Every Monday we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:
What’s the Weirdest Place You’ve Ended Up on a Trip?
Rules are simple: Where did you end up when you didn’t mean to go anywhere? We’ve all ended up in weird places – like a cookout with an ex or Iowa – but the weirdest of them all are the unexpected ones. Where were you most surprised to find yourself, and how many goats were there with you?
I went to London for a month in 2005, supposedly to learn how to teach middle school. I guess I did that, but I also spent a lot of that January in the pub you can see in the opening credits of Black Books. I was there with some people I knew and some I didn’t and we managed to make friends with the staff of the pub. It was a weird experience, because usually when I travel I keep to myself. This time, though, a spunky British lesbian and a gruff bartender became my travel companions for a really weird week. I still remember ordering a boilermaker (there are many ways to order one, but I wanted a shot of whiskey dropped in a beer) and having to explain what I meant to the guy. I spent a lot of time apologizing for being American, but never more than when he asked me plainly: “Why can’t you Americans just drink?“
The weirdest place I ended up on a trip had to have been when I went to Cambodia and ended up at a private house party. I was traveling with my friend Sara and we had a really nice tour guide to help us get to all the sites (the killing fields are more depressing than you’d imagine and Angkor Wat is far more impressive). He was a fascinating guy and told us about his life and how being a tour guide had allowed him to buy some land and start building his own house for his family. I really wanted to to drink palm wine, but we found it a bit hard to come by so on the last day we were there he invited us to his still-under-construction abode. This was far from the main tourist drag we had been on and he picked up a special treat for us when we were on the way… grilled dog. The meat was pretty good, though it wasn’t the first time I had dog, and I got quite drunk sitting outside with about 25 to 30 people for an impromptu housewarming.
The strangest, most surreal place I’ve ever ended up on a trip was a Denny’s in Orlando, FL. Ena had never been to Disney World as a child so, right before she graduated college, we took a bus down, rented a cheap motel, and went to Disney and Universal. And here’s the bitch of it: The Atlanta bus station–with shoeless children eating nacho cheese from plastic containers with forks–was not the weirdest place. The Greyhound bus, where, as soon as we boarded (and sat next to the toilet because there were three of us), a toothless woman threw in a styrofoam cup, rendering it completely useless and, for the next eight hours, we were tasked with denying desperate customers their bathroom privileges… this wasn’t the weirdest. No, the weirdest was, after taking the “convenient shuttle” from our hotel to Disney (2 hrs), after wading through oceans of children so Ena could have the prototypical American experience, after It’s a Small World and The Haunted Mansion (sans Eddie Murphy) and Pirates of the Caribbean and a $15 burger and fries and the 100+ degree heat with full humidity and after waiting in a parking lot for an hour for that fucking shuttle to take us back to our hotel, we stumbled, numb, into Denny’s in some kind of psychedelic/psychotic daze, laughing through course after course of over-salted, brown food, me in a ridiculous Hawaiian shirt, Ena in shock at the heat and the awfulness that is Orlando, the waiters and residents of Kissimmee or wherever the fuck we were just staring at us… We definitely brought the weirdness–after all, it was just Denny’s–but, nevertheless.
In 2010, I went to LA to visit my friend Cody with my friends Jenny and Ben. I love LA. The great people, all the great shows, Korean BBQ. But inevitably, I’m drawn inland toward Joshua Tree National Park. So we went. Cody’s family had a house there outside the national park. Now, the desert has always been one of my ideal landscapes. I love the hot and cold, the weird creatures, the rock formations; hence, I love Joshua Tree. Well, in the town of Joshua Tree (population 7,414 as of the 2010 Census), there happens to be one world famous museum. I had no idea such a thing existed, there on the outskirts of the brutal California desert, on the edge of the civilized world. But lo, on the rim of the city, off the highway, is the World Famous Crochet Museum. The two photos cannot possible illustrate how small this thing is. Literally three people, and no more, can fit inside. And inside? Inside?! Stuffed to the brim with crocheted objects, including the pictured taco (a personal favorite). I literally stood outside the small green building, looking around, hoping we were too far from LA to be Punk’d. It’s a surreal place to be in the middle of so much harshness.
The weirdest place I ever ended up was the catacombs underneath Paris. I can’t really say “ended up” as if I didn’t plan to go there – it’s a major tourist attraction. It’s also creepy as hell. The quick history is that the limestone used to build Paris was mostly mined from underneath the city itself, a practice which continued until streets started falling into the tunnels honeycombing the city. The city leaders made further mining illegal, but still had all these tunnels, all these people, and all these overflowing cemeteries. Instead of exhuming old corpses and burying new ones ad infinitum, whoever was running Paris at the time decided to just toss all the old bones into the old mining tunnels. In recent years, it has become a tourist attraction, and people organize and manage upkeep for all that calcium. There are skulls stacked in artistic arrangements. Walls of bones. It is creepy to be shuffling through the tight, cramped underground of one of the most famous cities in the world, and it is doubly creepy to be surrounded by the remains who used to walk, live, and breathe just like you. Seriously – a cemetery is just a bunch of stone and memories. Being hemmed in on all sides by human remains is a completely different psychological experience, and the catacombs are one of the weirdest places I have ever been.
I wasn’t the most traditional college student. I missed out on a lot of milestones that you see cliched in movies – most notably the road trip. I never really take vacations that aren’t somehow family related. I left the state for weddings but never had an epic Spring Break or drove to x place to see y event. The closest I have, after reflecting on it, is Wisconsin Dells. Yeah, that crappy water resort north of Chicago that families go to. A group of friends decided it would be a great place to go for a weekend in the summer. Hindsight is 20/20. The highlight of the trip took place after 60 minutes and one game of Drinking Mario Party. Turns out the area didn’t really sell beer after 10 and we were desperately low. People drinking eight beers in an hour will have that outcome. We asked the receptionist at our hotel if anywhere was selling beer and she said yes. A gas station. Two miles away. With no cabs to be found, we decided to walk it. Now, as I mentioned, eight beers in an hour will have another outcome: You’ll desperately need to relieve yourself. As we reached a breaking point, we walked past a tourist attraction with large recreations of historical monuments. This all builds to the weirdest place I ended up on a trip: peeing on the leg of a replica of the Trojan Horse, towering above me.
Tanzania is a weird place. I loved the two weeks I spent there back in 2007 but in retrospect it was such a crazy experience. If you ever get the chance to go you MUST go to Zanzibar. It’s an island just off the coast of Dar es Salaam. We spent a few days at a coastal town called Jambiani. “Town” might be too nice of a word. It was basically three hut-lined streets going north/south with some bungalows on the beachfront. My friend and I went on a quest to find booze which turned out to be especially difficult. A local identified with our struggle and said he knew a place to get us booze. He demanded we call him “Flea” and lead us down a weaving pathway of identical huts. We ended up in this little courtyard with a large pile of rocks stacked four feet high in the middle of it. He told us we had to wait there as he went into his friend’s house to get us the booze. He then proceeded to reach into the pile of rocks and pull out an empty bottle to put our booze in. At that point we had to politely tell him that getting us booze and putting it in a used empty bottle pulled from a pile of rocks was not okay.