Every experienced traveller has stories of places or experiences that left them feeling strangely unsettled. Memories like these provide an illuminating counterpoint to the pure pleasures of many travel experiences. Here are my five personal travel recollections that return frequently, always accompanied by a shiver.
- The Riverside Hotel, Clarksdale, Mississippi
“Y’all will wanna stay in the room where Bessie died,” was the greeting from the octogenarian proprietor Mrs. Hill as we entered the modest building that was once an African-American hospital in the Mississippi Delta. It was here that the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith, died after a car accident in 1937. A story that Smith died at this hospital after being turned away from a ‘white’ hospital was later debunked, but our experience in Clarksdale that day in the late 80s suggested that the wounds of slavery were still raw. After closing the extra-wide door to our roach-killer scented room (and former hospital operating room), there was little sleep to be had.
- Cebu, Philippines
For some misguided reason, a press trip to an island known for its tropical beaches featured a stay at a crumbling colonial hotel in an industrial city of one million. In the bedraggled gardens of the courtyard was a large metal cage, where a bewildered tiger paced relentlessly, clumps of missing fur marking where he had rubbed against the bars untold thousands of times. A sign on the cage said it all: “Caution,” it read: “Tiger is tamed but unfriendly.”
- Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Raging winds, pounding surf, ragged cliffs and stark Iron Age ruins make for a forbidding combination, especially when you’re the only tourists in sight. The extremes seemed to impact the inhabitants too – in a wholly unscientific sample during our brief visit the people we met seemed either stone-drunk or fire-and-fury religious. Grisly crucifixes lined every wall of our B&B room. In search of a meal, we walked through a bar where a dozen male faces followed our every step, but made no eye contact or acknowledgement. We sat down in a small dining room, where a toothless crone greeted us with two words: “Celery soup.” We nodded yes. Her next speech was much more eloquent: “Roast lamb, curry chicken, omelette.” She closed off the evening with two more words: “Peach melba.” After quickly paying a surprisingly large bill we fled back to the B&B, closed our eyes to block out the multiple bleeding Saviours, skipped breakfast and caught the first ferry out.
- Yad Vashem, Israel
The emotional impact of Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust is difficult to overstate. The Moshe Safdie-designed Children’s Holocaust Memorial is designed to be a place of reflection after experiencing the main museum. Carved into bedrock, the space is lit by a single candle, endlessly multiplied by reflective panels and mirrors. In the background, soft recorded voices read the names of the 1.5 million children who perished. Spooky? No, not the right word. Soul-searing? Absolutely.
- Dakar, Senegal
A disappointing ‘African-American Heritage Tour’ of Senegal and The Gambia featured lowlights like a group of tourists bargaining with highly-skilled craft vendors for near giveaway prices and a visit to a ‘traditional’ village where elders passed around a torn TV Guide cover featuring Levar Burton as Kunta Kinte. On our return to Dakar we were warned to stay in our hotel rooms as the verdict was about to come down on the O.J. Simpson trial, and if he was found guilty we may not be safe as white tourists on the streets. It was a truly surreal end to a strange and troubling trip.
Photo credits: Lawrence Solum, wikiwak.com, sethbook – panoramio.com