Category Archives: Travel Gems

Time Travel

Fresh Pretzel Wrapped In Newspaper, Downtown Istanbul (1990s)

Fresh Pretzel Wrapped In Newspaper, Downtown Istanbul, 1990s (Double click to enlarge)

In honor of Turkey Day, here’s a Turkey photo from when their country wasn’t being run by a lunatic. I love this pretzel vendor scene because it looks like a 1970s Darren was transported back to the 1940s. But that is 1990s Instanbul, perhaps on a day when they hired a bunch of black and white extras. Definitely double click on this one and marvel that this is NOT a Photoshopped scene!

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Creepiest Baby Ever

Typical Scene on Fremont Street in "Old Las Vegas."

Typical Scene on Fremont Street in “Old Las Vegas.”

In Vegas last weekend, not far from Dora the Explorer and the Transformers, I saw this skeevy adult baby posing for tourist photos for tips. I actually didn’t see him pose with anyone, but there must be a market for this since he seemed like an experienced baby who had done some location scouting and demographic research.

He did approach me for a photo-op, but I politely told him I was “all set.”

Yeah, I am being a bit judgmental. There are so many other respectable jobs out there. This would NOT look good on LinkedIn.

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Retroactive Out-of-Business Restaurant Review: Jerusalem’s Upscale Roman Munchies

Roman waitress at the archeologist-run "Cardo Culinaria" restaurant where Roman soldiers once dined in between rampages. Note the beverages being served in archeology-style pottery.

Roman waitress at the archeologist-run “Cardo Culinaria” restaurant where real Roman soldiers once dined in between rampages. Note the beverages being served in archeology-style pottery.

(Note: The Cardo Culinaria is where I was “tricked” into eating duck for the first and only time by thinking it was lamb. Liked the taste, but still can’t emotionally accept the idea of eating Donald or Daffy. Moreover, I LOVED the idea of archeologists running their own restaurant.  Sadly, this kitschy tourist attraction went out of business years ago. Consider this travel story, originally published in 1997 by the Robb Report, a loving memorial tribute.)


 By Darren Garnick

JERUSALEM – When conquered by Rome, eat what the Romans eat.

That was likely the philosophy of some Jerusalem restaurants eager to curry favor with Caesar’s army after it trampled the Holy City more than 2,000 years ago.

The Roman soldiers are long gone, but a group of quirky Israeli archeologists have brought their taste buds back. Promising an authentic “First Century Dining Experience,” the Cardo Culinaria only serves roasted duck, chicken and lamb — dishes preferred by the Roman-Judaean chefs at the time.  Beer, regarded as the “drink of barbarians,” is eschewed in favor of wine.

Customers are assumed to be pro-Emperor and enjoy royal fringe benefits.  Servants, known elsewhere as waiters and waitresses, hand-feed grapes to guests and fan them with large palm fronds.  Soothing harp music is played during the meal with fire eaters and jugglers entertaining between courses.

There are other Roman theme restaurants around the globe – most are concentrated in gluttonous Atlantic City and Las Vegas – but the Culinaria has more clout to claim authenticity.  The restaurant sits on the ruins of the Old Roman Cardo, the main drag of Jerusalem in 63 BC where Roman troops socialized and made their military headquarters when modern day Israel was  known as Judaea.  Visitors walk through excavated Cardo columns on their way to the restaurant’s entrance.

Though pegged as a tourist spot, the food at the Cardo Culinaria is surprisingly upscale.  Keeping in line with the Roman feast tradition, portions are generous and most foods are all-you-can-eat.

The schlock factor can be adjusted to individual tastes. Diners are invited to wear violet and golden togas over their clothing, Caesar laurels in their hair, and Trojan helmets breastplates for silly photos after dessert.  But unlike in the real Roman Empire, there is no coercion to assimilate. Business suits are not sent to the lions.

When the restaurant first opened in 1989, forks were not provided because the Romans only used knives and spoons. Semi-sweet carob juice was also served instead of lemonade.  But modern customer tastes forced modern concessions. Owners did not want to run a historically-accurate restaurant with empty tables.

“In the beginning, we had hired a chef to best duplicate the recipes and cooking styles of 2,000 years ago,” recalls manager Rafi Nahum. “We served the food and people said, ‘This is very interesting.’”

“We knew the moment that people were calling our food ‘interesting,’ it didn’t taste good,” he adds.

Small two-pronged forks were soon introduced after it became clear that customers hated to eat with their hands.  According to the Cardo Culinaria menu, which is more of a crash history course than food guide, there have been some significant beverage compromises, too:

“Water supplies of the ancient world were generally not fit to drink, but as a concession to modern taste, we will provide water on request. Beer was considered the drink of the barbarians and was not drunk in Rome.  However, malt beer was widely available in Judaea and will be served with some meals.”

Harpist  Betty Klein concedes that the Cardo sometimes has no choice but to fudge with history a bit.

“Unfortunately, we can’t recapture the music because we don’t know what it was like. We can kind of guess different intervals, but the Romans didn’t leave any records for us,” she says. “I’m kind of doing this blindly.”


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Egyptians to Israel: 30 years of peace is OVERRATED

Egypt's October 1973 War Panorama Museum  (New York Times photo)

Egypt's October 1973 War Panorama Museum (New York Times photo)

One of my biggest regrets during my post-college backpacking jaunt through Cairo was that the October 1973 War Panorama Museum was closed.

Like a kid stretching his neck over the fence at a shut-down amusement park, I stared through the iron grates at a sculpture garden decorated with Russian MiG fighter jets.  I wanted to at least bring home a snowglobe from the gift shop, but the place was undergoing renovations.

This museum is a monumental tribute to Egypt’s “victory” in the 1973 October War (or Yom Kippur War if you’re willing to acknowledge the military value of surprise and meanness to attack on a religious holiday).

According to the Egypt State Information Service, the museum was inspired by President Hosni Mubarak’s 1983 trip to North Korea and is divided into four areas:

The Circular Hall: Highlights the achievements of the Egyptian Armed Forces in the period from 1967 to 1973.

Hall 2: In which the crossing of the Suez Canal is graphically shown.

Hall 3: Showcases the achievements of the various branches of the Army during the October War.

Hall 4: A library with a reading hall attached.

Now, thanks to The New York Times, I can see what one of the museum panoramic views looks like.  Looks like a lot of Egyptian model railroaders were employed by the state in some kind of job stimulus package.

The Times also reports that many younger Egyptians are pissed about the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords. An entire generation grew up without shedding a drop of blood in the Sinai desert and they are pissed.

They saw a couple of war movies and well, it looks like a whole heck of fun!

From the Times:

“Today Egypt is not influential in anything,” said Osama Anwar Okasha, a leading Egyptian television writer. “It is a third-class country in this region. Egypt was the leading country and it gave up this leading role. Now it is like a postman, delivering messages.”

“The public mood is dark all around right now, and the sentiment points to the treaty as the start of Egypt’s decline and diplomatic impotence.”

But the 81-year-old Mubarak, who has been eligible for his AARP membership for those same 30 years, is still alive and he remembers how unfun bleeding in the Sinai can be.

Yet, he’s also the guy who likes to build war museums. Even if his exhibits don’t tell the full story (memo to Mubarak: Israel won — even Wikipedia says so), I still want my October Panorama snowglobe.


* Visit the Hezbollah Children’s Museum!

* Learn the Arab-Israeli conflict’s impact on Syrian lingerie exports!

* Compared to Jessica Simpson, how popular is Yasser Arafat at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum?

* Reminisce about the Saddam Hussein Yard Sale!

* Netflix Kitschy Pick of the Day: Otto Preminger’s “Exodus!

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Filed under Asinine Mideast Analogies, Foreign Affairs, Middle East, Travel Gems

“Crashing to earth in Vanuatu’s Air Force One (Part 2)


CULTURE SCHLOCK — By Darren Garnick
The Telegraph
August 24, 2001

EDITOR’S NOTE: Columnist Darren Garnick recently returned from a documentary film shoot in the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu, located 1,200 miles northeast of Australia. Here’s what won’t make it in the film. (Part 2 of 2)

Had we burst into flames over Sydney International Airport, there would have been plenty of scrapbook material. Print and television reporters were hovering around the terminal, their necks arched up toward the clouds and the 103 passengers trapped inside Air Vanuatu Flight NF31. Ambulances and fire engines were camped on the runway. Our ill-fated jet was the lead story on the Australian national news.

Near-death experiences get more melodramatic each time they are retold, but there’s one delicious detail that will stay the same. My colleagues Chris, Pete, Scott and I were on the same plane as Vanuatuan President John Bani – plunging to earth on his impoverished nation’s Air Force One.

It all began in aisle seat 5D. I was absolutely psyched that no one was seated between me and cameraman Scott in 5F, meaning more elbow room and space to pile magazines. About 45 minutes after takeoff, the pilot breaks into his official pilot announcement voice, a friendly and conversational (but confident) tone.

“Folks, we just got word from Melbourne that there were some landing gear parts left on the runway. We think they may be ours.”

A few minutes pass.

“Folks, we just learned that the pieces on the runway do belong to us. We’re going to divert to Sydney Airport and fly over the control tower so they can check if anything is wrong.”

The idea of some air traffic controller checking the landing gear by looking up in the sky sounded ludicrous, but the pilot’s conversational tone seemed somewhat reassuring.

“Folks, we’re going to make an emergency landing in Sydney. But before we do, we’re going to circle around the airport for a bit to get rid of some extra fuel. We might be a little too heavy for landing.”

In retrospect, I should have remembered the direct relationship between gasoline and explosions. Yet, the hypnotic “too heavy” explanation oddly satisfied me.

“Please prepare for emergency landing.”

Perhaps the first time I ever paid attention to the flight attendant pointing to the emergency exits – or the laminated safety instructions card in the magazine pouch – I learned the “emergency landing position.” As effective as prayer or hiding under your desk during a nuclear attack, the strategy is to lean forward and use the seat in front of you as a shock absorber. A stewardess told me to take my eyeglasses off while crouching, probably so I would experience the crash less vividly.

I was nervous during the descent, but not panicky. Nor did I notice any fellow passengers freaking out. Maybe they envisioned what I did: A worst case scenario of a belly landing with lots of sparks. I did momentarily consider the odds of dying, however, thinking how my last words to the world would be from my journal. Journals, of course, are indestructible and usually emerge intact from airplane explosions. My last entry: How Australian customs agents took away my turkey jerky (see “Culture Schlock,” Aug. 17).

Then, there was my “Who Will Be The Hero?” game to fill up some more down time. I scrutinized the people around me and predicted their behavior in the upcoming crisis. Who’s gonna panic? Who’s going to help others get off the plane? (I cast myself in the hero role). Who’s gonna trample the elderly?


A strange monotone mantra filled the airplane. The chanting stewardesses sounded like they were cheerleaders who lost their passion but still recited their lines loudly.


As we were going down, cameraman Pete yelled out, “Hey Darren, are you going to write about this?” Of course I was. Like the journalists on the ground, I was thinking about good copy. But I’m delighted to report that the landing itself was anticlimactic, smoother than some rides on East Dunstable Road when it’s under construction.

Our emergency landing was all over the news that night. I watched the replay about six times. I was looking forward to seeing the next morning’s newspapers and comparing headlines (Sydney Morning Herald: “Tyre blowout sparks emergency landing scare.” Vanuatu Weekly Hebdomadaire: AIR VANUATU EMERGENCY LANDING WITH PRESIDENT INSIDE”).

At our hotel, we built up a camaraderie with the flight crew and other passengers, making jokes when we’d see each other at dinner or in the elevator. There were a few bitter people, those who focused on the lost vacation or business day. But most of us were just thrilled to be alive. It’s bizarre to say this, but almost crashing is kind of fun.

Darren Garnick has his laminated safety instruction card from Air Vanuatu Flight NF 31 hanging in his office. His “Culture Schlock” column appears every Friday in The Telegraph’s “Encore” magazine. Feedback and ideas are welcome via e-mail at cultureschlock (at)

In 2009, Air Vanuatu brags about free soft drinks...

Postscript: In 2009, Air Vanuatu brags about free soft drinks...

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Filed under Darren's Archive Vault, Near Death Experiences, Travel Gems, Vanuatu Adventures, Wacky Airport Stories

Costa Rican Sloth Adventure: Parking Lot Security in Paradise


THE WORKING STIFF — By Darren Garnick
“Parking Lot Security in Paradise”
The Boston Herald — December 6, 2006
Sometimes being named “Employee of the Month” and getting a “kudos” in the company newsletter just isn’t good enough.

I have no idea how a Costa Rican hotel parking lot attendant was
honored after I originally reported his act of heroism, but some kind
of international award is now warranted. At the risk of sounding like
Gwyneth Paltrow, security guards in Latin America are much
more intelligent and civilized
than their counterparts in
the United States.

My wife and I recently stayed at the “Si Como No” Resort near the Manuel Antonio wildlife preserve. The rainforest-based hotel, which has the most customer-service friendly name you can imagine (“Yes, Why
Not?” is supposed to be the staff’s response to any request), earned
hearty praise in Jimmy Buffett’s travel memoir “A Pirate Looks At

Buffett, naturally, focused his prose on the spirited bartenders in
Margaritaville. He never had the pleasure of meeting William Lee, the
mustachioed Zen master with SEGURIDAD printed on his khakis.


After carrying our bags up to our room (nothing against busboys, but they can carry my suitcase when I’m in a nursing home), we returned to our car to find a most unexpected visitor. A three-toed tree sloth was crawling in the gravel lot near the rear bumper — and we feared it was about to become exotic road kill.

We had seen these creatures before, through a wildlife guide’s power
binoculars, hanging from Cecropia trees 150 feet in the air. Our guide told us they can sleep up to 19 to 22 hours a day and only come down to the ground once a week to defecate. Lucky us.

From far away, tree sloths look like giant fur balls. Up close in a
parking lot, they look like experimental Muppets fresh from the Jim
Henson lab. Although their elongated arms and legs are capped with
Freddy Krueger razor claws, these cuddly creatures appear to be always smirking. But it’s a disarming welcoming smile; not a sadistic “I’m gonna slash your tires” smile.

The tree sloth was crawling toward me in slow motion, like he was
overacting in a movie scene about a dehydrated guy searching for water in the desert. At maximum speed, he can travel up to five feet per minute, so those deadly claws posed no threat to my parking lot photo shoot.

After sufficient gawking, I found a nearby security guard, Mr. Lee,
hoping he could radio the front desk for a wildlife expert. Without
hesitation, the guard grabbed a five-foot-long stick from a wood pile and extended it within clawing distance of the sloth. The animal
initially ignored the offering, first crawling underneath and around
the branch and making no effort to hold on.

Due to its whimsical facial expressions and trance-like movements, the sloth has attained an almost mystical status in Costa Rica. Some
travel writers have likened their hypnotic motion to practicing Tai

A more impatient security guard might have slammed his stick down and told the front desk that his job responsibilities don’t include wildlife rescue. But Mr. Lee’s upbeat customer service attitude even extended to the sloth. He watched the creature tentatively grab the branch with one arm and then eventually cling with all fours like a kid on the monkey bars.

The guard then carried his sloth-on-a-stick down three flights of
stairs to the edge of the jungle. This time, the animal immediately
understood his rescuer’s intent. He dug his claws into the nearest
tree and shimmied (slowly) up to safety.

My wife and I gave Mr. Lee a standing ovation, but we got the
impression that he didn’t think his actions were anything special.
Maybe all the parking lot security guys down there double as wildlife
experts. Maybe that was the third three-toed tree sloth he rescued
that week.

Doesn’t matter to me. The “Si Como No” has an employee recognition program awarding deserving nominees a complimentary weekend at any one of their sister resorts. On behalf of the Latin American tree sloth community, and tree sloth fans across the world, here’s hoping that William Lee is thanked with a free week’s vacation.

Darren Garnick’s “Working Stiff” column runs every Wednesday in the Boston Herald. For an extra dose, check out The Working Stiff blog.



By the way, if you are looking for a tour operator or guides in Costa Rica, these guys are the absolute best! Tell them Darren sent you….

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Filed under Animal Rights, Darren's Archive Vault, Sloth Adventures, Travel Gems

Maine’s Undiscovered Carhenge & the Great American Thrill Show


It is not featured in any tourist books and the locals don’t brag about it, but from an elevated stretch of Route 6 in rural Maine, you can see Jim “Crash” Moreau’s junk car sculpture garden. Painted red, white and blue, the 1970s sedans are frozen in action poses from Moreau’s illustrious 40-year-plus daredevil career.

It’s the New England version of Nebraska’s magnificent Carhenge.

“When I die,” the aging stuntman says, “whoever puts my obituary in the paper has to put the name ‘Crash’ in there or nobody would know me.”

Known as the “Maine Maniac,” Moreau is one of the last auto thrill show veterans still on the road. Back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, there were several dozen “Hell Driver” stunt teams who criss-crossed North America and staged elaborate auto accidents for family entertainment. The most successful operation, the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show, had up to five daredevil units simultaneously performing at race tracks, sports stadiums and county fairs.

The late Evel Knievel, inarguably the biggest name in daredevil history, was inspired to jump motorcycles after he saw the Chitwood Show visit his hometown fair in Montana. Before Knievel launched his spectacular mega-events, such as the ill-fated jump over Snake River Canyon, less ambitious motorcycle leaps over a few cars were enchanting the regular thrill show crowds.

Regardless of whether a stuntman was driving on four wheels or two, there was one sacred principle about the level of risk involved. Unlike Knievel, who had several months of hospital time to recuperate between events, the thrill show guys had to repeat their stunts night after night. But before new live audiences, the repetition was far from boring.

Hell Drivers smashed through tunnels of fire – and barreled through walls of ice.

Animal rights activists be damned, they also jumped cars and pick-up trucks over circus elephants — with the elephant’s trainer assuming a much higher risk of getting smushed.

In their heyday, Hell Drivers were sex symbols, the closest small town folks would ever get to seeing a movie star. Joie Chitwood, Sr. doubled for heartthrob Clark Gable in the 1950s movie, “To Please a Lady,” the first film to use complex automobile stunts. Several thrill show-influenced James Bond movies would later follow.

Automobile manufacturers used to fight with each other for the sponsorship rights to Hell Driving shows. Nash Motors signed a long-term deal with Lucky Lee Lott. Ford and later, Chevrolet chose the Chitwoods to represent their brands. Plymouth had the Hurricane Hell Drivers. And Ford also advertised with the Aut Swenson Thrillcade (the elephant guys) and the Rotroff All-Girl Auto Thrill Show.

Today, the lucrative sponsorships are all gone. The money dried up as Hollywood special effects made old-school style stunts appear less impressive – and cable TV specials seemed to feature more dangerous acts 24/7. Demolition derbies, which are much cheaper to produce than a thrill show, have since taken over as the premiere event at county fairs.

These economic realities have made it extremely tough for the thrill show to thrive, but luckily the tradition is not dead. Crash’s cross-country seatbelt survival tour is captured in the new independent documentary, “Hell Drivers: America’s Original Crash Test Dummies.”

“Monster trucks have come in, demo derbies, extreme bike riders. They’ve all taken over a piece of the pie,” Moreau admits. “But as long as you’re doing the stunts that people see on TV, there are still many people who want to see a live stunt show.”

The Maine Maniac pays tribute to the thrill shows of old with his divebomber act, which involves driving a car off a ramp directly into a pile of junk cars. The hood of the airborne car usually sticks into the windshield of a junk car like an arrow.

He has also attracted a cult following for his Steel Wall stunt, which involves racing a car into vertically propped-up vehicles balanced on their front bumpers. The magnificent chain reaction crash looks like a motorhead’s fantasy game of dominoes.

Realizing the fickleness of young crowds raised on video games, Crash is adding a new car trick to his repertoire in 2008. It’s called the Kamikaze Death Drop, and like it is branded, it seems to be a suicidal.

At county fairs in Delaware, Maine and Pennsylvania, Crash plans to be strapped inside a car dangling from the top of a crane – and then released into a frightening free fall into a pile of junk cars. He’s still booking this act for future dates this summer and fall, so he’s probably lined up a decent chiropractor!

The 59-year-old Crash undoubtedly lumbers on with his career for deep personal reasons – the roar of the crowd, the thrill of life on the road – but each time he performs, he honors the memory of the original Hell Drivers. To the countless millions of kids who grew up looking forward to the county fair every year, auto thrill show stars were superhuman.

They kept our childhood sense of wonder alive for a little longer. And let us vicariously live on the edge that (fortunately) few of us dare to experience. For a small and gutsy group of automobile lovers, almost dying is the only way to live.

Darren Garnick is the producer of “Hell Drivers: America’s Original Crash Test Dummies,” which premieres on June 13 at the New Jersey International Film Festival. To be advised of upcoming screenings, send an email to


Filed under Hell Drivers, Lost Causes, Travel Gems