Saturday, October 16, 2004

Verona, Italy—Venice, Italy—Day 259

Today Mo and I made our way to Venice. What can I say—we arrived and took the water ferry to our hotel which was located RIGHT in the Piazza de San Marco. The scenery was beautiful—each little canal and building making the whole experience more and more surreal, and more and more touristy. Despite the hoards of Americans and cheesy tourist souvenir shops, Venice retains that sense of charm. We arrived mid-afternoon and spent the rest of the day and evening walking around, getting lost, finding our way again, and then getting lost some more.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Verona, Italy—Bussolengo, Italy—Day 258

Waking up as to not disturb Sarah, who had at least a few hours more to sleep to get over her jet lag, I got up and got ready. I managed to wake her up when I had to turn on the light and we made plans to meet up after I went to the zoo. I headed downstairs to breakfast where I had a quick bite to eat before heading down to the bus station, where I was told that I could get a bus to the zoo. This sounded like a more economical way for me to get to Bussolengo where the zoo is (about 20 minutes from Verona) and so I headed to the bus station which was conveniently just down the road from our hotel.

I found the billeteria (the ticket booth) and bought a one-way ticket to Bussolengo. I then waited for my bus on the corresponding platform where I paced back and forth double and triple checking to see if I was in fact on the right platform. I was only doing this because my bus was supposed to leave at 9:30 am and at 9:25 my bus was there, but there was no one on it. At 9:27 I started to worry that I was standing at the wrong platform, and at 9:29, when no one was making any attempt to board the bus, I figured I was in the wrong place. I turned around to ask someone for help and a girl told me no no, just wait here for the bus.

So I did and soon the bus driver showed up. Along with the girl and several other passengers who appeared out of nowhere, I boarded the bus and was even shown where I could validate my ticket. Good thing that I accidentally validated my ticket in the station. I shook my head at the girl and waved my ticket at her as she reached out to take my ticket to validate it for me. She got the point, smiled, and sat down in the first seat. I sat down a few seats behind her.

We started driving to Bussolengo and I wasn’t quite sure how long it would take—I was told at the bust station that it was about a half and hour. I settled down for the ride and kept my fingers crossed that I would get off at the right stop. We drove out of Verona, stopping to pick up several passengers on the way, and finally went out on the main highway heading for Bussolengo. We were following a cement truck very closely (almost too closely at some points) and no sooner did that thought pop into my head did I hear a big thunk.

The driver and the woman sitting in the front seat looked at each other then down at something on the windshield. I strained my head to look at what they were looking at, but couldn’t see. The other passengers on the bus seemed disinterested in the source of the noise, so I settled back down in my seat and chose to ignore it for a bit.

Clearly something was up though because both the driver and the woman were pointing at something and must have deducted that the loud clunk that we had heard must have come off of something from the cement truck. It was not hard to figure out the driver’s assumption that it was the cement truck’s fault because he took this moment to pull RIGHT up to the end of the truck and honk his horn sporadically and flash his lights. HONK HONK flash flash. HONK HONK flash flash. He repeated this every so often but the cement truck was not getting the point. Or he was just ignoring it. Anyways, this went on for some time. Eventually we came to a stop light and were stopped for just long enough for the bus driver to hop out and go confront the driver of the cement truck face-to-face. The bus driver came back and started up the bus again and drover for about another hundred yards or so before both the cement truck and the bus pulled over (subsequently blocking traffic of course) and examined the damage.

I found all of this quite amusing—it seemed like we were never going to get to Bussolengo at this rate. While the two drivers talked and exchanged information (or something—the bus driver was writing down something while the cement driver—with an amazing curly mullet that definitely deserves to be mentioned here—punched numbers into his cell phone. I could watch all of this from my spot on the bus. Cars honked but we stayed put until the exchange was done. The bus driver then hopped back in, started the bus and we were off again.

My whole sense of time was off after this and I had lost track as to which stop I was supposed to get off at. Since we had taken so long figuring out the whole cement truck incident I couldn’t really gauge how much longer I had on the bus.

We finally came up to a stop and several people got off. I decided that I would too and as the bus drove away, I wasn’t sure if that was a smart move on my part. Luckily I had seen signs for the zoo before when I was riding on the bus, so I knew that it wasn’t that far. I started walking towards the center of town (where I assumed I could catch a taxi) using a church’s steeple as my guide. I made it into town and couldn’t find a taxi stand if it was the last thing on earth. I almost went into the police station to ask where I could get a taxi until I spotted a hotel. I went inside and found that the hotel had both a reception area and a bar. Everyone in the room was on the bar side (and at 10am, why not?) and so I asked the girl behind the counter if she could help me. Luckily she spoke perfect English and not only knew of taxis but offered to call one for me.


Ten minutes later I was riding in a taxi to the zoo. The taxi driver could speak a little bit of English, so I tried to explain to him my needs. Turned out that the zoo was a safari park (…not again!) and so I would need him to drive me into the zoo. Would that be a problem, I ask him. He didn’t think that it would be. I think he thought that I meant would he be able to take me in a TAXI, not whether or not he would drive his taxi in. He seemed to have no problem with it which was a relief.

We headed to the zoo and soon drove up to the entrance where we paid our admission and headed in. We started off and the taxi driver asked me if I wanted to see any of the other animals. I shook my head and told him no, and he just laughed. We zoomed past the other zoo visitors in their cars, which the taxi driver thought was quite funny. After passing the giraffes, zebras, lions, tigers—you name it—we finally made it to the hippos. I knew it was the hippos because there were three large humps in the water that weren’t moving. Must be the hippos.

We stopped at the hippos didn’t do anything. Great, my hopes of having the hippos frolicking on the grass were crushed and instead I had three lumps in the water. This would not do. We watched for a bit until I realized that there was a keeper sitting in a truck near the entrance to this area (the hippos and the rhinos) and perhaps he could help me.

So we drove over to him—found him smoking in his truck—and my taxi driver pleaded my case for me. While they spoke in Italian, I could pretty much figure out what they were saying and it didn’t seem like the keeper was in any hurry to help us. He wouldn’t feed them for us, wouldn’t even tell us when exactly the hippos were fed. After a few minutes of talking—then begging—we were sent on our way no better off than how we came in.

We drove back over to he hippos and parked again and waited. This is when the taxi driver—feeling frustrated of course and definitely impatient—gathered up a few stones that he just so happened to have in his car and started tossing them into the water with the hippos. I was sitting in the back and told him not to do it but it was too late. He threw a few in and one hippo moved a little bit, but really paid no attention to us. I kept telling the taxi driver to stop but he kept finding “just one more little stone.” When he finally ran out of this collection that he had in his car, he opened up his door and got out, which is like the quickest way for us to get kicked out of the zoo. With the keeper RIGHT near us, I couldn’t believe that he just opened the door and hopped out, hoping that the keeper wouldn’t see us. Yeah right!

He gathered up another small stone and got back into the car. I kept glancing over at the keeper’s truck but didn’t see any sort of movement from it so maybe he didn’t see us. Maybe he just didn’t care. Anyways, after throwing the last stone and driving us backwards for a bit to get a different view of the three mounds, the taxi driver was almost ready to give up. I asked him to drive us back to the keeper so we could at least ask them what their names were. We drove back and pulled up again to the smoking keeper who told us that the hippos didn’t have names. This was the oldest game in the book—the one where the keeper just doesn’t want to help you. I know they have names—they all do—so what were they?

He claimed over and over again that they didn’t have names, but finally told us that there was another hippo in the walking area of the zoo—an older hippo who was separated from these ones. Great, at least I could go get his pictures. And his name? “Pippo” answered the keeper.

At this point both the taxi driver and I threw up our hands and exclaimed “PIPPO!!!”
It was so funny—we were both equally exasperated with the keeper. We headed out of the safari area of the park and to other side of the park where the regular zoo was to find this solo hippo. My taxi driver decided however to stop near the entrance and hopped out.

I waited for him to come back and he eventually did. It turned out that he had asked about how we could get a good picture of the hippo. They told him that we had two options (and as the taxi driver told them back to me, they were these, “Number 1—go inside the zoo and walk around like normal people” or “Number 2—go find the director of the zoo and maybe we don’t have to pay.” Well, considering I never would opt to do what normal people do and the idea of not having to pay sounded good to me. So we chose option number two and he drove me to where they told us we could find the director.

We parked in a lot behind the zoo which was in the courtyard of a few small buildings. A man came out of one of the buildings and the taxi driver asked him if he knew where the director was. Turned out that HE was the director!

So I explained my situation to him (luckily he spoke excellent English) and before I could even really get my whole story out he was grabbing his keys for his truck and we were getting in it. I waved to the taxi driver as we zoomed off back towards the hippos in the safari area. Whoohoo!

We made it back to the hippos and I got the full scoop on the hippos: Their names were Anna, Jane, Pippo and there was a baby in the mix as well that was just one month old—too small to name. Pippone was the name of the male hippo in the walking zoo area. Pippo seems to be the trendy name for male hippos here in Italy!

I was thrilled not only for his help but because as we pulled up the hippos started moving about a bit, just enough to get some decent shots of them. We even talked with the smoking keeper again who seemed a bit surprised to see me pull up with the director on my side. HAHA—touchĂ©!

The hippos moved about and grunted to each other, and moved around some more. The view and angles were not ideal, but I couldn’t really get anything better than being with the director of the zoo. The director was patient with me and waited while I snapped away. We stayed there for about five minutes before he got a call and we had to get on our way. At least I had gotten a few pictures out of it and I thanked him for his help as we drove back towards where the taxi driver was waiting. We took a detour however and I realized as we pulled up to the solo hippo Pippone that we had driven around the back to the walking zoo.

I hopped out and took several pictures of Pippone—feeling quite like the paparazzi—before dashing back into the director’s truck. We then zoomed back over to where the taxi driver was waiting. I thanked the director and got back into the taxi as the director zoomed off back to work.

Phew! The taxi driver was pleased and shook his head in disbelief when I told him that this hippos DID have names. He wanted to know what they were and was shocked to find that there was a baby hippo in the water as well that we weren’t able to see. A BABY?? We headed back to Bussolengo where I would catch my bus back to Verona. He dropped me off and told me where to buy my bus ticket and waved as he drove off.

What a morning! It wasn’t even noon at this point. I went to buy a ticket at the tobacco shop (where the taxi driver told me I could) and luckily another girl was also trying to buy a ticket. And she spoke Italian. So when we were told we couldn’t buy tickets there, but only from next door, I just followed her. And when next door was closed but she waved down someone inside to get us tickets, I followed along as she asked for two tickets for the bus, one for me and one for her. We crossed the street and waited for the bus. After two hours of frantic hippo chasing I was now able to collect myself.

The bus came and I got on, finding no empty seats so I had to ride the entire way back standing up in the center part of the bus which was quite funny since the bus was two buses connected into one. I stood on the center disc that rotated as the bus went around corners and tried to play it cool and not fall over every time it turned.

I made it back to Verona and started walking back to the hotel when I ran into Mo walking towards me down the road. What a great surprise! We had planned to meet later on in the day but now we would have the rest of the day to hang out. We spent it walking all around Verona—climbing the steps of the famous Roman Arena coliseum, standing on the balcony of Juliet’s house from “Romeo and Juliet,” visiting the Duomo while taking pictures of all of the beautiful scenery along the way.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Munich, Germany—Milan, Italy—Verona, Italy—Days 256/257

After three weeks of bratwurst and beer, it was time for me to make my way down to Italy. After spending the day in Munich with Elizabeth, our time together narrowed down as the time for my night train approached. I had a reservation to have a bed on the train which I was excited about. It cost a whopping 40 Euro for the reservation but since it was fully overnight—I would go to bed in Munich and wake up in Milan—I was excited to see what kind of train it would be.

I was hoping for the best and when I got on the train, I realized that it was. Elizabeth helped me with my stuff and we oohhh-ed and ahhh-ed at my private room, my personal sink IN my private room, and the “security system” that the train attendant showed me to get in and out of my room. When he asked me if I wanted “tea or coffee” in the morning, Elizabeth just shook her head. I smiled but secretly inside felt bad for all of those passengers down the back of the train who had to spent twelve hours sitting upright in a compartment with five other passengers and their belongings. I definitely was living it up in my room.

Elizabeth had to get off the train and we stood talking until the very last minute. As the train pulled away, I waved to Elizabeth through the window until we were finally out of sight from each other, then retreated back to my room. It was just going on nine o’clock and I decided that I should just go to sleep. I got ready for bed and turned off my light.

I managed to sleep ok on the train—I kept having dreams that the train would derail. I seemed to wake up every time the train went around big turns as I rolled around in the bed being pulled by the force of the train. I would wake up, forget where I was, remember where I was, and then try to fall back asleep. When I was asleep for a while, I was woken up again by the person in the compartment next to me who was loudly trying to get into my cabin. It wasn’t like he was trying to break in or anything, just trying to open the door that separated our compartments. There was a sort of door separating our cabins with the signs “open” and “closed” on it which made you think that perhaps you had a closet behind the door to put your things in. I certainly thought this and tried unsuccessfully to open the door before I went to bed (before he boarded) and found he was trying to do the same thing. Except it was like 3 o’clock in the morning so his efforts were not appreciated on my part. Eventually he stopped and I drifted off again.

I woke up when my alarm went off (my personal alarm automatically set by the train conductor) and got dressed. Soon I was served breakfast (rolls, jams, nutella, juice and tea) and I munched on my breakfast while looking out the window getting glimpses of Italy as we passed.

Our destination was Milan—I would be meeting my friend Sarah Mauet (she goes by Mo) in Milan. Mo will be with me for ten days while we zip from Milan to Verona, Venice to Rome, all in the name of hippos. We pulled into the Milan Central train station forty-five minutes late. I got off and headed first to the WC where I had quite a funny exchange with an Italian woman who didn’t know how to put her money into the turn stall in the bathroom to let herself into the wash room area. There was a machine, you put in your 70 cents, and then a green light came on and you could pass through. I thought it was pretty simple, but she didn’t. While I scrounged for change, she waited to watch me to see what I did. I made the mistake of putting in a one Euro coin in at first (it didn’t accept the full Euro, only smaller coins) and netted two extra Euros as I took my one Euro from the rejected change slot. I actually was going to make a profit from going to the bathroom! I then found exact change—all the while the woman is standing there just watching me—and finally put my money in and went in. She got the hint and happily put her coins in after me, thanking me for my help.

After the bathroom incident, I headed to find a place to store my luggage for a bit. Couldn’t find lockers for the life of me but eventually found a sign that showed some sort of luggage storage. I followed the signs and came to a sketchy set up—a man standing in a big room with one side designated for dropping off your luggage, the other for picking it up. I went ahead and dropped off my two bags and my small side bag after reading the signs claiming that “we are not responsible for lost valuables.” Great.

I paid the exorbitant fee and got my ticket. I now had just about four hours before Mo’s plane was supposed to arrive. I decided that I would go to downtown Milan and see the Duomo in the center. So I pushed my way through the crowds to the metro and bought a 24 hour day pass and was soon, almost miraculously, found myself on a train to the Duomo.

I got off and followed the hoards of people to the exit of the subway and emerged right in the middle of the square, with the big beautiful Duomo (the cathedral) in front of me. I was impressed. I walked all around the Duomo before going in it, amazed at all of the statues that adorned its outside. I then went in and was truly impressed at the size of the Duomo and at all of the beautiful artwork that adorned its walls. So far I had no complaints.

Luckily near the Duomo was the tourist office. I went in, waited for my turn amongst all the American tourists and finally got directions to the Milan airport. I would have to take a special train from a different train station than the central one, which I would need to take the metro to. Sounded easy enough but I still had quite a lot of time to spare. So I started wandering and eventually ended up at the old citadella where I witnessed a very large truck trying to go through a very tight space as the truck driver tried to maneuver the truck into the main square of the citadella. It was so close, I couldn’t watch. I headed back to the subway and got the metro to the train station that would take me to the airport.

I bought my ticket and soon was on my way to the Milan International Airport which was 45 minutes away. Once we were there, I tracked down Mo’s flight and found the correct terminal and the exit gate that Mo would be heading out of. I had some time to kill so I found the business center and dilly dallied on the computer there for a bit before heading back out to wait for Mo. She soon appeared through the door and we were both sort of shocked to see each other. I was shocked (and impressed) at her lack of luggage she brought with her and she was shocked to see me standing there without having to go through customs again. She thought she was going to find a customs agent, and there I was!

Nonetheless, we were excited to see each other. We headed back to Milan on the next train and then took the metro to the Duomo again so that Mo could see it. Despite traveling for, like, 24 hours, she was in good spirits and was excited to see things despite the lack of sleep. We went around the Duomo again (brining her suitcase with us which was quite funny) and then got some lunch to eat at a sidewalk café. We then decided to make our way to Verona, the first stop on the Italian hippo trail.

We went to the central train station, retrieved my things from the luggage storage—thank goodness—and realized that the next train to Verona left in like five minutes. After a slight panic and an episode of me running to find a ticket booth (which somehow meant that I ran outside of the train station, around it, and then back in again through another door), we had a ticket for Mo and were running towards the platform. We got on, found two seats together, and peeled off our jackets. My heart was racing and I felt hot and flustered but at least we made the train.

The train started up and we started off towards Verona. Our slight mistake was that we hadn’t validated Mo’s ticket in the train machines on the platform before boarding, so the ticket man warned us that we needed to do that or face a fine. He, thankfully, wasn’t going to charge us this time, but gave us a warning for next time. This was good because neither of us had anymore Euros at that point so I don’t know what we would have done to pay the fine.

We made it into Verona just over an hour and a half later and took a taxi to our hotel—which was practically just down the road from the train station. We dropped off our stuff and eventually headed back out on the town, wandering the streets of Verona as the sun set. We stopped at a small pizzeria for dinner and then headed back to the hotel for the night.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Munich, Germany--Day 255

After arriving late last night and eventually making it out for dinner at 11 p.m. (we were still on Barcelona time!) Elizabeth and I woke up this morning to set off for the Munich Zoo. Conveniently located on the U-Bahn, we took the subway and were soon at the stop for the zoo.

We got off, zipped up our jackets, and headed to the zoo entrance where we paid our admission and went in. We stopped to check out the map and see just where the hippos were.

Problem: there were no hippos on the map.

We checked again, and again, and could not for the life of us figure out where the hippos were. Even checking the index of our snazzy guidebook for the zoo, we could not find them. Could it be that there were NO hippos? Surely there were....right?

Elizabeth went to ask about the hippos and despite my lack of German, I could tell that there were NO hippos. None. Zip. Zilch. We were shocked, especially since my list of zoos that I have so diligently followed (finding hippos at every spot) told me that there were supposed to be two hippos here in Munich.

The woman told us to walk over to the Polarium (where the Polar bears and penguins are) and ask about the hippos there since she said that they used to have hippos once, but she did not exactly know when since she was new.

So we trekked down to the Polarium which was on the opposite side of the zoo and grumbled about the cold. We could not believe that there were no hippos! But we were determined to find out just what happened to them.

We eventually found the Polarium---after stopping at a hippo statue to take pictures of it. At least they had a statue! We found two zoo keepers and Elizabeth fired away, asking them who, when, where and why the hippos were not there anymore. We found out from the keepers (who were quite funny characters, each of them sporting an amazing Euro-mullet and earrings) and found out the the two hippos had been moved to a zoo in Brazil three years ago! They did not remember which zoo it was, but it was "the one with lots of grass for them."


They redirected us to the elephant house where the hippos used to live. So we went in there and Elizabeth had a walking interview with a keeper (he would not actually stop to talk to her) and found out that the hippos were in fact in Brazil, possibly Sao Paulo. We stopped another guy and asked about the hippos' names and after checking something, came back and told us: Rosa and Gurbi.

I had been to Sao Paulo, been to the Sao Paulo Zoo and saw no signs of Rosa and Gurbi. Hmm.

Before leaving the zoo, I bought up all of the hippo postcards they had (three--pretty good for a zoo with NO hippos!) and we set off back to the U-Bahn feeling cold and perplexed, questioning where on earth Rosa and Gurbi are now.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Photo--Elizabeth and I on our weekend away in Cadaques, Spain

Roses and Barcelona, Spain--Days 250-254

After several weeks on the job, Elizabeth and I decided to reward ourselves for our success in the hippo business (basically we had zipped through Germany and had extra time on our hands). We decided to jet off to Barcelona for a few days vacation. My grandparents have a small apartment in the costly town of Roses and would be there for the next few days before leaving back to England. It was the perfect time to go and so we did.

We spent three days in Roses with my grandparents--what could have been better. Days lying on the beach, drinking wine (lots of it!) and spending time with my family proved the best remedy for our weary feet. We drove out to an amazing lighthouse at the most eastern point of Spain, visited the surrealist Salvador Dali's home and spent much of our time eating and showing Elizabeth just how good cheese fondue really is.

We then said goodbye to my grandparents and took the early bus down to Barcelona, spending just one full day there. We walked down Las Ramblas, stopping at the Monument a Colom by the harbor, walked back through the Old City visiting the Esglesia Catedral de la Santa Creu and watching locals dance the sardana in the square in front of the cathedral. We then spent the rest of the afternoon on a Gaudi hunt (the infamous modern architecture by Antoni Gaudi) and visited his unfinished La Sagrada Familia--a church that has been under construction for over a century, La Manzana de la Discordia where we visited Gaudi's Casa Batillo and hiked up the escalator to the famous Park Guell. It was quite a day and we rested our feet eating tapas and drinking beer for dinner. We then went back to our hostel (a far cry from the hotel life we are used to) and spent the night amongst thirty-five others in one huge communal room. Quite an experience when you are waking up at 5 a.m. to catch your bus back to the airport and people are still coming in from the night before!

We got up and headed to the bus stop and caught our bus to the Girona airport and soon were heading back to Frankfurt. The pilot informed us that the temperature in Frankfurt was 5 degrees Celsius, much to our shock and horror. He was not kidding. We touched down and Elizabeth and I got off the plane in dismay both of us cursing ourselves for not dressing more warmly!

We got the bus back to Mainz where we met Tommy again for lunch and went back to his apartment to gather our things (mostly our fall clothing that we did not bring to Barcelona!) and got the bus back to the train station. We then boarded the train to Munich and set off towards our last and final hippo stop in Germany.