You’ve partied in Berlin. You’ve practiced your Deutsch in Munich. Maybe you’ve flown into Frankfurt and stopped in Hamburg on your way north. But the rest of Germany? It’s pretty off the radar and there are zero good reasons why. As the bigger German cities get more and more predictable, it’s the smaller ones that offer more of a sense of adventure. Here’s eight spots even some Germans don’t know about:
Enter Germany’s Fachwerkstraße, or Framework Road. This route is a series of 98 towns going up and down the length of the country for 3,000 km, or 1,864 miles. Each bustling little spot is home to hundreds of 13th-17th century half-timbered houses and, save a few exceptions, nothing but locals. There are more castles than tour busses, more cobblestone streets than taxis, and not a single queue in sight. Throw in all the local microbrews and hand-churned gelato one can handle, and you’ve got a traveler’s – and a marketer’s – dream.
I was sitting toward the edge of a crepe paper-lined tiki bar in Honduras when I realized I’d had it. My five coworkers had to be the most insufferable cruise companions of all time: their priorities consisted of getting up early to nab the best chair on the sundeck and figuring out a rotation for who would go grab the next bucket of Coors Light. And while I’m capable of appreciating the occasional rendezvous with day-ruining sunburns and week-ruining hangovers, those activities just aren’t on my to-do list while I’m exploring Central America, thank you very much. But it was my own damn fault: I didn’t really know these people—I just wanted to go on a cruise through the Western Caribbean—and in my naïveté I assumed they’d want something, anything, to do with Honduras, Belize, the Bahamas, and Mexico. They didn’t.
When our cruise ship docked at Roatan—a small island off the coast of Honduras—I naively assumed we were about to put on our explorer hats, don our khakis proudly, and head out on an adventure full of slithering, poisonous snakes, hikes up serpentine trails to ancient ruins, and run-ins with shrewd and slinky vendors who drove a hard bargain. Instead, we hailed a cab and booked it to the nearest bar. For a few bucks, our cab driver took us to the birth of a shoddy, war-torn, hungry street and dropped us off with our “tour guide”—his seemingly-mute daughter, Gabriela. She quietly led the way down the road, ignoring with each of her flip-flopping steps that this can’t have been what Norwegian Cruise Lines had in mind. Chunks of powdery pavement crumpled beneath our feet, windows seemed armed and at the ready for trespassers, and wooden boards that presumably once kept out the vermin of the city were now littering the street, like some exhausted, overworked interior decorator had called it quits and stalked off in a violent, explosive rage.
A quarter of a mile or so later, the likes of the ghetto unchanging and still not a peep out of Gabriela, she stopped and pointed at our obvious, almost glaringly-offensive and out-of-place destination: a three-walled tiki bar. The counters were lined with grass skirts and margarita mugs, though not a tourist was in sight. With the sun still well in the East, the 6 of us hunkered down at the bar, one by one. Gabriela sat by herself at a corner table, barely making eye contact with the paper toucans decorating the walls.
It had to be some sort of new-age torture. The only respite I could cling onto was that my strawberry margarita tasted like jam. Maybe the bartender got me—I soon found out that we were both from the Midwest, after all. Much to my ever-increasing dismay, the six of us had settled down with six margaritas carefully concocted by some runaway ex-pat from St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis. Home of the Cardinals, Nelly, and the Gateway Arch. We were a bunch of kids from Iowa sitting at a bar in exotic, toasty warm, eye-opening Honduras talking to a pale, lonely Midwestern boy from Missouri. I didn’t come this far to get a sugar high from an excuse for a margarita at a second-rate version of my local watering hole. If I wasn’t the travelling solo type before then, I was now.
So, I gobbled up the remains of the jam at the bottom of my margarita, popped up off my fake-bamboo chair, and made a bee-line for the only worthwhile conversation partner I might be able to find that day: Gabriela. She couldn’t’ve been more than 12 years old, 80 pounds sopping wet, and seemed like she had a handful of older, more glamorous siblings whose shadows she slept in at night. It’s a feeling I understood, in both English and Spanish. I walked up to her a little nervous myself, but it couldn’t be worse than what I had left 10 feet behind.
“…Hola, Gabriela. Me llamo Jackie. Uhh…te gustaría…una bebida?”
I saw her hide a slight smile, obviously amused by my subpar Spanish skills. But it jetted away like someone might catch her in trouble, and she just shook her head. I was trying my hardest. 4 years of high school Spanish was just barely not leaving me high and dry.
“Aww, c’mon. Te gustaría…una coca-cola?”
Another head shake.
“…Anaranjada? Wait. Crap! Naranja?”
A little smile, but nope, nope.
And finally I saw a glimmer. I latched onto it like it was a golden ticket out of hell, which it was, in a way. “Okay! Una Sprite por mi amiga nueva!” and never gave her a chance to stop me. I saw another smile, this time accompanied by a small giggle. I was always afraid to speak foreign languages to my classmates and professors even after years of study, but she gave making an ass out of myself purpose, as if my neurons were firing slowly for some grander reason I didn’t understand.
I nabbed a fresh bottle from the bar and set it down in front of her. At that moment, it felt like a band of Care Bears could not have made any child happier. Though I was only capable of asking her very simple questions, like what music she liked or what she was studying in school, it was still the best conversation I had had all week. After her last grateful drink, she looked back at my three-margarita-deep companions, looked at me, sized me up momentarily, and whispered in a hopeful, innocent-but-scheming air,
“Quieres ir de compras? Las tiendas están cerca de aquí.”
I couldn’t help but get excited. “Claro, Gabriela. Me encantaría.” And we walked out the door, two bandits on the loose, running away from our shadows.
When I first landed in Ho Chi Minh City, I could smell it. It was the “Saigon Scent.” Years later I would buy a candle endearingly labeled “Passion Fruit Saigon,” and its scent bore no resemblance to the city I remembered so well. The candle smelled flowery, perfumy, and manufactured; the city reeked of hot dust wafting above day-old meat. Similarities noted, I bought that small, almost-too-pink candle anyway to commemorate the life I had in Vietnam — but, instead, its scent turned into a reminder of the person I became there: a girl who lost her sense of self in her surroundings. A person I didn’t much care to remember.
In the beginning, that lightly foul city scent was strangely comforting. It matched everything my eyes took in. It fit the dozens of motorbikes raging down dusty sidewalks, trying to cheat the hundreds on the street. It explained the men pulling up their shirts to let their stomachs air out, in turn confirming the reason for the bead of sweat on my forehead. It complemented the thịt nướng (grilled meat) burning in shoddy, lime-colored holes-in-the-wall, being watched only by aging portraits of deceased relatives. With the plumes of exhaust surrounding me, the relentless honking filling my ears, and the weight of the humidity pressing down on my entire body, this — this — was Vietnam. I could smell it. I could taste it. I could feel it. It was strange and it was new, and I liked it.
As the days went by, Vietnam became far more than just sights and sounds and smells. There were things I loved: buying fresh fruit at edge-of-the-road markets (passion fruit, even), driving my less-than-fancy Honda Wave down open boulevards where the wind gently whipped my face, walking out on the balconies of six-story houses that towered under me with their narrow-but-mighty grandeur — these were my hobbies. These tiny things made life worth living. There were things I hated, too: the wheels of my motorbike being drowned in a foot and a half of water, old men staring at the near six-foot blonde that I am, desserts that couldn’t even be called slightly sweet. I disliked them terribly, but I would live with them. You take the good with the bad, after all.
And then there were things I abhorred: people putting the lives of others in danger by running red lights and speeding down pedestrian walks, people refusing to recognize the obvious existence of any queue, locals talking about me in elevators, never thinking for a second that I could possibly understand them. These things I detested and vowed I would never take part in. I was better than that. I knew better than that. There are parts of any culture that outsiders would frown upon, and these were mine.
As time wore on, my senses started changing. The incessant honking fell into the background. The six-story balconies didn’t seem so tall. The throngs of motorbikes seemed navigable. I started assimilating. I gave up wearing eyeliner that routinely wound up streaming down my cheeks after just a brief dalliance with a fierce wave of rainfall. I told old men to stop staring and let my elevator peers know that em hiểu tiếng Việt (I understand Vietnamese) and that I was none too pleased with their gossiping. I started finding a good flan to be on parallel with a decent chocolate cake. Hell, I barely recognized myself!
And then I started doing the things I vowed to myself I would never do. I cut people off on the street. I started driving on the sidewalk. When a light turned red, I knew I had four more seconds to run it, even if it slowed down everybody else. I saw gaps in queues where I could easily shove in. Once, I threw an empty water bottle over my shoulder. But what I most vividly remember is yelling after a homeless man to demand he tell me thank you for giving him 3,000 VND, or fourteen cents. Fourteen cents. I yelled at a man who would never have the quality of life I was destined to enjoy over fourteen cents. For less than a dime and a nickel, I got a good look at myself for the first time in a long, long while.
Who have I become? How did I let this happen? What can I do to change?
And when I took a breath, I realized I couldn’t smell Vietnam anymore. I wanted to go around to everyone I knew and ask them, “Can you smell it? Is it still there? Did it disappear?” But I knew it was just me and I knew what I had to do. It was time to start over. It was time to leave. It was time to grow and repair.
And I did. And that damn candle reminds me every day.
Living in the Bay Area, you're just far away enough from the ocean that you never see it unless you make it a point to see it, which means you never see it. If you can manage to get your act together, it's there waiting for you. It's there in all its touristy, on-the-beaten-track wonder, until you hit the Capitola Pier.
You might've heard of Santa Cruz. Vintage boardwalks and dive-y burrito shops by day, street musicians, marijuana, and poorly lit roads you don't want to walk down by night. Then there's Carmel, where you might go hungry trying to find a restaurant amidst the art shops - but if you're looking to drop a hefty sum on a copper sculpture of a dolphin, you couldn't be in a better place. And let's not forget Monterey, home to too-famous-for-its-own-good Cannery Row, thousands of moon jellies, and barrels and barrels of tempting saltwater taffy.
But then there's Capitola. Just south of Santa Cruz and topping the list of coastal cities you can drive to by day from the Bay Area. There's the quirky rainbow houses lining the beach...
There's an abundance of fishermen toiling away from morning till night...
And then there's the most melancholic pier you will ever step foot on.
Every ten feet or so you come across a weather-worn plaque. A weather-worn, poetic, heart-wrenching plaque for someone who died too young - no devotee was over 60 - someone who was loved much and often and may have loved the sea even more. There are children, there are mothers, there are fathers, and there are friends - all young people taken too soon. Surely not by the ocean beneath their memory? Surely not willingly off the wooden boards bearing their names? But just as the ocean never gives away its secrets, the stories on this pier are equally as elusive.
In a sense, these purposefully elusive stories are sandcastles turned to bronze. A fleeting memory in someone's mind, made to last forever. If there's one reason to come to Capitola, it's to see the layers of sandcastles: sandcastles on the beach crafted by tiny hands and washed away in minutes, and sandcastles turned to bronze: memories living on forever.