Growing up in a small town in Illinois, smack in the heart of the Midwest, just about any other place in the world seemed exotic to me. I’d sprawl across my chocolate brown, vinyl beanbag chair jealously watching the Brady Bunch in their super cool L.A., split-level ranch house landscaped with palm trees, or seeing them frolic on the palm tree-lined beaches in Hawaii while on vacation.
And there I was, living next to a cornfield. Sometimes instead of corn, the farmer planted cabbage and for weeks the air smelled like farts. There’s nothing less exotic than farty-smelling air.
I remember finding information on the University of Hawaii during my college search . I imagined wearing leis every day to class and taking hula for PE credit and surfing with the Brady kids on Waikiki Beach. But nope, I went to the slightly less exotic University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, surrounded by fields of livestock that sometimes made our campus air smell like a barnyard.
That’s why when I graduated, I left the poo-related odors behind and hightailed it down to Florida, lickety-split, where I hoped the air would smell like frangipani and Coppertone and Flipper. Florida was a place I’d vacationed with my family as a youngster, and at least at that time I found it quite alluring. I distinctly remember frolicking in the waves of Daytona Beach, dodging the cars driving along the beach, and saying to my dad, “Why do we just vacation here? Why don’t we LIVE here?”
So, I was pretty sure I had hit the exotic jackpot when post-college life took me to West Palm Beach, which sat on the Atlantic near the toasty warm gulf stream. I mean, c’mon, “palm” was even in the name of the city! Like the Bradys, I would finally have palm trees outside of my bedroom window. But, as I entered the city limits on my two-day drive to paradise, I sure didn’t see any palm trees. What I did see were plenty of bland strip malls surrounded by acres of black asphalt parking lots, oodles of traffic full of aggressive drivers, and boring glass high-rises that reflected the burning sun right into my corneas. I wouldn’t even see the palm trees even if they existed!
And while it this little burg was called “West Palm BEACH,” the city didn’t even sit right on the beach like my Rand-McNally atlas had promised me. Palm Beach, a barrier island, was in the way, mockingly blocking our access to the sea. I ended up just calling my town WPB because I was mad about the palm and the beach situation. Thankfully, it was actually WEST of something. Besides a misleading name, it also had poverty and crime and lots of drug lords too. Good thing Greg and Marcia Brady never had to deal with a murderous coke dealer—that episode would have been a real downer and not exotic at all.
I suppose that, for me, this was a good first lesson in not setting your expectations too high when you travel to a new locale. I’ve learned to approach a new destination with a clear mind, trying my best to forget about what popular culture has told me. This way, I wasn’t so disappointed when we went to Rio de Janeiro and the tour guide told us we could leave the van for no more than 30 seconds to take a quick picture at Copacabana Beach because if we stayed longer we’d be robbed or sexually assaulted or stabbed with a rusty knife (true story).
Never mind that every movie that’s set in Rio shows smiling bikini-clad locals frolicking in the sand, sipping caphirinas, while “The Girl from Ipanema” plays in the background. Instead, just imagine bikini-clad models brandishing jagged blades and stealing your passport and ATM card, and you won’t be disappointed in the least. And speaking of ATMs, we used ours at a bank in Rio where rogue security guards had rigged a tiny camera at the ATM to steal log-in codes and, a few days later, $3,000 out of our account. Geez, that Girl from Ipanema was tall and tan and young and lovely and a damn con artist!
I’ll admit, this “setting-your-expectations-low” technique can be tricky, as evidenced by our recent visit to Bali. Bali! Who hasn’t dreamed of a beach vacation to this exotic and alluring island? When we got our first international teaching job in Mali (with an “M”), people often thought we said Bali (with a “B”) when they asked us where we were going to live. We would realize this as soon as they said things like, “Oh, you’ll be living in paradise! White sand beaches and tropical drinks all day long!” Then we’d tell them that actually we were heading to a landlocked, third world country in West Africa with high rates of malaria. It was exotic, but just in another way.
But now we were finally headed to Bali (with a “B”). As much as I tried to suppress all pop culture references, I kept picturing Julia Roberts in “Eat Pray Love,” finding her inner peace in Bali’s spiritual center of Ubud.
Instead, our visit to Ubud found us caught in an hours long, exhaust-choked traffic jam that snaked through streets that were completely lined with cheap souvenir shops. Not sure how spiritual I felt surrounded by Bali beer koozies and penis keychains emblazoned with BALI along the shaft.
As much as I tried to purge it from my mind, I pictured Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in “The Road to Bali,” gallivanting around idyllic islands, finding sunken treasure chests in crystal blue waters, and frolicking on pristine beaches. Instead, we were surrounded by drunk Aussies in stained tank tops on discount vacations, and busloads full of chattering Chinese tourists with sword like selfie sticks who blocked every view we wanted to see. Even in the remote Balian countryside, I couldn’t get a single shot of a terraced rice field without a Chinese person’s head in my photo.
As much as I tried to ignore it, I also wanted the song “Bali H’ai” from South Pacific to serenade me to sleep while I lounged in a hammock tied between two palm trees on the beach. Instead, our resort blasted techno music at 9:45 AM for the water aerobics class attended by three people.
And while there are more picturesque beaches on the island, our resort sat on a public beach lined with local folks selling cheap beer out of coolers. Plus there was construction work going on where a jack hammer was involved. No amount of fruity tropical drinks can make a jack hammer sound as pleasant as Bali H’ai.
It was the same experience on our long weekend trip to Hong Kong. Way back in the recesses of my brain I pictured James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) in Die Another Day, emerging out of Victoria Harbor in soaking wet pajamas and nonchalantly strolling into the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. Or William Holden in The World of Suzie Wong, wandering down the atmospheric streets of 1960s Hong Kong, getting a haircut outside in a quaint outdoor street market.
In reality, we drowned in a sea of fancy cars with dark window tint, and mobs of serious-looking business people, and dozens of shiny skyscrapers that blocked the sunshine, and luxury malls on every corner full of Versace gowns and Prada shoes. Our one-hour search for a sidewalk café ended at Costa Coffee, a chain coffee shop which had the only outdoor seating we could find. Suzie Wong would be appalled.
On the other hand, some of our journeys have far exceeded our expectations. Our trip last year to Bhutan, a country which measures Gross National Happiness, made me, well, darn happy. Bhutan actually looks like the gorgeous and enthralling Bhutan one sees in the movies. I may as well have been Chris Isaak in Little Buddha, strolling through this exotic country trying to figure out if my son is the reincarnation of Buddha, because it looks exactly the same–down to the strings of colorful, triangular flags flapping in the wind along the mountainsides.
There were no Starbucks, no drunk, vomiting college kids, and no penis keychains. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of carved wooden penises because they relate to the history of the country (it’s a long story, haha) but they are not painted down the shaft with “My parents went to Bhutan and all I got with this lousy phallus.”
We even lucked out and had the King of Bhutan walk past us one morning, giving us a little head nod. I’m pretty sure that even the Brady Bunch didn’t meet royalty, though Marcia did meet Davey Jones from the Monkees in one episode.
Maybe Bhutan looks authentic because it highly regulates tourism to lessen the impact on the things that make this country unique. There are a limited amount of visitors allowed in at a time, you have to use a licensed Bhutanese tour agency, and you have to spend at least $250/day. So sure, it’s restrictive, but at least Bhutan doesn’t look like a phony EPCOT exhibit overrun with selfie-taking tourists giving high fives to Buddha statues (yep, saw that once). You don’t come here to drink yourself into oblivion or to have a venti soy caramel Frappuccino at Starbucks or to buy real/fake Dior sunglasses. You can, however, sip a local Druk beer while you watch an archery contest, or try some butter tea with toasted rice as you watch monks chant in a temple, or buy a prayer wheel or carved mask of a deity with horns and fangs (did them all, thank you). That’s better than a personalized penis key chain any day.
The Maldives was another country that exceeded our expectations too. Now granted, this is a high-priced, once-in-a-lifetime destination that you save for a super special occasion. But even fancy places can disappoint. Trump’s sassy Mar-a-Lago private club—where I once had lunch–was recently cited for 13 food safety violations in its restaurant. This included “Nonexempt fish offered raw or undercooked has not undergone proper parasite destruction.” Nothing says fancy like being infected with the fish tapeworm Diphyllobothrium latum.
So, I approached the Maldives trip with as little anticipation as I could muster. Which immediately evaporated when we exited the airport, crossed the street to the sea, and boarded our resort’s speedboat for a 45-minute trip across dolphin-filled, aqua waters to our resort located on its own tropical isle surrounded with white sand beaches and pots of free gold. Okay, no gold, but it was still pretty darn spectacular. Short of someone telling me I was appointed the next king of Bhutan, I couldn’t imagine anything more divine.
The dream world continued as we were led to our bungalow that hovered above five shades of turquoise ocean that sparkled in the sun like it was full of Harry Winston diamonds (I did some snorkeling and there were, in fact, no diamonds, just a cruel trick played by the sun). There were even stairs leading from our private deck right down into that crystal-clear water. James Bond should have DEFINITELY emerged from here instead of that murky green stuff in Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong. I wouldn’t be surprised if he picked up a parasite in that water.
Then there are those few places that neither exceed nor elude your expectations. Before traveling to North Korea, I had only seen photos showing it as dreary, cheerless, and dictator-y. During my visit, I found it to be dreary, cheerless, and dictator-y. Maybe even extra, extra dictator-y.
But then again, when 70% of the people are starving and 40% suffer from malnutrition (while their ruler’s wife carries a $1600 Dior purse), I wasn’t exactly expecting the locals to break out in a musical number in the middle of Kim Il-sung Square. With 800,000 square feet of paving, that square can fit up to 100,000 people so the musical number possibilities are endless. But I don’t think they’re feeling it at the moment. I’m nearly certain, however, that living next to a farty-smelling cabbage field would seem quite exotic to most North Koreans.