Saturday, January 31, 2015

It's a jungle out there...

Over the holiday break I re-watched the movie Up in the Air, a mildly depressing movie starring George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, and Vera Farmiga. It's about a man named Ryan (Clooney) who spends his life going around to different companies and helping them downsize, basically taking care of the firing of "unnecessary" staff. He's a travel lifer, perfecting the art of packing, getting through security (in the post-9/11 but pre-TSA pre-check days), and living a life of solitude that can only be described as bleak. He and Alex (Farmiga) meet in a hotel bar and begin a flirtation/affair over travel status and rental car upgrades. This what turns them on. It isn't until Natalie (Kendrick) comes along and convinces the boss that you can fire people from a computer console and not have to send out a fleet of people to do the dirty work that Ryan's way of life is threatened. Throw in some family drama, a sad apartment in Omaha, and Sam Elliott as a world famous pilot and you've got yourself a movie.

I saw this movie when it came out in 2009 at the height of my own work travel life. From roughly mid-2008-2011 I traveled once or more per week every week. There was a period in 2008 when I was on the road so much that I had to get my hair cut at the Mall of America while I was there for a work trip. There was another time that I was only home four days in two months. Like Ryan, I was obsessed with my mileage rewards and getting through security as fast as possible. I developed my own system for packing efficiently and cultivated personal on the road traditions that helped me feel more at home despite the fact that I was not at home. During part of this time, I traveled to Los Angeles and the Twin Cities a lot. I had friends there and that made all of the difference. I didn't hide in my hotel room, tired at the end of a long day of training. I went out and felt like a person who went to happy hours and tried new restaurants. Those moments made the road warrior life more like a regular life.

The year 2012 was a good one for me mainly because I stopped traveling as much. I would still have to go on an occasional trip but the weekly travel stopped. When you stop traveling like that you realize how much time you waste in airports, in line somewhere, or on planes. Now when I travel for work, I make sure to explore and to enjoy the trip while I get work done or do whatever I came to town to do. And this brings me to my recent trip to Cincinnati.

My company's global headquarters is in Cincinnati (it seems odd to me too but just go with it). I've worked for the company now for eight years and it wasn't until last March that I actually got to visit the mothership (as I referred to it) for the first time. I'm still amused by the fact that I get to be in Kentucky and Ohio when I'm at the airport and that the first question most people ask me about my trip is whether I had Skyline chili or not (the answer will always be no - I don't like Skyline chili). Lucky for me my friend Amy lives in Cincinnati so I have someone to hang out with and show me the ways of the city. On my last two trips, my delightful co-worker Jordana has been along too. We decided during this last trip (this week) that we needed to get out of our hotel and see more of the area. This is how we decided to visit Jungle Jim's.

What is Jungle Jim's you ask? A theme park? A bar? An international shopping extravaganza? It is all of these things and none of these things at the same time. Jungle Jim's is an international market that features tens of thousands of international items alongside Fruit Loops and normal old coffee. There's a fish market with live fish for you to select, a hot sauce section that could be its own store, a deli and cheese section that is probably the size of the fourth floor of our office building, and a wine/beer/liquor section that rivals any Total Wine out there. Did I mention that you can get a beer in a red Solo cup and drink while you grocery shop? You can, and I did twice. Oh yes, I've been both Jungle Jim's and it was glorious.

Like any expedition into the jungle, you need a guide and I had Amy (and her husband and their new baby) as mine. I met up with them for dinner early in the trip and the newer Jungle Jim's was right across from the restaurant. Of course we had to go. I'm so glad Amy was there to guide me; it is insane and overwhelming to walk into a Jungle Jim's for the first time. It's hard to decide where to go and what to see first because there's so much to see and explore. Do you go to the world-famous (I'm not joking) bathrooms first? Explore the international foods where you can buy an ostrich egg ($90) or find every type of rice and grain and spice known to man? What about the maple syrup and honey section?

The correct answer is to start at the beer and wine tasting area. Get a Solo cup of beer and begin your trek into the supermarket jungle. On my first visit I tried a peanut butter porter (excellent) and we spent two hours (no joke) walking around. I have never seen so many unusual and cool things in a grocery store before. Amy told me that there was even a hazelnut spread from Holland that was a chocolate and vanilla combo. The Eastgate location was out but I was able to find it at Fairfield. The international section is vast; I was impressed with the volume and variety of countries represented. All from a guy who started a produce stand in the mid-1970s. My first visit ended with a photo with Amy's new baby and the discovery of a section devoted to bugs for snacking. If you need some sago worms to replace your popcorn, I know where you can get some.

Jordana and I decided to go to the original Jungle Jim's in Fairfield on our last night in town. I think she was a little disappointed that I went without her but upon entering the store for the first time, was glad that I could serve as her guide. Like me, she found the store overwhelming and had no idea where to start. I suggested we find the beer first and it's on this trek that we discovered new displays that I had either ignored at the other location or just hadn't seen. We found the exotic meats sections where we could buy python, alpaca, and alligator. I didn't even know people ate python let alone that I would be able to buy it in Cincinnati.

We found the beer tasting area and got drinks for our trek around the store. The Fairfield layout is different so it took me some time to get my bearings. We finally found the international section with stops at the maple syrup/honey section and hot sauces. At this Jungle Jim's some of the countries are set up like little store fronts. It's charming and cute like a stroll down a street in Holland. I found the combo hazelnut spread (and it's delicious). Had we been so inclined we could have selected a live tilapia from the tank or had our pick of octopus or tuna steak. Again we found ostrich and emu eggs along with tiny quail eggs. Even with having visited twice, I know I've only seen a fraction of what either location has to offer.

What's most fascinating to me (and Jordana agreed) is that people were buying these items. There were lots of people doing their regular shopping here and picking up a few more exotic and interesting items along the way. People drive from other parts of Ohio to get specialty items from Jungle Jim's. I guess it's hard out there for python meat enthusiasts and Jungle Jim's can fill that void.

Which brings me to the most important question from these expeditions - why don't we have a Jungle Jim's in the DMV? The DC metro area seems like the perfect place for this store. I'm sure I could find many of the items in specialty stores around town but I'd have to go to multiple places and I wouldn't be able to drink beer while shopping. Don't we deserve weird displays, monorails from Kings Island, and famous bathrooms?

Or would Jungle Jim's lose its specialness if I could go anytime I want? I think the answer is yes. Even if I lived in Cincinnati I don't think I'd go there all the time. It would be a special treat or when I got a craving for a jar of hazelnut duo spread. It's finding places like Jungle Jim's that make work travel seem less like work and more like travel.

Alpaca, python, and beer cup photos by Jordana
All other photos by me


  1. I need to bring Wegmans flowers as an apology for cheating on it...

  2. I think you need to tell Wegmans to up their game...