Month: August 2012

Count to Five

I’m sort of getting used to all of this, to living in Italy, and that I know because of one single reason– I can breathe.

When I’m at school in the States, my time is never mine. My time belongs to the newspaper that I write for, The Outlook, the Newsletter that I put together for the Honors program, Arete, the Annual Fund, New Logic Educators, and many more. Don’t get me wrong– I love every activity that I am a part of, which is why I could never bring myself to quit even one of them. But when I finally get home at night, I am sometimes a little sad when I have to miss dinner with my roommate or when I have to decline happy hour invitations or other simple hang-outs that others take for granted.

At home, my brain buzzes constantly (sounds healthy, I know) and my thoughts are echoes of the countless lists I make of the things I have to do and to consider. When I go to sleep, I count to five over and over again so that I can relax.

It is only now, in Italy, where I see that this is not normal. Today I sat in a nice little cafe near a building where Andrea, Juliana, and Sean had a meeting, and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t look at the clock or think about what else I had to do that day. I sat and I breathed in cool air (thank God) and I drank a tiny cup of expresso and ate a sandwich that was an obscenely low cost. I’m glad to say that it’s only the third day, and I can already see the joys of a three hour dinner.

I know that once I return to the States in a few short months, I will go back to my old ways and I will be stressed and overload myself. And that’s okay, because things need to get done. But it’s nice to think that just for now, I think I’ll just sit quietly on a side street and sip my drink.

Image

The Very First Day

Looking out the window over the green countryside, I actually have to remind myself that I’m flying over Italy and not northwest New Jersey. The little houses are becoming bigger and bigger dots from underneath us, and it’s becoming more obvious as the seconds pass that we are not in the States anymore, not even close. Seeing Italy is a lot like seeing a movie star in person– they look different when they’re not on a screen, and it’s hard to imagine that any of it is even real.

Being here in itself doesn’t even feel real. Out of all of my trips, I have never been anywhere for three and a half months, making it longer than a vacation, less than living quarters. It’s hard to imagine being anywhere for such a long time; having to buy groceries, go to the gym, watch television. Along with this, I don’t feel like a vacationer. I feel like I am a part of a whole nother animal, a pack of students that seem to mob this city, a city that has more tourists annually than it has citizens.

When we arrive at our apartment, close enough to the Duomo I could spit on it, I see many families toting their one suitcase a person as I try to lug my two giant ones and a black backpack up the two flights of stairs as our cab driver speeds away. There is no elevator, but even though I have been traveling for about 13 hours, I am full of energy and speed.

Thankfully, our landlord, Francesco, opens the door just in the knick of time and and finagles the door with the gold skeleton-looking key he totes. He opens the double doors and my roommate and I see the looming hallway, and then we open our room to see two twin beds with headboards, two giant closets, our own private bathroom, and a great garden window that overlooks the Duomo. I thought that was basically all of the apartment, but when we walk around, we see the place is huge- huge even for five girls. By no means is the place catagorized as nice by American standards, but for once, the cracks in the walls and the lopsided chandeliers and old curtains seem romantic, not dingy. When we see many of the other apartments, though, we see that we really lucked out.

This city feels impossible to navigate, making something overwhelming feel that much more. Unlike many other big cities, nothing is organized into neat little squares, and to an ignorant American, all of these buildings look the same to me. I constantly have a map under my nose yet it seems to take me nowhere.

Since we haven’t made it to the market yet, it’s for the best that our school has paid for a dinner at Acqua al 2, where our group of about 20 is served five different kinds of pasta, a chicken salad, and four desserts each. By 9, the place is packed and people are laughing and swigging glasses everywhere, although most people in our group can barely hold their heads up over their wine glasses. I fall asleep that night to the light of the Duomo of the chatter of tourists roaming the streets in a matter of seconds.

Good Luck, Tourist.

You’re on a trip. You’re excited to be away from home, to not have to worry about feeding the dog, to be somewhere new and cool where there is so much to see and do. Well guess what, tourist? The locals there are NOT on vacation. They are probably not very happy to see you and they don’t want to help you or be nice to you. And you know what the saddest part is? Neither do the police. Sorry.

When I was in Paris, France, me and my friend both bought subway tickets to go from inner Paris to our hotel, which was right outside of the city. We bought the tickets (obviously all in French) from the machine and then swiped them through another machine, in which the little light glowed green and the gate opened and we stepped onto the subway.

Upon stepping off the subway, however, I was surprised to have a cop suddenly in my face asking me (in English, because, hmm, weird, he knew I was a tourist) for my ticket. This is pretty standard in many cities– the subway is kind of based on the honor system but if a cop pulls you aside, you better have it to show or face a hefty fine. In Paris, though, I guess they operate by the machines letting you through and cops. Anyway, I showed the cop my ticket, and he soon informed me that my ticket was only valid for subways within Paris, as evident by an emblem featuring the word “Paris” inside a tiny red circle. I don’t know about you, but even if I was French, I would not get this point.

The cop then told me (in English, because once again, seems that they knew we were tourists…) that I owed a fine of about 200 euro (this was all two years ago, I really don’t remember the exact amount). Being that I only had a few more days backpacking, I didn’t even have that much money, plus it was pretty ridiculous to me that we were guests in this country, doing our best to be respectful and we were providing tourism and money, yet two eighteen-year-old American girls were being punished so severely from an obvious misunderstanding. After some finagling, we ended up paying the cops 50 euro each, which was still pretty ridiculous to me, but after they started threatening to take my passport, I didn’t want to end up in a padded cell underneath the city.

I always felt like this was all so very unfair, and if the situation had been reversed with two foreigners in America, American police would just let them go. Honestly, though, I’m not too sure about this, since it seems like most cities take a particular sick joy in exploiting tourists.

When I was in Ocean City last weekend, my friend parked his car at a meter a few blocks from the beach and put $3 in to last 3 hours. When we got back 2 1/2 hours later, a ticket was waiting on the dashboard for $30, not really fair in my opinion since it seems as if there was some problem with the machine or something. If it were me, I would probably fight it for the principle of the matter, but realistically, it’s not really worth it to drive all the way back to Ocean City to fight a $30 ticket.

Being a tourist anywhere you are at a pretty deep disadvantage. You don’t have a real home, you may not have a phone, you have nowhere to park, and you have limited money and knowledge of the area. Sometimes, you get into situations that you can’t really avoid, like a French ticket and a crappy meter. All I can tell you is to be alert, really. And always stand up for the principle of the matter. Just because you’re a tourist doesn’t give anyone the right to push you around, uniform or not.

Day Trip Scrimpin’.

Last weekend, I didn’t go to the Bahamas, or the Dominican Republic, or Mexico (but I did go there the weekend before). I did not spend thousands of dollars or wake up at the crack of dawn to get on an airplane. I did not try to stuff a suitcase or budget my money so that I could go parasailing, scuba diving, swimming with dolphins.

However, I did get in a car and drive about two hours down the New Jersey Parkway to go to Wildwood. I spent about 1/100 of the cost of a normal vacation and had just as much fun, if not more. The beauty of New Jersey (yes, it exists) is that there are a thousand of hidden (and not-so-hidden) day trips that are in our backyards, and no matter where you’re from, I’m sure that they are in yours, too. So stop whining that you didn’t get to go on vacation this summer, read some of these saving-money-on-vaca tips, and get in the car.

1. Go for a bike ride. In Wildwood, we rented cute little beach cruisers (one of them, i.e. mine, was very little) for FIVE DOLLARS. You get the bikes for an hour, which is really all you need, and wander down the boardwalk in the morning when it’s still a little cool and you’re not ready to go sit on the beach and bake yet. I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t ride bikes often (because I have no balance) so it was a nice treat to cruise alongside the beach for less than what my breakfast costs.

2. Visit a theme park. Most theme parks offer tickets for between $20 and $40 (any more than that is a little ridiculous). At Six Flags, with the bringing of a Coke can from your nearest WaWa, you can buy one get one free, which is pretty sick since Six Flags is great. In Wildwood, we got a family pack and each paid $25 and all went on about seven rides together. Log flume, roller coasters, Dante’s Dungeon, “It”, and of course, the ferris wheel, is well worth $25 to me and a few hours out on the boardwalk.

4. Watch a sunset. This is the really cool thing about nature. It’s FREE. It’s so easy to bring a couple beers, maybe some chips, and go sit somewhere nice and watch the sun set. Now I wasn’t really aware of this, but the sun actually sets pretty fast, so by the time you get bored of identifying clouds and getting embarrassingly drunk it’s time to leave anyway. And if you visit the beautiful Sunset Lake in Wildwood, you’ll see this–

5. Check out the local night scene. I don’t know about you, but I get pretty bored going out to the same bars in my town once in a while. Same old same old. But when you’re away, even if it’s only a half an hour or an hour, you have the chance to go to all new places! In Wildwood, we each paid $3 for a cab to take us a few blocks to Keenan’s Irish Pub, which is a huge place with no cover charge and quite a few bars (one outside, one for an older crowd, one for dads, one with live music, one with dance music…) Point is, no matter where you are, the night scene is NEW. This is a good thing.

6. Eat cheap. It requires a little extra planning, but it’s worth it to bring along a couple bagels and boxes of cereal and snacks. This could save you buying a few meals, which when going on day trips, will save you like half the money you were going to spend anyway. Buy some sandwiches at WaWa and save your dollars for something that matters. And NEVER buy waters/soda. Just bring a damn water bottle. In Wildwood, they practically give food away on the boardwalk, which is actually surprising. Dollar hotdogs, 89 cent pizza slices? May not be too sanitary, but hey, you’ll live.

Hi I am Old.

I literally cannot see one thing. I kind of feel like I’m going to suffocate, my eyes are burning, and it feels like people are sliding off of me from every direction as I look up, trying to get a moment’s breath without inhaling the foam that’s falling from the sky.

More hurricanes? Nope. Snowstorm? Definitely not. But a foam party? REALLY? Is this a frat house? Yes, basically.

At the weekly Thursday foam party at the Grand Oasis Hotel, I originally arrived alone, yet it seems as though as soon as you’re in a bikini covered in foam everyone wants to be your friend. It sounds a lot hotter than it is, since while dancing to sped-up Spanish techno I’m often hacking up foam as I desperately glance around looking for my sister. Apparently, some foreigner disagrees as he asks me to be in a picture with him, scantily clad and covered in foam.

Finally I spot her, DANCING ON THE DAMN STAGE. I can’t believe this kid. She pulls me up, and soon I’m on the stage too and nearly sliding onto the floor and breaking my neck. Foam is flying out from the sky, and it seems that within minutes, I’m surrounded by best friends whose names I will never know. I don’t really like getting to know people at clubs anyway, because I feel disrespectful to my expensive education while telling them about my Honors thesis and my studies while being fed drinks.

Needing a break from the foam, I sit off to the side with my new friend Peter, who is from Kansas and obviously so with the pull in his voice. I’m not sure what it is about me, but strangers always want to tell me personal information and soon he’s telling me about his alcoholic best friend and his mother’s death and his broken engagement. I never mind hearing stuff like this, but it seems odd to me that you’re supposedly so much older and more mature and revealing so much to a total stranger.

Getting a little restless talking to the same person, I’m missing my days at home when it’s almost too easy to say my roommate is looking for me or some other bs excuse. When I look back to the stage, my sister is kissing some rando and someone is filming it, and upon further inspection, lots of other randos are doing the same.

I know all these people are on vacation and looking to have fun, as I am too. But this all feels like a scene that I’m too old for. I’m actually jealous of the obvious couple dancing and a group of girls together with no boys to bother them. It’s not that I don’t think Peter is cool or nice, but his trying to hold my hand or tell me I’m pretty feels insulting, like he thinks I’m dumb enough to fall for it and go home with him.

When I see my sister, she tells me that she is ready to leave and I’m thankful. I tell Peter goodbye and I was glad to meet him, and when he goes in for the kill I look away and hug him instead and say maybe I’ll see him at the pool tomorrow. I actually feel a little guilty leaving him inside on a bench by himself nursing two pineapple tequilas, but then I remind myself his name probably isn’t even really Peter.

My sister is with two boys who go to USC, and I’m glad to be with people who don’t want anything from me and feel like my own friends. They bring us some drinks and even though they seem nice, I throw mine in the garbage when they’re not looking as we walk home. I see my sister gulp it down and it makes me nervous for when she goes to school.

We jump in the pool with the two boys, Zach and Gabe, to wash the foam off. A security guard yells at us because it is after hours at the pool, so Gabe asks us to go to the beach.

A few months ago, I probably would have kissed Peter, feeling like I owed him a little for hanging out with me and calling me pretty. A few months ago, I also would have followed Gabe and Zach to the beach, eager to prove to these people that I’ll never see again that I’m fun and exciting enough, even though it’s 3:30 am and I’m ready to take a shower and go to bed. I would have relished in being around people I don’t know, people who are new with no known flaws. But today, in beautiful Cancun, surrounded by beautiful people, I really just don’t care. I feel simultaneously too young and too old to be jumping in an ocean with could-be serial killers at 3:30 am, and for the first time I can remember, I sigh with relief when my sister tells me she is ready to go home.

I don’t know if it’s the want for more important travel than a boozefest in Cancun or the want for more important people anywhere. But for a few hours, I just want to settle for a little.

Image

Isla de… Rum

Today we are doing a much more touristy activity– taking a sailboat to an island off the coast of Cancun to Isla de Mujeres, where the captain, Luis, boasts in his very broken English that they are the most beautiful beaches in Mexico. It becomes clear, however, that the only reason anyone would think this would be is because Luis has been force-feeding them drinks off his boat, Gypsy Breeze, on our way to Isla de Mujeres, which, ironically, is full of homeless men sleeping on the beach.

On the way back from snorkeling, lunch on a small beach, and the overrated Isla de Mujeres, everybody is basically done, passed out all over the top of the sailboat and lounging in the sun. It seems though that the sun and Luis’s drinks are getting to everyone though as time goes by, because when it starts to pour, instead of fleeing to the small indoor part of the boat (where the bar is) tops are coming off and everyone is doing the YMCA. People are slipping and sliding all over the white plastic top of the boat, but it seems as though there is always someone to catch you before you topple into the ocean.

I’m drunk before 2:00 pm on rum punch in a rainstorm on the top of a boat dancing with 50 strangers. Isla de Mujeres is beautiful.

Image

It’s the Journey, Not the Destination

It is now the second leg of our journey into the Mayan temples, only this time, since it’s no longer 5:00 am, everyone actually seems excited. This is nice considering we are covered in rain and mud and filth and sweat, coating Lilliana’s van in it as well. For about twenty minutes, she drives us to a village in Copa, passing lots of other little Mexican villages on the way.

In Copa, it’s clear that we won’t be running into any old Mexican medicine men, since the place is overrun by tourist shops and teenagers who barely speak English getting paid to drive tourists to the site via bike for about three dollars. Obviously, we walk (it’s about a mile on flat ground through the trees) although my dad gets on a bike with a beautiful Pollack named Anastasia in an attempt to woo her.

Reaching the Mayan temple, I’m glad to see that even though GETTING here is touristed-out, the temple itself is not. It features 120 tiny but steep steps, 120 of which I have to crawl on my hands and knees to get up. Thankfully, by this point the rain has stopped, because otherwise climbing these little stone steps would be even harder and I would be stopping a lot more often than every 20 or so to catch my breath (and then look down and lose it again). Besides seeing the ground looming under me, like I’m scaling a damn mountain, I can see my dad huffing and puffing his way up with Anastasia’s bag on his shoulders.

When I look down for the final time at the very top, however, it’s clear that this was definitely worth the short trip to the summit. I can easily see the top of every tree in this little jungle, and I kind of feel like a Wild Thornberry.

Image

Image

We’re Not in Jersey Anymore.

I am standing in a soaking wet t-shirt over my green bikini, my legs actually shaking under me from the rain pellets that fall from the sky. Lilliana, our tour guide, is shouting instructions on how to zipline in broken English from only a few feet away, yet the rain easily muffles her otherwise broad Spanish voice. When I’m standing on a wooden platform and Pedro yells VAS! and pushes me off the cliff and into the jungle, I can only hope that I set up my own harness correctly, although that wasn’t too easy to maneuver amidst the hurricane brewing over my head.

This is all because when you actually leave your Cancun resort, you find yourself a hell of a lot more than red-skinned tourists cramming onto booze cruises. The tour I took, which held a group of about ten people of all ages, brought us to the ancient Mayan temples about two hours from Cancun. Instead of sandy beaches and buffet style lunches we traveled down the littlest “highways” you have ever seen to jungle monotony only broken up by man-made shacks on the side of the road surrounded by skinny dogs and holey shirts on the line.

On the tour, after kayaking to a separate part of the jungle, a man named Jose came to bless us all for our stay in his village. Being the village medicine man, I think that this was the extent of his duties nowadays, since the area’s main income comes from tourism. Lilliana then led us to a little cavern opening in the ground as big as a folding chair next to a shower. She said that everyone had to wash off before climbing into the cavern in order to keep the sinkhole underneath clean. I kept wondering where this sinkhole was since the cavern looked like just that– a hole. Lilliana said we should probably keep our heads down.

As soon as we got through the initial hole, however, we found ourselves in an alcove about as big as a large living room with crystal blue water running through which created a little circle. You could see the bottom, however tens of feet down.

Back outside of the sinkhole, which Mexico has tons of since, like New Orleans, it has little bedrock, Lilliana led us to a zipline course, which was when the rain started up. In her drenched t-shirt and sandals, the little Mexican woman told us there was no reason to stop unless it started to lightning “really bad” yet even then we would be screwed because the zipline was the only way to continue through the jungle.

However, as I’m soaring over the jungle and over small swamps and flying birds and I’m trying to shield my eyes from the piercing rain, I’m actually feeling pretty glad Pedro pushed me off the cliff. I can hear my dad screaming bloody murder behind me because he is pushing the 235 weight limit, but hey, this sure beats snorkeling.

Image

When Sickness Strikes

In less than twenty four hours I will be getting on a plane to Mexico, and I am covered in hives.

On my arms, my legs, my feet, my back… I have little red dots. Everywhere. It is not pleasant and the only thing I can do is pop the steroids the doctor gave me. She also mentioned they would not be gone by tomorrow. And probably not a week from tomorrow either.

I’m sure many of you have had similar issues during your travels. Maybe you weren’t covered in little red dots, but everyone has gone on a trip where there (or before) they contracted a godawful stomach virus, got strep, maybe started getting some chills. Whatever the case, being sick before the time you have been looking forward to gives you two options… You can either wallow in it and hide in your fancy hotel bed, or you can put on your game face and have a good time.

Because the bottom line is this: one day, you won’t be covered in hives. One day, probably very soon, your stuffy nose will be good as new, your strep will have moved on to the person sitting next to you on the airplane, and your stomach cramps will wander off. However, the memories of your trip will hang on for the rest of your days. And during the rest of those days, do you want to have memories of wallowing in the hotel bed, or do you want to think about the running rampant late at night and sitting next to the breezy blue ocean, even if you were a little uncomfortable, a little embarrassed?

So even though I’ll still wear long sleeves and my sister will make fun of me and my dad will continue to ask me if I have fleas, I will still be smiling.

It reminds me of another instance– a few months ago, on the Friday before my twenty-first birthday (aka the best weekend of my life) I got flu-like symptoms within some sort of cold. I was not happy. Originally, my dear wife/roommate and I had planned a party at our house, since her birthday is the day after mine. I was seriously debating saying eff it to the party, to the following day at the bar, to my parents’ visit the next day (that one I should have actually cancelled). However, instead, I popped some pills, made a drink, and we partied till the next Tuesday and had the time of our lives. (Plus, when you’re inebriated, it’s a lot easier to forget that you’re sick.)

So keep your head up and have a laugh about it. If anyone asks you what’s wrong, tell them you have gang green and it’s highly contagious. Then take some meds and go to the damn pool.

Image