I was recently asked where is one special or significant place I had visited and how did it make me feel or impact me… shit, every place I visit or travel to affects me in one way or another. To me, specific travel never has one specific feeling or impact. Being a person that attempts to view things holistically, I try to think of travel as a big picture thing with specific snapshots that either enlighten me or make me piss on myself by laughing. When I think about my trips to Ireland I am immediately overcome with the memory of green… so many colors of green that it is indescribable… oh and beer, lots and lots of beer. When I think of Turkey and Greece I think of old… pre-biblical old… ruins so damn old that I cannot fathom their age… and the stupid tour guides let you touch the stuff… you know you are hurting for tourist dollars when you let a dumbass like me fondle your 3000 year old ruins… or when you, as a tour guide, provide me detail instructions on where I can go piss among ruins.
That being said, and imagining travel holistically, I have a sort of list of holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-that-happened memories. These memories are primarily humorous, or so unbelievable that looking back on them I am immediately transported to the moment. I like to imagine writing a travel book that is more about specific instances, than specific places. Here is a sort of greatest hits in Sublimemonkey travel.
Seeing Stonehenge is anti-climatic. The ring of stones sit out in the middle of a cow pasture. Yeah, the stones are big, but you have seen them so many times in movies from National Lampoon’s European Vacation to Spinal Tap that seeing them in person sort of makes you go “eh.” Amazingly, the British government has fenced the whole thing in and requires you to pay out the ass to go in and walk around it. If you are cheap or underwhelmed… I was both… you can walk to different spots along the fence and view the circle of stones from about a hundred yards away. As I was standing there viewing this unimpressive site… I heard a guy near by mumbling a few lines from Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge“… a cat’s meow… trust me seeing the midget’s dance around the fake one in this video is far more entertaining than seeing the real one… but you can’t pay enough money to actually have a complete stranger thinking the same thing as you… and serenade you with the song that is also going through your head.
A not so funny moment, but a completely surreal moment happened to me in March 1998, again in Great Britain. I had just returned from my second tour of peace keeping in Bosnia… literally just returned, as in my plane from Tuzla, Bosnia, had landed in Frankfurt, Germany, exactly 24 hours earlier and then I found myself in the Soho district of London. A fellow lieutenant and I had both decided to spend the weekend in London and had returned from Bosnia on a Thursday evening… gotten up Friday morning and driven to Frankfurt international airport and gotten on an afternoon flight to London. By Friday evening we were walking around London gawking at the lights and swilling beer. While completely drunk, we stumbled upon one of those total movie-cliche type bars where there is a bouncer, a red velvet rope, and a long line of beautiful people… well beautiful people by British standards… waiting to get in. My buddy really wanted to try his luck at some pasty-skinned British lovin’ and I was a willing wingman. We stood in line and finally got in… needless to say it is completely overwhelming to have been less than 48 hours from living in a tent in the mud to drinking beer in a swanky London club. This was the first time I had ever seen, in-person, actual cages suspended from the ceiling and scantily clad… but pasty-skinned… young ladies dancing in them. This was the unfortunate moment in music history when Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” was on top of the British charts… it had yet to infect America… and the song played over and over. Finally, after about the sixth time of hearing it… and five beers later… I turned to my friend and stated “dude… this is the most bizarre drinking situation I have ever been in… we got to leave.” I could not handle hearing this earworm of a song… its chirpy and catchy upbeat tune burrowing deep into my mind as I drank warm British beer… and having just left the Balkans. Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and I had consumed beer to Chumbawamba while my buddies where still living in cold and wet tents in the Bosnian mud.
While traveling in southern Spain, I visited the city of Seville. In Seville there is one of the old gothic Spanish Inquisition cathedrals. This cathedral was full of deep, dark… almost black… wood and stone. Bloody and scary crucifixes hung from every free spot. No noble Eastern Orthodox icons… but pure hell fire and damnation art. Quietly walking around the cathedral revealed one dark and bloody corner after the next. Torture devices were on display in the basement, with no real apology or attempt to reconcile history. Of course, through the seriousness of it all, I started thinking about Mel Brook’s History of the World Part 1 and the Spanish Inquisition song… “The inquisition is here… and here to stay.” The forced conversion of people to the Catholic faith isn’t funny… but damn… Mel Brooks in that red robe was all I could think of when I was walking through the Seville cathedral… “it’s better to lose your skull-cap than your skull”… “and then they shoved a red-hot poker up my ass”… irreverent… but if one has to come face-to-face with one of man’s historical evils toward his fellow-man… I suggest you do it with Mel Brooks singing in your head.
On this same trip, I found myself driving in Malaga, Spain. Malaga is a city in Andalusia, Spain. Traffic up to this point had been light… it was January so the roads of the Spanish Riviera were not crowded with European vacationers. However, in Malaga I found myself driving through rush hour traffic… mini Euro cars, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians vied for a place on the street and sidewalks. Scooters were especially brave… jumping from sidewalks to street… back to sidewalks. Focusing on the cars around me was hard enough… but throw a scooter in that jumps from the sidewalk to in front of you is pure mayhem. The moment of hilarity arrived when one scooter jumped from the right off a sidewalk and immediately placed itself between me and the car in front. We were moving at about 30mph and I attempted to give the scooter space… but in the span of about 3 seconds, the scooter driver determined that I had not given him enough space… so while traffic moved briskly along at bumber-to-bumper pace… the scooter driver leaned back and began to kick my rental car’s bumper… repeatedly. I attempted to slow… and the scooter slowed… and this Spanish daredevil continued to pound the bumper with his foot… I finally had enough and sped up just enough to lightly tap the scooter’s rear wheel. In a flash of Hollywood stuntman… the scooter jumped forward and then veered back on the sidewalk running along side… the last image I saw was a Spanish middle finger and a scooter flying away on the sidewalk.
While visiting Central Asia, I spent 3 days in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. This is a made-up city. Built by petrol dollars for millions people, except there are not millions of inhabitants. Downtown Astana is like the set of a movie… facades of stores and office buildings that are empty… no commuter traffic… no suited office workers walking around… a ghost town that never had a life. In Central Asia they love statues… statues to ancient nomadic ideas and gods… statues to historical steppe warlords… monuments to the idea of Kazakhstan… giant flag poles and domed mosques… monuments that ring out the voice of the “elected” president of Kazakhstan when you place your hand in his “hand”… truly mind-boggling to the Western eye. It was almost as if you got to run around in Disney’s Epcot Center afterhours… it was devoid of life yet built for the masses.
While there I went on morning runs along the Ishim River. The Ishim is a very flat steppe river that slowly ambles through Astana. Along the banks are statues and monuments… a walker’s paradise… at least in the summer. Siberian steppe winters would make it nothing more than an icy pathway… but on glorious late spring mornings, one can run along in sunshine and marvel at overblown statues. One run allowed me to get my picture taken with a giant bull being ridden by a steppe warrior… it is not everyday one gets to see, touch, and experience the grandiose statues that speckles a Central Asian capital.
Brief descriptions of travels can be informative. I can tell you that France is beautiful… that Parisian school children will laugh and point at you if you are driving a 94 Saturn in downtown Paris… I can also tell you that French gas station attendants will yell at you if you try to put diesel in your gasoline-powered Saturn because you don’t know the difference between the French words for diesel and gas… I can tell you that Austrian border guards will aim their guns at you if don’t slow down at an Alpine border crossing (before the establishment of the Euro zone)… I can tell you that in 1995 you could tell when you crossed from former West Germany into former East Germany just by the change in highway asphalt (as in former East Germany had really shitty roads). I can tell you that Venice is to be avoided in the summer… who wants to smell rotting trash while on vacation. I can tell you that there is something amazing about seeing a long-legged Russian… model worthy… woman carrying a small yapping dog in St. Petersburg while she striding… long striding… in the largest high heels you have ever seen.
All these things give quick snapshots to what travel means to me. Adventures all… rolling with it… laughing through it all… keeping eyes forward and experiencing the world… Basically… Who doesn’t want to pose with a giant statue that has bull-sized balls?