The Longform Guide to Vacation

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
July 6 2013 6:30 AM

The Longform Guide to Vacation

Europe, cruises, the beach and ... Libya? Great stories about trips good and bad.

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And where are YOU going on vacation?

Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from 70 of the world’s best magazines, including Slate.

You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!
John Jeremiah Sullivan • New York Times Magazine • June 2011

A father’s trip to Walt Disney World with weed.

“Lil’ Dog and the ladies were sailing by up above on the Dumbo ride, in three successive elephants. Mimi had a tentatively happy face. It said, ‘I’m ready to think of this as fun, as long as it doesn’t go any faster or higher.’ Trevor and I leaned on the railing like bettors at a track, smiling and waving every time they went past, as if we were dolls with arms hooked to wires. Trevor had his phone out, with the Internet dialed up to ’the guide.’ He consulted it when they were on the dark side of their orbit. Checking it against a map of the park, we determined that one of the spots mentioned wasn’t too far away, a little-used maintenance pathway with trees alongside it and some Dumpsters. Given a properly positioned lookout, you could have a puff in relative calm. We slipped away.

“Now we were truly at Disney World. A person didn’t come here every day! What is the scene here? Hello, primary colors; hello, quickly fading microdramas of passing human faces, incessantly deciding whether to make eye contact; hello, repeating stalls and gift shops. We were walking on the balls of our feet. The surface of things had become porous and permitted of the potential for enjoyment. Where were our womenfolk and Lil’ Dog? Let’s find them. Let’s be good fathers. Tomorrow was Father’s Day. Oh, my God, I didn’t even remember that!

“’We don’t need to remember that,’ Trevor said. ’We are that.’ “

Arab Spring Break
Joshua Davis • Men’s Journal • September 2012

A 21-year-old UCLA student travels to Libya to join armed rebels.

"’I think we should get out of here,’ I say, but he ignores me. Somehow the formation of an angry mob doesn't seem to bother him. Our translator, who'd been watching the rally from the far end of the square, pushes through the crowd to tell us that we need to leave immediately. Jeon doesn't want to go—he's taking pictures now—but the translator is insistent. People are demanding to know who we are. We head to the translator's car and get in. The crowd follows us. Someone shouts that we're with the CIA. Dozens of men circle the vehicle. Fists start banging on the roof. ’Ameriki go home,’ someone screams. Jeon just waves.

"’They're so passionate,’ he says. ’It's wonderful.’

“The translator gets out to reason with the crowd, and someone puts a gun to his head, forcing him back into the car. A large man with a wide, flattened nose climbs into the passenger seat.

"’What's happening?’ I yell, in a panic.

"’You're being kidnapped,’ the translator says. I look over at Jeon. He's laughing.

"’You gotta love Libya, right?’ he says.”

On Tipping in Cuba
Chris Turner • Walrus • April 2012

Negotiating colonialism and the convertible peso on a beach vacation.

“So, yes, let’s talk about the Patio de Artex show. At the precipitous cliff’s edge of the Special Period, even after many grinding months of Save or Die austerity, you can still find a table at Patio de Artex on any old Friday afternoon and watch eight guys in donated T-shirts and Chinese jeans transform a courtyard into one of the best places on earth from which to launch a weekend. Mojitos sweating through plastic cups on the table, the trumpet player muting his horn with his hand to add a vampish growl to theson they’re tearing up, a propulsion in the rhythm that hauls even a hopeless, doubly left-footed non-dancer like me to his feet—this is what you get for your 160-pounds-of-rice admission at Patio de Artex. You get escape, transcendence. The show would have been a bargain at CUC $10 a head.

“This is why Canadians come back again and again. And why, perhaps, they bring even more T-shirts and towels and acetaminophen the next time: because these people deserve more for their labour. They deserve better. Yes, this is true of any picturesque beach destination in the impoverished tropics, but in Cuba it’s somehow more undeniable. Maybe it’s the grinding workaday cruelty of the Special Period, the utter absurdity of America’s ongoing embargo. Maybe we delude ourselves, in Mexico or Jamaica, with the notion that the society’s nominal freedom means no absolute barrier exists between our decadent days by the pool and the women slaving away at the messes in our hotel rooms. Anyway, there’s something about Cuba that brings the arbitrary nature of wealth and power and material comfort into especially high relief. And so we bring stuff. Gifts. Offerings. Talismans of apology and absolution.”

Scripting on the Lido Deck
Steve Silberman • Wired • October 2000

Aboard Perl Whirl 2000, the first-ever geek luxury cruise.

“The 167 geeks—more than a dozen of whom were female programmers—were just a small segment of the Volendam 's passenger list, which numbered close to 1,300 (plus 150 crew members). The normal diversions of a cruise-ship vacation were always unfolding in the background—the Yukon gold nugget auctions, crepe-cooking exhibitions, and slot machine marathons. Dori Smith's ’Introduction to JavaScript’ class, held in one of the dining rooms, was nearly drowned out by a wine tasting. Conversations about the initiative to rewrite Perl's source code in C++ were conducted across the room from disco aerobics sessions: ’All right, girls ... shampoo!’ Some distractions were welcome. One day, classes were interrupted by a young orca exploding out of the icy water to starboard, in flights of careless exuberance.

“But one aspect of cruise-ship life was annoying for the younger programmers, who didn't like being told what to wear to dinner. The issue of the ’formal nights’ in the dining room—jacket and tie required—erupted in email weeks before the cruise. ’I am DEEPLY DISTURBED by the dress code issue. I believe it will sink your ship,’ Tom Christiansen warned Neil ominously. To underscore the gravity of the situation, Tom sent along a copy of Eric Raymond's essay ’A Portrait of J. Random Hacker.’ ’It is not uncommon,’ Raymond wrote, ’for hackers to quit a job rather than conform to a dress code.’) The essay, he advised Neil, ’should probably be passed on to your contacts. The crew and staff need to understand what they're getting themselves into.’

“In the end, Neil handed out bow ties at the pre-launch party that were custom-made out of red, white, and blue silk; these passed muster with the maître d' while retaining a geeky touch. It was a Perlish solution, in the spirit of ’There's more than one way to do it.’ On Dutch Night, when traditional caps for men and women were set at every place in the dining room, many of the geeks simply switched hats.”

Escape to Alcatraz
S.J. Culver • Guernica • December 2012

Exploring “dark” tourism while visiting the infamous prison.

“The audio tour focuses on the sensational: riots, escape attempts. It’s a narrative focus—some wonderfully skilled oral historian(s) obviously spent hours shaping the reminiscences of ex-prisoners and guards into precise and satisfying arcs of story. Think of a great episode of This American Life, minus Ira Glass’s lisp. There’s meat to the stories and the voices sound really, well, alive. It’s an enjoyable listening experience, and yet, the longer it goes on, the stranger the listening grows. At first it only seems odd in that way that all pure entertainment seems essentially odd, in its goal to subvert the repetition and dullness of daily life. This oddness, though, is compounded by our setting. Here, in a place with a history of inflicting extreme repetition and dullness, the refusal to dwell on boredom and monotony begins to seem almost lunatic.

“I begin to think that, if the point of an authentic tourism experience (if such a thing exists) is to understand another condition closely, the Alcatraz cellhouse tour fails. The punishing repetitiveness of incarceration is utterly absent in the carefully paced rise and fall of the yarns on the recorded tour. Worse, there’s no mention of how the Alcatraz cellblock, with its dioramas meticulously re-creating midcentury prison life, might resemble or not resemble a contemporary working U.S. prison. Plenty of the visitors around me seem to think they are witnessing ’real’ incarceration. I sense my initial impression had more truth than I realized; what we’re taking in is closer to a film set than to county lockup.”

The Grand Tour
Evan Osnos • The New Yorker • April 2011

Notes from a Chinese guided bus trip through Europe.

“In the front row of the bus, Li stood facing the group with a microphone in hand, a posture he would retain for most of our waking hours in the days ahead. In the life of a Chinese tourist, guides play an especially prominent role—translator, raconteur, and field marshal—and Li projected a calm, seasoned air. He often referred to himself in the third person—Guide Li—and he prided himself on efficiency. ’Everyone, our watches should be synchronized,’ he said. ’It is now 7:16 p.m.’ He implored us to be five minutes early for every departure. ’We flew all the way here,” he said. ’Let’s make the most of it.’

”He outlined the plan: we would be spending many hours on the bus, during which he would deliver lectures on history and culture, so as not to waste precious minutes at the sights, when we could be taking photographs. He informed us that French scientists had determined that the optimal length of a tour guide’s lecture is seventy-five minutes. ’Before Guide Li was aware of that, the longest speech I ever gave on a bus was four hours,’ he added.”

A Nightmare in Real Life
Susan Svrluga • Washington Post • April 2013

While vacationing in the Philippines, an American teenager is kidnapped by Islamic militants.

“He was weak from being confined so long. ’I tried to use whatever strength I had to keep going — get as far as I could from there and then get home.’

“He dropped the smaller bottle of water in the river, but he knew he didn’t have time to retrieve it. He kept looking back to see if they were chasing him. He kept banging his toes on the rocks. He kept running.

“His bag was heavy, but he knew he needed it. After hours of running, he ran up a steep hill to see where he was, then turned in the direction of the ocean. His goal: to get off the island.

“Night fell with a full moon, but Kevin kept running. He found an empty hut and hid in it for a moment to rest. He didn’t relax; he was still too scared. There were boots inside the hut; he pulled those on over his blackened, torn feet.

“A tiny, striped kitten appeared and tried to climb into his backpack, then jumped onto his lap, wanting to play. It felt like a good sign.”

Living in a Trailer
James Jones • Holiday • July 1952

A tour of American trailer parks in the early 1950s.

“When I lived in Tucson I knew a high-school teacher who lived in a trailer. He wasn’t exactly a typical high-school teacher, but he was a high-school teacher.

“A big, gentle, bearlike man, he lived with his wife and three small daughters in a big thirty-three-foot Spartan. He had lived and taught in the same small town in Minnesota all his life, until he got the idea that he didn’t know enough about his own country to teach. It oppressed him so much that he finally quit his job and sold his home, packed his family in the trailer, and started out to see the country. He would teach a couple of years in one place and then move on and teach a couple in another. Sometimes he had trouble getting teaching jobs because he lived in a trailer. When he did, he took other jobs. His family loved it all as much as he did; they were seeing the country too. I think he taught civics. But it was probably ’Philosophy-Made-Understandable-for-Teen­-Agers’ when he got through with it. When I knew him, he had just gotten a job teaching after six months of pushing a concrete buggy on a construction job and was filled with an intense enthusiasm for the build­ing trades and the people who worked in them.

“Of course, such a man is rare. Few of us have that much of the idealist in us. Yet I’m about convinced, by now, it’s that same strain of the foolish romantic, though in a lesser degree perhaps, that is working in all of us who get trailers, driving each of us out in search of some private dream. Maybe we hunger to be cosmopolitan and well traveled. Or maybe we just want to live in the Far West where we can wear a big hat, Levis and boots without being laughed at.”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.



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