Leaving Naddi and becoming a Tourist

Originally posted April 28th, 2014

Two weeks ago, my wonderful mother showed up in Dharamsala.

She’d gotten on a plane in Newark, got off in London; got on another plane in London, got off in Delhi; spent a few hours sleeping in Delhi and boarded a final flight the next morning which took her up to Kangra, just an hour or so from me. We had a quick wander through Dharamsala which was entirely deserted compared to normal standards since the city is closed on Mondays. Back in Naddi, she pet a lamb, helped me teach some kids and then it was time to pack up and go.

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Ok, there was a bit more to it, but that was how it felt: quite the whirlwind last moments. On my final day in the area I introduced my mother to McLeod Ganj where we had the best coffee I’ve ever had in India (discovered only a few days before). Back in Naddi she came with me to my final fun club, where I was thrilled to see that for the first time in weeks all of my regular students had shown up. School holidays must finally be at an end. I had decided to spend this final Tuesday afternoon decorating the classroom which has remained entirely bare since we began renting it – just lots of empty space in between four brightly coloured walls.

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After I distributed art supplies so the children could draw pictures for the walls, I began putting up accumulated material from the past three months. The large map of the world I’d used to teach geography was put in the centre of one wall. The handmade paper from our attempts to teach about recycling was displayed near the shelves on a second wall. Representations of the water cycle which two particularly eager children had brought coloured in from the week before were added to the wall by the windows, with a sheet describing the process in Hindi to accompany them. The finger-painted peacock which Emma had made as an example for the children during her art class was added to the collection. And then on the final wall I had each children sign their drawing as they handed them in and we put them all up next to each other as a colourful representative of the “fun” side of the after-school programme. Everything was placed in laminated sheets to protect from the damp of monsoon season.

IMG_2011.JPGThe rest of the class we spent playing with foam stickers my mum had brought from the US. There were lots of little pieces which you could stick together to make elaborate flowers and the kids split into groups to work on them. Two of the girls latched onto the concept immediately and made some beautiful flowers which they stuck up onto the wall with great pride. Two of the other girls working together seemed to combine various pieces together at random, unsure of the end goal, while all of the boys and very young children enthusiastically starting sticking the finished flowers (made with much help from my mum) onto their shirts and showing off their new outfits.

IMG_2013.JPGIMG_2020.JPGIMG_2017.JPGIMG_2022.JPGIt made for a rowdy class with all the art supplies and the excitement of a new face, but they really had fun and I was so happy to look around the room at the end and have it finally look like a classroom, and a lively and interactive one at that. I’m not sure if the children understood what I was saying when I told them that this was my last day, but I’m glad I got to tell them regardless and hug goodbye some of the girls I was closest to. Fulfilling this role because it was really needed may not have been something I expected to do during my time in Naddi, but it was an amazing learning experience and I have so many wonderful and amusing memories from my times with these kids. I will miss them.

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Walking away from fun club I finally grasped that I was leaving for good. In the weeks leading up to this moment, I’d been increasingly eager to leave Naddi and the organisation I had been working for. I was starting to feel like I had contributed as much as I really could to my projects with my limited experience and their restricted resources, and at the same time, I was beginning to realise that I had learned just about all I was going to from this experience. It was the right time to move on and try something new. There were certain frustrations and unrelenting obstacles to progress working for an organisation like this and while much of it was equally rewarding, the difficulties were beginning to become overwhelming and I was ready for some easy living. Hot showers, nice beds, privacy and easy access to variety when it comes to food. Living in a room where things don’t stay damp all the time (going back to Scotland doesn’t necessary solve this particular problem…), being able to actually unpack my belongings for the first time in months. And what probably made me ready to move on more than anything was the fact that I’d been quite sick for the past week and was just exhausted by the fairly constant health problems that come with living in rural India.

But of course all of the factors that had made me so very ready to move on the week before suddenly seemed incredibly manageable and even possessed a nostalgic charm as I reached the day of my departure. Preparing to go back home was exciting, but also a scary prospect: worries about reverse culture shock and knowing I was coming back to more of the uncertainty and confusion that I’d left behind three months earlier. And going back to a place where I don’t have a group of friends like those I found in Naddi.

The people I met during this internship were the most interesting and inspirational team to work with, and overcoming new challenges with peers who support each other is a very special experience. Being in difficult and confusing circumstances while living in close quarters with a group of strangers makes for close friendships very quickly. Even the people you are less compatible with you end up with a deep understanding of and a respect for.  I really did learn a lot from the people I lived with in Naddi. There are people who have sacrificed a lot to work with an organisation like EduCARE which leads to a very passionate, thoughtful and creative approach to work. Everyone who was there had one simple thing in common: the desire for meaning in their daily life. Whether this was through the adventure of travelling outside of a comfort zone or the desire to work in a field which is trying to make the world’s future a little more hopeful, this shared desire makes for a group with interesting past experiences and exciting future ambitions. The one thing I’ve learned above all during my time in India is that meeting likeminded people who will push you and appreciate you, people you can connect with, doesn’t happen by coincidence – you put yourself in the right environments for it to happen. This is something I will carry that with me now that I’ve left, making sure not to settle for less in the future.

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After three months spent in India, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface. Granted, for most of my time I was contained to one small area which was far from representative of the country as a whole, but it allowed me to live in a world very different from any I’d experienced up to now and I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity.

So while leaving friends, both from the community and fellow interns, was difficult and surprisingly emotional, it was also very much time for me to transform into a proper tourist and go see some sights before heading home!IMG_2034.JPGIMG_2033.JPG

Arcola

We stood late at night in an abandoned town center up on a hill waiting for a faceless stranger to appear. Backpacks at our feet, leaning against a stone wall, Charlie and I stood making halting and distracted conversation. An elderly man and his dog slowly walked through the square and we followed his progress with our eyes in case he was the one we were waiting for. When he was out of sight and we were alone again in the silent, dimly lit square, I thought back on what had brought us there and tried not to think about what would happen once we left.

I tried not to think as far back as the graduation that had set my safe and cozy world into chaos – I tried not to remember Min’s face as our families packed up their cars and we stood in the lobby of our St Andrews B&B. The best friend I had ever had, the person I had lived and travelled with for three years, gone to almost every class with, binge-watched shows with and ate most meals with, the person I shared every secret with and who had made me laugh more in my Uni years than I would have thought possible – her face as she fought tears, only to give up when every watching family member started crying first. Knowing she was going back to Shanghai and then to Hong Kong for a Master’s program she was ambivalent about, while I was turning the hourglass over on the time I had with Charlie until my flight back to the States departed in September. Trying not to shut down in a paralysis of fear about how incredibly blank my image of the future was. The only certainty I had was loneliness, as every person who meant the most to me in the world seemed destined to be oceans away – we were being scattered to different continents and mine was a place I had left four years prior without looking back. It was a place I already associated with loneliness; I had never had many friends in America, they had all been made overseas, and it felt cruelly unfair that everything that had felt like such a gift was now going to be a punishment.

Pushing back memories and warding off fears, I looked back only a few weeks – our trip from the Isle of Skye to Milan, from Milan to Reggio Emilia, and then so wonderfully, to Novi, to the place that felt most like home to me in Italy: La Federica. Showing Charlie around the estate and introducing him to the people who meant so much to me, I had been immersed in beautiful memories for a single night.

From Novi to Genoa by train, we had lunch waiting for a connecting train to La Spezzia, and from there we boarded yet another train to S. Stefano di Magra, where we sought out a bus heading to Ponsanto Superiore. This is where Andrea had asked us to meet him, and from there he would drive us to Arcola in his van – except that he had just emailed us to say that his van had broken down and we would have to all wait until the following morning when the battery could be replaced to take the final, short leg of our journey to the caravan. Woofing for two weeks was one way we were able to afford over a month of traveling through Europe in July and August, and working on a small plot of terraced farm land in Northern Italy was meant to be a romantic and adventurous way to truly begin our loosely planned backpacking tour.

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As another shape emerged from the shadows, I was forced back into the present to observe a tiny man walking quickly towards us with a big grin, jet-black hair and a goatee – this was Andrea. He led us up the hill in the dark to his house, marching through winding alleyways and pausing occasionally to point to various groupings of lights on the surrounding hills, outlining the nearby towns. A modest twinkling in the distance viewed from a corner of this quiet, religious village was revealed to be our destination: Arcola.

Past a small stone church, we made one last turn and ducked under scaffolding after Andrea to uncover a wooden door leading into a seemingly abandoned building. The hallway didn’t do much to shake that impression – it was cluttered with old work gear, rough walls and spotty lighting. But then Andrea opened a door at the end of the hall on the left, and we were shown into a well lived-in and cozy room.

Andrea had turned the kitchen into his entire world. Used to living out of a van, perhaps he was more comfortable in close quarters, or maybe he was simply not in a hurry to fix up the rest of the house quite yet. Straight ahead was his small but neat bed set against the wall, and in the center of the room was a table set for three with plates, sets of cutlery and wine glasses. A stone fireplace was built into the wall behind the table, while a large porcelain sink and an efficient oven dominated the opposite wall. The whole place was warmly lit and welcoming, and Andrea played the part of friendly host, chatting away as he served us the hearty pasta he had made in preparation for our arrival. He poured us red wine and we all sat down to eat and discuss our backgrounds and political views.

Conversation was easy, and made amusing by Andrea’s distinctive characteristics – the darting eyes, the nervous laughter, the compulsive head tilting. A fidgety man with a high-pitched voice, he was fascinating to watch talk, and talk he did. Relaxed by the sociable meeting and the exchanging of personal stories and like-minded opinions about the world, we finished dinner and offered to clean. Charlie and I stood side-by-side at the sink while Andrea sat at the table rolling the first of many cigarettes we would see him prepare – another of his compulsive behaviors. His two small dogs, Emilia and Patata, lay by his feet, nonplussed by the company.

After a leisurely meal, we were suddenly ready for the day to end and sped through the rest of our evening. We quickly brushed our teeth in the only working bathroom, which was a small room off of the kitchen, aware that we were invading Andrea’s intimate space. Back into the abandoned hallway and up broad wooden stairs into a bedroom directly above the kitchen, all of the sudden we were in Britain. This house and the land where we were staying were owned by a German man named Heiko who was married to an English woman, and this was their children’s room. Full series of Terry Pratchett’s and Tolkien’s lined the walls. I was struck by how surreal this felt; a seemingly uninhabited house on a small hill in rural Italy where each door opened to reveal it’s own universe.

Lying in bed we immediately began drifting into sleep, until one of us knocked something over and the sharp noise sent us both bolting into seated positions, wide awake. The same thoughts were in both of our minds – we were in the middle of nowhere, without phone reception; no one knew our address since we were never supposed to be in this house, and we were sharing a roof with an eccentric stranger. The vulnerability set in instantly, and as Charlie tiptoed out of bed to deadbolt the door, I wordlessly grabbed my pocketknife from my bag and placed it next to my useless phone on the bedside table. These precautions made us feel more in control, but they also unsettled me further, and I lay there alert willing the hours to pass and bring daylight, and our independence with it. Looking back, I should have tried harder to enjoy sleeping in a real bed before moving on to the conditions of the caravan.

***

We retraced our steps down through the village early the next morning until Charlie and I were standing by the side of a parking lot while Andrea replaced his van’s battery, receiving confused looks from locals on their way to and from church services. This town was hardly a tourist destination. As Andrea pulled open the sliding back door of his white van to put our bags in, we saw that it had been left without seats to accommodate a small, folding cot and simple wooden shelves which apparently were there to hold all of his worldly belongings. A dangling plush Yoda toy was the only decorative touch.

The three of us crammed into the front seats. Andrea at the wheel, Charlie and I squeezed next to him with the two dogs at our feet and in our laps, white hair from Patata coating everything we touched. A short trip through the hill later, we pulled up to our new home and began working right away on the estate improvements that needed to happen before evening in order for us to live on this land. The caravan itself, when we unlocked the padlock on the small door and stepped up into it using the crooked wooden stepstool placed outside, was covered in a thin layer of dirt. I could faintly see my footsteps outlined behind me as I stepped across the limited floor space.

Then there was the issue of a toilet. The issue was that there wasn’t one anymore – the old hole had been covered up in a slight landslide weeks earlier. So Charlie got to work digging a shit hole, which he decided to make more elegant by building three walls around it for privacy from the street, with the open side providing a romantic view of the hills in the distance. He painstakingly began digging into the stone-filled dirt, barely chipping away with every strike of the shovel. Andrea worked on restoring the steps leading down to the first terrace, since these had also been largely demolished in the same recent landslide, carving away at the dense dirt.

While Charlie dug and Andrea scraped, I cleaned out the caravan. Our sole source of water was a coiled hose left just outside of the caravan. I opened the valve and filled a bucket with water, and did my best to dust and scrub every surface inside the combined kitchen and bedroom space. After three or four sweeps of the floor with a wide broom, the place began to visibly improve. Stripping the two small beds, each built into one side of the caravan, I left the stale smelling pillowcases and sheets soaking in soapy water outside while I re-attached the fallen drying line onto surrounding trees. With the clean(er) linens drying in the hot sun, I went back into the caravan and washed the limited cooking utensils.

Charlie was now creating his walls out of tall poles and a tarp, and even enthusiastically added an old wooden chair above the hole with the bottom cut out of it – Andrea gave us straw to throw down the hole after every visit, to help with smell and decomposition.

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With these initial improvements well underway, Andrea drove us to the town center for our first grocery run. Thanks to the previous tenants, we had matches, oil and salt, but besides that we were starting from scratch. We took our time in the air-conditioned grocery store and stocked up on water bottles, iced tea, pasta, citronella candles and cheap red wine. Back on the land, we all ate a lunch of tomatoes, bread, cheese and wine together, sitting outside around a wobbly white plastic table. I strongly suspect that each of our chairs had been ‘rescued’ from a nearby dump. The high-backed rolling desk chair with peeling black leather was the most comfortable, but on the sloped land, it always had to be positioned perfectly to prevent slowly rolling away – the flimsy plastic chairs were fine if you sat on the side facing the terraced lands and distant hills, but facing the street required more care, a slow process of shifting the chair inch by inch until each leg landed firmly on the dry ground or risk toppling backwards on the uneven land.

Relatively well rested, Andrea gave us a brief tour of the land, explaining that our real task there was to water the crops every day or two. The other jobs were necessary in the long-term, but how much we ultimately accomplished would largely come down to what the weather made possible. The crops themselves were varied and disorganized, spread rather haphazardly over the five or six terraces, and I trailed Andrea through them trying to keep a mental map of what needed to be watered and which groupings of leaves were the low-priority weeds. This would always remain a source of confusion on that land since Heiko didn’t believe in tearing out weeds, but adhered to the quasi ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality he had picked up among other passionate permaculturalists.

With the sun slowly weakening in the mid-afternoon, we were provided with patches of shade as Andrea wound his way down the terraces watering the plants that should not be left to fend for themselves. I walked close behind, untangling and shifting the hose as we went, focused on committing to memory the shapes and locations of the plants that needed my attention. Andrea explained that Heiko, the landowner, believed in a Japanese philosophy of throwing seeds into the air and tending to whatever grows – so no surprise that these terraces weren’t clearly organized. Spread among the land were tomato plants, fig and pear trees, flowers, herbs, and much more that I can’t recall, or never understood in the first place.

***

After that, my job – and often my only real job – was to water these plants. It would take a good hour to get through them all, and I quickly learned that by wrapping the hose around my body as I walked it would drag behind me with less resistance, making it easier to hold and aim the head of the hose with one hand while the other was free to shake and adjust it when it snagged on roots and tree limbs, or threatened to trample the more delicate crops. The tall trees grew at the bottom of the terraces where the land began to even out into the valley. Every afternoon, I would reach up to part the leaves looking for ripe pears or apples or peaches to bring back to the caravan – since so little was ready to harvest, part of our agreement was that whatever we picked was ours to eat. The figs were far from in season, but I nevertheless searched the trees for the emerging green buds every day, happy picturing those trees full someday.

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I watered, and occasionally picked, Charlie built. After the first few days, Andrea spent less and less time with us on the land. Sometimes he would come for an hour or two in the afternoon before retreating back to his cool, dark room in that neglected house, scrolling through website after website on permaculture, watching YouTube videos on how to make things like bat boxes, or another of his newest obsessions in his quest to learn how to successfully live off the grid. Inspired by his research, and urged on by the online community which I strongly suspect held more value to him than most other kinds of society ever had, Andrea would show up sporadically with ideas and half-baked plans. He would enthusiastically communicate these, help start the projects and then vanish again, sometimes for several days at a time, leaving us to finish working as we liked. That schedule suited me, and I preferred to divide our day as we wished rather than working according to his whims.

The less Andrea appeared, the more we settled into our own routine. In the mornings, while it was still only mostly hot, I would go outside with the one large pot we had and fill it with water from the hose, light a hob on the stovetop with a match, and boil water for tea. As it boiled I would sweep the floor of the dry dirt which managed to coat the caravan again without fail before 24 hours were up. We would sit outside reading over breakfast until we were awake enough to get some work done, which always seemed unbearable almost as soon as it started. To shower, we would put on our bathing suits and take turns standing on a lower terrace while the other aimed the hose from above, shooting freezing cold water out. Scrubbing ourselves as quickly as we could, we would shriek in shock at the cold, but also with joy as it offered relief from the heat. Then it was a simple matter of waiting a few minutes to dry off in the sun. These were combined with bucket showers, sponging off by the doorway of the caravan, mostly out of sight of the road by keeping an eye out for approaching cars.

We ate lunch in the relative shade and privacy we created on one of our first days by extending the drying line and hanging old sheets and shredded towels as curtains. An old beach umbrella Charlie had found in the dump when looking for building supplies with Andrea one afternoon was propped up below these curtains, and the combination formed a fairly solid wall around our little ‘patio’. During the hottest part of the day, we would linger there well into the afternoon, crouching by the hose to wash dishes, playing board games, and eating fruit.

While we weren’t in Arcola for long, we were there long enough to begin adapting to living without electricity or plumbing, to accept the heat and the slow pace of the days. When it came time to do laundry, we did so in the bucket and accepted the fact that our clothes were only ever mostly-clean. We stopped wondering what our few neighbors thought of us and instead enjoying laughing at that image of ourselves – two naïve kids sitting barefoot and flushed under a torn beach umbrella in the dirt, spitting watermelon seeds onto the dry ground.

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In the evenings, we would walk down to the village. While Arcola was incredibly small, there was a bar where we could stop for espresso on our way down, and a gelateria near the grocery store that we visited most days. We shopped for food in the evenings since, without electricity, there was little we could keep in the house besides pasta without worrying it would spoil, and to restock on iced tea and water. The climb back was always a long one, as much of the very vertical town of Arcola is composed of staircases carved into rocks, but I always enjoyed catching glimpses of life along the way: the old men sitting alone outside, cats sunning themselves on walls, the voices of children laughing and women scolding floating faintly over us. We didn’t see many people, and no one we did see was our age, but it was comforting knowing that people were there, living lives behind the timeless walls and windows we passed.

We always tried to return home before nightfall so that we could cook dinner and still eat outside. The small windows in the caravan didn’t let in much light and we were eager to avoid that dark, claustrophobic space for as long as possible every evening. We lit candles in the kitchen to see the stovetop, and often had to take our ingredients outside to chop in the light. As limited as we were when it came to space and appliances, the meals we made in Arcola were some of the most satisfying of the whole trip – simple and fresh and comforting. Many of the nights, we simply cooked up big bowls of pasta with fresh tomatoes, and one evening we used the outdoor grill to cook up some steaks, which we served with chopped tomatoes and onions, and fresh bread to dip in all the juices. Every dinner was served with red wine.

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It was that half an hour every day that made it possible for me to continue in Arcola for a full ten days, because beyond that, it was a frustrating and dull experience for the most part. But in that time before the sun fully set, when the weather was finally pleasant, eating good food followed by a game of Risk or cards outside overlooking a beautiful view – that made everything else manageable. Still, every day without fail, the sun managed to set and the surrounding citronella candles, billowing black smoke around us like we were preparing for a religious ritual, never held the bugs off for long, forcing us to close ourselves up indoors, in the depressing and stuffy darkness. There we would lie uncomfortably on our sofa beds, reading by flashlight, leaving only to brush our teeth out by the hose and to stumble around in the dark late at night looking for a place far enough from our house to pee in privacy but close enough to avoid tripping down the uneven terraces. Alone outside in the dark in the middle of the night, the noises of small lives seemed impossibly loud, chirpings of insects and rustling of leaves everyway you turned; it always made me anxious and I would compulsively scan the area with my flashlight – one night I illuminated a giant toad staring right back at me from a few feet away.

As long and uncomfortable as the days were, I always dreaded the nights because they were never-ending, and consumed by frustrations. Travelling in Italy the preceding week, we were used to a lack of air conditioning, but everywhere else we had fans to cool us at night, or large open windows. Here, there was nothing. The air in the caravan was stifling. The first evening we quickly realized that it was either some limited fresh air at night or run the risk being eaten alive by hundreds of mosquitos. Charlie was already in a huge amount of pain due to his first ever encounter with southern European mosquitos (not, as he quickly learned, as similar to the midges of the Scottish Isles as he had assumed). His poor feet were swollen and inflamed after an evening spent eating outside, barefoot, at La Federica. There wasn’t a centimeter of flesh left unbitten and the itching would keep him up all night, while the scratching of his sleeping bag against the thin, rough cushion of the sofa-bed as he thrashed around added to my insomnia. Our second day we reattached the mosquito netting which had fallen off the windows and risked keeping them open from then on, eager to catch any unlikely breeze passing by.

***

The most comfortable night we ever spent in the caravan was the night of the storm. After a week or so in Arcola, we were beginning to recognize our neighbors. One family would wave every time they passed by in the car and had come over to say that if we ever needed anything, even just a proper shower, to come knock on their doors at any hour. They had noticed how often we played Risk and told us they loved to play as well, and that we should stop by for a game some evening. As they were slowly driving past one morning, they spotted Andrea during one of his visits, and the woman – a geologist as it turned out – gestured to him, yelling angrily in rapid Italian. She warned him, and through him us, that there was an impending rainstorm, and that the land we were living on was unstable. It was irresponsible to have the caravan so close to the edge of the hill in such conditions, she said, and chastised Andrea for not improving the situation earlier. He conveyed this nonchalantly but then immediately began talking to us about urgently setting up a drainage system as if that had been his plan all along. With the caravan resting so close to the sharp decline of the first terrace, any accumulating mud or puddles could shift the base enough to send the entire structure sliding down the hill.

We went to work that afternoon, first stringing up a large tarp to a tree branch that stretched across the roof of our caravan. Climbing carefully onto the roof, we stepped quickly around the periphery where there was more structural integrity and tied the tarp above and then down on all sides of the caravan. It reached close to the ground where we gathered the ends into a funnel so that the falling water would run into a wide black tube that we set up to drain into a large blue plastic bucket we placed on the first terrace. After several tests with the hose, we felt sufficiently assured that we would outlast the storm to shake off most of the anxiety this revealed insecurity had created.

The rain did begin to fall as predicted, and while we were both unsettled by its ferocity, this also meant a drop in temperature. The wind blowing all around us allowed a small breeze to enter even the narrow window openings of our dwelling. It was the only night I was glad for the thin sleeping bag I had spread across the sofa bed. I didn’t sleep much that night, but lying awake listening to the storm, bracing myself to flee at any slight movements, I was comfortable.

***

 

The La Spezzia train station quickly became my happy place. It was the one location near Arcola where we had access to Internet and whenever a free afternoon allowed for a visit, I would sit at a computer and try to type out emails as quickly as possible, racing against the timed pricing and – when we were actually there to travel – the train schedule. That small reception area for tourists travelling around the Cinque Terra region, selling postcards and guidebooks, felt familiar after the first visit. Charlie would wait in a chair at one of the available stations next to me, or on the train platform floor outside. The narrow window of time allocated was made more precious by the fact that Italian keyboards are just slightly different from British ones – which I had grown accustomed to despite the fact that they were ever so slightly different from American ones.

I spent a lot of that trip in various internet cafes or logging into the slow computers provided by hotels. I always meant to send just a quick note letting my family know that we were okay, where we were, and where we were going next, but the bare facts wouldn’t stay that way – somehow they demanded to be filled in with details and descriptions, with humorous interactions and outlines of all the meals we had eaten. I had so little communication with the outside world during that trip, which I loved, but sitting down in bare rooms waiting for a faint internet signal to load my email, awkwardly hitting away at clunky keyboards and having to backtrack to fix the many, many typos, I found so much joy getting lost in my messages. Realizing that much of Charlie’s correspondence was barely long enough to serve as proof of life, I began sending these recounts of our adventures to his family as well, which gave me added purpose.

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With our first proper weekend off, we decided to head into La Spezzia to catch a train to Monterosso for an afternoon on the coast. Walking through the crowded beach we tried not to stumble over the outstretched legs of tanners and went straight for the sea. We swam until we got hungry, and then walked into town looking for food. Sitting amongst the wealthy tourists in our cleanest clothes, no longer covered in dirt and sweat but instead smelling like the sea and the sun, life felt luxurious and we left a leisurely seafood lunch to browse the shops, although they were far too expensive for us. Charlie bought a white hat on impulse that was a bit too small for his head while I purchased and wrote postcards, now that we were in a place touristy enough to have postcards. This taste of relaxation had us scheming about our get-away for much of the afternoon, as we both admitted how miserable this part of the trip had turned out – how trapped we were feeling – and tried to calculate how much our loyalty to a stranger meant to us.

***

Our last few days on the land, we continued to find that, practically, Andrea was useful as often as he was an obstacle. His sense of purpose was also sporadic as he was in the midst of contemplating whether to remain in Arcola and care for Heiko’s estate permanently, or to continue his nomadic lifestyle.

As a young man, Andrea had moved from northern Italy to the smallest of the Canary Islands, making a living by running a small restaurant in what I have since imagined as relative solitude. When the 2011 El Hierro volcano erupted underwater, the income he relied on from a steady stream of tourists was no longer in-coming, and his future on the island was cut short. Returning to Italy, Andrea first settled far in the north, staying in a cottage with very few supplies and no money during a brutal and snowy winter. He holed up indoors lighting fires to stay warm, leaving only to collect firewood. His one luxury was his phone and his mother paid those bills.

Winter thawed and Andrea began living out of his van, traveling from place to place with his two small dogs, and somewhere along the line become fixated on permaculture. Much of his simple living over the years had been linked to a desire to be sustainable, and much of that desire to be sustainable seemed in turn linked to fear – fear the world was on the brink of being destroyed due to a financial or technological crisis. When everything changes and most of what we rely upon no longer exists, Andrea wanted to be ready. I don’t know exactly what being ready looked like to him, but he certainly seemed to me to be a man whose main driving force was constant apprehension.
During one of the permaculture classes he attended, Andrea clearly fell under the charms of the knowledgeable Heiko. They worked together, studying foraging techniques and alternative food sources, and spent evenings discussing their joint areas of interest. When the course ended, Heiko mentioned he the piece of land he owned in a small Italian town, and offered Andrea the chance to live there with him and his family, all of them working on it together.

Beyond the fact that he is German man married to an English woman, there is very little I know about Heiko, and I have been trying to form an image of this man I never met, whose land I worked and lived on, ever since I first arrived in Arcola. Staying in his house, it was clear that his children identified as British – they had lived there, gone to school there, and their room was that of 8-10 year old English children. By the time Charlie and I were in Italy, they were in Germany because they had just bought or inherited a house. The situation was unclear but it did seem certain that they would not be permanently returning to Arcola anytime soon. Settled elsewhere, Heiko had offered the land to Andrea, his tenant who had taken over the task of organizing work-for-shelter travelers like ourselves.

While I may be unable to picture Heiko, I have many lasting images of Andrea. I can easily picture the thin man sitting across from me at the dinner table that first night, talking passionately while twisting his narrow mustache. I can also see him sitting after lunch, rapidly rolling cigarette after cigarette. Or standing, hands on his hips, surveying the land from under a wide-brimmed hat with a loose white t-shirt tucked into in his blue jeans, belted tightly high above his waist. Twisting and rolling, and eyes darting. For someone who didn’t seem to actively do much, Andrea was always buzzing just below the surface.

Despite his many idiosyncrasies, Andrea was far from incapable. When Charlie’s mosquito bites were unbearable, he sprang into action, crouching down and rifling among the disorganized plants and confidently reemerging with several large leaves he was familiar with from childhood. He told us to mash them up with some water to create a soothing salve, which we tried and kept hopefully applying throughout our stay, with some small relief resulting. He did have interesting ideas as well, and was well-versed in theory on many sustainable subjects, but it was obvious that Andrea was new to farm work and his attention was easily diverted.

Charlie, on the other hand, had grown up helping his father run an estate, working in difficult conditions on isolated Scottish farmland, and he was used to building things with his hands. He had a much more steady approach and took pride in doing a thorough job. Throughout our weeks there, Charlie would build the bat box that Andrea designed, and attach it to a tree by our caravan. He was probably all the more eager to contribute to that project in particular because it was made with a singular intention in mind: to reduce the mosquito numbers on the property. We would also work on taking wooden planks and nailing them together to form boxes used as layered gardening plots – I’m still not entirely sure what the purpose was there, but Andrea insisted that it was the next step towards improving the land.

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While he was making his mark on and investments in the land, Andrea still hadn’t decided what to do about Arcola when we knew him, realizing how much work was ahead of him on this inferior land. It was a responsibility that could drag him down, but his alternatives were no clearer. He seemed to enjoy the freedom that the land gave him to experiment with what he learned on the internet, giving him a space to practice his knowledge of different plants and test out new methods of farming and home improvements. Still, his nervous energy makes it difficult for me to imagine him settled there and my guess is that he impulsively took flight one day instead.

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Alongside our limited feelings of loyalty to our assignment and sense of pride, the most practical reason we remained in Arcola as long as we did was that we were waiting for our EuroRail passes to arrive. They were being mailed to Ponsanto Superiore and this wasn’t the kind of trip where we could provide a forwarding address if we missed their arrival. These rail passes were the key to the rest of our plans that summer and worth a few more bucket showers and early, irritated nights. The day that envelope arrived, we began packing our bags and emptying out the caravan. For the preceding few days we had been laying groundwork for our escape, hinting at friends who lived in the area, casually mentioning to Andrea that there was a small chance we would have to leave a day or two early to see them before they went on an extended trip themselves. Andrea came to work with us the Friday morning after we got our rail passes, and as soon as we got into his van and drove away, we locked up our little home with a note thanking Andrea pinned to a cabinet inside, and walked away from the caravan forever. We had the weekend off, so our departure wouldn’t be noticed until Monday, which was only a day or two before our commitment ended anyway. Loaded up with our backpacks again, our footsteps were heavy as we walked down the hill, but we grinned at the adrenaline of an escape and in anticipation of the real showers and air-conditioning we were ready to indulge in on the next step of our adventures.

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Impressions of a 21st Century Dorothy

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in New Jersey anymore”

I took a plane, Dorothy took a tornado. My starting point was New Jersey. Hers was Kansas. Yet, I understand how Dorothy must have felt in that moment when she suddenly found herself in a distant land surrounded by the unknown and the unbelievable – that moment in the film when the screen went from black and white to colour. In the past five years, I’ve had many moments when my world has turned to colour. Moments when I have said to myself, “…I’ve a feeling we’re not in New Jersey anymore”.

Even while in the midst of a trip you know the discomforts – the itching of mosquito bites, the sharp pain of blisters, the dehydration, and the harsh words passed between travelling companions – will fade. It’s what you count on. Like taking a photo of a beautiful landscape but avoiding the power lines. The mental snapshots of a slightly surreal memory are what remain. These images that come in bright, often silent fragments – like recalling a dream – are what intermittently appear in my head when I’m back home and comfortable.

I sit on a wobbly plastic chair, hiding from the burning Italian sun under a torn beach umbrella, and realize that nothing is farther from my mind than my little hometown in New Jersey. My boyfriend and I live in a dusty caravan in northern Italy, paying for this run-down accommodation by helping out – mid-August –on land owned by a catastrophist permaculturalist. We fan ourselves and look out over the dusty, irregular terraces below. Our neighbour, a geologist, leans out of her car window to scold our host in rapid Italian for allowing us to live on such unstable land. Our first job: putting up a tarp to lessen the chance of a landslide occurring in an impending rainstorm.

It is mid-February in Malta, a place I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t have pinned on a map before going there to escape the dank cold and 3pm sunsets of a Scottish winter. I stand in a bathing suit on a wooden platform at the edge of the clear Mediterranean Sea and try to ignore the eyes I know are following me from the surrounding restaurants, porches and sidewalks. I can imagine the heads shaking: “what’s this girl doing? It’s too cold to swim”. I descend the slippery metal ladder, into water which is pleasantly cold. All knowledge of others vanishes. I turn on my back and look up at the bright afternoon sky, kicking up trails of white froth as I back-stroke away from the moss-covered rocks which line the shore. Behind me stand blocky yellow hotels and to my right are low cliffs, but ahead there is nothing but an expanse of calm sea.

The final two days of my trip, all the locals refer to me as, “that crazy girl who went swimming in February”. As for me, the image left in my head is of a startling blue sea stretching across an impossibly wide horizon.

I’ve spent a day searching the city of Maribor, Slovenia, for my great-grandmothers family home – a treasure hunt with nothing but an old photo and a name. I shivered through a winter spent 7,500 feet up in the Himalayan Mountains. I have stayed up till 3am washing dishes in an agriturismo in Piedmont, chatting in amateur Italian with two girls from Romania. I have stayed in a hostel on the edge of the Red Light District in Amsterdam – and spent my trip to Copenhagen snowed into a hostel basement watching apocalyptic films.

I have stood in Delhi on Holi and seen the world coated in colour. I have taken a night train from Croatia to Slovenia where we were told that the only way to avoid being robbed was to never fall asleep. We tied our cabin shut with a dog leash. I spent nights in a nunnery in Florence – and on a hill overlooking the sea in Malta a farmer picked me an orange from his tree as we walked through his groves. In Amritsar a beggar threw a banana at me. I’ve sipped an espresso in a side-street in Sienna and been pleasantly startled by a group of elderly men bursting spontaneously into song. And I’ve walked down a small street in Scotland dressed as a Stormtrooper for a Greenpeace campaign.

Like Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, travel can result in disillusionment; you often see behind a city’s majestic veneer – you discover the man behind the curtain. While you don’t escape flying monkeys to defeat evil witches, you do face obstacles and have the chance to destroy doubt and overcome fear. And if you’re very lucky, you have someone to link arms with while you walk through the dark forests we face when embarking into the unknown. I followed not a yellow brick road, but one made of cobblestones and sand, and while my destinations weren’t always grand, the journeys have changed me forever.

I think of Dorothy and know that at the end of her time in Oz she came back with more gained than just memories. And I am left with more than memories of elderly Italian singers, questionable Dutch hostels, and Croatian train robbers. Through travel, my world has been widened. Everywhere I have gone has ­­impacted me, and has left me with a stronger belief in myself, and in the endless variety and beauty that life can hold. I have found courage within myself – and a life forever enriched.

(Published on Tremr: https://www.tremr.com/lucy-disanto/impressions-of-a-21st-century-dorothy)

An introduction from Manhattan

Most of what I post on this site will be excerpts or updates from pieces I’ve already written – impressions already created, to form a portfolio of past writings. But for my first post, I thought some context from the present would be more appropriate.

My name is Lucy, and I grew up in the middle of New Jersey, surrounded by trees and a warm and wonderful family, in a fairly idyllic home. When I left the country for college, it wasn’t to run away from what I had, but out of a certainty that I needed to find and see and learn more.

I can’t remember a time before I craved being somewhere else. I don’t know if that’s because my parents are travelers and the excitement of exploring new places was instilled from childhood, or because I spent most of my young life (and a fair amount of my current life) immersed in books, and that taste of living in other worlds made me want more.

Maybe it’s just something that can’t be explained, but that drive has probably been the single greatest force in my life. It’s pushed me past my naturally quite limited comfort zone, and worked in direct opposition to the introverted and homey parts of my nature that try to pull me towards a simple and quiet life in a small town by the sea. To be frank – while it’s led to amazing adventures and irreplaceable friendships – it’s been a pain in the ass.

I toured and applied to roughly a dozen schools before I flew to Scotland to visit St Andrews, and that first day walking around the seaside town, drinking tea next to students dressed in plaid, discussing philosophy, I completely fell in love. In the fall, I struggled to fit all of my possessions into one bag, moved to Fife, and never looked back. I had a magical four years there, making close friends for the first time in my life, traveling around Europe every time we had a few days off, learning to be independent and walking along the North Sea at night when I craved being alone. Many of the adventures I’ve had took place during this time, when it was more convenient and appealing to stay in Europe during my time off than to return to America.

When the reality hit that graduation meant losing not only that small and perfect world, but also the right to stay in the country where I had, for all intents and purposes, grown up, I spent one last summer backpacking around Europe and living on the Isle of Skye with my boyfriend at the time and his family and then took a very long and very memorable plane ride back to New Jersey. I had already been accepted to a 3 month internship in India, and spent a few months back home waitressing, making the money I needed to buy another plane ticket. I didn’t really think about the fact that I was going to India until I was packing again, I just knew that the nonprofit sounded unique and interesting, and that the location wasn’t in the US.

After four years of comfort, I was ready for a lifestyle challenge and a complete change of scenery, and nowhere could have provided that more so than India. To the rush of chaos that was Delhi, to the silent and anticipation-filled 12 hours on a bus into the mountains, arriving in the village of Naddi, I don’t know whether the exhaustion added to the surreality or dampened it. The next 15 weeks had hard-won moments of success and joy, surrounded by many frustrations and confusions. It was one of the most beautiful places in the world, but almost every minute was difficult. I’m incredibly grateful for my time there and there would be a huge hole in my life if my time in India wasn’t there any longer, but when I got home I was very ready to settle. To unpack a suitcase, and sleep in a real bed, to eat lettuce, and turn a tap to get hot water.

I thought that coming back to the States would be temporary, and I swore that the one thing I would never do (never, ever, ever) was move to NYC. I had always hated visiting the city; the intensity and sheer size of Manhattan gave me anxiety and made me an angrier version of myself, and I knew it was a place that sucked people in and was hesitant to let them go again. And yet…here I am. From helping a woman start a non-profit out of her apartment, to dogsitting for her while she traveled to Uganda, to taking on a part-time job in a field I had no interest in, to letting it become full-time and then realizing that it suddenly really mattered to me and that my co-workers had become as close as family, to lease-signings that keep whispering “just one more year”, I’ve turned into the thing I dreaded: a Jersey girl who becomes a ‘New Yorker’.

It’s actually been a wonderful two years. I’ve eaten at amazing restaurants, and regularly go to some of the best theatre in the world on a whim. I’ve made caring and fun friendships, and experienced the contentment that comes from having your own space, and a steady income, and a pleasant routine. It’s been exactly what I needed at the time, and gave me enough distance from my other lives to let me start over and move on. I love that I can walk and explore and try new things, all while having a home to come back to every night and being able to see my family for lunch or visit on weekends – in some ways, it’s taken the best parts of travel and combined them with being settled.

But now it’s been two years, and sometimes I feel like I need to leave so badly I can barely breathe. I’m ready for new challenges and new people, and to keep learning and pushing myself. I guess that’s why I’m starting this now – to in some way lay groundwork and to remind myself that it happened once and it can happen again.

To any of the readers who come across this: enjoy the memories and excuse the ramblings!