Palermo: Day 9
Continuation from here.
I should mention that before we bought our tickets for this Eurotrip, Gloria had suggested Palermo because of the beautiful beaches displayed on Google. To be frank, that was how we’d picked most of our venues for our trip. If Google showed pretty pictures, we were game.
“Palermo isn’t really what I thought it was going to be,” Gloria admitted three hours after we’d landed.
The truth was that Palermo isn’t really a tourist spot. I mean, sure, there are a couple of touristy things to do and some artsy buildings, but it’s not exactly the epitome of Italy. In fact, Palermo’s just a small, plain little town tucked away behind its glamorous sisters like Rome, Venice and Milan. It’s not even as pretty as Tuscany. It’s the quiet, dull town that is often overlooked on the map, often forgotten, often unmentioned. So who goes to Palermo? People seeking to check out the neighboring areas of Palermo – but never really Palermo for itself. People who want to save money on accommodation and travel outside to the Arenella or Mondello Beaches.
And now here we were in the middle of the afternoon, the sun toasting our skins despite the generous drops of sunblocks we’d applied, lost in a foreign town with our bulbous backpacks without internet or a map.
The locals that we approached tried to be helpful, but we didn’t understand them. All we could do was ask for directions to our hostel in feeble Italian, and whimper when they blurted out a string of fluent Italian directions while waving their hands up and down, left and right. An hour later, we were miraculously able to locate our hostel along a strip of flat buildings that fronted a small bazaar of migrants selling cheap plastic toys, magnets, and other knick knacks. Our hostel was a decent old building with a tiny welcome sign in front: “A Casa Di Amici.”
The woman running the place was an elderly Italian lady behind a desk who glanced up over her glasses when we walked in. She didn’t speak any English. And I barely spoke Italian. The communication barrier was real.
When she tried to ask for our passports, I panicked. No way, Jose. There’s another rule of thumb that supercedes wearing a money belt around your waist or stuffing cash inside your socks to prevent theft, and that rule is to never lose your passport.
I’d heard enough human trafficking horror stories to know that girls were kidnapped and robbed of their passports, which made it extremely hard for them to escape. And now this strange old woman was demanding to keep our passports. She refused my suggestion of making a copy of the front page – she stubbornly insisted on storing them in the drawer, and I stubbornly refused to comply.
At that time, I didn’t know that it was compulsory for Italian hostels to hold on to their guests’ passports for hours or even days at a time. It aligned with their super-strict policy, something about the police being on the watch for mafia action and so forth. Had I known this sooner, I would’ve been much more cooperative with the woman.
But I didn’t know that it was a common thing across Italy, so I freaked out and refused to let her have my passport. After several minutes of awkward banter in English-Italian, she sighed, sulkily resigned our room key into my hand and grudgingly led us down the narrow hallway, past the kitchen and dinner area, and paused in front of our locked door. She taught us how to stick the key into the hole, and after a quick jimmy, managed to unlock the door and it swayed open to reveal an airy, brightly colored room with two beds.
The rest of the hostel was painted in colors of the rainbow. The lobby was green, the kitchen was blue, the bathroom was another shade of blue, our room was yellow. The whole place reminded me of a kindergarten. It was cheerful and clean, and the keepers even went the extra mile to provide free shampoo, shower gel and other little amenities for the guests. Overall, it was pleasant.
“So, what are we gonna do today?” I flopped down on the single bed and allowed the cool air to play across my face. It was such a refreshing change from the last few hours roasting away in the sun.
“We could check out the beach,” Gloria said.
We left the hostel full of hope, but that optimism was short-lived. With the afternoon sun beating down on us, and a crappy map as our best guide, plus no internet data to Google anything, we were forced to wing it. People barely spoke English here. We stopped to ask for directions at least twice, and got led in the wrong direction… again.
We were so tired and frustrated that we decided to just settle for McD. This was the beginning of my passionate relationship with pistchio. Italians really love pistachio. As we sat there, our pistachio ice creams running along the sides of our wafer-cones, it was time to address the great white elephant that had just walked into the room.
“Well, we’re here now. Palermo isn’t everything we thought it would be,” I said. “Let’s just try and get to a nice beach.”
We’d decided that Trapani beach seemed the most economical, time-saving choice among the others. We wanted to check out Mt. Catalina but it was volcano season, and the chances of a volcanic eruption was pretty high that week. Now, if only we could figure out how to get there. Gloria and I really wished we’d done way more research before embarking on this big Euro backpacking trip. It would’ve helped a lot.
Remember, research is important!
We spent the next few hours trying to locate a store to get an internet plan on my phone, and then we roamed the city some more until we located the nearest tourism office, only to be led to other parts of the town that didn’t seem very endearing. Eventually, we found the office and the kind Italian man behind the desk taught us how to get to Trapani. “But it might be too late to go today,” he said. “Why don’t you try it tomorrow?”
So he gave us a new map, circled a couple of landmarks, taught us how to get to the bus stop for Trapani, which bus to take, etc, and then we were back on the streets of Palermo, thinking about heading to a decent pizza place for dinner.
We thought, “Yay, Google Maps finally works on the phone now!” and I found us a high-rated pizza parlor in downtown Palermo. So off we went with my phone as the compass, but navigating the area was a real pain because the streets were completely disorganized. They snaked left and right, curled atrociously to unexpected dead-ends, and led us deeper into the heart of a neighborhood that gave us the chills just walking through.
Every city has areas that are unsafe to both locals and tourists, and this section of Palermo didn’t appear very safe to two non-Italian-speaking Asian girls who were wandering the back alleys in search for the popular Frida Pizzaria. Little did we know, we were far from it.
The sun was descending upon the town, leaving its last golden rays against the stained walls of shabby apartments, where topless men stared suspiciously through their doorways, smoke curling from their lit cigarettes, and barefooted children stopped their evening games in the alleys to watch us pass. I could feel dozens of eyes pinning their curiosity on our backs as muffled conversations stirred around us. And then, as my heart began to pound and my pace began to quicken, I could almost feel danger lurking in the distance.
It felt like a maze in there but we eventually made it out just before nightfall. We couldn’t find the Frida Pizzaria and the other restaurants around us were either closed or ridiculously pricey, and we couldn’t seem to locate an affordable Italian restaurant anywhere nearby that wasn’t Burger King or McDonald’s. Out of hunger, frustration and desperation, we settled for desserts at Caffe Al Capriccio. The friendly staff introduced us to a variety of sweets like the cannoli (too sweet but the skin was crispy and sprinkled with powdered sugar), the casatta (a popular Sicilian cake made with creamy ricotta cheese), and a pistachio ice cream sandwich with a huge mound of whipped cream. Oh and apparently, Italians tend to eat ice cream sandwiches for breakfast. *still mind-blown*
Later on I insisted on grabbing something savory to drown out the sugary aftertaste, so we popped into a small deli and bought a slab of pizza that tasted like cardboard soaked in grease. We were bummed that we couldn’t get a good Italian meal on our first day in Italy, but we told ourselves tomorrow would be different.
And it was.