It was Friday night in Shinjuku, a Tokyo neighborhood famous for neon signs, subterranean shopping malls, and rent-by-the-hour lodgings known as love hotels. In crowded bars, people tipped back beers and sang karaoke. Young men with black jackets and gelled hair stood on street corners, offering menus of available escorts to passersby. In the midst of the action was a store window, covered except for a narrow strip of glass. If you were to have stopped and looked through it, you would have seen something strange: my legs, submerged to the ankles, with 600 flesh-eating fish feasting on my feet.
This is the story of how I got there.
I recently had the amazing opportunity to write a story for O, The Oprah Magazineabout taking a trip in which I based all of my decisions, from what I saw to where I slept, on the recommendations of strangers. It’s out in the June issue, along with this slide show.
Now out from HarperPaperbacks, 101 Places Not To See Before You Die is a guide to some of the least appealing destinations and experiences in the world. From the armpit of New Jersey to the Beijing Museum of Tap Water to, of course, Euro Disney, it includes some of the most boring museums,stupidest historical attractions, and worst Superfund sites you’ll ever have the pleasure of not visiting. But the book goes much further.Jupiter’s Worst Moon, an Outdoor Wedding During the 2021 Reemergence of the Great Eastern Cicada Brood, Fan Hours at the Las Vegas Porn Convention —101 Places Not To See Before You Die travels through time and space to provide a welcome — and unusual — reprieve from the glut of “inspirational” travel books currently on the market.
Far from being just an encyclopedic list of crappy travel statistics, 101 Places Not To See Before You Die is also a backhanded tribute to what makes traveling so great: its tendency to put us in situations that we otherwise never would have experienced. With guest entries from writers like Nick Kristof and A.J. Jacobs, 101 Places Not To See Before You Die is filled with stories and anecdotes of misadventure to which any seasoned traveler can relate. These are the experiences we tell to friends afterwards, the stories that earn us bragging rights, the reason why we’re willing to put up with the bed bugs and the food poisoning and set out to explore to the world.
101 Places Not To See Before You Die: Because Bad Places Make Good Stories.
As I took a bite, the flavor that greeted me revealed another important distinction between American and Mongolian cuisine. In America, even a dish as straightforward-sounding as “Fat-Wrapped Liver Chunks” would probably include a few unnamed, yet complementary ingredients like onions, or salt. But in Mongolia, the title says it all. Like everything we ate that night, my first bite had not been salted. It contained no herbs or spice. It was exactly what I knew it was: the liver of the sheep I’d just watched die.
For Slate Magazine, I write about what it really means to attend a traditional Mongolian feast — and why I’d prefer never to do so again.
When my husband Peter ordered the fried tarantulas at Romdeng, a restaurant in Phnom Penh that specializes in traditional Khmer food, he was hoping that he wouldn’t notice he was eating spider.
I know that sounds delusional, but lots of fried foods bear little resemblance to their original ingredients. Think of popcorn shrimp. Or a corn dog. There was a chance that the spiders would arrive so coated in batter that their true arachnid nature would be camouflaged, nothing but a stomach-turning afterthought.
“I bet they’ll be dipped in tempura,” said Peter, as we waited for them to arrive.
“Like a zucchini fritter,” I said supportively.
But neither of us was convinced.
Peter and I had many adventures during our seven months on the road. One of them: eating deep fried tarantulas in Phnom Penh. I wrote about the experience for National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel blog.
As part of our transition between California and the east coast, my husband and I decided to take several months to travel the world. From volunteering on a French dairy farm to biking through the Baltic States to taking the Trans Siberian railroad to doing a homestay with Mongolian nomads, it’s been quite an adventure. I’m trying to keep up with it all here.
Last weekend I had the pleasure not just of attending a workshop about chocolate, but of writing about it for the New York Times.
Wearing a short-sleeve shirt embroidered with his name, Mr. Recchiuti, whose shop is in the Ferry Building Marketplace, looked more like a mechanic than a fine chocolatier — albeit one with cocoa powder on his hands instead of grease.
He greeted each of his 19 students with a spoonful of liquid chocolate and a white plate holding eight samples arranged like numbers on a clock, with a small bowl with two roasted cocoa beans and a pinch of chocolate-covered barley — a “taste project” — at the center. The students would taste single-origin varieties of chocolate from around the world, and watch Mr. Recchiuti transform chocolate into confections that presumably could be replicated at home.
For PARADE Magazine, I put together a quiz about plane travel. Unfortunately, my statistics on animal strikes (frequent; not just birds but turtles) and ridiculous stories about safety announcements (Virgin America had to put a bull into its safety video instead of a dog over concern that people would think dogs need to wear seat belts*) did not make it in. But nonetheless!
If you’d asked me in a different context to guess what was meant by the term “elephant buffet,” I might have thought it was a meal hosted by some wacko trying to market elephant steaks as a novelty meat. I would not have imagined that the city of Surin would close down an entire street, line it with folding tables, pile those tables with thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables, and invite more than 300 elephants to an all-you-can-eat breakfast.
I didn’t know it until recently, but I love elephants. A lot. So I was thrilled when I got a chance to feed 300 of them breakfast — and then wrote about it for National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel blog.
Considering that my most recent project was a parody travel guide called 101 Places Not To See Before You Die, I was a bit surprised when PARADE Magazine asked to put together a bucket list for America. But I’m very glad they did. From seeking out good barbecue to learning the lyrics to the second verse of the national anthem (did you know it’s set to a drinking song?), it was fun to get a chance to come up with some genuine, feel-good ways to celebrate our country. That, plus Jimmy Fallon was on the cover.
Be forewarned — the point of the temple stay is not, as the pictures on its Web site might make it seem, to lounge next to a brook nibbling crackers as you consider what it means to reach nirvana. The point is to live like a monk. And monks, it turns out, keep strict schedules, are vegetarian and spend a lot of time silently meditating in positions that can become, quickly and without much warning, incredibly uncomfortable for those unused to them.
I got my first hint of this austere lifestyle when I arrived and was greeted by Cho Hyemun-aery, who introduced herself in fluent English. In the guesthouse, she showed me the communal bathroom and the small room my friend and I would stay in, which was unfurnished except for sleeping pads, blankets and small pillows. Then, after we’d dropped off our bags, Ms. Cho handed us our clothes for the weekend: two identical extra-large sets of baggy gray pants and vests, along with sun hats and blue plastic slippers. We looked like we’d stepped out of a propaganda poster for Maoist China.
On a trip to South Korea, I decided to participate in a Korean temple stay, and wrote about the experience for the New York Times.