Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bad Timing, Good Vacation

Executive summary by darmansjah

I AM TEMPTED TO ENTER the oh-so-charming new Manhattan café, but then I notice a recent rave review proudly hanging in the window. Is the café now so popular that it won’t accommodate a walkin customer like me? Fearful of being turned away, I hesitate outside, then recover my gumption and swan in boldly without a reservation. To my astonishment, the manager is at my side in a blink of an eye with a menu: “Table for one?” Later, as I wait for my order to arrive, I pull out my mobile phone and impulsively call a spa that I have been longing to try out. “Why, yes, we do have massage appointments available today,” trills the spa receptionist at the other of the line.

Sometimes, traveling in a packed, noisy city is an endurance test; right now, though, I’m like a mild-mannered  reporter suddenly gifted with super powers. Taxis screech to the curb at the slightest flutter of my palm, and every bus I catch ahs an empty-window!-seat. More than eight million people live in New York City, but today it is mine, all mine. Mainly because I am staking my claim to the city when almost nobody else wants it: on a 92-degree Saturday afternoon in the last week of July.

When it comes to crowds, I’ve always been a grumpy traveler, and many of my travel habits evolved from my desire to ditch the pack. Does the guidebook suggest the road that leads to the right? I turn left. Is everybody planning trips based on colorful memoirs about living in Venice and Provence? I head for little-known wine regions in Spain, to castles with difficult-to-pronounce names in Serbia. I compile lists of natural wonders that aren’t quite wonderful enough for UNESCO World Heritage designation. I go for cool sounding second-or third-tier cities in China and South Korea.

Up until a few years ago, my road-less-traveled instincts served me well. I never had much trouble finding places I could enjoy without the headache of making hotel and museum reservations month in advance, and then standing in a long time, craning my neck over the heads of strangers to see the views.

But that was before wanderlust swept the planet. More than a billion people traveled for pleasure last year. Even worse: Many travelers aren’t keeping their secret places to themselves. Nowadays, to travel is to “share”-not just with family and friends but with your 5,000  twitter followers. As travelers, we navigate a world that is getting smaller every day, bursting at the seams with others keen on exploring it too. This calls for new strategies.

I have one, and with a nod to the great New Orleans piano player Dr. John, I call it: “Wrong Place, Wrong Time.” Decades ago, with more time than money for travel, I learned what budget travelers learn: it’s cheaper to go somewhere when nobody else is going there. Of course there is usually a good reason why a particular season is “off,” as I discovered the first time I booked a discounted cottage for a September Caribbean vacation. Worrisome breezes welcomed me to the island, along with a shout from the hotel manager, perched on a ladder and nailing boards across the windows: “Hurricane com-in’!”

All night the winds wailed palm fronds and coconuts tumbled to the ground as the storm passed  season guest at the hotel bar, I drank rum and shared stories until dawn to the flicker of emergency candles. The next morning I woke up with a whopping hangover, and a revelation: When you travel against the calendar, the upside isn’t just economic. Thanks to my “bad” timing, I came home from my budget friendly vacation with something much better: a traveler’s tale.

By choosing to visit the wrong place at the wrong time, not only do I lose the crowds; I almost always experience my surroundings, especially familiar ones, in an unexpected way. This is where dreaded jet lag can be a friend; it ensures that you’ll be awake and eager to roam the streets of, say, Hong Kong or London during the wee hours, when those restless cities slow to a crawl and seem to turn into a grainy black and white, like a silent movie.

Even when you’re not jumping across time zones, shifting your travel activities to a “wrong” hour can mean having a place to yourself, leading to a feeling that you’re somewhere new without having left the same destination. The California geyser that fizzes at midday to the applause of crowd turns, you discover, into a mighty, erupting dragon in moonlit solitude. The Mexican market town that honks with cars and pickup trucks all morning softens into a Gabriel Garcia Marques short story during the dead hours of the afternoon siesta.

Sweat is trickling down the backs of my knees in the 92-degree streets of New York in July. The heat rising from the asphalt is so thick and intense that I can see it ripple. If the taxi that just pulled up to whisk me to my next city adventure has no air-conditioning, I may melt in the backseat.

Traveling at the wrong time, against the clock and calendar, isn’t always the easiest or most comfortable ride. But the destination will be yours, and yours alone. In the wrong place, at the wrong time, I’ll take Manhattan, with pleasure.

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