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.