“They’re real alligators in a hotel!”
I press against the railing and peer into the pond. A two-foot-sized gator drifts across the surface of the water. Then there’s another one basking under the heat of a lamp and another one sitting still upon a rock.
We’re at Gaylord Palms Resort, a luxury hotel in Orlando. Being inside feels surreal. There are ponds and waterfalls dabbled with alligators and turtles. There’s a restaurant with its dining area on a ship which is anchored in a lake. A Christmas tree glitters in the center, flanked by balconies belonging to hotel rooms. Except that we’re indoors. The alligators are the only thing that is real in this place.
There’s something exciting and strange about “fake” places. It’s an escape from reality. You’re swallowed into a world that appears to be of a different time period, a different pace of life, or different culture. The Friday before Christmas, my mom took my friend, Miao, and I to Old Sturbridge Village, a museum in Sturbridge, Massachusetts that was made up of a constructed town set in the 1830s. A “fake” town, if you will. And it was dolled up in the Christmas spirit.
As we visited an old church, a tavern, and Mrs. Claus’s Bake Shop with freshly-frosted cookies and coco-cola for sale, I felt faintly nostalgic. My mind walked over the memories, nearly over half a year ago, to last June when I spent a month in Wales for a work placement. The weekends were a time to explore Wales and so, after church one Sunday, I cycled three miles – through heavy rain, up and down hills, along both bike paths and gravel shoulders – to St. Fagans, a town with a museum not unlike Old Sturbridge.
First was the St. Fagans Castle, a late-16th-century manor with an expanse of gardens featuring a mulberry grove, vineries, rose garden, and a fountain overflowing with raindrops. My shoes crunched over the muddied gravel as I visited the thatch-roofed cottages that once belonged to the working families. I had gone inside the manor too but the water-fresh air felt comforting.
I drifted through St. Fagans Museum in a haze, spending the whole afternoon wandering until I realized there was a whole other part to it. The backyard had a fake town! Over forty original buildings from the Celtic times were planted in the parkland. There were houses, farmland, a chapel, and old shops as far as my eye could see. While munching on a Welsh cake, I visited St. Teilo’s Church, a Workmen’s Institute, a shop and café, and the Rhyd-y-Car Ironworkers’ Houses which were made up of six homes, each representing a different era between 1805 and 1985. I traveled through time, inching past large groups and blurring up the backgrounds of their selfies.
I like traveling by myself sometimes. People say you get to focus on yourself, as though in some Eat-Pray-Love journey of self-discovery. But for me, it’s when you can be quiet and let your surroundings absorb you. Instead of thinking more of myself, I think of myself less. I let the things that I encounter keep me from falling into morbid introspection. That’s the humble effect of traveling and getting out of your comfort zone. You’re so focused on the things around you, you stop focusing on yourself.
As I wandered through St. Fagans and took photos of the farm animals like the little city girl that I am, I distanced myself from all my trivial little worries. The “fake town” set me out of reality so that my mind and body could recharge.
Back in Massachusetts, as Mom, Miao, and I took a sleigh ride in an old-fashioned carriage and listened to carolers in bonnets and top hats, we basked in the illusion of a reality, one very separate from the cares and concerns that would have otherwise occupied our minds.
Whether I’m exploring Wales or just escaping the holiday madness in rural Massachusetts, “fake towns” give my psyche a break and, ultimately, nurse me back to mental health.
I tip my bonnet to you, St. Fagans and Old Sturbridge Village.
Rachel Noelle is a writer based in Worcester. Read about her here.