Calabria: The Beautiful Big Toe

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Etna, Sicily’s largest volcano erupting in the evening light as we bicycle by, looking for a camping spot.

Alert with wide eyes we look both ways, speed-reading traffic, waiting patiently for a break in the steady stream of cars.

‘Now!!!’ I scream. Trenton flings himself over the guardrail lifting the tandem clumsily and carrying it hurriedly down the slope into the field and out of sight.
The next onslaught of cars is foretold by an intrusion of penetrating lights. I casually lift one leg to rest my foot on the metal fence, twiddling my tangled ponytail between cold fingers. When this herd has passed, I drop my act and catapult myself over the guardrail, grabbing the remainder panniers, and waddle down the embankment toward where Trenton stands, quiet and concealed in the shadows.
‘That was intense!’ I said, cleats clicking and feet tripping over the old stone path. Trying to camp off-road without being seen is a difficult hurdle to cross, especially with six bags and an extra large bicycle.

We crossed a man-made twig barrier to arrive upon the lush grounds of a crumbling castle, violating the unspoken juridical request of whomever holds claim to this historic place. As a general rule we NEVER camp where there are clear demarcations denoting private property. However it’s well past darkness, our odometer reads 106km, and 50 yards further along the highway will dock us in the middle of another small town. This is one of those ‘it’s okay to break the rules’ situations, of course, ‘so long as we flee before sunrise and leave not a single trace’.

After we’ve established camp, with hot water boiling and smelly socks airing we stand outside the tent marveling what should be a World Wonder, Etna, a mountain who rises from pockets of concentrated clouds with a stark majesty paralleled only by such things as a sunset beyond the infinity of sea. She happens also to be bejeweled with several snaking strands of marmalade lace and molten ruby studs ; she is a volcano and she is erupting.
‘How freaking awesome’, are the penurious words I mutter, a lacking representation of my complete and utter awe of Etna.

When our indulgence of her fiery demonstrations is complete we start preparations for dinner. As my knife scalps the furry nub of a second red onion my imagination, unhinged from reality by the spaciousness of silence, visits a fancied past wherein the rubbled ground upon which we will sleep is an elaborate promenade where stands a King whom amidst the company of knights and nobleman consummates his plans for war.

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The next morning true to our compromise we pack our camp and hit the road just as the sun shines its initial good morning. Small town after small town we are nearing completion of our time in Sicily. We pass a grocery store whose hideous cloak of neon orange and pinks causes my face to cringe. Some modern architecture is undeniably an eye sore of bright plastic colors seemingly designed with the intention to distract, attract, seduce, irritate – lure, hook and reel. But what makes Sicily so beautiful, pristine, sophisticated without arrogance and mature without pretension, is that her structures are nearly indistinguishable from the landscape into which they are built, complimenting the natural earthen forms of hillsides and waterfronts instead of disrupting her beauty for the sake of commercialism. Where one man would move a stone to build his castle, the men of Sicily built the castle around the stone.

It was a long days’ ride to the ferry docks in Messina. We hadn’t planned on catching the ferry too late into the night but an accident with a parked car earlier motivated us to get as far away from Sicily as possible, and fast. I guess a rogue string from a front pannier caught Trenton’s pedal and the bike pulled a hard right, curtailing our course and causing a collision with a small red Fiat, an impact which sent our other front pannier flying a few hundred feet into the mess behind us. Shocked and shaken we made an emergency stop and I ran back to retrieve the pannier and assess the damage on the car. A group of Italians who had witnessed the event seemed only concerned with our safety.
‘Okay? Okay?’ he said, gliding his hands over his body.
‘Yeah, we’re okay’, I said.
‘Okay good’, he said in broken English. He seemed to also be saying ‘don’t worry about the car’, and considering that most cars are dented symbols of a general lack of concern regarding automobile aesthetics, we remedied our situation and quickly pedaled off.
‘What if that car belongs to the wife of a mafia hit man?”, I said to Trenton. He instantly increased our speed, and stated then that no matter how late, we would be leaving Sicily tonight.

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Thus after a thirty minute ferry ride similar to the crossing from Seattle to Trenton’s home of Bainbridge Island, we arrived on the mainland just in time for darkness. Stopping in at a hotel, we declined to spend the $80 euros for a room and reluctantly set out to search for a place to camp. As 9pm approached my muscles began to stubbornly refuse these overtime hours of hard uphill work. We stopped in the road for a break beneath a warm wash of street light and looked up; a small flat spot stared back. Though in violation of the number one rule of wild camping, we tiredly lugged our gear up the face of the hillside, and unrolled our sleeping bags within our tent in plain view of whosoever happened to look up.

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The next day we discovered a flat tire a few kilometers into our morning ride. We stopped to fix it and moved on quickly; rainclouds were obvious in the distance. Pedaling quickly and in search of a cafe, we made it into a touristic venue in time to avoid the first round of sky-falling water drops. This cafe is dressed like the ocean with murals of sea life all around.

‘Due cappuccinos, gratzi’, I say in my best Italian accent to the man behind the counter. By now Trenton and I can have a decent conversation in Italian by speaking a blend of English and Spanish eager-heartedly which most Italians with a patient ear and sizable tolerance seem to be able to understand.

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We ride throughout the day, uphill and downhill along the west coast whose beauty competes with the beauty of its sister Sicily; white castles on cliffs, spots of foliage-crusted earth floating near long bays of feathered sand, wildflower vines spilling over balconies linked to the brick and stone slabs of ancient homes. The scent of burning garbage in the air. The sound of the sea. Whenever a truck carrying hoards of citrus or crates of fennel bulbs passes, a delightful whiff of sweet oils holds the attention of my nose. At the top of a 1500 foot peak we hear the roar of running water and, leaving our bike to rest against a guard of layered rock we race towards it with our bar of soap and handkerchiefs in hand. The water is icy cold but we’re hot from the climb and undress to bathe in the small pool of refreshing water easily and eager to experience that once daily aspect of our pre-biking lives, clean.

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In my sports bra and leggings I pause in awe at myself, barefoot crouched in a squat and drawing water in handfuls to my face and underarms. Who am I? It used to be that certain aspects of my character would prohibit me from taking such action. Nature was once something I visited, enjoyed for a while, witnessed like art in a gallery, never something I mingled in for too long. Never something I trusted. In this moment of profound realization I am aware that I have changed. This blip of clarity washes over me like the cool waters and I dab gingerly dry both the wetness and wonder with my favorite black handkerchief, redressing and joining Trenton’s side on the side of the road.

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That night we end up near a port with a lot of abandoned property, houses abandoned and decayed, and empty factories, windows broken, weeping glass eyes fractured and peering inwards at the vacancy which has replaced whatever once was. In some ways it was good for camping but it was also a little eerie. Like there might be others like us around, and there might be people who look out for people like us.

We picked a place in what appeared like an abandoned satsuma orchard.  There were some brambles and tall grass. The fruit on the trees was ripe but sparse.  Near sunset we heard the breaking of wood and saw a hooded figure snapping off dry branches from the orchard but he disappeared before getting too close.  I was a little uneasy that night, looking up out the top of the tent through the leaves at the half moon, looking again and again as it moved and sunk lower until I woke up and it was dawn.

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Later, the sun was up and we made tea and cooked our leftovers from last night. After the sunlight brightened our tent I came to a young tree and pulled a large satsuma and peeled it. The citrus here is varied and abundant.  The small ones that are dark orange and easy to peel are Mandarins and the the lighter orange small ones are Satsumas and then there are the oranges, lemons and bergamots but within each category there are so many varieties and you never know what you will get.  We eat 2-3 kilos of citrus every day.  Besides what I would call a regular orange, we bought some that had almost no acidity or tartness and tastes like an orange creamsicle.  Then we bought some that had a red blush and inside the fruit was also spiked with the blood red pigment.  These are sour, not as an undeveloped fruit but an evolved tartness felt by the ease of the peel and the ply of the slices and the uncompact supple juiciness of the beads.

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This satsuma had a thin skin but was exceptionally firm.  The firmness helped the beads stay intact as it was peeled so it didn’t bleed.  The slices came apart with a small ripping sound but the skin was not tough and the beads exploded with a flavorful juice.

I don’t believe in stealing, but I’m pretty sure the orchard was abandoned.  I didn’t take any the first time but when I went back to look for Rasham’s scarf I filled my pockets with fruit from the same tree.  One I picked from another tree with an overly stippled rind had an excess of white foam between the skin and the rind and was intensely sour with copious seeds huddled at its center.

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Two Africans passed us on bicycles as we set out.  We drifted along behind them until they turned off the road into a gravel lot.  As we passed by we looked to a huge empty space filled with rows of tents.  Most but not all were the same blue tent.  Clothes hung up on makeshift clotheslines and hundreds of Africans watched us pass. There were living in a small city of tents, a refugee camp of sorts.

A few blocks later we came upon about ten white women with short skirts and made up faces.  Some stood, some sat, completely out of place, in a random spot on the side of the road.  The bike rolled within ten feet of one of them and I watched a face as we passed.  She looked at us with cavernous eyes, sloppily painted red lips and disheveled hair.  Her legs in wide stance from a jean skirt.  We passed more Africans on bikes on our way into town.

This was not the last time we saw prostitutes plying their trade along remote sections of road in Southern Italy, waving and wiggling their hips at passing trucks.

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It’s Saturday and we are far ahead of schedule, nearing the town of Amantea slightly north of which is the village Belmonte Calabria where the Vipassana course which we are scheduled to sit will be held. We’re less than 60 kilometers from our destination, with five days to spare and since it starts to rain we decide to afford the luxury of staying indoors at a small bed and breakfast in Pizzo. After all, it”s been fifteen days since either of us have slept on a bed or seen the inside of a shower. We turn the heater on and spend all of the next two days in a reclined position save for when we are out buying groceries or washing each article of clothing in our possession in the bidet, leeching into warm soapy waters the black filth which still clings to our clothes from our time in the smoke and sand of Tunisia.

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On Monday we head North to Amantea and camp along a religious walking trail behind an altar where inside is a pastel rendition of a Saint. We are surrounded by a thick forest of pines. Upon the hill the coastline is clear against a blue sky which blends effortlessly into the blue of the ocean. I had not known the depth of the color blue prior to meeting the Mediterranean. It has been with us for so much of our journey, in our pictures, plans, thoughts. Upon how many of her shores have we now slept? Too many to count. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, while in silence and completely involved in a period of meditation, with Trenton sitting on the male side and not an eye’s glance shared between us two, it would be in the blue of the ocean that I would seek, in moments of departure from an otherwise welcomed isolation, a friend. Like how we sometimes talk to stars or cry to the moon; patient and pure, nature is always willing to receive our everything.

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Everywhere you go, no matter what you do, there will be a lesson in whatever happens to you.  The only thing you have to do, is discover what the lessons are and even if for a time you don’t discover any lessons, later that will be a great lesson in itself.  And even if, for your whole life, you never discover any lessons, you will undoubtably become one of someone else’s greatest lessons.  

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The following day is Tuesday, and tomorrow starts the course. We push the bike to Belmonte Calabria, a small village at the edge of a cliff built within the ancient walls of a castle in ruins, and have a few cups of coffee before heading to a grocery store to buy the fixings for both dinner and lunch. We push our bike closer and closer to our destination until a clearing partitioned from the road by a woody wall of Arunda donax calls us to rest. We lay out our groundsheet and soak up the remaining rays of sun before a dark cloud steals our warmth and replaces it with wetness. Before the first drops of rain I dry my cheeks from where leaking eyes have spilled tears. I privately fear what lays ahead, to be ripped from the road and steadied on a meditation mat.

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‘What’s the matter?” Trenton is attuned to the slightest shifts in my mood.
‘Things are always changing and it’s hard sometimes, that’s all’. He unzips his bag, an invitation for me to join him inside the radiant lining of his -40F comforter, and pulls me in by tugging lovingly at my shoulder. I slide in, sounds of sobbing muted by the warble of wood-chimes in wayward winds.

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Heading into a period of meditation is to hang your life on a coat rack and step into a white room upon whose walls the myriad offspring of emotion and thought can’t stick. Time will soon unfold without measure. Days will pass. Our eyes will remain mostly shut. The five sense doors through which we experience our world in the outward extroverted exercise of cycling will be closed for this introverted inward holiday. I feel myself growing anxious as the hour approaches. I want to pass seamlessly into tomorrow but tremors of agitation induce these tears; a snake sheds its skin by rubbing against the roughness of rock. There are bridges we must cross whenever life breeds dramatic change, and the train must slow down before it can stop. It’s here that I wriggle and squirm, dethroning existing parasites of fear in order to enter tomorrow’s domain like a warrior. All is well, I sigh. I pull Trenton’s arm evermore tightly around me and drift away from familiar shores into an afternoon microsleep.

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Before dark the rainfly emerges from its sheath and we huddle within our abode which is struggling to stay upright beneath the pounding pressure of rain and wind until the following morning.

A police officer approaches our camp about the same time as we awaken – our huge orange rainfly is by no means a master of disguise. But, after a few words and a glance over of our passports he walks away. Though not asked to leave, we pack up anyhow and ride downhill to the center of town for a final round of cappuccinos and a cheese sandwich shared between us while we attempt to dry a saturated tent and soggy sleeping bags. At 2:30pm we begin the final push back up the hill towards the Villagio Belmonte Calabria, a hotel-resort which is to be the site of our ten-day Vipassana course. As is our tradition, Trenton and I stand before the entrance gate, face to face, eye to eye, mentally filing our journey into the archives of our united history while in a modest embrace, his hand on my shoulder, mine upon his chest. Though we travel together we journey alone; the bonds of our young marriage made stronger in knowing this. One final kiss, one final shared moment, and a new chapter begins…now.

7 responses to “Calabria: The Beautiful Big Toe

  1. So happy you are both doing well. The things you have seen to me are overwhelming. I cannot imagine all that you have been through both good and bad. Love you posts, always have to read them over. Stay safe and I love you both. God Bless

    • Hi and thanks Connie! We are pushing our way through thick and thin…and it’s always worth it! xoxoxoxo

  2. Rasham, your writing takes on a poetic resonance. Adventuring by bicycle gives fantastic opportunities for metaphysical insight. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    • Thanks Robbie! I haven’t always liked it – it being the ‘chore’ of pedaling myself around, but lately I’ve broken through some deep personal barriers and have started to see it in a whole new way, like how you described it…anyways be well and thanks again – Rasham

  3. You write beautifully also, Rasham. Thank you for sharing your emotions, too. I can feel through you what it feels like for you and Trenton to make changes on purpose as you stand at the entrance of the center, not knowing what the future holds and what it feels like for you to step into the abyss with all your courage. Keep on going! It is worth it! With love, Carrie

    • Thank you Carrie! I feel a lot like a horse and the bike trip is the breaking in…I finally feel like I get it, you know? Its a good feeling – Trenton likes it because I complain a whole lot less and actually want to push up mountains! :) haha, thanks for your compliments and we’ll see you in June!

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