Five Good Travel Books

It’s interesting: I don’t read travel books much (I usually prefer novels) and yet the following books are not only travel books but some of my favorite books of all time.

I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I think it means that a lot of travel books are annoying. It usually starts with the title.  Take No Touch Monkey! by Ayun Halliday, for example. I will never read that book, not because it’s a bad book (I have no idea if it’s good or bad) but simply because of the title.

A lot of travel books seem to suffer from the malady of trying to make experiences seem more dramatic or crazy than they are. I’ve suffered from this same pitfall. “Creative” non-fiction writers tend to think their experiences are unique.

But though they might not be unique, how you tell it is. Bill Bryson, for one, has proven a great travel writer can write something readable about a mundane experience. It’s not in how you lived it then but how you tell it, and the following authors and books tell it well.

Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson

This was the first real travel book I read. I belly-laughed at multiple parts in the book, and it sparked my love affair with Bill Bryson, still one of my favorite authors.

Quotable quote: “Romans park their cars the way I would if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.”

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s best book, which has since been made into a movie. A narrative about walking a trail day after day seems like it would be boring, but Bryson’s talent for taking any experience, like shopping for hiking gear at the local co-op, and turning it into comedy, is apparent.

Quotable quote: “We spent a whole afternoon going through his stock. He would say things to me like: ‘Now this has a 70-denier high-density abrasion-resistant fly with a ripstop weave. On the other hand, and I’ll be frank with you here’-and he would lean to me and reduce his voice to a low, candid tone, as if disclosing that it had once been arrested in a public toilet with a sailor-‘the seams are lap felled rather than bias taped and the vestibule is a little cramped.'”

Passage to Juneau, Jonathan Raban

The description of navigating Deception Pass alone is reason to read this book. The meditative language fits the pace of sailing/motoring up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska perfectly.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

I only read this recently. I like it for the dark, dream-like qualities — it’s hard to tell if what is happening is really real or just some kind of malaria-induced hallucination.

There is also something to be said for heading into the unknown. Not just the unknown for you, but the unknown for most. Travel is a chance to do this.

Quotable quote: “We live as we dream–alone….”

Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a true story, Chuck Klosterman

Still my favorite Klosterman book of all time, I re-read KYTL every couple of years, or at least snippets of it. The reason this book is so good is because it’s not about what it’s supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about Klosterman traveling through the US going to sites where famous rock stars have died, but it’s actually about his relationships with various women. And we humans love to read about relationships, especially when talked about by someone as funny as Chuck.

Quotable quote: “…Lenore will send me the nicest e-mail I’ve ever received from anyone, and reading it will make me want to hide in a cave for 10,000 years.”

-W

Why Wait in Line to Get on a Flight?

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Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: You’re at the airport and the gate attendant makes the boarding announcement:

“We’d like to announce general boarding for groups one and two for today’s 4:35pm flight to Medicine Hat. Once again, this is the 4:35pm flight to Medicine Hat, the sixth largest city in Alberta and home of notable broadcaster Jurgen Gothe. Groups one and two are welcome to board.”

You lift your dungaree’d ass out of the vinyl seat you were sitting in and get in line behind 80 other wretched people only to shuffle onto the plane like holsteins being led to the feed trough.

And what I want to know is: Why do it?

What’s the alternative? Well, the alternative is to wait. It’s really very simple. You wait for an indeterminate amount of time, and then you stroll onto the plane like you’re walking out on the Santa Monica Pier to smell the salt air, unless of course you misjudge it and the line from the waiting room is gone but there’s a line on the jetway. But this is normal — you can’t see through walls! So I forgive you. But why, for the love of Demeter, would you willingly stand up and wait in line? So you can get overhead space? So you can spend extra time on the plane? Hot dog, I haven’t flown on a 737-400 in a long time, I have to take some extra time to examine the seat pocket in front of me, to fold down the tray and marvel at the button you push to make your seat recline. Better hurry!

On airlines like Southwest and Ryan Air I can understand it because they don’t have assigned seats. But on an airline that has assigned seats, i.e. most airlines, why wait in line? You’re not going to get off the plane any earlier. Your seat’s not going to be more comfortable. You’re not going to get your food earlier. So why, would someone please tell me and tell me now, would you wait in line?

Now, the interesting thing would be this: What if everyone showed a bit of mental acumen and waited to get on the flight? Well, then we’d have a problem. Because you see the line can only be avoided if poor souls are willing to stand up and shuffle like so many bovines so that you don’t have to. Imagine a scenario where there’s a bunch of people waiting around, not wanting to wait in line, waiting longer and longer and longer, and finally the gate attendants announce final boarding and 150 people rush to the gate. What would happen then? Well, I dare say it would be chaos.

But it would be a beautiful chaos. And I prefer to live in that world instead of the world where otherwise sentient sapiens moo their way onto a 767. I prefer to live in the world where people show some damn common sense.

Right?

Your Top 10 Travel Questions Answered

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“I mean, kinda…”

1. Q: Should I go to Prague?

A: No.

2.Q: Is first class/business class worth it?

A: Only if you use miles.

3. Q: Is Mexico dangerous?

A: Shut up.

4. Q: What do I need to know about crossing Central American land borders in my private vehicle?

A: Wonderful question. The answer is actually sixfold. First, make sure you have the ORIGINAL title stating that you have ownership of the vehicle. You’ll need copies of it, and the amount can vary from border to border, so I recommend carrying five (5) on your person at all times. Also, you might not need the registration, but you also MIGHT need it, so bring that, too. Also, bring the following (again, with copies): your passport and your driver’s license. AND, if, for example, you just left Guatemala on your way to El Salvador, make sure you have the paperwork showing that you left Guatemala, along with even more copies.

Keep in mind: At most borders, the dudes (and dudettes) have no idea what the policies are for the neighboring country.  Sounds insane, right? You’re a Salvadorean customs officer and you have zero idea what the policies are for your neighbors in Guatemala despite working 300 meters from them all your adult life? This is standard, and don’t expect any different. Above all, when crossing Central American land borders in your private vehicle, adopt the following attitude: This is going to be wretched, at some point I’m going to want to cry, at some point I’m going to want to scream at someone, it’s going to take three times as long as I thought it was going to take, and just when I think I’m about to make it I’ll realize I don’t have a critical document and they won’t let me cross.

To make things easier, bring something to keep calm. I brought cigarettes.

5. Q: What’s with all the dialects spoken in Mexico?

A: They’re not “dialects.” If Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, is a dialect, then English is a dialect, Japanese is a dialect, Russian is a dialect, and every other full-fledged language is a dialect. Give these languages the respect they deserve. Except for Triqui. Don’t give Triqui any respect.

6. Q:  Is Iceland cool?

A: I mean, kinda.

7. What’s the best thing about Patagonia?

The best thing about Patagonia is not the rugged beauty or wide open landscapes. Well, OK, it’s sort of the wide open landscapes.  The best thing about Patagonia is that, compared to other parts of Latin America, per square mile, there aren’t that many tourists. And, as in most parts of the world, the tourists tend to congregate in a few given spots (i.e. spots that are in Lonely Planet), which means you can throttle your tourist exposure to suit your exact preferences. If you go to Ushuaia, for example (which, despite the tourism, is recommendable), you’ll be inundated with tourists. But go to Tolhuin, for example, the next town over, and there won’t be a tourist in sight (and there’s a wonderful bakery and a room which, if you claim you’re a cyclist, you can sleep in for free and risk asphyxiation)!

So, in short, the vastness, the uncrowdedness, is the best part of Patagonia.

Where’s Wetzler Pro Tip #1: the best town in Patagonia has nothing to do with what you might think of when you think of Patagonia (i.e. “rugged mountains” and “beauty”). The best town in Patagonia is called Perito Moreno.  It’s homey, it’s Argentinian, and it’s completely un-touristy (except for the ones passing through on their way south).  When you go, check out Salon Iturroz for a coffee, camp at the municipal campground, and make a quick trip over to Los Antiguos and Chile Chico, two towns that are actually kind of pretty.

Where’s Wetzler Pro Tip #2: Want something 10 times more beautiful than Patagonia and 100 times closer? It’s right in our backyard, it starts with an “A” and rhymes “Faflaska.”

8. Q: Is the Australian working holiday visa age limit going to increase to 35?

A: Another great question, and I wish I had some solid answers for you. After doing some internet research, here’s what people seem to know: The Australian government did actually raise the limit, it just hasn’t gone in to effect yet. Things like this usually go into effect sometime in July (according to one site I saw), which means that this July (2017) we’ll see if it actually does. I know, I know: I’m yearning to work in the cobalt mines of Western Australia as much as the next guy. Or a cafe in Perth! Or a cafe in Melbourne! Or anywhere that pays crisp, plastic Australian dollar bills.

9. Q: How do I get bumped up to first class?

A: You don’t.

10. Q: Where’s the best street food in Mexico City?

A: OK, I’m only going to put this on the website once. The best street food is on the southeast corner of … Rio Lerma and Rio Nilo, near the Angel de Independencia and the American Embassy. It’s permanently manned by a troupe of señoras serving delicious guisados, only at lunch time.

Get the mole. Get it now.

Thanks for all the wonderful questions. Some have actually been posed to me over the years, and some I sort of posed to myself.

If you have more feel free to reach out (emotionally) to me at the following email address: whereswetzler@gmail.com

 

-Wetzler

A Clotted Cream Calamity: My first time on British Airways

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I was not on a 747. This is a photo from Pixabay.

I flew British airways for the first time in March on my way back from Italy. I had high hopes. My trip started at the Pisa airport, which was refreshingly small and close to the town itself. You could easily leave the airport and walk to a cafe or restaurant in town, which is exactly what I did. At the cafe I witnessed something wonderful. The woman working at the cafe, an attractive 40-something Italian who when I try to imagine now I can only picture Monica Bellucci, was making a salad when I strolled into the cafe and asked what kind of food they had.

She handed me a menu.

At approximately this exact moment, a man came in from outside and asked how his salads were coming.

“We’re in a rush,” he said, “could you hurry it up?”

“Salads take time,” the woman said, bristling, “it’ll be ready when it’s ready.”

Then the man did something rude. He started moving his pointer finger in a circular direction, as if to say, can we speed things up a bit?

The woman, to her credit, kept relatively calm, or at least calm for an Italian woman.

She exchanged a few words with a man who was standing at the bar drinking a beer. It was brilliantly sunny outside and I continued to peruse the menu while also trying to listen to what the woman was saying to the bar patron about the rude customer who had just come in. As I stood there they flashed glances at me as if to say, Could you believe that guy? I tried to convey with raised eyebrows that I was fully on their side.

Eventually she finished the salads and brought them out to the man and the woman who was presumably his wife or girlfriend. Suddenly there issued a flurry of cross words (I think I might’ve seen part of a cucumber or a piece of radish fly across the patio at one point) and the cafe worker, with an extravagant gesture, scooped up both the salads she had just made and said, “You can both leave now.”

I wanted to cheer but the atmosphere was tense and not one of applause. She came back in huffing and carrying the two salads.

“What an asshole,” the woman said. 

Indeed, I thought, A heathen.

“Could I just have his salad? That way it won’t get wasted,” I said. 

 I ate the salad, something delicious with tuna, tomatoes, and then I left, back into the sunshine, to catch my first ever British airways flight.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about the flight to Heathrow.  I vaguely remember going through customs and being excited to speak English, and that the man asking me about my trip had short hair. But then I was at large in England with a night to kill, an overcast March evening in England which could have just as easily been June or November. I went and got Indian food and asked for it “spicy,” and by the end of the meal my mouth could’ve used a fire extinguisher. “You’re handling it well,” said the man working, as tears streamed down my face and I blew my nose over and over.

The next day was the long flight, from London to Seattle. In a way I was looking forward to it because I had splurged for premium economy, but I was not looking forward to the 10+ hours of being sedentary.

I expected big things from British Airways. I expected leather, or at least faux leather, upholstery. I expected everything to be classy and new, possibly with wood trim, and if it wasn’t classy and new then old and distinguished. Isn’t this what we’ve come to expect from the British? That everything will be classier and more dashing than the way we do it over in the colonies?

Oh, but it was not to be. First of all, the seats were cloth. Everything was cloth, that wretched fabric. If I’m at my friend’s two bedroom in Wallingford sitting on the couch, then yes, cloth is ok. But not if I’m on an airplane, and not if that aeroplane is part of the fleet of the flagship carrier of the British empire. It was a disgrace, only slightly offset by the champagne and orange juice we were offered immediately upon boarding. I was not happy, so I took the complimentary noise canceling headphones and shut myself off from the world.

Also, I had a middle seat. I know I can’t blame British airways for this, but I’m going to do it anyway. And my middle seat was just across the aisle from business class, which I of course eyed covetously until they shut the curtain. What would first class be like? I wondered. Forget business class. What miracles abound in first class? Perhaps I’ll never know.

We took off and I started watching a movie. Watching movies is key on long-haul flights. It can be hard, however, to find a movie that holds your attention. Normal movies don’t do it. I’ve found that it has to be either a kind of weird movie, or a comedy.  Slap-stick kills me on airplanes. I’ll watch a movie I’d be ashamed to watch under normal circumstances, but on an airplane it will have me doubled over, clutching my chest like I’m going into cardiac arrest.

The food came, and it was unremarkable.  Everything about this flight was unremarkable, except for two things: the smile and the accent of the flight attendant in premium economy, and also the clotted cream with biscuit they served at “high tea”. I’d never had clotted cream before. It was the kind of delicacy I assume is usually reserved for royalty, and thus fitting with my expectations of what British Airways would be like. Coupled with a scone, some marmalade, and a nice bitter cup of black tea and my spirits were momentarily soaring. God, how I wanted another serving of clotted cream. Did I ask for it? I might’ve asked for it. I don’t think I asked for it. But either way, it was over altogether too quick, and I had to return to the drudgery of switching between the map mode that showed where we were (somewhere over Greenland), and whatever sub-par movie I was watching.

Finally, after interminable hours, we landed in Seattle. My first experience with British Airways was over. I can’t say I’ll exactly be clamoring to fly them again. From what I’ve seen, all the major American carriers are just as nice, if not nicer, when it comes to international flight. I know this may come as a shock to some of you. But notice I’m saying international flight. I’m not talking about domestic. Flying major american carriers domestically, except of course for my beloved Alaska, is usually a horror show.

One thing I will say for BA: they didn’t damage my surfboard. God bless them. And one thing I’ll say for my parents: they surprised me at the airport. That doesn’t happen very often, and it feels pretty special when it does. So the experience, on a whole, was decent. And I still dream about the clotted cream.