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When I looked outside my shuttle window, the bright, blinding sun shone through, the palm trees swayed from side to side, and the metropolis seemed more bustling than any other. Big cities were always thrilling places: full of cars, people everywhere, and the rush of modern life ' and without a doubt, Rome, Italy was no exception. As the van drove, we passed the more modern part of town, which included a variety of shops. There were the everyday shops such as grocery stores and simple department stores for necessities. Then, there were shopping squares of the upper-class malls, where designer shops were located. Small stalls selling knock-off soccer jerseys and purses and ice cream trucks selling gelato, the famous Italian ice cream that I couldn't wait to eat, lined the streets, crowded not only by people and cars! We turned onto a more secluded road, and to the right, I saw a tall, white building, which had black letters at the top saying, Aran Mantegna. This was the hotel where our tour group would be staying for our duration in Rome. The bus whined to a short stop in front of the hotel's grand entrance.
As my family and I got down from the shuttle, an exuberant lady who had a flower in her hair and was wearing a bright colored shirt and khakis came rushing towards us with open arms. She embraced everyone, and said, 'Ciao! Welcome to Italy, my kind Trafalgar family. I am your tour director, Barbara. Please follow me inside to see the rest of the group.' Ciao is, hello, in Italian, and Trafalgar was the company through which we had planned our tour. She led us through a heavy revolving door, and we saw everyone else sitting on the lobby couches and looking exhausted from the long journey. After introducing herself to everyone, Barbara handed room keys to each family and said in an Italian tone,
'Please be down in ten minutes for the Welcome Meeting. Your luggage will be already outside your door. Let me remind you, here in Italy, we conserve all natural resources. When you enter your room, put the room key in the slot that is near the door, in order to have electricity. As the room cards have metal for electrical purposes in them, please don't lose them.'
My brother and I were to share a room, so together we went up the elevator and walked to our room. We opened the door and immediately put the card in the slot. I walked around, and the room was impeccable. Against one wall to the right were two twin beds bedded in spotless white sheets and had two pillows on each. On a table, a silver plasma TV was set on a wooden table, and the screen read, 'Welcome, Mr. Jha, to the Aran Mantegna!' Also, to the right was the bathroom, which I must say was quite interesting. The door was translucent glass, but looking through it was still possible! Then and there, we two siblings decided that while one was in the bathroom, the other would look straight at the TV and nothing else-it was going to be embarrassing. Well, time was running out, so we washed up and ran back to the elevator.
Luckily, we weren't the last ones to the Welcome Meeting. Once everyone was settled, Barbara started talking about the sites and optional excursions available in Rome. She described all the places as mind-blowing, and the thought of seeing these places made me more excited. The group would be seeing the Vatican City, Circus Maximus, and Colosseum. At the same time I realized how much Barbara loved to talk and laugh. Her laugh, so exquisite, sounded like a donkey, which she said so herself. Though the laugh is hard to describe, I think she exhaled through her and then would suck in from her throat, and truthfully, I thought she was choking the first time I heard it. She talked so much, and it seemed never-ending. However, what I didn't know was that this Meeting was just the beginning of her talking. After her continuous lectures, she finally dismissed the group, and we trudged up to what would be the most important monument on this trip, our beds.
The wake up call was at 6:30 AM, because the bus was leaving sharp at 7:15 AM. We dressed quickly and made our way downstairs for breakfast. The meal was different than a typical American breakfast and consisted of plain, chocolate-filled, and apricot-filled croissants that had powder sugar on top. There was also bacon, eggs, fruit, bread, cereal, milk, and an assortment of jams and marmalades. For beverages, the hotel offered lemonade drink, a Gatorade-like drink, juice, coffee, and of course, water. I chose a bread roll, strawberry jam, a croissant, and Gatorade. It was definitely different, but I liked the light breakfast. I ate fast, because there wasn't much time before I had to get on the bus.
I found my seat on the bus, and looked at the front of the, I saw the one and only, Barbara. Dressed in khaki pants, walking shoes, and a colorful open blouse revealing a beige tank top underneath, and a light brown leather messenger bag to her side that crossed over her body, she began talking about our first site, the Circus Maximus. It wasn't very far from our starting point, and as we approached the large field, Barbara began explaining the events that took place here. Romans held chariot and track races, fencing for gladiatorial combats, and the throwing of the discus. She allowed us to step out for a moment to take a picture of the widespread field of grass, though it was the non-parking zone. I saw the fading dirt track winding it was around the grass in an oval like a serpent. Knowing that people stood here thousands of years ago was hard to believe.
The rest of the group and I scurried back onto the bus before the police could make their way towards us. Barely a moment passed of sitting on my seat, and once again, Barbara was blabbing about the beautiful Vatican City, also known as the Pope's residence. Although, it is inside Italy's borders, the City claims itself separate from Italy making the Vatican the smallest country in the world. It even had its own postage stamps! From the outside, The Vatican seemed like a huge building, and up in the distance I could see the cross on top of the largest dome of the St. Peter's Basilica. The group had a long way to walk before we got closer to the Basilica.
After a century, I walked into the St. Peter's Basilica, and straight ahead I saw the relics of St. Peter. The ceiling was shaped in a half sphere shape, because from the outside, there were multiple domes. The carving of the ceiling seemed to project from the wall and was very detailed. There were carvings of flowers connected by vines. In one of her many lengthy lectures, Barbara had mentioned how someone could ' bring back the relics' of a saint. A person could take linen, usually purple, and touch the saint's relics. She even told a story of when she was on tour with a group of college children. There was one boy who didn't have any linen, so he touched the relics with his cell phone and claimed to have a 'relic' of Saint Peter!
Next we made our way to the magnificent Sistine Chapel. The new pope is elected in the Chapel. As we drew nearer, I could see the imposing paintings by the one and only Michelangelo. I stepped in and looked around. On one wall, there was a massive mural behind the altar could be none other than The Last Judgment. At the center, Michelangelo had depicted Jesus and his disciples. The background behind Jesus was yellow as if the sun was shining on him. Their facial expression and body language seemed questioning, because they were deciding each soul's destination between heaven and torture. It was just mind-blowing. This painting had not been restored, or 'touched up;' therefore, all the colors were hundreds years old. The background behind the disciples was a light blue, representing the sky. Underneath, torture was underneath the disciples. The colors were dull and gray. All the people seemed as if they were deteriorating. The bodies seemed to be just lying around. On the other hand, above the Jesus was the sun shining down on him and heaven. The colors were vivid and very bright. The people seemed lively and were looking towards the sun. To the right of The Last Judgment, was the story of Jesus, painted on the wall. Moses' story was depicted on the left wall. The ceiling had slight curves bordering its four sides. In each curve, a male or female prophet of the Christian religion was alternately painted. In the center, the ancestors of Jesus were shown. The characters on all the walls seemed like three-dimensional statues that were popping towards me. It was a slightly eerie feeling, because the people's expressions were very serious and plain. It was all purely mesmerizing.
We walked to the bus from a longer route to see more of the city. That was the first time I saw a gypsy. Sitting on the sidewalk with an infant wrapped in thin cloth, she seemed so weary and exhausted. The baby was crying, and the mom was shaking a cup, which was jingling because of a few coins in there and mumbling something in Italian. I wish I could have helped, but I couldn't. The group kept walking and out of nowhere, the bus appeared. For the third time that day, I trudge up the stairs. My eyes were becoming harder to keep open, because there was a slight time difference. Jet lack was catching up with me. Again Barbara started talking about something, but I was too tired to pay attention. I leaned my head on the window, and twenty minutes passed before Barbara whispered,
'Wake up my kind Trafalgar family!' Apparently, I wasn't the only one who had taken a nap. I turned around and saw an elderly man of our group leaning against his headrest snoring with his mouth open. I looked outside and saw the towering edifice we were approaching. It was our last stop for the day. From the outside, the walls seemed extremely primitive. This could be none other than the Colosseum. Made of travertine stone, a sedimentary rock, the Colosseum is an amphitheatre that was used as an arena for gladiatorial combats and other spectacles opened to the public. Modern minds say that up to 50,000 people could be seated here, but through further research, others believe that the arena could have accommodated up to 87,000.
I stepped through the main arch. The interior was beyond belief. It appeared ancient and dappled, but somehow the air held something magical and majestic. I felt the walls, rough and crumbly, but still strong and standing. An incredible feeling surged through me, because I was standing where people had stood many moons ago. It still had its own beauty.
Time past by fast in the Colosseum, and at last came the time for dinner. We had reservations at a restaurant. Our meal would be a typical five course Italian meal and an opera program. We made our way towards the restaurant on foot. We passed clothing shops and grocery stores, but what really affected me were the pizzerias and gelaterias. I cherished the waft of pizzas and pasta and sweet gelato floating from the tiny restaurants. I heard the Italian music flowing from the open doors. The background of the violin and the melodious voices made me more excited for tonight's program!
We turned around the corner, and Barbara pointed to our restaurant. The group picked up the pace, because like mine, their stomachs must have been growling, too. Barbara led us in and as we stepped through, the smell of gourmet food triggered my hunger. Tables near a small platform at one end of the room were labeled, 'Trafalgar' for my group. Bread and olive oil was already placed on the tables, and I wasn't the only one looking for food, wide-eyed. Chairs scoot out and people situated themselves quickly and began devouring every crumble placed in front of them. I heard beautiful Italian music, but this was classical. Each key played on the piano echoed a melodious sound that added to the tune. It sounded so familiar, but I couldn't think of the song's name. The violin prominent but slow was relaxing. The atmosphere was light, because we were laughing and just enjoying ourselves.
After the first course of risotto, a creamy rice dish usually made with shrimp or mushrooms, four people stepped onto the small platform. They introduced them selves as the opera singers for tonight's program and began the loud opera, which filled the room. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. While the four of them sang, salad made with fresh, crunchy greens was served with olive oil and vinegar, probably the only salad dressing available in Italy. The taste of all the delicious food lingered on my taste buds and slowly I could feel myself becoming full. By the time, pasta cam I was bloated. I barely touched the entr'e of chicken and seasoned vegetables. I somehow ate the dessert, because I just couldn't let the scrumptious tiramisu go to waste. It literally melted in my mouth.
On the way home, I was slightly sluggish, because I was becoming tired, but at the same time, I had just eaten. Trying to make the most of it, I relished my last night in Rome. I had learned so much and had seen so many sites and paintings spoken of worldwide. I had never believed that I would some day see such masterpieces. Though still hard to believe, I had really seen it and experienced the wonderful feeling of being somewhere, where people had stood hundreds even thousands of years ago. I had experienced something extra ordinary, which Barbara pointed out. When I thought of Rome, I became speechless, yet I had seen so much. How could that be? I do not know, but I did know that what I had seen and experienced would be the most magnificent part of my journey.
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