Me, I’m Not Big On Vacations
Who can handle all that planning, flying and relaxing?
“Let’s take a trip,” my wife says one cold night under the warm duvet.
Uh oh, I think. Here we go.
“It’s not my idea,” she says. “Rosie and Michael are going to Turks and Caicos and they invited us along.”
“That’s nice,” I say.
“Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“We have to fly halfway round the world to have some fun?”
“It’s not halfway round the world and this has been a brutal winter. You know me — I need something to look forward to.”
“Taxes are due soon.”
“Turks and Caicos is 80 degrees and sunny 350 days a year.”
“Sounds like melanoma.”
“Tell me you don’t have cabin fever.”
“I’d rather have cabin fever at sea level than at 35,000 feet.”
“Come on, one flight, three hours. We’ll leave in the morning and we’ll be there for a lobster lunch.”
“This winter? You kidding? I bet we spend at least one night in the airport and a day on the tarmac.”
“If I make the plans, you’ll make the trip, right?”
“That’s our agreement, dear, for better or worse.”
“Good. I’ll get busy.”
“One thing: what the hell is Turks and Caicos?”
Every year, come hell or high snowbanks, I turn over two weeks of my life to my wife, and she invariably picks a distant place with art, animals, and an ocean. She likes to get away from people, far, far away. She’s a therapist. I understand. I have but two minor stipulations: 1) we take one, direct, non-stop, non-turbulent flight that departs JFK on a clear day, right on time, and has a feathery smooth landing; and 2) she never uses the word vacation.
Me, I have never done anything in my life that warranted or deserved a vacation. A modest celebration perhaps, a few rum and Cokes, and then back to work. Work is my vacation from no work, no work being the hardest work of all, a lesson learned when working, and not working, at the U.S. post office. Travel is a different matter, challenging and fulfilling. Vacations? The only time I’ve ever heard myself say, “Boy, I need a vacation” was upon returning from a vacation.
Wanderlust runs through my wife’s veins. From both sides. Her father was raised in Samoa and sailed around the world in tramp steamers. Her mother’s father sat next to Amelia Earhart on the maiden commercial transcontinental flight. The pilot was a friend, Charles Lindbergh. I’ve seen photographs of my wife’s brood on canals in Venice, on camels in Egypt, on beaches along the Indian Ocean. Currently hanging in our closet is a poncho made of llama wool that saved her life when she was very sick in the Andean Plateau above Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. She was 24.
My family, we thought driving to Chinatown on a Sunday afternoon was an exotic trek. If someone ordered Peking Duck, that was a walk on the moon. We didn’t ride horses and we didn’t climb mountains. We didn’t ski the Alps and we didn’t sail Newport. We waded into the warm waters of Atlantic City to clean off the sand before returning to the boarding house. And then we had to take showers any way, outside, before they let us back in. That’s the trouble with beaches, too sandy and too hot and too many jellyfish. I get rashes. So the notion of a vacation — lounging on a beach and then beaching yourself in a lounge — stimulates pique and vexation.
“Where’s your passport?” asks my wife one cold night, over some hot kosher organic Amish free range chicken soup with a dash of omebashi.
“Wherever you put it,” I say.
“I have to let Rosie and Michael know if we’re going.”
“I could make a more informed and perhaps binding decision if I had all the facts.”
“How much it’ll cost, what are the dates, who’s going to watch Isabella, little things like that. I have a life too, you know.”
“You mean you want me to do all the legwork and make all the arrangements and then you’ll decide if I’ve wasted all that time or not?”
“It does sound highly inequitable when you put it like that.”
“It is inequitable. Highly.”
“I bring so many other things to this marriage.”
“I cooked this dinner.”
“And I’ll clean it up.”
“I think there are more demands on a chef than a dishwasher.”
“Yes, well, I had to listen to pain and suffering all day long.”
“Sorry, I didn’t think I complained that much.”
“I wasn’t talking about you. My patients.”
My wife loves research and planning. She devours guidebooks, travelogues, memoirs and apposite novels; she studies the art history and anthropology of the target town; she learns the basics of another language just to spend two weeks in that other country; she enjoys swapping notes with friends and fellow travelers, comparing this hotel with that B&B, this restaurant to that Cuban parador, pitting Fodor’s against Frommers, Lonely Planet versus Trip Advisor.
Inoculations? Covered. Travel insurance? Done. I think she gets as much pleasure from the homework as the journey, and the former tends to fill all those spaces in the day and the brain that men — here comes trouble — fill with box scores and fantasy sports and other fantasies that might involve the removal of certain uniforms. For my wife, mapping out a trip is foreplay.
Me, I’m not a good planner. I have to make lists. And then I make lists of things to add to previous lists. I’m a multi-lister. And compulsive cross-checker. It takes a half day to complete an inventory of stuff I need to pack, and another half day to pick the right gear in which to stuff all that stuff.
Then there’s the shopping list: cat food (no poultry), prescription refills (Xanax), reading material (Tenth of December), AAA batteries for devices (personal), mosquito repellant (sans DDT), new bathing suit (one size larger), Sensodyne toothpaste (travel size), AC converter (step down), and tennis balls. (You’d be surprised how many tennis courts stock strictly pre-owned balls.)
The next list is sundry and random: alert the neighbors; cancel NY Times delivery; find a patient kitty-sitter; charge the chargers; hide key behind middle Buddha. There are notes to be written for folks staying in the house and/or stopping by for check-ups: where leaks may spring; how the remote works; where the rock salt is stored; how much detergent to use; what wines to open; when to feed Queen Isabella. Personal in nature, these are usually hand-written:
Open the dining room door first thing in the AM. Izzy may or may not go out, depending on the depth of the snow and her melancholia. Do not lock her out of the house, she is very old. Open a fresh can of cat food even if her vittles look edible — she will not eat left overs. Refresh her water bowl. If she makes a lot of noise, as if in excruciating pain, pay no mind; the vet says she is at the advanced stage in life where cats like to verbalize. His word, verbalize. Hope you don’t have to meet him. His name and number are on the Emergency List that is hanging on the refrigerator. Thanks for everything.
Along with the vet, the list of emergency number include doctor, dentist, brother, son, other son, electrician, plumber, neighbor, roofer, auto mechanic, locksmith, fire, police, pharmacy, garbage collector, sushi delivery, and suicide hotline.
“I just made the reservations,” says my wife one frostbitten evening while wrapping Christmas presents.
“On Turks or Caicos?”
“Wait. You changed the trip? What happened to Turks and Caicos?”
“There is no place called Turks.”
“There is no place called Caicos.”
“No, really,” I say, “Where are we going?”
“Turks and Caicos are two groups of islands in the Larger Antilles. Providenciales is one of the Caicos.”
“Is it Spanish or Italian?”
“Turks and Caicos is British.”
“Really? A grammar lesson? Now?”
“I thought the Queen set her people free years ago.”
“The Queen considered it, but decided Turks and Caicos was too corrupt.”
“It’s an off-shore financial haven.”
“Like the Cayman Islands?”
“Yes, but that’s all besides the point. Turks and Caicos has the third largest coral reef in the world and we have reservations in an adorable little French place with a dive shop right next door and a casino down the road that doesn’t require a sport jacket, and we’re going after Valentine’s Day when the prices are relaxed.”
“Okay, okay. I’m glad something will be relaxed.”
Me, I hate flying. Makes no sense. Reading George Saunders, so humane and earthbound, at 36,000 feet surrounded by a couple hundred strangers sitting on 7,000 gallons of flammable fossil fuel as I stare at a cup of hot black coffee perched on a plastic tray just above my crotch, well, none of that computes. Hell, computers are easier to comprehend than a 700,000-pound behemoth flying at 500 mph. Did I say flying? Flying! That’s when my mind starts chanting om and my body screams ohmygod and I lodge a 5 mg Xanax between my lower gum and cheek and pray the molecules seep into my blood stream while I still have blood streaming.
When aloft, my seat belt is never unbuckled, my Sunday school prayers are on a humming loop, and every bump, dip, turn, sunburst, sudden sound or flight attendant’s facial expression less serene than that of a Bhutanese monk scares the daylights out of me, and I end up at the end of the bar at the Mile High Anxiety Club. Make it a double, please.
This all started back in 1992, when an ordinary flight from New York to Miami was interrupted by a brief announcement: “We are going to make an emergency landing in Wilmington, North Carolina. Buckle up, please. Flight attendants, take your seats.” And we commenced our descent. Abruptly. At 90 degrees. Through father skies. Toward mother earth. We must have been directly above Wilmington, North Carolina because we went straight down. Straight. Down. The faces of the people around me were resculpted by G-force 4, their eyes popping like eggs cracking for hatchlings, their mouths locked in chasmal smiles, and their cheeks flapping like hummingbird wings in slow motion on a PBS special. No one said a word. You could hear incantations.
The sensation was frightening, as close as anyone ever wants to get to actually… you know. The “emergency landing” saved the guy with the heart attack but it damaged my hard drive: cache has an elephant’s memory. My Post-Travel Stress Disorder has since given birth to a secondary PTSD, Pre-Travel Stress Disorder. Days before a flight, I lie in bed and feel the jumbo jet lifting-off. I sit in a chair and feel the plane going down. Anxiety swarms. Doom looms. Every activity is cloaked with imprecation. Especially when someone will say, offhandedly, “Have a safe trip, dude.” What? A safe trip? You mean there is inherent danger ahead?
Terrorists hijack planes. Russians shoot them down. Malaysians lose them. Germans crash them into mountains. Americans skid them off LaGuardia runway Number 13. Runway #13? You kidding me? Why not just book Flight 666 on Judas Airline departing at the stroke of midnight on April Fool’s?
“We have a problem,” says my wife one morning when the official snowfall has reached 36 inches.
“I just talked to Rosie. If we stay at the hotel I booked…”
“Adorable Frenchie place with tennis courts…”
“…then we’ll never see Rosie and Michael.”
“They’re staying on Parrot Cay.”
“What’s Parrot Cay?”
“A private island.”
“Oh, they’re in a James Bond movie.”
“Take a look at this brochure.”
“Holy shit. Ian Fleming couldn’t afford this place.”
“Michael’s a banker. For all we know, this is one big tax write-off.”
“Can he write us off?”
“Listen to this: ‘Parrot Cay is exclusive because it has no cars, no street lights, no stores, no casinos, no fast food, nothing to attract tourists.’”
“Great. Except we are tourists.”
“There’s one resort on Parrot Cay, and everyone stays there.”
“So it’s like a Disney theme park.”
“It has some private homes, too. Oprah lives there and Bruce Willis and Keith Richards.”
“’Parrot Cay — no street lights but all the smack you can get your hands on.’”
“Donna Karan lives there as well. She designed the resort.”
“DKNY and Disney. Just like that unreleased Dylan album, Bland on Bland.”
“That’s not fair. It’s supposed to be beautiful.”
“Then why can’t we stay on Providenciales and take a boat over?”
“Boats are not allowed to dock at Parrot Cay.”
“Who stops them, Jack Sparrow?”
“It’s the law.”
“I thought Turks and Caicos was lawless.”
“I said corrupt. Corruption is different.”
“So, Michael can embezzle millions, but he can’t row the boat ashore?”
“Should I cancel the trip?”
The landing is as smooth as fine aged rum. It is 80 degrees and sunny. As advertised. You can hear Bob Marley promise “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” from atop the portable airstairs. In the shack that doubles as an airport terminal, there are three receiving lines: Belongers, Residents, Tourists. Belongers is the official designation for natives, which means descendants of survivors of a slave ship that veered off course and landed here in 1767. Belongers vote, hold office, and own property without a special permit. Belongers don’t like being called Belongers. “We belong to no one,” they will tell you straight away. “We may live under the American dollar and the British crown — the worst of both worlds — but we belong to no one.”
Shuttling down the main drag, you are happy to see plenty of lobster joints and no Starbucks, no McDonalds, no Chipotles. You are less happy to see guards and gates and security cameras. The income inequality gap is so dilated that you can be sure the Belongers listen to “Get Up, Stand Up” when out of earshot of tourists.
Me, I’m a rank tourist. And the first waves of a Caribbean identity crisis are washing over me. Am I supporting these folks or exploiting them? Am I rubbing salt or salve in their economic wounds? Do they welcome me or hate me or not see me at all? What am I doing here? How can I blithely scuba dive when the coral reef is suffering and the fish are disappearing and the whole damn world is sucking air? Will I feel uninterrupted guilt for two weeks solid, or just between rum and Cokes? Are we having fun yet?
My wife, she is thrilled. Aroused. Not many hours ago, she was slushing through the worst winter on record and now she is skimming along the bluest waters in the Caribbean. Me, I like the ocean okay, all azure and transparent, but my wife, she’s part fish. And I’m pretty sure that part is her buttocks, which can remain high and dry even as she freestyles for a solid hour before deciding to dive 20 or 30 or 50 feet like a frisky porpoise, her absence causing me to lose my breath before she loses hers.
Presently, I am inhaling deeply and marveling at the magic of modern transport. In addition to the single, direct, non-stop, non-turbulent flight, we had a nice walk to the car, a drive to the airport, a bus ride from long term parking to the escalators, a train ride to the moving walkways at Terminal 5, where we boarded the airbus that landed in time to catch the mini-van that took us to the boat that will deliver us to a Kawasaki Mule that will pass the houses of Bruce Willis and Oprah Winfrey and right when we enter the resort, the Belonger at the front desk will say, “Welcome to Turks and Caicos. We hope you have a wonderful vacation.”
Collage illustrations by Eugenia Loli
The Autograph Collection is part of the Marriott International portfolio.