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Where the sidewalk ends

In order to make your travels truly memorable, sometimes it’s necessary to leave your guidebook in the hotel

Author Chris Wright Illustration Kim Rosen

travelessay

I like to think of myself as a reasonably adventurous person, but there are limits. For instance, I tend to steer clear of any leisure pursuit that raises the possibility of my being splattered, squashed, scorched, frozen, drowned or eaten alive. Which rules out bungee jumping, of course, but also roller coasters, swimming with dolphins and any form of skiing that doesn’t involve the word “bunny.”

I miss out on a lot of holidaymaking excitement this way, but I don’t really mind. I’m just not a huge fan of adrenaline, I guess, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that impending catastrophe—or the illusion of it—heightens one’s appreciation of life. Also, I’m a coward.

That said, there is one white-knuckle pastime I dabble in from time to time. I’m not sure what you’d call it—Extreme Rambling, maybe, or Mugger Baiting. At its basic level, it requires visiting an unknown city, waiting until nightfall, then wandering off into the worst possible neighborhood—preferably somewhere that’s earned itself a nickname like “Watchyerback Alley” or “Dread Town.” To get the full effect, you should be in possession of a tourist map, and you have to be alone.

 I’ve been perfecting my Extreme Rambling technique for years, but my knack for blundering into sketchy urban areas seems intuitive somehow, as if I’m magnetically drawn to the prospect of physical assault. More remarkable yet is my ability to place myself in the worst possible situations while in these areas. “Ooh, that dingy alleyway looks interesting,” I’ll think. “I wonder if that fellow muttering and karate-chopping the air could break a fifty for me.”

 My greatest feat yet, the Extreme Ramble with the biggest adrenaline pay-off, occurred a couple of years ago, during a business trip to a troubled city in an even more troubled region. I’ll refrain from naming the city, due to a concern that the local chamber of commerce will send a hit squad my way, but I will say that I stayed in a hotel from a well-known chain, and that there was heavy artillery parked in the forecourt. If nothing else, the property must have had an unusually high towel-retention rate.

 That evening, after eating a “meat sandwich” at the in-house “restaurant,” I decided to set out in search of a gift shop—which, on reflection, wasn’t entirely logical. All the same, I wanted to commemorate my visit with an appropriate keepsake—a dictator-shaped paperweight, say, or a novelty ransom note. So it was, with a skip in my step and a cannon pointed at my head, I left the hotel and wandered off into the night.

 My first stop was a shabby little café, which, as I recall, had a peculiar name—The Old Time Many Delicious Sandwich Arena, something like that. All I wanted was a small bottle of water. For this, the shifty-looking guy behind the counter told me, I would be required to pay the equivalent of about two bucks—which, in this neighborhood at that time, would get you a midsize car, with enough left over for a tank of gas and an air freshener.

 “Too much!” I said, handing him the bottle back.

“Canada!” he barked, jabbing the label with a twiggy finger. “Has oxygen!”

 Having abandoned the idea of trying to explain to this man that all H₂O has oxygen, I slapped my money on the counter, sat down at one of the café’s two tables and sipped my Canadian water while looking at a vintage poster that, as far as I could tell, was originally a flyer for a local slave market. The server sat down opposite me and, in irreparable English, asked what I was doing around these parts.

 Travel has all kinds of things to teach us, and one of the things I learned on this trip is that it’s impossible to effectively mime the words “gift shop.” But I gave it a go, making knickknacky gestures with my hands while he shouted “Give shop?!” over and over again. Finally, another customer walked in, said something to the server in his native tongue, and the two men laughed.

“I show you,” the helpful customer said, his bushy eyebrows seesawing as he spoke. “Come. Come-come.”

 This is where my compulsion kicked in. Where any sane person would have picked up his oxygen-infused water and fled, I followed the man outside. We walked for maybe 20 minutes, neither of us speaking. The streets got narrower, the buildings shabbier. There were people standing in doorways, and some of them said things as we passed. I gripped the neck of my water bottle as if it were a club, trying to remember if Jack Bauer ever got himself into a situation like this.

Just as I was about to give my guide a light bonk on the head and run away, we turned a corner and there it was: a Brutalist edifice with a large illuminated sign. “Gift shop,” the man said, tilting one of his animate eyebrows in the direction of the sign. I thanked him a little too vigorously and pulled a few bills from my pocket. He smiled at the money but didn’t touch it. “You are welcome,” he said, his fingertips on his heart. And then he was gone.

As ill advised as they may be, these wayward tours of mine do occasionally pay off. I am now the proud owner of a third-world bowling trophy, a horribly tacky thing with gold plastic pins and a heavy black base. Even more precious, perhaps, is the memory of walking into that shop, the old proprietor looking up from his book and nodding casually, as if my being there was the most normal thing in the world.

Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright is spearheading a campaign to have walking through dodgy neighborhoods made into an Olympic event.

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