired to vie for titles to be awarded in the year 3000. So unless Hamburg does something extraordinary in the next few months—say, re-engineer cancer cells to fix Mickey Rourke and repair the damaged ozone layer—disqualified.

Reykjavik

Any city located inside the country currently blanketing all of Europe in three meters of toxic volcanic ash…seriously disqualified. Yes, Reykjavik has an interesting system of utilizing the heat from natural hot springs to power toasters and whatnot. But such schemes are all fine and good until said toasters band together and shut down Heathrow Airport.

Nuremberg

…where to begin.

As a humorist, it’s difficult to handle a subject/target both this easy and this touchy. So, in the interest of “Rising Above It”, I’ll settle for no comment. Although, in terms of this particular competition, I do have to disqualify Nuremberg for one simple reason: Despite the city’s heroic efforts to reduce waste, galvanize hippy activists, and foster long-term sustainability, the entire purpose of this contest is to encourage tourism, bolster the city’s image, and promote the region as a whole. And yet it is undoubtedly one of the great mysteries of modern times why, in the past fifty years, it hasn’t occurred to a single soul in the Nuremberg public relations department to change the name of the city.

I hear Goebbels Valley is also in need of a make-over…

Vitoria-Gasteiz

Where??

This Basque-country entry simply proves my point. Nestled in the scenic Cantabrian Mountains, Vitoria-Gasteiz is green because it’s rustic, hard to get to, little visited, little populated, small enough to cross on foot, and no one there speaks English (resulting in less Seinfeld-watching and far less energy consumption). Plus Vitoria is also Spanish, so everyone there is drunk too. All-in-all, unfairly positioned over the other contenders. Disqualified.

And the winner is…

Barcelona. Reviewing all evidence presented thus far, Barcelona is the only city not disqualified based on its current orientation, imagination, lack of evil side effects, and overall reasonableness of approach. That being said, Barcelona is now immediately disqualified based on its hosting of the 1996 Olympics, which caused more trash, toxins, pollution, construction, weird sports, bad dancing, crotchety medalists, closeted track stars, and general eco-nightmarishness to outlast all actions the city has taken ever since.

In fact, I feel that someone, at some point, should point out to the European Commission and all interested followers of this high-profile Eco-Challenge the following conundrum: Winning this contest will improve the reputation of the winning city. People will admire it, notice it, and be more likely to visit. And yet one transatlantic airline flight  emits more CO2 into the atmosphere than could be made up for by a lifetime of recyclable shopping bags and low-flow toilets. To truly support the environment one must vote for a winning green city and then swim there—preferably with a compact fluorescent light bulb clenched between their teeth.

Be sure to steer clear of the Gulf oil spill.

Good luck. And travel hard, my friends.

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Last Resorts

Nothing screams vacation like being afraid for your life. After all, people go on exotic trips to forget about their chores, their bosses, excruciating hiatuses in Mad Men…the little problems. So it only makes sense to vacation in a place with some major ones. Of course, much of what we label as dangerous is really a matter of perception: Just as dangerous dogs are a function of how you raise them, dangerous vacations are simply a function of how often you leave your hotel room. Luckily there are some truly lovely resorts in some seriously scary places.

 

One & Only Resort (Cape Town, South Africa)

When going on vacation, one should invariably head for the “Rape Capital of the World.” Now, I admit that this is somewhat unfair to say because South Africa is more accurately known as the “Rape, Armed Murder, Carjacking, and Kidnapping Hub of Plenty.” It was a close call for the Department of Tourism, but they wanted it to fit on a license plate. Recent  surveys also show that while 1-in-4 South African women have been raped in their lifetime, 3-in-2 had been carjacked that very day. So, in terms of overall safety, you should definitely focus on locking the car doors.

The point is that you’re highly unlikely to be the victim of any kind of crime in the stylish lobby of the One&Only resort in Cape Town. The One&Only is part of a chain, of course (there are seven of them), but this One&Only is certainly the only-Only on the African Subcontinent. (Truth in advertising is a core value in the developing world, where cigarettes are still marketed as stocking stuffers.) This urban-chic oasis features waterfront views, a world class spa, a Japanese restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef, and a seafood restaurant with Gordon Ramsay as the chef. Having him punch you in the throat is extra. For those lucky enough to book a suite, please note that each one comes with a 24-hour butler who guarantees superior service (i.e., Jasmine Tea), old world charm (little bit racist), and conducts himself with the utmost discretion (carries a switchblade and won’t tell your mother).

But no. I really am being tough on South Africa, a country that’s had more than its fair share of triumphs and tragedies. Cape Town itself was founded by the Dutch East India Company, the first and only multinational corporation with the power to coin money and wage war. Yes,that is…coin money…and wage war. The same people who thought that was a good idea later built a prison and put Nelson Mandela in it, although that mistake has since been rectified and commemorative jail-cell snow globes are now on sale in the prison gift shop. Even better, government statistics show that the only crimes officially on the rise in South Africa are “those dependent upon police action for detection.” As for what that means, it’s probably best to move on…

Bembridge Coast Hotel  (Isle of Wight, Great Britain)

Once upon a time in 1560, a disturbed young boy murdered his father and sister, and the dead girl, deranged and dressed in blue, now roams the foggy hills of England crying out for her mother, who obviously did a bang-up job raising these children. But that’s the Isle of Wight for you: the most notoriously, densely, and actively haunted island in the world. There are more dead people than tourists, but that makes booking a room fairly easily.

The Isle itself is diamond-shaped, five miles off the coast of Hampshire, and about 70 miles from London, where there are many supermodels who look dead but are really just “in demand.”  Resort-wise, Wight boasts many quaint areas, one of the most popular being Bembridge on the eastern tip. Offering a plethora of activities such as crabbing, shopping, beach-combing for the kids, and copious amounts of yachting, the only thing to worry about in relaxing Bembridge is the decapitated head of a 17th century pirate that is sometimes seen in fishing areas. Those who happen to comes across this head are advised not to panic, not to call the concierge, and to practice Catch & Release as always. Other Wight specters that have long been witnessed and solidly confirmed (confirmation defined as three or more mentions on two distinct websites) include a phantom monk who roams the grounds of a monastery, a woman in red who hung herself in her manor house, and an entire haunted police station complete with a sad and slumped phantom convict whose parole hearing is any day now. One personal favorite, specter-wise, is the ghost of a man named Michael Morey who chopped up his grandson with an axe in 1736, tried to hide the crime by shoving the dismembered body into several leather bags, got caught, and was summarily executed and displayed on the barrows. Today, he regularly emerges from the existential mist, forever damned to circle the ancient barrows on horseback, balefully crying out in rage and despair. What I want to know is what the poor horse did.

For those wondering why there is so much supernatural restlessness packed onto this one petite, polite British island that was otherwise minding its own business, it apparently comes down to the ley lines—of course it’s the ley lines!—as you will repeatedly be told in every pub from Bembridge to Dead Bridge by the many ghost hunters who annually flock to the island armed with little more than untutored opinions and a laminated map. Ley lines, by the way, are unseen alignments that have been carefully diagramed by New Age types in hemp shoes and, through means unknown, create powerful currents of psychic energy that crisscross the globe and converge with stunning accuracy at the direct points of intersection between major megaliths, ancient sites, holy places, standing stones, churches, cairns, astrological configurations, large playgrounds, oversized bunkers, abandoned Pintos, and anything else that happens to fall on one of the lines and not have a cash register or Book of Mormon. (The lines are very old and that religions is very, very new.)

All Mini-Hotels (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Why is it that every mention of Ho Chi Minh in casual conversation, at least in my world, is met with the same response: “Ho Chi Minh…isn’t that the place that…or wait, isn’t he the guy…?” The answer is no. It’s not the place where the guy stood in front of the tank with the daisy. But yes, it is the place where the helicopter took off and left Miss Saigon behind. So, sure, if you add the word “City” it is a place, but it was also definitely a person. But no, that person wasn’t also named Dien Bien Phu. And in some ways  perhaps (but for the most part hell no) he’s not the same guy as Mao Zedong. Got it? Good. Because in any case it’s not a great place to stay in a mini-hotel.

Let’s be more specific, first off, because if you have enough money you can find somewhere fabulous to sleep pretty much anywhere besides Darfur and Nebraska. But the so-called “mini-hotels” littering the landscape of Ho Chi Minh City, particularly those in the backpacking mecca of Phu Nhuan, are little more than death traps masquerading as fire hazards, all designed to distract you from the roving conmen and abusive staff. I don’t want to name names, but…let’s say..the Phu Phuong Hotel located at 338 Dao Duy in Ward 9…for example. We’ll call that one dodgy—and maybe don’t stay anywhere else in a five block radius. Among the things these mini-hostels are notorious for is:

  • Bait & switching on things like price and air conditioners;
  • Shouting obscenities when you question your $873 worth of “Good Bag Handle” charges;
  • Failing to have luxuries such as working phones lines or deadbolts that stop armed marauders  from breaking into your room while you’re, say, still in there sleeping and/or furiously pushing on the other side of the door (while screaming);
  • Shysters who say they’ll take you from the lobby to the airport then shove you out at an unlit Cambodian rest stop;
  • And of course the old “spike your food and sexually assault you” routine, which is never as much fun as they describe in the Lonely Planet.

There are maids in these hotels, but if you leave money in the room (as part of your innovative “Pell Grant for Pilferers” college scholarship fund), they will take it. And anyway the maids are mostly hiding in the deep recesses of the hotels where all the clean things are. Ho Chi Minh mini-hotels, in other words, are notoriously filthy. When you first enter your room and marvel at the parquet floors, for example, please be warned that the floor is actually a dull and lifeless beige. The brown comes from scum and the sheen can be attributed to cockroach pee. Fire is also a big concern in these tiny paradises, particularly for those staying above the 6th floor because local fire department ladders tend only to reach to the 5th. On the other hand, fear of fire will mitigate the paranoia caused by your deadbolt not working, as the only other means of egress will be the enormous hole your pedestal-footed bathtub is about to punch in the tile floor. That is, of course, if you have the audacity to have your own bathroom. If you do happen to share one (you will share one), please note that your bathroom cohabitants will unfailingly be six chatting, spewing, college-aged Australian males with penchants for cheap beer and the aim of drunken monkeys. Other than that, the only real concerns in Ho Chi Minh mini-hotels are the endemic nature of cholera, rabies, SARS, bird flu, dengue, HIV, HPV, head lice, hand warts, H1N1 (otherwise known as swine flu or “MSNBC Fever”), and the occasional but in most cases virulent outbreak of rampant homesickness.

 

 

Look it…the aim of this information is not to make you stay home. It is simply, lest we forget, to reinforce that travel is hard. As it should be. Most days, our biggest concern walking out the front door is whether or not we forgot an umbrella, and our biggest problem while lying in bed is whether or not we still like our current haircut. And what kind of life is that? The motto of the One&Only resort is “Live the moment.” So they’re very unlikely to let you die there. Plus it’s a good motto. And yes, fire safety in Southeast Asiaranks right up there with food availability on Southwest Airlines, but if you do make it out alive you’ll finally know the difference between Ho Chi Minh and Fu Manchu (Hint: Neither had good barbers.)

My passionate thesis is that the whole goal of travel is 3) to enjoy yourself, 2) to arrive home unscathed, and 1) to experience the planet. And a lot of the planet is a scary place. Whether the children are breaking into your rooms with daggers or hanging out beneath your windows with no heads, mixing adventure with danger is like mixing alcohol with a job interview: necessity and bad idea all at once. Most of the world will greet you warmly, some of it will murder you for your Levis, and the entire mess would be solved if we all just had our own butlers.

Bring a silencer, learn to make rope ladders, and go travel very hard, my friends.

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