The best travel stories come from discoveries you make on your own. Sure, everyone knows where the BIG tourist sites you MUST see are, but sometimes the off-beaten-path places are infinity more personal, engaging, interesting and variant from the norm, making them some of the most fulfilling finds. Some of these places may be local secrets or the locals don’t see any reason why anyone in their right mind would be interested in seeing/experience them. Either way, this is part one of my highly subjective list of alternative tourist/non-tourist destinations that that stand as triumphs to wandering/nomadic jaunts and may also spark a flint in you to explore beyond the travel books, the hearsay, the MUST SEES and the Checklisted. Enjoy.
Beatles Museum – Alkmaar, Netherlands
Alkmaar is a tourist destination in the Netherlands, famous for it’s Friday Cheese Market in the central square, where droves of tourist pile into the stands (yes, as if you are watching a baseball game) to view men, dressed in pork pie hats, white shirts and pants, carry cheese on “sleighs” attached to suspenders to and fro from the old weighing house. Yes. Sleighs and suspenders. I’ll explain another time. Alkmaar also has it’s staple Dutch things to see, such as canals, churches, old architecture, beer houses (and coffeehouses) and ridiculously gorgeous, accomplished people. But a specialty museum hides a somewhat out of place collection, just at the north edge of old town. The Alkmaar Beatles Museum. Why? Did the Beatles ever come to Alkmaar? Sadly, no, but John Lennon’s first guitar was made here. Still. Why? The answer to that, as well as many other questions can and will be answered by the museum’s owner, curator, creator and guide to everything Beatles. On his personal tour through the museum, the proprietor of this small, but extensive collection of memorabilia, will share his insights into his collection (“I have a bigger collection of Beatles stuff than the museum in Liverpool”), about Yoko Ono (“She’s the devil, she tried to buy John Lennon’s clothing back from me. I would never sell it to her”) and general odd anecdotes (“I mean, I have Beatles mothballs, it’s pretty impressive, ya?”). Though it is a single room establishment, the detailed information plaques, plus the amount of stuff shoved into this location, will easily occupy an hour or more of your time. Really worth the sidetrip and a SUPER awesome stumble upon! I took the tour twice, because, MAN, is this guy a Beatles fan (ticket stubs, original contracts, moth balls and all!).
DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION:
Address : Kanaalkade 48, 1811LS Alkmaar, North Holland, Netherlands.
Admission: 2.50 euros
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 11am to 4:30pm and Sunday 12pm to 4:30pm.
From the Cheese Market, which is located on all tourist maps of Alkmaar, head north of the Waagplein, along either Houtil (Pieterstraat) or Voordam (Kaarsemakersgracht). When you hit the canal, make a left. Paul and John’s faces will greet you at the entrance. Lots of random Beatles gack for sale as well.
Chinese Museum of Women and Children – Beijing, China
Beijing is a very popular tourist destination, where people cram into tight spaces to see the sights: The Lama Temple, Forbidden City, The Drum and Bell Towers. Usually, tourists do not have over a year to explore this city, but since I was teaching there, I had oodles of time to venture into every nook and cranny of this massive, forever growing city. Through some blog posts, I had heard about The Chinese Museum of Women and Children. It was somewhere near my house, but I was not exactly sure. Asking friends of mine who had lived in Beijing for many years, turned up nothing, but, “there is a museum for Women and Children? Well…enjoy!” Thanks. Scouring the alleyways near to the train station, I finally found it, a big glass and metal structure, abnormally round by Chinese architectural standards, hiding down a side street. So what is in a museum dedicated to tykes and the better sex (at least more mature and organized sex)? Well…a lot of random exhibitions. It’s true, this museum doesn’t really have a said direction, but that’s part of the beauty of it. The general subheading, Women and Children, allows this museum to basically run the gamut of weird and crazy ideas that it’s creators came up with, one dark night, ten bottles in of Baijou, Chinese white wine (imagine sweet turpentine (ps I love it)). From a history of customs (marriage, death, birth), a section on clothing from the various ethnic minorities, to toys, to a video game that allows you to be a wheelchair bound child for a day, this museum wins on entertainment and education levels. Again, worth the scavenge and great to fill up more than a few hours, if you are a keener to read things and play wheelchair games and kick digitized water in a digitized puddle, as I am. Oh and the “We are the best country of all time, forever, infinity, win all the games and wars and beauty competitions” style propaganda abound, including a hilarious section about pollution.
DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION:
Address: Beijigelu 9, Beijing, China.
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 5pm
Metro Station Dongdan on Lines 1 or 5. Take exit B, take first alley to your left, heading east and then first right. The museum will be on your left. Quite tricky to find as the address on their website is completely wrong. It’s behind a building called Chinatex Mansion. The Chinese characters if you get lost are 中国妇女儿童博物馆
Tuzrakter – Budapest, Hungary
First off a warning. Do not attempt to find Tuzrakter, because it no longer exists. But when I visited this art coop/film space/activist hive/squatter den/bang up food and drink spot in 2010, it was very much alive, debating, swilling, loud, sexy and spilling out into the streets. I was doing a charity bike ride with a group of Canadians, raising funds and awareness for microcredit, so stumbling upon this place on Couchsurfing was pretty much planning a outdoor wedding in Vancouver in Spring and it being a clear, sunny day (if you don’t get that local reference and are use to the more traditional, religious based reference, here it is: “it’s a miracle!”). This place wrote the Hungarian autobiography on cool, without even attempting to define themselves as such. Like a 1920s Parisian café, yet not with a wine and smoke odour, but a beer, burning incense, bike lube and oil, and a twinge of hashish aroma, every night was drum circle night, with rhetoricians, theorists, radicals, avant gardes, raging heat, fire, manuscripts, scripts and manifestos, screaming and rebutting above the rhythm. A cultural hub full of hubbub. Art in non-conventional spaces, on unconventional terms. All of this ended with a price hike in rent from the government, a ploy to shutdown this meeting place for the “ill repute”. Not that shutting such a place will squash the hill. The ants go marching on…
DIRECTIONS: None. “It’s too late to apologize…it’s tooo llllaaaate”
Yita Si – Dali, Yunnan, China
From Tuzrakter to something a little more ancient and still open to the public. Dali, the ancient capital of Bai Kingdom, is a reasonably relaxed city (China wise) in Western Yunnan to soak up sun, use as a jump off point for further exploration in the region and one of the few places in the entire country that has CHEESE as part of their diets. Without getting into a lengthy digression, while food and living costs in China are quite reasonable, the tourist sites, demand ridiculous fees for sometimes little return or a poorly fabricated cultural anomaly that is both laughable and depressing (they charge you to climb random mountains, enter parks, touch statues…). One of the biggest tourist attractions in Dali, are the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple, standing at the based of the Cangshan Mountains. Scouring the Internets, I found a website that showed you possible, unobstructed photo ops without paying the ridiculous entrance fee to the temple. I am all about the experience, so photos are nice to remember how something felt, but do not amount to having done anything. Looking over Dali through Google Earth, I found something just down the road from the Three Pagodas. Yita Park. I knew that “ta” is tower and I knew that “yi” means one, I wonder…Again, onto the interwebs to find some more information about this singular tower, which from pictures, I could see existed. Was it accessible? Was there an entry fee? The only info I could find, were short blurbs, noting that it was a derelict 10th century tower, that was in a neglectful state. Curiosity sparked, asking locals through a series of hand gestures and interpretive dances, no one understand/knew/cared what I was talking about. After several tens of minutes of wandering in the general area where the map said it was, as this blog post insinuates, I stumbled upon it. Passing through a car gate and a crumbling exterior wall, passed an military watchtower and a temple, where workers sawed, hammered, chiseled in a cloud of sawdust, with a curious eye on my girlfriend and I. Upon a dirt mound, surrounded by green pines and long, uncut grass, the solitary tower rose, not derelict, but more defiant to drooling tourist mongrel, which bites at its heels, demanding it to be repainted, stocked full of gaudiness, false priests and boxes to place money for its “upkeep” and the upkeep of fatcat officials. Not yet. It was still free, but I presume that the workers weren’t simply fixing up the old temple for good will. This is the ancient, untouched China that people chase and try to touch. I climbed up to entrance, which was open and peered inside. It was black with darkness and soot from years of burning fires and sacrifice. It’s yellow exterior peeled and chipped with sun and rain and it was such a glorious, phallic like, momentary “fuck you”, to the lion tamers of natural, wild history, which tells its tale through wind, not written words.
DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION:
Address: Entrance at Y juncture in Yita Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China.
From Chongsheng Temple, walk south along the main road (214 National Road). Travel for about ten minutes and make a right on Yita Alley (一塔巷). You will run directly into the park. Ignore all the blockades and fences, run free (both imagination and physically) in history and nature.
Dr. Guislain’s Museum – Ghent, Belgium
Housed in a work psychiatric facility, the museum’s purpose is to inform the public of the history of psychiatric practices and dispel any misnomers or prejudices people may have towards the field. As it says on the website, through its exhibits, it focuses on destroying highly suggestive and value laden terms such as “madness” and “mental disorder”, by presenting the artwork, writing and stories of current and former patients. Both beautiful and inescapably haunting, the museum presents a part of society we tend to ignore, attempt to conceal or pity. This museum is not grasping for pity tears, but rather, evokes honest to goodness awe from the inspirational tales and works of these individuals. A museum, an art gallery and an emotional, humanist rollercoaster all rolled up into one highly effective collaborative effort. Something well worth spending more than a few hours immersing oneself in, reading, watching, emoting, while coming face to face with raw output and sincerity. Even in the museum section, the focus is not on demonizing the profession, but rather showing the charity and positive outcome of the brotherhood that started this hospital. This is truly an experience, which words do little justice to encapsulate, so I will stop at that.
DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION:
Address: Jozef Guislainstraat 43, Ghent, Belgium.
Admission: 8 euros
Hours: Tuesday to Friday 9am to 5pm, Saturday to Sunday 1pm to 5pm
From Sint Pieters station, take Tram 1, stop at Guislainstraat. Spin around and a BIG sign will state that you are at the riiiiight place.
Realism. An art movement attempting to capture the world as it is, without the idyllic visions of the romantics, the lamenting nature of the elegies or the beatified chiseled warriors of the heroics. The photograph took up this charge of the realistic painting, opening up an opportunity for those with no artistic skill to capture a second in their life. The monumental images and glorification of war, society or the satire of government could still be staged and snapped and framed as art, but also the simple recollection of a banal moment in time could fill the pages of any amateur scrapbook affectionado. Here I present with little introduction, my amateur hour of manipulation, without schema or plan, simply an attempt to indicate a feeling, an individualized experience with the nights of Rome and how special they were to me.
The city breathes at night and wafts scents and sounds through haggard and higglypiggly lanes and chipped doorways, spilling with intoxication, conversations of love and hate and exploration. The yellow streets, though old, cannot overshadow the history crusted fountains and ruins, that give power to the casting shadows, over the juvenile flickering lights.
A map and no plans are some of the best days in Rome. Stumble upon secrets, recommendations and a blog or two pick of some hole in the wall vouched for by some subscriber to Tripadvisor. Do it, taste it, inhale its smoke, smut, savoriness and centuries.
It’s hard to consider living on the road without the feeling that you are shirking your duties. What these duties pertain to, at least in myself, relate to a sort of “suppose to” list of life stages that at certain ages in on the relatively short stint on this earth I have been indoctrinated, through all forms of nurture, that I must hit. Part of the process of living on the road is considering the validity of this society-enforced template of growing up. For me, it didn’t work.
Since this is a travel blog, I hesitate to address bold life statements, so I will keep it as a series of personal revelations. I was introduced to travel by my parents. We did the traditional North American family trip to Mexico every other year. It was nice, but felt surreal, cultural mummification, as if everything you saw was in stasis, ready to perform for the next tourist. That sounds quite ignorant, but I was younger back then and that’s what family trips to those tourist meccas kind of enforce. It wasn’t emersion, but simply a dip in a highly regulated pool.
When I was 24, I was invited to perform in a play in the Czech Republic. I had never been to Europe before and had never travelled on my own. As part of the trip, I planned to do a sort of quick jaunt around the country. I planned meticulously and was very excited to finally travel at my own pace.
I planned for two weeks and ended up living in Prague for an additional 4 months teaching and then three more months travelling around Eastern Europe. I returned back to Canada for a girl. As I stepped off the plane at the Vancouver International Airport, I realized how seriously mistaken I was for doing so. I felt a sudden void inflate inside of me. And that was it. I was infected with the travel bug. Right away I knew this could not be a sometimes thing. I had to figure out how to make this an all time thing.
The traditional aspects of life weighed upon me. Yet in my own rebellious way I had started to challenge, question and answer them.
TA = Traditional Aspect
R = Response
TA = If you get tattoos, you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
R= I am dead, who cares where they put me. Throw me into the ocean, I don’t need to waste land.
TA = Okay. Well, if you get a tattoo, make sure it’s something you REALLY want.
R= It’s just skin. And don’t use the “but when you’re old it will look…” Because when I am old, “I will look”.
TA = Get married, have kids.
R= Monogamy works for some people. It sounds nice in a pastoral poem. You have kids, I’ll be the cool uncle that your kids want to be.
TA = Get a stable job, you don’t want to be poor!
R= International teacher and adventurer is a full time job. It’s stability is concrete in that I am not tied to a steadfast location. Contract ends, I find a job here or move! The world is my job market oyster. I am never poor, as I always have enough to eat, cloth and roof myself. The rest of wealth is stored in the emotional bank and I am pretty happy with the numbers.
TA= But that’s not normal.
R= I strive to be as abnormal as possible. No! It boils down to happiness. That is why I hesitate to generalize. If a suit and tie and Lambourgini make you excessively happy, then do it up. For me, a suit and tie are constricting and a car as a representational of more than cutthroat work ethic, an unshakeable faith in class delineation and sad attempt at becoming the human superlative is as confounding as you may find my excessive facial hair at times, my spontaneous tattoos and my amplified emotional states.
This is not a woe as me narrative, quite the contrary. You should be not just proud of the quirks you are allotted, but the quirks you develop out of experiencing life and discovering what you want of it. Because as I said before it’s a short stint, a snap of the fingers and I did not want to wait until I had to sit on a geriatrics filled bus to be hurled around this planet. I want to see it by bicycle. I want to see it in slow motion. I want to see it now and bask in it all.
Extended family dinners are awkward at times. The question, “what are you doing?” is always asked. I respond in earnest and a lot of the times they smile, in confusion, as if that will remedy their feelings of judgement. I know many of them don’t understand me, but at the same time, they all came around and support me. Good family will always do that, so don’t worry about the disowning factor. You can’t live as a source of vicariousness for people anyways.
So dream. If it’s in line with their dreams, great. If it is off the beaten path, unconventional, constantly moving, great as well. Pursue it all. Fail. Pursue more. Succeed. Nothing is damning. Love your careers and families; maybe I’ll see you somewhere on the vast highways. And it’s not our cup of tea, but we’ll understand why each other like to sip it. Because it makes us happy and that’s the crux of it all the why questions you can ask about existence.