The Pearl Islands

The next morning, we were off on the ferry for the Pearl Islands.  They are an archipelago of 200 islands, but only 7 are inhabited.  Contadora is the most touristic, the one where we were headed.  After a two hour ride, seeing dolphins riding the bow waves of our ferry, we got to this little treasure of an island that surprisingly not many people know about.

 As soon as we got there, we went to look for the couple Josh and Heidi, who are full time employees of the tour operator we were going to work for.  The owner was off in Hawaii for a whale convention, so we would be trained by Josh and Heidi.   We found them and they were about to leave on a tour right when we got there, so we dropped our bags and went with Heidi.  This would be good training for what we would be doing.  So, the 7 tourists, Antoine, Heidi, and I (Josh stayed behind) flagged down a fisherman with his little Panga to hire him to be our driver, and loaded the panga with our gear (snacks and beverages for the tourists, and snorkel gear, binoculars ect) and set off on the 4 hour tour.

Heidi started the tour by explaining that the Pearl Islands were discovered in 1513 by Vasco Nunez de Balboa, a Spanish navigator, who named them the Pearl Islands because of the vast amount of pearls that were found around the islands.  The Pearl Islands were known for two things: pearls and pirates.  She went into some of the history of the islands, how the Spanish got greedy after seeing all the pearls, and sent the indigenous Indian chiefs to the dogs so they could take over the islands.  In fact, one of the biggest pearls ever found in the world was found in the Pearl islands, it is called “The Peregrina.” It was owned at different times by Napoleon, Philip II, and others before Richard Burton bought it for 37,000 dollars for his wife Elizabeth Taylor.  The Islands also have other famous people who have connections there; John Wayne used to frequent one in particular, which is now known as John Wayne’s Island.  Contadora, the island we were staying in, was the location where the Shah of Iran was in exile during the revolution of 1979.  You can still see his house!

Contadora means “the book keeper” because it is where the Spaniards would stop to count all their pearls before heading back to Spain.

There were also many Pirates around these islands, and we got to see one of their maps from the 16th century! They were a danger to the Spanish sailors because they would often intercept their ships after leaving Contadora, and therefore collect all the pearls.  The locals of these islands are the descendants of the African slaves that the Spanish imported to harvest the pearls and work for them.

 Heidi then explained about fishing in Panama.  Panama, in one of the indigenous languages, translates into “Plethora of fish” and it IS true to its name.  If you are going to fish in Panama, you WILL catch something.  As we were riding along in the panga boat, we saw several flying fish leaping out of the water.  [Fun fact: they can fly as far as 40 feet along the surface of the water!]  The water is so clear, even out in the deep you can see the fish down below the boat.  But the fish are all protected- at least in the islands.  If you catch a blue marlin, you are required to do a catch and release.  Only the fish like the Snappers and Dorados you can keep.  Also, there is no commercial fishing, so, no using nets! The fisherman we see out in the pangas do it all by harpooning or rods.

 Our first stop was the Island of Pacheca, which we actually didn’t stop it, just drove along the coast of it.  It was amazing- it is where all the birds werehanging out.  There were TONS of birds- pelicans by the hundreds, which are HUGE by the way.  They would swoop down right next to our moving boat, and glide right above the water to catch fish.  It was amazing.  There were also blue footed boobies, and brown footed boobies, and magnificent frigates. The frigates are amazing to see because the males, during mating season, swell out their red throats so that from the boat it looks like you are looking at beautiful red flowers blooming on top of the bushes until you put the binoculars on! We cruised around the island, taking tons of pictures of the birds, and learning about the “pirate birds” which you can see from afar, swarming in huge clouds above the island.  They don’t have the necessary oils in their skin to go on water, so they hover in the sky waiting to steal fish that the other birds caught.  It takes them a year to learn how fly the way they do, as if they are not moving..you barely see their wings move, they just soar.

 After leaving Pacheca, we headed out into the open water to try to see some dolphins.  The islands had warned us that recently they haven’t been seen near the coast as much as they had just a month ago.  But we wanted to try anyway.  We did end up seeing three traveling together, but they were far, and heading the other direction.  The dolphins around here are bottlenose dolphins, which are characteristically very friendly and playful.  Heidi told us that when they aren’t eating, sometimes they come up to the boat and ride the bow waves.

 We headed toward Boya Reina, which is an island that only appears during low tide during the day- normally it is covered by the sea.  This makes it interesting because every time you go there is a whole new collection of shells that you really would never find on any beach.  There is coral everywhere, and stones that have perfectly round holes naturally drilled in them from the water.  There are shells of every color—red, yellow, and most importantly turquoise.  Panama has a special type of stone here that is turquoise, and it is not found in many places in the world, but it is EVERYWHERE here. So, we got out there and some of the tourists took a dip in the transparent/ turquoise water, or took advantage of the perfect spot for a great panoramic camera shot.

 After spending some time there, we headed to Mogo Mogo and Chapera, two islands that were used for a few seasons of “Survivor”.  They are perfect because of their long, flat sandy beaches and vast amount of iguanas.   We passed by Mogo Mogo and stopped in Chapera.  Right off the beach there is a huge coral reef so everyone got their snorkel gear on and plopped backwards off the boat and into the blue.  Unfortunately Antoine and I did not have time before the tour to get our bathing suits on, so we had to watch from the side.  This is nothing to complain about since we could still see all the fish from the boat- that is how clear it was!! So, everyone snorkeled for about 30/40 minutes and then headed back to the beach for drinks and snacks.  After everyone was done on the beach we headed back to Contadora.  We wouldn’t believe we just did that for free—it was amazing.  This was going to be our job- selling these tours and then taking people on them. Not too shabby.

 When we got back from the tour we had to work out our accommodations, so Heidi went to talk to a local about living in their house and they agreed for 375/month.  This was really expensive for us, but it was really good considering the other option: 500/month to live in a hotel room.  At least at the house we had a kitchen, which we shared with two other local guys who lived there, who were both about our age. We thought we would defiantly save money with a kitchen– until we saw the prices of the food on the island.  The supermarket was more like a corner store where you go to buy cigs and beer, but we werent worried about it.  In the back they had a few vegetables, and some chicken in the fridge.  We figured this was doable until we saw the prices.  For a small bag of chips, like the little personal bags was 4.00! A can of tuna was 4.50, and a jug of water was 5.00.  (remember how hot it is here) Also, the water on the island is not drinkable because it comes from a “lake” on the island.  We drove by it…it’s muck colored..so yeah, we weren’t going to take any risks, shots or no shots.  The locals don’t even drink it.  So, all of their food and water comes over on a barge twice a week, so they have to pay that fee, which is why they charge a lot.  So we stuck with rice and beans for dinner, eggs for the morning, and ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. Very simple, but still delicious!

After the first day, even though this island was amazingly beautiful, and we loved the tours, we realized there was no way we could afford to stay there.

That night, the other guy who owned the tour operator we were originally going to work at answered us, asking if we were still interested in working for him.  With him, we would have free accommodation and meals, which was starting to sound pretty good about now. So we skyped with him that night and he told us we could come in a week. So, we decided we would stay on the island for a week.

 The next day, Thursday, we were at the office at 8 am, and down at the beach at 9;30 am to greet the ferry coming in to drop off the tourists.  Two ferries come every morning, and then come back to get people every day at 3 pm.  Some people just come for the day, others who can afford the hotels or b&bs here, can stay for a night or two.  There are also tons of people who own the huge houses on the island who stay for the whole dry season.  Unfortunately, Contadora also has some big resorts and hotels that sit abandoned, because they owners are so darn rich, they don’t even care about them.  The owners aren’t there the majority of the time, so they just sit empty on the island.  One of them was owned by a Columbian drug lord, it is huge- takes up the entire beach front, but he died in a plane crash and his family isn’t doing anything with it but won’t sell.  The tourism on the island would probably grow if the people with money put more into their properties! Also, they would probably do well getting an ATM on the island,..that’s right..cash only on the island! Except for two restaurants i think! The island has tons of potential though, I’m sure it will be booming in about ten years!

 We greeted the people getting off the ferry, and informed them about the tours we offer here on the island, and didn’t get any takers that day.  So Heidi thought we should know about our kayaking tour, in case we would have to take someone out by ourselves.  So Heidi, Antoine and I set out for a kayak tour, to see which were the best islands to kayak to, and try to find a few more good snorkeling spots.  We ended up going all around Contadora and we hopped out at some points to check out the fish and turtles.  We made it kayaking around the island in about 3 hours, including our snorkeling stops. Finally, we decided that Charlie’s Island looked doable.  Charlie’s island is an island about an hour kayaking from Contadora island, but this is actually out in the open sea.  It was not easy with the current, but we made it! Charlie’s island is awesome, but we realized it was going to be a bit too hard for the tourists.  On Charlie’s island, you get out on the tiny beach and there are some stone steps that just go up….upon reaching the top you see the 8 cabins there.  They were constructed for Survivor, it was supposed to be the island where they would get exiled to, but after building the houses they realized it was going to be too expensive, so now they sit abandoned.  We went up to check them out..they are still very much in good shape, although they’ve been abandoned for about 10 years, and each one of them has an a million dollar view out the window.  Unfortunately the guy who owns them isn’t doing anything with them!

 After hanging out there a bit, we got back in the kayaks for the hour ride back to Contadora.  Arms were getting pretty tired at this point and since Antoine and I were in a double kayak, we kept in sync by me singing every Irish song in the book, and Antoine trying to keep up with the lyrics haha.. Oh yes, Heidi got to know us real well that day!

 The sun goes down at 6 pm here, and that is when the island shuts down.  There is absolutely no one, or nothing going on after 6 pm.  All the island employees live on the island next to us, Seboga, so there is literally no one on Contadora.  Unless you are staying in one of the big hotels, you don’t really see anyone.   No local hangout, no bar, and most of the restaurants close pretty early too.

 The next day, Friday, we sat in the office all day and got a few people who were interested in touring in the upcoming days, but nothing for that day. Friday was the first day of carnival, which brought loads of people in.  However, they were all Panamanians from the city who were looking to get away from the craziness of the festivities of carnival and with no desire to go on tours.  Since we didn’t sell anything that day, at about 4 pm we decided to go find a beach on the other side of the island to snorkel at- well we found it..so, so beautiful!  This was also my first experience with “Malaguas”, yes, they are tiny jellyfish, that are transparent. You literally cannot see them.  So there we are, swimming along, and getting stung by phantom jellyfish! They sting you and you don’t even know in what direction to swim to get away from them because you can’t see where they are! I gave up after about 20 minutes, and Antoine was right behind me.  I get out and my legs are covered in tiny red blotches that stung like hell! Thank goodness the stinging went away after about 15 minutes, and now, it’s just itchy.

 The next day we got another tour, and we actually got to snorkel! It was amazing- and no Malaguas!  It was like swimming in an aquariam.  I saw tons and tons of dish—some very big, some very small. But all of them had awesome colors, bright blue, neon pink and green parrot fish, a saw puffer fish, and box fish! All of them were incredible and I was swimming right next to them! I didn’t no want to leave after the half hour, but we had to go.

 Same thing that night, not much to do, although we did see a big dinner being set up on the beach and got really curious.  Turns out Bear Grylls and his production crew were here, and had been here filming for the past few months.  Bear Grylls, is that crazy English guy from the show Man vs. Wild, and yes, I saw him J Over the next few days we saw them all over the island.  That was pretty cool, closest I’ve ever been to a TV personality.

 The next day we had a group of 5 people who were going on a tour and Heidi put me in charge, so I gave my first tour and it was awesome! Not only did we get paid for doing it, but our people actually tipped us! It was pretty awesome, and going around from island to island was definitely not getting old!

 The next few days went the same..we had a few more tours, or we were just  selling them and  advertising them on the beach when the ferries came in, and finally a week was up.  So our last night there we decided to have a little barbeque (Antoine’s idea).  So we asked the two guys who lived with us, and one other local who would give us a lifts on his mule on our walk to and from work.   There are no cars on the island..one gets around by walking, golf carts or mules (not the animals.)  Everyone brought something to cook and some beers, and we had a great last night on the island!  The next day it was hard to leave – we couldn’t believe we were actually turning down this island, but there was simply not enough work for us there, and a bit too pricey.  So we took one last swim on our favorite beach, Playa Larga, and got our backpacks back on to check in to the ferry.

 On our ferry back to Panama city, about half way there (it was a 2 hour ride) the ferry stopped and we all looked over the side of the boat…there was a pod of dolphins, I would say about 50 or 60 dolphins swimming along, jumping up out of the water, literally into the air so that their entire bodies were about 4 or 5 feet above the water. It was incredible! After they were on their way, about 10 minutes later, we came upon another pod who was doing the same thing. It was awesome-  so cool to see wild dolphins in their natural habitat!

PANAMA whaaaaat????!!!!

Okay, before reading this, please make note: I am not a witty writer.   I’m not writing to get fans or for whatever other reason people who blog, blog.  I am writing this because given that I have more family than I can count and they all want to know what the hell is going on with “the one who went to Panama,” this seems to be the easiest way of keeping everyone informed.

 Basically, Twan and I needed to find a job in the same country, and fast.  We were pretty much over doing the long distance relationship thing (coming up on five years!) but neither of us could get work visa’s in each other’s countries.  This left us no choice than to head to South America!  The visa situation is much easier, but I won’t go into those boring details.  So we got ourselves into Workaway, ( workaway.info) which is a site where you can plug in a location you want to go, find people who need volunteers to come and work for them in exchange for free accommodations and sometimes a meal. However, we are not totally throwing caution to the wind and jumping into just anything- we wanted to land a spot in a tour operator, that way whatever we would end up doing would look good toward Antoine’s career path (He is in tourism management and hoping to find a full time position in a tour operator.) So Antoine and I decided to give it a shot, and wrote to a few tour operators that we found in South America, both of which were located in Panama.  The first one to get in touch with us was a tour company on the coast of the Pacific side of Panama, and we were very excited! We kind of jumped the gun and bought our plane tickets for Panama before it was totally set.  But we were trying to make it for the end of February, which is the beginning of the dry season in Panama, therefore, a lot of people going on vacation there.  That was in a month, so the plane tickets were just going up from there.  We bought the tickets thinking nothing could go wrong. Welllllll..the man who said he was interested in having us come work for his tour operator kind of stopped answering our emails.  We started getting nervous considering we were leaving in a week.  After not answering numerous emails and phone calls, we finally started calling until we got a response.  It wasn’t a great day- he told us we could not come before doing a skype interview, yet could not do it with us before Monday, the day of our departure.  So, there we were, four days before departure, scrambling for a new plan.  Not to mention, the day before this plan fell through, I put down a few hundred dollars to get the shots necessary to go Panama and prevent typhoid or hepatitis A, which you can contract from contaminated food or water.  So here I am thinking I just totally blew a pretty good amount of money on the shots and the plane ticket.

In a frenzy, I started looking back on workaway for another host, and there happened to be another tour operator located on one of the Pearl Islands off the coast of Panama.  I emailed the woman, who is American, and hoped for a response.  We sent our CVs and said a few prayers.  A few days later she answered saying we could come and everything was set! Minor detail, the DAY before we arrived, she told us that she could not afford to have us stay for free, that we would have to pay a monthly cost, but that if we sold any tours we could get paid a commission, and if we took people out on our own tours, we would get paid as a tour guide! We had no other option than to say yes, so we headed for the Pearl islands not knowing really what to expect.

Landing in Panama, we felt the heat as we were stepping out of the plane.  88 degrees Farenheit at 10:30 pm- A huge difference from the foot of snow and negative degrees I left back in Philadelphia.  It is after all, the dry season, so it is just very, very hot, sometimes getting up to the 100’s.  The dry season lasts from February until about May, then the rain season starts, which is still just as sunny and hot, but they will get sometimes 2 hours of rain a day, or longer. Good thing there are palm trees everywhere for some shade!

Our first day in Panama we spent walking around the city. There are a lot of huge buildings and hotels, very modern, and of course, there is the canal. Sadly, we didn’t find much that day in the city, but that was because we were just blindly walking around the business district, without a map.  We went to the old part of the city, which was so beautiful but unfortunately abandoned-looking.  Full of old beautiful colonial style buildings, but that have all fallen into disrepair. So we didn’t stay for long in that part of the city.  We went searching for a little café to sit and have a drink back in the business area but didn’t find anything.   In Panama city, apparently no one drinks before 5pm.  Later in the night we asked the driver to show us where there was some action.  He took us to the center where there were plenty of bars and people.  We had delicious local cuisine and a few drinks, and turned out to be a great night! The typical food is chicken and rice, but they also eat a lot of yucca here, and a thing called a tortilla, but it is nothing like the one we know in the states, it is more like a thick fried corn fritter.  Still good!

Settling in- Rome Week 1

We got to Rome on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and got assigned to our rooms. We’re all happy with our roomates (i hope mine think so at least hehe), and although our apartments arent as big as the first ones we stayed in, they are still really cute.  We have one bedroom with a set of bunkbeds and a single bed , and then a smalll kitchenette and a living room area and a bathroom.  Its perfect for a three month stay.  So we took the say to finally get all settled in, FINALLY after three weeks of lugging that suitcase around, i was able to unpack and put my belongings in drawers!!!

After getting settled in we just wandered around our neighborhood…found the kebob/pizza-by-the-slice joint; the church right down the block, the gelattaria right next to us,  all the open markets selling food and clothes, ( really good deals on the fruit–i got 15 oranges for 1 euro!) and of course i cant forget all the “bars”, which are really little cafes where cappucinnos are only 1 euro! Oh, we also have the 24 hour bakery (a favorite of the christendom students) which sells all sorts of pastries for really cheap and is ALWAYS open!! and its underground which is even cooler.  And most conveniently, we have a metro stop right next to us, and looking out our back gate, is the big gray Vatican wall…you really cant get much better than that.

My roomates and i pooled our money together to buy food for the room, so they went out shopping while i organized our stuff.  They brough home some ingredients for home made pizza! Why not, were in italy! So thank God they both know how to cook cause that is one skill I am really lacking.  I offered a hand but they politely told me they were fine doing it themselves haha- i would have just been in the way.  So right after I finished eating, Theresa came in to tell me her dad was in town for a conference and he wanted to take her and i out to dinner.  So we went to a nice little restaurant and since i had already had my fill of homemade pizza i decided to just stick to the wine. Well played, i know.

When we got back to the apartments everyone was getting ready to go out so we just went with them.  We decided to walk since we dont really know the bus system yet…it was far, we walked for over an hour til we finally got to this “club” that we looked up.  It was more like a basement with strobe lights and really loud music, and it was TINY, and already packed with locals.  We stayed there awhile dancin, havin a good time until the Italian men decided to get a bad case of frisky fingers which didnt make the boys in our group too happy.  So instead of a fight ensuing, we just all left to go find a new place.  We came across an irish pub which was letting out  some good vibes, but it was SO packed.  We stayed for awhile and then all made the trek back, which felt much longer than an hour walk…but it was a good first night in Rome!

 

The next morning i did’nt make it to the 10 30 mass at the Vatican which was my original plan, so i decided to sleep in, and then at noon I walked to St. Peter’s Square where the Pope comes out and says the Angelus from his window.  That was a treat, and afterwards he spoke in about 5 different languages a little message to all of us gathered there that he was praying for us and all of our intentions, and then he blessed us.  After that I walked back and went to mass at Santa maria della Grazie, which is the church on our street. The rest of the day was spent wandering around, hanging out with everybody, eating and we watched a movie at night and went to bed early for our orientation in the morning!

Monday morning we met at the Obelisk in St. peter’s Square at 7:45, which is the huge white pillar-like thing right in the middle of the piazza. (ill explain these later).  St. peter’s is really nice at that time in the morning because there are no crowds so we just went right into the basillica and were led downstairs to the basement where the tomb of St. peter is.  We had mass right next to his tomb.  After mass we headed to the “institute” where we have our classes, its a convent right next to st. peter’s square, so we had orientation for a few hours, and then went to the terminal which is where we get lunch every monday and thursdays, which are our 2 class days!  After lunch we headed back to the apartments and we got  out bus/metro passes that last a month. they are the most convenient things in Rome. We split up into groups and went on a scavenger hunt which was cool because it forced us to have to get on buses/metros/walk places and take pictures of certain things so we would know how to use the bus.metro and find our way with a map.  nothing like a competition to make you want to figure this all out right away! After the scavenger hunt we did some more exploring and then kind of hung around, ate dinner, went to hang out and drink some good italian wine and at 8 we met up to get our text books.  Later on that night we decided to go see the Trevi Fountain, which is so so so beautiful, you never get sick of it! We hung there for a while, then walked over to Piazza Navona which is really cool at night, and a completely different place during the day, still just as cool though!

 

Tuesday morning we had our first day of intensive italian class–yes, thats 9am-1pm of italian class.  its a loooong day, but we have a really good teacher.  Shes an American woman who lives here in Rome, married to an italian man, and she speaks the language like a native.  She is so patient with us, since we are all on different levels, and some catch on to foreign languages quicker than others, she somehow manages to keep us all on the same page. We had a ncie 15 minute break and so we found a bar right down the street where we went for a cappuccino, and now we go there for a cappuccino every class day and have since made good friends with the “bartender” Kiko.

That night Antoine came to visit, which was really nice to see him again! We went out and got some pizza and wine then went and hung out with the guys for awhile and then he went back to his hostel which wasnt too far  from us.

Wednesday we had our second day of intensive italian class from 9am to 1pm, and afterwards i met Antoine at the obelisk in the square and we went out exploring all around.  We went to see the Pantheon, piazza Navona, trevi fountain,  and just all over that whole area of thr city.  It was a beautiful sunny day so we decided to have lunch at one of the restaurants in the piazza where the Pantheon is, right next to the fountain. it was expensive but delicious.  nothing like a big plate of prosciutto and Mozzarella di buffalo with a glass of white wine to make me smile.  On the way back we stopped again at piazza navona and got some delicious gelatto.  We hung out with everyone for awhile then decided to go out and find a cool bar.  We walked to Campo di Fiori which is supposedly the hotspot at night for bars…well yeah we found a wild bar FULL of american students that had beer pong tables set up, long island iced teas by the pitcher and karaeoke… since it was only the two of us we decided to save that for a night when we would all go in a group.  So we found a nice outside bar with tables and stayed there for awhile, trying to avoid the men who literally will shove a rose in your hand as you’re sitting down and then ask you to pay for it. Its obnoxious but you get used to it after awhile.

 

Thursday I had another day of intensive italian and then met up with Antoine again, this time he was enjoying a nice cold beer at an outdoor cafe, so i went and met him there.  Afterwards we walked to a nearby restaurant and got lunch then continued our touring of the city.  Piazza di Spagna, via del corso, the big shopping street that we again, went window shopping, and the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, palatine Hilll, Arch of Constantine, and all those good ol’ spots.  After a full day of walking around we were hingry again and went to our favorite pizza place, which we discovered last time we were in Rome, its called pizza Ricci–everyone should go there if in Rome!  Then afterwards we got everyone together and went back to Campo di Fiori to the fun bar full of Americans.

Friday morning was our last day of intensive italian, and antoine’s last day. After class i brought him back to the station and hung out with everybody for the night.

Saturday morning we met at the Obelisk in St. peter’s with Dr. and Mrs. O’Donnell, the president of Christendom College and his wife.  They come to visit the christendom rome students every semester and gives a tour of the basillica.  It was the greatest tour i have ever gone on, he is literally filled with all this historical knowledge, facts, explanations, hidden meanings and everything.  It was incredible,  I wish I could explain everything as he did but is would be way too long.  You’ll just have to come here and go on the tour yourselves!  Mrs. O’Donnell gave us all little goodie bags which was AMAZING!  nothing like a fruit roll up!

Later that night we went out for my friend’s 21st birthday…the first place went to was a “club” that decided it was a good idea to charge 15 euro for a drink, and 10 euros for a beer. Yeaahhh he lost all 22 of us after that was made clear. I tried to talk some since into the bartender so the whole crowd of us wouldnt leave but he wouldnt have it.  So we found another down the road which wasnt too bad. not cheap,. but at least not as expensive as the first one.  It turned out to be a pretty fun night!

Sunday I woke up to go to the Weekly market at Porta Portese, right next to the river.  It is the biggest market ive ever been to, and the cheapest! They sell everything you can imagine, from clothes shoes hats bags and jewelry to …anything else, pretty much.  t was insane! So A few of us wandered through that for a few hours, and still didnt make it to the end of it.  After I got back i went to mass, and then had to get ready for our potluck dinner.  Every Sunday night, each room makes a dish or wine to share with everyone, and we all have dinner together up on the roof of our building.  It was really cool…

Im sorry i left alot of details out and this one might be boring but im writing this 2 weeks after the fact so im not remembering everything perfectly.  ill try to do better on the next one, sorry folks!

 

Siena, Tuscany ahhhhh words can’t describe!

ok so it was on Ash Wednesday that we left Assisi to head to Siena. So after we got our ashes, we went to lunch (a small lunch)and then left.  The bus ride was about 2 hours and we knew we would love it as soon as we got off the bus.  First off, it was a beautiful sunny day, and it just happened we were staying in a hotel right in a great location with an incredible view.  We were actually staying in a hotel “Alma Domus” which used to be a convent, and it is on the property that St. Catherine of Siena lived.  Her house is right next to the hotel, but it has been converted into a church now.  We got to see her room which was really neat.  She has an amazing story, she was one of 24 children, and she had her first vision when she was seven and she dedicated  herself to Jesus then, and cut off all her hair t make her unappealing to suitors.  She lived a really holy life full of alot of sacrifices and she studied alot.  She was very educated in Philosophy and Theology.  She is most famous for bringing the Pope back to Rome from Avignon where the Popes had started staying for some years.  She convinced him he needed to be in Rome and lead his universal church and flock from there.  She was named Doctor of the Church after her death, and her body was fought over by Rome and Siena. they both wanted her to be buried in their cities so in the end they kind of well…split her up.  I’m not really a huge fan of that but, it happened.  Anyway so after we checked into the hotel we had a few hours to wander around before reflection.We didnt have dinner on wednesday night because we were fasting.   We were hungry but it wasnt that bad because everything was just so unique in this town; we just wanted to walk around and take everything in.  Although i must admit we did sneak a few peeks (and maybe drooled a little bit) at the gelattos and pizzerias on every corner.  The view from my room was unbelievable, tuscany is just incredibly beautiful, and all the houses are the same but they are so distinct to that area.  The yellowish orangish houses with green shutters,  are standard! And the green trees everywhere match them, its so neat.  Its funny because you look around at the houses and they kind of seem run down a little bit because they are so old, but the ones around the hotel that we were seeing are so so expensive to live in.  And apparently its very difficult to move there because the houses move down from family to family for centuries.

Anyway so we go walking up the street from our hotel and see this huge huge church, which was so so old.  It was St. Dominic, who is my patron saint, so we decided to stop in.  Well, its a good thing we did- we were in for quite a surprise.  First off, it was very diffferent because it was so bare.  they make these churches so big that they dont have enough to fill them! Either that or they need alot of space for all the tourists who come, because there, walking further into the church, we see a little side altar with a glass case and low and behold is the head of St. Catherine! kind of a shocker at first because its just sitting there in the glass case, with her finger in a separate glass case next to it.  She isnt incorrupt but what they did was take her skull and fill it with clay which eventually hardened and then they put a wax covering on it so its the shape of her face with all of the indents and everything.  the same for the finger, so its kind of weird but also pretty cool id say.  After we left there we still went walking around and found the Siena soccer stadium, such a beautiful field! Apparently there was going to be a game that night which we tried to get tickets for but they were too expensive.  So we stopped at a little street cafe and got a cappuccino    before moving on to the center of Siena, the Campo they call it.  this was my favorite part of Siena.  its just a huge center in the shape of a shell, and its on an angle downwards, ever so slightly, but it gives it a beach effect.  And everyone caught on to that because just all over the Campo people were laying as if they were on a beach or something, it was prety neat.  And all around the edges of it there are bars and pizzerias and gelattos!  There is a university there so young people are everywhere which was a huge change from Siena; a nice change i should say.   At this Campo, twice every summer they have a horse race which is called the Palio, in which each each Condrada (area) of Siena has a jockey representing them.  Each Contrada has a flag and each one is represented by an animal.  For example, St. Catherine lived in the Contrada of the goose.  So they fill the area around the Campo with dirt and hay and make the track, and all the spectators stand in the middle of the Campo, or up on the balconies overlooking the race and it is the biggest event of the year.  Drinks are on the winner, so literally everyone there drinks for free.  Apparently if you want to be there for the Palio you have to book a hotel way in advance. In the streets of the town there are so many stores, its a big shopping area– we just window shopped because they prices are kind of scary.  We walked all over the town and then turned around to head back to the hotel for reflection.  No one really went out because it was ash wednesday, so me and a few of my friends went to the cafe next door for a capuccino and to use the internet.  This guy loves Christendom students (every year’s group comes and stays at this same hotel so he knows who we are.) and so he practically gave us our drinks for free which was nice, and told us to come back anytime! After we stayed up playing rummy and talking for awhile til we decided to go to bed.

 

The next day we had breakfast which was amazing. Although i do love the croissants and nutella every morning, i really could go for some bacon and eggs around here– unheard of unfortunately.  but i must admit their orange juice over here is awsome! They make it with blood oranges, so its red orange juice, which i had never had before but its really really delicious. Anyway then we met at St. catherines home to visit the gift shop and then we had mass there. Afterwards we had lunch at Pommodoro, which was a real treat.  Its right across the street and they served us of course 5 courses.  First we got a big tray full of Bruscetta  (bread with chopped up tomatoes on top, or there was this Sienniese Bruscetta which has a sort of cole slaw ish kind of thing on top, it was really good.  next they brought out a big tray of slices of Prosciutto, Chorizo, Salame, and ham and pepperoni and also Kidney of something.  i was the only one at my table to try it, it looked like ground beef but it wasnt;  it wasnt bad, just REALLY salty.  next they brought out potatoes with olive oil and rosemary on them, and a salad.  next we had four different types of Sienniese pizza. It was DELICIOUS, but alot of food as always. Then for dessert we had flan with a maple syrup sauce, but neither of them tasted like the flan and maple syrup that i know–they were ten times better.  this flan wasn’t as flubbery as normal flan, it was thicker and more delicious.  After lunch we got a tour of Siena by a local which was really neat, and we pretty much went to all the places  we had already visited the day before, but the explanation was nice.  She told us about the rivalry between Siena and Florence.  they compete in every way; the most obvious ebing with their Duomos, or their Domes (churches).  The main Duomo is ginormous, seroiusly huge, and apparently Florence’s is just as big.  So they added a lightening stick at the top to make it just a bit taller haha.  The Duomo is Siena is very unique because of the blue and white striped marble covering it.  It was supposed to be even bigger but while the were constructing the nave the Black Plague struck and 30,000 of the 50,000 people that lived there died, so they were not able to finish it.  Its neat because you can stand in the “nave” that they were building, which is now a parking area for the church.  Inside the Duomo is really unique  as well, not only because everything is gargantuan but because all of the floors are covered with these really cool depictions.  There is so much to see inside. Afterwards we climbed up the tower and got a great view of the city.  After the tour we just walked around the city, window shopped, hung out at the campo for a bit and then went back for the conference.  After the conference we went out for dinner at one of the restaurants at the campo and it was the best one yet i think. SOOOO GOOD! We then hung out at the hotel for a bit before deciding to go and get some drinks.  this was around 8 pm and the campo was kind of empty so we just bought a drink and went out and sat there just talking and hanging out, finally around 10 the people started coming out to the bars, so we stayed there until curfew and had a great time!

The next morning we had breakfast and then met outside to walk to the Basilica of San Francesco.  This was probably one of the coolest things I have ever seen.  the story goes that about 283 years ago someone stole about 200 hosts from the sacresty of the church the day before their big celebration of the feast of the Annunciation, which they celebrate big there.  So all the celebrations and parade sin the town were cancelled because the bishop was so upset/disturbed by this robbery.  So everyone in the town prayed and 2 days later they were found in a little chapel (i think thats where they were found).  Anyway, they locked the hosts up and they remain in-corrupt to this very day, which is impossible because hosts don’t last for more than 4-5 years before they disintegrate.  So we went and had mass at this basilica where they keep the proof of this Eucharistic miracle, and after mass, a priest came in and opened a hidden door behind the alatr and there they were in a glass case.  The moment the doors opened everyone just dropped down on their knees, it was a pretty powerful thing to see. So we stayed and prayed the Chaplet and then left.  Once outside, our directors bought us a special treat from Siena, theyre these almond cookies, but theyre really soft and chewy and delicious! Afterwards we went to a church nearby that has the body of Blessed Savina Petrilli , which is in-corrupt.  After that we went and got lunch and headed toward the Campo and literally laid there for the rest of the day.  it was so sunny out, we even got a little color from laying there.  We played some cards and just talked until we had to head to the hotel for our last reflection with father.  After the reflection we headed to dinner at a nearby restaurant, delicious of course.  After dinner we walked around for a bit and then went back to the hotel and everyone kind of just hung out since we had to be up real early the next morning to catch the bus. They told us if we were late they would leave without us and we would have to catch the train back to rome haha…so we all hit the sack kind of early that night.  And the next day we were off for the 3 1/2 hour bus ride to Rome to FINALLY settle in for the semester!!

ok the pictures are doing the backwards thing again, sorry!

 

The Home of the Saints- 3 days in Assisi

We got up bright and early on Sunday morning, and were all piled into the bus by 8am.  It had just 24 seats…just enough for us all to get a seat. We met Fr. Tom, who is a Legionary of Christ (a certain order of priests) who was to accompany us on our trip.  He is a brand new priest, just ordained in December, so it was pretty cool to have him.  They say if you get a blessing by a priest in his first yea rits extra extra special. So, It was about a 2 1/2 hour ride which was fine- i talked the whole time of course. We stopped half way there and had “italian donuts”, it was like a sugar coated krispy cream with nutella inside! AMAZING! I would have gone back for seconds and thirds if they weren’t already devoured. Anyway, we checked into our hotel at 11, which was right in the middle of town, right next to the piazza (main plaza). Awesome location.  this town is something you never even knew existed anymore.  the architecture of every single house was just unreal.  The red tiled roofs and cream colored walls, oh and not to mention a church or two on every block.  The streets are really narrow, and all cobblestones, and every few steps you’ll see a little side street, even more narrow than the one your walking on, and its either going up or down, depending on which way you look.  Assisi is built right on Mount Subasio, so the streets are very steep.  There are little arches on the side of the streets that you go under and its a little stairway down to the next street, its very neat.  the town only has 500 people living in it and they are all religious- nuns and priests everywhere!  most people live down in the valley at the base of the mountain.  Anyway, we had a great lunch at the hotel and then all met up at the fountain in the Piazza to get ready for our tour of the town.  We had a local do it for us, she was great- love the accent.  the tour was really cool, we got to see the houses where both St. Francis and St. Clare grew up.  We also saw the room where Francis was born, which is now a chapel.  Then as we walked to the basilica of St. Clare we got a great view of the countryside down below in the valley.  The olive groves were everywhere, and the snow- capped mountains in the background, even though it was really great sunny weather in Assisi.  If you further up to the top of Mount. Subasio you can see the huge fortress up there.  Unfortuntaly you had to pay to get in, and since we’re all really cheap we didn’t do that, but the view of the city from up there was incredible.  (Im getting sick of using all these same words to describe the views, because none of them really suffice, but they’re just the closest thing to what i can describe seeing this is like.) okay so we got in the basilica, and if you go to the right, theres a side chapel with the cross that Christ spoke to St. Francis is hanging.  The original one! That is when St. francis had his conversion, so it was really special to see.  Then down in the crypt we saw the tomb of St. Clare, and many of her garments.  Also in the town square is the Temple of Minerva, which was then converted into a catholic church, and we stopped at a few other palces which i cant call to mind right now.  The next thing we did was take the walk to San Damiano, which is the church that Francis was instructed by God to rebuild as his first mission.  This was a long and tiring walk, but so worth it.  on our way there we passed by the Carnival parade.  in Italy, (and im sure other European countries) the carnival (fat tuesday, the day before Lent starts) is celebrated for a whole month before.  So the little kids are seen walking around the streets in halloween costumes and throwing confetti everywhere.  The streets are covered with confetti at this pint since it was near the end of the carnival period.  Anyway, they were celebrating it big this sunday so they had a huge parade, and then later (as we found out) they have a huge festival in the main piazza.  (ill get to that soon).

So we made the walk to San Damiano, and Father Tom said  mass for us in the little chapel (awesome), and then we stayed for vespers.  We were the only non religious in there, and it was really really cool.  All the Franciscan monks came out and sang the vespers in italian, and it was just so quiet and beautiful.  After we got out of there we walked back towards the center and we heard the boom of the music all the way the hill. by the time we get there, they had a stage set up and loud music, and so many people in costumes; kids running around spraying silly string at eachother and throwing more confetti.  And they were selling little cups of wine, so we stayed there for a little bit and were dancing with them, kind of taking it all in before heading back to the hotel for our reflection and dinner.  The reflection is just all of us sitting around while Fr. Tom gives us a short talk/homily and an examination of conscience.  Not long, but just enough for us to sit and reflect on how lucky we are to be walking in the footsteps of a saint.  then we have another huge dinner (still 4 courses!) and then we have the night to do whatever.  So we thought we would go find a cool bar, but by the time we were out of dinner, the carnival festival was over and everyone gone, and the town is literally dead quiet  because no one really lives there! So we didnt have any luck finding a bar, so we went into a little gelatto place where they also have a bar, and got a drink before calling it a night.  it was kind of boring at night because theres really no nightlife and nothing to do there if your not seeing the sights, so we just called it a night.  but we did learn some pretty useful things. When you walk into a place to drink, no matter what kind of place, because mostly all of the gelatto places serve alcohol too, they will charge you more for your drink if you sit down.  So theyll ask you when you come in, “barra o tabla?” SAY BARRA! You just have to stand at the bar and drink or else they’ll take on an extra 2 euro or so.. knowing that has really saved us from getting ripped off!

The next morning we got up and had breakfast in the hotel and then left directly for mass. it was another bit of a walk but again, its so cool cause by walking you see much more of the sights around you, even just the streets are cool.  So on this day (monday) we were having mass at the Basilica of San Francesco.  this place is GINORMOUS! its really neat though because all of the churches/basilicas in Assisi have this pink shade because Assisi is known for this pink rock that comes from the Mount Subasio.  So we got a tour from a franciscan and it was really neat, its very very old and its freeezing inside, but so beautiful. It has three layers.  And it was designed that way because after Francis died, the town-people dug deep into the mountain to bury him so no one would try to unearth his body for relics. So hes buried very deep, but years later they dug out around it and built a huge crypt around his tomb, and on top of that, they built the lower church, and directly on top of that the built the upper church.  So its neat because the altars are right on top of eachother on all three levels, and the pillars run all the way from the bottom of the foundation up to the top, so its all very connected.  And we started down in crypt and had mass right there at the tomb of St. Francis.  The walls are COVERED with the most beautiful paintings on all three levels.  It would take years to look at them all, thats how big it is! As you move up from the crypt up to the upper church, the paintings get brighter with each level, specifically so you get the feeling that you are emerging from a tomb. Its chilling, really.  And in the basement of the church you can see the altar where St. Francis said mass, and his robe  and rope he wore, and the chalice he used for his mass.

After the tour we headed up to the fortress above the city.  We didnt go in because it costs money but the sights from up there are amazing.  So we hung out there for awhile and then headed back to the hotel for lunch.  After lunch I walked around for a bit, went into a few of the stores to buy souvenirs and get gelatto, and then went back for a nice little nap. it was great since we walk everywhere. (not complaining, just sayin!) im hoping im workin off all this gelatto/wine/5 -course- meal business). We had our reflection and dinner, and then afterwards Ms. Ott and Ms. Elizabeth treated us all to drinks at the bar.  So we stayed for awhile there and then when they closed tab,we went out and got cheap wine (1.50 euros for a bottle, i know i know, were sinking low).  the plan was to go back up to the fortress and hang out up there since it was so beautiful, but there was a mix up. They all left without me and my friend so we decided we walk all the way up there by ourselves and meet them there. Wellll, what do you know we finally get up there (long, steep walk) and of course they are not there.  The fortress looked awesome at night but it was really eerie and us 2 girls were all alone, and then a black cat started following us and we kind of freaked out. (it followed us all the way back to the hotel-weird.)

Anyway, we ended up just parkin it on some cool steps in one of the street alleys to finally drink our wine, but then we heard the rest of the group down the street who got the same idea. Thanks for the heads up. that was fun for awhile, then we went to bed.

the next morning we had breakfast at 6 45..that one hurt. Turns out 1.50 bottle of wine isnt too great for the head. Anyway we left for the 45 minute walk to the valley below where the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli is.  This one was even bigger than the last.  It was pretty special though because it is built around the PORZIUNCOLA, which is the chapel that St. Francis recieved the Stigmata and then 2 years later died a few steps outside of it coming out from vespers.  So the porziuncola is a tiny little chapel inside of the church.  Its really cool looking though because it is really old looking, but the big church around it is newer. We had mass there and then we got a tour of the place.  It was awesome because we also got to see the rose garden.  This rose garden was once thornbushes and when Francis was being tempted by the devil,he threw himself in it to keep himself from sinning, and the thornbush turned into roses without thorns.And they are still like that today, i saw them! If you try to dig them up and plant them elsewhere, they won’t grow.  Right by the rose garden, there is a statue of St. Francis, and he is holding a basket with doves in it.  At first glance you think the doves are a part of the statue until you see them moving! They are real doves that sit in his basket and they never leave. Sometimes they fly around, but they always come back, it was so cool!  After the tour we all got bus passes to take us back up to the town, but i thought i could just run and take a quick picture of the church, but i had to go back real far to get the whole thing in, and as i was walking back toward the bus stop i saw the last one get on, the doors close and the bus leave. really cool. So i had to wait for the next one, even though it took forevr, i would have gotten up there faster if i just walked. o well..Anyway we went back and had lunch then got ready for the hike up to the Hermitage of St. Francis, all the way on top of the mountain. This was a really long walk, and so so so steep, even though it was a windy day, everyone was sweating so bad.  But its worth the hike.  Its so quiet and peaceful up there, and you see all the little caves that Francis would go and spend days in praying and fasting. And his little stone bed he would sleep on.

When we finally made it back down we had about an hour to do whatever then we had another conference and dinner.  This night was low key, i played cards for a little bit and then went to bed at 9:30 pm! i cant even remebver the last time i went to bed that early haha

The next morning we had Mass at St. Clares, and then lunch, and right after that we packed up and got on the bus for our next stop: Siena!  ok here are the highlight pictures, theres alot of them, but they are all so beautiful, i coldnt eliminate anymore of them. And for some reason they are in order backwards, so the first day pictures are the last ones down at the bottom. but theyre captioned so you can figure it out (hopefully) enjoy!

AND thankyou everybody for reading this! I just reached 1,500 views on my blog, so thats pretty exciting!

The Journey to The Eternal City

I have SO much to write about, im hoping i remember it all! I’m just going to start from the plane ride from Ireland to Rome.  We all traveled in a group together (15 of us!) and surprisingly all made it and  none of our luggage got lost! We didn’t get there until 8 pm on Friday night but we had to wait there for one other person before we all traveled to the hotel together.  We werent allowed to check into Residencia Candia, which is where we will be living all semester, until the next day.  So we thought it would be okay if we just got ONE hotel room, put all our luggage in it and then go out around the streets of rome all night and crash in the hotel if we have to.  bad idea. Clearly we thought we were invincible and nothing could get in the way of this plan succeeding, or even that we would be able to go carousing around all night.  kids these days…. So we pool our money and get a taxi to this hotel for a decent price…then he goes and drops us off and leaves us at the wrong hotel.  things went downhill from there. this will surely be in the books as one of the worst nights of the trip, if not my life (over dramatic, its fine).  Anyway so we roll all our luggage around until we find the right hotel that we reserved for that night.  This was chosen specifically because the lobby was not in view of the stairs up to the room. so….we were going to sneak 12 people’s luggage(3 bags a person) up to a 3 person room. (the 3 other guys had the brilliant idea to get a hostel for the night, i wish i did.) so..36 bags up to ONE room.piece of cake. Well..i wish we researched if there was an elevator or not, but that wasn’t our concern.  So the three guys went and checked in while we hid around the corner in a big cluster with all the baggage (not sketchy at all).  Then those same three guys had to carry each and every bag up to the room, up 4 flights of stairs –  the bell boy asked them if they were going to war.  That took awhile so we just waited for them around the corner, and then we all went to a nearby restaurant got some delicious pizza and wine and discovered that we were actually tired and would not in fact be able to stay up all night.  this was around 1 am now..so we go back to the hotel and sneak in and up the stairs in twos.  the room was TINY and the luggage was taking up the majority.  So we started stacking it to provide sleeping room.  We had the night table on top of the tv, the  suitcases in the tub, in the closet, EVERYWHERE. so everyone came up except three guys who decided it would be too stuffy so they wandered off, we had no idea where. now we were only 9 in the room, things were looking up, even though we still had the other 3 guys luggage, which we assumed they would come back for.  Well, all 6 of us girls squeezed like sardines onto the two beds we pushed together and then the boys were on the floor.  We all settled in for the night and fell asleep when all the sudden we were awakened by the worst sound in the world (at least for me)…throw up. yep, the stomach flu had not finished wreaking havoc on our group, it literally traveled across the channel with us. So one of the girls was getting sick all night long, and right after she would come back to bed, one of the guys gets up and runs to the bathroom. This went on for the rest of the night…back and forth between the two of them. I hope you can all imagine being squeezed into a tiny italian hotel room, loaded with bags everywhere, and people everywhere and 2 of them alternating turns at the toilet throwing up.  When i imagine hell, thats what it was. i was laying there in the bed with my sweater wrapped around my mouth, literally suffocating myself so i wouldnt get it! Then i opened the window cause it got real stuffy if you can imagine. then got yelled at cause now its too cold. I would take on the cold any day over breathing that in.  finally at 8 am i couldnt take it anymore so i went out an slept in the hallway of the hotel. And here we go again- shameful.  no one really lasted long after that and about 10 we were all up and realized we didnt have an exit strategy. great! so three of the girls got up to go out and got stopped and asked for the room number they were staying. 2 of them bolted out the door,a nd the one who got caught just said i dont know and headed back upstairs.  So the three guys went to provide a decoy and talk to the guy at the front desk as a few mroe scuttled out.  theresa and i went out and i just started speaking loud spanish so they wouldnt think i was a part of the american group.  it worked.  the other girl who was already caught, got caught again and they asked for her name and she said Ferri, her real last name, and he looked in the book and then back at her and said,” ah ok ok, good, go ahead, sorry!” pretty darn lucky. Theresa, God Bless her, was outside prayin like crazy, thinking the worst.  We finally all made it out and the three guys had to bring down all 36 of the bags. they were not happy at this point, and the hotel guy had figured it all out and was yelling at us in italian as we ran and hid around the corner again.  Well, the other guys who went wandering around never came back for their bags, so we had 9 extra suitcases, backpacks and dufflebags to carry along with all of ours.  Oh, and the wintry weather that was raging in Europe for so long had come to an end, yet we were still wearing our scarves, and heaviest coats and layered pants.  So we went through the buzzing city sweating so bad and looking ridiculous with overloads of baggage.  it was an unforgettable walk.

We finally made it to our apartment where they happily greeted but i was so tired and feeling gross at this point i just wanted to punch everyone who was smiling in the face. everyone in the group felt that way (so dont judge me!), we were all MISERABLE! but once we got taken to our rooms and showered, i instantly felt better. After all, it was a beautiful day in Rome!

So we had the after noon to do whatever we wanted until 3pm, when we all met up to go get gelatto.  Italians eat gelatto ALL THE TIME. doesnt matter how cold it is,they just grab a quick one at any time of day. And the flavors are dangerously delicious. Then We met Mr. noronha, Ms. Ott and Elizabeth, who are the ones running the program over here. It was on them so it was awesome!  then we walked around the corner to the Vatican.  Now, I was fortunate to go there before, but it doesn’t matter, the first time you come through the columns and walk out into St. Peter’s Square, you just get the chills. there are so many people everywhere, and groups of nuns walking this way, and priests walking that way, and the Swiss guards in their colorful outfits (fun fact: they were designed by Michael Angelo).  So after you take all that in, then you get a whole other smack when you first walk into the basilica.  you feel like a tiny speck, thats how big it is.  And every bit of wall is covered with beautiful “paintings”, that arent really paintings, but mosaics, made with really tiny little stones! Its breathtaking! To your right is the Pieta, which is amazing in real life.  So we just took alot of pictures, and then got confession. They have a whole row of confessionals, each with a priest that speaks a different language! its awesome, and then we got to have mass back behind the main altar, and there we are, all sitting there with a whole group of diplomats, all wearing their badges, and Tommy, (my irish friend) looks over at the woman sitting next to him. What do you know, its the former president of ireland, who just recently left office. unbelievable! So he started a conversation with her, and got a picture with her!

After we left the basilica, we went to this awesome restaurant where we got to experience how the Italians dine.  It is a sacred thing.  it isn’t a rushed ordeal EVER, and you do not interrupt it. (some students got in trouble cause they got up to smoke in between courses. oops!)  They usually eat dinner around 8 or 9, but they made a special exception at the restaurant for the Americans because they know we eat around 6 pm, which they consider way too  early.  no one else is any restaurant at that point.  Anyway, the restaurant they treated us to is one that many of the bishops and cardinals come and eat at, so it was a real treat.  We actually saw them all coming in when we were on our way out.  At dinner, there is always bread and red wine on the table.  At the nice places, it is a Bruscetta bread!And then it is a 4 or 5 course meal, normally not ever less than that.  So it starts out with a pasta (pesto, a la carbonara, a lasagna-any kind!), and then you get a salad, and then you get potato and meat, and then you get dessert.  It is ALOT of food..but always so good!

Anyway after dinner we didnt really know where to go out, since we don’t know the city yet, so we found the cheapest bottles of wine (1.89 euros), and found a little piazza nearby and kind just drank there before going back to bed!

 

The next morning, we got to sleep in and then we got a tour of our neighborhood. We saw the nice cheap grocery store, the laundromat, the 24 hour bakery (amazing) and all the other little markets, stores etc. everywhere.  Then we kind of hung out the rest of the day, and then they took us out to a very fancy restaurant for dinner. it was amazing- really delicious! After that we all went and bought some wine and went to the bridge of the castillo di angelo.  There was a guy playing the guitar on an amp and it was really good. So we hung out there, taking in the sights, the bridge over the Tiber river all lit up, and the vatican all lit up, so much beauty in one place!  After that we went back t the apartments to pack.  Were going on a week trip to Siena and Assisi! So we still have not settled down anywhere; were still living out of a small bag and going on week 3 of traveling around!

The American Stauntons meet the Irish Stauntons

On Tuesday morning, after about 2 1/2 hours of sleep, we woke up to be ready at 9 am for our trip to Ballintubber.  Stephen, ( They go by first names around here, and they get insulted if you call them mr. or mrs because it makes them seem like theyre 80 years old.  So Mr. and mrs. Salmon are Stephen and Danielle to us.) who offered to drive us didnt come down til 11, so steve and i waited in the living room with Martin, who is a carpenter friend of Stephen and so so funny.  He made us tea and talked to us for about 2 hours until Stephen was ready to go.  We learned alot from this guy. He told us all about Ireland’s econommic problems they are in right now. And about the Dole, they’re unemployment benefit program, which is absolutely ridiculous!  Steve and i found later on while we were traveling that this Dole is what everyone is talking about. We also found out that morning that a local man died in a car crash, he was the one who delivered  the turf to all the surrounding houses. Well if anyone has ever seen Waking ned Divine (side note: the actor from that movie, his character was Michael, the best friend of jackie, just died! so sad..) anyway, if you have seen that movie you have a pretty good idea of an irish funeral.  After the crash, everyone in the town was at the pub all mourning together with the family.  And then when the funeral actually came around there was no space anywhere to even park your car. It was so packed for miles down the road. Everyone comes to the wake and the funeral.  And then right after the funeral they all walk over to the pub and they have the greatest “crack” ever. they all stay there til the early morning hours celebrating his life with the family.  It really is an awesome thing to see.  Anyway, so we were passing the funeral crowds as we were driving out to ballintubber. It should have only been an hour drive but Stephen being the nice man he is made a stop through Cong so we could see where “The Quiet Man” was filmed. We took a nice little picture outside the bar thats featured in the movie.  Finally we got to Ballintubber.  Steve and i went with no address of our relative Sean Mchugh, and the number we had wasnt the right one.  So he just simply dropped us off on the side of the road and that was it.  this was going t be an interesting day.

Now Ballintubber is a tiny little town.  There really wasnt much around except for the Abbey, the pub across from the Abbey and some houses.  So we went into the Abbey, which is actually very beautiful, and it attracts many tourists every year because of how old it is.  We were the only ones there that day so we just wandered through the church then went out to the graveyard where there are some really old old graves, it was very cool.  I saw alot of Walsh, Stauntons and Mchugh, so i dont really know which ones were related to us.  They also had really neat stations of the cross set up around the property.  While we were wandering around we saw an old priest arrive so we went and asked him if he knew of a Sean Mchugh. Of course he does! he is a lecture at the Abbey!  So he made us go watch a video about the abbey while he called him up.  he came back with his house and cell number but told us that he was at work until 5 30 so we would have to wait util then.  So since it was getting time to eat we decided to go to the bar.  We each had a nice cup of soup and a turkey sandwich, and a guiness of course.  Steve had a pint, which i was going to order too, but on the drive over Stephen told us that for the traditional irish people its shameful for girls to be drinking guiness from pints.  he said its normal now in the big cities and the young girls always do it, but the older irish people really look down on that.  So from now on, i order a Glass of guiness please, which is half pint.  the barmaid at the ballintubber pub agreed.  Speaking of the barmaid, she was awesome.  after we ate, we asked her if there was anything else around that we could go see, she said nope, we’d seen it all. So we decided to stay there at the bar. Steve and i talked for a long time, and then got to talking to her too.  She knew who we were..the stauntons from america.  turns out everybody in thsi town knows everything about everyone.  We told her were reltaed to Sean mchugh but were not really sure how.  She told us all the different family connections, and called up Rita on the phone for some verification.  All the locals started coming in and they all got to talkig to us too. they of course all knew who Sean was, and also who our other relatives in ballintubber are.  It was something i cant really explain the feeling of, how we just got dropped off on the road and the first palce we go into, we get all our family history from the barmaid and the rest of the locals.  When the rest of them left we just stayed with her and she was one of those older women who just love to talk and talk and talk and give you all the details about everything going on in the world. She was telling us all about the tinkers haha that was funny..and then going on about the Dole, and then about the youth today and how theyre worse than ever, this world is goin down she says. She was one funny lady.  After a few hours we got a call from sean who was on his way back from work.  he picked us up with his son david, who we then dropped off at his gaelic football practice.  I remember David, and he remembers us too and how shy he was when we visited.  We went to see our great grandfather Dennis and Agnes Staunton’s house, which is still standing there, although covered in moss. We went back to Sean’s house and he made us tea, and we kind of just talked about our family and how everyone is doing back home, and he asked about everyone.  Then he offered to drive us to Westport, which was where we were going that night cause we heard its a good place for nightlife.  (We heard right)  So he dropped us off with a kiss goodbye.  Once in west port we decided we needed a place to stay for the night.  the hostel was closed so we tried a few B&Bs.  Everywhere we went we asked for the cheapest room they have, just for the night.  We didint think anything of it but then we kept getting rejected we thought something must be going on.  then we walk into a hotel and see hearts everywhere and red and pink decorations and remember its valentine’s day.  All makes sense now.  We finally got a good deal, dropped off our bag and found a nice little restaurant where we shared a nice little Valentine’s day Meal, with heart cookies to top it off.  Thats when the real part of the night started.  We heard of a pub called mac malloys, which is co owned by one of the Chieftan’s, where they play Irish music every night.  We really got there on a great night.  the place was packed, but the music was incredible.  there were about 5 older men and one young girl. 2 fiddles, 2 accordians, a banjo, a mandolin and a guitar.  these people jammed for hours, and they all switched around instruments at the end of every set; they could each play everything! It really made me want to practice my whistle more.  During the session, a few people in the crowd stood up with a song of their own, which the band would then accompany them on.  It was such a great night.  You cant beat that authentic irish music, all instrumental.  After the bar shut down we went back to rest for the big day tomorrow: the climbing of Croagh Patrick!

next morning we got up at around 9 30 and Justin (the taxi driver from letterfrack) had just dropped off a few of my friends who wanted to go around West Port for the day.  Since he was in town, he said he would give us a lift to Croagh Patrick.  Free of charge; good man.  So we got dropped off and stupidly didnt have anything to eat before we started the trek up the mountain.  If anyone has never heard of this mountain before- look up a picture of it. Its the pointiest mountain youve ever seen.  Boy do you feel it in your calves.  We were the only ones on the way up, except for maybe 2 other couples.

this mountain was the one St. patrick climbed up and made a 40 day pilgrimage up there.  many people do it every year, many dont make it all the way to the top, because it is a real challenge.  The climb starts out okay, steep, butokay.  And then you hit the part that is just stones.  Its really slippery to be walking up and every step you make, the stones give way under your feet.  Its scary.  there were a few different points during the way up that you are literally climbing it, using your hands and feet.  plus this day was really windy and foggy, so even though it wasnt raining, we were wet because of the fog we were in.  It took us about 2 hours to make it up there, because when your walking that long on a constant steep angle, you’ve GOT to stop for some breathers. When we finally got to the top, it was so foggy we couldnt even get a view!  we couldnt see anything over the side of the mountain, so we started our way down again, which went much faster but that was scary too.  you feel like your going to go tumbling down head first.  Steve and i made a little song to the tune of “She;ll be coming around the mountain when she comes”.. —”We’ll go rolling down the mountain when we fall”, vs. 2: theyll be no one there to save us when we fall”, vs 3: “The other climbers will take pictures as we fall” and so on and so on. it made the time go a bit faster..

we finally got down and were reeeeally hungry/ thirsty so we walked along the road until we found a nice little restaurant.  We got a hearty meal in us and a good ol guiness and  set out on the road again.  now its about a 15 minute drive back into Westport from the mountain..since we just did the climb, we werent really up to making the trek so we hitch hiked into town. A nice family from Dublin picked us up and dropped us off right where we needed them to! Soon enough Justin was there to bring us all back to letterfrack.  We had some soup and then Steve was off to catch his bus to Galway. It was a great 2 days him! Who knows maybe we;ll see eachother in Rome!

 

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