When you are traveling, most of the time you end up doing the obvious things. You know, the ones that are listed in your guidebook. When I go somewhere, I like to do these things because I think they are an important part of the identity of a place. When I was in Paris, of course I went up the Eiffel Tower, visited The Louvre, and ate in chic little cafes. On my trip to New Zealand, it wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t seen a kiwibird, watched a rugby game, or eaten fish and chips.
That said, sometimes you get into a situation where you have a chance to do something totally different than the normal tourist attractions. Maybe it’s something that you might find normal at home, but the foreign context makes it strange and surreal. Maybe it’s something you always were curious about, and the opportunity presents itself when you least expect it.
Keep your eyes open for these occasions. They are easily missed, and they usually result from responding with “Why the hell not?” to something that might seem a little strange at first.
Here are the Top Five Most Random and Strange Things I Have Done in Foreign Countries:
5. Watched the Taping of a French TV Show in Paris, France.
When I went to Paris last September, (my very first voyage outside of North America!) I stayed with my friend Sophie, an engineer, and her three coworker flat mates in an apartment in the 13th Arrondissement. Somehow, one of them had acquired tickets to the taping of a TV show. Being the gracious hosts they were, they brought me along.
Don’t ask me what the show was called, as I have no idea. It was some sort of talk show, I figured out that much, but my mediocre high school french was no match for the fast paced banter of the host and guest and I was soon lost. It made me realize how important language is to television. How many times have you watched a whole TV program while doing something else and not even looking at the screen? As long as you have the dialog you can understand much of what is going on without having to watch. But when comprehension of language is taken away, there’s really not much left. I sat there pondering this until the strangeness of it all got quite frighteningly trippy.
The other surreal thing was that it was devastatingly hot inside the television studio. It must have been a combination of the small room, hot stage lights, and all the people crammed in together. The host of the show was sweating buckets, and every five minutes a woman came through the crowd with cups of water. Perhaps the TV was about a particularly steamy topic, but I will never know.
4. Taught an Improv Workshop at an “outside the box” business school in Rotterdam, Holland.
When I was in Europe, I stopped in Rotterdam to visit a friend of mine who was attending Kaos Pilots, an innovative business school for young entrepreneurs. Having been in Amsterdam the night before enjoying a pub crawl, I was in a sorry state that early morning on the train. I arrived in Rotterdam at 8 in the morning, and Nathaniel took me straight to school with him. The students met in a small downtown studio where they arranged their chairs in a circle, I imagine to counteract any stale notions of hierarchy. He informed me that he had told his classmates about my improv experience, and that they were keen for me to give a workshop on the basics of improvisational theater, and could I do it this morning? Like, right now? I gulped down my orange juice and muffin and thought, “Why the hell not?”. The workshop I delivered was truly an authentic introduction to the basics of improv, because I was making it up as I went along. Everyone enjoyed it, thank goodness, and went to work straight away afterwards brainstorming how they could apply what they learned to succeeding in business.
The extra surreal element that was added to this experience was that one of Nathaniel’s classmates was undergoing a personal experiment involving wearing a blindfold for the entire day. He was trying to see how it would change his perception. It was an interesting challenge to work around this handicap while I was teaching, but I also found it interesting that, since I was only there for that one day, that guy has met me and heard my voice but will never know what I look like. Weird…
3. Crashed a Modern Dance Class in Freiburg, Germany.
One of the great things about staying with locals when you travel is the opportunity to live the life of an ordinary citizen of the country you are visiting. You get to see how they eat, what they do for fun, what family life is like. It’s a great way to break away from the touristic cliches.
When I was staying with my friend Mirjam in Germany this meant tagging along with her to her modern dance lesson. And of course, you know I didn’t just watch. No way man, I was right in there! However, this was not a beginners group, and they were rehearsing choreography that they had worked on for at least several weeks. Add the fact that all of the instructor’s directions were shouted at us in German, a language that I haven’t gotten much further than “Gutentag” in, and you have the recipe for a hilarious physical comedy routine that I wish I had gotten on tape.
2. Explored a Sheep Galaxy, Near Havelock North, New Zealand
Some would say that wwoofing on an organic farm in New Zealand, milking the goat, feeding chickens, etc… is a strange experience in itself. It certainly was a new one for me. However, the rural life got another level of weird one night when I left my evening chores too late. By the time we finished dinner it was dark, so Seth lent me a head torch to wear down to the sheep paddock to feed Michael the little lamb his bottle. Now, when you live out in the middle of nowhere, it really gets dark. There are no street lamps, no neon signs, just a blackness so profound you think you have gone blind. The head torch gave off a weak, blueish light that made everything look alien and bizarre like in a horror movie. Things that I recognized in the daylight became foreign and distorted. The poplar trees seemed impossibly tall, stretched up into the blackness, and their fluff floating down drifted across my vision like snow. When I got down to the sheep paddock, I was treated to an incredible sight. The sheep’s eyes were reflective, so all I could see were dozens and dozens of floating pinpoints of light staring back at me as I hopped over the fence. Michael came baaaaaaing up to me, little lamb tail wagging. I knelt down and as he slurped the milk hungrily. In the absolute stillness of the country night, I couldn’t figure out where the sheep ended and the stars began.
1. Made Creepy Moaning Noises in a Dark Corner of a Haunted Prison Cell in Napier, New Zealand
When I first arrived in New Zealand, I applied for an ad on Backpacker Board for tour guides. Little did I know that I would end up living in a prison cell and working at the oldest prison in New Zealand. Well, Napier Prison also does scary night tours, and when asked to help out in the scaring department, I couldn’t resist. I got all dressed up in an old prison jumpsuit, white
face makeup and fake blood smeared all over me. My job was to hide in the darkest back corner of one of the cells. When the actors took the terrified tourists through, they would put them in the cells and then lock the doors on them. They would then tell them about all the horrible murderers who had shared these walls, and all the horrific ways they had killed themselves. The actor/tour guide would then tell the tourists, who were now holding pale-knuckled to the doors of the cells and pleading to be let out, that it was time for tea break and “see you later!”
After I heard the guide leave, and listened to the frightened breathing of the poor sap locked in the cell with me for a few minutes, I would start to make spooky sounds, moaning and crying noises, scratch against the walls, or laugh maniacally. Most people couldn’t see me in the dark, and so were utterly scared speechless. One time I hid behind an old ratty mattress and all of a sudden kicked it across the room, making a big tough guy scream and do a little “let me out of here” dance.
The even more surreal moment, was sitting around in between tours waiting, with all the other actors dressed like me. Nothing like chilling in an old prison cell, covered in red corn syrup, just shooting the breeze.
There you are, five of my favorite surreal experiences. That’s what traveling is all about, taking you outside of the ordinary!
Now tell me about some of your weird and random adventures!