Rome for the first time

There comes a moment in every single one of my travels when I first feel like I have truly arrived at my destination. In Bhutan, as soon as I stepped out of the plane, I knew instantly, Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. In Hong Kong, even when I have been there many times, I only feel like I’ve truly arrived when I cross Orchard Road and pass beneath the neon signs of shops selling fake Rolex watches.

In Rome, I felt it when I was walking among the massive colonnades encircling St. Peter’s Square. Those huge, towering columns encircling the Vatican were once described by the sculptor Bernini as the “maternal arms of Mother Church.”  Now that I think about it, those moments come when being in a new place makes me feel but a tiny speck in the order of the universe. There is an element of being invisible, of being almost, but not quite, lost.


Devotion, in all shapes and forms

Our first tour was inside the hallowed walls of the Vatican.  I can’t imagine how it must have been like for my brother, himself a painter, to be surrounded by the very paintings he only used to see in his books. “The highest art is always the most religious, and the greatest artist is always a devout person,” says Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in Rome, where art and history, faith and religion, collide in one beautiful, dazzling explosion.

We wandered around St. Peter’s Basilica, and my most vivid memory of that Church, dubbed “the greatest Church in all of Christendom” was standing in the middle of it, and looking at the shafts of light that pierced the windows and roofs, spilling onto the floors in perfect, straight lines. If souls ever truly ascended into heaven, I imagine them passing through those very same beams of light, straight into the Lord’s kingdom.

I also remember standing inside the Sistine Chapel. It was forbidden to take photos, but I did see some tourists sneaking a shot or too. And who can blame them: the ceiling was absolutely glorious. The ceiling depicted the Book of Genesis, including the iconic Creation of Adam, and took 4 years to finish.  Contrary to popular thought, Michelangelo painted the ceiling standing up, not lying down, on a scaffolding he himself designed. Four years of backbreaking work is to me, either madness or just plain devotion. Being inside the Chapel, face to face with Michelangelo’s painting of the Last Judgement, and knowing that this is the very room where Cardinals elect the next pope, the Vicar of Christ himself,  stirred something in my little Catholic heart.

My last memory of the tour was looking at the Pieta, the world-famous sculpture by Michelangelo, housed inside a bullet-proof acrylic glass panel. I remember thinking, it was so intricately carved that I wold not be surprised if the Virgin Mary herself started breathing, or if Christ himself rose from the dead, covered in the drapes that swaddled his body.

Blast from the glorious past

Rome is an ancient city, and everywhere you turn there’s evidence of just how old it is. From the art, to the world famous structures, down to the cobblestone paths, Rome looks every inch a city that dates back to 3,000 years.  The Colosseum is perhaps the greatest reminder of Rome’s majestic past. I had never before been inside a structure that was as old as the Colosseum. Up close, it resembled a maze made of sand and stone, instead of an organized ampitheater. Even if today the Colosseum is a mere skeleton of its original grandeur, it’s still definitely worth seeing, if only because it remains the best and most enduring symbol of Roman architecture and engineering.

Another ancient structure in Rome is the Pantheon, which is about as old as the Colosseum. Unlike the Colosseum however, the Pantheon is right swak in the middle of a bustling plaza, and just a few steps away from it are cafes, restaurants, and shops selling souvenirs. It’s rather disconcerting, especially if like me, you always imagined ancient structures as being on somewhat sacred ground, away from the madding crowd. But no, right beside the Pantheon was a line of taxicabs, which we actually took to get back to our hotel.

The first thing you notice in the Pantheon is the big oculus, a circular opening on the dome’s ceiling and a key feature of ancient architecture. It’s a doorway between gods and humans, as the Pantheon was first constructed as a pagan temple for the Roman gods (these days it’s considered a Roman Catholic Church). We, however, spent less time looking at the oculus, and more time looking at Rafael’s tomb as well as the massive, bronze Church doors.

Rome, the Eternally Crowded City 

The person who said that all roads lead to Rome certainly knew was he was talking about. I don’t think I’ve been surrounded by as many tourists and travelers as I have been than when I was in Rome. Everywhere we went it seems, there were so many tourists jostling for that perfect spot to see the attractions or to simply take photographs. Of course, the more tourists, the more opportunities for local touts to make a quick buck or two.

Once, at the Piazza Navona, I saw a bunch of people clutching long-stemmed roses. I didn’t think much of it until a nice, friendly looking guy handed me a rose. How nice, I thought while I accepted the rose, these Romans are so romantic! Five minutes later, the same guy comes back and asks me for money. I was appalled, and mostly ashamed of myself. Over twenty years of traveling and I still fall for this crap! Christ. With my cheeks still burning, I handed him back his rose, got a nice, big gelato, and ate my shame away.

 

At the Trevi Fountain, which was my favorite spot in the entire city, we had a difficult time even getting close to the fountain itself. I, however, was adamant about throwing a few coins (right hand over left shoulder), just to make sure I’ll be going back there.

I guess it really worked because next month I’m going back to Rome, this time with my husband.

Next up: Firenze!

Bhutan travel tips and tricks

Arranging the trip

Independent travel is prohibited in Bhutan (except if you’re an Indian national) so each tourist wishing to visit the Land of the Thunder Dragon must enlist the services of an accredited tour operator.  Bhutan imposes a $200 a day fee which covers the following:  a visa, a qualified and licensed English speaking guide, an experienced driver, a good vehicle with mineral water, all meals for the entire duration of the trip, accommodation, entrance fees to all major sites, and taxes and surcharges.

How to get there

There are only two airlines that fly to Bhutan: Druk Air, which is the national carrier, and Buddha Air. Druk Air services passengers coming from Bangkok, Dhaka, Singapore, Kathmandu, Gaya and other destinations in Eastern India, while Buddha Air flies to Kathmandu. I booked a Cebu Pacific flight (thank you Piso sale!) to Bangkok, stayed at a nearby airport hotel for the night, then flew via Druk Air to Paro, Bhutan the following morning.

How much to bring

Other than the travel fee, tourists should leave some money for tips and souvenirs. Souvenirs aren’t cheap, and Bhutanese locals don’t really practice bargaining, so be prepared to shell out some cash.

A review of the travel operator I chose: Snow White Treks and Tours

One of the most daunting tasks in preparing for my trip to Bhutan was choosing a reliable tour operator.  A tour operator can make or break your trip, especially for Bhutan when independent travel is absolutely prohibited. Nobody I knew had gone to Bhutan before, so I  scoured the net for reviews on tour operators before I finally chose to go with Snow White Treks and Tours. I must say, this was one of the wisest travel decisions I ever made. Kencho, the proprietor, was a dream to work with. She is quick to reply to my emails, from the moment I first inquired until the day I was about to leave for Bhutan. She gave me the best gift of all – peace of mind. While we were still ironing out the details of my trip, I gave her my budget and list of things I wanted to see and we worked out a schedule. What I liked about her was that instead of saying “yes” to everything I said,  she was very upfront about what is possible – and what’s not. She gave her own suggestions for me to enjoy and make the most out of my trip to Bhutan – like putting the hike up to Tiger’s Nest at the end of the trip, instead of in the beginning, so that I can acclimatize to the altitude first.

Snow White also equipped me with a good tourist guide, Chime, who was not only knowledgeable about Bhutanese customs and traditions, but also quite the fun companion. He, and our driver Dorji, were my sole companions during my trip and they kept me entertained when I wanted to be entertained, and they gave me space when I felt that I wanted some time to soak up everything on my own.

I met Kencho on the first day of my trip. She asked to meet me for lunch, and we discussed Bhutanese way of life over Ema Datse, the national dish, and some coffee. She’s a warm, engaging woman, and I am so happy that I booked Snow White Treks and Tours.

Other information

  • Change money at the airport, as ATMS are hard to come by even in the cities.
  • One of my regrets, if I can even call it that, is that I was not able to participate in a game of archery. I wasn’t even lucky enough to witness a game during my entire stay. Should you find yourself in Bhutan, try to enjoy their national pastime, either by joining it or just watching it from a distance.
  • Bhutanese food is mostly spicy, so if that poses a problem, inform your tour operator beforehand. It won’t hurt to remind restaurants that you will be dining in as well.
  • Most of the major attractions in Bhutan lie on average about 2,000 meters from sea level, which causes altitude sickness in some people. Try to schedule the hike up to the Tiger’s Nest at the latter part of your trip, when you’ve acclimatized to the altitude.
  • Bhutanese people are friendly folks, but it’s always polite to ask for permission first before taking their photos.

 

A List of Must Pack Items: Top 3 Items to Bring to Bhutan

  • Flashlight – electricity isn’t always reliable in Bhutan. Power outages, though they don’t usually last long, are common, so better have that trusty flashlight on hand.
  • Hiking shoes – you will be doing a lot of walking and climbing in Bhutan, so good, sturdy shoes are a must.
  • Camera – Bhutan is unlike any other place on earth.  You will want to take photos everywhere you go.

 

Solo at the Last Shangri-La

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I’m back! Not quite with a vengeance, but still. This blog is alive! This was the piece I submitted to Women’s Health Magazine, for their November 2013 issue, edited a bit to suit this blog. Also, I have a new blog over at www.thecuriousmissus.wordpress.com. Join me and my husband’s misadventures in the crazy world that [...]

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Look what the cat brought in!

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My article on my solo trip to Bhutan is in this month’s issue of Women’s Health Magazine! It’s been a year since I went to Bhutan and this is just a blessed, beautiful way to remember that trip of a lifetime. Check it out folks!

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Life as a Celebrity… sort of

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Our Alaskan trip was actually part of an Alaskan cruise. We rode this massive ship called Celebrity Century, which was part of the Celebrity Cruise line that had cruise ships with fancy names like Celebrity Millenium, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Infinity, etc. Our Celebrity Century rides to Alaska and other places like Hawaii and the Pacific [...]

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Commercial break: What are you reading?

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Every time I go on a trip, I make it a point to read something about the place I’m going to, especially if I haven’t been to that place before. For Japan, I reread Shogun by James Clavell, (well, PARTS of that mammoth book at least), What I Talk About When I Talk About Running [...]

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