There I was, frumped down on a gum-covered curb, arched backward by the gravitational pull of my now encumbering backpack, with my tech bag (which weighs a hefty amount on its own) sagging down my chest and in between my spread out legs — not much unlike a fat and floppy baby.
A bead of sweat crept slowly from beneath my fedora, one which I had purchased in Thailand as my shining new adventure hat, now bent and beaten and grimy. That bead of sweat made its way across the squished ridges of my forehead, up and over the furrowed hills of my brow, took a swift dive down the crest of my nose onto the plains of my cheek — where it seems to pause a moment, as if to admire some sort of unique feature on the landscape of my face, then decided to scurry forth into the thicket of my scraggly backpacker beard where it was lost.
When it had given that pause on my cheek, I imagine it was probably looking back over the plains and furrows and the ridges at the agony on my face under the hot Roman sun — and in its tiny sinister saltiness, it probably laughed at me.
I was utterly lost in the Eternal City after bumbling along for what seemed to be an eternity in itself, hauling about my human mobile home which nearly weighted 40 kilos, searching desperately for some place to lay my head at night, until my dragging feet and aching back begged me to stop. On my left was a sour-smelling dumpster, on my right a typical Roman patio café with Italians sipping their second or third or fifth espresso of the day, and ahead of me triple parked cars blocking most of a main road — which come to find out is just the nature of Italian drivers in the city who tend to establish a parking lot where they’d like.
All I could mutter was a pathetic, “what the fuck” under my breath as I wiped away more sweat that raced down my face before it could pause and mock my stupendous stupidity like the other. I must have been some form of impressive from the way Romans passed by me and gawked at the presence of this sad and sweaty blob slouched on the curb.
It was all chaos and madness flying at me that first few hours the moment my train had pulled into the Termini train station and I waddled off the hissing steel behemoth with the eagerness of fulfilling a childhood dream. But instead of trotting off happily with a hop in my step and confidence of where to go, the realization occurred that I had no clue where the hell I was.
People scurried about like frantic ants. Motorbikes bobbed and weaved and zipped around as if they were in a race. The homeless and the hawkers both hankered for money I didn’t have. And most of all, it dawned on me as I scampered across the cobblestone street after dodging honking cars, that a travel sin had been committed.
After spending almost 8 months in Thailand one might think chaos would be incomparable in most other countries — if you’ve experienced (and survived) the ebb and flow of Bangkok traffic on the back of a motorbike you’d think you could go forth head on into most things. But each busy city has its own unique kind of chaos, and the kind felt a few moments of arrival wasn’t Rome’s fault, it stemmed from being utterly unprepared.
The travel sin committed? Not booking a hostel before I arrived in Rome.
Not just that, but for the sake of a bigger and better whammy I did not look at a map of potential hostels preemptively, and I did not look at the layout of the city.
Sometimes you can wing it and things just work out. Other times, you’ll find yourself between a café and a smelly place like myself. It was only a few days prior that I had been forced to leave Thailand and book a last-minute flight. Rome, my childhood dream, was somehow the cheapest flight into Europe from Thailand as if the travel fates urged me to fulfill that dream. There was no way I couldn’t leap at the opportunity presenting itself. And with the arrogance of my go-with-the-flow attitude, I decided that I would arrive and see where the next adventure would take me.
Oh, how that turned out to be an amateur decision to make.
I started off downhill from the train stain with the momentum of my mass carrying me forward, stopping every so often to admire an old piazza or unique architecture. Each cross street passed seemed dedicated to businesses and pizzerias, and on occasion I would veer off course and trudge halfway through a side-street thinking I had spotted a hostel sign, only to be fooled by the mirage of a low-quality hotel sign.
This is when the chaffing began.
And so did the blisters begin to poke up their translucent and annoying heads on the bottom of my feet.
You might ask, “Why the hell didn’t you stop someone and ask them for directions?” and I will tell you, “dammit I tried!”
It must have been the end, or beginning, of the Italian lunch hour because as I stood there, wearing my best puppy face (which doesn’t work with a big beard and a sweat-drenched shirt) everybody that passed by seemed to be in a gallop as if they were late to some important meeting. With a wave or a “Ciao!” I hoped someone would pause for a moment, but nobody did. There was no escape from the high-noon sun cooking me so I trudged on, determined that something, somewhere would pop up. The road that literally carried me downward seemed to stretch on into a hazy infinity, yet I marched on.
A few times I ventured into what seemed to be a café, odd to me at the time that they called it a “bar“, in hopes of finding a place proper enough to throw off the bags and charge my phone. Except all of these “bars” I was poking into, usually by squeezing through a compact doorway, instantly went silent when I entered. The locals would stop their shopping or chewing or sipping and stare, and the staple Italian elder behind the counter, with a sudden and disapproving glance at the clumsy monstrosity strapped to my back and chest, always seemed ready to spatula me over the head and out the door.
This was a whole new jungle I was lost in, a jungle where no touristy shops were located to plead for directions and the cafés weren’t for sitting around on a laptop, but for grab-and-go quickies. Just old-school locals that gave me weird looks. Hell, I’d give myself weird looks at that point too since the twisted wedgie that had formed gave me an awkward walk. This was exactly the type of neighborhood I’d love to explore, local and not touristy, yet it wan’t the neighborhood I needed at the time to find accommodation.
Demoralized and with thoughts flooding through my head like, “fucking idiot, you should have looked up a hostel first” I sank down onto the gum-covered curb and sulked. And though the sun still cooked me, there was no way I could keep wandering. It had been at least a couple of hours for all I knew, so I plopped down.
Then, before me, I saw something shimmer across the street.
It may have been the heat mixed with the decaying food in the dumpster or that I hadn’t drank water all morning, but it appeared to me — “free Wifi here!” I hadn’t seen a single sign for Wifi around the city yet, but I knew that my laptop had a bit of a charge and possibly my iPad, so I jolted upright and swiftly made my way across the street.
Okay, who am I kidding…
It took about a minute to build up momentum to rock back and forth enough to sit up. To anyone else watching it probably looked like a turtle on its back attempting yoga for the first time. Why I didn’t unstrap it from my back and just stand up will forever be a senseless mystery. Finally upright, I squeezed through the scattered parked cars in the middle of the street over to the small panino shop which potentially held and end to my self-inflicted misery.
But alas, that would not be the end just quite yet, because of course more “excitement” had to be juiced out of the day.
An empty table with an outlet seemed to be waiting just for me to flop into, so I quickly scurried over and took it. As I rummaged through my bag, a sudden fear grasped me — I couldn’t find my European adapter. Of course the waiter approached asking for my order, and in my craze I blurted out “latté” and kept digging. Nearly emptying my entire pack onto the table of this tiny panino shop, I discovered that I must have forgotten the plug adapter in Thailand. When I pulled out my laptop, it was down to almost 15% battery left, and my iPad was at about 3%.
The waiter returned and set down a frothed glass of milk. At that moment, confused, I stopped him and asked if it was coffee. The waiter replied, “you order latté” and shook his head as if to end an argument that had never even begun and walked away. I don’t need to type out the amount of fuckity fucks that flew through my head at that moment as everything was dying and my comfort was a warm milk, so immediately I got to work trying to find hostels nearby.
Dammit man, at least give me some cookies with the milk!
My phone was charging off of my laptop, so as it suckled battery I watched the percentage on my laptop quickly tick down like a time-bomb. As the results came in for the cheapest hostels, it was something new that slapped me in the face. Europe would surely be more expensive than Thailand, though I never expected the cheapest hostel in the city to be 25 euro.
Talk about a different kinda’ culture shock.
But there was no time to waste and I booked it. The life of my laptop and iPad exhausted, so I looked up quick directions on my iPhone to the hostel, and with its measly 8% battery I hauled my packs on, chugged the latté, and went forth — milk mustache and all. Since I had been in such a panic to look up directions, I completely missed the fact that there was a blaring and obvious monument on the way the the metro station I needed to go to. And the fact that “Colosseo Metro” didn’t quite compute at that moment. I reached the bottom of that seemingly endless hill I had been barreling down all day and rounded the corner, where I paused for a moment to get my bearing.
The I noticed something in the distance.
There it was, something I had only seen in books and online, and something I had dreamed of as a little boy to see. Only, I didn’t realize it immediately. The sun was beaming down into my eyes, and below the brim of my hat I could only see the base of a stone structure in the distance. So I tipped the hat up to see what was in the distance, and gazed up and up and up.
Suddenly all of the nonsense of the day was gone: the mocking bead of sweat, the chaffing, the blisters, the wedgies, the sticky shirt, the smelly dumpster I sat by, the spatula terror, the awkward stares, the self pity of being unprepared, and even the warm cookie-less milk all disappeared from my thoughts — I was looking at the Colosseum of Rome.
I stared in awe at the ancient stone structure climbing out of the grounds ahead, and though some may not be impressed by this tourist attraction, I had waited for a very long time for that moment. Nothing could ruin it. Well, for a few seconds at least, until the hawker with some squeaky gelatinous toy shoved it my face with a “5 euro only, come on.”
Truth be told, I was still a quite bit cranky and eager to get the hostel, but before I hopped on the metro I had to get a closer look.
It was as if I was drawn to it, pushing through the throngs of hawkers — the hat guy trying to sell me a hat when I already had one, the creepy faux gladiators wanting me to take selfies with them, the guys trying to sell me silk scarves like I was some sort of hipster, the souvenir guy trying to sell me rocks that he said were pieces of the Colosseum, and even the terribly cheesy floating guy that all easily distracted tourists flocked around.
After admiring it for as long as I could stay upright, I made my way onto the metro and to my hostel. Unlike Thailand, I discovered after the hours of waddling that hostels in Rome aren’t as numerous and way less obvious than some other countries I’ve been to. In Thailand, you toss a Baht in any direction and it will hit a guesthouse. It wouldn’t be until after this ordeal that I realized hostels and guesthouses in Rome are tucked into apartment buildings with the most frustratingly discreet signs, making it nigh impossible to just stumble onto one.
And though my lack of forward thinking and planning before arriving in a completely new country with a vastly different culture sent me on a half-day long miserably mission, seeing the Colosseum made imagination into a reality — and everything else was forgotten.
Oh, and yes, I made up the word frumped =P
Have you ever had an experience like mine from not planning ahead? Tell your fail-tale below!