Here Thar Be Monsters!

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5.1.11

A Tourist And His Money Are Soon Parted

Into the great wide open
Under them skies of blue
Out in the great wide open
A rebel without a clue
-Into The Great Wide Open, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Years ago, my second wife and I came up with an international symbol for 'tourist,' hold the left hand in front of you with palm up and with the right hand, pantomime handing out loads of money while smiling wanly.

It seems to be a given that tourists are simply prey, waiting to have their bones plucked clean by every passing carnivore. It's the reason American slang refers to 'tourist traps.' Entire nations spend billions of dollars to lure unsuspecting tourists to popular (or at least centralized) locations, where they can be easily fleeced.

Some prime examples include things such as the Eifel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, Red Square, the Glockenspiel, and of course any red light distrct you care to name anywhere in the world.

Things are no different here in Indonesia. They have what I call harga bule (foreigner price) and harga biasa (regular price). The foreigner price is guaranteed to be a minimum of 200% to 300% higher than the regular price. Things are generally so cheap in Indonesia that tourists think they're getting a deal, and in some ways they are. But the fact remains that tourists will pay more for everything, always.

Take for example the Eifel Tower. For all intents and purposes, it is the skeleton of an unfinished building with a grossly over-priced restaurant on the mezzanine level, and for a price, you can ride to the top and see, what else, Paris. In fact, you get a much better view as part of your ticket price while on final approach to Charles de Galle airport. Continuing with the Paris theme, you can pay to see Notre Dame, or you can go out of the city and visit thousands of similar late Gothic cathedrals for free with fewer tourists. The only thing missing is the bubious myth about a hunchback and his unrequited love.

Heck, while you're in Paris, you can visit the Statue of Liberty's twin for free, sitting right there on the bridge over the Seine river. No crowds (no one knows about it), no charge and no New Yorkers.

Some things, like the Louvre, St. Peter's basilica in Rome, the Grand Canyon, and the like, are just worth the price. So don't get me wrong. There are things worth paying for, although standing on a glass platform over a mile-deep hole in the ground with no visible means of support in NOT on that list.

When it comes right down to it, though, my best travel experiences are all from places far outside the well-trampled tourist paths.

For instance, there was the night Richard Nixon died. I was with my buddy Larry in the middle of nowhere in Bavaria, in a village that consisted of a guest-house, a couple of other buildings and a square. We spent that night drinking copious amounts of beer, snorting snuff, telling jokes, and generally having the time of our lives. The gang leader was a forty-something man named Ignatz. He kind of looked like Santa Claus on his day off, had 12 children and sat that the head of the table like Falstaff as master of ceremonies.

There was getting stuck near some Mayan ruins where tourists never go on the road between Belize and Guatemala. Once we got the Guatemala, we drove down a road with opposing sides of a civil war on either side of us.

There was standing on the dike in the Netherlands with the strange sight of the ocean on one side, and the tulip fields on the other, the the ocean was higher than the land.



There was sunbathing in the top of a tower connected to an ancient castle in Ireland while watching some people play lawn bowls down below us. Having to swim for my life after getting trapped by high tide at Dover. Getting bucked off a bus with two goats in the middle of a God-forsaken desert in Liberia. Sitting in an opium den in Bombay (now Mumbai...again).

None of those experiences would have been possible had I stayed on the well-trodden paths. You really gotta get out into the hinterlands to get the stories no one else can tell. And one of the advantages is prices are lower and you are less likely to get robbed.

That's the thing, if there are mobs of tourists, then there are people preying on them: pickpockets, con artists, souvenier salesmen. Prices are higher, also. And all of that only buys you a story thousands of other people can tell. Getting away from that, out in the backwoods, costs less, fewer predators and you get stories that likely no one else can tell. You see things that few foreigners will ever see. You meet people who might just turn into life-long friends.

There's a book in my Amazon store (right column) called 'Blue Highways.' It's all about the philosophy and practice of taking the roads less travelled. There's another book there called, 'The Journeyer,' which is an incredible fictionalized account of Marco Polo's voyage. Both those books inspired my travels from an early age. Both extoll the virtues and adventures of getting on the main road and getting out into the great unknown. I know this kind of travel is not for everyone, but if you feel drawn to it, then these books will push you over the edge to get out and do it.

Every single regret I have in my life occured when I was at home. There is not a single moment I regret from traveling. One of the single best decisions I have ever made was to backpack around the world when I was 18, between high school and university. Books can teach you scads about the theory of life, but travel teaches you the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-your-hands-dirty version. It puts a little perspective on things. Sometimes it puts a lot of perspective on them. Your day-to-day problems seem a lot smaller when you're 10,000 miles outside your comfort zone.

When you're watching static discharges from the peak of a volcano on a cool, cloudless night somewhere in the jungles of Indonesia, the electric bill just doesn't seem all that important.

And you'll never get that experience out of a book.

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