Last week, I met up with a group of Brazilians, visiting the U.S. for the first time. The highlight of our conversation was a rundown of the cities they were most excited to visit: Mesa, Arizona; Salt Lake City, Utah; Boise, Idaho; Little Rock, Arkansas; Birmingham, Alabama, etc. We tried to persuade them to include Cincinnati, Ohio; Omaha, Nebraska and Champaign, Illinois, but they claimed they didn't have the time.
I commend our visitors for compiling such a mundane itinerary. To be sure, it's the ordinary little details of a vacation that give its memories such resonance. During our recent trip to Scotland, when we weren't busily cramming as much as we could into our schedule, we were hard at work parsing the landscape as we went along. As the navigator, it was my job to bark out instructions and sights of interest.
"Indigenous animal alert!"
"Council estate up on the right hand side!"
"Intense foliage up ahead!"
"Look out for that wall!"
It's hard to tell from maps and guidebooks beforehand which area is going to be great and which area is going to be shite. But what we really couldn't understand was why a stretch of road that looked like it'd take 30 minutes to drive in Arizona would be estimated to take almost three times that. Now we know why. People warned us that the roads would be narrow -- they were. But we were determined to cover decent distances, so we saw plenty of beautiful countryside and tons of fascinating towns. As it turns out, my wife really enjoyed driving on the left side, once she got used to it. Now she's convinced it's the wiser way to go.
Without an accurate sense of how far we would be able to go on any given day, we dispensed with an itinerary and played it by ear from day to day. This left us with no pre-arranged lodging on several nights. We'd cruise the various travel info kiosks, and then narrow down the likely candidates once we started getting tired. While not particularly cheap (nothing is when you're holding the ass-end of the currency exchange), the places we chose were both charming and painless.
We stayed at one bed and breakfast where the owner basically handed us a key, asked us to leave our name and address in the front hall, and wished us a pleasant night. No credit card, no first-born-male-child requirements, nothing. he waited until the next morning to inform us that he ran a cash-only business. Surprise! I just barely had enough to cover the bill.
We found similar surprises when dining. Planning is especially important when you are a vegan in a strange land. For the most part, we floated through the countryside fairly unscathed, only getting burned once or twice by substandard cuisine (I've suffered much worse at the hands of my own countrymen). But we did come up against some odd customs. Who knew, for example, that when in Stonehaven ordering a hummus sandwich (our only vegan option), you can expect it come to the table covered with salsa?
It's easy enough to remember to ask for coffee without "whitener," but how many other local custom defaults are out there that we're unaware of? That's a lot of gauntlets to run through. Hopefully, I'll get the chance to return to Scotland and uncover more of them.