The newspaper advertisement read: "Come to an area of the world completely overlooked by tourists. Visit ancient ruins dating from the first millennium after Christ, sunbathe on spacious white beaches, sample foods that will make you think you have discovered paradise, shop in air-conditioned comfort. All this can be yours for the price of a week in Philadelphia!"
[quoteright'/>The ad was too good to resist. A week in a place like this would wipe out any memories of the other 51 weeks of the year, when rain or snow fell, horns honked, people screamed at one another, toilets broke and homes were vandalized. The only catch was, the ad did not specify where this ideal vacation spot was.
I got out my world atlas. The South Pacific was a distinct possibility. Maybe the ruins referred to in the ad were the statues of Easter Island. Then I remembered the Galapagos Islands, Cape Verde the Falkland Islands and the numerous as-yet-undiscovered islands of the Caribbean.
But it could just as easily be a Mediterranean island off the coast of Spain, a secluded Italian or Greek location, or a Turkish delight. It could be almost anywhere in the world! I paid a small deposit and awaited further details.
None arrived. I had a general idea of what clothing I would need from the original ad, but I still did not know if I should take along a Muslim veil or a little doily to wear on my head Sunday mornings. I still did not know if I would be flying two hours or 14.
Many of the passengers taking my flight were wearing what looked like jungle camouflage. Others wore trench coats and dark glasses. I was the only passenger who resembled a real tourist, complete with camera, enough luggage to prevent the plane from taking off, and a passport valid for anywhere in the world. For all I knew, that was where I was going.
When I overheard the jungle camouflages and the trench coats conversing in Spanish, I began to have doubts. Tourism had probably fallen off drastically in Central America, but would those people go to such lengths? I was beginning to feel as if I was being kidnaped and transported into a war zone.
The flight lasted three hours. When I got off the plane, I still did not know where I was. The place was all it was advertised as being, and as deserted as the moon. The guide explained that the cracking and popping sounds I continually heard were fireworks set off at a local celebration. No foreigners allowed.
I climbed up step-pyramids dating from between the fourth and seventh centuries, hunted for rare orchids, and swam in crystal-clear waters.
But the only language I heard spoken was English. The only people I saw were American tour guides and hotel employees.
I had no clue as to what country I was in. Egyptian pyramids would have been far older, more tomb like, and where was the Nile? Mexico or Guatemala would have been filled with tourists. Were there any pyramids along the Pacific coast of California? I thought not.
Then I saw the crates of bananas. I should have heeded my first premonition! I should have paid more attention to the jungle-camouflaged and trench-coated travelers on the plane!
But there was no turning back. I had four more days to go. I smeared more suntan lotion on my legs, turned up the radio, and took another sip of the delicious sleep-producing beverage a hotel waiter had prepared especially for me, and closed my eyes. When I got back, I'd say I had been in Philadelphia.
Susan Packie teaches anthropology at Malcolm-King College, which is located in America's premier anthroplogical site, New York City. She has had her work published in more than 80 magazines.
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