In between personal, familial and financial failures, Mark Twain took time to see the world and insult the peoples, locales, and histories of the places he visited. It is in this tradition of being annoyingly unsatisfied and too smart for our own good that we present "Not So Innocent Abroad:" a deplorable, ethnocentric, at times hilarious, and always historically unreliable dump on every place we have ever visited.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Where History is Swallowed, Distorted, and Vomited Up in Technicolor by Skilled Teams of Designers to Walt Disney’s Anal Retentive Standards

The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resorts in Orlando, Florida, USA:

In the few moments I was not trying to schedule a vasectomy during my recent trip to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in September, I took some time to visit some quality historical sites at the almost 40-year-old amusement park.

Now before I am beset by shouts from the granola gallery that Walt Disney World and specifically the Magic Kingdom are not historical sites of merit let me just say this. When construction began Disney built miles of “utilidors,” tunnels designed for park “cast members”(a code for employees) to traverse unseen while dressed in costumes. This system prevents out of place characters from interfering in the illusion of other "kingdoms" of the park. Because of these tunnels the surface of Disney is in fact 107 feet above the original ground. The park features architectural facades inspired by Germany, Mexico, the Caribbean, the Chesapeake, the American Southwest, and Deep South. Also featured in the Tomorrowland Park is the "Carousel of Progress," a revolving exhibit from the 1964 New York World's Fair sponsored by General Electric that traces technological progress in the 20th century and into the future. The Magic Kingdom opened its doors in October of 1971.

In 2009 there were more than 17.2 million visitors to the park, making it the most visited amusement park in the world. A pretty good record for a tract of land that 40 years ago was an uninhabitable swamp. Plus Hall of Presidents! If that doesn’t convince you that Walt Disney World is a massive engineering and cultural landmark than you are probably a self-deluding elitist. Do me a favor, jump in your corn oil powered VW bus, the one with the bumper sticker that says “I Break for Al Gore,” and drive it off a cliff. For those of you who have a respect for Walt Disney’s astounding achievement in being a neurotic control freak of astounding grandeur please read on.

The number one historical attraction at Disney is the Hall of Presidents. Like all good Republicans before 1978 Walt Disney was obsessed with Abraham Lincoln, and like all megalomaniacal personalities he was also obsessed with the presidency of the United States. The result is the first hyper-realistic stage performance ever made featuring animatronic human figures. The 20-minute show features vignettes of historical moments that people unfamiliar with details associate with interference from the executive branch. Mixed in with these great man fallacies are mythical tales of everyone’s favorite overrated presidents. This is all set against the backdrop of articulate speeches by Washington, (Teddy) Roosevelt and Lincoln about the tenuous line America’s Chief Executive walks between power hungry madman and ordinary Joe. A noble and genuine lesson that is utterly destroyed by an ironic short video of George W. Bush at Ground Zero rambling on in breathless monosyllabic dribble. Equally perplexing is that in the midst of two wars, historically high unemployment and a financial meltdown, current President Barrack Obama found the time to record the speech delivered by his far more animated robotic counterpart, but I digress. The Hall of Presidents is a terrific place to visit if you want to learn the order of the Presidents and see zombie Abraham Lincoln rise from his chair and stare at you with black eyes, as dolls eyes.

Of course lost on most people is that there is far more German history wrapped up in Disney World than American. In fact nearly every Princess story is built on some Grimm Brother’s tale designed to scare the living shit out of German kids and discourage them from adhering to the values of the French Revolution. Fortunately however the 1990s feel goodery that pumped out titles like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Lion King, and Mulan knew better than to thrust 19th Century German values on American children. So Grimm’s lessons of be a first rate version of yourself instead of a second rate version of someone else have fortunately been replaced with, you can be what you make of yourself and with enough money you can do fucking anything. That is as long as you are white, heterosexual, and good-looking. And if Magic Kingdom is not a testament to those American values I know no better example.

Finally let me just finish with two final criticism of Disney’s historical track record. It is difficult to truly appreciate Pirates of the Caribbean without being piss drunk on rum. Do the world a favor and lift the alcohol ban in the Magic Kingdom. Also having a character named “Red Fox” who jive talks you through Splash Mountain is a little racist, even for the South. 
Verdict: If ever given the opportunity, visit Magic Kingdom if only for the sake of proving your not a Communist. Also I am told that like me, children enjoy sugar, cartoons, and Space Mountain. Who would have known?

Dan Roberts,
September 2010


Thursday, October 21, 2010

the Horror!....THE HORROR!!!!!!! Picking Apples in New England

Applecrest Farm Orchard, Hampton Falls, New Hampshire

You would think that a day which ends with a woman declining to go to Maine with you because she forgot to take her birth control that morning would be ranked in the bottom tier of days, but you would be mistaken. Despite that peculiar--if hilarious--end, my day picking apples with friends in New Hampshire's Applecrest Farm Orchard was quite fun.

Located just across the Massachusetts border in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, Columbus Day weekend at Applecrest was a major event and marked (at least on Saturday) by excellent weather and sunny glory. When you're not gagging on the now superfluous tracker ride around the farm--the aforesaid woman insisted that we sit right behind the tractor spewing fumes in our faces--you can enjoy a superfluous petting zoo! When the ride ended and I regained consciousness, it was time to pick delicious apples, take bites of them and then toss them back into the orchard for slight defects--just like the Spartans used to do with their inferior new-born infants.

Beautiful women stalked the orchard and the adjoining market store, food tents and stands, and bluegrass music pavillion. I spent many moments contemplating stupid things to say to them, but decided that on a lovely day it was better to keep my dignity intact. Not so, Dan Roberts. While we imbibed hot apple cider, one of the local wasps (and here I mean the small flying stinging sort and not the large, white, anglo-saxon sort) landed on Dan's cup quite near the opening. I remarked that Dan was likely to drink the little fellow, but apparently I went unheard as Dan raised the cup to his lips. As you can imagine, what came next was a combination of awful and really really funny as Dan realized there was a wasp on his lip and the wasp realized that it needed to kill the odd thing swatting at him. After the stinging occurred we were really fortunate to have a woman with her portable pharmacy (aka purse) at hand to administer an antihistamine. Dan's lip only swelled a little bit, but he continued to whine like the prissy and pathetic small child that he is.

Slight Dan Roberts lip swelling
Filling a bag with apples when there are tens of other people all over the place is actually mildly harder than it sounds. Boosting Dan Roberts into the upper echelons of the apple trees was only slightly homo-erotic, probably lessened by the presence of a woman. Applecrest is a very user friendly orchard with a Halloween season pumpkin patch attached and a very cordial staff ready to help you make a scarecrow, buy any variety of jelly or jam, cook up burgers or sausages, and hand out delicious cider donuts (for 75 cents). This was my second visit and I had a great time. Dan probably had a less great time, but he still had a lot of fun. Our female friend also seemed to enjoy the day, but who wouldn't when they got the chance to hang out with two really super amazing awesome intelligent guys like us?

On the way home we stopped off at a local seafood place where I had a tasty clam roll, heard the birth control news, laughed, and then proceeded back to a night of mayhem in Maine. If you too would like to pick apples at Applecrest you need to be able to get there, find parking, and then pay $18 for a bag to put your apples into. But, let's face it, the fun isn't so much putting apples in the bag, it's the picking them, judging them, taking a bite, and tossing them. In a world dominated by overbearing tree hugging morons, the act of littering is one of the truly liberating experiences left to us (the other is shooting a gun outside) and Applecrest Farm Orchard is one of the remaining bastions of such freedom.

Get yourself a clam roll!

October 9, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Going to love you forever more.........

Waterloo, Belgium

Visiting the battlefield of Waterloo, where on 18 June 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte met defeat at the hands of allied British and Prussian armies under the command of the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshall Gebhard von Blücher respectively, was one of the three greatest experiences in my life. The other two were the day that I became an Uncle and the day I first had sex. If I had to actually rank them, Waterloo would win easily—sorry ladies, I’m sure you’d agree if I asked you to rank my bedroom performance or becoming my niece.

Why? My reason is very idiosyncratic. As a wee lad, I drove into Belgium with my family, yawning at the endless farms of the northeastern French and southwestern Belgian countryside. I was not particularly interested in history, except through my enduring love for the Indiana Jones movies, which were my favorites growing up (and still hold a special part of my soul—such as that shriveled and bitter piece of me continues to gasp and claw for life). But then I saw the pyramid on the horizon and I felt some stirrings of curiosity.

The Dutch King, William I, built a large mound in 1820 on the battlefield where his son, the Prince of Orange, was wounded during the battle (not mortally—pussbag) and placed a large Lion on top of it. When Wellington saw the battlefield afterward, he was extremely upset about the alteration, but he got over it—or maybe he didn’t, I don’t really know. Chances are he forgot all about it when a “doctor” dumped quicksilver in his ear in the mid-1820s to cure a mild infection—inflicting him with intense pain and deafness in that ear for the rest of his life (he lived until 1852!). To say I’m extremely grateful to have been born in a portion of the globe and in a century where such barbarisms are not practiced, but mocked, is like saying I like it when a fat man whips me while telling me I’m a bad boy—a truism.

So I spent a whole morning and early afternoon gazing on a patch of farm fields where on one day in 1815, the fate of Europe hung precariously in the balance. Had it not been for a patchwork force of British regulars, Dutch auxiliaries, a hodgepodge of units from around the British Empire, and a crusty and determined Prussian Prince, Napoleon may very well have returned to rule France leading to god knows how many additional years of ceaseless warfare and baguette rations. I was entranced, much like the first time I saw a woman naked. And, just as in that instance, not knowing how to fully explain it, I wanted to know more.

Thus began a love affair that never ended, though I did eventually abandon a youthful admiration of Bonaparte, I still maintain a healthy respect for Wellington. I am told that since my day, it now costs twelve Euros to get into the visitor center—back then you could still use whatever ridiculous currency one used in Belgium. We went to Brussels later, but I would not recommend that, you’ll just see a bunch of morons protesting whatever International body happens to be meeting in the Belgian capital that day. But definitely see the Battlefield at Waterloo—it’s a truly breathtaking experience.

Based off reminiscences from a trip to Italy, France, Belgium, and Great Britain in 1993.

For more on the Napoleonic period, of which I am something of an expert, see:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

History’s First Example of People Stubborn to a Fault

Tel Megiddo, Megiddo, Israel:

In a nook of the Fertile Crescent is the little ruin of Tel Megiddo. While this pile of dirt and sand may not look like much, its position falls along the cross road of several ancient roots taken by the conquering powers of the Tigris and Euphrates whenever they intended to pay the Pharaohs of Egypt a visit.  This quaint little township, once the Northern governmental seat of the Canaanites and ancient Hebrews, saw more action over the past few thousand years than Wilt Chamberlain and doesn’t seem to have endured quite so well. The sandy mound juts out of a fertile valley dominated by Israeli Communists and looks like a cross section of baklava. Its 25 layers commemorate the 25-time separate times the city rose and was burned to grounds by an invading force. This history of the stubborn citizens of Megiddo begins in 7000 BCE and finally ending in 586 BCE when the Babylonians invaded Canaan for the purpose of nabbing some ancient Hebrews and burning Solomon’s temple to ground. This Detroit of the Middle East now stands a broken ruin being uncovered layer by layer by archeologists, a testament to the Jewish peoples willingness to rebuild and get destroyed over and over and over again, beginning a tradition that lasts even until today.

Now a warning to all those interested in settling on ruins of Megiddo, opening up a mud brick concern, and raising a couple of Israelites beneath an olive grove. Not surprisingly this cross roads of wanton destruction has reached biblical proportions and like all hills in Israel has crucial religious significance to the worlds Christians. In keeping with traditional patterns of unhappy people seeking an end to the suffering of a dismal existence, Christian theologians from the late Roman Empire and Medieval period have given Megiddo the eschatological honor of being the site on which the final battle of good and evil will be fought. Many Christians firmly believe that the end of days, (Armageddon) will come when God shoot fire at Gog and Magog and banishes Satan to the depths of Gehenna for a thousand years. The devils defeat will begin a 1000-year period of sinless boredom and daily church bake sales.

Even if you don’t believe in Eschatological Christianity you should still be aware that Megiddo and the valley it overlooks has been the site of two significant Battles in the 20th century including British General Edmund Allenby’s routing of the Ottomans and occupation of Palestine in 1918, beginning a 30 year British headache known as the Mandate Period. The site was again host to a second battle during the Israeli War for Independence in 1948, beginning another tradition of near constant conflict and destruction in the region between the modern Hebrews and all of their neighbors.

Tel Megiddo today is a part of the Israeli National Parks Service and a well-preserved site of archeological finds dating back to the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BCE). It is open year round and cost around 7 American dollars (25 Israeli Shekels) for adults and 3 dollars for children (12 Israeli Shekels). The site features English language displays, a gift shop, and is a must see for any one interested in Ancient Battles, Archeology or the end of the World.

Verdict: If its good enough for the Pope it is more than good enough for me. This my friends is a site to see.

Dan Roberts,
August 2010

Friday, October 8, 2010

Finding Polk in Las Vegas (Encontrar a Polk en Las Vegas)

Tales from the Lied Library, The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA:

To say Las Vegas should not exist is like saying you wished money and sex fell out of the sky all the time--but just on you. Both statements are obviously true, but reality doesn't give a shit. Were it not for the notion that gambling was some sort of social problem pervading practically all of the country more than half a century ago, there would be no reason for a city to be located in the middle of nowhere in one of the hottest places on the continent. But such is history, replete with inanities that have, somehow, profound and significant effect.

As a perennial student, I’m quite familiar with the downtown area where the university is located. Only in a city like Las Vegas would they decide to teach 17-22 year olds serious subjects—next to perpetually naked women, booze, and gambling. Somehow I graduated from it in three and a half years, but then again, people have described me as peculiar—also a homosexual. In any event, this is more about the college than the city, because UNLV is much like the city which surrounds it—except not exciting and the women aren’t naked.

Founded in 1957, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas has a very broad focus in that it trains tomorrow’s future hotel managers today! Always constructing new buildings that have the names of complete unknowns on them (everyone in Las Vegas until the economy tanked was a virtual nomad, no one grew up in this town and stayed—except of course the crazy psychotics—we call them Mormons), UNLV prides itself on....hold on, it’s right, well it has a lot of pride. Unlike most D-1 schools, UNLV has made the bold move to locate the football team’s stadium many, many miles away in an adjoining city, which has had the major benefit of allowing the team to be really bad in almost complete obscurity. But, look, if you want a great second-rate undergraduate education at a large school where you can either live off campus with well over half of its over 25,000 students, or live on campus where you will be ostracized by the extremely clique-ish Hawaiian and Samoan populations that dominate dorm life, then UNLV might be for you!

But this has all been a digression. The real story is an epic tale in search of a rare treasure of marginal importance to a history dissertation that, in part, delves into the Mexican War—James K. Polk’s diary. Turns out that Polk had nothing better to do at the end of his days than write up the events he’d witnessed, forever condemning the reputations of such famous figures as Postmaster General Cave Johnson. I’m kidding of course, who the hell knows who the hell Cave Johnson was?

One day I went to UNLV’s Lied Library—Ernst Lied to be precise, an ubiquitous philanthropist who established a trust to continue random grants to cultural centers and universities after his death in 1980—which for some reason smells like a Calcutta alleyway out front during midday (bad sewer placement). Once I stepped in from the third world aroma and thousand degree heat, I was hit by the true Las Vegas environment, ice cold AC.

The Lied Library, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (Yes, it looks this a prison)

It's always about right here that one gets their first whiff of the "lovely" aroma in front of the Library.

As I made my way to the third of five floors, I recalled that at some point during my undergrad years some unnamed apparatchik had claimed proudly that the library (recently completed at the time) had been purposely made the largest building on campus by then UNLV President Carol C. Harter. Why? So that it could be said the university’s biggest building was an academic one. The previous title owner was the Thomas & Mack Center where evil sports and musical events are routinely housed. But I remember that this proud puff-story culminated in the actual square footage between the two buildings being one square foot! One square foot! And they actually told the story to impress people. Just imagine how many extra books you might be able to stack in a one square foot space! (I might also add that much of this space is gratuitously wasted in a giant internal cavernous atrium that extends throughout the middle of the building to the ceiling.)

These three pictures are of the cavernous interior of the place--as you can see, they really tried to maximize their use of space here...........

Back to the hunt for Polk. I get to the third floor and make my way to the Mexican War section of the American history stacks where they keep all the Polk-related materials. If you ever want to learn why they called him “Young Hickory,” this is where you go. (Hint: it wasn’t his barbeque sauce, but it may have been is penchant for being spanked with certain sorts of switches.) When I get there, they have what I’m looking for, but there is a problem, a somewhat serious problem as I examine the book. The title will help clarify—Diario del presidente Polk, 1845-1849. WHAT THE F***!!!??? They seriously had Polk’s diary, but only the Spanish translation. WHY? The Spanish translation of Polk’s diary has to be much more difficult to procure in the United States than the original English—also it’s not of much use to most English speakers at a college populated with drunken, gambling addicted, oversexed reprobates who would be better off reading the original language anyway. Polk’s diary in Spanish is like finding Patton’s memoirs in German—War da ich wusste, dass es. Or like finding Shaka Zulu’s memoirs in English—Shit! Why that didn’t work and 101 other lessons from the bush. And so, like nearly every other story I have from Las Vegas, I left disappointed.

No habla!

As I left, I tried to pick up a cappuccino at the attached Seattle’s Best only to discover that the coffee shop had been destroyed, to be replaced by a competitor in a couple of weeks. Vegas!

Visit the campus of UNLV and it's library at your own risk!
Based on visits from August 2010.

If you would like to learn more about Cave Johnson and pretend like you too go to UNLV, check out:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Indiana Dan and the Big Hole in the Middle of the Jordanian Desert that the BBC Calls a Wonder

Petra, The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan:

Well I found the Canyon of the Crescent Moon but it looks like I was a little late.

 In 600 BCE a community of traders known as the Nabataeans discovered a big canyon created by a massive earthquake and remained there for nearly 800 years without influencing or bothering anybody. During this time their massive cultural achievement was to build a city and to keep it from being destroyed by flash floods and droughts while slowly carving what could be describe as crown molding into the canyon walls. This blissful state of minutia continued through Egyptian, Seleucid and Roman rule until 363 CE, when an earthquake caused the buildings to collapse effecting almost no one and causing very little disruption in the lives of everyone outside of Petra. Over the next 1600 years no one gave a shit, except for a few Bedouins whose prime use for the structures was target practice until Steven Spielberg showed up looking for someplace neat looking to film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This subsequently initiated the only interesting period in Petra’s history and was unfortunately crushed by the interference of the Jordanian government when they realized it was the only place worth visiting in modern day Jordan. A subsequent conspiracy of Indiana Jones fans led to Petra unjustly being named in the second set of Wonders of the Ancient World by British State Television.
This sophisticated trading society used a canyon created by an earthquake to carve out some living space... until the canyon was destroyed by another Earthquake. I wonder if the ancient Nabataean version of FEMA was subsequently blamed.

While the city ruins and canyon itself are a marvel to look at the history is boring once you get past the plumbing that fed water to city and deflected flash floods. The isolation of the city ensured that no great battles ever occurred there and the failure of the Nabataean to resist the influence of other cultures made them the play-dough culture of the ancient world. After their civilization collapsed no one cared until a Swiss Archaeologist named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt showed up in 1812 and even then no one cared because several hundred miles away archaeologist were up to their necks in gold inside the tombs of Egyptian god kings and looming over it all were the great pyramids. For the next 170 years Petra was un-apologetically used as a Bedouin toilet until the gifted location scouts at Paramount found it and used its Nabataean treasury relief as the final resting place of the Holy Grail. The ensuing 20 minutes of film will go down as some of the best ever and includes such memorable quotes as “We named the dog Indiana” and “He chose poorly.” Man I love that movie!
Some geological formations in southern Jordan. Also a Bedouin kid just blowing off school and chilling on a camel.

Anyway the most fun thing about visiting Petra today is actually what a pain in the ass it is to get there and how all of the frustration is tied to much more interesting periods of Middle Eastern History. I for one started my journey in Eilat, Israel, the Jersey Shore of the Red Sea. My harrowing adventure began when a Russian named Jeff picked me up in a decrepit van. It didn’t take long to realize that Jeff was not my tour directors real name and I suddenly started having flash backs to Lifetime Original movies about the white slave trade. Things only seemed to get more troubling at the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial border crossing between Israel and Jordan where I was told to get out of the van, walk through a series of barriers guarded by machine gun wielding 18 year-olds until I got to Jordan. Once in Jordan I was instructed to start yelling for “Osama,” hand Osama my passport and wait on further instructions… yep pretty fucked up.

If crossing the militarized border between the “friendly” nations of Israel and Jordan weren’t unsettling enough, having your tour guide reveal that he fought in the First Chechnyan War against the Russian and then refer to the country you just came from as “the occupied Holy Land” doesn’t improve matters. Fortunately the tour guide explained that our misunderstanding of History was the result of the World Zionist Media Conspiracy. Ironically, were it not for said Zionist media conspiracy no one would have heard of Petra, but for the sake of avoiding a fatwa and knowing that I couldn’t settle differences in Jordan by buying the tour guide a beer, I refrained from commenting.

As an aside the diverse deserts of southern Jordan are a site to behold and were the locations selected for the filming of Lawrence of Arabia. Unfortunately because they are a barren wasteland with almost no water, infrastructure, or economy to speak of these deserts, like much of the Middle East, are basically giant litter boxes. The hostility of the desert was only matched by the hostility of our tour guide and the Hashemite government, which demanded 55 American dollars just to get into the country. And the harrowing journey only became more extreme upon arrival when it was revealed that the price to enter Petra is in fact 90 American dollars. Furthermore just to get to Petra a person has to walk over a kilometer in 115 degree Fahrenheit heat to reach the canyon, all the while the Chechnyan guide struggles to make a series of water troughs sound interesting.
Stupendous crown molding. You would have to go to a classy Home Depot to get something like this.

It is difficult to say whether the hassle, cost, and risk are all worth it in the end to see the world’s most famous example of crown molding. I happen to really like camels and it is a constant source of entertainment to watch Bedouin kids come screaming by driving the heat stricken and overweight in horse carts from the site to the entrance. I am serious about this, have you ever seen a horse try to carry a three hundred pound women in shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and sun hat. That folks is a real wonder.

Verdict: A trip to Petra (transportation, food, taxes, and park fees) will run you 250 dollars a person and could possibly kill you, making it a similar experience to getting a hooker in Vegas. Difficult to know which is more satisfying 

Dan Roberts,
August 2010

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rescuing Artifacts in Foreign Lands or How I Learned to Stop Caring and Stole from the House of Saud

Desert outside Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

I lived in a foreign country for three and a half years when I was 9 through 12 years old. It was a fantastic experience I would never trade for anything and it allowed my family and I to travel extensively in Europe and some of the adjoining countries of the Middle East. It also allowed me to pilfer artifacts from my host country. In our post-modern, post-colonial world of BS, this activity is passé to put it mildly. Though I never bow in the direction of such non-concerns, I will offer one word in my defense before I explain some aspects of living in Saudi Arabia as an American ex-Patriot boy: the Saudis do not preserve their own historical sites and when asked if you can take their artifacts, they merely shrug their shoulders and assent—it is, without doubt, the best part of the country.

The country of Saudi Arabia only dates back to 1932, when the Kingdom of the House of Saud was proclaimed and recognized by other world governments (though official “Independence” probably dates back to the 1920s, the country was neither unified nor recognized politically until ’32). Before that date, the Kingdom was, like much of the rest of the region, in the state of a quasi-protectorate of Great Britain, dating back to its liberation from the Ottoman Empire during World War I. When I arrived two days before my ninth birthday in 1993, I knew none of this. My experiences in Saudi Arabia and the world around it changed who I was from an annoying, oblivious, pain-in-the-ass child to an annoying pretentious know-it-all teenager. This story is a component part of that larger development.

The Red Sea entrepôt of Jeddah is the main reception point of pilgrims on the Hajj. A city of over 3 million inhabitants (in a country of roughly 27 million) Jeddah is ancient—dating back to the sixth century BC. The city today extends broadly in every direction leading from the original settlement—lovingly referred to as “Old Jeddah.” Old Jeddah’s highlights include men doing their business on the sidewalks into specially designated “holes” that lead to some form of sewer system along with the omnipresent smell of the former activities, and the occasional beating of some offender of the faith—usually a woman—by the officers of the Saudi Ministry of Vice and Virtue, called Mutawwas. It’s a lovely place.

The rest of the city is “modern,” in the sense that it is covered by Western fast-food restaurants like Burger King and KFC, as well as traffic roundabouts displaying some sort of avant-garde sculpture including closed fists, 18th-19th century sailing vessels, and just about everything else you can think of in sculpture form. Western ex-Patriots do not generally live in and amongst the city’s population. Instead, they live in compound enclaves with all of the other “Westerners” including, it must be added, Indians, Pakistanis, Lebanese, and a host of other nationals not generally called “Western,” but who are also too afraid to live among the Saudis and have more in common with the Americans, Britishers, French, Germans, and other Europeans. Ah, colonialism!

Everyone on these compounds employs a maid. Why? Just like in 19th century America, hiring domestic help is really cheap in Saudi Arabia and there are numerous immigrants from places like Ethiopia and the Philippines that the Saudis allow to enter the country for this express purpose. We had several such domestics when I lived in Saudi Arabia, they were always afraid of our dog, Churchill, a pug we brought with us from Chicago. That dog died one of the most traveled canines in history.

Anyway, I attended a British Academy while I stayed in Saudi Arabia called Continental, where when we weren’t learning to keep women locked in our hotel suites with offers of champagne, we were always plotting nifty outdoor excursions into the Saudi wilderness. On one such trip, particularly emblazoned on my memory, we visited the old Turkish railroads. The Ottomans built a rather extensive railroad from Acaba (in the modern day Kingdom of Jordan) to Jeddah and points beyond to move soldiers and supplies around more easily and to bypass Bedouin tribesmen. During the First World War, the British sent in one of their most famous interlopers, T. E. Lawrence, to stir up the locals with false promises of independence from the Turks. He succeeded brilliantly, turning local Bedouins into a rag-tag “Legion” that he used to disrupt Turkish movements and destroy their rail system, eventually capturing Acaba and then moved on to Damascus, all thrillingly depicted in the David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia. On a side note, that film was watched annually in a debauched bacchanalian festival at the British consulate in Jeddah—as a child, I was not invited. Damn limey bastards!

The Saudis, being a country of Bedouins and fishermen, had no idea what to do with these railroads and, for some reason, no use for shuffling Turkish soldiers around. They never repaired them or stripped them for scrap iron; they just sit there, baking in the desert sun, year after year after year—much like the rest of the country. When I visited them, you could still see the remnants of Lawrence’s campaigns as sections of the track were obliterated and bits and pieces were scattered in all directions. When I and some of my cosmopolitan collection of young friends began picking up these pieces, we became aware that perhaps we weren’t supposed to. Someone asked the local Saudi guide if we could take them home as souvenirs and he indicated it didn’t matter to him and the hunt was on! All of us took several pieces and went home extremely satisfied. And to this day some of my greatest souvenir show pieces from my world travels are rusted over shards of the rail roads Lawrence destroyed in a campaign to take down a lame worthless empire built around putting your feet up!

Old rusted Turkish Railroad, stolen and transported over 8,000 miles across the globe to Las Vegas.

Look at that high quality Turkish craftsmanship!

If you’d ever like to visit Saudi Arabia and the railroads, you have to have a sponsor inside the country and some seemingly “legitimate” reason for doing so, if you’re not a Muslim pilgrim. Since there never could be such a reason to visit such a place, you cannot do so. Hundreds of seemingly worthwhile gentlemen, seeking to stone their wives to death, are turned away every year in the effort to rid themselves of horrendous nags—the Saudis are very discriminating.

Even if you could get in, I’d prefer you didn’t, each additional person who absconds with pieces of the railroads makes my story less unique—get your own damn stories!

Based off reminiscenses circa 1995.

For some great takes on the Mideast, see these enlightening books and David Lean's epic masterpiece:

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Last Town on I-90 Before South Dakota Gets Interesting

Kadoka, South Dakota, USA:
This piece of road art is so ugly it could be a modern art masterpiece.

At one point during the film Armageddon Bruce Willis describes the locations of his crack oil drilling team. This initiates a montage of men doing masculine, working class things indicative of their general personality pitfalls in order to help us, the audience, familiarize ourselves with the characters. This stroke of film-making trickery allows us to learn in 5 seconds what would otherwise require a substantial period of narrative character construction. Kudos to Michael Bay for making this shallow device into a masterstroke of film tool that has created a series of two hour long beer commercials he mistakenly calls films. (All of which I love) 

Anyway, Bruce Willis introduces us to the always-huggable Michael Clarke Duncan, known in the film as Bear, by saying “Bear is the only black man on a big dog in Kadoka, South Dakota.” Now anyone who knows me is familiar with my bizarre obsession with this and all of Jerry Bruckheimer’s films. So when I saw on the map that I-90 runs right through Kadoka I had to stop! I mean seriously had to, cause Alex and I had been driving from Chicago up to that point, I had already had a run in with Minnesota’s finest and we had an episode of Lost to watch. So I called ahead to the America’s Best Value Inn and booked us a room.

Kadoka’s most positive, and I suppose negative, attribute is that it is the very last town before South Dakota suddenly gets interesting (if you’re driving from the East that is; if you’re coming from the West then Kadoka is the beginning of the end of anything interesting for hundreds of miles). For those of you who have driven I-90 across South Dakota, you are aware that for the first three of the five hours it takes to get to the border of Grassland National Park one can maintain sanity by counting the Wall Drug signs and trying to remember which towns were featured in the national news after disastrous tornadoes.  Those last two hours, however, are a grueling, unendurable desert of boredom. Your mind starts to wander. You pose absurd questions like: Who would win in a fight: Shatner or Stewart? Who is a better sounding board: Data or Spock? How come it took me so long to lose my virginity?

Compared to this wasteland of grass, Kadoka appeared to be an oasis of life. Giddy as a high school cheerleader invited to her first college fraternity party, I peered out the window expecting a thriving mid-western town with tractors and overalls and hot farmer’s daughters! Unfortunately Kadoka is one of a few places in the world I believe could be improved by a thriving meth lab. While home to an airport, the Kadoka Depot Museum (What the fuck is a Depot Museum?) and the Jackson County Clerks Office, it is also home to some scary racist guys who stared at Alex and I while we enjoyed a meal of “steak fingers” at the only restaurant in town, a rundown double wide turned bar, dance club and restaurant, affectionately known as Club 87. It seems I was not the only one who had seen Armageddon, because the camouflage clad regulars at Club 87 spent much of the evening regaling each other with stories of the last black man spotted in Kadoka. When you use the word “colored” to describe a black person in Kadoka, you’re considered a radical progressive, probably a communist. Alex overheard their conversation and quickly stepped in to prevent me from photographing my plate of “steak fingers” (Which as best I can tell is just a pre cut steak), before I offended the local lack of color. Needless to say we burned out of Kadoka pretty quick the next morning before the locals decided to rehash scenes from Deliverance.

I suppose the moral of the story is that not all of South Dakota east of Grassland National Park is boring, there is a little town called Kadoka that is also pretty fucking scary.

Verdict: Never, and I mean never stop in Kadoka, South Dakota. The town’s claim to fame was a “Depot,” so important they made a museum out of it. What the hell is a “Depot?” It sounds like the name of a map from Nintendo 64’s GoldenEye! And what the hell is with Club 87? What were the other 86 Clubs blown away by successive tornadoes?

Dan Roberts,
May 2010 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

When History Both Sucks and Blows (and falls over)

Henry Clay's Ashland (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), Lexington, Kentucky, USA:

So when you’re a professional historian, historical sites become simultaneously both more exciting and more annoying. Exciting because you know what happened at the place and why it was significant—who did what, to whom, how, and when—but nobody else, including the docent, has any damn idea. Or, even when the docent seems to know what they’re talking about, the tour is geared toward the brain-dead drones that seem to follow me to historic sights—it’s a real problem, I’m thinking of writing my congressman (except that she’s a brain-dead drone par excellence).

On a research trip that had me driving from Harrogate, Tennessee, which is on the western end of the Cumberland Gap and right over the border from Kentucky—literally you drive across the border in you’re in downtown Harrogate with it’s oddly placed, Colonel Sanders funded, Lincoln Memorial University and local Shoney’s. Anyway, I was on my way to Louisville and had plenty of time to stop off in Lexington to visit Henry Clay’s house, Ashland. Clay (1777-1852) is a very fascinating American figure, oddly lionized for his curious ability to make deadly antagonists, one of whom was mostly right and the other entirely wrong, meet in the middle. Didn’t the middle between wrong and mostly right used to be called still wrong? Anyway, I wanted to check the place out. So I get there a little early (it opens at 10AM and costs only $9 for adults) and stroll around the grounds which includes the Clay family gardens, the stable, and, my personal favorite, the Clay family outhouse.

The Lincoln Memorial Museum and Library in Harrogate, Tennessee. This building was made possible by Colonel Sanders--chicken money, it's a powerful wondrous thing.

Henry Clay may have dropped a deuce here.

Henry Clay's Ashland.

Clay's Column.

The sarcophagus of Henry Clay. When the zombie apocalypse begins, the Henry Clay zombie should be fairly well preserved.

The disabled stone monument.

I meander further afield and find a large stone tablet lying flat on the ground commemorating a small Civil War skirmish that occurred on the grounds and won by the Confederates. The monument clearly looks broken, unless some avant-garde jerkface decided the newest thing in commemorative stone slabs was to just toss them on the ground and break them—a possibility I had to take seriously.

When the house opened up I strolled in and met the docent whose name I no longer remember—which works out well for her—and she was very personable and let me know when the tours started. I slid into the gift shop to begin plotting my souvenir purchases for after the tour. That taken care of, me and the BDDs (brain-dead drones) shuffled into the video room where we get to find out that Clay never actually lived in this house because the original Ashland had to be rebuilt—it seems old Harry, frontier Kentuckian that he was, used inferior materials that began to really decay in the decades after his death. Of course they tell you this after you pay the $9! Anyway, the tour begins and, I must say, a more inept docent’s tour I have never seen. The woman was a born mute—or at least she should have been for all the use she made of her speech faculty. Not only that, every attempt at explaining Clay’s politics was a rehashed cliché, poorly explained. “Clay cared about Latin America......a lot,” “Clay worked to save the Union......again,” “Clay was a nice man,” “Mrs. Clay didn’t like Henry’s gambling, fortunately he usually won [waits for laughter, a smattering arrives]," "Clay was a Freemason......” This litany cannot be fully explained without impersonation to affect all of the stammering and uncertainty. I spent much of the time praying for it to end. One really interesting thing, Sandra Day O’Connor, admiring Clay the lawyer, got the Smithsonian to lend Henry Clay’s legal briefcase to Ashland which you get to look at on the tour.

Finally, the giftshop! Not only did I add to my ever-growing collection of busts of historical figures I have comparatively few problems with—with a fine looking Henry Clay—but I fell in LOVE. The woman working the register in the shop was gorgeous, and had the prettiest Kentucky accented voice. Plus, sexiest of all sexy qualities, she worked in the field! I was mildly hoping that my credit card would get declined—and when you’re a graduate student this is always a distinct possibility—and I’d have an excuse to stay longer, but alas! it was not to be. As it was, I didn’t have any really good opening moves except: “Hello, I’m a traveling graduate student on my way to Louisville, what do you say you blow this popsicle stand and get a motel room with me, baby?” As well as that approach has always worked for me in the past, I just did not have the time. Or so I thought.

As it turned out, my expected short stop at the Lexington Cemetery to see Clay’s giant column-topped tomb ended up taking an hour as I searched a very small cemetery backwards and forwards for its biggest tomb that one can easily see from the road. How did this occur? I still am not completely sure. My best theory is that the Lexington Cemetery is actually a series of cleverly disguised wormholes designed to never let you leave. Only a crafty Kentucky woodsman could ever navigate it easily and successfully. When I finally did find the tomb, it was quite nice, built by the mob of 100,000 Kentuckians that came out to see The Great Compromiser buried.

So I feel like I’ve forgotten something. Oh YES! The stone slab monument. It turns out local Kentucky rapscallions knocked it over—the docent speculated that it was Civil War related vandalism. That’s right; in Kentucky, a state that never seceded from the Union, youths go around seeking out neutral monuments to Confederate victories on the grounds of historic sites devoted to figures who died nine years before the war began. And to think, that beautiful lovely sounding goddess in the giftshop works and lives amongst such anthropomorphous specimens.

If you want a relatively inexpensive trip through a Victorian style house that is built on the site of Henry Clay's old Ashland with Clay relics strewn throughout, Ashland might be for you. There are other docents, so you might have a good tour and the adjoining lands are quite lovely and open to walking around. Just stay away from the fox in the gift shop, she's mine!

From the travels of Alexander Marriott, July, 2009, for some informative literature about Clay and the non-sense of the South, you might find these books valuable:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

God creates man, man destroys god, man creates blog......

One day while driving in their respective cars and talking on their respective cell phones two historians had a vision. That vision was to convince the Travel Channel that shows like Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" fed into the ego maniacal mania of lone traveling pretentious dicks. Wouldn't it be far more interesting to feed into the ego maniacal mania of two pretentious dicks who would then spend most of the show ridiculing each other. Well after several unsuccessful phone calls, a letter writing campaign, a cease and desist order and finally a mob of pitchfork wielding peasants, we decided it might be better to strike it out on our own. But with no money, no camera, no distribution deals, and even less of a desire to accumulate any of those things we decided like all rightfully marginalized people starved for attention to start a blog. Welcome to Alex and Dan's "Not So Innocent Abroad."

Between two historians who travel often and gawk even more, we have, between us, been to a significant portion of the globe (except of course for those lousy hard to reach places like South Asia, East Asia, Russia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central or South America, and Australia—but we will, well maybe not Indonesia) and are rarely impressed. Well, that’s not exactly true; a lot of thing are and have been amazing, inspiring and life altering. Even then, miring through the mundane, the bizarre, and lousy can be just as fun.

Of course, the third world kind of, for lack of a better word, sucks. So if you are waiting for tales from there it might take a while. Don’t get us wrong, we think you should visit it, point and laugh, but we are not in a hurry. It’s a good experience for everyone to realize that the world is not all fun and games, nice smells and sunny vistas. Take the pyramids for example. Mark Twain was able to climb to the top of the pyramids back when the British quasi-owned the place—now, you’re lucky if you get to smell camel shit as you stare from afar. Thank you, Mr. Nasser! But unlike that insufferable prig, Anthony Bourdain, you should still see the pyramids when you’re in Egypt. I mean, they’re the fucking pyramids!

But of course even North America is full of bizarre locales and even weirder people—as what follows will show conclusively, so to each his own. And we plan to tell you all about it from our somewhat jaded, self serving, arrogant and—one might even say on occasion cynical—perspectives.

It is of course in the spirit of seeking knowledge, adventure, strange tale and life that we travel. As historians, we bask in the past and all its glories and blunders, its triumphs and tragedies. We do not laugh because we like to make light of serious things, but let’s face it, when you are surrounded by Egyptian customs guards wielding M-16s who think you’re stealing Egyptian antiquities, you have to laugh after you change your underwear. We hope our foibles and observations might inspire you to travel, perhaps even to the places we ridicule and describe, and learn more because some of them are of great interest and at times great beauty. Of course most of them are quite awful. Don’t you dare go to them and say it’s our fault, we warned you!!

As for the name of this blog, well, we hope you understand that without explanation. We’re not writing for the insular or the elitist or the sensitive, but for the curious, the imaginative, and adventurous. We also hope that if you are moved to comment, that you’re not some academic (like us) with an axe to grind and your head up your ass. If so, do not be surprised if we either ignore you, or mercilessly ridicule you and then delete your replies so that it looks like you have no answer, even though we know you did, but we enjoy when it looks like you’re an idiot. Hey, it’s our blog, and now you’ve been warned!

As for how the blog works, Dan will post every Monday and Alex will post every Thursday (Who is writing this?!) about some new or old travel of note. Whenever possible we will throw up a pictures, a story, a history, an anecdote, a video. We will try to put as many of our most recent adventures up as soon as possible, but some of our classic stories of international and local intrigue are too interesting and hilarious to hide from the adoring public (that's you).

So, without further ado, thus commences our blog. Enjoy!

Dan and Alex at Ditka's in Chicago. But who took the picture?!