Tag Archives: spontaneous

18 Hours in Rome #sol16 9 of 31

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hDuring the summer of 2014, I traveled in Europe for a few weeks- mainly the UK, Ireland, and Greece. On the way from London to Athens, I had an 18 hour layover in Rome, and I decided to make the best of it.

IMG_4184

My first stop, after dropping my stuff off at my hotel, was the Colosseum. To say this structure was awe-inspiring is an understatement. It’s beautiful and breath-taking and powerful. After the Colosseum, I made my way to Trevi Fountain, via the metro.

IMG_1410

Upon exiting the metro, I found myself in this gorgeous piazza. After snapping a few pictures, I sat down on a bench to rest and take it all in. Sitting about a meter away from me, reading, was Maurice, a little, old Italian man dressed in a pressed blue short-sleeve button-down tucked into oversized pleated gray slacks. Somehow, we struck up a conversation. Exchanging pleasantries first, he learned that I lived in Shanghai. “Why would you want to do that?” he asked. I shared a few of the reasons why I loved Shangers, but he wasn’t buying it. That’s when I learned that he was fluent in Mandarin! Like…he can read and write it, too! Obviously intrigued, I asked him if he’d ever been to China, to which he promptly informed me that he hadn’t and that he had no desire to go to China. “Why, then, did you learn Chinese?” “I was bored,” was his reply. Who does that?!? Oh, I’m bored. I think I’ll just become fluent in Mandarin. Needless to say, I was impressed. And bewildered.

Next, the conversation changed. His next question caught me off-guard, and was the sweetest question I’d ever heard. “Do you have a love story?” (Cue the “awwwwww” from the audience.) Not only was I melting from the sincerity and Italian-ness of his question, but I was suddenly sad to answer that, no, I did not, in fact, have a love story.

“I had a love story. But my wife of over 40 years died a few years ago. It’s just me.” Now doesn’t that just hit ya in the gut?

He shared more of his love story and his life in Rome with me before I realized that, while I was enjoying this conversation, I was on a timeline and needed to see more of Rome. The sun was slowly lowering in the sky, reminding me of my dwindling time left in this lovely city. I politely asked Maurice to point me in the direction of Trevi Fountain, a place I’d been told I must see while in Rome. Instead of showing me which way to go, he insisted on walking me there. I realized that putting up a fight didn’t matter. He was going to show me anyway.

Trevi Fountain was unfortunately under construction, so it was a bit of a let-down. Sweet Maurice felt personally responsible for not knowing this. Taking my friend Linner’s advice, we found a gelato place near the fountain where I got the most delicious gelato ever. I tried to pay for it, as a thank you to Maurice, but he insisted, saying this was his city, and I was his guest. Being so independent, it was hard for me to accept. But I eventually just said thank you.

Gelato cups empty, our stomachs wanting more, Maurice asked me what I had planned for the rest of the day. “Ummmm…I’m just gonna wander around and figure things out,” I replied.

“Do you want a tour guide?” he timidly asked.

For a second, I contemplated saying no. What if he’s a serial killer? OK, that’s a bit extreme. But still. He could have ulterior motives or something. Hemming and hawing over the decision, I figured, why not?

Maurice and I then proceeded to have a lovely evening. As we strolled through the cobblestone streets, I was in constant awe of the beautiful buildings, adorable Vespas, and foliage. The only photo I managed to take of Maurice that day was on one of these streets.

IMG_4252

How cute is he? He sorta looks like an Italian version of my grandpa.

I lucked out with my tour guide! Not only did I see the typical touristy stuff in Rome, I got to see the stuff “only Italians do.” One of my favorite experiences was when we tried to throw a coin on the top of the ruins for good luck. I made several attempts, but didn’t quite make it.

IMG_4278

We wandered down by the river, where Maurice helped me bargain for two watercolor paintings- one for me and one for my friend Melissa, who I was meeting up with in Greece. Crossing a bridge, we happened upon a very famous restaurant whose name escapes me at the moment. Anyhow, the door was covered in Michelin and other food awards. The foodie in me really wanted to try it out, but Maurice wanted to see what else there was to eat. After checking out a few places that didn’t seem quite right, we headed back to the Michelin restaurant. This was a good choice for sure.

IMG_4295

We both ordered the spinach ravioli, and let me tell you…it was divine. Italian food in Italy cannot be beat! Seriously. Determined to repay Maurice for his kindness, I tried to pay the (quite pricey) bill. He, again, fought me on it and insisted that it was his treat. It was his city, after all, and I was a visitor. This man was a gentleman! They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

As the night drew to a close, Maurice proved to be a gentleman one last time. After warning me that Rome isn’t that safe at night, he rode with me in a cab to drop me off at my hotel. (He let me pay the taxi ride, so that was good at least.) We said our goodbyes. I thanked him for a lovely day, and I never saw him again.

I had 18 hours in Rome, and you know what? I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it any other way!

Unplanned Traveler- SOL #15

11454297503_e27946e4ff_h

 

As I’ve evolved as a traveler, my planning has become more minimalist. I often buy plane tickets at the last minute, even when traveling internationally. I rarely book accommodations past the first day or two of my trip. I don’t buy Lonely Planets, and my research is kept to a minimum. Do I need a visa? What are some of the must-see sites? What’s the weather going to be like? What currency is used, and what’s the exchange rate? Do they tip? How do I say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’? Beyond these basic questions, I choose not to know.

The excitement of traveling is discovery. I love feeling the heartbeat of the city. My less-planned philosophy allows me to experience, first-hand, the culture of my newest destination. With feet to the pavement, one of my favorite things is walking (or biking) around the local neighborhoods, getting a feel for the ‘real’ city, not what your typical tourist experiences. Mingling with the locals, observing everyday life, taking in the sights, smells, sounds of the city…now this is authentic. Anyone can be a tourist. I choose to avoid most of the tourist traps in favor of real experiences.

Last October when I traveled to Myanmar, I was unplanned. Completely last minute. Having purchased our tickets just two weeks prior to departure, we scrambled to complete the visa application in time. Receiving our visa confirmation just 24 hours before departing was stressful, but the lack of planning on our part gave way to spontaneity. Unburdened by an itinerary, we were free to roam untethered, time and location not a factor. Had we had an itinerary, we never would have met ‘Uncle K,’ the 67 year old Burmese man with unending energy, knowledge, and enthusiasm, who became our impromptu tour guide in Yangon, giving us a glimpse of life beyond what’s laid out in the travel books. I wouldn’t have arm wrestled an 85 year old medicine man on the floor of his home while the rain hit the roof, enveloping us in a symphony of calming sounds. I wouldn’t have joked around with the Inle Lake boat drivers, poking fun at the man with the smiley eyes, who later hailed down his friend’s tuk tuk at my request so that I could drive Mel around in the sidecar. I wouldn’t have had such a funny story to tell for years to come. These, and many more experiences, the memories that made me fall in love with Myanmar, wouldn’t have been possible had I come with an agenda, an itinerary jam-packed with somebody else’s must-see locations.

As I look forward to my next trip- Kathmandu, Nepal- in just two weeks, my itinerary includes loads and loads of unplanned time. Time that I hope to fill with taking in the scenery, writing, observing the idiosyncrasies of everyday life, chatting with the locals, tasting the local fare, and venturing into the unknown.

A Funny Story (at least I thought so)- SOL #9

11454297503_e27946e4ff_h

I had dinner tonight with my friend Marisa, who wanted to pick my brain about Myanmar. Having traveled to Myanmar last October, she wanted the low down on what to expect, where to stay, and must-see locations. As I was telling her about my new favorite place in the world, I remembered a funny story…

Our last stop in Myanmar was Bagan, the ancient city with over 4,000 temples. Being that we had traveled to 3 places in the country in a week, we were pressed for time. Having arrived at 5:00am on an overnight bus, we took a nap, and upon waking, set out to see as much as we could see in our day there. Our first stop was the bus company, where we booked our return trip to Yangon for our flight back to China the following day. Once there, we learned we have the option of taking (another) overnight bus or a day bus the next day. Melissa asked me, “When’s our flight tomorrow?” I found it funny that she’s asking me, the traveler with the lack of attention to detail, but I vaguely remembered and told her that our flight was at 9:00PM.
“Are you sure?” she questions.
“Pretty sure.” Given our previous night’s overnight bus experience (I’ll save that for another story), we were keen to take the day bus, which would get us back to Yangon by 6:00PM, in plenty of time for our 9:00PM flight.

We then proceeded to visit as many temples as possible in Old Bagan. The temples are their own story, so I’ll just leave you with a few pictures until I write that story on another day…

IMG_3395

IMG_3420

IMG_3462

IMG_3441

At the end of a long day of temple-hopping, we arrived at the Star Beam Bistro, this adorable Euro-cafe in the heart of Old Bagan. Sitting on the terrace, we ordered a spectacular meal of grilled salmon, fresh veggies, and cream sauce. Including my drink, the total was a whopping $6.00! As we reflected on the day, reliving the excitement of the past 8 hours, we were pleased that we had decided on the day bus. A night of sleep in a comfy bed plus a day of seeing the country side seemed heavenly!
“Hey, what time do we get back to Shanghai tomorrow?” Melissa asked.
“Ummm…I think around midnight or 12:30.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s what the itinerary said.”
“Jennifer, if we leave Yangon at 9:00, and then have a layover in Kunming, we can’t possibly get back to Shanghai then. It took us 6 hours to get here.”
“Yeah, but what about the time change?”
“It’s only an hour and a half difference. That still doesn’t make sense.”
“Well, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure it said 12 something as our arrival time.”
Determined to figure out the answer, Melissa looks through her inbox on her iPhone. We don’t have access to wifi (the case nearly everywhere in Myanmar), but she can access saved messages. A few seconds later, her face falls. “Jennifer, we fly out of Kunming at 9:00PM. We fly out of Yangon at 2:00.”
Uh-oh! Sheepishly I said, “Well, I knew we left at 9:00. I guess I just had the location wrong.”
Panic set in on Melissa’s face. “What are we going to do? Our bus arrives at 6:00PM tomorrow. We’re going to miss our flight!!!”
“We’ll figure something out. No worries,” I said, remaining calm.
Melissa did not mirror my calmness.

Well, there was a bus that left that night. I figured if we got our food to go, we could rush back to the hotel, throw our stuff in a bag, and catch the bus in time. Calling the manager over, I borrowed his phone to call the bus company to inquire about the switch. I was informed that the bus left in half an hour, so we couldn’t possibly make it. Melissa was not too happy with the situation (or me). “We’ll figure something out,” I reassured her. It’s not like we could be stuck in Myanmar forever, right?

My composure still intact, I asked the manager if he had wifi. My plan was to book us a way out by tomorrow. No dice. Hmmm…well, we could rent a taxi and drive there tonight, but that was likely to be expensive. And who knows if there are any taxis that drive 10 hours to Yangon? How about a flight? Sure, we’ve heard that Myanmar has the lowest domestic airline safety rating of pretty much anywhere in the world, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Unsure of the possibility of getting a last minute flight out of Bagan and scared to find out the cost of said flight, I again speak to the manager. “Do you know how I could get a flight to Yangon by tomorrow? I seem to have made a mistake about our flight time and we aren’t going to make it.” Serendipitously, his cousin happens to be a travel agent. In a moment, I’m on the line with him making a reservation for two. Not only can we get on a flight in the morning, but it only costs $112 per ticket. Now that’s a deal! The tickets were delivered to our hotel about a half hour later, and we were saved! I’m glad, too, or Melissa would have killed me!