The Truth About Travel
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
The holiday is over. We hope most of you survived the biggest travel weekend of the year with your sanity intact. On Thanksgiving, most of us follow familiar routes, over the river and through the woods. But one of the attractions of travel is that even the trip to Grandmother's house can be unpredictable. You never know about unexpected detours and the misadventures that may ensue. Lonely Planet editor Don George has put together a collection of funny stories by famous and not-so-famous travelers in a new anthology called "By the Seat of My Pants," stories that celebrate the single most important item to pack along with your passport: your sense of humor.
Later in the program, your letters, and a congressman resigns his job after pleading guilty to accepting bribes.
But first, we'd like you to share your funny and funny-in-retrospect stories from the road, whether that's from a safari-gone-wild or a misbegotten adventure to the wilds of Brooklyn. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don George, the global travel editor for Lonely Planet Publications, joins us now from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco.
And thanks so much for being with us today.
Mr. DON GEORGE (Editor, Lonely Planet): Hello, Neal. It's great to be here.
CONAN: Nice to have you back on the program. This is a different set of stories. We've had you on the program before to discuss a series of--a collection that was called "The Kindness of Strangers." This is more about the funnier side of travel. And you could begin by explaining to us the culinary chaos principle.
Mr. GEORGE: Well, that was my contribution to this collection. And I think that stories of funny meals or mysterious meals on the road is a prime category in the misadventure travel--whole range. My story takes place in Naples. My wife and I got off a cruise ship in Naples and we were trying to find a nice out-of-the-way local place, and we found one where everyone seemed to be. It was a small, intimate place. Everyone was extremely happy. The chef-owner seemed to have everything under control. The food was all being out in the open, being prepared in the back by his wife, we assumed, and his daughter was taking care of the tables. And so we thought this is perfect. We'll sit down here. We can't miss. Nothing could go wrong.
Well, he presented us the menu. We hardly understood anything on the menu. An Italian restaurant, and still we didn't understand anything on the menu.
CONAN: Even pizza wasn't there probably.
Mr. GEORGE: Even pizza wasn't there. But we could see the pasta and the mozzarella and the basil and the tomatoes all out in the open being cooked. And we thought, oh, this is going to be spectacular. So we bravely pointed to the same dish on the menu and waited with great anticipation for it to arrive.
While we were waiting, the diners around us were being served these heaping, savory strands of pasta and wonderful sauces and herbs redolent. And we thought, oh, boy, this is going to be meal of our lives. And finally the owner emerged from a special room in the back of the restaurant and sort of theatrically walks through the crowd, subtly showing off the two dishes he had in his hand, and he placed them before us with a decided flourish of pride and triumph. And we looked at them and went, `Oh, no.' And on the plates were the biggest octopuses I'd ever seen in my life.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GEORGE: There was a little tiny mound of pasta. And I'm not a fan of octopus.
CONAN: Not a scungilli fan.
Mr. GEORGE: No, no. I eat about five pieces of octopus in a year, and there was about a decade's worth of octopus on the plate in front of me.
CONAN: But the guy has gone to all this work. I mean, you can't possibly send it back.
Mr. GEORGE: Exactly. You cannot send it back. And that's the culinary chaos principle. You need to just tuck into it and enjoy it. So we did. We gamely cut little slices of it and we ate all the bread on the table and got some more bread, and we ate all the pasta on our plates and finished a little bit of the octopus and then waved him over. We waved the white napkin of surrender and said to the owner what a delicious meal it had been and how wonderful the restaurant was and how we were just full up to here and couldn't eat another bite. And he embraced us as we left and he said whenever we should come back to Naples we should be sure to visit this home away from home. And so we left the restaurant with our stomachs not sated at all, but our hearts were full.
CONAN: Well, send me the name of that. I love octopus. So...
Mr. GEORGE: OK. I wish you'd been there with me.
CONAN: It would've been a treat. But those kinds of--you know, the unexpected is what--you know, if it was expected, we wouldn't bother to go to Naples.
Mr. GEORGE: Exactly. And that's really the theme of the whole book. As you said, in my introduction I say my number-one rule of the road is this: If you don't pack your sense of humor with your sunscreen, sooner or later you'll get burned.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GEORGE: You just need to have your sense of humor ready because life will throw us these unexpected detours and derailments, and we can either be derailed by them or we can flow with them and discover something entirely new and wonderful.
CONAN: Interesting to me was that you solicited these stories, not just from famous travelers--and a couple of them will be joining us, Simon Winchester and Michelle Richmond--but from people who go to your Web site.
Mr. GEORGE: Well, exactly. When we came up with the idea for the book, I went to some of my writer friends that I've worked with for years and years and asked them to contribute stories. But we also posted an announcement of the theme of the book on our Web site, opening it up to the wide world of travelers. And of course lots of Lonely Planet travelers have lots of misadventures on the road and have great stories to tell, and they went to LonelyPlanet.com and filed their stories of their own misadventures. And we received hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of stories from people. And I had the joyful privilege of going through all of these stories and choosing the best of those to fit into the book alongside the works of great best-selling authors like Simon Winchester and Pico Iyer and Jan Morris. So it was a wonderful marriage of tales from the whole range of travelers, people who are well-known writers and people who'd never published anything before.
CONAN: We of course have our own way of soliciting such stories. It's our phone number, (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com. You can also send us e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let's go to Nader(ph). Nader's calling us from Flat Rock in Michigan.
RIBET(ph) (Caller): Yeah. I am Ribet from Flat Rock, Michigan.
RIBET: Hi. I have a very funny story. And by the way, I love the Lonely Planet series. I love them. They're great travel guides, you know.
Mr. GEORGE: Thank you.
RIBET: Yes. And, OK, I was traveling, you know, in Egypt and I was in southern Egypt near Luxor. And I was with a group of friends. You know, we separate into two groups. They wanted to continue farther south and I wanted to go back to Cairo, you know, traveling by rail, you know, between--it's a very efficient system to travel by rail there. And so I had nothing with me, like, at that point. Like, I lost all my documents, paperwork, money, everything on...
CONAN: Oh, no.
RIBET: We're with the other group of friends and, you know, no way to communicate with them. So I have to get back to Cairo to regroup and everything. And so I had to rely on the generosity of, like, the train operator or whoever, like, you know, boards people on the train. And, you know, and Egypt's like--on a lot of the carts there's animals intermingled with the humans, you know? They carry, like, chickens and roosters and goats and such on the train. Basically, I was put into a corner where I guess the animals were congregating. And it was, like, many hours of journey, you know, like, on this train, a very rough, hot ride, you know. And basically, I kid you not, by the time the ride was over, like, my arms were all pecked, like, I got two puncture marks by a goat horn. Like, it tried to ram me a few times, you know? And--but it was--I still appreciate the generosity of getting a free ride from Luxor to Cairo. But, like, the chick--like, they were, like, attacking me the whole time in the corner, you know. And I don't know. Like, it was strange. The generosity, I guess, repaid by, like, animals trying to commit bestiality or horning me or something.
CONAN: At least they saw you as competition there.
RIBET: Yeah. They were probably thinking, who is this human intermingling with us, you know? Like, I don't know, but it was strange. But it was, like, the generosity of the people, you know, I got that ride and everything and--but it was just a odd experience, you know, like the human and animal intermingling factor and everything. It was an oddity.
CONAN: And, Don George, a lot of the stories in your book are like Nader's, things that are funny in retrospect.
RIBET: Yeah, Ribet.
Mr. GEORGE: Yeah.
Mr. GEORGE: Pretty much all of these stories, I think, are funnier in retrospect than at the time. But that reminds me of a story that's set in Tibet where a man is bicycling across Tibet and he's gotten tired of giving away his pens. He's down to his last pen and every time he meets somebody in Tibet, the first thing they say is, `Give me pen, give me pen.' So he decides to teach to the last person he meets a lesson, and this happened to be a shepherd way out on the vast plains of Tibet. And the shepherd immediately says when he sees him, `Give me pen.' And he says, `Well, all right, I'll tell you, I'll trade my pen'--he does this through sign language--`I'll trade my pen for one of your lambs. And the shepherd reflects on this for a moment and then he says, `OK, fine. That's fine.' So he takes the pen and this poor man who's bicycling across Tibet goes out and picks out a lamb. And then he's faced with the difficult challenge of what to do with a lamb when you're bicycling across Tibet.
CONAN: That's funny. Back in the real old days in Moscow, you used to be able to pay for cab rides with BBC pens. But anyway...
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: More precious than even hard currency.
Mr. GEORGE: That's right.
CONAN: Nader, thanks very much for the call. Better luck on your next trip.
And let's see if we can get a story from Gary. Gary's calling us from San Jose.
GARY (Caller): Hello, gentlemen. I've got an interesting anecdote from a business trip. I had traveled from San Jose up to Renton, Washington, calling on Boeing a few years back in my career. And I got in about 10:00 at night and needed to get to a specific hotel at a specific place out in the boondocks, not knowing where I was going. So at the rental car counter, they took the map and they modeled a drawing of the off-ramp, because she said it was very confusing, in the only spot on the map where there was virtually nothing, so she had a place to draw. So I grabbed this map and I drove off into the night. About an hour and a half later, thoroughly lost and looking at the map, saying, `Where did she tell me to go?' At that point, I realized she was just drawing on the empty spot on a map, and that's not where I was supposed to go. I had driven 50 miles to an empty spot on a map because she was drawing on a nice, vacant spot for me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And it turned out to be nice and vacant.
GARY: Yeah, it certainly did. But I figured it out in about an hour. About 1:00 in the morning, I finally got to my hotel room. Thank you. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Gary.
Here's an e-mail we got from Claire in San Antonio. `On a family vacation ages ago, we stopped in a little cafe in Santa Fe. The waiter asked my father if he'd like a cocktail. Dad asked for a Gibson. The waiter looked perplexed, but didn't say anything. I could see the waiter go back and consult with the bartender, who consulted a book and sent back the waiter, who asked, `Please, what's a Gibson?' My father explained, `It's like a martini, only with an onion.' The waiter came back with a water glass filled with the martini and a big slice of red onion. Dad swore it tasted pretty good.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: If you'd like to regale us with your stories and misadventures on the road, things that are funny at least now, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is email@example.com.
When we come back, best-selling author Simon Winchester will join us with the tale of an overflowing bathtub and a posh London hotel.
I'm Neal Conan. Back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
"By the Seat of My Pants" is a collection of short stories about the unexpected adventures that can make vacations or business trips especially memorable. Don George of Lonely Planet edited the book and he joins us today. Also with us now is best-selling author and contributor Simon Winchester. He's the author most recently of "A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906." And his contribution to this travel anthology is called "The Most Perfect Hotel in the World." Simon Winchester joins us from our bureau in New York. Simon braving a deathbed to come out and talk with us today.
Simon, good to speak with you again.
Mr. SIMON WINCHESTER (Author): Well, it's nice of you to lure me up here. Anything to speak to Don and you, I promise.
CONAN: The most perfect hotel in the world is of course, as anybody who's read much about you, Simon, would know, the Connaught in London.
Mr. WINCHESTER: The Connaught. Well, you may know that the Connaught and the Savoy and Claridge's, which are the three greatest in London, have uniquely--when you go and take a bath there, instead of the water cascading from the sort of near the top of the bath, which normally happens, the actual water inlet is very low down near the drain plug. And the corollary to this, when you turn on the taps, is that the water covers its rising--the noise that's made by its rising, very, very quickly. And so the bath fills extremely rapidly but, crucially, silently. And so there are little cards which say to the guests, `Guests are respectfully reminded that the baths in this hotel fill quickly and silently, so you're advised not to go into the other room and make a telephone call or do something else, but just stay by the bath, because otherwise it could flood.'
So a friend of mine, a distinguished author, his agent was staying in London--never been to the Connaught--switched on the bath taps, went into the sitting room to make some phone calls, completely ignoring this entreaty. And sure enough, the bath water went up and up and up and up without him knowing. Well, he chatted on for about 15 minutes and there was a tap on the door. And he opened it in some irritation to find a damp, rather fragrant bartender from below saying, `I'm afraid, sir, there seems to be some accident. Water is cascading through the ceiling of the bar.' And he said, `Oh, my God, I'd forgotten completely, the bath, I've left it running!' And he went in, and sure enough his shoes and everything were floating around in the bathroom. Complete disaster. So the hotel was very apologetic and said, `Anything we can do?' And they said, `No, no, it's all our fault, we'll pay for the damage.'
Later on in the evening, they went down to the bar to have a drink and found to their horror an area of the bar roped off with velvet ropes and, you know, stanchions and things and an aspidistra and a clearly damaged ceiling. So they were mortified and embarrassed and didn't want to mention it to anyone, except that they did mention it over dinner that night to my friend, the great author, who said, `I shall write a short story about this.' And he did. When they left to go back to New York two or three days later, he pressed an envelope into their hands. And they read this on the way back to New York.
A young Brahmin from Boston had just gotten married in Boston and was taking his new wife to stay in what she said was the finest hotel in the world, the Connaught. So they flew across the Atlantic, were met by a Daimler, the Connaught chauffeur. Took them to this great hotel. They went to a fourth-floor room. They showered, they changed, and he said, `Darling, what I want to give you more than anything is a martini served in the corner seat in the bar in the Connaught. It's the best martini and the best bar and the best hotel in the world.' And so she acquiesced and went downstairs. The bar was impeccable, the bartenders looking beautiful. There was napery and nuts and all the rest of it. They sat in the corner, they ordered two martinis, and in due course they came and they looked perfect, you know. The glasses were impeccable, the zest of lemon floating on the top of the gin. And he raised his glass to eye level and looked directly into the eyes of his young bride and said, `Darling, I love you, and with this drink I want to welcome you to years of marriage which I know will be happy. I'm doing this for the most wonderful girl in the world in what I know is the most perfect hotel in the world.' And he clinked his glass against hers, took a sip of it, pushed it away slightly, still holding it at arm's length, and said, `Almost perfect, but just a tiny bit too cold.' And as he did that, a drop of warm, fragrant water dropped from the ceiling into his martini. He put it back into his mouth and said, `There, darling, I told you this was the best hotel in the world.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Simon Winchester from our bureau in New York.
Simon, the story is--it's not only very funny, it's very telling.
There's another story, Don, I wanted to mention that's in your book. This is about shopping for the best boots in all of Texas. This is--a Texas girl brings her beau, a software engineer from California, to shop for boots at this very fancy store in Austin, Texas.
Mr. GEORGE: Exactly. And I think this software engineer is a wanna-be cowboy and spends endless hours trying on one boot after another after another, absolutely trying the patience of both his girlfriend and the very kind salesperson who's waiting on him. And he ends up trying every single style in the store, I think, and is simply trying to try on his cowboy persona, essentially, is what he's doing. The software engineer disappears, the cowboy comes out, but he ends up actually never getting a pair of boots, I think. And it's just that he wanted to try it on as you try on a cloak somewhere and change your disguise, change your identity.
CONAN: He really wanted to buy some authenticity is what he wanted.
Mr. GEORGE: He wanted to buy authenticity, exactly. And nothing quite is what in his software engineer's brain he thought of as the authentic Texas boot.
CONAN: And he leaves this frustrated salesgirl who's shown him every boot in his size in a very large store, and then finally enough with you and he's about to leave, and that's the punch line. `Hey, little lady, aren't you going to show this cowboy some Stetsons?'
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GEORGE: Exactly. Right, there's another day's worth of looking there, I think.
CONAN: All right. Here's an e-mail that we got from Emily in Iowa City. `On my first trip to Africa, my group and I got into Senegal four hours late. We then got on a bus to go to Banjul. When we arrived at the Gambian River at a little town called Barra, we were almost seven hours late for the last crossing. So we had a choice to make: We could all get into canoes and paddle across the river--the crocodile is the mascot of Gambia--or we could stay at separate residences or we could stay at the Barra Hotel. This was the first and last night I stayed in the Barra Hotel. As we soon found out, it was indeed a brothel. There was no other experience like that in all of my time in Gambia. In fact, I was told that this is the only brothel in all of Gambia. But I did decide to keep that story from my parents until I got safely home.'
Let's get another caller on the line. This is Jessica. Jessica calling us from San Antonio.
JESSICA (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.
JESSICA: Hi. OK, here is my nightmare story that's funny in retrospect. I was living in New York and I had to fly out to Portland, Oregon for a job interview. And I flew after work that day. I didn't feel like wearing my suit that I'd been wearing at work, so I had thrown my suit into my luggage and was traveling in jeans. And I arrived out in Portland after, you know, leaving New York around 5 PM. And it was the last flight into Portland and my luggage wasn't there. And so I asked where--they had found my luggage. It was in Salt Lake City. They couldn't get it in that night because I had flown in on the last flight. And the next flight in that could get my luggage to me was 10 AM, but my job interview was at 9 AM. So I was crying all the way to my hotel in the cab, thinking, `Why have I bothered doing this? This is my nightmare.' I was taken into my hotel crying and the nice, nice woman at the hotel reception asked me what was wrong, and I told her. And she just looked at me and said, `Well, why don't you just borrow one of our, you know, desk clerk suits?' And I looked...
(Soundbite of laughter)
JESSICA: It was very nice! You know, it was kind of--you know, if you didn't notice the fabric, it was gray and fashionable. And so then I sort of started crying again because I'm a larger-sized woman. I was, like, `You're not going to have any in my size.' And she said, `No, no, no, we do, we do.' So she gave me a suit. And then I was, like, `Well, what am I going to do with shoes?' I was wearing tennis shoes. And she had been talking with this other woman who was there who turned to me and said, `Well, I'm the maitre d' at the restaurant. What size do you wear?' And I wore a size 8. And she had a size 8 shoe, black shoes to go with the suit. So I went upstairs and it was great and--except the jacket, 'cause I'm a short woman, was a little long. So I rolled the sleeves under, so it wasn't too long. And I went to my job--this would be the next morning--and I extend my right arm to shake the hand of the woman who's interviewing me. And down comes the sleeve, right over my hand onto hers.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JESSICA: And I just looked--my face, I'm sure, turned beet-red. And...
CONAN: Should we deduce anything by the fact that you're not calling us from Portland?
JESSICA: I accepted another job, yes. But actually the job interview went really well. It turned out to be a--she told me a story about the first time she had visited her in-laws and something similar had happened. I didn't tell her the whole story, but--you know, the crying part and all.
CONAN: Simon Winchester, let me ask you. This collection in an odd way seems very reminiscent in lots of respects, as Jessica's talking about, of the previous collection, "The Kindness of Strangers." These two things seem to go together.
Mr. WINCHESTER: They certainly do. And actually listening to you talking, I was--only yesterday I was coming back from a restaurant in the Upper East Side, back to where I live in Chelsea in New York, talking to the taxi driver, discovered he was from Bangladesh, and told him I had recently been in Sylhet, and he said, `Oh, sahib, I come from Sylhet.' He gave me the whole $15 taxi ride for nothing. I am constantly amazed by the kindness of strangers. I know that's harking back to a book that Don edited two years ago, but these stories, you're absolutely right, reflect mishaps that are invariably overcome by people just being thoroughly decent. And with the sense of humor and the decency of humankind out there, travel can be a breeze.
CONAN: Jessica, thanks very much for the call.
JESSICA: Thank you.
CONAN: Michelle Richmond is a writer who lives in San Francisco and edits an online literary journal called Fiction Attic. And she's contributed a story to the collection called "Blackout in Ushuaia." And she joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. I think she's there with Don George.
Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. MICHELLE RICHMOND (Editor, Fiction Attic): Thank you.
CONAN: Now you and your husband have a knack of going to the right places at the wrong time.
Ms. RICHMOND: Yes, exactly.
CONAN: And what happened down there on the tip of Argentina, the capital of Tierra del Fuego?
Ms. RICHMOND: Well, we visited Ushuaia in August, which is the dead of winter. Ushuaia is the southernmost town of the world and so it's pretty bleak in August. It was the end of the ski season and the town had pretty much shut down. There weren't many tourists there anymore. So a lot of the restaurants were closed and the ski slopes were sort of dead. The snow was all black and slushy. And so we had already availed ourselves of the two activities in the town, which were the prison museum and this little Disneyesque train called the Train at the End of the World where you travel through some scrub brush and you hear narration about how good the prisoners had it in Ushuaia a century ago.
So we spent our last night in Ushuaia at the Hotel Tolkeyen, which is on the edge of the Beagle Channel. And my husband and I had gone out for a little romantic stroll along the beach. It's a very rocky beach and it was really bleak and windy and cold. And we were talking about how just, unlike all unhappy families who are unhappy in their own special ways, all bleak coastal towns are bleak pretty much in the same way, because Ushuaia reminded us a lot of John o' Groats, Scotland, in January and Crescent City, California, in December and a little Icelandic fishing village also in the dead of winter. So we deduced our next vacation was going to be the Caribbean or somewhere.
So we're chatting about this and suddenly it becomes very dark and we look off in the distance toward the city center, which is about a 15-minute drive away, and realize that it's completely pitch-black. We look toward our hotel, which is also completely dark, and the only illumination are the twin headlamps of a car coming down the drive. So we pick our way along the beach, back to the hotel, and the lobby, which was completely deserted just an hour before is jumping and there's a lot of jovial activity and chaos, and the concierge gives us a couple of tiny little white candles in tinfoil to take back to our room, which happens to be the room closest to the lobby. And I should note that this concierge, when we checked into the hotel, upon discovery that we were from California said, `Oh, Hollywood, your movies are very big, but they are not very interesting.'
So we go back to our room and, you know, we can't read and we can't watch television and we can't go to the restaurant because it's closed, so we resort to the activity that couples tend to resort to, a rather primitive pastime that couples tend to resort to when all other options have been eliminated. And I won't go into any detail except to say that the background noise of the chaos in the hallway was kind of pleasant background noise and we're very close to the best part of our story when I heard a noise that seems to be a little bit closer than it should be. And my back is to the door, and I turn around and I see that we're not alone, and not only are we not alone, but there is an entire family joining us, and the family's coming into our room in the dark and they have all this luggage and there's a bunch of them and they're not really paying attention, so by the time the mother gasps (demonstrates), they're all lined up single file behind the bed. So there's the dad, a teen-age son, two small children and the mother. And for a moment we all just sit there in stunned silence and then one of the small children, who's wearing a funny hat, points at us and says something very rapidly in Spanish, which I don't understand, at which point the mother grabs her wits about her, grabs the two smallest children, drags them out the door. Meanwhile, the father and son are just sort of standing there as if they expect us to invite them to sit down for a cup of latte or something. The father says very matter-of-factly in perfect English, `Oh, you must be the couple from California.'
And my husband, Kevin, who's rarely surprised by anything, says, `Oh, yes, we are,' and meanwhile, the teen-age son is sort of inching his way around the bed as if he wants to get a better look at things. And the father says, `Well, enjoy your vacation,' and he sort of shoves the son and out they go out the door. And you know, there's a window of opportunity for any romantic interlude, and by that point, our window of opportunity had completely closed. But I guess the moral of this story is not to count on automatic door locks in your hotel, 'cause you might find yourselves in embarrassing situations.
CONAN: Or another moral is they make all kinds of movies in Hollywood.
Anyway, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And, Simon Winchester, getting back to our theme, Ushuaia, not a place unknownst to you.
Mr. WINCHESTER: I was wondering if someone might bring that up, yes. Yes, I spent three extraordinary months in Ushuaia. I was arrested there for spying and I spent three months in prison, and oddly enough there is a vaguely erotic aspect to one part of the story. Locked up for three months, one does tend to yearn for the kind of activity that you and your husband were engaged in, and after about two months that became painfully evident to the prison governor, who one night unlocked my cell and said, `I've got something to show you,' and he took me into the women's wing and opened up a door, and there was a newly arrested lady of the evening who'd been involved in a fight in a bar. And she had this sort of microscopic skirt and very little else on, and he had me look at her for about 30 seconds, and then he pulled me out of the cell. He said, `Now back to your cell and enjoy your dreams tonight.'
Mr. GEORGE: Oh, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WINCHESTER: I think I would rather have come to your room, I think, Michelle.
Mr. GEORGE: Isn't...
CONAN: I was wondering if that was one of the exhibits in the prison museum there.
Mr. WINCHESTER: It should have been, yes.
CONAN: Michelle Richmond, thank you so much for being with us.
Ms. RICHMOND: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Michelle Richmond is a writer who lives in San Francisco, edits an online literary journal called "Fiction Attic."
And, Simon Winchester, we will allow you to go back to your Sudafed and your warm bed. Thank you so much for being with us.
Mr. WINCHESTER: Thank you very much indeed, both of you, all of you.
CONAN: Simon Winchester's most recent book is called "A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. Don George, you stay right there at KQED. WE're going to take a couple more calls about misadventures on the road a we discuss his collection called "By the Seat of My Pants." When we come back from a break, we're also going to be discussing a guilty plea entered today by Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who was a war hero in Vietnam and said he has now known shame in his life. He announced plans to resign from Congress. Also your letters.
I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. The trial of Saddam Hussein resumed today in Baghdad with videotaped testimony from a single witness. Then following a series of complaints from defense attorneys the presiding judge recessed the trial for another week. And pharmaceutical company Merck has announced plans to cut 7,000 jobs and close five plants over the next couple of years. The company is facing the upcoming expirations of patents on its best-seller Zocor and lawsuits over another of its drugs, Vioxx. You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.
Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, the Vatican issues its much anticipated decree tightening rules to exclude gay priests. We'll examine the impact on the church in the United States. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION. Right now we're talking about the joys and perils of travel. Still with us is Don George of Lonely Planet, who's the editor of the book "By the Seat of my Pants," a collection of travel stories. And we're asking you if you'd like to contribute: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Or e-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And Jim. Jim is calling us from Grand Haven in Michigan.
JIM (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.
JIM: Yes. My story is actually second-hand but it's still a fabulous story in retrospect, of course. My wife's aunt and uncle had bought a brand-new RV, one of those huge ones, like an Avalanche or something, and bought it specifically for going out to Yellowstone one year. And when they got out there, they decided to go on a day trip, a little hike. When they got back, they found that their parking brake had failed and the whole camper with everything that they owned in it had rolled over the edge of a cliff.
CONAN: Oh, my...
Mr. GEORGE: Oh.
JIM: It actually caught on a ledge down the cliff, but it was so far down and so far up that the park had to completely shut down in order to call in a crane that was big enough to get the RV out--to get the camper out of this ravine off of this cliff. It's only about the second time in the entire park's history that it had been closed. I think the last time it was closed was for Teddy Roosevelt.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Who presumably was traveling a little lighter.
JIM: Yeah, I think so.
CONAN: Was it still usable afterwards?
JIM: No. But they were able to salvage some of their stuff out, but it took several days for this crane to get there and get the RV out. And meanwhile, the people of the towns around Yellowstone helped them out and to get them some things to live on until they got their stuff back.
CONAN: Well, again, it's the kindness of strangers.
CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for that.
JIM. No problem.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got--this from Shanda in Ann Arbor, Michigan. `About 10 years ago, we spent winter holidays in Mexico. We met another couple who'd rented a car. They invited us to adventure with them on New Year's Day. Our destination was a secluded beach some 20 miles away recommended by a friend. As we got closer, vehicle traffic picked up. VW Beetles, pickup trucks, even dump trucks were piled with Mexican families all headed to the very same beach we were going to. We shared the beach that day with thousands of Mexicans celebrating their one day off per year. We were the only North Americans on the beach. The people were warm and welcoming, shouting Happy New Year, which we returned eagerly with `Feliz Ano Nuevo.' This was a very memorable day, gave us an amazing taste of being the minority yet a welcomed one, and we've tried to return the same kind of welcome to those we came upon who are minorities in our land.'
And, Don George, again, these stories just illustrate the idea that if you're going to travel, expect something to go wrong.
Mr. GEORGE: Absolutely. Expect something to go wrong, and roll with it and see where it ends up taking you, because you'll often end up discovering something wonderful: either a human connection or a lesson about your own ability to be resilient and to deal with disaster. And that's one more reason why travel is so very wonderful and energizing and enchanting and it's all about that sense of humor, and as you've been pointing out, Neal, it's also all about the kindness, and the fact that these misadventures often call forth kindness in people and these wonderful, unforgettable human bonds are created that way.
CONAN: Now you're in an aspect of the travel business. I do have to ask you, aren't you a little bit worried about putting out this collection of all the things that can possibly go wrong?
Mr. GEORGE: Well, it's actually fun to be able to dwell on that a little bit because all of the stories do end up having happy endings of one kind or another. There's actually one very wonderful fairy tale story in the book that I would like to mention because it's...
Mr. GEORGE: ...a woman who's riding in a train between Vienna and Geneva, and she's sharing her train compartment with a gentleman, an older gentleman very well-dressed. And they strike up a conversation and she tells him about--she's a teacher and they talk about agriculture and different theories of education. And near the end of their conversation, he hands her his card. And she's looking at it kind of puzzled. It says something von Liechtenstein, and he says, `Well, yes, actually I'm the crown prince of Liechtenstein,' and she begins to say, `Yeah, and my mother's Queen Elizabeth II'...
Mr. GEORGE: ...but she stops and he looks at her and he sees her look and he says, `No, really, I am the crown prince of Liechtenstein,' and so she thinks, `Oh, I've just met the crown prince of Liechtenstein.' Years later when she's going back to Europe, she writes to him; she gets the gumption to write to him. And he says, `Give me a call,' so she calls him when she's in London and he actually says, `Come and visit me,' and so she goes to Liechtenstein and she ends up going up to the castle and being taken in, basically a Cinderella story from a chance meeting on a train between Vienna and Geneva and in many ways this has transformed her life. It's a wonderful little fairy tale about meeting a true prince.
CONAN: You'll find that story and many others in "By the Seat of My Pants: Humorous Tales of Travel and Misadventure," edited by our guest Don George of Lonely Planet, who joined us today from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco. Don, thanks as always.
Mr. GEORGE: Thank you, Neal. It's great to talk with you again.
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