I'd Rather the Bates Motel Any Day
On a recent trip to San Francisco, I checked into a lovely, newly renovated hotel where I was looking forward to staying a few nights. But while doing a quick turnaround of the room, I noticed that the funky modern lamps were so new they still sported tags. In fact, I observed, they were so new that they didn't have any light bulbs in them. Well, I would have just done what anyone would have done in that situation and called down and asked for some light bulbs. But that's when I noticed... there was no phone.
So I took the elevator down 20-something floors to the front desk to explain the matter to the staff. They assured me that someone would come up while I was out at dinner to install some light bulbs and a phone. At that point, I believed them. I thanked them and went on my way. Upon arriving back in the room, though, I tried to turn on the lights and none of the floor lamps worked. I searched by light of the bathroom fixtures for the cause of the problem. It seemed that now I had light bulbs, but the lamps were still not plugged in. And that's when I noticed... there were no outlets in the walls. None. In the whole room.
Since I still didn't have a phone, I again took the elevator down to the lobby to tell the staff about the lighting debacle. They finally agreed to move me to a new room, in which I was truly hoping to sleep peacefully. Well, once in my new room, I got ready for bed. At that point, I would have simply set the alarm and gone to bed. But that's when I noticed... there was no alarm clock. I used my lamplight to dial the phone (baby steps!) to request an alarm clock and was told that I'd be moved to a better room, and that the manager himself would personally assist in the move. In this third room, the lights had bulbs; they plugged into outlets and even turned on; there was a phone and an alarm clock. The manager left me, insisting that I was to call him immediately with any concerns I had whatsoever. I thanked him and unpacked.
Once ready to retire, I grabbed the blinds to block out the city lights for some much-deserved shut-eye. I pulled and tugged, but they wouldn't budge. I searched for a pulley, a rod, anything -- and finally found a cord for the blinds. Ah, so they were electric. I would have simply used the controls to close the electric-powered drapes and gone to bed. But that's when I felt my way to the end of the cord and noticed... unconnected wires dangled limply at the end, spraying out in a jumble of colored plastic and glinting copper, far from being linked with any source of electricity.
My excitement at having a phone beginning to grow dull, I called the front desk and was hooked up with the electrician. When I asked him if he'd be able to install the blinds, he questioned how long the installation would take. On the verge of losing my cool, I told him that, as the electrician, shouldn't he be telling me that? From there, the conversation arced in wide, meandering circles of logic. It was almost one in the morning now and I knew I would have to call a temporary truce in this Goldilocks war and just go to bed. But that's when I noticed...
Just kidding. I still had a bed, and it was comfortable, if a little too well-lit for a really great night's sleep. On the bright side, it was only the first night of my vacation, San Francisco was waiting outside my hotel door, and there was always tomorrow -- and what could possibly go wrong then? -- Alexia Meyers Travaglini
It happened about four weeks into our six-week tour of India. (Four weeks of eating street food, but carefully drinking and brushing my teeth with bottled water.) It started slowly, then ripped through my body like a gale-force hurricane, leaving me 10 pounds lighter in about a week.
Yep, an attack of dysentery felled me in a cheap Indian hostel, where the toilet seats were nonexistent and the toilet paper was BYO. Worst of all, while flat on my back, woozy from codeine and nauseated from forcing down electrolyte-replenishing fluids, I was reduced to reading the last book in my backpack, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
Learn from my mistakes: If the "doctor" at the "infirmary" you go to on the street offers you a discounted bus ticket immediately after selling you giant horse-sized mystery pills, head straight to the hospital and see a real doctor. Check the seal on your bottled water -- sometimes bottles are recycled and refilled, and you could be drinking non-purified tap water. If you've got the runs, try eating bananas and yogurt to settle your stomach. If you don't get better soon, head to a hospital.
And finally, when you're feeling better (which you will, quickly, after starting the drugs) don't mix booze and antibiotics. That leads to a whole different kind of mess. -- Margot Weiss
Packing a Punch
Visiting a new place can be intimidating to some, which is why it helps to bring along something that reminds you of home. For some it may be a candle or blanket, but for me, it was a container of chocolate powder from my favorite coffee shop back home in Scottsdale, Ariz. When I moved to Manhattan two years ago, I packed my life into two suitcases; one filled entirely with new clothes for my new life and the box of cocoa powder, so I wouldn't forget my old one. When I arrived at the airport I was greeted by rain and waited almost two hours for a reserved Super Shuttle that never showed up. After spending $73 on a cab, I made my way from Newark to the Upper West Side, where I was staying with a friend for a few days. I was exhausted and disheartened by my welcome to the big city, but determined not to let it ruin things.
We decided that a night out would do the trick, so I went to my suitcase full of new clothes to find something to wear. When I opened the bag, I discovered that the box of chocolate powder had exploded, covering every item from new jeans to a new purse with a thick layer of grainy powder. I thought a few shakes would do the trick, but it turned out that only an $85 dry cleaning bill could fix things.
So how can you spill-proof your vacation? New carry-on restrictions could have you packing items that would be better off hand-carried, so when packing liquids, ranging from shampoo to olive oil, wrap items in numerous plastic bags to prevent spills. If you're bringing along items in pressure-sealed containers, poke holes in the top before wrapping them in bags, since air pressure can cause them to burst. -- Anuja Madar
Vegas, Cry Baby, Vegas
Years ago -- long enough ago that I can share this story without shame -- I wanted to celebrate the New Year in a glamorous destination, and I instantly thought of Las Vegas. That I was broke at the time and couldn't gamble or enjoy the city's expensive shows failed to register as an obstacle to guaranteed good times. My mistakes only piled up from there: My second error was buying the plane tickets before seeing how much hotel rooms in Vegas cost over New Year's Eve. After finding out that rooms were five times more expensive than usual, I was forced to propose to the four friends I was traveling with that we bunk in one room together.
Which leads me to mistake #3: Not picking up a guidebook to read hotel reviews. My friends and I actually chose our room based on a dark thumbnail photo posted on the hotel's website, and were shocked to discover that the room that seemed so large online turned out to be quite small in person. Still, we reassured ourselves, we were in Vegas, and we weren't planning on holing up in our little room all day. Or so we thought...
We were out touring the better hotels on the strip (one of the city's few free activities), when, standing in line for the New York, New York hotel's roller coaster, my friend Lauren remarked that she wasn't feeling up for the ride, and not because of nerves. It turned out that she was the first of us to come down with the flu, a nasty virus that would pick off me and my friends one by one. In the end we all ended up bed-ridden on New Year's Eve, watching the local fireworks on a TV set. I can't help but think that if we'd just traveled at a different time of year and done our research, we would've seen Vegas in style, not from our sick beds. Anyone for Vegas in the summer? -- Jennifer Reilly
Keep the Change
It was around 4am when I got in a cab heading for Mariscal Sucre Airport, in Quito, Ecuador. During the ride, I glanced a few times at the taxÃmetro, which displayed the fare. All I had was a $20 bill, an amount that I knew would be more than sufficient. (This was in 2001, not long after Ecuador had adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency.) In fact, when we arrived at the airport, the fare was only about $6, but the cabbie said that he didn't have change. Indeed, he shrugged and seemed annoyed that I would expect him to break a twenty. Because there were no banks open, I had to give him my $20 bill, an exorbitant sum in a country where the average cost of a cab ride was only a few dollars. These days when I travel, I always carry some small bills of local currency -- and I never assume that shopkeepers or cabbies will have change. -- Matthew Brown
Street Food, Riot Gear and the Louvre: New Year's Eve in Paris
One year, a friend and I timed our European trip so that we'd end up in Paris for New Year's Eve. We set our sights on the Eiffel Tower, where we oooh-ed and aahh-ed at its majesty in the misty air. The crowd gathered at the base of the tower was much less inspiring: It was composed almost exclusively of drunken, kissy-faced men. We managed to stake out a spot for ourselves on a less crowded side of the tower. We popped open our wine and offered a toast to the fairest of cities. We chatted. We gazed at the glittering tower. We chatted more and drank more wine. We looked at our watches. It was 12:07. What happened? Nothing. The tower did nothing out of ordinary at midnight. No fireworks, no extra-special glittering, no noise, no bands, no cheering.
Once we realized that Paris had planned nothing for this particular New Year, we noticed that we were hungry. We elbowed our way to a hot dog stand that was dishing out hot dogs with french fries on top. And then, the unthinkable happened. As I was about to take another bite from my hot dog, with my mouth ajar, someone ran by and stole the thing clean out of my hand. Dumbfounded by my loss, I turned to my friend for sympathy. Instead I got laughter. No fireworks; no hot dog. The night could only get better.
Since my friend and I were engrossed in the one hot dog we were now sharing, it was fortuitous that I looked up and noticed that we were standing in between a line of riot police, with plastic shields and batons at the ready, and a crowd of angry young men and women throwing Molotov cocktails. At this point we dropped the hot dog, I clasped the last bottle of wine a little closer, and we ran.
We soon learned that rioting had broken out on the Champs-Elysées as well, and that my friend had food poisoning. We spent the majority of January 1 in our hotel, my friend vomiting in the room's bidet (the toilet was down the hall). The next morning my friend's stomach was back in working order and mine was rippling and bubbling like a pot of water. Yet I optimistically hoped it would pass, and we set out for the Louvre.
Anyone who has been to the Louvre knows about the impossibly long ticket line. The closer we got to the ticket dispensers the worse and worse I felt. Ultimately, my face and hands went numb and I began to see stars. This was easily communicated to my friend who opted to stay in line and see the museum while I went and found the infirmary.
At the infirmary I was greeted by the most jovial French woman I encountered during my entire trip, who was more than happy to tell me that she couldn't speak English and therefore couldn't do anything to help. Ultimately, I was shuffled into a little room where I was given a fizzy drink and I quickly fell asleep. I woke up an undetermined amount of time later. In that time my French nurse had learned English and easily explained to me what to buy at the pharmacy. The next day my friend and I caught the Chunnel train to London and never looked back. -- Melinda Quintero
Lost in Kenya
I was mesmerized. That morning, we were driving through the middle of the Kenyan bush -- en route from Tsavo West National Park to Porini Selenkay a tented camp outside of Amboseli National Park. Our trusty open-air Land Cruiser made it into and out of a muddy, rutted valley without getting stuck. Blades of grass were blowing in the wind. Herds of cattle grazed near Maasai villages. Children wave as we pass by, shouting "Soh-pa, soh-pa!" (hello in the local Maasai language). We stuck our heads and arms out the windows, waving back and singing "Soh-pa!" in return. Although I saw little wildlife besides some gazelles and impalas far off in the distance, I wondered what else lurked here.
"Kamel, are we almost there?" I asked our driver tentatively.
"Yes, yes, no problem," he said.
"Kamel," I piped up again, two hours later. "Do you think we might be lost?"
"Of course we're lost," my sister whispered.
"No, no, we're not lost," Kamel reassured us. "We'll just stop at this village up here, and make sure we're going the right way. No problem."
Kamel's frequent use of the phrase "no problem" began to make me think there might be a problem. A group of children milling outside the village -- a circle of thatched-roof huts -- stared at us calmly as flies rested upon their arms and faces.
"Hmm, I don't think the women here speak Swahili," Kamel said. "But no problem, I think we are heading the right way. The road that was here last time has just been overgrown with trees. You see?"
"We're lost," my sister said under her breath. I saw.
We drove in what felt like circles until we finally saw another village in the distance. As we slowly approached, Kamel motions to a Maasai elder, who was leaning on his walking stick among a herd of cattle. After a brief exchange in Swahili and local lingo, combined with wild hand gestures, the elder climbed into our passenger seat -- without so much as a wave to the nearby children -- and off we went, our savior silently pointing the way. Thanks to this kind stranger, we arrived safely at Porini Selenkay, albeit nearly five hours later than expected.
Though momentarily frightening, the experience was one of my favorite days on safari; it showed us parts of Kenya we never would have seen if we hadn't ventured -- albeit accidentally -- off the beaten path.
Sometimes when you're lost, you're actually where you should be. -- Jennifer Anmuth
Just Check It
My sister tagged along with me on a recent business trip to Orlando and we were pleasantly surprised when our morning flight boarded on time. That turned out to be an illusion, as we sat, parked at the gate for almost an hour, because the plane had too much fuel aboard (which, admittedly bothered all of us a lot less than the possibility that the plane was short a few pounds). After what seemed like forever, we finally took off and we both thought we were in the clear. Until we hit Orlando Airport and my sister's luggage never made an appearance on the carousel. After reporting the missing bag, a baggage supervisor noticed that a woman who'd been on our flight had never picked up her suitcase, which bore some resemblance to my sister's, but had a huge red tag on it instead of the pink and white ribbons my sister had used to clearly mark her luggage. He thought she walked off with the wrong suitcase and he was right. The airline was miffed that the woman hadn't checked her luggage tags and they would have to pick up the price of delivery, and we were miffed that she'd taken our suitcase. The airline staff told us not to worry and that they'd deliver the bags to the resort we were staying at when they managed to get their hands on them.
So, with nothing to do but wait, we went off to the car-rental desk where we'd booked a four-door vehicle, but they had none left in our reserved class and wanted to stuff us into something that offered about as much room as a small closet. Thanks to shrewd if lengthy negotiations, and a sister who's a polite but very stubborn attorney, we ended up with a 4-door luxury car for only $30 more than a compact. Always be sure to stand your ground when a company tries giving you less than you're promised (traveling with a lawyer doesn't hurt either).
We'd finally settled in at the resort we were staying at (a major bright point in the day because the friendly staff was incredibly sympathetic -- never underestimate the power of good service) when we went back to tracking our luggage. It was nearly 2pm when we found out that our luggage was being routed to us to arrive sometime later in the afternoon (it showed up in the evening, but why be picky when we actually got it back). Leaving the trusted hotel staff to receive the missing bag, we set off for SeaWorld hoping to find a little serenity. But Murphy was still following us and, just as we cleared the entrance to SeaWorld, the sky opened, and it poured and poured and poured. We ended up having to buy rain ponchos just to walk from place to place, and still got drenched. At least, when we walked back into our room, dripping and exhausted after a very long day, the luggage had arrived. Buoyed, we sat down to watch a movie on the in-room DVD player -- and couldn't get it to work.
The Big Lesson: You can't control the weather or a faulty DVD player, and I'm realistic enough that I doubt the airlines are ever going to get all of the kinks out of their system. Still, it's not too much to ask fellow travelers to adhere to the following: If you took the trouble to label your bags (and you should!), then for heaven's sake, check the tags before you walk out of the airport with somebody else's luggage. -- Naomi Kraus
The Couscous Scam
The guidebook said it was all right. But as night settled in the desolate suburb of Morocco's capital, Rabat, it became clear that it was anything but all right. The day before, my two traveling companions and I had been invited to dine with a Moroccan family. The questionable (i.e., not Frommer's) guidebook said dinner invites from strangers were completely acceptable -- an opportunity to be pounced upon. So we pounced. Armed with cameras, a bottle of wine and a slight apprehension about letting our guard down, we met our host at the appointed hour. His promised car was in the shop, he told us. No problem though; buses were frequent and cheap. Twenty minutes after careening on a crowded, rusting bus through city streets that gave way to suburbs, and then slums, we arrived at our host's home. A crumbling one-story dwelling on a dirt road, it certainly wasn't the most imposing of houses. But we were young, we were doing something perfectly advisable, and we were primed for adventure.
Our host escorted us to his decidedly Middle-Eastern living room, full of low tables and floor cushions. We felt immensely privileged to have found this other Morocco, one unseen by hoards of tourists. The host opened our wine and we made short work of it while his wife prepared dinner. He fetched two more bottles and regaled us with stories as he benevolently called us his brothers. A young woman wearing a traditional kaftan arrived, as if by magic, and gave my girlfriend henna tattoos; the end result was beautiful but rendered her strangely vulnerable, since her hands and feet were wrapped mummy-style to protect the handiwork. As for my travel buddy and me, we opted for non-traditional scorpion tattoos on our arms and sipped more wine as we waited for dinner. A three ring circus then materialized: Strangers came in and out, our host began drinking the third bottle of wine straight from the bottle, and his wife began asking for money. It seemed reasonable -- we were relatively well-off, and not opposed to helping the family out. We anted up. She clearly wanted more, but seemed content for the moment.
But as day turned to night, the mood of the room shifted. The circus grew sinister. I stopped drinking; wishing sobriety could be summoned, genie-like, on demand. Noticing this change, the henna artist began to take leave. She too wanted money -- $60 for her work. With monthly wages in Morocco hovering around $100, this was clearly a shakedown. But our host insisted we pay -- henna wasn't free, after all -- and then, leering at my girlfriend, he slurred, "Look what a lovely young girl she is." With no diplomatic way out, we did as many a tourist in Morocco has done in far less awkward circumstances: we halved the price, even though we knew we were still being extorted. This did not please our host, whose bloodshot eyes now gleamed red, as he had clearly expected a cut of the profits.
Brawny male relatives next started to materialize. They were ushered to another part of the house as a veritable couscous feast arrived steaming from the kitchen. Our host, utterly drunk and growing more sinister by the minute, waved us over to a low table and inserted himself between my girlfriend and me. He presented her with a crude leather necklace and, upon placing it around her neck, inserted his paws down her shirt, from which they were promptly expelled. In my panicked, wine-soaked mind, I decided the best course of action would be to gobble up dinner in minutes, so as not to risk further offending our host, and then hit the road. But my travel companions were not helping. Maureen, a vegetarian, only picked a few vegetables from the platter, while Robert took one bite and stared vacantly at our increasingly dire predicament. (Later he would admit that his mouth went numb upon tasting the food and he'd feared it poisoned. In fact, we suspect we were drugged, given that we only consumed about two glasses of wine each, yet experienced a strange out-of-sorts feeling.)
Soon, our host groped Maureen again and the prospects of finishing an even semi-civil meal evaporated, so we headed for the door. While we struggled to gather our belongings and put on our shoes, the household erupted in a panic. The women insisted we give them more money. The men demanded that we stay the night, since the buses had stopped running. Indeed, it was dark and desolate in the slum as we stumbled out the door. As commotion enveloped our hosts indoors, we evaluated our situation on the empty street. Then, like an apparition, a taxi turned a distant corner and cruised to a stop in front of another shanty-house. In adrenaline-aided broken French, I was able to convince the weary driver to put off sleep long enough to take us home. The price was exorbitant, but given our options, worth every penny; the still mummy-clad Maureen, Robert, and I all crammed into the cab. Once settled, we breathed a collective sigh of relief, spared a night of assured misery, if not worse. Our respite, however, was short-lived. The cab screeched to a halt as our host and one of his brawny relatives leapt out in front of us. They clambered into the tiny passenger seat and animated conversation in Arabic ensued between them and the driver. I thought for sure we would be left for dead on some desolate Moroccan highway.
I'm still not sure how we managed to get the cab rolling. Whether it was our collective outrage, my demands that the driver take us back as he'd given his word to do, or plain dumb luck, I'll never know. But we made it back to our hotel, where the price of the ride had, of course, doubled. Within the relative safety of lighted streets and our hotel, we threw the agreed-upon fare at the driver and fled, thankful for life and limb, and later -- with time and distance -- an experience that took us a bit too far off the beaten track. -- Marc Nadeau
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