Ahhh, the wonders of travel! All you have to do is walk outside and suddenly you’re in another world. Cross a state line into a place like the green hell of South Carolina (giant billboards claiming “Country Cookin’ Makes You Good Lookin’ “) and it feels like you’ve spun billions of light years into deepest space. Did you know that, until relatively recently, South Carolina had no computers in its state offices? Everything was on little cards in filing cabinets, like at the libraries of yore.
If the idea of distant states frightens you, you can join AAA and have the nice people make up a Trip Tik for you. Those are detailed, highlighted maps which let you know exactly when you are going to drive off a cliff; detours around the Golden Gate Bridge, which has been washed away; and the best place to get fresh tomatoes in Indiana. You have to be careful with these Trip Tiks, however, because if you squirt too much liquid sanitizer on your hands after departing the premises of the Hurdy Gurdy All-You-Can-Eat Fried Craphouse, some will smear across your maps and render them illegible. You will end up at some dead-end spot in Southeast Missouri where the natives are hungry and all look faintly alike.
This is all very exotic to a man whose earliest trips were to places like the Coney Island Wax Museum. There, for a quarter anyone could stare at gory exhibits of hatchet murders, bathtub eviscerations, two-headed babies, and a nice representation of President Kennedy’s desk. (We were allowed one boardwalk horror before decamping for the beach.)
You know that book called 1000 Places to See Before You Die ? It seems to be aimed at armchair travelers, though it strongly suggests that you should spend the rest of your life traveling to these 1000 places before you become just so much dust, blowin’ in the wind and getting in somebody’s eye. Maybe the sequel should be 1000 Places to Die.
At the age of fifty-five, I become wary of lists that enumerate more than a dozen things. I don’t think the authors of these types of book realize that their over-50 readers are often tired; require a lot of coddling when venturing more than one hundred yards from home; and usually have one question should they actually arrive at one of the suggested far-flung destinations: where’s the bathroom? And that usually has to be asked in a foreign language.
Since I don’t have a lot of time left– thirty years, give or take, and not all of them robustly inclined toward energetic touring– I’ve featured four places of the hundreds that I’d like to visit before I die or become incapacitated.
Albania, the land of the eagle, beckons to me from the other side of the Adriatic Sea opposite Italy. You’d never hear much about Albania before the fall of Communism in the Balkans. Basically you knew that it was isolated and insular, and that it had courted politically the Soviet Union, and then China. Eventually it became even more withdrawn, until enough young people decided that they had had it and decided to topple the repressive, murderous Hoxha government. Eventually I made contact with a citizen who wanted OUT, and soon he made a sponsored move to Florida because his life had been threatened in the old country: it involved intrigue, visas, and smoky hotel lobbies. (These situation always involve smoky hotel lobbies, as well as fake ATM machines, poisoned beach umbrellas, and spoiled beef.) Wouldn’t you be fixated on a country which had such a weird history? Nowadays Albania is climbing its way toward European Union respectability, but there seems to still be enough left of the old ways to entice the curious traveler. I want to take the train throughout the country, eat the local cuisine, and visit the temple at Apollonia. I may even feign ignorance when another beleaguered American appeals to me for help: “No speak.”
Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun, is another place that draws me. Ever since exploring the written language, which involves Chinese kanji characters, Japanese romaji phrases, hiragana characters, and katakana characters, I’ve been fascinated by the people who could actually figure all that out. Can you imagine the confusion at highway intersections? Do people have to stop their vehicles to read signs and figure out who goes where? Of course the natives don’t have to worry– they do everything calmly and politely– but what about those of us who flew to Japan and rented a car? Suppose I wanted to know the quickest non-spiritual way to the summit of Mt. Fuji? I suppose I’d better brush up on my Japanese reading skills. And considering that there are 127 million people living on this small group of islands, I paradoxically want to find the quietest places in the country.
Bulvakia is one of those really obscure countries that nobody has ever heard of, mainly because nothing ever happens there: no wars, no pestilence, and nothing ending in -cide. It’s ringed by high mountains in the middle of Middle Europe, thereby preventing its having ever been invaded by countries intent on expansion. The people have practiced birth control since the very beginning, and there is only one law in its legal code: don’t steal anybody’s krabnakka and they won’t steal yours. Consequently, there is no word for “lawsuit” in the Bulvakian language. Nor are there any jails in the entire country, but there are plenty of swimming pools! The country’s flag was borrowed from the Saenger Theatre in Alabama, because 97.83% of the population thought it was pretty during a nationwide referendum.
Romania captures my attention like few countries do. Who couldn’t be interested in a handsome people who justifiably executed their murderous dictators on Christmas Day? Most people think “vampire” when Romania is mentioned, and the region of Transylvania certainly does capitalize on the legend, but Romania promises so much more. It’s one of those countries currently wrestling its way into post-Communist prosperity, and I find that invigorating. The names of its regions draw me in– Wallachia, Moldavia (not to be confused with the neighboring country of Moldova), the mysterious Carpathian range… cities like Alba Iulia, Constanta, Satu Mare: I itch to visit. And wouldn’t you love to send postcards from the ancient Black Sea port at Mamaia? When I tell people I want to visit Romania, they tell me that I’m going to be poisoned, robbed, arrested, and deported– all within five minutes of landing in Bucharest– but that’s nonsense. You’d need at least a week to experience all that.
All kidding aside, I am a person who sees the artificiality of boundaries, and realizes that they are borne of hate and suspicion and greed. I wish the world was one big theme park to explore at will, without any of the attendant border checks and Visas and required papers. It’s a big beautiful planet, and every earthling should be able to go anywhere at will. That probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but I can still hope… and get my Visa ready for a visit to Bulvakia.