Saturday, November 20, 2010

Stromboli

Stromboli was never part of the plan. They had intended to spend two days in Florence and then travel to Rome where they’d already booked beds at a youth hostel. From there, they’d return to India three days later. However, before Florence was Venice, in the itinerary, and when they reached Venice, it took them less than two hours to realize that they couldn’t possibly stay there for the two days they’d expected to. It was far too expensive and there were too many people around, many of them wearing ‘I love NY’ tees. And so they fled Venice just after lunchtime on the same day and thus found themselves in possession of two additional days. They picked the Aeolian Islands to spend those two days in.

When they reached Milazzo, from where they were to take a ferry to one of the islands, they still weren’t sure which one they would go to. The best islands also seemed the farthest from the Sicilian coast and since they had to be back in Milazzo in time to catch a train late that night, travelling too far was risky. Eventually, they chose Lipari, the largest and one of the closest.

The ferry ride was their first encounter with the deep, sparkling blue waters of the Sicilian coast. A man and his wife sat next to Kaushik on the ferry and they asked him if he was Sri Lankan. When he told them he was Indian, they appeared to become even more interested. “My wife and I weesh tu traavel tu Eendia!” he exclaimed, “whaat ees the best time tu viseet?” Kaushik considered if it would be appropriate to respond in the same accent but decided against it, since he figured it could offend them. “Between November and February”, he told them and returned to the book he was reading. A few months later, when he went to an Italian restaurant in Mumbai with Ritankar and Ashish, and the owner, an elderly Italian, came to their table to speak to them, Kaushik looked on while Ashish conducted the entire conversation in that accent. Evidently, the elderly Italian did not take offence.

Lipari did not even look like a volcanic island. From a distance, it looked large and low, the hills on it resembling tabletop mountains rather than the volcanic peaks they’d imagined. By the time, the ferry rolled into the pier, slipping deftly between two other ferries, Ritankar had already announced that they’d have to find another island. “This is just ugly, dude,” he said, “I can’t spend too much time here.”

Fifteen minutes and a cup, each, of espresso later, they set out finding ferries to Stromboli. Ritankar was keener on Panarea, one of the smallest islands in the bunch, and one that the Lonely Planet declared as the least crowded, but Kaushik argued that the sight of live flowing lava was an experience worth more than a lonely isolated island.

And now they were stuck in Stromboli. They’d reached the island just after noon. The weather had already begun to worsen then. The first thing they’d done was check for ferries back to Milazzo. There was one at four, they were told. They bought tickets for it. Four in the afternoon arrived but the ferry did not. Somebody said there’d be another one at five. That didn’t arrive either, although the rain did. The lady at the counter announced, ruefully, that the weather was too tricky to sail in the open sea and there wouldn’t be another ferry till the next morning. She offered them tickets for the first ferry the next day, which they duly bought.

There was also the problem of cash. They didn’t have enough to pay a hotel bill for one night. They asked around for an ATM. There was only one on the entire island. It had run out of cash. It wouldn’t be refilled until the first ferry arrived the next morning with the requisite wads of notes on it.

Ritankar, Kaushik realized, had become unusually quiet, occasionally, shaking his head and muttering under his breath.

“What’s the matter dude?”

“Nothing”

“Oh come on, you’re still cross that we chose Stromboli and not Panarea?”

“I don’t know what your fixation with a live Volcano is”

“It’s a pointless argument, man. I am sorry I got you here. But if it makes you feel any better, we’d probably have gotten stuck at Panarea too!”

Ritankar nodded. “Well, we’ve got to find someplace for the night, now”

They walked together in silence through the narrow, winding alleyways that rose and fell gracefully, offering tantalizing glimpses of the ocean, which, incredibly, retained its blue under the gloomy sky. The volcanic peak loomed above them; smoke and haze rose from its peak and mixed with the dark clouds above. On both sides of them, houses were built in closely knit clusters, into the mountainside, and they were all, extraordinarily, painted white. “They must paint it once every month.” Kaushik commented. Through the gaps between the houses, they could see the black sands of the beach.

“I must say,” Kaushik said, “the place does look gorgeous.”

“I think it is very artificial. These white coloured, shapeless houses.”

“But that’s the point Ritankar! They are so incongruous, so out of place here, its surreal, like in a dream”

Ritankar muttered something under his breath which Kaushik did not understand and chose not to ask him to repeat.

They found a house where the owner agreed to offer them a spare room for the night. They explained to him they did not have cash and could only pay by card. He shook his head a few times as if to deny and when they shrugged and began to lift their backpacks again, he asked them to wait. He returned, a few minutes later, and led them to the adjacent grocery store, which is where their card was swiped. “But, what did you put in the bill?” Kaushik asked. “Oh, nothing,” the man said, dismissively, “some food. I use it for dinner tonight.”

“Now that we’re here,” Ritankar said, “why don’t we ask about that guided tour to the top of the peak in the night?”

“Yes, I’ve been thinking about that too.”

They found that the tour had been cancelled for the day. “Wind tu much. Not good,” they were told.

The rain had stopped. There were fleeting, shifting specks of blue in the sky. They found a café by the sea, playing pleasant Italian pop they did not recognize. They entered and ordered beer. The woman at the cash counter was a blonde, middle aged but attractive. There were prominent creases on both ends of her lips, which seemed to pull the edges of the lips down with them a little. It reminded Kaushik of Jeanne Moreau. The crowd bulged towards evening and thinned out barely an hour later. Kaushik and Ritankar shifted to whiskey after a while, for there was a chill in the air, and sat through all this. They spoke little. The music continued to be warm but not intrusive.

“It isn’t such a bad place, after all” Ritankar said at one point. Kaushik did not comment.

The next morning, they woke up to a stark blue sky, except above the peak, which, as it always did, remained partly shrouded in the ashen smoke and haze. They hurried down to the pier and found the ferry hadn’t yet arrived. There wasn’t any money left for breakfast. That’d have to wait until they were back in Milazzo. They waited, with growing impatience, for an hour before walking to the ticket counter to ask what the problem was. The forecast was for rough weather till afternoon, it turned out, and therefore, services would resume only after that.

“But it is fucking glorious weather!” Ritankar said, “I could walk on water to Milazzo in this!”

They spent the day sitting in the sun, on the black sand. Occasionally, the mountain grumbled, and they looked up anxiously. They hadn’t noticed it the previous day, mistaking it for thunder. The locals appeared unflustered. They too grew used to it after a while. Once, near noon, Ritankar asked Kaushik if he had any small change left, while he fumbled inside his own pockets. Their combined wealth came to seven Euros and a bit more. “Let’s go buy something, whatever’s available for this much.” Ritankar suggested. They could either have a Panini each, or a beer each. They chose beer.

At four, the ferry arrived. That evening, they took the train from Milazzo to Rome. They shared the couchette with an old woman and a middle aged, balding man. The man pointed to the copy of On the Road on Kaushik’s lap and said, “I wrote that book twenty years ago.” They stared at him incredulously and he realized something was wrong. “Oh,” he corrected, “I mean I read it. My English is not so good.”

They spent three wonderful days in Rome, soaking in the staggering grandeur, but in their hearts they knew their best experiences of the trip were behind them. The joy they’d found in those first days in Montmartre, in the Cinque Terre and in those hours at Montefioralle, even Rome could not match.

It was only later, when they’d narrated their stories a dozen times after their return to India, that they realized Stromboli had been equally special.

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