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.

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?!

Monday, September 20, 2010

On this Site Ernest Hemmingway Wrote More Novels Intended to Make You Feel Inadequate Than in Any Other Locale

Ernest Hemingway’s Home, Key West, Florida, USA:

At the corner of Whitehead and Olivia street on the Island of Key West is the former home of American writer and walking phallus Ernest Hemingway and his second wife Pauline. Hemingway lived in the house from 1931 to 1939 and wrote the bulk of his masculine tomes there including, A Farewell to Arms. The house was built originally for a wealthy marine salvager named Asa Tift. The construction is rumored to be so good, that to this day the limestone foundation keeps the basement dry, making it the only thing that remained dry after Hemingway stumbled through the door with rum on his breath in 1931. I assume that it was during this alcoholic binge that Hemingway must have stared out into the ocean and thought: "Perhaps I should regale my adoring public with a mundane tract about life at sea. That will teach all those young boys expecting tales of adventure. And once they buy this salty rag I can use the profits for more booze and maybe a pool!" 

While the house boasts the first swimming pool ever built in Key West, dated to 1938, and a urinal turned fountain from the original location of Sloppy Joe’s Bar and Restaurant (A Key West staple worth visiting), the real important water works are in the house. Hemmingway’s home featured the first indoor plumbing on Key West and a rain cistern that feed into the bathroom upstairs. Unfortunately the plumbing was not advanced enough to keep down all the bullshit found there today. While the house has been a historic landmark since 1968 all of the furniture was replaced after the Hemingway’s moved to Cuba in 1939. The famous six and seven toed cats who prowl the yard, and who were sold up until 1972 as “Hemmingway’s Cats”, never belonged to Hemmingway who kept peacocks at his Key West residence. The luscious landscaping was also a late addition and many of the stories told by the guides have been referred to as fabrications by Hemingway’s son Patrick and third wife Mary. 

While the furniture, cats, many of the tour guides stories, and most of Hemingway’s literary acclaim are phony nonsense, the house is stunning and unlike Erny's residence in Idaho doesn’t come with all the poor mental health baggage, and brain and skull fragment stain. It’s a romantic place to stop in the early afternoon with your girlfriend before walking down Whitehead Street, settling in at a nice table on the water to watch the sunset, stare lovingly into her eyes and talk her into that abortion.

 Verdict: The Hemingway Home is open 365 days a year from 9 am to 5 pm but you would think that for the price of 12 dollars a ticket you might get to take a swim in the pool or at least get to eat one of the stray cats.

Dan Roberts,
September, 2010