BY CARLA SARETT
Copyright is held by the author.
AFTER 25 years in the travel business, Dan Defoe of Adventures Unlimited boasted he could make any dream come true. He had a reputation, which is why a certain Mr. and Mrs. Shrue showed up at his office nine o’clock sharp on a Monday morning.
Mr. Shrue declared loudly, “We want the perfect vacation, and we heard you’re the best. Money is not an issue, you understand?”
“I understand,” said Dan, his mental cash register clinking.
The Shrues were a familiar type. Mr. Shrue had skipped youth to achieve early middle age, paunch and all, and wore brightly coloured argyle socks and yellow ties with pink pigs on them, without irony. Mrs. Shrue wore tennis whites to show off her early summer tan; and a lime-green tote and matching headband, with the very same pink pigs.
“We want a true adventure,” insisted Mrs. Shrue.
“We’re all about adventure!” added Mr. Shrue.
As Dan knew well, the true adventurer rarely graced the inside of a travel agent’s office. The adventurer came, saw and conquered, with no budget and a single knapsack. On the other hand, those who hired Adventures Unlimited wanted, say, Johnnie Walker Blue delivered to mountain retreats.
“True adventure is the essence of a summer vacation, Mr. and Mrs. Shrue,” said Dan with a straight face.
“Andy and Mandy,” said Mr. Shrue affably. “We’re going to be friends!”
“Andy and Mandy,” repeated Dan.
“Just one little thing,” said Mandy. “It must be brand new. It must be completely different. Last year, we did Everest, and can you believe that we met our neighbours there? What’s the point of that? We need different.”
“We need you to think out of the box, as long as it has golf,” Andy added, with a wink.
“Trust me,” Dan said, winking back.
Alas, it was easier said than done. This globe-trotting pair had apparently done it all — African safaris, white-water rafting in Maine, rock-climbing, hang-gliding, and archaeological digs in Mexico, Israel and Greece. No city on earth had escaped this intrepid duo: Rio de Janeiro, Lima, Prague, Trieste, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sydney, Rome, and Istanbul, not to mention every village on the Dalmatian Coast. Add to that Andy’s hankering (actually, demand) for golf and Dan was flummoxed.
Dan’s days became a veritable stream of Andy-Mandy communication. Andy emailed in the morning, and Mandy picked up the slack in the afternoon with a flurry of anguished texts; they split the difference in the evening. Dan tried valiantly to remain cheerful. But his stockpile of vacation ideas was growing low, since even talented travel agents have a limited repertory of so-called “adventures.”
Dan’s ever-practical wife solved his problem over dinner. She said, “My friend Trudy is going to Nirwana Bali and it’s a golf course in Bali. She says it’s got rice paddies and the world’s best golf. Plus, it’s this fancy resort on top of a cliff and it overlooks the Indian Ocean — which for some reason is better than the Atlantic. Can you imagine?”
“Idyllic retreat,” Dan told the Shrues. “It’s very expensive, of course, but very remote.”
“We love remote,” cooed Mandy.
Andy and Mandy loved the idea. Dan forged ahead with intricate preparations: translators, chauffeurs, guides, as well as daily shipments of organic produce to fit Mandy’s new North Beach diet. He counted the hours until he was rid of the Shrues.
Everything was set, until one day before departure. Mandy called. “Dan, there’s a big problem,” she said.
“That’s what I’m here for,” Dan replied, grabbing a few aspirin.
“Our neighbours are going to Nirwana Bali, you know, the same ones we met on Everest. And we hate them. We can’t go,” she said. “I’m so sorry to cancel like this.”
Moments like these defined a legend like Dan Defoe. “Not to worry, I have a back-up plan,” he said.
“Back-up?” asked Mandy warily. “You had a back-up plan? What is it?”
“Oh, it’s a true adventure. No questions now — I don’t want to spoil it. My driver — his name is Maurice — will pick you up tomorrow. Trust me, you’ve never been anywhere like this. And pack just like you were going to Bali . . . bring everything.”
Early the next morning, a beat-up Toyota arrived in the Shrue’s grand circular driveway. “Maurice, here for your Urban Adventures,” a grinning young Jamaican shouted. “Hope you’re ready for trip of your life!”
Maurice’s car had no air-conditioning, and smelled of strong incense. Soon, they were en route, as the car limped along the bleak streets of Northeast Philadelphia. Traffic was heavy, too.
“We’re going away from the airport,” Mandy observed. “This is the Ben Franklin Bridge.”
“No airport,” said Maurice. “Urban adventure, it don’t need airplane. Urban is all about urban.”
Andy whispered, “I think that urban is a synonym for . . . slum.”
“You are funny person!” Maurice laughed. “You stay with Maurice’s sister. She’ll make you nice goat stew, delicious. You are going to love it! Only seven people in her apartment, but so much good food, you’ll forget about it! And Wednesday, we go to Newark, which is even more urban!”
In less than half an hour, Maurice stopped in front of a dilapidated building in Camden, New Jersey — a town that was far from picturesque, and even farther from the imagination of Andy and Mandy.
A teenaged girl, wearing a halter top, regarded Andy and Mandy with cool hostility. “You a social worker?” she asked. “We don’t need social work around here.”
Maurice said, “That is funny, social worker. No, no, no, these are paying customers. They are going to be my sister’s guests.”
“That’s a joke,” said the girl. “I thought this building was condemned weeks ago.”
“Ha ha, funny girl,” said Maurice.
“Whose brother are you?” asked the girl.
Maurice gaily opened the door, and started to carry the luggage up — but Mandy stopped him.
“What did she mean, condemned building?” she asked.
“That’s a matter of opinion, and I don’t agree,” said Maurice. “The police don’t mind so who cares? Police all friends with my sister, you hear me?”
Andy and Mandy nodded.
“Good, I’ll get you settled. Let’s head upstairs, only five flights, not too bad, but watch out, some of the steps not too strong. And don’t mind the roaches. They don’t bite anybody; they’re just really big. But you want excitement!”
“Five flights,” said Andy, looking up.
“Roaches,” said Mandy, looking down.
“Some rats, too, but small,” added Maurice. “It’s very urban adventure.”
The downcast pair hesitated. The building was hot in the way only cities can be, the kind of heat that makes fire hydrants popular. Andy’s slight bit of hair was matted down, and Mandy’s foundation, or what was left of it, had begun to streak.
Mandy said, “Andy, I was thinking. Our neighbours are not terrible people.”
“Rudy and Trudy aren’t bad golfers,” said Andy.
“We should be more charitable . . . in the future,” Mandy said. “But I guess it’s too late.”
Maurice smiled pleasantly. As it happened, Maurice had no sister either in Camden or elsewhere. And he had no intention of taking this couple anywhere but the Philadelphia Airport. After a suitable pause, he said, “Mr. Dan, he hasn’t cancelled your trip. You could still go to that fine resort in Bali. Of course, it’s not such an adventure . . . and it might cost you a little extra.”
Andy whipped out an unseemly number of hundred dollar bills and, leading Mandy by the hand, headed back to the relative comfort of Maurice’s Toyota. The ride to the airport was brief and silent — although, mercifully, cool since Maurice had somehow discovered the air-conditioning switch.
“Here’s to the Shrue’s perfect vacation,” said Maurice, now in a navy blazer, over martinis that night with Dan.
“Not so perfect,” said Dan. “It turns out that their neighbours are on the very same flight. I took the liberty of putting their seats together. And it’s a very long flight.”
“That will be a true adventure,” said Maurice.