Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy

July 5th, 2003

Current Location - Pamplona, Spain
Local Currency - Euro (Ä1 = $1.15us)
Language - Spanish
Temperature - 70ish
Song defining this leg of the trip - ?

It takes two to tango. But in our case, there were 4 of us. Some people I met at the hostel were heading out for tango lessons in Buenos Aires which sounded like fun. Buenos Aires is known for tango for some reason. No one could tell me exactly why, but tango is everywhere, so it seemed only fitting to go for lessons. The lessons actually went pretty well.

My last night in Buenos Aires, I was able to get out to a few clubs with some other people who had just arrived. For the 2 days prior, people had been telling me how awesome the clubs were. This would be followed by them asking me which ones I think I'd like to go to on Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Then I'd remind them I was leaving on Wednesday. Then they'd remind me that nothing happens until Thursday. Yes, thank you, I know this. But there were a couple clubs open and we were able to find them. A favorite called La Ciegale and a drum-n-bass club were open, and both pretty good.

I got in late, and of couse slept late, woke up just in time to catch my 2pm flight. Seems easy, doesnt it. Well, the hostal called the Milhouse will do that to you. Its a non-stop type of place. Bad for your health, actually.

Leaving Buenos Aires, I headed out down Ave 9 de Julio, which is actually the widest street in the world. 20 lanes wide. It will take a person 2 or 3 cycles of the lights to walk across it. It took me 2 when I crossed to go to the ATM.

The 12 hour flight to Madrid was just fine. After having done 14 hour bus rides, it seemed like cake.

However, the real shock happened upon arrival. First off, I went to go look in to a flight to Pamplona, which the lady in the travel agent in La Paz assured me were $50 (she looked it up, but couldnt book it). I got there, to find that flights were about Ä170. Yikes. Do they know how long you can live on that in Bolivia? I asked if it was cheaper to go tomorrow. She said yes, and began to check. If the difference was more than a hotel, I'd stay in Madrid. I didnt matter, the flights were booked. I couldnt wait 2 days, as everything then would be booked solid as far as hotels. I had no guide book and the idea of fussing with a bus without one really didnt apeal to me. So I bought the bullet and bought the ticket. Europe is going to be expensive.

I went to go to the airport cafeteria to grab a bite to eat. The cafeteria had a large poster with a mexican guy in a large sombrero. Next to him, a photo of 2 burritos, and the words "2 burritos - Ä 6." The guy in the sombrero is laughing a hearty smile - a smile so huge its comical. I wonder if he is laughing at us, the people who are paying about 7 bucks for what would be 40 cents in his country. Europe is going to be expensive.

I arrived in Pamplona, and being armed with the "LetsGo Europe" guide book I bought in the airport after my ticket and Ä 6 burritos, I asked the cabbie if he knew of any hotels that might have something open. He just shook his head in dismay that anyone would come to Pamplona a mere 3 days before Running of the Bulls and expect to get a hotel. He took me to a place he thought might have something, but expected we'd be driving around for a while. Sure enough, the hotel had a room, but it was reserved for tomorrow night. I'd be able to move in, but I'd have to find something for tomorrow. At Ä45, it is the same cost as a month in my hotel in La Paz. Europe is going to be expensive.

(If you're planning a trip, let me say that the LetsGo guides are absolute crud in comparison to the Lonely Planet guides - in this travelers opinion)

Actually, thats not the normal cost of the hotel. Its San Fermin prices. San Fermin is the festival that surrounds the Running of the Bulls. Its the reason that I am here in Spain. In case you're not familiar, its a festival where the town parties for a week, and every morning at 8am, they let a pack of wild bulls loose through the streets. There are large fences in place to make sure the bulls run in to the bull ring. Ahead of the bulls are some humans who also like to run down this chute with the bulls. I was undecided if I would run before getting here. I decided I'd guage that once I got here. Well, I have decided against it. First off, the channels they direct the bulls down is very narrow. Not much room to hide in an emergency. Also, talking with the lady in the tourism office, she said the one main rule is that if you fall over, it is illegal to get up. You may trip others, there could be a pile-up and a lot of people get hurt/killed. I dont like that idea. The final straw was this. I was walking along the street and saw a photo of someone getting gorged by one of the bulls during the run. He was a tourist. He was about my age. The expression on his face, captured moments before he was gorged (there were a series of sequential shots taken about a second apart) showed....something. I cant say quite what. Fear? Yes. Surprise? Yes. But there was more. Something in the expression was that you could tell that until that very second, he was never thinking it would be HIM to be the one gorged. Kinda like how I felt before seeing that photo. (some photos are on that website, but not that one - click the english link).

But yes, the hotels all have 2 prices. A regular price, and a San Fermin price. The latter is anywhere between twice as much and 4 times as much. And they can do that, and people will pay it. Ä45 is actually pretty cheap, considering my timing.

As I walked around Pamplona, I really felt a little out of place. First off, this place just oozes hipness. A lot of quite trendy people, and having just jeans and tshirts to wear, I dont feel quite trendy enough. Also, it makes too much sense. People wait for green lights to cross the walks or drive through the intersections. Buses actually stop for passengers to get on and off, and they dont aim for you as you cross the road, and skim within inches of you. People have change, and things just make sense. Latin America is so out of whack that if you spend enough time there, you get a bit out of whack too. Its a bit of a culture shock to be back somewhere that logic applies.

But I also cant help this nagging feeling like I'm cheating on those people back there. Here I sit in coffee shops with marble floors, while the people of tiny places from Creel to Corozol, Caye Caulker, Carmelita, Copocabana, Caracota and Corioco are all going about their daily lives. They're still riding in the back of pick-up trucks on dirt roads. Fishing, dancing, drinking, working, and living. And I'm here. It almost seems selfish in some sort of wierd way.

I got a repreive the next morning when the people with the reservations were coming a day later and I could have my room for another night. Same thing happened again this morning. I wasnt going to take the room, as I am supposed to meet with the people selling the van, who said I could have the spare bed in it through the festival. However, I got the message they were in town just a little bit late and had paid for the room. Its alright though, it afforded me the luxury of being able to go for a run this morning in the amazing Parque de la Ciudadela. Its a huge park built around a castle from 1571. The castle and its walls and motes create a labryinth perfect for running. The motes have all dried up, so they create all these intertwined mazes of running trails. It wasnt a simple mote.

Its amazing I was able to muster any running at all, considering my sleep. I have never been crippled by jetlag before. My sleep paterns have been all over the board since arriving. Staying up until all odd hours would be fine if I were heading from here back to Buenos Aires, but coming this direction, it puts me about exactly 12 hours off where I should be.

In any case, I need to run to go catch the last bus out to the campsite where the van and its owners are at. Festival starts tomorrow.

Hope everyone had a fantastic 4th of July.


July 19th, 2003

Current Location - Pisa, Italy
Local Currency - Euro (Ä1 = $1.15us)
Language - Italian
Temperature - 70ish
Songs defining this leg of the trip

  • The Final Countdown - Europe
  • Help - Beatles
  • Novocaine for the Soul - Eels
  • Jurassic - 5
  • I'm a rainbow too - (Fat Boy Slim remix of Bob Marley)

I ran.

OK, I know I said that I wouldnít, but I did. You just donít go to Pamplona and not run.

After a couple days in Pamlona, I met up with Paul and Magali, the couple selling me their VW campervan. We took a trek out to the campsite to take a look at the van. A bit beat up, but as they said, it appears to run just fine. Should be good for getting around Europe for a few months. We hung out for a little while and made plans to meet at my hotel the next morning to head out to Chupinazo, which is the opening ceremony of the festival of San Fermin.

The first thing that I noticed when I walked outside on the first day of the festival, is that there is a uniform. White pants, white shirt, red sash. No exceptions. I had 2 books on touring Europe, both of which mention Pamplona and the festival. You would think that maybe just one book could make mention of the fact that you will feel totally out of place if you do not have this uniform. Which I did not. I had on beige shorts and a red t-shirt. So when I met up with Paul and Magali and their friends (they didnít get the memo on the uniform either), the first order of business was to buy a white t-shirt and red sash. The beige shorts would cut it. We headed off to the main square where the entire town was to ring in the start of the celebration at noon. At 11:55, everyone held a red hankerchief over their heads. At 12:00 when the bang sounded, they tied it around their necks. Great, one more part to the uniform we now need to buy. J

The festival started off with a bang, quite literally. The bang that sounded was actually a gun blast, and it gave everyone the signal to shake their champagne and shoot it in the air. Then all the people in the center got out squeeze-bottles of ketchup and mustard and began shooting them at each other, along with flour, champagne, beer and everything else you can imagine. The scarriest thing is that the smell was exactly like the basement of the house I lived in during college.

From the square, everyone migrates in to the streets for what is one of the largest parties I have ever seen. There is not a side street that is not packed with people dancing and drinking. All the bars are packed to the hilt, to the point where it is difficult to get in to or out of them, because both the bars and the streets are so crowded. People then throw buckets of water from their balconies on the partiers below, which due to the heat, is usually very welcomed.

Yes, I have to say that the party at San Fermin is one of the largest and best I have ever seen in my life. Bigger than Mardi Gras by far. And it goes 24 hours a day for a week. When you go in to town at 7am, there are clubs blaring techno, people wandering the streets drinking, and general revelry. Awesome.

The second day of the festival is marked by the first Encierro. Encierro is the actual running of the bulls. The first day there are 7 bulls that run. For the next 7 days, they add one bull a day until on the final day there are 14 bulls running. The running started years ago as a way to get the bulls from the area where they live to the bullring. One year in the 50's, someone jumped the fence and ran with them. Then more people did it, then when no one put a stop to it, it just continued and became a tradition.

So, for the first day, we decided to get seats inside the bullring. From this point, you get to see the people and bulls run in to the ring. Once the bulls enter the ring, they are led directly to the other side and in to the pen. They usually go straight, so people standing in the ring are in very little danger.

So, we were in the stands of the bullring when the gun went off, marking the start of the run. That means that in about 4 minutes (the time it takes for the bulls to go from the pen to the bullring) people and bulls will arrive. When the gun went off, everyone rose to their feet and began twirling red scarfs, sashes, or hankerchiefs and shouting. Then about 1 minute later, the first runners arrived and threw up their hands victoriously, only to be met with a large round of boos from the audience. See, if you start close enough to the bullring, you can run all the way in without seeing a bull. Then, technically, you have "ran with the bulls", but not really. So these people get boo'ed. I even boo'ed them. I wasnít running, but I thought if I was out there, I wouldnít be acting like a sissy. So, yeah, I boo'ed.

A few minutes later, the throngs of people start pouring in, and then the bulls come, and then throngs more people. It was amazing to watch. People pouring in like sands in a hourglass. The bulls ranÖ.well I'd call it more of a light trot, soÖ. The bulls trotted through the ring, and went out the door in the other side. Quite tame actually. Tons of college-aged travelers from Europe and Australia and USA ran around the ring congratulating each other, giving high-5s and pats on the back to each other. Commenting on each others bravery and machoism. Then the door to the bull pen opened back up, a bull came charging out, and they all fled like panzies. The bull that they let in to the ring was an adolescent with the tips of the horns taped up to be blunt. All the same, it was a fiesty little animal, and went charging around the ring. The locals stayed in the ring and played with it, trying to use a newspaper or piece of clothing to make it charge and then duck out of the way. Then the travelers came in to the game. Someone had told me it is very disrespectful to touch the bulls in any way, but there are no signs posted to this effect, therefore most people donít know this. Which is a shame, because most of the tourists in the ring will touch or even attempt to grab the bull. Weather you can or not, is not a show of strenght, it is a show of disrespect, and the locals in the crowd will let you know. In fact, some of the locals in the ring will let you know with a fist as well. While I can understand their anger, it should be made public somewhere so that it doesnít happen in the first place.

In any case, a series of these younger bulls were let out one by one, maybe 5 in total. To me, this part didnít seem necessary. A bunch of crazy drunken fools in a bullring playing with an adolescent bull. I liked the idea of running, but the idea of being in there with those people scared me. I can say without a doubt the people scared me more than the bulls. I saw a few people get hurt while they were in there, but no one seriously.

That night, hanging around the campground, we all remarked at how tame the run seemed. We had really thought it would be crazier. We talked about it for a little while, and once we had the wisdom that comes with the first few beers, we decided it was the best thing to do tomorrow. We ended up staying up until about 2am with a guy by the name of John-O, who had to be one of the funnier people I've met in a while. He was traveling around Europe in a campervan painted like the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard. Of course, staying up until 2am is exactly what you want to do the night before waking up at 5am to go run with a pack of large horned animals.

We caught the bus to town, and on the radio, appropriately enough was "The Final Countdown" by the band Europe. I havent heard that song since the 80s.

We arrived to the center of town at 7am (the campground was a bit of a trek) and walked towards the staging area. This is the square in the center of town where the bulls start from. Once this square fills with people, no other runners are allowed to join. The course the bulls run is just under one mile long. Most of it is lined with shops or houses or buildings on both sides. In some sections, there are fences, but people are not allowed to jump over the fence at any point either in or out of the road. The fence is actually a double fence with about 6 feet of "safety area" in between the 2 fences. So, if a runner is in danger, you can jump the first fence, but not the second one.

The square filled up at about 7:30, and we all waited anxiously. You swap stories with those near you about how long you waited to do this, or how many times you've done it before, or what you told your mother before you came. At 7:55, they allow the runners to fill the course. Obviously, if everyone is at the start and the bulls are released, you're going to have some problems. So they let everyone go 5 minutes early and pick their spot, which evens out the course. You can go wait by the door to the bullring and sprint in, but then of course, expect to get boos. We picked a spot about half way. I met a local guy who said he had done this many times. I told him I was just going to follow his lead. Then the gun sounded. My God, what am I doing here? This is nuts. I wanted to run and find the nearest fence and jump it. People were running by. Apparently, when the gun sounds, some people have second thoughts and run right to the bullring, and there they were, running by in droves. My Spaniard friend told me to wait. Then the larger and faster stampedes of people came indicating the bulls were close behind. My Spaniard friend shouted something loud and fast at me. Unfortunately, our previous conversation was in Spanish, giving him the idea that I was somewhat fluent, and that I understood the gibberish that just came out of his mouth. But I didn't. Furthermore, there was no time to ask him to "speak slowly and repeat please". The fact that he took off gave me an inkling that he said "Run!!!". The swell of human bodies rushing past you just kind of sweeps you up with it and you start running. Just then, as you're being thrown about by other runners, you notice a rather large pack of rather large bulls raging past you. The bulls are going about 20-25 MPH, which is faster than any person can run, so the idea is to run with them until they pass you, then run behind them for a bit, then drop off. These bulls were not trotting like yesterdays, they were definitely running, and I was definitely trembling. What AM I doing here!?!?!?! For a good few seconds, I thought this was one of the dumber things I could be doing. The streets are at best 15 feet wide. Which leaves single-file lanes divided as so:

  • Bulls: Middle (or where ever they please, really)
  • Danger seekers: Alongside middle, touching bulls with rolled newspaper
  • Mild seekers: Outsides of danger seekers. Not able to touch bulls, but close
  • Runners: Outsides of middle seekers. (Rick is here). Safer, but not totally safe
  • Standers: Will stand and watch bulls run by.
  • Wall-hangers: Cowering in doorways behind standers.

Do the math, this is 11 lanes of traffic in a 15-foot wide road. There is a bit of shoving going on. So, but thatís where I was. The bulls ran by me, and I slowed down once they passed and proceeded to jog to the ring. Just then, another bull came running by. Yikes, where did YOU come from!?!? I turned around in time to see another one yet coming towards where I was. And then it turned around. I stopped to watch - I didnít want to turn my back on it. Just then I heard people in the crowd scream with those shreiky screams of terror. I couldnít quite see what happened, but it didnít sound good. They just kept screaming. If someone near you is getting gorged, you are somewhat obligated to go distract the bull to save this persons life. Hit it with a newspaper or what-have-you. However, in my case, there were at least 30 people between me and this bloody action, so I decided to turn and run like crazy for the bullring. I sprinted like never before, remembering in my head the fact the bull can run at 25 MPH, andÖ.well, I cant. I can surely beat it to the bullring, where I can then jump out.

I made it to the door of the bullring, but it was jammed to the point I couldnít get through. See, people want the prestige of running in to the ring with the bulls. They knew there was another one coming, so they lined the edge of the entrance and waited. What they didnít know is that it was back there gorging someone. But there were so many people lining the doors, waiting, that the two sides of people met in the middle and blocked the doorway. Which means when this angry bull comes around the corner, it will smash in to whoever is first (ie: Rick), and then the rest of the people can run in with it. The crowd that had now gathered behind me shouted and pushed and finally broke in to the ring. I stood there, waited for the black one to run through, found my friends, then jumped over in to the stands and watched the people play with the bulls.

I read later that day, that the shrieks near me were due to a guy that was almost gorged to death by the black bull. Two heavy stabs to quad muscle in his leg, and one to the groin, plus multiple bruises and scars. The article mentioned that todays bulls were much faster and more aggressive than yesterdays. Uh, yeah, I noticed.

We left the ring and walked through the 24 hour party in the streets and headed back to the campsite. I needed to head to Barcelona the next day and Paul and Magali still needed to clear out the van of their stuff.

The next day was to be the first day of this new chapter in my trip. Getting back behind the wheel of a vehicle, getting ready to traverse and criss-cross the continent of Europe. I looked at the map that I had, and deicded it would be easier to go in to France first, rather than head for Barcelona, so thatís what I did.

Now, a few things about this vehicle and my driving it. First off, lets not forget that with the exception of the 2 times I stole trucks while in South America (and those lasted all of: a 10 meter joyride and a 2 kilometer jaunt) I haven't driven any vehicle for all of about 8 months, then I start with thisÖ.

  • A 1988 VW LT35 van. From the photos that I saw, it looked like a regualar VW van. But no. This thing is huge. It really is a massive vehicle.
  • Add to that, it is from the UK, so the steering wheel is on the wrong side. This is just plain awkward for anyone who has never driven something like this, especially in Europe, where all the other cars are the same as in the US, and they drive on the same side as in the US. So, I am driving on the wrong side of the car for the roads I am on. This also creates rather poor visibility.
  • This puts the shifter (yes, itís a manual) on my left hand side, so I find when I am trying to shift, that I grab the door most times by accident.
  • The shift pattern is strange. Not the "standard-H" you'd find on most 5 speeds. So, I have to look down at the diagram to figure out what gear I am in, then figure out what gear I want to go to. Its quite a procedure. All this, while not being used to driving, or driving sitting on this side.
  • My speedometer is in MPH and the speed limit signs are in KPH, so I have to do math or look at the tiny numbers to figure out my speed.
  • The driver is positioned in front of the front wheels. If you have never driven a vehicle like this, you cant know how strange this it. In most cars or modern vans, the front wheels are by the motor, which is infront of the driver, but in some vans and trucks, the driver sits atop (and in front of) the front wheel. Therefore, when turning on to a street, you must go a few feet past the street, then turn the wheel.
  • This vehicle is about 35% longer than your average van
  • This vehilce is about 15% wider than your average van
  • The streets in Europe are about 25% more narrow than those in the US.
With all of these factors, it is truly amazing that I did not get in to a major accident within the first 5 minutes of being on the road. But if that werent enough, I had a few more obstacles thrown in to things.
  • The massive mountains of the Pyranees.
  • Then, being the lovely countryside of Spain, there were cyclists everywhere.
  • Then the fog came. Thick fog.

I about had it. This whole driving thing was really getting to be crazy. I cant tell you how many times I asked myself what I was doing here. Just as I asked myself that when I was running with the bulls, I was asking myself that now more frequently and with more conviction just trying to master driving this beast. I can honestly describe my state of being as truly terrified at some points. With all the factors listed above to think about simultaneously, I seriously couldnít manage. Add to that, I was having a hard time reading the signs to where I wanted to go, and getting lost a lot, it was rather fustrating.

All the cities in the countryside have roundabouts. Traffic circles, if you will. There is a town about each 15km, and each town has about 3 roundabouts. This means slowing to enter them and exit them, meanwhile trying to read the signs to figure out where to go. In the US, a highway is numbered, and you can follow the signs for that number. In Europe, you follow the signs to the next semi-major town. Once you reach that town, you will have a roundabout with 3 or 4 other directions, each with a town listed as being the next major town. Quick, look at the map, find which one is the town in our direciton, wait!, shift, wait!, wrong gear!, shift properly!, look out for that car!, look out for that curb!, which road was it!?, wheres the map!?. Arragh.

The toll road in France is ridiculously expensive, but it has no roundabouts. I figured I will pay the §30 or so to take it, as I am sure whatever damage I will inflict on myself or others will be higher than that, and it is only a matter of time. In fact, in my first day of driving, it hit a total of 6 things (below, in order).

  • A gate as I was leaving the campground
  • A road marker (looks like a permanent traffic cone) in a roundabout
  • A fire truck (I just grazed it, and it wasnít my fault! - I swear!)
  • A large curb
  • A dumpster
  • A wall
The wall was the kicker. I took off pretty much the entire rear fender with that one. Yep, the van is lookin good.

Although, before I got on the super expensive toll road, I was able to look around me at a few points and say "Wow, I'm driving through the French countryside. That IS pretty darned cool". These towns that I was driving through were unchanged for hundreds of years and had what I guess people would call "old world charm". It really was cool. Well, with the exception of the French people I met.

The French people I have met on my travels in other countries have been some of the coolest. But the people I met in a village just over the border were some of the rudest. First off, I barely knew I was in France. Talk about open borders. There is no booth to stop at, not even a sign that says "Welcome to France". I got to a town and couldnít read the signs and knew I'd crossed the border.

I really needed to find an internet cafť to research insurance for the van. The "sure thing" insurance provider I had planned to use didnít offer service to Americans, so I decided to research insurance when I got to Italy in 2 days. But after the fiasco of driving, I knew I might actually need to use it today. I went to 3 shops to ask where the internet cafť in town was. Someone at the tourist office in Spain told me there was one in this village. Not only did the people in the shops not want to help, they were nasty and arrogant about it. The word "internet" is the same in about any language. When someone comes in and asks "Internet?", and points around like he is looking for it, you should be able to get the idea. I asked if they spoke English or Spanish, but the answer was a vehement "Non!!!". I cant explain my level of fustration and hatred. First off, for so long now, when someone was speaking a foreign language it was Spanish. It was strange to me for it to be something else. Furthermore, this is the most unfriendly I have had people be to me. I stormed back to my van, and thought, if I get in to an accident, screw them and their country, its their fault if I cant pay for the damages. If you'd directed me to an internet cafť, all would be fine.

In any case, this is about the time I decided that getting on the highway would be the prudent thing to do. However, once I got on to the highway, I began to overheat. Damn. Sidestreets are going to kill me, and the highways are going to kill the van. I took the lesser of two evils and stayed on the highway, stopping occasionaly to add water. Also, as with most cars, if you have an overheating problem, you can turn the heater on full blast which will cool the engine about 5%. The heater acts like a mini radiator. But when you are in a hot campervan on a hot highway in the middle of summer, having a heater on is the last thing that you want to do, but thatís what I did.

When it was all said and done, I had only gone 300 miles for the day, and that was 14 hours of driving. Thatís about 21 MPH. The bulls could have beat me here.

I ended up at a small beach town in the south of France. I donít even remember the name. It was a strange little place. Its what you might call the New Jersey of France. In any case, I found a spot on the side of the road, went out to put my feet in the ocean, came back and cooked some dinner and went to sleep for the first time in my little camper.

The next morning, I got back out on to the highway, passing through the few little side towns on the way there. For all my bitching about the difficultly of driving this beast, it really only took a day to get used to. Today I was fine and on my way. Feeling even a little brazen at times.

I got on the highway and at my first toll booth, there was a police officer waiving me over to the side. I pulled over. I have had enough French classes to be able to say with a very good French accent "Je ne parle pas Francais". Meaning I donít speak French. The officer just looked at me. Oh yeah, I guess I should tell you what I do speak. Englais o Espanol. Then he asks "De donde viennes?"Ö.. darn, of those two languages I offered, you had to pick Spanish. I explain I am from the States, traveling from Spain to Italy. He asks for my papers. Oh no. I'm going to get busted for not having insurance. I'm doomed. I'm going to jail. I show him my passport and he says "Ok". Wow, that was easy, as far as papers, thatís all he wanted. He could care less if the van is stolen or even registered. He then asks me if I have any smoke or alcohol. Nope. Then he asks again. Nope. Then, he gets buddy-buddy with me. Starts getting jolly and winking, saying "Come on, I know you smoke, you have a little, donít you?". Nope. I half expect him to take out a joint and offer it to me to see if I'll take it, or attempt to smoke it with me.

I cant say I blame him. If any vehicle has ever been more identified with a stereotype of person, it is the VW van and its association with the hippie potsmoker. And this VW Van has semi tye-dyed curtains and purple velvet on the cieling, so yeah, Rick whadda ya expect? Oh yeah, and its missing a fender in the back too. But no, its just Rick, not a hippie. So, he asks if he can go inside and look. I say sure. As he is prodding around in the inside of my van, I think to myself, I just bought this thing a couple days ago. How do even I know there are no drugs in there? I'm gladly telling him to go snoop around and it could be packed with bundles of cocaine from a past dealer who was the owner who sold the van for cheap when the cops got too close and didnít have time to remove his stash. Well, put those fears to rest, because as in the hour that I sat there, we removed the inside panels and poked around in the roof to check for drugs. Nope. Nothing.

I had planned to take 3 days to make it to Italy, but judging by mileage and distance, it would take me only 2 if I wanted to make it. I decided to break up the trip instead with a trip to Lugano, Switzerland which was only a couple hours out of the way to visit my friends I had met in Guatemala.

I made it to Lugano in good time, and looked for a phone to call my friends. Or somewhere to stop. Or anything. Arragh. In the US, when you get off the exit for a city, there is usually somewhere to park, maybe turn around, maybe even a phone. Not in Europe. There are no shoulders to the roads, and there are no parking lots. Well, there were a couple tiny ones, but nothing for the likes something the size of the van, besides, they were all full. The streets were also jammed packed. The famous Swiss Jazz Fest was going on. One of the biggest and most famous in the world. So the traffic was crazy. I drove around for an hour looking for a phone that was located anywhere near somewhere that I could park. Finally, I began to head out of town. I pulled in to the driveway of an office to turn around, and there was a car already parked in the driveway. I needed him to leave so I could turn around. I went out to ask him to move, when I noticed he had a cell phone. I beged him to use it, and he was kind enough to allow me, and I was able to have my friends come rescue me.

It was great to see Vale and Dada again after such a long time. We went back to their house for dinner and sat around catching up.

The next morning, I got in the van and got ready to head towards Italy. Dada said she would come with me to the entrance of the freeway and then walk home as I had gotten so lost last night. As we were driving, the oil light started flashing, then I started losing power, then everything just died. Nada. Zip. Zilch. I tried to re-start it, but nothing. I was on a hill in the middle of the road. We rolled the vehicle backwards in to a parking spot and walked to the nearest mechanic. I couldnít believe it was dead. I should have just gone to Italy last night. The whole reason I was here in Europe at this time was for the wedding in Pisa, and now I was dead and stranded in Switzerland. The mechanic was nice enough to walk over to the vehicle, take a look at it, tell me I was in trouble and drive us to another mechanic that new VWs better. This mechanic came over and took a look at it and said that he'd need to get it in to the garage to take a look at it. It started now, but the lights were still flashing. I had my doubts it would make it the 5 blocks to the mechanics shop. After all, it only made it 3 blocks from Dadas house. We tried and it made it, but it died once it arrived.

The guy took a quick look at it, and said it seemed like it was the head gasket. That is about §3000. Yikes, more than I paid for the van. He said he'd take a closer look for me and to come back after lunch. I told him to change the oil on it as long as he was under there.

We came back after lunch, and he said the prognosis wasnít good. He thought it was a bad head gasket, and it could be Ä3000 or it could be more. He didnít even elaborate. He just said "Its too far bad, no point fixing it" He said once you start to tear in to the engine, the price could go higher. Yikes. I asked if he thought it would make it to Pisa. He said no. Damn. So, perhaps I should abandon it here. Can we just call someone to come take it away? Oh no, Rick, didnít we tell you? In Switzerland it cost about Ä1500 to dispose of a vehicle. Are you kidding me???? Of all places to break down, the country that charges money to dispose of a car.

Ok, so I'll take the train, and come back in a week and figure out then what to do. Oh no, you cant keep it here at the shop. We'll have to charge you. Damn! This is shaping up to be a bad day.

So, Dada and I drive around the outskirts of Lugano looking for a parking spot where I can leave this wreck for a week. We find one, but itís a good 10 blocks away. We may not make it. We go back to the shop, and I realize I need to pay for the oil change. I go in and she gives me the bill $sf245!!! Thatís about $180! For what? For you to tell me I'm screwed!?!? No, $sf220 for an hour of labor at a Mercedes/VW shop, then $sf25 for the oil change. Oh, you're kidding me. Pay the ticket Rick, lets go. This day isnt getting any better.

I got 3 blocks from the mechanic, and the lights and bells started flashing again. I gunned the gas pedal in hopes of gettingÖ.. somewhere. All of a sudden, something clicked. The lights went off, oil pressure returned, and the car idled ok. Wha!?!? I drove to our parking spot. I got out and told Dada that the van was now running ok, and that I was going to attempt to drive it to Pisa. No, probably not the smartest move. Whatever "clicked" could click back. Maybe in 3 minutes, maybe on the freeway. But heres a quirky thing to my advantage. In Italy, there is free towing and roadside assistance if you break down on the freeway. It is also free to scrap a car. If I could make it 20 minutes to the border, I would save myself the Ä1500 to scrap it if it came to that. I was going for it.

I called Irene and told her I was on my way and I was driving not coming by train. I told her if I got close enough and the van died, she would come get me, but if I was still far, I would abandon the van and take a train. I got out on the road and again shook my head and wondered what I was doing. I put on a CD and the first song was "Breathe" by Telepopmusik. The song that reminds me of sitting on the dock every morning in Bocas del Toro, Panama. I imagined the serenity of that bay, and the breeze and the relaxation and compared it to what I was going through now. The stress of driving a half-dead decrepid vehicle on this inter-country trek. Then I smiled and thought that I have chosen this life for myself. I could have stayed in Panama. I could still be there. But this is what I love. This is what I have chosen to do. Besides, I am now in my elemennt. I cant tell you how many cars I have driven incredible distances despite mechanics warnings against doing so. This is a vehicle which was written off for dead just 15 minutes ago, and I am going to attempt to drive it hundreds of miles over the mountains of the Alps to a small city in Italy. Who does this van think its dealing with here - a novice?? No sir. I owned a 30-year-old Mustang for 11 years. With the Mustang I didnít need a mechanic to tell me that there was a better than 50% chance I wasnít making it to my destination, it was just a known fact. And the countless other cars I bought where the owners told me I would need to tow it home, but instead I would rig up some contraption and drive it on the freeway. Yes sir, I was in my element. I was going to find a way to push and massage this car to Italy.

For the first hour of the trip, everything seemed normal. I was over the border. Then the temperatures rose, and the oil pressure dropped. Lets get down to brass tacks here. I've killed a few engines in my time. But I've saved a few from death as well. Knowing what sound an engine makes when its about to blow up is sometimes a helpful skill. I've heard it twice, followed by a rather loud bang, and a large dent in the wallet. So when I heard it now, I pulled over. I drove home from my university like this once. Stopping every 15 minutes to let the engine cool, then driving some 15 minutes more, until I arrived at a friends house in another state where I abandoned the car for 4 months. If I had to make it to Italy like this, I could do it, but it would take all day. But like I said, this was my mission and I was getting this thing there.

I got back on the road, and for another hour or so, everything was fine. Then the lights started. Then the buzzers. Then everything went haywire. I found a pull-off and got off the road. Steam came out everywhere and the engine was making all kinds of hissing noises. It was ugly. I decided to wait for things to cool and then asses the situation. I looked around. I was in the alps and it was gorgeous. If the van had to die somewhere, this was a very pretty place to do it.

On one of my last stops, I picked up some antifreeze. OkÖ. Engines 101- Antifreeze is what you add to your engines' water to stop the water from freezing in the winter. But it is also anti-boil, even though the name doest imply so. It boils at a higher temperature. Which means it stays cooler. Cooler engine = Higher oil pressure. Higher oil pressure = longer life for a dying engine with worn bearings. I thought there might be a chance that there was only water in the engine, so I added some antifreeze, then tried to make it to the rest stop which was about 1 mile away. Hmm, all vital signs seem to be normal. I stayed there for 15 minutes just to let things cool fully, and then headed out.

Just beyond the rest stop was a 2km tunnel. An uphill tunnel at that. I cant even begin to imagine the catastrophe that I avoided by having the van overheat when it did. If it had made it another mile to that tunnel, I'd have been trapped inside, with no course but to roll backwards with on-coming traffic heading towards me at 120kph. The thought still gives me chills.

The antifreeze must have done the trick, as the engine is now running cooler than ever. It was almost running too cool at some points. But pressure was up, temps were down, and we were crusing along.

I made it to Pisa at about 9pm. I got off the exit, drove to the first clearning, pulled over sharply, got out and litterally danced in the street. I was hooting and hollering at the top of my lungs and there was no one to see or hear me. I didnít care.

I drove a bit further and found a payphone. Pisa was a bit more driver friendly than other parts of Europe. I called Irene and told her where I was at for her to come meet me and show me to her house.

So lets sop here for some explaining. Who is this person? I met Irene 4 and a half years ago for only one day when I was traveling through Europe. It happened to be the last day of my trip, or we may have tried to spend more time together. The story of how we met is actually a rather interesting one, but a bit of a long read. I know you cant imagine me being long winded. But yes, I kept a journal of that trip to Europe. In fact, it was the first time I'd made such a journal, and spurred the idea of doing an internet journal of a world trip for me. In any case, the story begins here and goes for the next few pages. We'd kept in touch by email over the years and when I told Irene that I would be in Europe in the summertime, she told me that her sisters wedding was in July, and if I wanted to try to make it for that, I would be welcome to come. As Running of the Bulls was the week before and only a couple countries away, I figured I could make both with no problem.

It was very odd but wonderful to see each other after all these years. Theres that first awkward moment of "what do you say at first?". We headed to her parents house where she lives. I met her parents, grabbed a quick shower after my long day and relayed the stories of the day and called it a night.

The next day, everyone was running around like crazy getting ready for the big party today, the day before the wedding. As I headed out to my van to get a few things to bring inside, I looked around and it dawned on me that I was in the Tuscany region of Italy. The buildings, the rolling hills, everythingÖ it just all sunk in. I cant count the number of times a day I am thankful for the life that I have, but there are some moments where it just fills you to a point that is hard to describe. Times when I just cant help but thinking I am the luckiest person alive, and give thanks to all the circumstances that have brought me to this point.

To get out of everyones way as they're getting ready for the party, Irene and I first took my van to the mechanics and then headed out to the town of Lucca, about 10 minutes away where she works. We walked around the park inside the walled city of Lucca and laughed about the fact that she is now a rather well accomplished web designer and that 4 and a half years ago I had introduced her to the internet and helped her sign up for her first email address. How things have changed. If you read the link, you'll see that she was studying genetics at the time we first met, and although she has been sucessful at web design, since we met years ago she has also gotten her doctorate in molecular biology.

We returned to her house in time for the party, with guests just starting to show up. Something in the kitchen spilled and Irenes mother exclaimed "Mama Mia!", which I just thought was the funniest thing I've ever heard. I couldnít imagine a more Italian thing to hear.

The party was wonderful, and it was nice to meet all of Irenes friends, a couple of which I had also met all those years ago. The house is also amazing. It is set in a huge field with rolling hills all around, just like you'd expect to find in the Italian countryside.

The next day was the wedding. It was actually, for Italy, a non-traditional wedding. Rather than have it in a church with a priest, it was in a beautiful ciyt building built just after the millenuim. Oh, yes that would be the last millenuim, or 1029 to be exact. The ceremony was quick and beautiful. Or maybe it was angry, I donít speak Italian, so I guess itís a bit hard to say.

Afterwards we just all hung out at the house for the day talking and eating. That night Irene and I went up to the top of the leaning tower of Pisa, both of us for our first time. Yes, most people who live in Pisa have never been to the top of the tower. I didnít go last time because it was closed. They were trying to stop it from toppling. Irenes friend worked the front gate so we were able to get in for free and not have to endure the hour-plus waiting period. The view was amazing.

Afterwards, there was a party at one of her friends house. As with parties in Italy, people drink wine because it is cheaper than beer. In American universities, you'd never have parties where guys get a whole bunch of wine and throw a party, but in Italy, thatís what they do. Then, when you graduate, you just progress to better wines. The party was at an amazing house up in the hills.

The next day, Irene told me that she had plans to kidnap me, and that where we were going was a surprise for my birthday, which was in a couple days. Alrighty- cool!

She ended up taking me to Venice for my birthday, which was an awesome surprise. I had been there once before, but it was in the winter time. Venice is a magical city, full of canals and small walking streets and no cars. The city dates back to 4000bc, but most of the buildings are from the past 2000 years. Theres nothing really to do in Venice, but you could spend days doing it. Getting lost is one of the funner things you can do, and theres no way it wont happen. No streets or walkways or rivers are at right angles, so its bound to happen within the first few minutes of your arrival. So we spent a few days walking around going to the shop, the eateries, the resturants and the ice creameries. We took a couple day trips to the nearby islands of Murano and Burano, where they make glass and lace, respectivly. We also made it to the "Absolut Generations" art display in the museum, which I loved, and got to re-visit the pigeons in St Marks square. While we were there we stayed in her friends weekend house, which was an amazing 2BR place with an incredible canal view. Hotels in Venice go for about $150 a night on the low end. So to have an amazing full apartment with a terrace and a view was an incredible treat.

Views from, and pics of, the house we stayed in.

Fun we had with the water and exposure setting on the camera at night.

(Oh yes, in case you're wondering, I turned 29 years old. Again. :) )

Getting back to Pisa, we stopped by the mechaincs and he told me that everything in the engine looked good. Head gasket was fine, oil pressure was ok, besides having a quirky habit of having to wait one minute from starting it up to pressure building. Other than that, it was in good shape. Well, alrighty. I guess we're driving this thing in to the ground. I think I'll take another few trips with it before I take it back to Switzerland where they have a disposal fee. J

I ended up going out that day to get myself a cell phone, which in Europe is a lot different than in the states. No one-year contract to sign, no "free nights-weekends", no "plans". You just buy the phone and load it up with minutes and Euros. You buy a little SIM card and insert it which assigns you a phone number. You can take the phone to other countries and change the SIM card and get a local number. How cool is that.

At night we headed out with some friends to the sea-side clubbing area of Tuscany. An amazing street where the clubs front the road on one side, and the sea on the other. Most people just congregate in the streets and walk from bar to bar, which have turned their speakers towards the streets where everybody dances. A hootin-hollerin good time.

So, now I am back to being indecicive Rick. I need to figure out where to go next. My plan was to head back to Switzerland, but I'm nervous to take the van there with the national dead-vehicle disposal fee, but donít know where else I'd go. Irene heads back to work Monday, so I'm back on the road here in a couple days. I'll figure it out then. In the meantime I will be hanging out in Italy for the weekend with Irene and her family.

Hope all is magical with you,

July 26th, 2003

Subject: Happy Travelheanniversary
Current Location - Milan, Italy
Local Currency - Euro (Ä1 = $1.15us)
Language - Italian
Temperature - 90ish
Songs defining this leg of the trip - Take a Walk on the Wild Side - Lou Reed

Can you beleive its been one year-to-the-day now that I've been a jobless wandering bum? Well, thats not exactly true. I've been a jobless bum for slightly longer as I stopped working in June '02 to devote time to preparing for the trip, but the wandering part has been a year today. Sometimes it seems like an eternity, and sometimes it feels like its flown by.

I've left my journal in the campervan, so I'll spare you the normal long-winded update, and replace it with a concise wrap, ended by a REALLY funny story. Hows that for an anniversary present?

My week in Pisa was amazing. The night after I sent my last update, I went out with Irene and her friends to see Lou Reed. I thought the guy was dead, or if not, at least not touring anymore. He had one hit way-back-when titled "Take a Walk on the Wild Side", which I had actually always thought was a Bob Dylan tune. But no, it was Lou Reed, and it was the first concert ever held in Pisa. It was held in a square that was somewhere near 1000 years old. Pretty cool. And oddly enough, there were scores of die-hard Lou Reed fans there. I really didnt know he had such a following.

Afterwards, we went to go hang out at a plaza with a bunch of bars. Its a pretty chic little place. Its got a groovy, but laid back vibe. You just cant help but look around at the buildings and archetecture and admire where you are. It reminded me of the crowds hanging at the waterfront in DC, all dressed to the 9's. We went out here just about every night to meet up with Irenes friends. I could usually understand some conversation as Italian is a lot like Spanish, but the words are different enough where I cant really speak.

My days were taken up by working on the Campervan, stopping occasionally when Irenes mother would make lunch. Mmmm. Meals are always served in "courses" in Italy, which takes a little getting used to. First course is your pasta. Second course is meats. Then the salad course, then the fruit, then pastry. You're not allowed to eat it out of order either. Its so unlike the US where we just put it all on the table and you take what you want in the order you want. I asked for someone to pass me something from the dinner tray located next to the table. It was pasta. But it was part of the second course. They were slightly confused, as I had not fully finished my first course, and informed me that it was part of second course. You're allowed to skip courses, as some people at the table were already eating that pasta, but you're not allowed to mix courses. I guess. :)

We took a couple day-trips, one to the midievel city of San Gimingano, which set in the Tuscany hills was just amazing, and the other to the beach 30 minutes from Pisa. Both were only short trips as Irene worked half-days all week.

Another great thing about Pisa and Italy in general is the scooter/moped community. The majority of the people in Pisa drive scooters. I'd say they outnumber the cars, easily. Its neat to see people all dressed up nice, riding scooters, which in the US are usually reserved for kids getting around town in shorts and t-shirts. But here, you can find girls in evening dresses or guys in suits getting around on their scooters.

As of Friday morning, I decided to head north to see my friend in Zurich. Unfortunately, on the way there, the van started giving me problems again. It was overheating going over the alps, and I made it almost over the top of the mountain, and I had to stop to let the van cool for about an hour, then top off the fluids. While I was waiting at this rest-stop, I decided to use the mens room. I went in, and the stall door closed behind me. When I was done, I tried to turn the handle, and it didnt work. It was a goofy handle, one that has a latch on the front of the actual knob, then a button on the top of the knob. The latch and button need to be in the proper positions for the knob to turn. I didnt know what they were, but I had to figure it out. Obviously. But I couldnt. Whats more, the latch turned over multiple times, and I forgot how many twists I'd given it, so I couldnt count to untwist it back to at least where I started. And whats with this button anyway? After a few minutes, I thought I might just be able to knock open the door with a shoulder. Perhaps its not latched tightly. No, its latched tightly. Then someone enters. I hear them in the stall next to me. They finish. Click, pop, twist, open. Ahh, they knew the sequence. I did not. I said, embarrased "Uh, scuzze?", which is about the only Italian I know. The person replied, and I said "Problema." and gigged on the door handle a few times to indicate what my problem was. The man was nice enough to give me explicit directions on how to open the door. In Italian. I asked if he spoke English, and he said "No, uno minuto". Oh no, he was going to get someone who spoke english, to tell me how to get out of the bathroom. How embarrassing. The attendant came back, and in limited english, described how the little latch is rotated fully to the left, then given a little push once it feels like its all the way turned, then the button is pressed, then the knob is turned. Are you kidding me? You need a PhD to get out of there. Safe to say I was a little embarrased getting out. Whats more, I didnt even have to go that bad, I was just passing time waiting for the van to cool.

Well, the van cooled and it made it to Milan. In fact, I think I have it figured out now, that as long as I drive 70kph over mountains in 4th gear, I will make it just fine. The rest of the mountains were easy keeping that rule in check. But I dont want to do that. In fact, I dont want to be worried about my vehicle making it to its destination everytime I get in it, or have to go 70kph. I also dont want to be scared driving something the size of a bus every town I go in to, so I've decided to sell it and find other means of travel. Another car, trains, rollerskates, I dont know just yet. But the van is more stress than I need in my life right now. I have a couple ads placed on the internet detailing the issues, which I'm being upfront about and selling it for a song. If anyones interested, let me know. I'm 99% sure it will make it to where you need to go, but you're going to go slow. :)

Milan is a cool town. Known for being the center of fashion for Italy, its a very trendy place. So, you want to know what the trends are?? Get this - the 80s!! Yes, I was stuck in the 80's for 2 decades after they ended, and all my friends told me to get with it, that the 80s were over, but I always said they'd make a comeback. Well, I finally gave up a couple years ago and abandoned the 80s, and here they are, back again. I guess I am too much of a trend setter. I'll lead the fashion, then when it catches up to me, I change.. yes sir, thats how hip I am. Mohawks, back. Flourescent colors, back. Big plastic earings and bracelets, back. One-shoulder t-shirts and blouses, back. Yes, its all back and back with a vengeance. Even the record stores carry tons of Iron Maiden - more than any other artist in the shop!!! Next you'll be telling me Lou Reed is coming back in to fashion too. Yikes.

Later dudes,

-Ricki (informed I was spelling it wrong earlier)


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