Rome and Ice
# Visited20 countries
Next TripThailand or Brazil
Travel QuoteA successful travel is like a CSI crime scene. You always take something away and leave something behind. It doesn’t have to be semen, though.
Home CountryUnited States
It was about 9pm on a mildly warm Tuesday night when our bus came to a meandering crawl in Requena, Spain. This was not just any Tuesday night. It was the night before the annual tomato throwing festival known as La Tomatina. Tomatina was to be held in the small town of Bunol the following afternoon. That didn’t stop the entire province of Valencia from joining in on the celebration, however. This was the night of the annual Water and Wine Festival in Requena. I had been looking forward to this event for some time. Not just because I wanted to party, but because I always relish in the opportunity to have genuine cultural interactions when I travel. We were hastily escorted off the bus when it stopped and asked to follow our tour guides through the quaint Spanish village. My brother Rome and I chatted comically with a few of the other English speaking tourist that were joining us on our hike through the town streets. It was already pitch black dark when we arrived, so photo opportunities were at a minimum. That was a shame because Requena is a picturesque village full of fountains, statues and mission revival style architecture. True to the rhythm of the typical Spanish day, many of the town’s restaurants and cafes were buzzing with customers. Most watched us pass with smiles on their faces, eager to share their local festivities with us. After a 10 minute walk, we arrived at a giant open air arena. Due to the events of the evening, the arena felt larger than life. The outer stone walls were eroded and dilapidated…in a good way. As we approached the edifice, we could feel the heartbeat of the entire city contained inside the walls.
The triumphant sounds of the chants, cheers and brass bands leaked through every crack in the coliseum style building and swam their way through our eardrums. There was a large, disorganized line already forming at the entry for people that had their tickets. For people that had to buy their tickets, or people that already had tickets in advance and forgot them (like me), the line was even longer and more disorganized. At most bullfights held during the daytime, spectators are given the option of purchasing seats in the sun or seats in the shade for a little more money. Being that it was already night time, sun and shade had no bearing on seat selection and the line moved relatively quickly. I purchased my ticket and did my best to squeeze and maneuver my broad shoulders through the narrow arena stairways. By the time we actually entered the arena, it was already jam packed and rocking. Hard bleacher style seating ascended at least 30 rows high. Rome and I sat as close to the stairwell as possible about 20 rows away from the arena floor. Many of the local people brought snacks into the arena that they readily shared with anybody in their immediate area. On a couple of occasions, I was handed a convenient, savory snack of Spanish ham baked directly into an olive oil infused bread. The atmosphere in the Collirena (that’s a new word I just made up combining coliseum and arena) was very reminiscent of a college football game at my beloved Florida A&M University. The audience cheered, sang songs and did the wave ad nauseam.
There were also bands in almost every section of the crowd playing traditional Spanish revelry music mixed with contemporary renditions of their favorite pop songs. Prior to us boarding the bus, our guide gave us a brief description of the events that would take place. We were told that this would not be a bullfight in the traditional sense. The bull would not be slaughtered after this event. The goal was to simply taunt the bull and dodge his enraged attempts at seeking revenge. This event was to serve as a rite of passage for many of the young men of Requena. There is a great deal of pride taken in honing the matador spirit. Another caveat that made this bullfight unique was that it was open to ANYBODY with enough balls to get in the ring. Never one to shy away from a challenge, my eyes glazed over with delight when I heard I would be afforded to opportunity to play with a bull. Rome and I looked at each other with childlike grins as we boarded the bus. We both knew, without even speaking a word, we would have to get in the ring with the bull. That is why we picked seats close to the stairwell. We knew when the time came, we would need to make an obstruction free exit from our seats and head down to the danger zone. The bullfighting ring was a circle approximately 50 meters in diameter. The ground was coarse brown loosely packed sand. Smack dab in the middle of the arena floor sat an orange cage approximately 10 feet in length, width and height. The bars on the cage were wide enough for an average person to slip through sideways, but not anything much larger….like say….A BULL. This cage was the safety cage; made to be slipped in and out of while teasing large ungulate bovine mammals. Shortly after the cage was placed, a few brave Spaniards…and one or two drunk tourists….ventured out onto the arena floor. The crowd cheered fervently in anticipation of the bull to come. The brave first participants huddled into the safety cage and close to the walls of the bull ring floor and in a flash a large, cantankerous black bull came darting on to the arena floor. I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t…..we’re not going to use the term “scared” here. This is my blog entry after all, and I would like to maintain my image as savage global conqueror. We will use the term phrase “taken aback”. I was taken aback, not because there was a gargantuan steamroller of a bull on the floor. I was taken aback because this was the first, and smallest bull that we were going to see this night. This bullfight, as with many in Spain, was going to feature a round robin cavalcade of bulls that only got bigger, faster, stronger and more aggressive as the night progressed. Rome and I both looked at each other and said “Oh hell no”, in unison. We watched on pins and needles as the first two bulls ran roughshod around the circumference of the bull ring chasing all who dared to enter directly to the safety cage. One innocent bystander in a purple shirt got caught taking in the ambience of the arena and was absolutely pummeled by the bull. He was literally bowled off his feet and stomped by the bull’s massive hooves. As he stood to his feet the bull caught him flush on his legs and literally whipped him to the ground. The entire audience gasped in horror. A handful of participants distracted the bull to draw his attention to anything but the man in the purple shirt that was being stomped to bits.
As the third bull came shooting out of his pen, Rome looked at me and said “Come on Ice, let’s go”. I told him there was no way I was going down there. Rome looked at me and said the four words no man of honor can sit idly by and hear without taking action. “Don’t be a pussy”. I leapt to my feet and said let’s go with the eye of the tiger playing in my head. We galloped gut wrenchingly down the 20 bleacher flights of stairs to the ground floor of the arena. We stopped briefly to pull up our pants, tighten our belt loops and tie our shoes. Rome latched his new Go Pro camera to his chest mount and we approached the bull ring gates. The arena security guards, smiled sheepishly and motioned us to jump over the bull ring wall whenever we were ready. Just before we entered the ring, I stopped, looked Rome directly in his chest mounted camera and did a quick last will and testament. We waited until the bull was on the other side of the arena and jogged out onto the arena floor. It was at that very instant that I could literally feel all my senses heighten. My peripheral vision got more acute. My sense of hearing tuned itself in a very peculiar fashion where I could no longer hear the crowd, but I could very distinctly hear the sand crunching under my feet. My mouth became surprisingly dry and I darted straight to the safety cage. I didn’t enter it immediately though. I grabbed the bars of the cage with one hand and watched the bull chase a participant over the wall. The bull then turned around and saw me hanging out of the cage with no cover. He darted for me with surprising speed, hell bent on cremating another victim. I held off as long as I could before I spun in the sand and slipped through the safety cage bars. At that point, I heard a collective “Ohhhh” from the audience. I knew the bull had gotten entirely too close to me for comfort. The fighters that were in the cage with me were patting my back. Their wide eyed stares were enough to let me know that I more than likely almost took a horn where the sun don’t shine. The fact of the matter is that the cage is built for svelte Spanish toreadors. My American football playing frame was not built to slip through the bars easily. I looked down the front of my shirt while in the cage to make sure my nipples did not get ripped off by the bars. After a few deep breaths in the cage, my wits returned to me. My eyes darted around looking for Rome. He was nowhere to be found, so I stepped out of the cage to take a look around the arena. I strolled casually around to the other side of the cage and noticed the bull chasing yet another group of young men over the wall. I stood cautiously about 20 feet away from the cage. The bull turned around and noticed me immediately. He darted for me blowing what looked like combustion engine smoke out of his nostrils. I stood my ground as long as I could before I turned around and high tailed it to the cage. Once again I slipped through with a little friction to my nipples. I didn’t care though, I was safe from the surly toro’s advances. This is where things get a little dicey. I entered the cage and kept my back to the bull. I got cocky, I was more interested in receiving approval from my compadres in the cage than I was in watching the bull. This particular rascal was able to slip about half his head and one of his horns right through the cage and use his powerful neck muscles to wreak havoc at the cage edge. With one jerk of his muscular neck, he was able to get up under one of my legs and begin to lift me off the ground.
Please, bear in mind, I am 227 lbs. Next time you go to the gym, try to lift 227 lbs with your neck. Needless to say, I was startled out of my mind when I looked behind me and saw a massive bull head and horn prying away at my leg. My cage buddies pulled me away from the edge of the cage as the audience gasped once again in horror. It was a short 3 seconds of terror, but it was the most panicked I have been in a long time. Almost immediately after my encounter with the business end of the bull, I saw Rome run around the cage. I stepped out and told him I got gored. He gave me a high five because that’s what bros do when one bro almost dies. My only regret is that I don’t have a scar to show for it. If you’re gonna meet a bulls horn, the least the bull can do is leave a little mark for you to show your grandchildren one day. If you are an adrenaline junky, I highly recommend participating in the bull fight at the water and wine festival. I don’t know if it is something I would do again, but I am very proud of the experience. Remember, the bullfight is just the first part of the festival. There is a parade afterwards, and everybody loves a bullfighter.
In the grand pantheon of arousing audio/visual entertainment, food based television ranks second only to hardcore porn. They are very similar if you really stop to think about it. Both give us a graphic, up close and personal look at the satiation of very deep, primal biological urges. That is why food television is more popular than ever nowadays. Those images of succulent, sizzling meats and decadent, delightful desserts captivate us at a very basal level. Even without the smell of the entrees on the screen, your mouth starts to water. It’s this desire to indulge in great food that every restaurant in the world attempts to exploit with their never ending bombardment of commercials. Keeping this correlation between food and sex in mind, an all you can eat challenge must be analogous to a hedonistic orgy. That realization is the reason I laughed hysterically when my brother in arms, Rome, called me and said, “Ice, on the next trip, we gotta do and eating challenge.”
The Las Vegas strip seems like an ideal place to find an eating challenge. There is a massive buffet in every hotel on Las Vegas Blvd. Nobody is on the strip is looking competition in the eye and daring them to eat like a champ, though. To find a restaurant offering a challenge like that you have to go off the strip to a pizza restaurant called The Original Graziano’s on 8410 W. Desert Inn Rd. On the surface, Graziano’s appears to be a tame, sedated, family oriented neighborhood pizza place. The décor is half sports motif, half family entertainment. The menu offers many classic Italian American favorites as well as fried chicken, sub sandwiches and desserts. Rome and I decided to kick off our tour of Las Vegas and the surrounding desert by taking on Graziano’s famous monster pizza challenge. The monster is a 10 pound pizza loaded with every topping you could ever even begin to imagine. The rules are simple. You and a partner have 45 minutes to devour the whole pizza. If you win, you get 2 t-shirts, 2 coupons for free pizza (who would want more pizza after finishing the monster!) the monster is on the house, and of course bragging rights. If you lose, you have to shell out $50.00 for the pizza and your face is forever plastered on the wall of shame. Never the kind of guys that back down from a challenge, Rome and I strolled into Graziano’s late on the evening of August 31st and ordered the monster. The young lady that took our order looked at us and said “Do you know what you’re getting into”? Rome and I laughed like the fools we are and said “Yeah, no problem”. The young cashier called out to the shift manager in the back and he took us through the rules of the challenge and gave us some tips. Once we were briefed, we sat at our table and waited for the monster to come out of the oven. When it finally arrived at our table about 30 minutes later, Rome and I glanced at each other with the fear of an impending defeat washing away all of the machismo we had in our hearts just minutes earlier. This pizza was MASSIVE. 24 inches in diameter and an inch thick with crust before you even account for cheese and toppings. Both of us are accomplished eaters. We have noshed our way through pounds and pounds of food on all of our journeys, but the monster was not your average pizza hut special. We sat at opposite ends of the giant pizza tray and the shift manager counted us down. 3, 2, 1, the timer was started and we were off. The first bite was absolutely delicious. The thick crust melted like butter underneath the zesty layer of sauce and cornucopia of toppings. This was the point in the competition were we felt good and had a robust fighting spirit. We had not eaten a thing all day. A technique that Rome and I still argue about now. He feels like he could have eaten more if he had eaten something during the course of the day. I say we were screwed from jumpstreet! The pizza was sliced into 36 slices. After about 8 slices a piece, the monster jumped on our backs and began its wicked reign of gastrointestinal terror. “Come on Ice, don’t stop now!”, shouted Rome while snagging another slice from the beast. After 9 slices a piece, we stopped and talked. We both admitted to each other that we were about to explode. This admission is monumental for us because we are the quintessential pseudo tough guys in perpetual competition. If Rome was actually admitting that he was full, that means he was full 2 slices ago! We came to the agreement that we would eat 4 more slices a piece and discuss strategy after that. There was still plenty of time on the clock, but the spaces in our stomachs were shrinking away with every bite. What used to be a flavor extravaganza had now become a tedious chore. The crust was now unchewable and my jaw was sore. The toppings felt like speed bumps working their way down my fatigued gullet. Neither one of us got 4 more slices down. After 12 slices a piece, we took our final sips of lemonade to wash it all down and threw in our napkins. With more than 15 minutes left on the clock, we knew we were done. The shift manager came over and congratulated us on our valiant effort. He then mocked us as he took our dejected pictures for the Graziano’s wall of shame. To add insult to injury, he then asked us if we wanted a carry out box for the pizza we were leaving behind! At that very moment, I thought to myself I would never want to look at a pizza again for as long as I lived. Rome and I waddled our cheese filled bodies out of Graziano’s and plopped down in our car with our heads hung in defeat. “Next time we should do chicken wings”, Rome said before he cranked up the rental Ford Taurus and backed out of the parking space. Exactly one week later, I ordered pizza and it was delicious. Some people never learn!
Attached is an interview we did for a publication called Haute Vancouver after we participated in the 92nd annual Polar Bear Swim. Please give it a peek when you get the chance. Thanks!
What comes to your mind when I say “squeal like a pig”? Probably the movie Deliverance, right? The subtle strum of a melodic banjo; serving as a battle cry for an entire legion of disenfranchised, subhuman, rapacious country folk. A group of people hell bent on waging a war on every pompous city slicker that dares to come into the backwoods and disturb their rustic way of life. The imagery strikes such fear into outsiders that every change in wind direction, or rustle of leaves, causes glutei maximi to tighten shut with herculean force. This, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly where you need to go for your next vacation! The classic squeal like a pig scene was shot on the banks of the Chattooga River. The Chattooga is a tributary to the Tugaloo River that forms part of the border between Georgia and South Carolina. These unpredictable waters make for some of the most scenic white water rafting trips east of the Mississippi River. My good friend Rome and I (I’m Ice by the way, hello everybody) decided to take a rafting trip down the Chattooga as part of our ongoing travel show called Give Us The Strength. We were accompanied in our raft by a tour guide and another party of two that were just as enthused as we were to fight the intrepid rapids ahead. We all took our seats on the large blue raft and paddled out of the shallows and into the mischievous downstream current. The first few minutes on the raft were strangely alluring and calm. Even with all the other rafters on the river, all I could hear was the sounds of nature and my paddle occasionally dipping into the cool, clear water. It was one of those moments where everything slows down and all of your senses heighten. The air was so light and refreshing, the light breeze danced through the leaves as they rattled with delight. The birds chirped fervently and I swore I could hear the notes vibrate and bellow around in their throats before they opened their beaks to sing their songs for the world. Then it happened. The guide told us we were approaching our first set of rapids. It was a spot in the river aptly given the name “seven foot falls”. It was given this name because when the river is low and you can see the bed, there is a 7 foot drop in elevation. I liken it to a waterfall completely contained in a river. Our river guide began barking orders at us in an effort to straighten out the raft and launch us through the rapids to the calm swirling pool on the other side. This was the test we had all been waiting for. We paddled with all our might to the precipice of the cascading white water and shifted our weight in an effort to maintain our respective centers of gravity. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be typing this if we made it through unscathed! Our raft went sideways at the back end and basically capsized sending all of its contents (with the exception of the wise tour guide surprisingly) hurtling towards the water. I plunged into the cool torrent and began swimming for what felt like my life at the time. When I finally got my head above water, I was totally surrounded by darkness. I had no idea where I was. I could hear all of my fellow rafters, but I could not see anything. I thought to myself “Oh no! I’m in a cave! I went under and came up in some underwater cavern and nobody will be able to find me! This is how I am going to die.” Just before I was about to start screaming for dear life, I heard splashing heading in my direction. Then in an instant, the comforting day light was shining in my face again. Rome, who had looked around for me after the raft flipped and couldn’t find me, came to the conclusion that I was in the one place that nobody had looked yet. Under the upside down raft! Apparently the raft flipped over and landed on top of my head. When I came up, I came up under the raft, which explains why I had the headroom to come up and breath, but was also surrounded by darkness of the raft’s empty hull. Rome saw the “deer in the headlights” look on my face and began laughing hysterically at me as he put together in his own head the pseudo realizations that I must have been facing. At any rate, we flipped the raft back over, boarded again and continued with the trip. The rapids were thrilling, the scenery was amazing and the cost of the entire trip was very affordable. White water rafting is definitely nature’s roller coaster. Oh, and guess what!? We weren’t accosted by loathsome hill folk. How cool is that!
The late December snow and ice crunched almost rythymically under our feet as we approached the isolated dog kennel nestled in the backwoods of Whistler, BC. Dusk was rapidly turning into dark, but the fleet of Alaskan huskies designated to pull our sled were bouncing with energy like it was high noon. “Don’t let them lick you in the face!”, shouted one of the tour guides as she approached us bearing an arm full of harness equipment. “They have a raw meat diet, so we strongly discourage them from licking people….you know because of bacteria and stuff.” We continued petting the high strung canines weary of their “bacteria laced tongues” while our guide, Jen, gave us a brief history of dog sledding in the Canadian outback. One of the first things you will notice about working sled dogs is the odor! In a species where pecking order is everything, a leader NEEDS to smell like a leader. It is a primal stench that will absolutely permeate any clothing you are wearing. The next thing you will notice is the size (or lack thereof) of your sled team. We had an 8 dog team and the largest dog was probably 90 lbs. Everybody else in the pack was more like 70 lbs. Do not mistake this lack in size with a lack in heart, endurance or determination. I stepped on the skids jutting out of the back of the sled while Jen lifted the ice anchor out of the frozen soil. I then proceeded to use my right foot to lift the sled break out of the mounds of snow in front of it and said the one thing I had been dying to say my entire life…….”mush"! One trite command and we were off wooshing and meandering through the dark, icy, evergreen tree lined trails of the Callaghan valley. After about a quarter mile of intense mushing, “The Incident” happened. The crisp, clean, wintery breeze that was once blowing through my knit cap was now perfumed with the rankest stench that you could ever imagine. My brother Rome, who was playing camera man at the time, and our guide Jen gagged simultaneously as the awful smell circulated in their nostrils. Apparently, sled dogs poop WHILE they are running. Not before the run, not after when the excitement has worn off and they have some time to themselves, DURING! Now, If the lead dog poops, that means every dog behind him has to trample through the warm, moist pile AND the sled has to run over it. This is not your ordinary poop by the way. This is the poop of champions, laid by a hound that is much more primal and feral than any of the lap dogs lazy laying around 78.2 million American living rooms. This is the kind of smell that sticks to your ribs and leaves you debating rather or not you are actually tasting it as well as smelling it. The guide explained to us that the dogs are discouraged from relieving themselves on the trail, but how can you stop something like that? We’re talking about an animal that will run until his or her heart explodes if the musher doesn’t stop them on occasion and mandate a break. I’ve got to tell you, I have never been happier to smell doo doo in my life. I’m not writing this to discourage you from experiencing the joy of dog sledding yourself. I’m telling you this so that if you are ever in that position you will be prepared to enjoy the aroma of a champion. Godspeed!