In the decade-plus that I’ve lived in the DC area, I have chosen a few places to share with visitors that I feel provide real Washington flavor. I was reminded of one of my faves recently as the Rosslyn, Virginia outpost of Ben’s Chili Bowl opened--now we Commonwealth types don’t have to cross a bridge to experience some of the most delicious half-smokes to be found anywhere.
So I was surprised not to find the original Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street in Where the Locals Go: More Than 300 Places Around the World To Eat, Play, Shop, Celebrate, and Relax from National Geographic Books. But as I chatted with the book’s editor, Keith Bellows (who is also the Editor in Chief of National Geographic Traveler magazine), I realized that with a city like ours, he had a nearly impossible task. As he managed to include our beloved Politics & Prose Books and the ever-cool Busboys & Poets, I decided not to harangue him about Ben’s and instead listen to what Bellows had to say about his travel philosophy.
“This book's approach, it’s how I’ve always traveled,” he says. “I’ll reserve a first night in a hotel and just make it up from there. I mean, here we are, living in Washington, we think we know it pretty well--but my bet is that we don’t know it as well as we think. What’s even more local than what the locals know? By that I mean we don’t walk enough, we don’t go out of our way enough--when folks come in from out of town, we take them to the usual places…”
I am so busted. Now my ears are really open. What should we be taking people to here in DC?
“First of all, if you head far enough up along the Potomac, you see that this is one of great wild rivers. People would never realize that on their daily commute across it. And Glen Echo Park! What a treasure that place is. It’s got a wonderful carousel, Art Deco buildings, and an incredible arts and crafts program. If you can start in your own backyard and find new things, imagine what you can do when you travel to London or Singapore or Sydney.”
Bellows says that the most unusual local experience in the book might be the “night feasts in Marrakech, but if somebody really wants to be shocked and surprised by travel, I always say--go to India. All you have to do there is walk down the street to be completely enveloped in an intoxicating melee of sensations, noises, colors, and tastes.”
However, it’s that “melee” that makes a willingness to reach out important. “For instance, Japan is a society that’s difficult to penetrate without a guide. In Kyoto, I had a friend take me to a special gym where sumo wrestlers train. It was an amazing experience, and I couldn’t have gotten there on my own.”
For those of us who don’t have a friend in Kyoto, Bellows has simple advice. “Don’t think of travel as a duty, and don’t go to the “must not miss” place in a guidebook. Go to a coffee shop or a bar and pick out the coolest looking person there, and ask that person where she’d have dinner tonight. Travel is transformative, and the more you open yourself to the unexpected, the better off you’ll be.”
Sounds as if I need to head to Glen Echo Park--but maybe I'll make a detour to Ben's in Rosslyn along the way... Ater all, that's not a duty. It's supporting a local treasure that might one day wind up in Where the Locals Go: DC Edition.