Friday, May 16, 2008

Finding the Grit

Day 64
I was up quite early because I wanted to get to Palermo as soon as possible. While walking to the bus station it was easy to see that Trapani was really just a one street town. Even without a map I had no problems finding the bus station. I kept an eye out for Marco, knowing that he was headed the same way, but out paths didn't cross again.

It was only about 1.5 hours until the bus entered Palermo. At first all I could see were wide, clean boulevards lined with expensive stores. My guidebook had promised me grit, everyone who had been here promised me grit as well. I was disappointed to not see it. After just a few minutes the scenery changed. Suddenly the bus driver was honking and yelling at the vespas as they darted around traffic as if it wasn't there.

The bus station was less a station and more of a road where buses stop three deep and you do your best to not get hit while gathering your belongings. When I went to cross to via Roma I stopped short. Locals were crossing with a cigarette in one hand and chatting on their phone with another. The crazy traffic didn't exist for me. For me it was paralyzing. I can't move very quickly with my pack and I had no idea how I was going to cross. I thought, this is it, this is where it ends. I will remain glued here, slowly collapsing under the weight of my pack and eventually hunger. After some time I gathered my nerve and at the first slight opening darted across as quickly as my gear laden body would let me. It wasn't until I had reached the other side that I realized I was safe.

Fortunately there were crosswalks and lights at the rest of the places that I needed to cross on the way to my hotel. Palermo's hostel is way out of town and just as expensive as getting a room in a hotel. Once again it was nice to have my own space.

After regrouping and washing some clothes I headed back out into the traffic. My guide recommended taking a bus to the Capuchin Catacombs, but it looked close enough to walk to me. I think the recommendation for the bus was because the sidewalks here are actually for parking and there were some spots where it was a bit hairy to walk alongside the traffic.

I got to the catacombs just as they were opening after lunch. I had seen these catacombs on several travel and strange places tv shows. I really couldn't believe that I was getting my chance to come here.

Initially only monks were buried here. Soon the benefactors of the monastery were allowed to be interned here too. The monks divided the corpses into sections, men, women, children, professionals and monks. This was losely done though and children were scattered throughout the place, and in some areas it looked like entire families were displayed together. I want to try and better describe what this looked like. I keep saying buried, but they were not buried, but instead hanging or lying in a nitch on the walls. The bodies were in various states of preservation. I don't know why someone would want to be put on display like this. I guess I should find it even odder that people want to come and look! I tried to ask about this, but they didn't understand my question.

Most of the remains were skeletal, but others were mummified. The children seemed to be the best preserved overall. Some of the kids looked just a bit dark and skinny, but their clothing was in perfect, albeit, dated condition. The decaying skin on some people's faces had twisted their mouthes into an eternal scream. There were a few with half bone, half mummified faces. These were the most gruesome of all. I don't know that Hollywood could have come up with something more disturbing. Even though it might sound silly, I made sure that I was never in a hallway alone. I guess that I have seen too many movies.

The bodies went through a few different embalming processes. The best preserved body was that of Rosalia Lombardo. She died at age two in 1920. Besides being very pale and looking a bit flat she could have been sleeping. Apparently the doctor that embalmed her never shared his secret, although that is controversial as it is not uncommon to find chemically preserved bodies like hers. Her body has never been tested.

Most of the bodies were enclosed in cells for 8 months after they died. At this point they were then washed in vinegar and then dressed and hung in their nitches. The bodies that were lying down were done so in a way that they could peer down at the visitors. There were not any barriers and if you wanted, you could have touched the bodies. Some of them looked like there were hardly being held up by anything and I worried that one might fall on me.

The whole thing was super creepy and I was sorta glad when it was over. I hoped that none of the people I saw would resurrect themselves in my dreams. While I was leaving some people were complaining about not being able to take pictures. (The ones I have here are from the pamphlet they gave me.) I think that if I was allowed I would have taken pictures, but I don't really think that it is a very respectful thing to do.

On the way back to my hotel I found Palermo's large cathedral. The outside it quite interesting, but the inside is rather generic looking. It wasn't long before I moved on. After a quick stop at the grocery store I headed back to my hotel.

The place I was staying wasn't very social and I kept to myself for the night. Palermo made me a bit nervous and I didn't want to go exploring on my own at night anyway. I spent the evening reading and updating my journal.

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