when we travel, we meet many people – from the folks working at the airport to the person driving your cab to the bartender mixing you a drink to a server bringing your appetizer to a ranger working at a tourist stop. and if you treat each of these people with kindness and with the same respect you expect, then your trip will be a smoother, more pleasant, more rewarding, more enlightening experience. so when the doorman at your hotel opens the door for you, say “thank you, sir” – and when your travel guide finishes your 2 hour tour through the Sedona red rocks, say thank you and give him a tip – and if you have to valet your car or store your bags at the hotel, then say thank you and give them a tip. this is what you are supposed to do and this is how you are supposed to act. be thankful for the many people you come across in your travels and be kind to them in every way. they will treat you better and it just feels good to be kind to others. also, you will surprise them because they are not used to people being kind back to them.
what do you spend your money on? material objects or life experiences? spending your money on life experiences, including traveling, teaches and educates you. when you travel, you do see new things, but what you really see is more of yourself. you have fun traveling and you enjoy all the new experiences. this is good. but what really is good is when you step back in your door at home. it is at that moment that you realize how lucky you are to have the life that you have. you see how others live on your travels and then when you come home, you see again how you live. you then appreciate your life more and reaffirm that you are living the life you should be living –that it is a good life. if you never travel, then you will not be able to appreciate the life you have –you will keep wondering about the green grass on the other side. travel allows you to see the green grass and then come back to even greener grass –your own. you must see the contrast to appreciate what you have. therefore, you must travel to learn, to be educated about yourself and your life. get it?
I met this dude from Madagascar on the boat ride between Sweden and Germany. He was a cool looking guy with dread-locks and rainbow colored clothing. There was a nice bar area on the boat and everyone was making their way to it. The protocol was to order a tall beer, probably Stella Artois or something. Once the beer started flowing, we started talking about our individual journeys. He was on his way to Berlin to hook up with some relatives. He lived in Gothenburg, Sweden and had lived there for most of his life. Apparently, his family had migrated up from Madagascar to Sweden to find work and a better way of life. Sweden, especially Gothenburg, was fast becoming a multi-racial country. This guy had been there awhile, so he was quite assimilated. The newer arrivals were being met with some racial backlash, but for the most part, indifference was the order of the day during the 90’s.
As we chatted and drank the night away, the boat started its long journey over the Baltic Sea. It was exciting to think that we were now crossing the great Baltic Sea. After all, this was the sea that the Germans had fought fiercely to protect during WWII. It was also the site where the Russians defended against the Swedes during the Great Northern War in the 1700’s. It was then, under Peter the Great, that Russia began to take its rightful place on the world stage. This sea had seen it all, right up until the Cold War ended. So here we were, a couple of new comrades making our own journey across. It was definitely a moment to think about. This was going to be my first time visiting Germany. I was a little fearful as to the reception I would receive. In a sense I over-prepared myself for my German visit, ultimately setting myself up for a complete culture shock. I would go into Germany with somewhat negative presumptions about its people and its past. These preconceived thoughts would alter my initial mindset, yet would also reinforce some of my ideas.
Once the boat docked, we soon transferred to a train bound for Berlin. Here is when I made first contact with the German masses. Right off the bat, I noticed something was unusual. The people were definitely more stoic in manner and appearance. Not realizing this was their natural way; I soon started to take offense. My friend didn’t seem fazed at all. I guessed he was used to it. The people on the train stared at the interaction between me and my Madagascar friend. I went straight for the race card in my mind, thinking that nothing had changed here in Germany since the days of Hitler. Obviously this was quite naive and marked the beginning of my culture shock experience. I automatically assumed that these people didn’t approve of my conversing with a black man and showed their disdain with nasty looks and scowling stares.
We neared the great city and I started to stare out the window, watching everything move past me. One thing I noticed right away was the graffiti. It was everywhere on the walls and bridges. This was a common sight across Europe, especially when entering the cities by train. We soon passed the Reichstag and I noticed that something was going on there. A white sheet material covered the entire building. It was a though the building was covered by a big white mask. I automatically jumped to the nearest racial conclusion. This must be some kind of ritual practiced by the local white supremacists. Of course, I was way off base. I found out later that the artist Christo was behind the masking of the building. But at that moment, I was starting to create a narrow-minded picture in my head. At the center of this picture was an unchanged German state, still wallowing in the bitter past.
With my mind racing, we finally pulled into the station. Here is where the fun really began. We had not landed at the modern West Berlin terminal. Our final stop was the East Berlin station. It was the mid-nineties and this side of the city was still trying to catch up to its western cousin. All of the buildings were quite drab in appearance and looked as if they were from another age. In fact, the whole atmosphere seemed to cling to the days right after WWII, with everything frozen in time. This was especially true of the people working at the train station. My friend and I started to work our way up to the counter to find out how to get to the other side, to the modern world. My friend went first. Then something happened that seemed to justify all of my mixed thoughts about this strange city. The man behind the counter refused to help my friend with any of his questions. It was a mad scenario. They would not talk to him. They would not even acknowledge his existence. I freaked out. My American arrogance kicked in and soon I was up at the counter defending my friend. I demanded that he be helped and that his questions be answered. They were clearly taken aback by my aggressive stance. Whether to keep things calm or just finally giving in, they quickly helped my friend and then myself. The crowd seemed to usher us away after this ordeal and we soon found our way to our connecting train to the other side of the city. By this time, the culture shock was kicking into high gear. I was immediately on the defensive and now looked for troubling signs of aggression from the people. My friend still seemed quite calm, as though everything happening was the norm.
Once we reached the West Side, everything chilled a bit. We walked around for awhile and I noticed the people staring again. Maybe I was just paranoid by this point. But hey, that is what was going through my mind at the time. On the subway, my friend suddenly jumped up and went over to another black guy. This was his cousin, the one he was coming to see. They started talking in their own language and soon bid me farewell. I was now alone. I went back up to the street to finish my tour of the city. Now the stares were gone and everyone appeared to be smiling at me. It was as if a dark cloud had lifted off my shoulder and all was good now. They readily accepted me as a visitor of their lovely city and what was theirs was now mine. Perhaps this was my paranoid mind at work, who knows. In my mind the damage had been done. I didn’t feel welcome here and my plans to stay the night were out the window.
Before leaving Berlin, my one goal was to see the remnants of The Wall. Obviously I couldn’t leave without seeing this famous site. Pieces of The Wall had been left up as a reminder of the past and the many lives lost because of it. It was an eerie sight. There were quotes and sayings all over the remaining pieces of The Wall. At my feet were makeshift tombstones lying flat all over the place. On those slabs were the names of the lives lost trying to get over The Wall from the East to the West. They seemed to represent the final resting spots for these poor souls searching for freedom. I soon realized that some of the victims were children. They too had been shot down in cold blood by the Russians manning The Wall. It looked as if some had made it over the wall, only to be pinpointed by a sharpshooter, then struck down as they ran away from The Wall. To walk along The Wall and see how history unfolded over the 30-odd years that it existed was a great experience. The experience really gave me a feeling of gratitude for the easy life I was now living. I would never know this type of hardship. I would never feel the fear of being gunned down in search of freedom. It was a true soul-searching moment and I took it all in.
After my time at the Wall, I tried to search out Hitler’s bunker, but never found the exact spot. I did come across a field that a local said was the spot, but I never knew for sure. I stared out across the field thinking about the events of that fateful day when his grotesque world was collapsing around him. His reign was over and the only thing remaining was a fenced off field for people like me to stare across. Another site in the city also caught my eye. In fact, you couldn’t miss it and that was exactly the point. In the middle of the busy city center of West Berlin was a bombed-out old church. Most of the structure still stood, except for the roof where the sunlight now shone through. It was indeed a stark reminder of the effects of WWII on this once beautiful city.
My time was over in Berlin and I had decided not to stay the night. I wanted to leave this place of mixed emotions and try to find a less complicated scenario. Budapest was my next stop. I yearned to rid myself of Germany, never looking back. I know that my culture-shocked and paranoid mind took me down the wrong path many times during my visit to Germany. Yet, I was still not ready to overcome these thoughts and embrace the country as I should. I was scared and at that moment only wanted to flee. Perhaps my views would change when I ventured back across the border again one day.
We were nearing the end of our month-long trip backpacking around Europe, and the mighty city of Madrid was our last stop. At least it was for me, I was quickly running out of money and had to head back to the States after Madrid. My pal, Khan, still had some bread left, so he was going to stay an extra week. Yet, this was it for me and damned if I wasn’t going to enjoy our last official stop on our European tour.
Upon entering the city, we immediately checked into an apartment-hostel. In reality, they are called hostels but you are really staying in the extra rooms of someone’s house. An elderly couple was in charge of the one we checked into. They seemed very nice at first, yet did apply a strict curfew to their rooms. I believe we had to be in by 1am; otherwise the doors would be locked. With this in the back of our minds, we headed out on the town to see the sights of the night. First stop: Burger King. No, we weren’t hungry, though we did grab a bite to eat there as well. The main reason was to drink beer. Yes, that is right, we went to BK to drink beer. It was great. You could order a 24oz draft beer for a couple of bucks. We saw this as excellent value, especially since we were down to our last few bills.
The plan was to go to BK and get a head start on the night’s drinking in a very cheap way. Once we had satisfied ourselves with enough beer, we would then head out to the clubs for dancing. In fact, when we went up to the counter to order our first beers, we stayed standing a little to the right of the main counter, drinking away. So in effect, we created a bar scene atmosphere right there in BK. Before too long, a few other patrons joined us in beers and conversation. This soon forced the management of the place to close off a section of the counter to accommodate it’s new “bar” patrons. It was really a trip, drinking big beers and sharing some great conversation in the middle of a BK. Only in Europe could you experience something like this.
As our group grew larger, we soon noticed 2 lovely American girls from Chicago. The 4 of us hit it off right from the start. They too were backpacking around Europe in search of adventure and good times. After a few drinks at BK, the four of us now headed off as one group to hit the club scene. We had a blast that night. One of the more memorable spots was a jazzed up club in the heart of Madrid. It was here that we proceeded to dance a good portion of the night away. One dance I remember doing was the “Macarena”. At the time, this song was hot in Europe and hadn’t even made it’s way over to the States yet. So, in essence, we got to dance the “Macarena” before anyone back home.
By the end of the night, we had obviously passed our hostel curfew. The girls also asked if they could stay with us, since they had not checked in anywhere and needed a place to crash. Once back at the hostel, we finally managed to wake up the elderly couple. They were not happy and kept referring to the curfew. Needless to say, we got past this lecture and made our way to our room. The next part of the plan was sneaking the girls in. We knew darn well that the couple would disapprove of this action. They would see this as trying to pay for a room for 2 and having 2 more come along for free. We didn’t see it that way –we saw the girls as guests to the room we already paid for.
Initially, all seemed to go well. We managed to get the girls in without creating much of a stir. However, 10 minutes later, in came the couple shouting and screaming that we were trying to cheat them. They immediately told the girls to leave and even threatened to evict us if we didn’t follow the rules. We obviously didn’t want to lose our beds, so we told the girls to take off. Unfortunately, the girls had to sleep outside for the night in a park down the street. These things happen when you are packing around Europe. Sometimes you have to brave the elements. When this occurs, it is best to drink a few beers, so that it will be easier to pass out on the hard earth. Before they went off into the night, we told them to meet us the next day to go to a bullfight.
To our surprise, the girls did show up the next day, though they looked a little rough from their sleepless night. The big day was upon us. One of my goals on this trip was to see a real-life Spanish bullfight. I wanted to see what Hemingway had seen. I wanted to feel the excitement of the fight as Ernest had so soulfully described it in his many novels. We headed off to the Madrid arena with a sense of thrill in our step. We didn’t know what to expect. All we knew was that people cheered the killing of bulls. It was a horrible image to see an animal being treated so cruelly, all at the expense of entertainment. Yet, it was a revered pastime, with a very loyal following. Hey, if the locals were good with it, then maybe I could be too. We were about to find out.
The arena was an awesome Coliseum-like structure. On this day, there were going to be 3 matadors engaging with the bulls. Outside, there were souvenir tents everywhere. I bought a cool poster with the date and names of the matadors. We soon entered the packed arena and found our seats on the sunny side. The sunny side was where the cheaper seats were, with the shady side being more comfortable and therefore more expensive. Once seated, we quickly ordered a few bottles of San Miguel from a man walking around with a bucket of beer on his shoulder. At that moment, you couldn’t ask for a better scenario –sipping cold beers with great company and waiting for the excitement of a bullfight to begin.
When the event started, our eyes quickly focused on the first bull in the arena. This would be the first of six bulls to face the sword. The matador had yet to make his entrance. As the bull made his way around the circle of sand on the floor of the arena, a few men on armored horses entered the scene. I soon found out that it was their job to weaken the bull with mortal wounds by piercing the bull with long heavy swords. So, this wasn’t going to be a fair fight between the bull and the matador. By the time the matador entered the ring, the bull would be half in the bag and ultimately bleeding to death. Thus, it was only in this near-death state that the matador could have any chance of slaying the bull single-handedly.
The matador entered the ring with all the majesty of a sitting king. He had his trademark red cape and began to showoff his skill with it. He taunted the bull in every direction. It was a magnificent display of hypnosis between man and beast. The final moment soon arrived and the man rose up with the shining sword to strike down the helpless beast. You could see the blade going deep into the neck area of the bull. As the sword was pulled out slowly, you could see the life of the bull withering away. Once the matador moved away, the bull made a few drunken steps and collapsed into the dust of the afternoon.
Seeing the first bull die, I felt nothing but pity for the bull and hatred towards the matador. Yet, as the show continued, I began to look past the unnecessary act of death and started to admire the skill of the matadors. This is what the crowd was there to see. They wanted to see the skill of the matador in full display. They did not care about the fate of the bull. They only cared for the thrill of the moment and the skill level at which it were executed by the matador. When the matador displayed a flawless act of killing, the crowd went wild with praise. The matador was then given permission to cut off the ears of the bull. He would then present the ear to the local political official overseeing the event. One time, he threw the ear into the crowd and I almost managed to catch it. On the flip side, when the matador was slightly grazed by the horns of the bull, the crowd would boo him for being too slow and not graceful enough. As for the rest of the bull, I learned that the meat goes to the poorer sections of town.
We were emotionally drained by the time the last bull was dragged out of the arena by the team of horses. It had been an exceptional experience to see how and why this ancient sport still thrived in our modern world. Later that night we bid farewell to the girls from Chicago and soon said goodbye to Madrid as well. I would eventually manage to get the poster home in good enough shape to frame it and stick it on the wall. Now, when I look at it, I always go back to that exciting day of life and death.
The people in Ireland are great. I should know, I now have in-laws who live there. I also have 10 nieces and nephews who call me Uncle T. Yes, that’s right – I married an Irish girl. In fact, the day I arrived in Ireland in 1993 I met my future wife. She was the girlfriend of one of the Irish brothers. The Irish brothers were 2 lads I met during the summer of 1989. I left the Florida heat to work at an old resort deep in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There, I would meet about 30 Irish college students, 2 of which I would become very good friends. At the end of the summer, I told the lads I’d see them when I got out of college. That is exactly what I did. Once graduated, I saved up my money and headed out to explore the world, starting with Ireland, a place where most Americans claim to have an ancestral connection.
I’ll never forget that day when I stepped off the plane with my Florida tan and white shorts. They made fun of me. Apparently, the days of wearing shorts are few and far between. That would be the last day I ever wore shorts in that country. The brothers were there to pick me up at the airport and boy was I going through a culture shock. It was my first time in Europe and I was loving it. An hour later, we were on the course and drinking tall-boys. Man, I will never forget the smell of the Irish countryside, so fresh, so pure –with a touch of manure. Mix that with some beer and hitting a few golf balls and you have something close to paradise.
On our way to the course, we stopped by James’ girlfriend’s house to pick her up and take her to work. She looked good and I remember telling James, “Way to go, man”. Little did I know that I would be exchanging marriage vows with her a little less than six years later. But of course I had to get it all out of my system before then. That is one of the keys to a successful marriage: preparation. You must get all crazy, youthful, single experiences out of the system before marriage. If you don’t, you will be doing both you and your lovely new spouse a disservice.
My plan was to spend a couple of weeks with the boys and then head off to the mainland. 9 months later I got back on a plane bound for FLA without ever stepping foot on any other country besides the Emerald Isle. For the first 2 months, we burned through my cash reserves playing golf everyday and hitting the black stuff at night. I was staying in their family home and giving a little bit of cash each month to the mother. I also began to date the younger sister. This was ultimately a bad move on my part. It would later create a rift between me and the brothers, that lasts to this day. At the time I figured what the hell. This wasn’t Florida, this was Ireland and I could get away with just about anything.
So there I was, taking full advantage of what Ireland had to offer me in every respect. By the third month I was forced to get a job. I also wanted to get my own flat. Patrick and I got a flat together in flat-city and were offered the job of running a bistro on Merrion Row. Bad move on the owner’s part. Sure we made the place some money, but we also ate filet mignon every night, as well as helping ourselves to all the Smithwicks we could drink. Before you knew it, the Christmas season rolled around and we got the ax. We partied through the holidays and when the New Year came around, we were back hitting the pavement looking for a job.
With 20% unemployment encompassing the land, I barely managed to land myself a job at a posh restaurant. (illegally, of course) My goal now was to make enough money to get back home in time for my (real) brother’s wedding in the spring of ’94. To do that, I would have to save enough money for airfare and spare cash once I got home. Also, I only had 3 months to do it. The restaurant was in the middle of Dublin across from the city manager’s house. It was the place to be seen and all of the celebrities stopped by for a bite. The staff was also a microcosm of the United Nations. There were the token Yanks like myself. There were also a few Canadians, Brits, Aussies and South Africans. It was a great crew and we all had fun doing our job and we were actually making decent tips from the patrons. The Irish aren’t used to tipping the usual 15-20%. They usually tip between 5-10% or many times not at all. So to work in a fancy restaurant for good tips was definitely a good situation to be in.
Over the next 3 months, I worked extra shifts to make the cash I needed to get back home. Even though I managed to party a few nights away with the staff, I had to decline more often than not to keep on my saving schedule. To save money, I would often walk home instead of taking a cab or bus. It was a 30-minute walk through a few tough neighborhoods, but I kept my eyes peeled, ready to run at a moment’s notice.
The best thing about working at the restaurant was the celebrity sightings. Almost every night, someone famous would walk though the door. You would see mostly rock stars and actors. It appeared that Dublin had always been a mecca for the stars. One reason they loved Dublin and Ireland was because the local people would leave them alone. Mick Jagger could be walking down the street and the locals would look the other way. They essentially wanted to respect their privacy by not making a fuss over them. In the States, Mick would obviously have been mobbed. One time I was walking down the street and I saw the Edge from U2 coming in my direction. He was taking a casual stroll and doing a little window-shopping. Nobody even looked in his direction. In fact, they went out of their way to not look at him. This astonished me to no end. I, of course, started acting like the typical tourist. I started jumping around and pointing him out to my friend. He told me to take it easy, which I soon did.
After awhile I started acting like the locals and ignoring the stars. But when they came into the restaurant, the place was buzzing. We would all get the word at the beginning of the night about who was coming in. At that time, the lucky waiters would be chosen to serve them. It was always one of the older waiters who got to serve them and never any of the new guys like me. The likes of U2, Gabriel Byrne, Alan Rickman, Leslie Nielsen, The Rolling Stones, and even Jerry Lee Lewis stopped by for dinner. Jerry Lee even went over to the piano in the bar to play a few notes on the piano. It was quite a show.
Well, one night I got my chance to wait on a star. The top waiters were off that night, so I got the call. The luck celebrity was none other than Albert Finney. He was one cool cat. He was in town filming a new flick and was out for a quick bite with Rufus Sewall. These guys were having fun, drinking a few cocktails and even buying drinks for a few of the female patrons. He even told me to call him “Al”. That was definitely the highlight of the night. He left a good tip too.
Before I knew it the 3 months had flown by and it was time for me to leave the lovely Emerald Isle. This land had been good to me over the last 9 months. I had left the States in search of new adventures abroad and Ireland had come through. Even though my initial goal was to travel all over Europe, I felt satisfied with my experiences in Ireland. I now had a better sense of the European lifestyle and felt more at ease in my own skin. I knew that I would be back one day and my future travels would go beyond Dublin. Yet, I would never forget my first European landing with my shorts, sandals and Florida tan leading the way.
Good old Beantown. I have never met anyone who has had a bad word to say about Boston. I mean, how could you. It’s the closest thing to a European city in the US and many of us need to visit Boston at least once to get a feel of what it was like back in the old days, when the redcoats were hanging around and most people walked to where they were going. Boston has always been a truly pedestrian town. Throw in some history, the Old North Church, some great old buildings and a fabulous river down the middle, and you’ve got your self a very cool atmosphere.
I mean this is where it all started, it was the cradle of democracy in those early years, with everyone from Washington to Adams to Hancock to Revere, all spending some time in Boston during the Revolutionary Era. It’s not too big and it’s not too small. Boston is just right, with just the right mix of people. You have the intellectuals across the river in Cambridge and you have the Irish in Southie and the Italians in the North End. In between, you have the most colleges in one city, thriving Chinese and Brazilian populations, all the blue-collar workers you could imagine and a strong gay population to boot. To the north, you have the beautiful White Mountains, Green Mountains, Maine Coastline and Canada. To the South, you have the Cape, the Islands, Casinos, and NYC. You are only a 5-hour flight to Dublin and a 2-hour flight to Bermuda. Drive 3 hours west and you are making a bet at Saratoga. Many people call Boston the “Hub of the Universe” and to me that is exactly what it is. At least that is what I thought when I moved up here in ’94.
After attending my brother’s wedding and selling all of my possessions, including my bed, in a garage sale, I loaded up the Supra and moved to Boston. My final destination was Allston St in Allston, MA. My roommates for the Summer of ’94 happened to be 6 lovely Irish women with me being the man of the house. Talk about landing on your feet. Through a few of my Irish friends I ended up living with my 18 year old Irish girlfriend and 5 other Irish beauties, one being my future wife.
The summer was a blast. I soon had plenty of guy friends sniffing around the apartment for dates with the girls. We would have a party every night with headstand keg drinking, nakedness running around and late night runs to the local pizza joint. It truly was a summer to remember. Nobody had a care in the world and whatever happened tomorrow, happened.
It was a very hot day. But I didn’t give a damn. I was delighted to finally be in the city of Caesar. Here I was, at last standing where the gods of ancient Rome once stood. As the train rolled into the station, I could only imagine what the Roman streets had in store for me. My first stop was Mickey D’s to pick up a map. As a now seasoned traveler, I knew that the best (and free) maps were to found at good old McDonald’s. Yes indeed, American capitalism had tapped into another excellent marketing resource –the far from home American backpacker. After a Big Mac and getting my hands on the map, I made my way to the nearest hostel, which happened to be outside of the center of town, by the Olympic stadium. When one gets off the sweaty train, one always heads to the hostel to get washed up and to get some general bearings (unless you are in Amsterdam, there you go straight to the Cafe).
I was cruising on my own and knew that I could probably hook up with some cool shits down at the hostel. The hostel is always the meeting place for single travelers like myself. I made my way through the front door bureaucracy and was able to find an open bed in the communal room of sleep. Just at that moment, people were congregating around the center row of bunk beds and were talking about what to do that evening. I overheard the word “Coliseum” and knew that a journey was in the making. I soon found my way into the group and got myself signed up to venture out with this band of Canadians, Americans and Australians. It was easy to tag along and I did. After chow, we were all going to meet up outside the hostel and then begin our journey to the sacred bowl. This was a chance of a lifetime. This was a moment of opportunity, one that would only come once and one that would only come by chance. The timing of my arrival had been perfect. Here was a group of trekkers on their way to sneak into one of the most revered and sacred places on earth and I was there to tag along. We cruised into the city center, the town was buzzing on this hot July night. We finally made our way through the center of town and soon could see the night-lights encircling the beautiful oval shape. This structure had been standing since 80 AD. It had been through countless wars and battles. It had weathered the test of time. Now I would walk in the footsteps of Caesar.
The leader of our group was a tall Canadian guy with a goatee. He had gone on this journey before. Only he knew how to guide us to the inner sanctum of the Coliseum. We would not merely slip through the gates where the public walked in the daytime. We would go over several tall iron gates that would lead us deep into the heart of this beast. We would go where the lions and Christians were kept before their fateful meetings. We would go into the pits where men would contemplate their fate. The average tourist would only be able to look over the edge and see down into the pits. We would go into the pits and look up at the sky and see things that only archaeologists and Romans would see. Everyone was excited when we reached the first gate. The gates were very high and took a great deal of effort to overcome. Yet, slowly and surely, each of us made our way over each gate. After finally making it over one gate, there would be another one waiting for us to take it on. We helped each other as much we could, but ultimately each of us was involved in his or her own struggle. This was a small price to pay to set foot on sacred ground. This was indeed an opportunity of a lifetime and each of us knew the significance of the moment.
Finally, we made it to the pits, to the very heart of this wonderful place. Once there, we looked around at each other and smiled with glee. We had done it. We had crept into the bowels of “The” Coliseum. This was a story for the ages and for the party scene back home. This would be my lead into countless drunken conversations, knowing that no one listening could say, “me too”. Yet, to bring us down to earth and to let us know that we hadn’t just step foot on the top of Everest, we were met by several locals sitting just above us. This was their local hangout. It was cool to think that this significant landmark was their Saturday night hangout place. We looked at this place as sacred, whereas they merely saw it as a local place to have a few beers. That thought suddenly put everything in perspective for me. I now saw myself hanging out in my local historical site back home, drinking a few beers with my buddies. This scene before me in the Coliseum was no different. When the locals saw us emerge on the floor of the great structure, they made whistling sounds to say in their own way, “Bravo, you made it!” This made us feel welcome and somewhat at ease in these awe-struck surroundings.
We proceeded to go off in our own little groups to explore the history of this place. Every corner seemed to tell another story. In one area you could envision the lions and tigers chained up, ready to be released on the helpless Christians. In another area, you could see benches in rooms that must have been where the victims said their final prayers before the slaughter. The experience was truly amazing. We were walking in the footsteps of men and women from almost 2000 years ago. No ordinary tourist would ever see what we were seeing. The moment I walked into that hostel, my destiny was written. I was destined to sneak into the Coliseum and walk in the path of history. When I looked up into the starlight sky, I could see myself at that moment as one very lucky traveler who had landed a spot on the most exclusive tour in all of Rome. And it didn’t even cost me a dime; only a few scraps and bruises.
After an hour or so, we went back the way we came, leaving everything the way we found it. To disrupt even the slightest pebble would have been sacrilegious. We knew that preserving the moment in our minds was good enough. To celebrate our victorious journey, we opened a few beers back at the hostel. As we toasted the rest of the night away, we listened to each other’s experience from the trip. It was clear that this had been a special night for all. The next morning I bid my farewell to the group and set out to explore the rest of the city on my own. One stop I made was the Coliseum. I wanted to see how lucky we were and how unlucky the rest of the tourists were. In an organized visit to this awesome place, one must stay within certain boundaries. Going down into the pits, as we had done, was out of the question. Even to go up a few levels, you had to pay a few extra bob. When I managed to get to the edge and look down to where we had ventured, I pointed down and said to the guy standing next to me; “I was down there last night.” With a face of disbelief, he looked at me and laughed. I knew he would never believe me. I didn’t expect him to. I had my moment and that is all I needed. I walked away thinking about what my next adventure was going to be. Topping this one would be a thrill and a challenge. But I was prepared.
We had finished our tour of Italy and were worn out from all of the clubbing. We needed to focus on something else besides women and boozing. Getting on the train in Rome, we set our sights on Switzerland. Our goal was to make a quick stopover to take on some adrenaline-pumping activities in the great outdoors. We had heard of this mystical thing called “summer skiing” and we were determined to check it out. Imagine throwing on some skis and hitting the slopes in the middle of July. This I had to experience. We also heard that one could attempt the highest bungee jump in the world. The drop was 600 feet and there was no looking back. The skiing was at the top of our agenda and if we got the nerve, we would also go for the jump.
Our first stop was a place called Zermatt. It was in this beautiful little Swiss hamlet where the skiing took place. The skiing wasn’t next to just some mountain. We would be cruising down the slopes next to the Matterhorn. Yes, the same Matterhorn that Teddy Roosevelt climbed to the top. This was definitely a cool place to check out. We arrived at the train station in Zermatt very early in the morning. In fact, it was still dark and nothing was going on. There was no way we could mosey down the street and find an open hostel. Our choices were limited and my buddy Khan and I decided to crash on the platform of the train station. This is a common occurrence in the backpacking world. Nobody ever seems to mind too much. Even though it was in the middle of summer, there was still quite a chill in the air. After all, we were at the base of an enormous glacier. So, needless to say, it was a damn cold morning sleeping on that concrete platform.
Not really getting too much shut-eye, we awoke very early, eager to get to a ski shop and then hit the slopes. One of the keys to summer skiing is getting out early. The window of opportunity for good snow only lasts until about 2 in the afternoon. After 2, the snow starts to resemble snow cone slush consistency. We found the nearest ski shop and soon emerged with all the gear to tackle the mountain. Next, we had to find our way to the base of the mountain. This was not like skiing on the East coast at Killington or something. To reach the top of this mountain, you needed to board a very large tram and take a 15-minute journey to the skiing area. The only way to ski in the summer is to ski on top of a glacier at a very high altitude. And the only way to reach that height is to take this tram ride. Also, we were not all bundled up from the cold. We didn’t even have any gloves on. The temperature was quite nice and all that was required was a long sleeved shirt with a turtleneck underneath.
Once we reached the top of the mountain, we were literally up in the clouds. Next to us was the majestic profile of the Matterhorn. It was a thrilling moment to look around and realize that you were near the top of the world, admiring one of its most famous mountaintops. Damn, what a thrill. I can still feel the exhilaration running through my body on that day. It was definitely a moment to pause and feel the power of nature all around you. After taking a few photos, we proceeded to ski our asses off over the next few hours. The skiing was excellent. For lunch, we cruised over to a lovely mountaintop restaurant that just so happened to be situated right across the Swiss line in Italy. Yes, that is right. We skied in Switzerland next to the Matterhorn and then dined in Italy for lunch. The journey from one country to the next was a mere 2-minute jaunt across the lower slope. Taking this fact in was pretty cool.
By 2pm, the snow was turning to slush. It was time to head back down. I mean the fact that we are even skiing at all in July is a bloody miracle. So quitting at 2 was fine with me. We had skied at the height of summer next to the Matterhorn. Enough said. Once we got down to the fairy tale town of Zermatt, we caught the next train to Interlaken. This is a must stop for all who enter Switzerland. It is smack dab in the middle of the Alps and just screams out breathtaking beauty. This was also the place where we were going to attempt the highest bungee jump in the world. In Interlaken, there is only one place to hang your hat for a few days. That place is Balmers. Balmers seems to be the only hostel around. If you don’t stay there, you’re not really staying in Interlaken. It is a very well organized place, with activities galore. If you want to go bungee jumping, hiking, or canyoning, you can sign up at Balmers. They have got the market covered. The only down side is that there are too many yanks staying there, almost to the point of a frat party breaking out. Hey, but if this is your thing, embrace it. You just might find your future spouse in one of the hammocks.
Our mission was clear: Wake up the next day and scare the shit out of ourselves. We decided to double our trouble with a warm-up run of canyoning. This activity is illegal in the States due to insurance reasons. The attire is a helmet and a protective life vest. You follow your guide down a series of canyons, cliffs, ravines and waterfalls. It is pretty fun when you are sliding down a natural waterway or repelling down a steep cliff into a waiting pool of refreshing water. You do have to exert a bit of muscle to make it through all of the obstacles, but the adrenaline rush can’t be beat. There is a dangerous side to this thing and it’s called drowning. If a flash flood comes down from the mountains, there is nowhere to run. When the water comes down, you drown. I didn’t know about this risk at the time. I later read an article in People magazine about 19 or so people who last their lives doing this same activity in basically the same area. That makes you think twice, but, hey, we were ignorant at the time.
After the morning rush, we had a quick lunch and then headed to the bungee area. Driving up to the scene, the emotions started to kick in. I could see the tram on the wire, set against a beautiful backdrop of cliffs and a magnificent waterfall. I think it was the highest waterfall in Europe. I couldn’t believe that we were going to ride that tram to 600 feet and jump. But that is just what we did. We boarded the tram with about 7 others and started our ascent to 600 feet. There were 2 jumps, one at 300 and one at 600. We stopped at 300 and half the group jumped. If 300 looked pretty damn high, how was the 600 mark going to look? We were about to find out. On our way from 300 to 600, the Tom Petty tune, “Free Falling” was playing in the background. These Swiss knew what they were doing. My emotions were reeling. I was up and down like a roller coaster. I wanted to jump one minute and then not the next.
We finally reached the magic number. The key was to just run out of the tram without stopping or looking down. The first guy, a Japanese tourist, ran to the edge of the door and then stopped suddenly. This was not the way to do it. He finally went out screaming. Khan went next and then I was set to go after him. The Swiss got me ready with the cord and the words “check, check and check” to make sure all was secure. I held my breath and jumped. I was screaming like a girl all the way with my eyes barely open. At the beginning of the fall, I noticed that my right arm felt tangled in the cord. In a split second, I maneuvered my arm to a more natural position. I would soon find out that this move made all the difference in the world. I bounced back up a couple of times and then was lowered down to the ground. That was certainly one rush I would never forget. Once down on the ground, people started pointing to my right arm. When I took a look, there was a terrific rope burn running from my elbow to my shoulder. I quickly ascertained that if I had not moved my arm, I would be writing with my left hand today. I believe that my arm was tangled and that I had freed it during that split second maneuver. The result of my movement was the burn. The Swiss handlers couldn’t believe it. They had never seen anything like it. The crowd boarding the next tram got a bit of a fright. That was pretty funny. Khan and I headed for the train station and our next adventure. I doubted that we would top these last 2 days anytime soon.
I was upside down, thinking “wow, I could die, but maybe not” and then the car landed on all fours. Here I was coming back from BCM on Majorca. It was around 6am, me and Khan, enjoying life, sweating the summer away on the dance floors of Europe, and always looking for action. It was decadence at it’s finest, almost getting killed for the third time on this trip. That was it, putting yourself on the edge of life, tempting fate, winning and making it through your 20’s. Khan and I had been backpacking all over southern Europe for the last 2 months with the primary goal of hitting dance club after dance club until we reached the point of exhaustion. We had become vampires of the dance floor, in search of good times and beautiful women. On top of the club circuit pinnacle was BCM on the big island of Majorca.
BCM was a massive club situated smack dab in the middle of the British overrun town of Magaluf. Everywhere you looked you saw the British flag flying and the British accent flowing through the air. Once inside, your eyes were filled with fascinating laser-light shows and the awe of 3 stories rocking back and forth. Our mission was to booze up on the way there and then dance all night with women from all over Europe. The music was fantastic and the good times were there for the taking. By 5am, we had sweated out our last cocktail and were out of luck on the lady ticket. Though obviously not a completely successful night, we ventured back out into the morning twilight, with visions of sleep time in our heads.
We almost made it back to the condo, when our rental car decided to take a wrong turn. Actually, I was the one behind the wheel and in retrospect, the corner didn’t seem that bad at all. In fact, it was a simple curve, but my mind was still on the dance floor and not on the road. The funny thing is that I can remember every moment of the crash. I can remember missing the corner and then putting my foot on the brake just before we barreled into a very large tree. So the braking saved us from the tree, but then caused the car to go into a roll. Yet, it seemed like a very delicate roll and the car appeared to glide over the bushes on the side of the road. The great thing was that the rolling stopped after one roll and we landed on all four tires. The only downside was that the windshield popped out from the force of my buddy’s head slamming in to it. Once the car stopped, I looked around and realized that at first glance all was still intact. Khan had a slight bump on his head and his knee was a bit scraped up. Other than that we were good. We jumped out of the car and started doing a dance around the car. We had tested the odds and won. We then proceeded to grab 2 beers out of the dumped cooler and made the toast of our life. Little did we know that a farmer in the distance was watching our every move.
After toasting to our new lease on life, we climbed back into the car and passed out. There was no way to drive away from the scene. Next thing we know, 2 Spanish police officers are knocking on the roof of the car, trying to wake us up or trying to determine if we had expired. One awake, we tried to explain to them that the turn was very sharp and we had misjudged it. They looked around for any evidence of alcohol and then took us down to the local station. In our previous moment of triumph, I had decided that stashing any evidence of booze was probably in our best interest. With this thought in mind, I quickly collected all beer cans and the cooler and stashed them under a large rock. Thus our butts were saved for the time being.
Once at the police station, they proceeded to mildly interrogate us about the details of the incident. We pleaded to being guilty of bad driving only. The subject of alcohol was quickly passed over. With no reason to hold us, we were sent on our merry way. Yet the story doesn’t end here. In order to stay out of trouble, we had to go on a recon mission. Our goal was to go back to the scene of the crime and get our cooler. If the damn thing were found, it would unravel our whole story to the local police. So later that day we headed back to the spot. This time we were in our new rental and as we pulled up, we saw the old car being towed away. That was pretty weird. We managed to dig up the cooler without being spotted by anyone. The farmer must have been on his lunch break or enjoying siesta, for we did not see him spying on us. Apparently he also had talked to the police and had told them that we were drinking beers right after the crash. This is the main reason why we had to go on this reconnaissance mission. If the cooler was found, our story would lose out against his and we would be up the creek without a new rental. The mission was successful and we did go on our merry way this time.
Over the next few days, we would pass that fateful spot and think about how lucky we had been that night. The fact is we were damn lucky. We could have easily rammed right into that very large tree on the side of the road. Then I wouldn’t be here to write this story. I wouldn’t be here to meet my future wife. I wouldn’t be here to do anything worthwhile. I had once again escaped the dangers of my 20’s, the dangers of my youth. If you can make it through your 20’s, you have a good shot of making it the rest of the way. These are the tricky times. It is great to live life to the fullest, but sometimes the fullest can catch up with you and catch you when you least expect it. I didn’t expect to roll the car that night, but it happened. It happened because I was out there experiencing Europe, experiencing life. These are the chances we must take to live life without regrets. Luckily, there were no regrets that day.
I had arrived in my furthest destination east – Budapest. Here I was at the crossroads between the West and the East. You could see examples of both worlds all over the place. Once off the train, I made my way over to the old-city side of tow, better known as Buda. This was a fact that quickly caught my attention. The city was divided by name and by the magnificent Danube. The Danube was at its full strength as it moved its way through the middle of town. Budapest was made of 2 sides. One was Buda, where the old city dominated the landscape. The other was Pest, where the lights and buildings of a new era were sprouting up everywhere. I was soon to discover the two personalities that shaped theses two distinct sides of the city.
One side was for the daytime. During the day, you would wander around the ancient streets of Buda, admiring the castles and churches. You could climb up a tower and upon reaching the top, you could see all across the city. You could see the Danube and you could see Pest. In the tower, there was also a guy shuffling cards and trying to tempt you to make a bet to keep up with the Queen. I fell for this trick and soon found myself short a few bucks. No worries, I moved on, thinking that this was my fee for being able to see such a great city. The other side was for the night. This was Pest, full of night-lights, full of fun. At night, you would wander across the bridge from your hostel and find your way to the bars. The nightlife was calling your name. One bar in particular, the Irish Cat, was calling my name. Here I found a thriving group of drinkers, from all over the world. I also found good local music and pretty Hungarian women. One local girl caught my eye and I soon found myself walking her to the bus stop. Before the bus arrived, I managed to sneak in a kiss under the streetlights. It was cool; it was romantic. I was in Budapest, kissing a girl. I never saw her again, but the moment has always stayed with me.
I soon started comparing Buda and Pest to the analogy of Jekyll and Hyde. Buda was Dr. Jekyll, a mild mannered town during the daytime. Pest was Mr. Hyde, a nighttime indulgence of secrets and fulfilled fantasies. You must go to Hyde at night, it called your name to enjoy your youth and revel in the moment. By day, you must look around Jekyll and understand the significance of the past. One place on the Buda side that screamed out from the past was the Rudas Baths. This was 500-year-old Turkish bath, obviously created by the Turks when they ruled over this land. By my second day in the hostel, I had hooked up with a mixed gang of Americans and Europeans from all walks of life. The girls of the group went off to wander the streets of Buda and I convinced the guys to go with me to the Rudas.
The place was a relic of a building with the words Rudas across the entrance. This was a famous bathhouse and I was eager to step into the past. Once inside the door, we were told that the entrance fee was around 1 buck. That suited us just fine and we all realized that a bargain was in the making. After paying, we were led back into the locker rooms. We still had no idea how all this was going to play out. The attendant soon cleared that issue up for us when he handed each one of us a small loincloth that only covered your front area. Once you put this thing on, your ass was hanging in the breeze. We all tried not look down too much. The goal was to get in the baths and experience this ancient water treatment. This bath was pretty legit, with no hanky-panky going on. Which was cool with all of us. So here we were –6 guys who had just met a few hours ago, walking into a 500 year old Turkish bath with our asses hanging out. What a trip!
We soon entered the bath area. It was like stepping back into time. Everything was as it stood 500 years ago. We saw what the Turks saw. We felt what the Turks felt. The ceiling was a dome with 70 small circular skylights. The effect of the light beams shooting down through the steam was mystifying. In the middle of the room was a central bath with water fountains pouring in. Around this circular pool was a separate bath in each corner of the room. All around the pools were old Hungarian men lying on the red marble slabs just like they might have posed long ago. Some were conversing with each other, while others read the paper. This was a social club for them. I imagined they came here every week to gossip and talk of old times. They barely glanced in our direction. They were consumed with the moment.
We hit the center pool first. The water was warm and inviting. The 4 other pools each maintained a different temperature. One was extremely hot and another was extremely cold. The temps of the other 2 fell somewhere in the middle. So, in essence, all 5 pools covered the gamut of temps for the body to experience. And this is exactly what we did. We went from one pool to the other, getting a thrill from the temperature changes. The greatest shock occurred when you went from extreme hot to extreme cold. When you did this, you experienced a tremendous rush. In fact, it was an addicting feeling. There was one guy, a local, who kept going back and forth. He was an addict.
After getting the maximum effect from the pools, we moved into the steam room. This was no ordinary steam room. There were no regulations for temp control as you might find in the States. Therefore it was damn hot and the slightest breathing literally took your breath away, making your chest feel extremely tight. However, once you got used to the hot steam, it was heaven. From this room, you had the option of getting a massage. We glanced in the massage rooms and saw big harry men rubbing down the patrons. We decided to skip this part of the experience. Know what I mean. Once outside, our heads were light. We felt relaxed and refreshed. It had been a good experience and a cheap one too.
Over the next few days, we became a tight group. It was if we were destined to spend these 5 days together, enjoying each other’s company and enjoying Budapest. Every day we would head off to explore everything the city had to offer. I was good with a map, so I led the way. Many in the group didn’t have a clue how to get where we were going. They relied on me. As a result they started calling me “chief”. I thought it was cool. I could walk away from the group at any moment and they would be totally lost on how to get back to the hostel. They just said, “just follow chief, he knows where we are going.”On the final day before everyone took off his or her separate way, we gathered for a group picture. There we were – young, carefree, and eager to learn from our experiences. Looking at the picture you could see the delight in each of our eyes. We were doing what we wanted to do. There were no timelines, there were no schedules, and there was no stress. We would soon go our own ways, only looking back occasionally to remember those 5 days we spent together.