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Monday, 01 May 2006

On The Road To?

Written by Rick Robiar
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The problem was, I had written down the address, but I didn’t have it on me.  I thought I did. I was sure I knew where I was going.  That’s the strange thing about all of this.  One can feel so confidently on target, yet one is lost.

Maybe it’s hard for you to believe that on my first trip to Europe I lost my destination.

My girlfriend was taking a trip to Italy and she asked me to meet her in Palermo, Sicily.
Not wanting to reveal my lack of adventure, nor my wide-eyed fear of flying, I casually accepted.  I had two months to figure out how I was going to tackle crossing the great Atlantic.

My first order of business was obtaining a passport.  I strolled over to the post office and proceeded to have them take the worst picture of my entire life. I worried Customs would stop me for exporting excessive ugliness.  But solace embraced me when I realized I would be using this photo to internationally identify myself for only the next ten years.  (Thank God for my ability to occasionally see the big picture!)

Next plan of action was deciding what to bring.  It was a three week trip, so I packed accordingly.  I stuffed 50% of my wardrobe into two big suitcases and a bulging, bursting, backpack.  It was too difficult to decide what to read so I put all eight books under consideration into a large plastic bag and used that as my second carry on.  Due to my allergies to wheat, dairy and citrus I also made sure I had an assortment of snacks: six energy bars, two 77-proof dark chocolate bars, bananas, grapes, granola, hummus, a big bag of baked tortilla chips, and 16 quarts of rice milk.  I realize that seems like a lot of rice milk, but it’s only 1 case, and I would need enough for three weeks. At my usual consumption rate of a quart a day, I would be depriving myself of quite a bit of rice milk!

imageSomehow, the months of trip preparation became weeks, days, hours.  Actually, all of the packing I’ve described began three hours before plane departure. After staying up all night until I was exhausted, confused, wired, and filled with white-knuckle flyer fear,with  just sixty minutes to go , I was finally ready!  The taxi arrived, we loaded up and I was headed for the airport.



The first unfortunate mishap occurred before I even reached the airport.  We must have hit too many pot holes.  We arrived, the cab driver popped open the trunk, and we both noticed the white rice river that had engulfed his spare tire and my suitcases.  My ill-fated case of rice milk had been crushed by a thoughtless tire iron.  My dairy replacement, which was needed to support me in a cow-infested environment, was now a casualty of big city travel.

I pulled the case out of the trunk, leaking and spraying, took one last look and chucked it into the nearest trash barrel.   The driver had a roll of paper towels and we mopped up as best we could, and then I dragged my luggage into the men’s room and gave it a bath.  Ten minutes before departure I arrived at my gate where the attendant pleasantly informed me that my plane had been delayed…. seven hours!  I plowed through a lot of snacks in those seven hours.  Energy bars without rice milk was heretofore unthinkable, but I somehow managed.  Funny, what you can endure when life throws obstacles in your way.

Boston to Paris, Paris to Rome, Rome to Palermo. Hop on the bus that says Palermo Centrale.  Bing, bang, boom.  A delay here and there, a rice milk shower or two, but other than that, things were clicking along well.  Day turned to night.  At some point I realized it was time to pull out the address of the apartment in Palermo.  I checked my jacket pocket: nothing.  Wallet, jeans, books, bags, wallet again.  I checked and rechecked.  Everything was there except the name, street, and number I’d scribbled on a piece of paper just before I left my apartment back home.  Eight pounds of snacks and airplane food began to rumble in my queasy stomach.  A heavy rain began to fall.  On occasion the bus would make a stop and people marched on and off.  From my seat, I peered out the door, fully expecting my girlfriend to be standing there, saying: “I knew you’d lose the address!  This is it!  Get off now!”

ImageThe luggage storage compartment was on the lower right side of the bus and with each stop the compartment was opened and departing passengers pulled their belongings off.  Since I was seated to the left, about halfway back from the driver, the only way I could make sure my luggage wasn’t being stolen was to stand up in the center aisle and look menacingly out the window pretending I had infra-red eyes that could see in total darkness.  While doing this I hovered over the heads of seated passengers, whose concerned, suspicious glances moved over my pale, unstable figure.  Each time the bus stopped, my impatience grew.

Had I already passed the place I was supposed to be going to?   I knew the meaning of knowing nothing in a whole new way. I was now completely left to my own, intuitive, travelers instincts.  I felt my right brow raise as I began to violently turn my head to the right, to the left, and then to the right again, in faster and faster repetitions.  As the bus roared on I was determined to notice every detail of the wet, dark landscape.  My goal was to pick up any psychic signal that would trigger a bio-chemical mechanism inside my brain which would somehow morph into an internal GPS system.  At one point I think I heard myself whimper.

For whatever reason, my previously mentioned GPS system said it was time to go. As the bus slowed down I approached the driver and, for the 47th time, asked in my best Italian accent: “This Palermo Centrale?”  For the 47th time he spoke incomprehensively as he made a bunch of hand and arm gestures, first to the door, then the road, myself and my seat.  I made my move toward the folding doors but they had already closed.  A rush of indignity filled my lost soul.  I turned and looked at the bus driver and said in perfectly useless English: “Please open the door!”  The once reserved, paternal look on his face made a slow transformation to concern.  He began to look at other passengers, perhaps for support.  People began to stand up and move toward me.  A rather large-bellied compact elderly woman managed to strain out the words: “You have more time.”



imageIn hindsight, I understand why she left her seat and began pulling at my arm as  I struggled with her to maintain my balance, while protecting the position of my new safe haven in the bus stairwell.  She was trying to help the crazy foreigner who insisted he get off of a bus in the middle of nowhere in pitch black darkness, during a rain storm. Oh, and he wanted his luggage as well.  These folks would have none of it.  Suddenly it seemed as if every passenger on the bus was standing in the center aisle, beckoning me to return to my seat, as if they collectively sensed the urgency of preventing this complete travel moron from  getting out the door.  The sea of waving arms and the cacophony of Italian gave me the distinct impression I was the protagonist in a Roman Polanski movie. I increased my pleading with the bus driver.  With quick, tense glances at me and the mob that was forming behind him, the driver took a deep breath, gripped the steering wheel and slammed his foot on the gas pedal.  No American idiot was going to kill himself on his shift.  This was his bus.

On we rolled.  Passengers began to return to their seats.  Defeated in my attempt to free myself from safety, I headed back as well.  In unmistakable English, I heard the words: “Where are you going?” Seated cross legged to my left was a well dressed man with a briefcase on his lap beneath his folded arms.  His demeanor, glasses, and short cropped hair reminded me of three things I wasn’t: calm, cool and collected.

“Do you know where you’re going”?  He asked again.  Before I could answer, I had a successive chain of thoughts spill into my mind: Who does this guy think he is?  How dare he ask a complete stranger such a blunt question??  How obnoxious, how rude, how unfriendly!!!  OH, THANK GOD!!   SOMEONE WHO SPEAKS ENGLISH!  I’m back in the game!!!  “Well,” I began.  “It’s in Palermo, I just forget what section.”  He nodded and asked the name of where I was staying.  My placid, wet-eyed, blank stare made it perfectly obvious I had no idea.  Then I noticed the cell phone clipped to his trouser belt.  I suddenly realized I had an ace in the hole.  There had been one piece of information I had remembered to bring along, but it had never occurred to me that I could ask to use someone’s cell phone. From my well searched belongings I procured the phone number of the English proprietor who owned the apartment where my girlfriend was waiting for me. I felt a surge of Einstein in me. Within a few minutes, this fellow tracked down my bed for the night.

Moral of the story?  If someone’s waiting for you, always know where you’re going; if someone’s not waiting for you, always know where you’re going; don’t ever take a case of rice milk to Europe; and don’t watch too many Roman Polanski movies.


©Rick Robiar


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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