Travel: It brings to mind idyllic scenes of relaxing on beaches, drinking something fruity and alcoholic, and coming back with the perfect tan.
But at times travel can be anything but glamorous. It’s easy to get lost. Often, you don’t know where you’re staying that night or even what you’ll be eating for your next meal. Many of the LocoMag staff members have had not-so-ideal travel experiences of their own.
When I was in Tokyo last spring for an Arcadia GFS course, one of the things on my bucket list was to go to a Maid Cafe. Once exclusive to Japan but now popping up in Europe and major U.S. cities, Maid Cafes are a type of cosplay restaurant where waitresses dressed in maid costumes serve customers caffeinated drinks and cake while acting as if they work in that customer’s home. This may or may not include referring to that customer as “mistress”, providing singing and dancing entertainment, and hanging out with you as if they are your best friend (well, as long as you keep paying).
In an innocent way, the concept seems cute and perhaps is so appealing because there’s simply no American equivalent; you’d be hard pressed to find a cafe here where the baristas will ever smile or even know how to pronounce the name that they hastily scrawled on the side of your cup o’ joe. Yes, I’m looking at you, Starbucks.
But I digress. On a free day, a group of four of us ventured out to the packed streets of Akihabara, which is the electronics district of Tokyo. After getting our fill of thirteen floor arcades, anime figurine shops, and duty-free stores we had all worked up enough of a thirst to want to grab a coffee or tea at a Maid Cafe, having high hopes that the experience would be another one to add to the host of great memories we were making in Tokyo.
…. Oh, it was memorable all right.
It wasn’t long before we were solicited by a girl of questionably legal age wearing a maid outfit and handing out vouchers on the street for a nearby cafe. None of us could understand what she said to us, yet we allowed her to lead us. Carpe diem, right? Smiling shyly, she took us down a very dark, suspicious alleyway and into a nondescript building, where we were packed into an elevator and rode up and up and oh shit, what have we gotten ourselves into.
Before we could change our minds, we were swept into a very pink room and welcomed by a host of frilly and fawning girls. From there, things got awkward real fast.
There were only two patrons besides my group, both of which were older, balding salarymen seated at corner tables and hiding their faces inside menus as they quietly clapped to the musical performance on stage. Once we were seated, we ordered our drinks for the hour and were subjected to a sing-a-long session with our assigned maid, whose cuteness and servile attitude was so overpowering that it bordered creepy. I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing as we formed hearts with our fingers and repeated “doki-doki” and “moe-moe-kyuun” while internally screaming: Is this Hell? Am I being punished for exploiting these poor women? It wasn’t so much the activities were participated in, but the overall impression that was not necessarily negative, but just plain surreal.
Needless to say, we all learned something that day: Maid Cafes aren’t at all like your Japanese animes. They can be a soul-sucking guilt trap. They can make you spiral into a brooding disquietude about humanity and the hedgehog’s dilemma. I’m not saying don’t ever patronize these establishments, but uh … don’t. You’re better off spending your precious yen elsewhere.
My worst travel experience came about not in the actual visit to a new place but in the journey to return home. After 6 weeks studying abroad in Florence, Italy during the summer (who doesn’t love 2 straight weeks of 100 degree weather and no air conditioning, am I right?), I found myself in an unfortunate situation: I could not avoid an overnight layover in Dusseldorf, Germany. I was very thankful for the wintery conditions when I landed – I usually love 40 degrees and windy, but especially at that time, it was my actual paradise. So, with a Florence friend by my side, I decided to brave the airport overnight instead of navigating our way to a hotel room and paying the extra money for a bed. And it wouldn’t have been a huge mistake if I wasn’t an actual idiot, but yes – it was a huge mistake.
We managed to find a cafe in the airport that closed in 15 minutes and scarfed down our final meal until our next flight. From there, we wandered the desolate shops of the airport and happened upon a small sitting area, with seating sections that perfectly fit a crammed body trying to sleep. But this was a foreign country and fear-of-being-mugged was the only thing on my mind. I tried to snooze, clutching my purse in my arms as I rolled around uncomfortably, but sleep never came. Instead, I wandered to a table with an outlet and watched 500 Days of Summer on my laptop. Then, I decided to go enjoy the weather I had been missing by leaving the airport for a smoke. I put my things back in my backpack but left my chargers out on the table – I would have to use them when I got back, anyway. For some reason I had totally forgotten that chargers are actually rather valuable. A good macbook charger costs over 50 dollars – good thing I left that out in the open and unattended for 10 minutes.
So, of course, when I returned, all of my chargers were gone. Unfortunately, the travelers I was with had found sleep (somehow) and did not identify who stole my chargers. And, anticlimactically, that’s where my story ends. (I got about a half hour of sleep that night.)
Ultimately, it’s important to not let these bad experiences bring about a fear of exploring a new place in the world. The journey there can suck, obviously, (and it almost always does!) but when you reach your destination, everything works out. You can always buy a new charger.
My dad has always been an adventurous, somewhat rebellious type. He travelled a lot as a kid, and he past on his love of adventure to me and my three younger siblings. My mum also shares his adventurous persona. However, my mother’s side of the family was the roadtrip type. They love long car rides and stops at out of the way places. My dad prefers plane travel.
Some people get midlife crises. I don’t know what my father got, but it was more extravagant than that. Not only did he decide to start getting his plane license in his late thirties – which took over a year to fully achieve since there are lots of requirements and procedures – but he also decided to buy a plane. He LOVED his plane. It was his pride and joy, and he would take us for rides nearly every weekend.
Now, our family has a tradition of flying out to visit our family in Louisiana (on my mum’s side) and Texas (on my dad’s side) every winter break. We fly out to Louisiana to visit my mum’s side of the family first. Then they drive us to meet my dad’s parents halfway between where they live in Texas. After we’ve visited with my dad’s side, we take another commercial flight back to our home in California. If we don’t make the trip out during the winter, we go during the summer.
2011: I was 12. I had just graduated eighth grade. It was pretty hot, even for a California summer. My dad decided that instead of flying commercial (as normal human beings do), we were gunna fly across the three states between California and Texas. Then he would fly us from Texas to Louisiana when we were done visiting with his family.
Sounds fun, right? WRONG! Here’s a picture of the same type of plane we were riding in:
There were just enough seats for all of us. Plus a small backpack each. We took off from a tiny airport near our house filled with hangers where private plane owners keep their planes for storage. Me and my siblings wrapped up a huge blanket around us to fall asleep (California nights are cold, contrary to popular belief), and woke up the next day hungry and in the sweltering heat. It didn’t take long for us to eat the couple bags of chips my mum had packed as our only food for an eighteen hour long (!!) plane ride.
As we were flying into Texas, it got really really hot. It was around 110 degrees outside, and that meant that our tiny, cramped plane was significantly hotter. All the air was trapped, and there was no place to put the blanket. It was dreadful. Our dad flew on with us under these conditions for another hour. We were burning up and starting to see fuzzy black dots because we didn’t have any water.
There was a small mini airport that my dad eventually flew into. There was a tiny little building with an old man who was working inside. It was a little like a convenient store inside. He was selling candy, drinks and magazines. He gave me and my three siblings a free soda each. Then, while we were waiting for our dad to fill up the plane again, we all tried to fit under the shade created by the plane wing.
It was the MOST miserable experience of my entire life. We took a commercial flight from Louisiana back to California. Our dad begged to take us back in the plane, but he was outvoted. It was unanimous but for him.
Anyone will tell you that I’m very Italian. My dad is from Italy, all I eat is pasta and good bread, and we have an ongoing joke that my dad is in the mob (are you, dad?). I grew up in a family that was very close-knit, and although I wouldn’t say we “frequent,” Europe, we visit our family overseas as often as we can. I could write a novel on crappy travel, as my dad is a modern explorer who relishes in the thrill of a good adventure. One particular European vacation sticks out in my mind, and honestly, it can all be attributed to car trouble. It started when I choked on a fake mustache. I’d like to introduce you, reader, to what I fondly remember as, “The Three Horrendous Days.”
Liverpool circa 2012. It’s a beautiful place, full of culture and foreign boys with pretty accents. My family and I had arrived in the UK about a week earlier, having already visited Ireland. We had no trouble whatsoever in that lush country (besides my dad almost running over a bicyclist, but that’s irrelevant. She was OK), but as soon as we arrived in Liverpool, luck seemed to turn against us, and it began with a fateful visit to Poundland, a Dollar Tree-like English chain. We were about to take a rental car to France, but before we left, my mom stopped by Poundland and bought a package of fake mustaches:
(Yes, people sell these.)
When we finally embarked upon the long journey to Paris, we weren’t on the road for an hour before our tire popped. There wasn’t a spare in the trunk (some quality rental, am I right?) and while the towing services received our call, it would be another 2 hours before anyone came to help, despite our being stranded on a busy highway. Already late afternoon, we entertained ourselves with the mustaches my mom had so wisely purchased. We were a bit stir-crazy on the side of the road, and while I was messing around in the backseat, I swallowed some of the polyester mustache hair and choked on it. I ended up puking water on the side of the road. The scratch in my throat would not go away.
Two hours later, the tow truck finally came, but it was too late to resume our drive to Paris. We found some hotel along the way and parked (no pun intended) for the night.
The very next day, we did a lot of sightseeing and we did actually make it to France, if not Paris. The beautiful places we passed in the car did not disappoint, and we stopped very often. We could’ve made the whole trip in a day, but we preferred to get lunch, rest up at a few rest stops. On that second godforsaken day, we were still in the car at midnight when we ran out of gas. For whatever reason, there were absolutely no open gas stations along our route. It was a country-like area, and it looked like the perfect location to be abducted by aliens. If aliens came that night, I would’ve thanked them.
We got very lost. My dad lost the address of our hotel, and for some reason we had no idea where we were going. We had just enough gas to get ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE, so we all dozed in the car while my father aimlessly wandered. I suppose he eventually found some tiny motel in the wee hours of the morning, and thanks to driving only 10 miles an hour (or should I say kilometers, because Europe?) we arrived just as the tank hit E. I cannot remember the name of that motel for the life of me, but I do recall that it looked something like the velociraptor paddock in Jurassic Park. How industrial.
On day 3, we somehow got gas (I don’t recall what happened), and we finished the drive to Paris. By now, I was so ready to ditch this car, having never held such hateful feelings for a vehicle (until I met my ex and his car, but that’s a different story). Despite our previous trouble, we had a lovely day in the city of love. It wasn’t until evening that disaster—to loosely use the term—struck again.
Surprise surprise, when we were a significant distance away from Paris, our car broke down again just outside of a shady little town. I swear, as we stood around our car, a gang walked down the street. This was something like a French ghetto, or a “banlieue.” We had nowhere to stay, no idea where we were, and I legitimately thought that this was the night I would die. Luckily(?) enough, we happened upon a cramped little hostel where we could tuck in for the night. I slept in a tiny bed with my little sister, although maybe I should say “stayed in a tiny bed.” I didn’t sleep, I spent most of the night playing “gunshots or fireworks,” and watching the door. At least if someone kicked it down, I’d see them coming, even if I couldn’t stop them.
The next day, our patience was worn thin, but little to nothing plagued us for the rest of the vacation. It was a memorable experience, for sure.
Moral of the story: trust no car but your own.
Image Credit: Mike Linksvayer, via Creative Commons 1.0 Public Domain License