Although on a map the distance between Sicily and Tunisia appears small the ferry is still an overnight ride. The boat is the same “Zeus’ Palace we rode on before, a mega half cruise ship half cargo vessel operated by the Italian carrier Grimaldi. The city of Palermo rests near the sea at a confluence of valleys. On either side of the city the coastline returns to majestic cliffs, in the winter topped with green foliage and dropping down to sometimes rough blue-grey seas.
But the day we pulled in on Zues’ Palace the seas were calm under the celestial ambience of grey clouds floating in a light blue sky. Those without Tunisian passports are allowed to jump to the front of the line for passport control. We were stamped onboard and passed over with a drug dog after we rolled off the boat. As we wait for the dog I show one of the customs official the bergamots in our basket and it leads to a small argument between them over weather or not it actually is a bergamot. After, one of them took an interest in the parsley we had, mistaking it for cilantro and ends up having to taste it to confirm it’s identity.
Back in Europe their seemed to be a certain emptiness that inhabits every aspect of the land, a certain placidity and permanence imbued in the senescence of every stone and field of gnarled olive trees.
People are calm and introverted, they seem to dwell easily without tension. We felt as if we had suddenly become invisible and unimportant and we welcomed the quietness with a sense of awe, transforming from the observed into the observer.
Once again we camped without concern on the sides of the road, in fields and on hillsides, in thickets of cattails and by the crashing waves of the sea.
On our second day we stopped between pockets of rain to gaze out over a herd of more than a hundred sheep, grazing in the foreground of a vast patchwork of differently sewn fields, each jostling their own bell to fill the valley with a tinkling harmony more complex and soothing than the most melodic wind chime.
Letting our ears sift through the delicate myriad we became enchanted with the variety of brown in a particular field apparently born of the different shades of wet and dry earth.
In the summer I have heard that Sicily is a land of browns and yellows but to us it will always be remembered as a place of lush greens and soft rich dark earth.
The kind of earth that moistens the floor of your tent by morning. Although there are many hotels, bed and breakfasts and campgrounds in Sicily we found a quiet out of the way spot to set up camp every evening.
Our third day it rained constantly. Just as we began to pitch our tent in a night of a dark forest it began to pour extremely hard and our narrow beams of light became the sparkling swords of a million ephemeral raindrops. As we struggled to prop up our wet and sagging home we unfortunately paid little attention to its location because as soon as we were inside there was a small pond outside our door the depth of which I could gauge from the half submerged water bottles standing on it’s undoubtably muddy bottom. As we stepped inside our tent their was the uneasy feeling of displacing one to two inches of water through the thin water resistant layer of cloth that was our groundsheet and tent floor. It did not take long before the pools of water began to form inside and we cooked dinner on a small bit of high ground in our home and let the gas burner run itself out, trusting that the fumes would escape easier than the heat. We fell asleep huddled together but eventually in slumber stretched out in cold pools of water and woke up very wet.
After our day of recouping we made it another fifty kilometers and found a nice spot in a cleared area that was above a tunnel our road passed through. Camping hidden amongst trees and bushes has its appeal but there is something majestic about camping out in the open and this was one of those nights.
But with the dawn came a strong wind that ripped our tent pegs from the ground and left us in a tangled mass of poles and fabric staring at each other from the warmth of our sleeping bags through what limited space we had.
That evening we ended up at a road end by a raging sea but protected from the wind by steep rock-walled sides. It wasn’t until we unpacked our gear that we realized our gas bottle was gone.
It quickly became the most devastating moment of our trip so far as we discovered we would be starved of the luxury of hot tea and cooked food. We hadn’t realized it but after all the cold headwinds and rain, this small red bottle was our lifeblood, it was everything we looked forward to at the end of each day. It was hard to look at each other but when we did, Rasham’s eyes welled up with tears and her face broke into a picture of utter hopelessness. “What are we going to do?” She sobbed. I myself was at a complete loss, not wanting to think how it could be gone or where we could have left it. What did this mean for the days ahead? We hugged, holding each other in our misery – we had to go back and find it. It could be weeks or months until we would get the opportunity to buy another stove, especially one that could burn gasoline.
The desperation of the moment convinced me it would be impossible to get through the night without some semblance of a stove. Using the mud and rocks beside us I quickly shaped a small oven with a vent in the back and a flat cooking surface.
Rasham helped by gathering some small twigs and wood and in an hour we had hot food and water. By the end of the evening the stove was burning nicely unattended and in the rejuvenating warmth we worked out where we must have left the stove.
Earlier that day we filled it at a gas station and put it in our front basket after it was full before going in for some coffee. While we were inside the bike took a hard an unexplained fall.
When I came outside I found that my camera had hit a protruding screw inside it’s case and shattered it’s view screen as well as destroying it’s lens. The devastation of the broken camera must have completely distracted us from the missing gas bottle which must have flown out of the basket upon impact.
This fall marks the death of Trenton’s camera. Earlier in Tunisia an accidental spill shattered his main lens. The lens cap for his newly purchased macro lens broke not too long after that. And this spill, the final fatal blow, rendered his remaining panoramic lens and the camera itself useless.
‘We’ll fix it’, I tell him sweetly.
‘Its like some dark force desired to see it in ruins. Maybe I’m meant to take a break from photography’. The sadness in his voice is apparent. He resolves to send it home and supply the blog with pictures taken from our iPhone cameras instead.
And now the missing gasoline bottle. We swallow the harsh reality and consider our options: we decide that we could make it the thirty kilometers back to the gas station far quicker on an unloaded bike. This meant that Trent would have to go it alone, and I would wait for him in the company of our gear at a cafe we eyed just a few kilometers behind us. Thirty kilometers back, and thirty to return; it would take him all day considering the eastern headwinds we had fought patiently to arrive here yesterday. These circumstances were most unfortunate, for we could not be certain the gas canister would be there and our going back for it might thus be a tremendous waste.
Into the night Trenton and I talked, lightening up a little, discussing how, if its the case we have indeed lost our gas canister forever, we can continue to cook food with fire, rigging tin cans or digging coal pits in sand. We talk about how the bike trip teaches us self-reliance and independence, and then some essential piece of equipment is lost or breaks and we realize that the success of our trip depends upon our equipment – bicycle, sleeping bags, stove, tent, rain gear, panniers…or does it?
We conclude that our things are small and simple comforts – transportation, warmth, privacy, hot tea to end a cold day – nice things to have which soften the hardships of travel. But as we learn tonight, they are not necessities for life, a truth exhibited by Trenton’s emergency-inspired earthen stove. We recall the walker who passed us in Portugal carrying a stick with a sack the size of a plastic bag through three countries. We talk about someday leaving the bike to wander on foot for long stretches of uninhabited Earth, not carrying money, eating whatever food comes, sipping rain water, walking courageously and simultaneously into our liberation and our doom. We talk about it, and then pull out Trenton’s laptop to a enjoy a mental vacation from our combined epiphanies and mournings, tuning guiltlessly away from the thunderous clap of ocean waves and into a Reno 911 marathon. it’s been a long and hard day.
We awaken and begin closing camp with few words spoken between us. Today is going to be a tough one and neither of us are truly prepared to face it. As Trenton loads the last of the tent poles into the bag, a Swedish couple, on a morning walk to greet the sea from where they live at the campground a few hundred meters up the road stumbles upon us.
Naturally, we share of our journey, a conversation into which Trenton slips a brief summary of our current predicament. They wish us well, and with a big shabby dog trailing behind them, leave us to pack our camp once again in silence.
A few minutes pass before the woman comes again trotting down the hill towards us. She says a few words to Trent and then turns and leaves up the path again.
‘What was that?’ I ask.
‘She just offered us a ride back to the gas station’, he says in a soft tone of disbelief.
‘WHAT?!?!’ I’m ecstatic. The hardship forecasted for today has just been dramatically reduced. This is the impossible solution for which I had secretly hoped but would not allow myself to expect.
We meet her and her husband at their RV lot in the campground and climb into the vehicle, leaving our tandem to rest. They are inclined to help, they say as the RV bounces easily over sweeping miles of paved road, because they traveled a lot when they were young and were also helped by many strangers. With three little yapping dogs riding shotgun, we drive toward the gas station where hopefully, fingers-crossed, our red gasoline canister will be waiting.
It didn’t take him long to recognize us – ‘Bottiglia! Bottiglia!’ he cries in our direction. The young brown haired rosy cheeked Sicilian signals us to follow him and opens a side door towards the rear of the station. It sits on a bottom level shelf, this ordinary thing which to us means the world. I grab it and hug it in my arms and Trenton showers the attendant with thank you’s, offering a couple euros which he smilingly and kindly refuses to take. Disaster averted!
After a lunch of BBQ pork steaks, green salad and potato salad prepared in the cutesy RV lot belonging to our Swedish saviors we say our goodbyes. Confidence and faith restored we return to the road, headwinds splashing our faces which we slice through contentedly. Sicily is so beautiful neither of us complain about the constant wind and chilling conditions.
Never take a day lightly when the skies are filled with wind. Wind is like the darkness of sound. It drowns out a sharp noise, a hard blow.
A few days later we encounter another storm which keeps us from moving on that day and the next. Our camp was damp but mostly dry inside and we left our tent midday upon a small hill in a vacant marshy area to ride into town and resupply on food and water and recharge our batteries. We flew on the tandem without our bags, bouncing over patched pavement with rain water hitting our faces and collecting in our clothes until they hang heavy off our arms. There was a lot of traffic and the sky was dark. We don’t really have breaks anymore – Trenton uses his feet to slow down.
It was towards the end our time in Sicily that I thought about the fact that we probably smell. It’s hard to go into a cafe and sit down when you think you smell, even if you can pay for two cappuccinos. I wash my body but it’s hard to get the smell out of our clothes. We don’t want to wash them because its difficult to dry clothes with the weather being so wet, and Trenton only has one pair of pants.
Totally we were in Sicily for ten days. We didn’t shower once although we experimented several times with sponge baths and once stopped at a swelling river and sat in the sun on a large rock with a bar of homemade soap, dipping one limb in at a time or standing in the shallows feeling the cool water with our fingers.
Every day we rode increasing numbers of yellow flowers appeared in the fields. The most prolific in bloom they often turned whole hillsides the color of lemon rinds or became a bright gilded sea from which olive or orange trees rose in neat rows.
One windy morning we were discovered behind a grocery store digging into orange marmalade and chocolate pudding and were give some local salami by a friendly employee. With wind and rains these past two weeks have been hard, not to mention the series of unfortunate events, but the sunny days are filled with welcomed warmth and unforgettable beauty.
Syracuse sits like a queen on a throne of aquamarine waters, regal, sophisticated, and well-adorned. The scent skirts off the Mediterranean and onto the roads like winds over lines of clean laundry.
Sicily’s beauty will stand out among some of the most magnificent landscapes we have ever traveled.