I’m not on summer break–I’m hard at work. But everyone’s favorite kitchen accessory, Sugar Duck, is on vacation, and he’s having a blast! All these postcards were “delivered” to me by Peter.
[The next morning…]
In other news that makes me feel hung-over, Lonely Planet appears to have been gutted in the name of the new digital era. (Much like, oh, Frommer’s and Zagat–and that worked out so well.) More on that later. Sigh.
I know, last week I gave the master list of counterintuitive travel tips. But, whaddya know, I thought of another one.
And that is: Discomfort is good.
You could say this is a variation on the idea of taking impractical transport. But there’s a greater sense of this, in which it’s generally a good idea to avoid typical luxury, even if you can afford it.
There’s a little treadmill of travel style as you age and get a little more money to play with: you’re meant to go from hosteling to midrange hotels with air-conditioning to, phew, finally you’ve made it, some rambling resort in Thailand.
It’s a trap! Jump off! (Or, more realistically: Don’t seethe with envy over all those rich folks eating in them fancy dining cars, drinking coffee and smoking big cigars.)
Money just creates a buffer between you and the people you’ve come to visit. Money, if spent without thinking, buys space and distance: bigger rooms, bigger cars, private compartments on trains. But for that travel magic to happen, sometimes you need to be forced into proximity: in the cheap seats, on the sidewalk, at the public market.
“Discomfort” can also connect us to the past. I just spent a few days at Los Poblanos, hands down the best hotel I’ve ever stayed at (proof: this was my second visit, for vacation). Part of the reason it’s better than any typical “luxury” hotel is the physical reality of the place: the windows crank open; the thick old light switches are a little hard to flip; the door latches are intricate and don’t shut immediately behind you; the farm animals make noise. Of course nothing is truly painful: The beds are sumptuous, and I could turn on the a/c if I wanted to. But the irregularities haven’t been sanded away, as money tends to do, and the place is still filled with little reminders of how life used to work.
Then again, I’m writing this from a suite in Las Vegas, and I’m perfectly happy to be safely swaddled in a/c comfort, away from the masses (Masters of Beer Pong tourney happening downstairs!).
This trip, in which we’re going across the Southwest without a car, was an experiment in applying travel strategies I use in other countries to more familiar turf. But on this trip, I’ve found myself choosing the more “comfortable” option frequently: the parlor car on the train to the Grand Canyon, the flight to Vegas instead of the long bus ride. Which may say as much about the United States as it does about me.
So: travel wisdom is a work in progress–and at least I have gotten my share of discomfort walking in 115-degree heat!
Your thoughts? When is comfort worth it? When did you feel like it was unnecessary or just got in the way?
Following up the runaway success of my post on Terminal 21 in Bangkok, I think I might become a specialist in theme malls. I admit I felt a little thrill at going to the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai not so much because I admire the 14th-century traveler (though I do), but because I was hoping for some really tacky things to take pictures of.
It certainly looked promising. The idea is that the mall’s various sections represent the major places Ibn Battuta traveled: Egypt, India, Persia and China.
Next to the mall is a hotel–that’s the place with the Morocco theme. (Because IB was from Morocco, I guess–so that’s his home base, where he rests his head?)
The entrance closest to the metro is the Egypt-theme one. Check it:
So I’m sauntering in, thinking it’s gonna be super-cheesy…but this is some kind of crazy educational mall. There are all these displays about medieval Arab mathematicians and their assorted genius inventions.
In the Persia court, there was a touchscreen game to play, involving some surprisingly tricky geography and history questions. I got killed by the Black Death before I could make it to the Far East. Story of my life.
One display even explained properly how all these Arab-invented navigational tools, like astrolabes and quadrants, work. I'm used to just seeing them in dusty museums. Here, you could play with them and line them up with fake stars and things. My actual retention of information is poor, but at the time, I certainly thought, “Wow–I finally get it!”
The coolest thing was this, in the India wing. Even though the explanation panels weren’t working, nor was the device itself. Guess what it is?
I didn’t know it was a clock at the time–I only read about Al-Jazari’s elephant clock a couple of days later in a museum. But, still. I love that there’s even a bit of grass in the elephant’s trunk. For authenticity.
And the mall is just remarkably beautiful.
(If that green font is looking kind of familiar…yeah, it’s Starbucks.)
By the time I got to the China wing, I was genuinely agog.
The funny thing is that, despite all this lavish detail, the mall is just not a very good mall. It doesn’t rate a special air-conditioned tube entrance from the metro, so you have to trudge across the pavement in the heat. And if you look back to see how far you’ve come, you see a whole mass of power plants and smokestacks.
It’s all on one floor–no fancy escalators to take in the view from. And the shops aren’t particularly great–in fact, the whole place smells like vinyl from all the cheap shoe stores. (Not complaining–I got some much-needed new sneakers.) There’s a ‘Marble Slab Creamery’ (the much nicer Mall of the Emirates has a real Cold Stone) and other various not-quite-right businesses, like Borders books. Which I thought shouldn’t exist anymore.
And the clientele is a little more downscale. Which means that, instead of tourists in I’m-on-holiday getups and Emirati ladies in rhinestone-studded abayas, there were lots of people in sort of average clothing from wherever they were from. Which was frankly a bit of a relief after all the other Dubai craziness. And, in some cases, it meant they fit in nicely with the decor.
If you’re curious about Ibn Battuta at all (Google did a doodle for his birthday on February 25), do yourself a favor and read Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s books about traveling in his footsteps. The series starts with Travels with a Tangerine, in which TM-S arrives in Dubai and visits this very mall. Hijinks ensue. Truly, it’s great travel writing–hilarious and edifying. You might even be able to buy it at the Borders.
OK, this is just total eye candy for travel geeks. I don’t even like malls. But Bangkok is a mall kind of town, and when Rod (yes, he met us in Bangkok again this year) told me that there was a new airport-theme mall, I of course had to go.
It’s at the Asok BTS stop (aka Sukhumvit Soi 21). You can enter from the SkyTrain level, but we arrived on foot.
At an airport-theme mall, the security setup even makes sense!
The info-booth girls wore adorable outfits. Two, in fact: At night, the stewardess uniform was black with green trim.
Airport-style signage was everywhere.
Each floor is a different “destination.” The London floor had a red double-decker bus. The floor with the movie theater was Hollywood, of course.
The Istanbul floor had a lot of booths selling crafts. They had some font confusion. Unless perhaps Terminal 21 also enables time travel back to pre-Atatuturk days of Ottoman Turkish script?
I also felt vaguely uncomfortable on the ground floor, the Caribbean.
They seemed to put the most effort into the San Francisco floor.
Just when I started to feel like I was in an even cheesier version of Fisherman’s Wharf, we found the food court. Ah, maybe that’s why there’d been so much care put into the SF floor. The food court–aka Pier 21–was an assemblage of some of Bangkok’s best-known street-food people, in spiffy mall style. But not too spiffy style–I like how everyone still operated out of plastic tubs.
We grazed and gorged.
Afterward, we stopped at the bathroom. The theme-ness started getting a little confused here, because the bathroom apparently had its own theme.
It was all set up inside like some rustic pizza joint, with brick everywhere and a wood oven (yes, in the bathroom), and a gargantuan rolling pin hanging from the ceiling over all the toilet stalls. I was a little lulled by the fancy Japanese toilets with the warm seats, so I didn’t take any pictures.
As Rod pointed out, they didn’t go quite as far over the top with the airport/travel theme as we would have liked–I mean, that woman dusting the San Francisco trolley was wearing a random French maid outfit, when she could’ve been wearing a depressing powder-blue polyester jumpsuit!
Why didn’t they consult the real experts before building? An army of frequent fliers could’ve over-designed the place. The Thais just have to focus on the food. Now that’s synergy.