Posts Tagged With: travel

Travel Journal: Ancient Cities and Rental Cars Part One

A couple of months ago one of my Facebook friends posted an article on her timeline entitled “20 Spots in Europe You Must See Before You Die”. Number Fourteen stood out to me above all the rest. Something about the crystal clear blue water and the rising peeks called to my soul. I needed to experience Les Gorges du Verdon.

Like I mentioned in my previous post, I hadn’t even wanted to go to Paris. After what I thought was an adequate amount of time in this famous city (4 days), my brother and I hightailed it out of there for southern France.

We went without a plan. I wanted to white water raft the gorge but all of my phone calls to the rafting companies had been futile. Apparently, the dam only releases water twice a week and those are the only days it is suitable to raft. But the schedule is released at 5pm the day before. All the rafting shops close at 5pm… I just had hope that it would work out.

We arrived at the Nice airport in the afternoon. I rented a car with Hertz. This process had given me endless headaches. Initially it seems that renting a car is really cheap. For six days I was getting quotes of $150. But that was a manual. I understand the basic concept of a manual, but my skills are less than desirable and my experience is limited to about two hours of lessons- once from an uncle when I was 14 in our field on the farm and another from a Clove Island teammate. Mark, my brother and traveling companion, is a valet parker. He drives cars for a living so he can do it, right? That will be an extra $300 for someone under 25…

I chose the cheaper route- an automatic, which did add another $150 to IMG_2938the price- and I had to be the sole driver. I hadn’t driven anything in over 10 months. I was nervous, to say the least, so the salesperson had no trouble signing me up for maximum insurance, adding another hefty sum to the price. I left the car rental office with lighter pockets but an excitement that was only boosted when I saw the cute little Citroen DS4. It had a built in GPS that was invaluable! After a couple minutes of fiddling around and getting acquainted, I put the car into drive. Immediately the female GPS told me to “Tournez à droit puis tournez à gauche”. I’m fairly certain that Mark, speaking no French previously, could give perfect directions with a crisp accent after more than 20 hours of listening to that.

Castellane

Les Gorges du Verdon are located about 2 hours north of Nice. Mark connected his iPhone to the car and we blasted Twenty One Pilots and Avicii as we climbed higher and higher into the Southern Alps. The temperature began to drop rapidly. When we arrived at our destination of Castellane it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius).

IMG_2962I’d chosen the cheapest place I could find with access to the gorge: Camping Frédéric Mistral. I booked a tent. It had two twin beds and a nightstand separating them. Nothing else would fit into the sloped space, not even our luggage. We kept our bags in the trunk and lived out of the car during the time we were there.

I’d decided we would stay in the town of Castellane for two nights, giving us one full day in which to white water raft.

Castellane is overshadowed by “Le Roc” or “The Rock”, a massive cliff topped by the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rock. The morning of our full day in the town, we made the half-hour hike to the top of the mountain. Along the path leading to the top there are Stations of the Cross altars, each with a mosaic of Christ’s suffering up to his death and burial. When we reached the top, we encountered a large headless statue. The plaque at the base describes it as a statue of the Virgin Mary dating back to 70AD. I have a little bit of a hard time believing this. Was Mary already idolized in 70AD? Enough to have a built a giant statue in the middle of nowhere France? I guess it’s possible but it seems highly unlikely.

Further exploration brought us into the chapel itself. The current chapel dates back to 1860 but there has been a church standing in that spot for hundreds and hundreds of years. Inside the walls are covered with plaques. They are different in form and color but most have initials and a date. Some hold explanations. “My brother was healed from cancer,” said one. Many, many plaques date from the years of World War II. They are all thanks for miracles attributed to “Our Lady of the Rock” who is prominent on the altar at the front of the church, holding an infant Jesus.

After descending from the mountain, we drove 5 kilometers to the supply shack for Aboard Rafting. Unfortunately, the dam had not been opened that day. However, we were able to book an airboat tour. An airboat is an inflatable, one-person kayak. It rides higher in the water, allowing it to go over rocks and such on which a raft would get stuck. We suited up in wetsuit socks, a sleeveless wetsuit and a long-sleeved wetsuit jacket. Along with our chain-smoking French guide, a young German couple and two French girls we began our half-day journey down the Verdon. After paddling for just five minutes, we detoured to the bank, climbed to the top of a rock and jumped into a deep, clear blue pool below. The shock of the water hitting bare skin on hands and feet felt like a punch to stomach; all the breath in my chest was expelled and I popped to the surface scrambling to intake life-giving air before screaming about how incredibly cold it was! That was enough of that water for the day. Despite getting stuck on multiple rocks, losing a lot of the air on one side of my boat making it very unsteady and getting run into by the inexperienced and very silly French girls, I managed to stay upright in my kayak the entire time. Mark was not so lucky, but he can tell that story if he so chooses.

The $35 spent on the kayak was definitely worth it. The “Places to See Before You Die” website was right on point with this one. But it only got better from there.

That evening we met a Canadian couple that told us about some other gorges in the area. The next day that’s what we decided to check out. Les Gorges de Daluis and Les Gorges du Cians, to be specific. You can find information about these gorges on www.dangerousroads.org. Why? Because the only route through these majestic marvels is a balcony road. The website describes the road better than I could. Here is an excerpt: “This road is one of the most famous balcony roads in France. A balcony road is a hair-raising lane cut into the sides of sheer cliffs. It’s a kind of road not for those who fear heights. There is little room for error on these roads.”

It recommends taking the road at a snails pace with which I was more than happy to comply. The crazy French drivers were not so happy getting stuck behind me. But I just used that as an opportunity to pull over and take pictures of the amazingness. The pictures DO NOT do it justice. This is a phenomenon that needs to be appreciated in-person.

The detour through the gorges took about 4 hours, and then Mark and I headed to Arles. It was a random town I’d decided to go to the day before after searching Google maps for a minute.

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Arles, located on the Rhône River near the Mediterranean, has been inhabited since 800BC. It was an important Phoenician trading port before Roman occupation beginning in 123BC. In more recent history, Arles played host to Vincent Van Gogh who painted some of his most famous painting while staying there.

The city center is small and it was easy to walk from monument to museum in minutes. The attractions offer joint fare admission so we were able to choose one museum and three attractions for just 11 euros. We started at the Roman amphitheater, smaller but in better repair than the Colosseum in Rome. It was built in 90AD, seating 20,000 spectators and has remained in constant use since that time. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it became a fortress and developed into a small town and residential area until the 18th century. Today it is still used for various shows.

From there we walked to the Roman theater, taking pictures of the semicircular seating

and the fallen columns littering the courtyard. Then we descended into the depths of the city, into what is called the cryptoporticus. Arles cryptoporticus dates to the first century BC and was a part of the original Roman forum, though it was probably built by Greeks from Marseilles. It was dark and damp with no signs explaining the significance. It doesn’t have great reviews on TripAdvisor for these reasons. People called it creepy and a waste of time. But I liked it! I imagined the thousands of people over the years who had walked the stones, their feet smoothing the rough edges and creating the depressions that pooled with water. I didn’t need signs at the time. Breathing in the murky dampness was like breathing ancient history. Then I went home and looked it up on Wikipedia; who needs signs?

We ended our Arles day at the Musée Réattu. We had wanted to visit the Van Gogh museum, but we missed the opening by 2 days. The Musée Réattu was created in 1868, featuring the works of Jacques Réattu. In 1888, after three days in the city, Van Gogh wrote this to his brother Theo concerning this museum, “The women really are beautiful here, it’s no joke — on the other hand, the Arles museum is dreadful and a joke, and fit to be in Tarascon.[1]

Since that time, the museum has acquired some Picasso drawings, making it, in my humble and inexpert opinion, even more of a joke. The actual building in which the museum is housed has historical significance so that made the visit not a complete waste of time.

Stay tuned for part two of Southern France covering Carcassonne (like the board game!) and an interesting Airbnb experience in Toulouse.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mus%C3%A9e_R%C3%A9attu

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Travel Journal: The City of Lights

I’m in Madrid, Spain at the moment. I shouldn’t be.

I bought bus tickets online to go to Barcelona at 9am…on May 18th, the day we arrived in Madrid. So I’m sitting here at a McDonalds on Calle de Francisco Silvela, Madrid until my new bus, that I had to pay full price for, leaves at 1pm.

The only good thing that comes from my idiocy is the time to write this post. My pain, your gain. You are all welcome.

Paris. The City of Lights.

I was in Paris 14 years ago. I studied abroad the summer between my junior and senior years of high school with the Indiana University Honors Program in Foreign Language. I spent seven weeks living with a host family, speaking ONLY French and taking French classes in St. Brieuc, France. We flew out of Charles De Gaulle so the last two days we were given free rein to roam Paris. Not knowing the next time I might return, I tried to do everything. I went up the Eiffel Tower and wrote my name in sharpie along with hundreds of thousands of others. I raced through the Louvre to see Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. I loved every second looking at Degas’ paintings in the Musée D’Orsay. I strolled through the Gardens of the Musée Rodin, admiring the Thinker, of which I had made a mini-replica for French class the year before. And finally, I walked around the manicured gardens of Versailles. Unfortunately, the palace was closed for renovations so I wasn’t able to see inside.

I had no real desire to go to Paris again. Been there, done that. There are so many places to see in the world and so little time! But I was meeting my 20-year-old brother, Mark, and Paris was the cheapest place for him to fly in to.

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At the airport. 1st photo.

I wasn’t broken up about it. This was to be his first trip abroad and everyone should really go to Paris at least once in their lives if they have the means. It is Paris, after all.

I arranged my EasyJet flight from Venice so that I would arrive an hour and half before Mark who was flying Icelandair from Orlando, with a very short layover in Iceland. Although his flight from Orlando was running late, he was still able to make his connection and magically his luggage arrived too.

It had been 10 months since I’d seen him last, but he looked pretty much the same. He had the backpack I’d bought him for Christmas and wore a brave face, though I knew internally he was quaking. It’s a scary thing to really travel for the first time. Fortunately, he has a well-traveled, confident, and, if it’s not too far-fetched, inspiring big sister to, in a very Type-A, control-freak fashion, control the minutiae of the three week journey.

Our first obstacle to navigate was getting to our hotel from Orly. We stayed in TimHotel Berthier, conveniently located right next to the Port de Clichy metro station. First we had to squeeze into the Orly Bus and then switch metro trains a couple times, but we arrived in tact.

Our hotel room was small but really nice- by far the nicest I’d stayed in up to that point. After settling in, we set out to explore the city.

Remember my friend Sarah? She came out to Mozambique for my 30th birthday. Well, a couple days before I arrived in Paris she contacted me and asked what my itinerary was. Then she decided on a whim to come and meet me in Paris. She was staying in a hostel about half an hour metro ride from us. That was the first thing on the to-do list- meet up Sarah. Second was to eat dinner.

We found Sarah easily enough and quickly settled into a cute little restaurant. We ordered our meals. Mark ordered steak tartare. I really wasn’t paying attention, too involved in my own choice of onion soup and salad. Sarah noticed but didn’t say anything because she knows me and I’m a fairly adventurous eater so she thought it might run in the family.

Well, fortunately, it does. The unexpected pile of minced raw meat arrived and Mark didn’t blink an eye. We had a good laugh over his ignorance of what he ordered, but when the server offered to switch it out for something cooked, Mark refused. He ate every single bite of that mass of blood, red beef. He admitted that he only did it because he knew I would make fun of him the rest of the trip if he didn’t (his bad luck, I still have :).

From there we walked to Sacré-Coeur and then on the opposite end of the morality IMG_2749spectrum, the Moulin Rouge. Sarah would have been happy to stay out all night, Mark would have gone along with anything, but I am a total stick in the mud. Eleven o’clock rolled around and I was ready for my nice, warm bed.

The next day found us on the metro. We had a bike tour scheduled with Fat Tire Bike Tours for 10am. We left a full hour ahead of time even though Google maps told me it was only a half hour. It was a new public transportation system to figure out and I hate to be late. One hour and fifteen minutes and four trains later, we arrived at the Fat Tire Office. I blame Google maps! I had typed Fat Tire Tours Paris into the search and it decided I wanted to go to Paris. Just Paris. It was a couple trains later when I realized we were headed in the completely opposite direction. From that time on, I decided to use the maps in every station to guide me rather than unreliable, tricky Google maps.

I called the Fat Tire when we I realized we would be late, but they were great and the tour waited for us. I’m so glad it did because we had an amazing time. The weather was fabulous. Our guide, an American-raised, Frenchman, was knowledgeable and entertaining. We covered so much ground in four hours and I, at least, felt oriented to the city (Mark was just along for the ride).IMG_2770

After the tour, having a better idea of the various things to see, we made a plan of attack. That night Mark and I walked up the stairs of the Eiffel Tower. We were about to make our way down whIMG_2816en thousands and thousands of lights started sparkling across the Tower. There was an audible gasp, which I heard first before seeing the lights and I admit my first instinct was TERRORIST…but it was just lights so that was cool.

Full day number two was an early morning start, once again with Fat Tire Bike Tours (because we liked them so much the day before) to Versailles. This time I convinced Sarah to go with us. She’s not much for early mornings on vacation, or physical activity, but she does like hanging out with people so that was the clincher. With a group of around 12-13, we took the train to Versailles with our Canadian guide and got our bikes. Then we spent an hour going around the market buying supplies for a picnic. The tour was, once again, fabulous. Weather-amazing. We visited Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, built in 1783 to resemble her home country of Austria. We had a leisurely ride through the outer gardens and picnicked beside the water. The tour came with a fast pass into the castle. We took advantage of that and I finally was able to visit the palace! It has some great history and I loved connecting the history of the monarchs with the movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read about them: Man in the Iron Mask, Reign, Marie Antoinette, the Three Musketeers, etc. Obviously, those are mostly fiction but using the guise of people who actually existed and walked the same halls I was walking.

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Marie Antoinette’s hamlet

The following day was originally intended to include an early morning visit to the catacombs but it was May 8th. Not ringing a bell? May 8th is Victory in Europe Day! I heard that there was going to be a military processional on the Champs-Elysees that morning. Mark and I decided the catacombs would probably still be there but how often would we be in Paris on May 8th?? We arrived early and had a great vantage point near the Arch de Triomphe to watch all the diplomats with their flags proudly waving on their Mercedes, Peugeots and Renaults. The American ambassador drove by in the only SUV we saw in the city- a Chevy, of course.

Finally, the French president brought up the rear, with the window rolled down waving at the spectators. He was followed by the cavalry decked out in their awesome FrenchIMG_2873 uniforms, with long hair hanging from their helmets. Pretty cool.

From there we walked to Notre Dame (all the metro stations on the Champs-Elysees were closed for VE Day). It was very far. Then we walked to the Louvre. It was practically empty! Two days before on our bike tour the square in front of the famous pyramids was packed with people queuing to get in. I bought online tickets to avoid that but there was really no need. There was no line and we roamed through the massive museum unmolested.

We attempted to hit everything really famous and visited Napoleon’s rooms, which I hadn’t seen previously. Mark is a pretty fun person with which to visit a museum. He doesn’t bore easily. And we were able to have fun commenting on the works of art. But I started to feel rough about half way through the tour- stomachache. I needed to sit every couple of rooms. It was a serious drag. I wish we could have stayed longer but my stomach was draining any fun out of the day.

I wanted to go back to the hotel and stew in my misery, but I had another rendezvous. This time it was with another Peace Corps friend, Levi and his girlfriend. When I was in Italy I saw Levi post a selfie in front of Notre Dame and so I messaged him to see if he was still going to be in Paris when I visited. Turns out he lives there. So the answer was yes…and no. I hadn’t met up with him earlier because he decided to take that same weekend to go to Scotland. The nerve!

Fortunately, he agreed to meet me right after putting his luggage in his apartment. He lives in the cutest neighborhood that hosts two of the top 50 bars in the world, Candelaria and Little Red Door (according to www.world50bestbars.com). We visited both of them. They were cool; I indulged in water only since my stomach hurt, but the water was definitely topnotch.IMG_2914

I hadn’t seen Levi in the seven years since Peace Corps ended. It was awesome to reconnect, hear about what he’s been up to and meet the lady who stole his heart. Sarah, Levi and I relived some of our more memorable stories and reminded each other of things the other had forgotten. We stayed out until midnight and then raced to the metro to make it back to the hotel before metro stopped running.

And that was Paris. The next day Mark and I took our last metro train to the Orly bus, this time experts in Parisian public transportation. We left in the early afternoon for Nice, but that is another story…

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Travel Journal: Cafés that Won’t Serve Coffee

In contrast to Naples, everyone told me I was going to just love Venice. I spent one night in Florence where I participated in a “Tour of Italy” dinner. It was by far the best food I had in Italy but I also met an American couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. They had just come from Venice and were raving about it.

“You’ll just love Venice. There are no cars. Florence has so many cars!”

“I can’t wait for you to go to Venice; the seafood is to die for!”

“Really, you’re just going to love it. Everyone walks everywhere and no one is in a hurry.”

And so on.

I had high hopes for Venice. Because I am not a bazillionaire I stayed outside of the city. I accidentally got off at the right train station. My ticket was for the station right outside the city but I got off at Venice- Mestre, because it said Venice and the girl sitting across from me got off. I’m a sheep; what can I say? Fortunately, it happened to be the neighborhood in which my hotel was located. Lucky coincidence that saved me about 45 minutes of public transportation time. But it also meant I arrived three hours before I was allowed to check in.

I checked TripAdvisor (of course) to find a highly-rated restaurant to hang out in. There was one right next door! I told the waitress to bring me whatever she had. And this is what I got:IMG_2591

I still don’t know what everything was but you better believe I ate every bit. I wasn’t even sure how to go about eating it and my mom’s helpful advice via Facebook messenger was “chew and swallow”. Thanks mom.

After checking in and a short nap, I took a 45-ish minute bus to the city of Venice. I’d scheduled a free walking tour for 5:00pm and it was in the middle of the city. I put the coordinates into Google maps on my phone and off I went through

 

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Santa Maria dei Miracoli made completely out of marble

the city, over bridges after bridge until I came to a water taxi port. I told Google I only wanted to walk but it didn’t listen. I was running a bit late and there was no way I could back track to a bridge across the Grand Canal (also at this point I wasn’t sure those actually existed) and make it to the meeting point. I bought the 7€50 ticket for a 10 minute ride along the Grand Canal. Upon reaching the other side, I ploughed through masses of tourists, following the winding blue line on my phone until I reached a plaza where a small American girl in glasses waited with a sign “Venice Free Walking Tour” and a tablet to check people in.

The walking tour was great for several reasons. 1. It was free. 2. We went to non-touristy places. 3. Our guide, Shannon, (while American and therefore not authentic J) knew the history and had special anecdotes to add. 4. Our guide, Shannon, was American and therefore spoke great English!

Upon Shannon’s advice, when the tour ended I went out for cicchetti at a small restaurant. Cicchetti are like Venetian tapas. Cicchetti is the plural. One is called a cicchetto (according to Wikipedia). Then it was the bus back to my hotel.

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Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute (1630)

The next day I made sure to buy a full day water taxi pass for 20€, an absolute steal considering the price for one ticket. First, I headed over to St. Mark’s Basilica, arguably the most famous site in Venice. The first building was begun in 828 when some Venetian merchants stole the relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria. The horses of Saint Mark-Lysippos are fairly well known as well. They were apparently looted during the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Then Napoleon stole them in 1797, but they were returned in 1815. Now they’re kept inside the basilica. The outside is adorned with replicas.

Funny history lesson, but I never got to see the inside. I waited in line in the campo for 30 minutes. There was the old man who was so sneaky. I saw him start maybe 10 people behind me and he just worked his way up the line, standing close to the people beside him, seemingly in their group. I was totally on to his game by the time he made it up to me, but he just kept looking straight ahead, walking in his slow, old-man way. By the time he made it to the door of the Basilica, he was about 15 people in front of me!

I had packed for the day with a small Camelback backpack. Like the smallest you can buy. I had my wallet, phone and a bottle of water. Ladies in front and behind me are carrying giant, beach-going purses. No problem! But me, with my tiny little backpack. Nope! The Venetian St. Mark’s guardsmen takes one look at the straps over my shoulders and tells me no, I cannot enter with a backpack. That’s it. I was dismissed.

But I stood rooted to my spot, holding up the ever-increasing line. Excuse me?!? What am I supposed to do? He points to a small sign with some line you’re supposed to follow around to the other side of the church for a bag check. It was not at all clear. And then I would have to wait in line again?!? You can’t even take pictures inside. I think not! Now the nice American couple told me I just had to go inside and see the mosaics, but really. Rude. And dumb.

The only thing I will give St. Mark’s is that it was there for the first time in Italy that I saw a depiction of the risen Christ. Right over the door was the mosaic pictured below:IMG_2662

I had started to think Italian Catholics had forgotten that Jesus rose from the dead, given all the art with him either as an infant, or on the cross, or dead in Mary’s arms. At least the artist of Saint Mark’s remembered that we Christians serve a Risen Savior. But that’s all I give that basilica. Otherwise, they made me so mad!

After my rude dismissal, I marched over to the water that would take me to Murano, the island of glass. All glassmakers were moved to this island in 1201 because of the many fires that had been caused by their workshops on the main island of Venice. Once I arrived, I watched a glass making demonstration, paid far too much for some necklaces out of the showroom and then went to the island of Burano.IMG_2690

Burano is known for it’s lace, brightly colored houses and for me, it’s rude café servers. After a rough morning, not being allowed into St. Mark’s and then walking around a bunch, I was pretty tired and wanted a coffee. I’d already eaten lunch on Murano, so I thought Burano deserved my coffee patronage. In the main plaza, I sat unobtrusively at a café, Trattoria Café Vecio, to be precise. It was cute place in a nice location looking over all of the brightly painted houses. The server approached me and asked if I was going to be ordering lunch. No, I replied, I’d just like some coffee.

We don’t serve coffee.

I craned me neck around the server to where I could see the wall decorated with paintings of coffee beans and signs, in English, saying “Coffee”.

That’s weird, I said, your signs seem to indicate otherwise.

Well, he replied, we don’t serve coffee right now. It’s lunchtime.

(It was 2:30pm)

If you want coffee you can come back at 4:00.

Are you kidding me right now?!? I didn’t say that. What I actually did was stand up, walk 5 feet away and look them up on TripAdvisor where I gave a scathing review. I mean, if there was a queue, people just dying to get Trattoria Café’s lunch, and I had taken the seat of some couple that would have paid the 20€ a plate prices, then fine. But the place was far from full!

Ok, I get it Venice. You get 27 million tourists a year. We probably annoy you a bit. But also, we are your paycheck. Not cool, Venice, not cool.

So Venice is pretty amazing. It’s mesmerizingly beautiful. The history is incredible. But be prepared for café’s that don’t serve coffee, unidentifiable seafood and backpack-discriminating churches.

One last interesting fact. The last part of my day was visiting the Jewish ghetto. The word “ghetto” actually comes from the Venetian dialect. It was the first ghetto and was created in 1516- so this year it is 500 years old. The Jewish population who still lives there is quite small, but I did find out that you can buy Murano glass a lot cheaper there than on the island of Murano!

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Bridge to the Ghetto

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Travel Journal: Why are there no toilet seats in Naples?

I must admit that I did not plan or research a lot before coming to Italy. Internet is expensive on the islands and I didn’t have the time, what with packing, saying goodbyes, endless ceremonies, etc. But I am not one of those people that can just show up in a city and blow around from here to there like tumbleweed. I am Type-A after all. So my planning consisted of choosing four cities: Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice, booking my hostels/hotels and buying train tickets.

Why those cities? Because I’d heard of them. Really, it’s as simple as that. I’ve heard of a lot of cities in Italy but those were the first ones that popped into my head. My aunt, who’d visited Italy last year, warned me off Naples the day I arrived in Rome. This was our Facebook conversation:

Me: I’m doing Italy alone. I fly into Rome, then I’ll travel to Naples, Florence and Venice. I fly from Venice to Paris.

Her: Okay well I would skip Naples if I were you. That’s the only place Rachel and I didn’t even feel safe together. Sorrento is gorgeous and safe and we would have stayed there instead if we had known.

Me: I’ve already got stuff booked in Naples and I’m really excited about seeing Pompeii. I’m sure I’ll be fine.

Her: No worries but please please do be careful you definitely don’t want to be out at night alone I hope you meet some other Travelers on the way. We met a number of girls traveling alone but never there.

I put this conversation out of my mind while I was in Rome but on the hour-long train ride down to Naples I started researching on my phone. I ran across articles titled, “Why No One Wants to Travel to Naples” and “Naples: Italy’s Scariest City”. By the end of my train ride, I was quite convinced I would witness a murder before exiting the train station and I would definitely be mugged on my way to the hostel.

Stepping down from my safe train compartment, I held my luggage close and clutched my purse under my armpit. Every passerby was mafia with a nefarious gleam in his or her eye. Every child was a pickpocketer. I bustled through the train station as quickly as possible, considering what I had on my person to use as a weapon. Waiting for the metro, I ran through scenarios in my head. What would I do if someone came at me with knife? What if I was surrounded by a Vespa gang and they demanded my backpack? Thoughts swirled and fear raged.

I made it to my metro stop with no incidents. As I furtively glanced at my fellow passengers, they didn’t look particularly menacing. Not menacing, but I did notice a definite style change from the sophistication of black-clad Roman women. Entering the street from underground, I was assaulted with the sight of a large, hairy potbelly peaking out from a stained white shirt on a man standing in my path. Girls walked by with ripped jeans and badly dyed hair. Whatever else might be said, la mode of Napoli is far more grunge and laissez-faire than Rome.

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Typical Street in Naples

I immediately noticed the graffiti. It was everywhere. There was also a distinct smell- urine mixed with marijuana- that permeated the city streets. It actually reminded me a bit of New York City.

Google maps directed me the 0.2 miles to my hostel, aptly named Giovanni’s Home (as the hostel was housed in the apartment of a Neapolitan man named Giovanni). Naples is very hilly so my journey to the hostel took me down a hill, up a hill and down another. I arrived at the hostel sweating and sore. Despite the temperature gage that told me Naples was colder than Rome at 62 degrees (16.6 Celsius), it felt much hotter. Giovanni was waiting for me on the porch of his 3rd story apartment.

“Jessie!” he called down when I was still about 200 meters down the road, “Jessie! Up here!”

I was buzzed into the complex and helped to the third floor with my luggage. Giovanni bustled around showing me the bathrooms, kitchen, common area and the bedroom I would share with seven other girls. I, thank goodness, was given a bottom bunk. He told me to rest; he was waiting on some more arrivals at which point he would give us all a presentation about Naples.

Half an hour later, I sat across from Giovanni, wedged in between three Spanish girls and a British couple. Giovanni laid a map before us and began highlighting all of the things we must see, the streets we must walk and the places we must avoid. For particularly notable attractions, he pulled up pictures on his computer.

Well aware of the reputation his city has, he took some of the presentation time to give us crime statistics. Barcelona is the number one city in the world for pickpocketing. Paris, Rome, and Florence are in the top ten. Naples doesn’t have such a distinction. Giovanni advised walking around with a backpack instead of a small purse. Backpacks are hard to snatch and small purses are tempting because they will have all the essentials- phone and cash.

As I’d arrived at lunchtime, Giovanni recommended a pizza place in the area- the best in Naples. And since Naples makes the best pizza in the world, the best in the world? I set off almost immediately when he was finished, promptly got lost and ended up at the pizza place at the same time as the Spanish girls who had left after me.

I won’t go into a detailed description of everything I saw and did in Naples. Suffice to say, I believe it has an undeserved bad reputation. Aside from my terrifying walk to my hostel, hounded by the voices of cautious tourists, I felt completely safe and had a marvelous time taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the third largest city in Italy.

There are some things that do deserve special mention. The very first thing I visited was the Cappella Sansevero, a small chapel that was built in 1590. It houses some of the most beautiful sculptures I have ever seen. The most famous (for good reason) is the Veiled Christ, completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino. Sculpted from marble, it appears that Christ is wearing a shroud but his facial expression and form can clearly be seen underneath. Wow.

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No pictures allowed in the chapel. This comes from http://www.museosansevero.it

I can’t count the number of churches that I entered. The Duomo of Napoli houses the crypt of the city’s principle patron saint, Januarius or San Gennaro. On the stage of this grand cathedral there was a dead guy on display in a glass case. Having eight years of Catholic education, I had heard of this practice but this was the first time I’d ever seen anything like it. His name was Beato Nunzio Sulprizo and he died in 1836 at age 19. He has been venerated as “Blessed” by the Catholic Church since 1963. I starred at him for a while trying to understand the purpose of having him on display. I think my deeply embedded Protestantism hampered my efforts. In addition to this mummified dude, there were offering plates placed around the church “For the worship of San Gennaro”. That’s what the plates said. And the age old debate continues; since when do Christians consider it appropriate to worship dead people? That topic is a post for another time—but it truly did disturb my sensibilities.IMG_2391

That first day I walked over 12 miles. The second day I booked an all-day tour of Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. Giovanni was not at all happy when he discovered I’d been tricked into booking a tour! “Oh sh*t!” he bemoaned, “You could have done so much more and for cheaper if you just went on your own. Why would you do that? Why??” I smiled and sympathized. “Darn you, tourist traps!” And I shook my fist in the air (not really). But in actuality, I was not disappointed in myself for booking a tour. I was picked up in a bus, driven around with commentary on the buildings being passed, given an expert guide of Pompeii providing information that could not have been obtained with a simple audioguide, given lunch and driven up Mount Vesuvius to where the walking path begins. I have to get myself from one place to another across Europe. When I’m in a city, sometimes I don’t want to have to figure everything out myself. I felt no guilt despite Giovanni’s best effort.

Not everyone at the hostel was so lucky. I met a young Australian girl that night when I returned from my amazing day in Pompeii. Upon walking in the door, Giovanni asked if I ate everything. Without allowing me to answer he informed me that he was going to show me how to make carbonara.

“Oh sounds good. When?”

“Now! Now. Come.”

Putting my backpack on my bed and plugging in my phone took too long. “Jessie!!! Come,” rang through the hostel. Two other girls waited to be instructed and we struck up a conversation about our days. Rose, the Australian, had also been on a couple tours during her time in Naples. She had the same reasoning I had but expressed dismay at Giovanni’s disapproval. In fact, the day before, he’d given her such a haranguing that her eyes had prickled with unshed tears. As we enjoyed a small glass of wine that evening in the Piazza Bellini, I told her not to worry about it. The clientele of said hostel seems to be overwhelmingly young- mostly college students. Most of them are probably more than happy to take any advice given by this grandfatherly figure and he is most willing (is there a stronger word than willing?) to give it. He wanted to know everything I was doing and he always had something to say about it.

“What are you doing today?”

“Going to the island of Procida.”

“Take the ferry, not the small metro boat. It’s too windy.”

(I took the small boat and it was fine).

Later…

“What time are you leaving tomorrow?”

“6:30”

“That is too early! You leave at 7:00. Take a taxi.”

“Umm…no. I think I’m still going to leave at 6:30 and take the metro.”

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The island of Procida.

The look of disapproval was evident but I just smiled. Most conversations were some variation of this. I understood Rose’s discomfort, but for me, there was something endearing about his bossiness. I also give him the credit for singlehandedly turning my fear of Naples into love. I don’t quite agree with the Neapolitan saying, “Vedi Napoli e poi muori!–“See Naples and die” but it’s definitely worth the seeing.

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Toledo Station in Naples. Ranked the #1 most beautiful metro station in the world.

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One of the many churches I visited

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Travel Journal: Blisters and Fashion Faux Pas

Rome- the Eternal City. I was fairly nervous arriving in Rome. Like I pointed out in my last post, I have very limited experience traveling Europe. And the experience I do have comes from 14 years ago. I know how to travel in Africa, where you use filtered water to brush your teeth and take bus taxis that break down several times during one’s trip. Europe is different.

I arrived in jeans, a three quarter-sleeved shirt and a thin sweater. I was also wearing some new Nike sneakers I’d been given a couple days before. They are the minimalist sneakers, intended to be worn without socks. Unfortunately, as I was just breaking these shoes in, they’d given me a massive blister on my right Achilles heel. It had already popped and the shoe continued to rub it until it bled. I was limping on my way out of the airport. I knew I needed some new shoes ASAP. Aside from these sneakers, I had two pair of flip-flops. And it was 57 degrees Fahrenheit (13.8 Celsius). Flip flops were not going to cut it.

I arrived at my hostel, Orsa Maggiore (the Great Bear). It is close to Vatican City and is housed in a former convent. The hostel is for women only. I was placed in a room with

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Entrance to the hostel

three beds. After a quick lunch in the cafeteria downstairs, I passed out. I was cold, tired and sore. I slept most of the afternoon until my Indian roommate returned from her day in the city. We hit it off and decided to visit the Pantheon and have dinner together.

We made it to the Piazza Navona where we stopped for a coffee. Both of us had read that it annoyed Italians immensely when foreigners drink coffee in the evening without eating a meal first, so we relished the chance to display our irritating foreignness. From there we leisurely walked to the Pantheon,

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Entrance to the Pantheon

one of the best-preserved ancient Roman buildings (126AD). It has been in continuous use since it’s completion, which accounts for its preservation. We arrived about 10 minutes after it closed its doors but we were able to admire the exterior. It is really quite impressive.

I continued to limp along the rest of the night, looking for an open shoe store or a pharmacy, neither of which I found.

The following morning I had a Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica tour scheduled. The thought of putting my sneakers back on sent shivers down my spine. I would not be able to make the two-kilometer walk to the Vatican. So I put on the only other shoes I had…flip-flops. Also it’s the Vatican, right? And the Pope was supposed to be doing his popely duties in St. Peter’s Square. I wanted to look respectful and not like a complete scrub. I put on an African wrap skirt, a solid black shirt and a thin gray sweater with a black shawl that I wore as a scarf. Remember, it is cold.IMG_2261

I left a couple hours early in the hopes of finding some presentable shoes on the way. No luck. I walked all through the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica looking like a  moron. Scarf, sweater, arms wrapped around myself to ward off the chill and…flip-flops.

The tour was wonderful and the things I saw were beautiful. You can read more about them on TripAdvisor. But this post is not about that; it’s about me and my feet. After the tour, I typed “shoe store” into Google and followed the dotted blue line on my phone to a shop that was closed for lunch. I waited next door at the McDonalds where I was very excited to indulge in a frappe. But they didn’t have any. They had an entire café full of Italian mini-coffees but no frappes. I got one of their tiny little coffees of which they are so proud.

An hour or so later I walked to the shoe store. There is a large display of shoes behind a Plexiglas window but once I walked into the store there were about five styles of shoes. I stood there looking at these shoes, three attendants looked at me. No one approached me. The room was quite small. The four of us filled it snuggly yet no one offered to help me. I looked at the lady and pointed outside, miming that I wanted to try a shoe that was in the display case. I pointed to a pair of black, leather woven flats. They looked practical, comfortable and cute. I told her my European size, tried them on and bought them. Outside there was a street sock vendor so I stocked up on socks for these new shoes and my sneakers. I was ready for a night on the town.

Fortunately, I also passed a pharmacy on the way home and found bandages just for foot blisters. They had all kinds for every place one could possibly have a blister. I found the band-aids specifically for the Achilles heel. All the instructions were in Italian so I depended completely on the picture. At the counter, the cashier rang up the bandages. Eleven euros! What??? There were six bandages total in the package. Six. For eleven euros. They better have magical healing powers. But I kept a very composed exterior as I handed over the proper amount of cash. Ladida…I buy 11 euro band-aids all the time.

That night I washed my blister and stuck on the bandage. I put on my little stockings and my flats. I’d decided to visit a restaurant that was 0.2 miles from my hostel. It was highly rated on TripAdvisor. By the time I’d reached the road from my hostel, I knew I’d made a mistake. The shoes were rubbing right underneath where I had placed the band-aid and the stockings I’d purchased were making the shoes slip right off my feet so I kind of had to drag them along the ground with a weird limp to ease the rubbing. Once again, I looked like a complete crazy person, shuffling down the street with a strange limp-hobble.

My dining experience was interesting. The restaurant was small and diners were placed very close to one another, with only a tiny space (not enough to squeeze through) between tables. I was sat next to two American couples, probably all in their 60’s. One of the ladies fancied herself an Italian speaker. I feigned disinterest, while I fiddled on my phone but I couldn’t help but overhear as she translated the menu for her friends.

“Oh, spiedini, that’s a type of pasta. See, it’s listed under the ‘second plates’”. I had a suspicion she was incorrect because I’d noticed that the primero plato was always a type of pasta and the segundo plato was meat. I looked it up on Google. Spiedini means “skewers”. The menu item was skewers of fish but she translated it as fish pasta.

The server approached and she ordered for everyone by saying, “Me gusta…” and finished with “gracias”. The server rattled off some things in Italian and when she left the lady said, “You say a couple words in Italian and these people think you’re fluent.” Oh…my. In case you, my reader, are confused, this woman was speaking Spanish, not Italian. And I am quite sure the server was under no impression that she was a fluent Italian speaker. She was probably just making fun of her. Oh, my country people. There is a reason we have the reputation we do.

The next day I had determined to visit the Colosseum and Roman Forum. According to Google maps it was an hour walk away. In the morning I put on a new band-aid (since the previous one had been ruined by my new shoes) and socks. I chose to wear my elephant Ali Baba pants that I’d bought in Tanzania. I pulled the elastic legs down to my sneakers covering my legs from the chill. They were really comfortable, but once again, I stood out. Roman women, at least in the cold, were bedecked in black and jean. Asian tourists wore the only bright colors I’d seen in two days. The last thing I wanted to do was stand out, but what could I do?

I walked to the Roman Forum, arriving early enough that I had it almost completely to myself for at least the first half hour. I downloaded an App that would tell me about everything I was seeing. After two hours in the Forum and Palatine Hill, I walked right next door to the Colosseum. I was not lucky here- it was packed with people. And soon after I exited, it began to rain. My feet and back were killing me. But I knew there was a shopping district in Rome and I was in desperate need of some warmer clothes and closed-toed shoes I could actually walk in.

Once again Google saved the day and I came across the Via del Corso where I was able to buy jeggings. That’s right. Jean leggings. Judge if you must, but I love them. The next dressing room I visited, I took the opportunity to change into my jeggings so I looked like a halfway normal person. From there I found a faux leather jacket. All Roman women, and men for that matter, were sporting leather jackets. But I could hardly afford the 200€ real lamb leather jacket, even though it’s an excellent price for the quality. But my faux leather looks awesome and cost only 30€.

From there I thought I’d get some authentic tall, Italian-made leather boots. I went into a little boutique and asked to see some boots. They were beautiful and soft. And they only went up to my ankle. That’s right, I could not pull the boot past my ankle. Apparently I have colossal calves. Guys, really, I’m not fat. I’m pretty normal. But I guess I have giant calves! Next time you see me, don’t look. Just forget I told you this.

The store clerk told me that I should walk in heels for three hours every day like Italian women and then I might develop the toned, slim calves necessary to fit into these Italian boots. Well, that’s snobby. You try walking around in heels on Clove Island. Oh wait, island women do it all the time…whatever. I refuse! I decided to try a different store. No. Every…single…store. It was so embarrassing. I have tall boots in the States! They fit! I had to settle for ankle boots from Bata, a Swiss company. Bleh.IMG_2352

From there I walked home. I walked twelve miles that day. And I am such an old person. Every bit of my body hurt. My feet are swollen and red. My toenails are black from bruises. I have at least five blisters, but only two of them are painful. My back hurts. And since I’ve been in Naples, I also bought an ankle brace because my left ankle feels like it is going to crack in half. I am falling apart. Seriously, though.

But Rome was awesome!

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Travel Journal: Arrival in Europe

I’ve left the islands. And I’ve embarked on a new adventure. For the next month I will be traveling through Europe- Italy, France and Spain. When I was 16, I spent 7 weeks in France. I was in St. Brieuc, Brittany. I spent two days in Paris on my way home. And that’s all I’d done in Europe…until now.

I haven’t really had the opportunity or desire in the past. Europe, especially the places I’ve chosen, is so overdone. Who doesn’t know someone who throws out, “Oh well when I was in [fill in any large European city]…”? I prefer to sound pretentious in a less predictable way. “Was that so scary when you thought that guy on the bus was starring at you? That reminds me of that time in Kenya when my shoes were stolen and I had to outrun a bull elephant barefoot through molten lava.” Yeah…

However, it was actually cheaper to fly home from Africa with a ticket to Rome and then another from Barcelona home than it was to fly directly home from Africa. I gave in.

The trip started a little rough. I flew Ethiopian Airlines (which before you say anything, is a very reputable company and I’ve actually flown them on multiple occasions without incident). I had two large bags weighing 30 kilograms each (approx. 66lbs or 132lbs total). It was a tad over their weight limit and they charged me a pretty sum. The baggage handler whispered in my ear that they would reduce the price $20 if I didn’t insist on a receipt. I insisted.

I arrived in Addis Ababa on time and took a seat in one of their reclining chairs to wait out my 4-hour layover. In my lifetime I have spent about 48 hours in the Addis airport. In 2009, I spent two nights there. I have a love/hate relationship with it, without the love. It’s cold. There are no good restaurants. And the gates are behind Plexiglas walls that one must go through security to get to. Once at the gate, there is no exiting and there are no shops and not even a vending machine for water. There are bathrooms, thank God, but forget about getting water from the faucet unless you want to spend the remainder of your vacation as a parasite incubator.

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The Addis Airport

After several hours, I made my way to the gate. My flight was just making a pit stop in Rome and continuing on to Stockholm. I followed the inordinate number of blond heads to the correct gate and sat. Almost immediately, the departure sign flashed saying the flight was delayed for an hour. It would be leaving at 1am.

It was already 11:30 and I was pretty tired so I fell asleep leaning on my suitcase. I jerked awake, drool running down my chin and one arm completely asleep. It was 2am. I was still surrounded my blond heads speaking strange languages. And the departure sign still said the flight was leaving at 1am. I sat in a stupor, not understanding. I was thirsty. They’d made me dump out my water when I went through security. For 45 minutes I simply sat there, wrapped in my sweater and African shawl, trying unsuccessfully to fend off the cold that had already seeped into my bones. How quickly the body forgets the horrors of heat when faced with the frigid reality of the rest of the world.

2:45am. Airline employees wheel in carts of water and muffins. There is a mad rush to the front. People stagger away loaded down with water bottles, muffins stuffed into pockets. I barely made it before the water was finished.

3:00am. An Amharic announcement blares from the speakers and people rush toward the door. People are such sheep. I know those blondies do not understand Amharic! How do they know what that announcement said? Turns out it was for us, but that is totally beside the point! The line wound it’s way through the airport, down a ramp, down some stairs and finally to a shuttle. The shuttle drove us across the airfield to a rather large plane. I was in the last row, row 37. And I was the only one in my row. I had not chosen my seat, Ethiopian Airlines had. People always choose to sit in the front. I once heard that you are more likely to survive a plane crash if you’re in the back of the plane, so it is a little ironic that the front is our natural tendency. I walked through the front and it was packed. Every seat in every row was filled for the first 20 rows. I had my entire row to stretch out and sleep for the six-hour flight. Hahaha, suckers! I mean…no, that is what I mean. Hahahahaha.

We arrived in Rome 4 hours late, which was completely fine with me. I had no one waiting for me and check-in at my hostel wasn’t until 10am. With the original itinerary I was supposed to arrive at 5:30am and do something with about 160lbs of luggage (including my two carry-ons…yes, two. I am sneaky like that.) Instead I arrived at 9:30ish. Passport control was a breeze. Then came baggage claim. I found the carousel quickly enough. There were just a few bags circling around and people began arriving to claim them. Then there was only one maroon bag, circling again and again and again. Yet, people from my flight surrounded the carousel. We waited. And waited some more. Then a flight from Amsterdam arriving 45 minutes after ours was put on the board. I walked to baggage lost and found and gave the brightly-lipsticked woman my luggage tags. She told me I just needed to wait.

More people from my flight drifted over to lost and found, receiving the same answer. More people arrived surrounding the carousel…the people from Amsterdam. And then their luggage arrived…

I began to worry a bit. I’d arranged to have my luggage shipped from Rome that day. The pick-up was at 2pm at my hostel. Would they reschedule if my bags didn’t show up. Would I lose all the money I’d spent to ship and have to cart around 3 years of my life on the trains and buses and planes of Europe??!?! But as worry always is, it was in vain. Shortly after the Amsterdam luggage arrived, my flight’s bags began to show up. Mine came too, an hour after we had landed.

As I wheeled my luggage cart out of baggage claim, I cast one last disparaging glance at the SIM card shop inside the baggage area. As we waited, I and several other passengers wandered over to this little stand. This SIM card, called something like “Xpress”, was offering 1G of data and 500 minutes calling for one week costing 175€. I thought that was a little crazy since I could get 1G and 100 minutes in Tanzania for $0.69. It turns out I was correct, it was crazy. Leaving the confines of baggage claim I found TIM (Telecom Italia) and got a special tourist package of 4G, 100 international and domestic minutes for 35€. Good thing I’m awesome.

That was my arrival. Tomorrow I hope to tell you about Roma (isn’t it sooo obnoxious when people use the local name for the city!)…a story of blisters and fashion faux pas.

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That Time I Cried in an Airport

I love to travel…in the general sense. I love to go to new places, meet interesting people, have exciting experiences and delight my taste buds with exotic cuisine.  However, I hate to travel…specifically. I don’t like the getting there.

Long car rides get super boring after awhile. Long train rides give me an intense sense of claustrophobia. And long plane rides, well, so many things can go wrong. The guy next to you snores. The baby in the seat in front of you screams for 14 hours straight. The kid behind you keeps kicking your chair. The people on the plane, specifically your neighbors, smell like they haven’t showered in days and have never heard of deodorant. By the time the flight attendant gets to you in row 97 with the meal cart all that’s left is the vegetarian green mush with a side of white stuff. If you’re in the aisle seat, you’re constantly getting up to let your neighbors go pee. If you’re in the middle, or worse, the window, you don’t get up to pee until you’re about to bust because you don’t want to wake the snoring, smelly people beside you. Then when you’ve finally made everyone move there’s a line for the tiny bathroom and the person inside has decided to camp out the rest of the flight. You try to move your ankles like the video keeps reminding you, but inevitably your ankles swell and eventually disappear into your calves. Deep vein thrombosis.

And once you arrive, you think, “Yes! Finally!” But no…first you must go through the Ebola/Swine flu/Bird flu or whatever else is the latest pandemic detector. Phew, you made it…to the immigration line where you fill out all the countless paperwork telling this foreign country your entire history. The person next to you doesn’t have a pen and out of the goodness of your heart you give them yours. You arrive at the counter to get your visa from the ever-friendly immigration officers. Oh, I need to sign something? But I don’t have a pen. You stand and wait off to the side while all the lucky people who signed everything already get their stamps and move on their merry way. Eventually you make it through immigration. The baggage carousel isn’t moving any longer. There is one of your bags…the luggage locks have been cut off. Awesome. Your other bag isn’t there so you trudge to the airline office and fill out more paperwork with a borrowed pen. They’ll call you…

I came back to Clove Island a week and a half ago from a vacation in the States. It took me four days of travel to get there and three days to return. The musings above mostly didn’t happen to me on this trip (although they all come from experience, except deep vein thrombosis). Screaming babies and smelly people (myself included) are every trip occurrences. I flew from Jacksonville to JFK (3 hours) with a 3-hour layover. Then I flew from JFK to Dubai (14 hours) with a 4-hour layover in Dubai.

My last frappé :(

My last frappé 😦

Then I had a five-hour flight from Dubai to Nairobi. I arrived at 8:30pm local time and got to my hotel at 10:30pm…two hours for immigration, luggage, customs and the drive. It’s winter in Nairobi right now, therefore cold, especially for someone who has lived on the surface of the sun for the past two years. All I wanted after 31 hours of straight travel was a hot shower. But the hot water wasn’t working. Maintenance came. At 12:30am I was able to take my shower after which I fell into bed. At 5:30am I was back up, repacking to redistribute weight for the smaller planes I was to take that day.

The budget airline I’d booked, notorious for late departures and arrivals, almost left on time. I promptly passed out and slept right through lunch. At noon I arrived on the big island, where the international airport is located. I had an interisland flight scheduled for 4pm. I saw it on the screen. This airport is small with no amenities…the bathroom doesn’t even have toilet paper. You cannot wait inside the airport for a transfer flight. Instead I had to exit the airport building and wait outside. There is a tiny “café” with “food” and drinks outside. So I dragged my 70lbs of luggage to a table covered in flies and plopped down. Twenty minutes after arriving I was able to get the attention of a server (there were three other customers…).

“What do you have today?”

“Meat.”

“No chicken?”

“No, just meat and bread. That’s all.”

“Oh, ok. I’ll have meat and bread.”

She comes back with a plate of lumpy, grey…meat, I guess. Some pieces had bone shards sticking out of them, others had some sort of globulous white gelatin attached and others still had hair. The pieces were floating in a greasy, smelly oil. I was really hungry though. So I bravely picked up the least disgusting-looking piece. Gag! Gag! I couldn’t do it. I munched on a piece of bread that I tried to dip in the oil. No!! Bad idea. So just plain bread then.11896950_10100808748363810_59582398_n

Finally it was time to check-in. This is the only time you’re allowed to enter the airport building. There are guards to ensure that you only enter when it’s your check-in time. Fortunately the guard let me pass and I stood in the line that said “Clove Island: 4pm”. I get the counter, put my baggage on the scale and give the lady my ticket. You’re in the wrong line, she says. This is Airline #1. Your ticket is for Airline #2.

(Note: There are only two airlines that fly from island to island. They are both unreliable. Either their planes need maintenance, the pilot didn’t show up for work, they’re on strike or some government official has commandeered the entire plane for their entourage.)

So I got in line for Airline #2. I was the only one in line except for one man who was already at the counter. I waited. And waited. And waited. This man at the counter seemed to think himself quite important by the way he carried himself and the obsequious manner in which the airport staff treated him. I still starred daggers at him. It was now 3:15 and my plane was supposed to leave at 4. What was taking this dude so long?!? Then I see the check-in guy count out about 20 boarding passes and give them to this one man.

Finally, it’s my turn. I show my ticket to the guy. He looks at it. Looks at me. Looks at the ticket again. And asks, “Didn’t they tell you about the flight?” My hand luggage, to that point on my shoulder, drops to the ground.

“Didn’t they tell me what about the flight?”

“Your flight left at noon.”

“I was in an airplane at noon. My flight is scheduled for 4pm. How could it leave at noon?”

“Well, I’m sorry. You will have to leave tomorrow morning.”

“No.”

“Excuse me.”

“No.”

(I learned later that my flight hadn’t left at noon, at all. That was this guy’s excuse to save face. Instead, the president took my flight. He was invited to a wedding on my island and since he’s the president, why plan ahead when you can just go to the airport and take any flight you want at any time? So the man in front of me, one of the president’s entourage, had just commandeered my plane.)

It crossed my mind to begin yelling and throw a fit. This usually doesn’t end well for me. And it’s not nearly as satisfying to do so in French when I don’t have the proper vocabulary to adequately express my rage and disgust. So instead, I decided on a different tactic. I started crying. With tears streaming down my face, I let all my hunger, tiredness and frustration intimidate this poor man who had no idea what to do with sobbing, white girl at his check-in counter.

“Don’t cry! Don’t cry! You can just leave tomorrow.”

“I do not have any money to stay in a hotel. I’ve been traveling for three days. I haven’t slept. I haven’t eaten. I just want to go home. Why won’t you let me go home?!!!” A note of hysteria had entered my words.

“We will find a solution, madame. Don’t worry. Here, sit in this chair.” Instead, I flopped onto the floor, with my back against my suitcase, surrounded by my smaller bags. And I cried some more.

You better believe I had the attention of every single person in that small airport. They were all starring and whispering. I did not care. The braver men ventured over to ask me what I planned on doing to which I responded that I would sleep right there on the ground. It is Airline #2’s fault that I am stranded, so unless they plan on providing transportation and a hotel, then I would just sleep at their counter.

“But madame, you cannot sleep here. We close the airport at 6.”

“Is it illegal to sleep in the airport?”

“Well…no. I don’t think so.”

“Are the police going to remove me?”

“Oh no! They’ve already gone home.”

“Well then. I’m sleeping here.”

Meanwhile, people were still checking into the 4pm flight with Airline #1. So I stood up and asked the lady whether there were seats left. No, however, the 5:30pm flight, which was not listed on the screen, still had seats. Excellent!! I will buy one of those. (I did say I had no money for a hotel, which was true in the sense that I had no local currency. But I knew the airline accepted Euros which I did have.)

But then Airline #1 lady disappeared. When she reappeared, she asked me what I was going to do. Confused, I said I was waiting to buy a ticket from her. Oh, she said, that flight isn’t going anymore. There are only four passengers- she pointed to three island men waiting across the room.

Completely crestfallen, I despaired and resigned myself to trying out the new hotel by the airport to see if they took Euros or dollars. But the other three men made no move to leave so I decided to wait until they left. Eventually, they did. So I dragged myself up, got my luggage situated on my shoulders and began to plod out of the airport.

“Where are you going?!” Airline #1 lady called.

“I’m leaving.”

“But the flight is going now!”

“Huh? Why did those men leave?”

“They just went to pray. See, their bags are over there.”

Once I was convinced she was not joking, I sat down again, quite relieved. At this point, I was approached by a man who said he had heard there was foreign girl who was crying in the airport. He would move heaven and earth to ensure that she got on a flight to her home island. And because he’s so kind, wouldn’t it be great if the next time I was on the big island I could visit his home village? He would introduce me to his family. He could even show me his house. We could eat and drink together. We would have so much fun.

Thank you but no…and come to find out, he had nothing to do with anything….literally, nothing. He was some technician with no say on what planes come or go. Nice try, buddy.

At 5:45, my plane finally took off. I’d had to pay $50 for overweight luggage. I could have argued. There were only four passengers after all. But I just wanted to get on my plane! Half an hour later we landed…on the wrong island. I looked up from my Kindle and realized that I was not on my island at all. The pilot, who had to crawl past me to open the door, saw the panic in my eyes and assured me that we were just stopping on this island for 5 minutes to pick up more passengers. Phew.

We touched down on my island 45 minutes later. It was pitch black. My small island’s airport has no lighting. The runway was lit by the fire truck’s headlights. Dangerous, yes. But I was finally home!!! The End.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

From 30,000 feet

ImageI watched the sunrise this morning, an African sun. It’s been four years exactly since I last saw it. There’s something different about an African sun. It’s more vibrant. During the day, it beats mercilessly. But the sunrise is G0d’s gift, the promise of a new day. It was His gift to me this morning as I sit on a very old 767 bound for Nairobi.

I will hopefully be able to upload a video of my entire journey, from the time I left St. Augustine to the time I arrive at my new home on Clove Island. But in the meantime, these random written thoughts on my trip so far must suffice.

I left the Atlanta airport 25 hours ago. I haven’t brushed my teeth or my hair; my face needs to be washed. I’ve eaten four in-flight meals and one meal in the Dubai airport. I stink. But so does my plane so we’re even. I’ve watched three movies: 2 Guns, the Internship and Oblivion. My luggage has been poked and prodded and we haven’t even gone through customs yet. To get on this flight, they weighed my carry-on items. My “personal item” and overhead combined weighed 27 kg, which I guess is around 60lbs! We’re only allowed 10kg, but no one informed me of that beforehand, so I had to pay a bunch of money just to get my carry-ons onto the plane at which point my overhead luggage did not fit in the overhead compartment. So while people are streaming past me I’m in the emergency exit row, taking books, my camera, water bottle and medical kit out of my luggage so that I can shove it into the excuse they call an overhead compartment.

But honestly, in over 24 hours of international travel, a lot can go wrong. It hasn’t. Other than being insanely tired, dirty, gross-feeling and having my wallet a little lighter I’ve had a good run of it. I was reminded of this as I watched the African sunrise from 30,000 ft. I am so thankful for the pr.yers of those I have left at home, going before me as I travel. He hears and he answers.

Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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