The Worst Places Make the Best Stories
World travel, with its exotic scenery and foreign accents, is easy to glamorize. But for every breathtaking wonder of the natural world, there is a landmark ruined by tourists, a four-hour wait on an airport tarmac, or a terrifying experience in a Turkish bathhouse.
Any seasoned traveler can attest that sometimes the worst places make for the best stories, and in her new book 101 Places Not To See Before You Die, travel and science writer Catherine Price has set out to prove just that. The result is a list of some of the weirdest, most uncomfortable locations around the world, from “an underpass in Connaught Circle, New Delhi, at the moment when someone puts a turd on your shoe,” to the “Road of Death” between La Paz and Coroico, Bolivia, that at its deadliest saw 25 vehicles launch over its unguarded edges in just 12 months.
Through vignettes, photos, and supplementary guest entries from writers like Nicholas Kristof and Mary Roach, Price has crafted a funny, fascinating guide to the kind of awkward circumstances that any sane traveler should avoid. I had the opportunity to talk with Catherine about the book and how zeroing in on the best of the worst has changed her travel philosophy. Check out our Q&A after the jump.
Was there a particular trip or story that inspired this collection?
There was a moment on my honeymoon when my brand-new husband somehow lured me to the top of a rickety, scaffold-covered bell tower in Croatia. We’d just reached the top of the pigeon dropping-covered steps — and I had loudly announced my intention to immediately go back down — when we realized it was 11:59 am. Before I had a chance to turn around, the large bell directly above my head dropped several feet and clicked into place. The sound that followed wasn’t a slow, clock-strikes-noon kind of ringing — it was a desperate call to arms, the type of frantic clanging you’d use to warn citizens of an impending invasion. I crumpled over, hands pressed to my ears, and cowered as the bell kept ringing, sending crusted bird poop onto my head and making the metal steps vibrate beneath me. As soon as it was over — and I realized I had not fallen to my death — it was funny. But I wouldn’t do it again.
The bigger inspiration for the project, though, was the glut of list-based books that are currently on the market. There are so many things we’re supposedly supposed to do before we die — listen to 1,000 jazz albums, visit 1,000 gardens — I even found a book about places to pee before you die. I wanted to give people a break, and make the point that sometimes the best experiences are the ones that aren’t on any list. Sometimes those experiences are great in the moment; sometimes they’re uncomfortable but make good stories afterwards. I don’t think it matters. As I say in the book, I believe that travel should be an adventure, not an assignment — and if you arm yourself with too many checklists, you’re missing the point of leaving home.
What criteria did places have to meet for inclusion? Were there any notable stories that didn’t make the cut?
I didn’t want to include anything that was objectively horrible — no genocide jokes, or making light of situations where people were actually being harmed. (I feel bad, actually, that Ciudad Juarez is in there!) I also liked things that straddled the line between odd-and-boring and odd-but-I-kind-of-want-to-go-there.
Has focusing on such weird experiences in any way changed your attitude toward traveling (or travelers)?
I think it’s reinforced my philosophy that the best travel experiences are often the ones that are off the beaten tourist paths. For example, my husband and I just went to the Cathedral of Notre Dame — and while it’s magnificent, it was crowded with so many people that it was impossible to fully appreciate it. I much prefer finding smaller, quieter places that make you feel like you’re discovering hidden treasures. It’s also reinforced my belief that the best way to deal with an uncomfortable or difficult situation is to find a way to laugh at it. Before coming to France, my husband and I were in Iceland, and made the questionable decision to stay in a hostel downwind from the volcano. We were the only people there (even the staff went home), everything was covered with ash, the sky was dark, and since there weren’t any restaurants or stores open, we ate slightly spoiled cheese and stale pretzels for dinner. But instead of getting annoyed, we found the staff’s remote control and spent the evening playing cards and watching some Icelandic version of American Idol, laughing at the absurdity of the situation. Totally a worthwhile experience.
While some of the places on the list sound pretty horrific, others – like Seattle’s Gum Wall – actually piqued my interest. How seriously should readers take your advice to stay away?
- Nat Geo Expeditions
They shouldn’t take it too seriously. As I mentioned above, the point is more philosophical than literal — I think that it’d be interesting to (quickly) walk by the gum wall. Likewise, I plan on visiting the Beijing Museum of Tap Water, and I just skipped the Rodin Museum in favor of the Paris Sewer Tour (fascinating, if smelly). I love finding weird places like the ones described in this book. But I also made sure to include some places that would be impossible to visit, even if you wanted to — like Jupiter’s Worst Moon — for people like me who might see a list of “worst” places and feel obligated to follow it.
What most surprised you while you were researching for the book?
There’s a lot of weird stuff out there! Also, whether you’re writing about supposedly bad or good stuff, the truly great moments of travel are the ones that could never be predicted — or suggested — by any book.
For more from Catherine Price and 101 Places Not To See Before You Die, check out their respective websites at www.catherine-price.com and www.101worstplaces.com. You can share your own observations of miserable locales on Twitter (@101worstplaces) or on the interactive iPhone app 101 Worst Places.