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Five Days in Venezuela, December 1999

A Roman Interlude

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It's a long story but I'll make it short. Alitalia would fly me from Abu Dhabi to Milan to catch a flight to Caracas the following day, but they opted to put me up in a hotel in Rome and fly me there at their expense. Apparently, there was no room at any of their hotels they could use in Milan whereas there was space on their planes to Rome and hotel rooms there.

I would leave from outside the Alitalia agency in Abu Dhabi at 11:30 at night to take Alitalia's bus to Dubai, 2 hours, and board the plane there at 3:45 a.m. Arrival in Milan was at 7:30 a.m. and the plane for Rome was just shortly thereafter. I'd be in Rome at ten and have the whole day there. The next day, Alitalia would fly me back to Milan to catch my flight for Caracas. What could be more perfect?

Another airline perhaps? For starters, the plane was delayed 3 hours leaving Dubai. At scheduled time of takeoff I was still at the check-in counter in Dubai waiting for my ticket to be re-written since I was going to miss my connection to Rome. Had I brought my mobile I could have called Bobbi when she got up for work in the morning and told her, hey, it's sunrise and I'm just getting on the plane. I'd been up all night but slept little on the plane, and arrived in Milan late morning. My flight to Rome was now at 1:30 in the afternoon. I was landing in Rome at 3 but it was after 4 before I got my bags. There were no instructions on how to get transport to the hotel provided by the airline. Airport information told me to go to the taxi rank and give the driver my voucher. This confused a Roman taxi driver no end, but at least one of the other drivers told me where Alitalia's tour office was. They told me there it would be 20 minutes before a bus would come. It was more like an hour, and it was dark in Rome when we pulled into the city traffic. So much for my day in Rome. At least, at that hour, the monuments were lit up.

Although my time to enjoy it was now limited, the evening I spent in Rome was superb, in part because of the memories stirred from my previous youthful visit 25 years ago. I was last there was with Bobbi, a 23-year old beauty who had just landed in Rome having flown directly from Texas mainly on faith that I'd be there. I had hitched half the length of Italy and hung out all night in the train station to meet her at Fiumico Airport in the morning, to which I had now returned (though first time I'd flown there myself). Bobbi and I had started our trip through Europe and the Middle East in the venerable city, and had lingered about a week there. I remember tramping through the ruins of the Forum and throwing coins in the Trevi fountain and walking from monument to monument, visiting as many as we could possibly find. I remember being incredibly impressed at the splendor that was Rome by day, though Bobbi and I economized by night, sometimes nearing bedtime having not eaten the entire day. At one pension the kindly patrons took pity on poor starving Bobbi and boiled us up some spaghetti which they served us plain, but at least it put something in our stomachs. It was not an entirely kind gesture. When we checked out, we found the two unsolicited plates of spaghetti on our bill, at about the standard restaurant price.

Now I was in Rome in much different circumstances. The hotel to which I was taken was called the Forum, since it overlooked the ruins of the same name. The ruins were floodlit but were sealed off from incursion, though it's possible there was a way in by day. I poked around all the vantages I could find through the gratings on the streets looking in, but all was deserted and walled off. I ended up at the Coliseum, looking smaller and more in the city center than I remembered it. Like the famous stupa that Bobbi and I had visited outside Katmandu in the 70's, I returned to find that the city had grown and swallowed it.

What's more, the Coliseum was cloaked in scaffolding, as were many monuments in the fori. I suppose it's great that Rome was getting a face lift. Years of pollution and vandalism were finally being addressed, perhaps corrected. But on my walk about town, I found scaffolding on almost every monument I had cherished as a youth. Workmen were busy with floodlights on the Arc of Constantine, even at night. The amazing edifice of Vittoriano with its panoply of statues was permanently sealed by a grating across its expansive staircase. Was it always so? I couldn't remember. I made my way through crowds of shoppers and commuters to the Piaza Navona, which I remember being disappointed with first time there because it was less significant than I had expected (like the tiny mermaid in Copenhagen harbor). Now it was worse; the fountain was dry, and other monuments in the square were obscured by scaffolding. I paused there over a glass of wine to wait out a passing rainstorm which sent the mimes packing and scattered the shoppers from the open-air booths selling Christmas ornaments. But the worst was what I saw on my proverbial return to the Trevi fountain, a few blocks beyond the Pantheon. The fountain was dry and covered in netting. And someone had taken the coin I had thrown there, and all the other coins that all the other people expected would be waiting there for their promised return. When I threw the coin on that summer's day with my future wife by my side, I had thought it unlikely that I would ever return to that spot. And I was right. As the scaffolding showed, there is never any going back. Now my hopeful memory has been supplanted by the one from the cold wet night, when the fountain was like an old woman caught unawares at her vanity.

Clearly it was time to stop touring and eat. I was tired and jetlagged and going on reflex. I made my way back to the elegantly staid Forum and dined on Alitalia's account at the rooftop restaurant, to the music of a pianist and synthesizer artist, who played every Hollywood hit ever sung by an Italian. I had an indescribably scrumptious pasta followed by a veal course, accompanied by a red wine and a beer (at the waiter's suggestion; what, no gaz? He had exclaimed. To my surprise Alitalia paid for that too.). This was followed by "nuts" ice cream. I was never presented a bill for it. I was supposed to get lunch, dinner, and breakfast the next day on the airline. I'd missed lunch when I missed my flight that morning, and there was no breakfast since the following morning a car came for me at 5 a.m. to whisk me back to the airport to rush me back to Milan just in time to catch my flight to Caracas. Fortunately, that flight too departed later than expected, which is probably how my bags made the plane. I had been concerned at the close connection give the track record Alitalia was developing in my book, but my bags made it to Caracas. The flight itself left a bit to be desired. The English soundtrack on the films shown was so jumpy as to be almost incomprehensible, and at the end it was incomprehensible to me, because they finally just substituted the Italian sound track for the English sound. They could have compensated by at least plying the English speaking passengers with booze to make them sleep through the films, but there was no drinks service between meals. The crew instead retired behind the bulkhead and smoked cigarettes with curtains drawn, having left a cart in the aisle with fruit juices and cokes on it to just barely appease the passengers.

It was probably just as well to be perfectly sober for arrival in Caracas from what I was reading in my Lonely Planet guide.

The next part of the story - Day Zero: Landing in Caracas

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Last updated: December 23, 1999