An hour long Thai massage in Chiang Mai had us feeling limber and loose as Bikram yogis, relaxed and rejuvenated as if we’d just spent the day on the beach instead of on the backs of Asian elephants as wannabe mahouts. We paid our 300 baht (roughly $10) for the rub down and set out to find Tyler a much needed haircut and beard trim. Funny thing about Thailand: not a lot of Thai men have facial hair. So when we found a place boasting cuts and shaves for 200 baht ($7), the poor hairdresser didn’t seem to know how to tackle his thickly forested facial hair. But she seemed determined to get it right. Or not. One minute I was lounging in the waiting area, perusing our Lonely Planet guide book for a good place to eat post-haircut. The next, I was face to face with a bald-faced, clean cut stranger. Yep, after nearly three years of beard-dom, she shaved him clean. Considering it’s the last day of “Movember”, I guess it’s fitting. Funny enough, I watched Tyler describe in detail how he wanted his facial hair and what he got was definitely not what he asked for. Some things just get lost in translation. Here are some other funny examples we’ve seen along the way:
There are no speed limits posted here. Riding in the back of a pick-up truck or three to a scooter are widely accepted modes of transport. Lightning illuminates the sky and still the beach and waves are speckled with people swimming, suntanning, beach combing. All mini lighting rods, flirting with the 1-in-a-million probability. Compared to Canada, where the playgrounds are laiden with impact-absorbing rubber pellets and anxious mothers follow their children around with Lysol wipes and Purell sanitizer, there is a certain attitude about health and safety that has been interesting, entertaining, and sometimes scary to witness. Here are a few ways one can be injured in Thailand:
- Sunburns: After five weeks in Europe with an abundance of clouds, rain and cold, we were rather ambitious about donning our swimsuits and offering up our pasty white legs to the sun gods. The first official beach day in Ko Lanta gave us red hot noses and peeling shoulders that were sizzling and sore the next day. I felt a bit better when I spied a group of normally light-skinned tourists that looked as though they’d been thrown into the lobster pot. Misery loves company, I guess. Funny enough, sunscreen is one of few items that is more expensive than buying it in Canada – around $15 a bottle. Pricey or not, after the first burn, we stocked up.
- Bad Food: Knock on wood, we haven’t been stricken with the dreaded traveller’s diarrhea. Yet. Spend any time watching how food is handled here and it’s not much of a mystery as to why it’s so common. Diner beware if you chance to purchase one of those street side chicken skewers that’s been sitting raw and warm in the blistering sun, flies buzzing around it, it’s juices mixing with the brown-ish beef, and yellow-tinged fish laid out in a stinking display. After hearing horror stories of people that spend their entire time in Thailand clutching porcelain, we’ve made a point of avoiding street meat and trying to eat at restaurants where the diner turnover seems high (and therefore more likely the food fresh and the meal made to order). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: say no to street meat people!
- Drinking: After reading in our guidebook about “buckets” of cheap Thai Sang Som and coke, I had to try one or three for myself. Without elaborating, I’ll say this: it’s a hurt that keeps on giving. Though many believe the cure is another bucket (and another and another), after my hurtful introduction in Ko Phi Phi, I was happy to sip on watered down pina coladas henceforth.
- Driving: Here’s something fun. Take an overstimulated tourist who has never ever been on two wheels, feed him a couple beers, plop him on a scooter in flip flops and a bathing suit (no helmet), and send him hurtling down a street full of trucks, tuk tuks, motorcycles, bicycles, buses, dogs, cats, and pedestrians. For added excitement, put a passenger on the back and ask him to drive on the wrong side of the road. Oh, did we forget to tell you it’s a manual? Hope road rash goes well with your short shorts! Though I’d like to think that having experience on two wheels made us less of a spectacle, driving was a little hairy at times. Scootering down from a mountain viewpoint just outside Chiang Mai, the roads were slick with rain. Within three kilometres, we saw two scooters go down hard and one truck being pulled from a ravine. Tyler’s white shirt was soaked through and our arms bumpy with goosebumps, but in his ever calm, cool, and collected way, we arrived back in Chiang Mai safe and sound.
- Things that slither: One afternoon in Ko Phayam we took a shortcut from the beach to our bungalow through the hotel restaurant. A crowd had gathered in a tight circle, with cameras and iphones drawn, so we moved closer to see what was happening. In the middle of the gawkers was a neon green constrictor wrapped around a lifeless gecko, its jaws stretched wide in an impossible looking attempt to consume the unfortunate amphibian. One of the staff thought it a good idea to poke said snake with the end of a broom handle to separate it from its already dead meal. What!? Once the snake figured out it wasn’t going to get its meal, it started to move. Fast. The gathering scattered like a flock of frightened chickens as the snake darted with lighting speed towards the closest gap in the crowd. I was halfway back to Canada by then.
- Things that swim: A previous post detailed one of our tour group taking a couple of sea urchin spikes in the foot. That incident combined with the basketball-sized jellyfish we saw on the boat ride from Ranong and a scary scene in Costa Rica where a rogue wave nearly swallowed Tyler whole, has cultivated a healthy respect between me and the sea. Don’t turn your back on it and don’t touch anything.
- Rabies: Dogs and monkeys in Thailand are said to have a higher than normal risk of carrying rabies (amongst other things). Touring around the pier in Ko Phayam, there was a mangy stray dog limping around with a hole the size of a toonie in its hindquarters, a few inches deep, and obviously festering. Later when we were describing this wound to a local, he claimed these types of wounds happen as a result of monkey bites. Don’t touch the dogs, and definitely don’t pet the monkeys.
- Mozzies: Chiang Mai is one of few places in Thailand labelled as an area with medium to high risk of contracting malaria from mosquitos. After learning about the risks and probabilities, as well as possible side effects of various anti-malarial medications, we’ve opted not to take the drugs and load up on mosquito spray and long pants instead. As I hold my breath to spray on the toxic bug spray that boasts 85% deet content, I’m not entirely convinced the alternative is that great for you either. C’est la vie, at least I won’t itch.
- Playing with Fire: Our second night in Ko Phi Phi saw the arrival of the new moon, and with it the Black Moon party, ugly cousin to the famed parties that occur with each full moon on many Thai islands. Apparently the thing to do if you are a beachside bar wishing to attract money-spending tourists during this time is to throw a fire party. It starts out with an experienced pyromaniac juggling flaming batons while balancing high above on a tightrope, the cheering crowds safe below sucking on their beers and buckets of whiskey and coke. When the sweaty flamethrower finally steps off the stage, it’s time for audience participation: fire limbo. Of course, with the incentive of free shots, many become brave enough to bend over backwards under the flaming rod of fire. Chest hairs are burnt, eyebrows singed, and shots had all around as the rod moves down and down and down, low enough in its final stages for only the bendy Thais to pass impossibly beneath. Bored with that? How about another grade school game: jump rope! Except this jump rope is doused in gasoline and put to torch. By now everyone’s had their shots and are feeling like they can somehow win this game. The Thais laugh hysterically as they turn the rope faster and faster. One after another, would-be jump-ropers fall hard with a flaming rope twisted in their legs. One girl’s ponytail goes up with a “whoosh”.
- Lions, tigers, and bears oh my! Okay, maybe just tigers. We couldn’t resist the opportunity to cuddle with baby tigers and pose with the big cats at Tiger Kingdom, just outside Chiang Mai. We lined up to purchase a combo ticket that would give us 15 minutes with the smallest tigers and 15 minutes with the big ones. The mood inside the baby tiger enclosure was playful and fun, with the cats scrapping with each other, pawing their handlers, and climbing all over us while we posed, petted, laughed, and snapped photos. As we entered the big cat’s enclosure, the mood changed drastically. The handler was serious and focused, often putting himself between us and the cats as he gave careful direction on how to approach and touch them. Walk to them slowly from behind and touch them firmly. Don’t tickle. Avoid touching their head and paws. Don’t run or move abruptly. Use quiet, steady voices.
I’m happy to report that we’re still alive and well and enjoying our remaining days in Thailand as safely as possible.
Ever been startled awake in the morning, eyes fogged and brain scrambled from a deep, deep sleep and thought “Where am I?” There was a thatched roof above, a buffer to the rainfall outside. I could feel tiny ants tickling the hair on my arm. The electricity ceased sometime during the night and the fan above had gone still. Slightly sweaty, I kicked the bed sheet off and brushed both arms to get the ants off. “Where am I?” To get here, I said a reluctant goodbye to our ocean-front swimming pool, air conditioning, hot water, high speed internet, and 24 hour electricity. The hotel arranged a brief ride on a golf cart to the bus stop, dropping us on the road side to wait for the next bus going our way. In short order, it came lumbering up the road brimming with Thais, tourists, and everyone in between. We paid our 200 baht (roughly $6.00) and boarded for a three hour journey north. Upon arrival in Ranong, a transfer by truck took us to the pier where we climbed aboard a boat laden with jugs of water, flats of brown eggs, and building materials. We tucked our bags and ourselves amidst the supplies and watched the giant jellyfish floating just below the surface of the boat’s wake as we puttered along. Two hours later, we climbed onto the pier, hitching up our backpacks to continue on the back of two separate motorbikes zipping along the ramshackle paved road, just wide enough to accommodate passing two-wheelers. Finally, we were dropped off at the end of a long driveway, where, by the power of our own two feet we finally arrived at the Bamboo Bungalows on the island of Ko Phayam.
There is running water here, albeit unheated and non-potable. The electricity comes on at sunset to take inhabitants from dusk until bedtime, the rumble of generators the baseline of the jungle orchestra punctuated by screaming cicadas and the occasional staccato of raindrops. Around 10pm, all is dark and there is little left to do but read by lamplight and listen to the frogs and crickets and distant sound of waves colliding with the beach. Tyler must have caught my expression as I swept some dead bugs out the front door of our new “home sweet home”, bending down to scratch a newly acquired collection of mosquito bites around my ankles. “It’s like camping, but with so many more amenities!” He exclaimed cheerfully. Well, if you look at it through a camper’s lens, this is pretty darn fancy. Plus, no more expensive than camping in the California Redwoods. I changed my lens from resort-style luxury to rustic camping, and immediately, our thatched-roof bungalow seemed much rosier. Bohemian romantic, even.
The next morning “camping” became even more palatable when I ordered a platter of fresh fruit and the most delicious banana pancakes ever, which were a hybrid of French crepe and American pancake with chocolate drizzled over top. Give me chocolate drizzled on anything and you’ll have me wrapped around finger. As for these pancakes, I could eat ten thousand of them. As I stuffed myself full and we discussed plans for the day, I looked over and promptly began to hyperventilate with excitement as I became aware of two brown balls of fur that appeared to be the newest permanent residents of the Bamboo Bungalows. One puppy was tucked under the arm of a guest, the other waddled around on one of the restaurant tables, trying to gobble up scraps from the discarded plates. There are so many stray dogs and cats here, some more mangy and diseased than others. They roam the beaches in motley packs, finding shade and food where they can. Tourists clearly love the newborn pups, which makes me feel like perhaps we as visitors, are part of the problem in terms of controlling the pet population. How does one say no to puppies? Guiltily, I took a turn holding one, my heart melting at the thought of these dogs being turned out as strays as soon as they grew out of their tourist-attracting puppy cuteness. I think I cried a bit at how cute they were. Before I was able to draw up the adoption papers, Tyler pulled me away with promises of banana pancakes and puppies every morning of our stay. It’s a strange sort of paradise I live in these days.
Last night, after a rather intense round of beachside pingpong, and the most delicious Mai Thai of my life (I watched them squeeze the pineapple juice), we cocooned ourselves in hammocks, each with a drink in hand and watched the sun go down, the stars come out, and the waves light up electric blue with plankton as they rose and broke against the beach. There is a certain magnetism here that seems to slow you down and draw you in. You get the sense that it’s almost a competition between islands to see which one can be the most laid back. So far for me, Ko Phayam stands out as the ultimate, do-nothing, expect little, take-it-easy place we’ve been to. You don’t see demanding visitors screaming at the front desk when the wireless isn’t fast enough. When you want to swim: swim. When you are hungry: eat. It’s not about how much you can see and do in a day. After five nights here, I’m as zen as a Buddhist monk and ready for our next adventure: to the north! We’ll spend our remaining days in and around Chiang Mai before heading to Costa Rica.
How has this month gone by so quickly?
Thailand has turned me into a sun worshiping, beach seeking, piña colada sucking slob. It’s also zapped my motivation for writing, hence the extended interruption in blog posts. To our families, friends, coworkers: we’re still alive! Just being lazy. But while the golden sun and crystalline water pulls at me like a tangible version of gravity, a common cold is all it takes to have me pulling the blackout drapes closed, cranking up the air conditioning, and taking to bed with a feverish pounding behind my eyeballs. I’ve slept so much my back hurts, so now I have no excuse not to write. For those of you who are counting (I am), this is the second time I’ve been sick in as many weeks. But enough talk of sick days – here’s what happened in the time between.
Before we left Bangkok to fly south towards the islands of Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, we booked a camping trip that would take us overnight to the famous Maya Bay – you know the one where Leonardo DiCaprio flaunts his shirtless bod in The Beach? Being avid campers back in Canada, Tyler and I were both really excited to experience an overnighter half way around the world – even if it would be with a group of 20 rookies. When we arrived in Koh Phi Phi, the location of our departure to Maya Bay, we checked our email and discovered some unfortunate news: the company’s permit to camp in Maya Bay – a protected National Park of Thailand – had been revoked. So, no camping. In the interest of saving the day, we booked the next best thing: a plankton tour. Exciting stuff.
We departed from Koh Phi Phi Don at 4pm in a Jamaican-colored boat full of would-be campers: those who had also fallen victim to the cancelled Maya Bay overnighter. But with the help of our cheerful Thai captain David and his smiling, relatively shy French girlfriend, our disappointed spirits soon lifted and we set sail onto the clear turquoise water towards Monkey Beach. David had amassed quite an arsenal of English swear words, so his sentences were peppered with f-bombs in all the wrong places and sometimes he would blurt out random cuss words for no reason at all. His hilarious use of profanity combined with colorful stories delivered in an enthusiastic heavily thai-spiced accent had my belling aching with laughter before we even put our snorkels on. And when we did, we were treated to a visual feast of fish in every size, shape, and colour, and coral as varied as the sea life that fed off it.
After Monkey Beach, we puttered around the limestone cliffs of Koh Phi Phi Leh, towards Maya Bay, where we would set anchor to snorkel, explore the beach, and wait for sunset. Along the way, David pointed out the “ba-ness” (translation: bird nests) where Thai people scale the sheer cliffs to collect the nests of Swallows. The nests are sold to the Chinese as the main ingredient to the bird’s nest soup delicacy. Yum.
It was low tide when we chugged into Maya Bay, which meant our captain had to drop anchor further out than normal and we were strongly cautioned not to stand or step on the coral, which at low tide, lurked just below the surface. A bit more time exploring the corals and a quick snack of fresh pineapple on the boat, and we were ready to swim to shore. As we were about to jump from the boat deck, one of our group emerged crying from the water, limping up the steps with a couple of black sea urchin spikes poking painfully from her toes. Two of the boat helpers hurried her into the cabin. I cringed as one of the helpers removed the spikes, then took a flip flop and began smacking the injured foot briskly with the bottom of the shoe, probably thinking to herself with each slap, “bad tourist!” I was ready to reschedule our beach rendezvous when she then began squeezing lime juice on the wound. The injured girl whimpered through gritted teeth as tears streamed down her cheeks. At the same moment I swore never to dip my toes in the ocean again, David clapped loudly and, with a huge grin said “Let’s go!” in a way that suggested we had no choice but to follow. Still not convinced, I countered, “You first”. We all looked around uneasily at each other as David floated buoyantly in the water and one by one, we jumped in after him. “Follow me!” he yelled as we cut a treacherous path through coral, rocks and waves, our bellies just grazing the coral beneath us. “Swim high!” he called out as we passed over a particularly shallow bit. By the time we reached the shore, my nerves were frayed and my body felt as though I’d been swimming for my life. But the sun was almost setting, the sand powdery white between our toes, and the tide already starting to fill the bay. After a couple of drinks and photos, the water was deep enough to take a ride by longtail back to our own boat, just in time to see the sun set. The sky darkened above as we ate a communal meal of rice and barbecued fish, sipped cold drinks, and swapped stories about our recommended Thailand adventures.
By the time our bellies were full and our nerves somewhat calmed, David switched off the boat lights and announced that we would don our snorkels once again: time to swim with the plankton. With this declaration, many of us rushed to look over the side to the black water below, expecting to see the water lit up with the luminescent glow of plankton. It was black. So black that when David laughed and jumped in, assuring us with a flippant, “You’ll see”, he was soon swallowed into the night. Only the sound of an occasional splash marked his whereabouts. “I’m so glad I’m already a couple beers in,” muttered the British girl beside me. I couldn’t help but recall an early childhood lesson. My mother wagging her finger at me demanding, “If your sister jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?” Apparently so. I rinsed out my mask and snorkel, stretched it over my head and jumped into the black, black sea. But with my splash and movements, it was dark no longer. It was as if my fingertips, and legs, and toes were sparkling. With every flick of a finger, every twist of a limb, the water brightened and flickered around me with glowing, sparkling, shimmering plankton. I was swimming in a sea of a thousand stars. When I surfaced to look around at my fellow snorkelers, all was quiet and calm as we floated, mesmerized in our own little clouds of sea sparkles.
Maybe it was the drinks. Or my rumpled nerves. Or the lack of any sort of expectations when we booked the dorky-sounding “plankton tour”. Maybe it was the company of friendly Europeans eager to help us enjoy the very best of Thailand. Maybe it was David and his lack of formalities and abundance of happiness. Maybe it was the moonless night or the mounting anticipation as we waited for dark to come. Whatever the magic ingredients were, this was one of few moments, few sites, few experiences on this trip that truly took my breath away. We departed, feeling as though we’d gained friends in a place far from home and an experience we’d never forget. I feel insanely lucky.
Welcome to Thailand! After nearly 20 hours in transit, three plane meals, and one culturally enlightening layover in Kuwait, our taxi dropped us off at the mouth of Bangkok’s pulsing artery of backpackers: Khao San Road. It was mid-afternoon and Khao San was a steamy, sweaty haze of Pad Thai food carts, Tuk Tuk drivers, and skinny stray cats lazing in the odd patch of shade. Still wearing the clothes we’d left Rome in, our backpacks weighed heavily in the humidity. My pants clung sticky to my thighs and a trickle of sweat rolled down my spine.
You’d think after countless stumbles and the dog poo incident in Paris, I’d learn to keep my eyes on the cobblestones. But, Khao San is a spectacle in and of itself that screams “eyes up!” Street vendors hawking their wares, Thai ladies demanding your attention with cries of “massage! massage!”, bawdy storefronts selling fake ID’s alongside cheap t-shirts with naked ladies posing brazenly on their fronts, sun-darkened backpackers donning dreads and bare feet. My head was on swivel as I tripped and stumbled my way towards our hotel, trying to take it all in. Thankfully, our guest room at Rikka Inn was a haven from the madness downstairs. With crisp white sheets, heavenly a/c, a mini fridge stocked with chilled bottles of water, and a rooftop pool set back from the road below, it was a virtual oasis that would see us through our jet lag, culture shock, and my newly acquired cough and cold. At $40 CAD per night, we were splurging.
After five weeks in Europe, we arrived as a couple of high strung, slightly stressed, battle-hardened, spending machines. But it took no time at all for Thailand to embrace us in her warm arms, hand us an icy beverage, and gesture to a poolside lounger inviting us to take it easy. As we donned our swimsuits with a plan to do nothing more than eat, sleep, and laze by the pool for our first day in Bangkok, Bob Marley assured us in his slow reggae way that “everything is going to be alright”. And so it is.
And now for a special guest appearance from Tyler, travel partner extraordinaire, reporting poolside from Bangkok. Take it away Tyler!
Saying farewell to Italy, we board a flight that will take us through six more timezones to a land far away: Thailand. But first, a brief reflection on our time in Italy, the country of opposites. Rolling landscapes and urban cityscapes. People packed too tight for breathing, or not a soul for miles. Laid back lazy days contrasting with highly structured, relentless sightseeing schedules. Sunny skies in the morning with rain that just won’t quit at night. Smiles and laughter one day. Scowls and grunts the next.
We have met some of the nicest people here: Alfonso, our host at the B&B Belvedere in Sorrento met us with a huge smile and a friendly urging to try some of the Italian coffee he so proudly brewed just for us. “American coffee is simply water”, he said. Not being a coffee drinker to start with, I couldn’t say either way, but Alfonso’s special espresso was surprisingly delicious (albeit *cough* strong). This jolly Italian had recently undergone surgery on his Achilles tendon and so met us at the door seated on a wheelie office chair, switching from wheels to crutches as he hopped us up to our second floor room. I cringed at the line of angry stitches running up the back of his leg and told him “It’s okay, we can look around on our own”. He insisted though, and continued to hop up the stairs chatting about Canadian and American current events.
In Rome, we stayed outside the center in another guest house called Roma Dreaming. Once she learned that this was our first time to Rome, the proprietor Alessia gave us a thorough introduction, handing us maps marked with points of interest, doling out instructions, writing down street names, recommending a restaurant for our first meal. Later, when Alessia’s shift ended and the next girl came on (didn’t catch her name), we chatted for nearly an hour about Rome, what brought her here, what brought us here, and on and on. It was so refreshing to have a genuine human interaction that wasn’t entirely based on getting something in return.
As mentioned: a country of opposites. In my post about Venice, I wrote about the rude people there. Unfortunately, rudeness is not a personality trait unique to Venetians. Rather, it’s a mentality that has seeped, like the foul odour of rotting fruit, into the country’s service industry. The service might seem sweet at first, but take a big whiff after you’ve locked yourself in a room with it, and after a few deep breaths you won’t be able to stand it. It’s like they don’t want us to be here. It’s as if our presence is offensive. It feels as though they want to give you as little as possible for as much as possible. From having our change thrown at us at the Pompeii admission entrance, to being swindled out of 40 euros for a “tour” where we were treated worse than livestock, it’s been an exercise in tolerance, patience, and keeping my emotions under control. I think I made a mistake that is probably quite common amongst first-time visitors: I took the rudeness personally.
As of this writing, I am confused about Italy. It’s a country of contrast and opposites – which doesn’t make it decidedly good, or bad. Just over a week since we were shoved into a tour bus and forgotten, just days since I swore “I will I NEVER come back to this country!”, I am already remembering Italy with a certain fondness: the authentic smiles and laughter we shared with Alfonso and Alessia, or those quirky grumps at the ticket counter. Even the romance of the rain.
It’s funny how time can soften the edges of our experiences.
One of my favorite things we did here was a nighttime walking tour led by the well-known expert in Roman history: yours truly. Actually, not. With the aid of our Rick Steve’s guidebook (yay, Rick!), we wandered through the well-lit streets of Rome reading about the significance of various statues, fountains, and buildings. Going at our own pace. Stopping for a meal when it started to rain. People watching. The best part? It was free. Actually, the very best part? No lineups! Europe has, for me, cultivated a phobia of lineups that I am currently working with my psychiatrist (Tyler) to overcome. Rome offered a healthy dose of shock treatment.
Our first full day in Rome, we woke early and got in line for the combo ticket that would take us to Palatine Hill, the Forum, and the Coliseum. It was a very slow moving line, taking a full two hours to get through the entrance gates. Of course, there are ways you can “skip the line” – get the Roma Pass, or book a guided tour – but ever the adventurous tourists, we opted to learn about lineups the hard way. So we waited. Unfortunately, due to some bad experiences with some incredibly rude Italians prior to landing in Rome, we were short on patience and even shorter on common courtesies. Fortunately for us, we need not worry about dealing with line cutters. You know those people who think their time is more valuable than yours? Thankfully, we had a short, snappy blond Italian woman standing guard behind us who certainly wasn’t afraid to give any line-cutters the boot. Her skills of scorn would not be wasted as this line-up was well supplied with would-be budgers. “No! No! No!”, she would tsk and cluck her tongue loudly as a group of teenagers pretended to play dumb. She gestured wildly to the back of the line, continued clucking and shooing them until they finally acknowledged they’d been busted and moved away sheepishly. Ever the pacifists, and fed up with rudeness, Tyler and I were happy to let Mama Italy do her thing. The theatrics continued, edging up in intensity and frequency as we neared the ticket counter. The lineup compacted. Everyone stood butts to fronts, shoulder to shoulder, breathing in each other’s recycled air. The smell of sweaty bodies wafted up from the underarms of hundreds of overheated tourists. People started pushing. This lineup was exploring the limits of my patience. And finally, we were in.
Next came the Vatican. There are a few greatest hits in Vatican City, also known as the world’s smallest country. These include Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum, which is also the site of Michelangelo’s famed work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As Tyler and I approached Saint Peter’s square at the crack of 1pm, when lineups are purportedly at their shortest, we could see a river of people flowing in a liquid line from some invisible point beyond the horizon. We sought out the source of this veritable Nile of people and soon found out it was “Basilica” line. So, without delay, we jumped in so that we too could go with the flow. If there’s a master list of “the world’s top 10 longest line-ups”, I felt like we were about to break the Guinness World Record. But where Rome hasn’t quite got the “pay-then-enter” process quite figured out Vatican City was, in comparison, a torrent of white water. It was sink or swim in this lineup as we crashed through rapids of people, people, people. I will say, St. Peter’s Basilica was worth it. When the world’s longest lineup empties into the world’s largest church, it’s as if the river of people drains into the entire ocean. We were quickly swallowed in its aisles, apses, and naves, wondering where everyone went. Wow!
One down, one to go. The Vatican Museum, aka the lineup of the century. I don’t know if there’s anything beautiful or special enough in this world to endure a lineup like the one we stood in for the Sistine Chapel. The entire experience of moving through the Vatican Museum was one of being in a perpetual lineup. From the end of the ticket line that clung to a good length of Vatican City’s walls, to the exit doors of the Sistine Chapel, this line was kilometres (and kilometres) long. I have never seen the likes of it before and if I ever find myself at the end of one again, I’ll be running in the opposite direction. After seeing the Sistine Chapel, we did sneak into a lesser known exhibit, recommended by our friend Jana: the Popemobile museum. This basement space tucked below the museum’s cafeteria houses all of the Pope’s modes of transport from years gone by. Perhaps we enjoyed this the most because it was the only part of the Vatican Museum that didn’t feel like we were wading through a gauntlet of people. From the ornate carriages, to the bullet proof white Land Rover, to the powder blue Volkswagen Beetle, it was pretty cool to see the popemobile collection in one, relatively people-free place.
As we collected our backpack from the museum’s baggage check and exited out the doors to dusk falling on Vatican City, Tyler took a big breath and summarized by saying, “That was a true Roman experience”. What is a Roman experience? Is it the wonder of parading around the domed Pantheon in all its geometric splendor? The thrill of looking down on the coliseum’s arena floor, imagining mobs of Romans as they cheer on the gruesome theatrics? Is it craning your neck to witness Michelangelo’s labor of love on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? For me, half of the Roman experience was the ancient sites and classic works of art. The other half was waiting in line to see them. Psychiatrist update: shock treatment ineffective. Patient’s fear of lineups has not diminished. We will commence with psychoanalysis shortly.
Rome was our last stop on the European tour. Now for something a bit different: Mai Tai anyone? To Bangkok we go…