Crossing Italy: Nutella, a Sailboat, New Friends and Vipassana

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This post begins with an account of our 10 Day Vipassana meditation in Calabria, Italy.  If you wish to skip to the part about biking scroll down to below the picture of Rasham next to our bike.

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I entered into meditation not having slept inside more than twice in the past three weeks.  This course was not at one of the many meditation centers but instead held at a 4 star resort perched 1,500 feet above the Mediterranean on the side of a steep hillside.  I have always felt that these courses are good for me but this was the first time I felt no resistance to doing nothing for ten days with my eyes closed.  In fact as I sat down for the first time I thought ‘there is nothing else I would rather be doing’.

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Rasham just before the end of an hour sit at Amod’s house in Brindisi

After taking our vows of morality to create a firm foundation for our work, those being to abstain from sex and not to kill, steal, consume intoxicants or lie (the latter being ensured by the infamous noble silence), we entered into a three day period of sharpening our awareness.  This is practiced by paying unceasing attention to the breath as it passes through the nostrils.  On the fourth day we begin practicing Vipassana, the component that builds wisdom.  By observing the sensations in the body, greatly enhanced from sharpened awareness, we are able to experience not only the essence of the contact between mind and matter but feel the nature of reality itself, a constantly changing phenomenon.  But also within the insight of the ephemeral nature of reality, is the insight of the ephemeral nature of the quality of sensations.  By remaining equanimous to our sensations we are able to place conscious decision in between the timeless process of reacting to pain and pleasure and form a glimpse of the possibility of a life free from blind reaction.  But the final step is to discover that behind our ceaseless reactions is a sea of compassion and love for all living things, only waiting to be discovered.  This is in brief the only explanation I can give for a process I know little about and am only beginning to discover, but that draws me in deeper every time.

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Stones on the beach in Calabria

And like I said, for both of us, after weeks of ceaseless biking in rain and sun, we entered into silence without the slightest resistance, happy to do the work we had been away from so long.  At first I questioned the merit of writing down my experiences in meditation, but now I find them fascinating the way one would find any autobiographical writing years later, as a revelation in the ignorance of our past selves.  So until I learn to just stop writing altogether, here are a few words about what happened:

I had an idea once that the present is the only real thing, that the past and present are only illusions.  I tried to employ this to my advantage in meditation by calling my thoughts of past and future ‘phantoms’ ghosts that were haunting my mind.  This seemed to work for a time And then the thoughts seemed to gain strength and multiply.  As always I became distressed when I felt too many thoughts begin to cloud my observation of sensation, and then I again reremembered that equanimity is the only way to measure success and I relaxed and let them come, only trying to slip around them to focus on sensation and not block them.  But overall the days passed by for both of us with little resistance.  It was one of the first sits either of us have completed, not counting down the days to our impending freedom.  For the first time we were content to sit with our own minds and not be pining for escape.

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Broken rear rack mounts
Broken front rack
Loose tandem chain
Broken rear disc break
Weak front breaks as well as weak secondary rear cantilever breaks
Broken rack screws lodged in frame
Seriously untrue front wheel

This is how we left our jolly green giant, and thus how she is returned.

But coming out of the meditation, saddling the bike never felt so right.  In the afterglow of ten days of hard meditative work we look over her green frame in a state of love and laughter. Since our tandem first entered into our lives Trenton and I, clearly green to parenting, rather than focus on her assets and foster her well-being by being attentive to her needs, criticized and neglected even her most urgent cries for help. Every time something went wrong we wontedly assigned blame to the poor quality of her parts, her impotent nature a consistent failure to accommodate our egregious demands. We grew to loathe her, speaking of our more favorite bikes at home whilst in her company, vociferously wishing with abysmal lament that it was they upon whom we were riding, and not she. Our unfortunate ugly duckling, our regrettable responsibility.

Although it felt like we had barely made it on this broken and battered bike, it now seems like the broken racks, worn tires and sagging chain are only minor obstacles.  The zip ties are holding the rack to the frame securely and the sagging chain needs only to be gently turned and it won’t come off that often.  The tires just need to be pumped up every so often.  This machine is far from the ultra strong and thick tubed steel bikes we assembled to ride across the states but in its own way, it will continue to move as long as it’s treated gingerly and with respect.   At this point I don’t think anyone else but us could make it more than 50 kilometers on our green giant.  After 4 months I know just how to balance and where to hold it’s overloaded aluminum limbs. How much pressure to apply and when to shift so over stretched the chain won’t come flying off.

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Mirian’s amazing outdoor kitchen

 Riding her down the steep slope away from the center I felt like there was some ineffable congruity between the meditation and our lifestyle.  Although I can’t quite place it, it has something to do with the isolation from normal life, creating vulnerability to meet lessons and challenge, bearing the ups and downs with a smile, and being outside, feeling the changes of nature.  We take our time, there is no sense of urgency.  As we prepare to leave the center we are gifted two jars of honey, leftovers of Day 11’s breakfast meal of sweet Indian khir, a liter of milk, and a bag of kiwis and pears.

Several kilometers later the three of us park outside a grocery store which might very well be the only grocery store in all of Italy opened on Sunday. We don’t waste an opportunity to hoard a healthy inventory of fresh vegetables and favorite foods, a thoroughly enjoyed privilege after every sit.

Kneeling to impregnate our sacks with the double tall order of Trent’s spree, our process is interrupted by an American-born woman named Marian.
‘Pennsylvania!’ I remark. She is the first American we have met since arriving to Madrid this past November.
‘Would you like to join me for lunch?’

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We find her house easily and she escorts us into her front yard. Mia, her lively dog, is a joyful addition to our blossoming day. Her house is a castle, literally. Based on her and her husband’s adoration of Italy’s exquisite architectural pulchritude, her house is a living postcard complete with a classically trimmed tower and an antique rock slab perched over her front door upon which is written a wise locution in latin. Her garden is a collection of varied plants, most of which are familiar to me as they are common in the states; magnolias, forsythia, agave, spiny cactus, and citrus to name a few.

Denise, her daughter, a lively conversationalist and energetic host takes us for a tour of her in-house classroom (where she teaches English privates) and a walk along the waterfront. She shares with us many things, including the unfortunate state of Italy’s political and economical affairs. A lack of jobs galvanized by an impoverished economy combined with a merciless enforcement of tax laws has led one husband, father and businessman, to recently and tragically end his life, she tells.

The breakfast and lunch meals served during Vipassana courses are simple, nutritious, and vegetarian. For ten days I sustained on a double daily serving of food, a tablespoon of oats for breakfast and a small sized portion of brown rice and cooked vegetables for lunch. The plate Marian places before me – primo piatto – is linguine pasta with ground beef and a red sauce totaling thrice the amount which for ten days I had become accustomed, the enticing feast steaming with a most tantalizing aroma. I am reluctant to dig in, but upon first taste my hesitation fades and I feed happily, consuming the portion close to its entirety.

Denise lifts my plate, a few pasta hairs remain, and exchanges it with a fresh one…for what? Secondo piatto – meat skewers and salad. A traditional culinary experience in Italy begins with antipasti, that is, before pasta, small plates of cheeses, crackers, breads, or appetizer-sized portions of flavorful seafoods, vegetables, charcuterie, or otherwise dried or cured and flavored meats. The meal then advances from ground zero to round one – pasta. There is no end to the varieties available for consumption in Italy, so I won’t bother listing them all, but understand that the grocery stores in Italy designate a full aisle of space to packaged varieties in addition to what’s available in the cold case.

After pasta the meal continues with a choice of either meat or seafood (depending of course on where in Italy you are) with the option of adding a vegetable side of salad or a cooked seasonal assortment. Following this is desert had with Italian cafe, most commonly an espresso, cappuccino, americano – but not so often a latte. ‘Latte’ means ‘milk’ in Italian and does not refer to the 16-32oz sweet vanilla coffee drink we order from Starbucks in the states.

‘Is it hard for you, being a woman?’ Marian asks near conclusion of our meal.
‘Yes!’ I admit. I decline to inform her of the river of tears that swept me across the states.
‘But I have learned how to supply the feminine with certain travel-friendly provisions.’ I share with her my evening facial routine, a eucalyptus or green tea steam followed by a tender application of oils and gels,  and the skirt I keep with me to deflect my macho masculine identity on days off from riding.

Gorged and with a plate of delicious Denise Cake (inside of which lurks my new favorite thing, Nutella) and fried carnivale sweets before me, a sibling pair of English students joins us at the table. Young, part Albanian, part Italian, we test their English skills with basic getting-to-know-you questions while Denise nudges them along. Francesca, big brown-eyed and shy, is far less forthcoming than her bouncy brother, declining to answer and shrinking in her chair and passing the torch instead to him, a behavior I immediately recognize as it once existed within myself as a habit born of an austere quality of self-doubt.

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ – the question.
‘An engineer’ – her response.
‘That’s wonderful’. She smiles and my heart melts. We don’t so often spend time around children though we often behave as one.

Our lunch with Marian concludes with a show-and-tell. She introduces us to American based Father and author Thomas Keating whose philosophies and insights surprisingly mirror the teaching of Buddha and shows us around her house.
‘This is me.’ A beautiful blond with cropped wavy hair stares at me from the wall. I peel my eyes from the picture and look to the 74 year old Marian. Oh how we change; grow old, change.

She gifts us lemons from her tree, a large jar of Nutella (which will be consumed in precisely three days) and a slab of bread. The faded Pittsburg Steelers sticker plastered to the rear of her European car reminds me of my mother’s Pennsylvanian roots and triggers in me an ephemeral homesickness.

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We ride until the sun disappears and easily find a spot less than twenty kilometers from Marian’s house in a thicket of giant cane. It rains lightly while we meditate an hour and afterwards sip a large quantity of hot lemon water. We talk into the night about our respective experiences the past ten days and begin to lay the groundwork for the next leg of our journey, placing more importance on the meditation than the miles and thus getting a sense of the foundation for our future plans.

The following morning we return to the road and ride past heaps of unkempt garbage in towns stricken with symptoms of second-world poverty. Our mission is to get a working phone with internet (since free wifi is a thing of the past in Italy) so as to call our mothers and let them know we are alive and okay.

Hearing my mother’s voice for the first time while pushing up the perimeter of a 2400 foot hill on tired feet I couldn’t help but release from the store in my eyes the tears which for her I seem to always have saved. All is well at home, she relays. The same for Trenton’s mom too.

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We happen upon optimum conditions for camp at around 1500 feet in elevation – a park with benches and water and flatness and adequate privacy. It’s a cold night but our little stove heats the tent to an overwhelming 85F – Trenton strips down to his shorts and I do the same. Biking in winter is suicide without this small yet paramount luxury.

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The next day we complete the climb and glide down the slope’s backside. Stopping in at an MD Discount, Trenton picks up the fixings for Nutella Banana Crepes, an extra special indulgence and something for which to look forward at the end of today. We make camp early tonight in a thicket of prickly sticky vines only yards from the road but well-hidden amongst the brush and trees.

The following day we forgive our mistake of taking the wrong turn and again settle in for camp just a little past 3pm. Muddy from our push down this dead-end road, we apply the finishing touches to our plan and purchase a flight to Seattle. This bike trip  which began in San Francisco last May will be over in Brussels in June. Here is our reasoning in steps:

The itch – tickets to Seattle from Brussels in June are the cheapest tickets EVER. We had planned to fly home in August after a tour of England and Ireland but we save up to $1200 by calling it quits in June.  Also:

  1. At this point, we feel as though we ought to give more time to sitting and serving Vipassana meditation courses. Inspired by our most recent sit, we have glimpsed what is possible with increased meditation and in order to derive the most benefit from our travels our meditation practice needs to be strong.
  2. Europe is expensive. This is due in part to the added cost of ferrying ourselves to warmer winter locations, and staying indoors during cold weather.
  3. The tandem. Though a great bike and excellent relationship builder, she is not made for long-distance touring and struggles to hold our immense weight. She will fly home with us and on the small-breasted terrain of Bainbridge Island will serve as a perfect commuter bike to and from yoga, the pool, and work.
  4. Work. Our resources are limited and we will work to replenish our funds for our next bike trip – Asia? Africa? Stay tuned!
  5. Our families. The thought of spending time with them seems more important than continuing to cycle a consecutive and circuitous ’round the world route. We figure we can pause the trip and pick it up at any time with intermittent pop-ins to our respective west coast based homes.

I am quiet after the purchase is made.
‘Are we giving up?’ I break the long silence with a hesitant query.
‘No. We’re not going home defeated. We’re just going home.’
Despite the reasoning above, we struggle to make sense of our decision to end our travels just when summer’s promise of elongated daylight and warmth declares it the perfect season for two-wheeled expeditions. Our timing is clearly off, but for us it is the right thing to do. Besides, our tickets are non-refundable. We have to make peace with our plan.

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The following morning we rise early and push the bike through the mud flats and onto the jaded road where we will reverse our wrong turn 5 kilometers to pick up on the right path. We’re stopped in the middle of an intersection between two bicycle shops debating as to whether we should spend some time alleviating some of the bike’s chronic ailments when I eye on opportunity to dispose of our garbage bag across the street in a vacuous green bin. As I make the pilgrimage to the trashcan Trenton is met by two Italian cyclists out for a morning ride, Oreste and Gianluca. We gladly accept an invitation for a classical Italian meal and follow them through fava bean fields and miles of blossoming peach trees to Oreste’s dwelling by the edge of the sea.

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A community of waterfront properties stands in chic contrast to the surrounding bleak and barren land’s end. We lean our bike against his building after pausing for a photo shoot.

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Inside the condo is modern and cool. It’s one of three of Oreste’s dwellings; his main home is in the central mountains of Italy, and his second vacation condo sits near the northern waters in the region of Venice. He offers us a shower and a proposal to wash our dirty clothes.

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‘If you stay tonight we could go for a ride on the boat’, says Gianluca, a twenty-four year old novice sailer who knows English well enough to translate for Oreste.

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After we’ve showered and when our clothes are flurriedly spinning cartwheels in the lavatrice, we board the 14.5m sailing vessel which rests buoyantly a few footfalls beyond the backyard.

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Gianluca untethers its strings and pushes us away from the aqueous parking lot, a long series of twisting canals upon whose grassy berms the condo community sits.

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Hello, Ionian Sea! The wind is chilling but fresh and a few minutes into our sail we are met by a family of curious dolphins.

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One swims belly-up alongside our ship; another peers at us from a vertical position, nose pointing up, sleek gray skin drying in the air above the limpid water line. So cool.

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Where am I? The life I left behind to travel by bike is as distant as the disappearing coastline. In many ways, biking is the solution to the mental anxieties which were once a part of my everyday life. I used to worry about what I would become. A doctor? A lawyer? Would I have a big house? How many kids? Money, where will it come from? So deep were my worries I was subject to prolonged states of mental paralysis, secretly unhappy and unsatisfied, outwardly grumpy and glum. My attention turns from thought to gorge on the sight of dolphins at play; carefree, jubilant, real. Real. My worry and stress, they were not real. They were an illusion, imaginings rooted in fear, parts of a reality I no longer entertain. Tiny blasts of ocean spray are the sounds of dolphins breathing. So long as life continues to provide for me the lessons I need to grow, so long as challenges find me and I face them courageously, so long as I don’t grow bitter with complacency or blame others for my problems and mistakes, I don’t care what I become.

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For three hours our legs are at ease as we relish another form of travel. We feel as though we are provided a glimpse into our future; Trenton and I imagine a post-bike life of sailing the seas of the world, a dream strengthened by this auspicious sampling of boat life with our new Italian friends.

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Around the dinner table back at the condo we enjoy a traditional Italian meal; pasta, salad, grilled zucchini, and bread. We are offered the master bedroom on the boat for sleep; we take it.

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It’s a silent night’s rest as we are rocked side-to-side by lazy moonlit waters. We awaken refreshed and ready to travel a good chunk of the ride to our final destination in Italy, Brindisi.

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The ride is smooth and fast and following the night we slept on Oreste’s boat we camp on a vacant rise above the main road. The next day we complete our route and greet Amod outside of his apartment building in Brindisi, arriving just before the rains.

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We met Amod at our recent meditation course in Belmonte, Calabria.

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What was for him a four hours drive was for us a six day ride. Originally from Nepal, Amod works for the United Nations and has been based in Brindisi for a couple years away from his wife and son who reside in their home in New York City.

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The two days we spend with Amod Trenton and I stuff our time with blog-related tasks, collecting our thoughts on the recent past and organizing the next three months of our journey. We register for another Vipassana sit in Belgium and submit emails and phone calls to family and friends with whom contact has been scarce. We buy our boat tickets to Greece. We drink Miso soup. We blithely languish in the ease of indoor living; a surfeit of hot water and heat on demand.

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Conversation with Amod revolves mainly around Vipassana. It was his first course and had a major impact on his life. Even as we speak I can see in him a shift taking place, like watching a basketball in pirouette around a stalwart rim in the apprehensive moments before it benignantly sinks in.

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It’s a sensitive business to exchange thoughts on spirituality since the nature of it is ineffable and its application particular, variable, and evolving. I stumble over these parts of our discussion, wary of sounding pretentious or litigious, trying hard to sustain a state of emotional stability – detachment from personal doctrines, dogmas, beliefs – so as to dissuade an argument and avoid causing offense whilst succeeding at transmitting my experiences with mature imperturbability and an unbiased though impassioned and guided faith. Phew.

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He takes us for a tour of Lecce where we sit for tea and crumpets, and then out to dinner for a traditional taste of Italy’s finest.

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The next day we prepare our bicycle and say a bittersweet farewell to Amod. We stock up on food for our trans-Ionian trip which includes Turkish falafel sandwiches and a bucket of lupini beans, my absolute favorite Mediterranean snack.

We ride off into the setting sun towards the marina, looking forward to the mere 30 kilometers we will ride tomorrow morning in Greece towards Albania, a country of which we know very little, and excited, as always, for the journey which lays ahead.

10 responses to “Crossing Italy: Nutella, a Sailboat, New Friends and Vipassana

  1. “PHEW” That was quite a mouthful, But I agreed with everything you said. Well said, Well said. This month, March, makes it exactly thirty seven years that I’ve been doing Shamatha/Vipsanna. Probably the only worth while thing I’ve ever done. HAPPY TRAVELS

    • Haha thanks William! And agreed, sitting a course was the best decision I ever made. This bike trip would be something else entirely without the practice…be well! :)

  2. What wonderful insights and fresh observations. You truly aren’t “leaving the trip,” simply continuing it back here for awhile. It ain’t over till it’s over, and with you two, it’s never going to be over ! Rubber side down, home safely for awhile, then off again (on a boat ?).

    • Hi Bob and thanks! That’s all very true…we’re gonna hold off on the boat to bike a few more years…Asia next, I think! And then there’s still Africa, and South America, Australia… :)

  3. I love venture quests…
    This came to me as I read your post, specifically the last line…

    Famous movie pundit Roger Ebert was often claimed by others as an atheist, although his own opinion was that he disliked his convictions being reduced to one word or label. Ebert’s real ‘religion’, I think, was summed up by his admission that he had “spent hours and hours in churches all over the world…not to pray, but to gently nudge my thoughts toward wonder and awe” – a position many readers here would probably feel aligned with.

    It did not surprise me then when I read, in a recent Esquire article (“Oral Histories of 2013″), a first-hand account of Ebert’s passing from his wife Chaz that suggests he had a profound experience in his final days:

    On April 4, 2013 he was strong enough again for me to take him back home. My daughter and I went to pick him up. When we got there, the nurses were helping him get dressed. He was sitting on his bed, and he looked really happy to be going home. He was smiling. He was sitting almost like Buddha, and then he just put his head down. We thought he was meditating, maybe reflecting on his experiences, grateful to be going home. I don’t remember who noticed first, who checked his pulse… In the beginning, of course, I was totally freaked out. There was some kind of code thing, and they brought machines in. I was stunned. But as we realized he was transitioning out of this world and into the next, everything, all of us, just went calm. They turned off the machines, and that room was so peaceful. I put on his music that he liked, Dave Brubeck. We just sat there on the bed together, and I whispered in his ear. I didn’t want to leave him. I sat there with him for hours, just holding his hand.

    Roger looked beautiful. He looked really beautiful. I don’t know how to describe it, but he looked peaceful, and he looked young.

    The one thing people might be surprised about — Roger said that he didn’t know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts. But toward the end, something really interesting happened. That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: “This is all an elaborate hoax.” I asked him, “What’s a hoax?” And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn’t visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.

    http://dailygrail.com/Spirit-World/2014/1/Did-Roger-Ebert-Have-Deathbed-Vision

    • Wow what an amazing story!!! It reminds me also of Steve Jobs’ last moments on Earth…its strikingly similar to this account. Thanks for sharing!

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