Thailand: Must Dos and Definitely Don'ts

Do ... eat street food. And eat it for breakfast.

There is something indescribably life fulfilling about putting down a bowl of spicy red curry at 9 am, and sweating out your head while sitting on a nearly uninhabited beach. 

Don't ... try to figure out what it is that you are eating.

This is not a place for the picky eaters or weak stomachs. You will most likely realize that those two balls floating in your soup were, in fact, testicles only after eating them. Try to leave that in the past. 

Don't .. expect the Thai street vendors to understand you.

When she hands you a spoon after you ask for your change, just take it with a smile. Then go visit your friendly 711, buy a large Leo beer, find a filthy Bangkok stoop to sit on and sweat your face off while eating this spicy deliciousness.

Don't ... stay in Bangkok any longer than necessary.

It is a foul, grey city infested and overpopulated. The steam of the sewers mixed with the steam of the air is just too much to bare. 

Do ... make the trip up north to Chiang Mai.

Southern Thailand is known for its exotic islands and they are intoxicatingly beautiful. But the north has a soul and charm of its own. Different food. Different people. Visit the long necked Karen tribes up in the mountains or immerse yourself in the abundant wildlife. 

Do ... learn to speak elephant.

Elephant riding is a popular tourist attraction in Thailand. Unfortunately, most of the parks and companies that provide it, treat these gorgeous creatures obscenely inhumane. Research. Find an elephant rescue and protection community to visit if you want to interact with these wondrous giants. You'll learn each elephant's story, history, and personality. And be able to speak their language too!

  Baan Chang Elephant Park

Baan Chang Elephant Park

Do ... cuddle baby tigers. 

Ok. Yes, it's touristy. And yes, I know that there is a lot of controversy over places like Tiger Kingdom and the like who cage animals and charge people to pet them. These huge cats were meant for the wild and yes, there is something infinitely depressing about seeing those magnificent beasts all cooped up and seemingly drugged out, spending their days tolerating lines of people gawking and touching them. BUT ... those baby tigers. Oh, those sweet, innocent, wide-eyed, playful newborns. They will steal your heart and never give it back. 

Don't ... drink the water. 

If you're anything like me (and I'm assuming you're not), you will have disregarded all traveling precautions and by the time you get to Thailand, you will have drank the tap water in 6 different countries for the past 4 months and proclaim your immune system invincible. It's not. You will spend a week cradling a toilet in immense pain. (That being said, it could have been the testicle soup, or the sun cooked pork that did me in. Never could tell.)

Don't ... drink the Red Bull. Or the wine. 

The popular carbonated energy drink in America promising to give you wings is actually a syrupy concoction fueled with nitroglycerin in this country. You will have a heart attack. And die. 

Don't get me started on the wine.

Just don't. 

Don't ... book a hotel on a dead end street during Phuket's rainy season. 

You will walk through brown raging rivers to get back home. You will stub your toe on a brick. And you will fall under. 

Do ... travel by long tailed boat. 

It is now my life goal to become one of these Thai men - career boat drivers - with their shirts tied around their heads, standing cool and confident at the back of the boat, one leg pulled up by their side, steering this truly amazing piece of wooden handicraft with their foot atop the 6 foot motor rod like they've been doing it since they could walk. 

Sat with 5 strangers, the boat is in a constant state of capsizing every time somebody jumps off at the next island or beach. Turquoise sprays from the sea as you stare gape jawed through salty eyes at the towering stone eruptions that somehow emerged sporadically throughout the sea. 

Do ... go off the grid.

Go to Koh Chang - an under populated and under developed island. A rusty, decrepit ferry will take you from the port of Trat over to this island nature reserve at an impossibly slow pace, or hitch a ride with one of the local fishermen. Stay in a bungalow with no wifi, no air con, or working shower, at the edge of a beach that no one walks on.  There is nothing quite like waking up soaked in sweat, tangled in mosquito netting, with no way of communicating with anyone other than the few that wander here.

It may not sound glamorous and that's because it's not. There is no relief from the sweat or the heat because the crystal clear water is just as hot as the air and the food is hotter than the both combined. Throw the make up and the hair products off the boat because they are lost here (that goes for all of Thailand.) Remove yourself from the world. I dare you. 

Guardians of the Marlborough Sound

The eleven-hour overnight bus ride from Auckland down to Wellington was a foul atrocity. Overnight bus rides are far from my favorite moments in the glamor of travel but this one had particularly slayed me. If you’re somewhat of an insomniac like me, these trips are long and arduous after the first two hours when the lights go out, lap tops and cell phones die, music is no more, and all you have to accompany the pitch blackness are your thoughts and the base drum snoring in the seat behind you. But this little gem of a ride came with a complimentary toddler kicking and shrieking behind me for the better part of the journey. Five hours in, the girl next to me starts spewing vomit in her sleep like a demon, covering my foot with sick. We are currently on the edge of a cliff side road so the bus driver refuses to stop and I’m the only one awake to help her clean up. She refuses to throw her now hideously destroyed dress out so we spend the next six hours with a peaceful bag of vomit-covered articles in between us and I’m pretty sure I’ve just contracted Ebola.

The bus driver drops us off in the industrial port town of Wellington at the southern most point of the North Island just as the sun is waking, reminding me enviously that I’m still awake. It’s a three-hour ferry ride from here to the South Island and I don’t know where I’m going once I get there but I’m going. Once aboard the massive cruise line of a ship that is the Interislander ferry, I order an Irish coffee (“Yes, Irish,” I repeat to the barista that asks if she heard me correctly at 8:30am) because I think I deserve it and settle in a small, whicker basket chair in a large, glass encased room at the very back of the ship. I can’t even count how many ferries I’ve been on now traveling from place to place but they are definitely my preferred mode of transportation and this sky room look out is a nice new touch, despite the current view being a bunch of cranes and industrial chaos.

The freighter pulls from the port, slowly tanking along through the water and expanding my view as she presses onward. As Wellington gets smaller, the mountains on either side of me get closer and larger as they slide past. Browns and greens, lavenders and yellows as the morning sun stretches her arms, casting technicolor patterns across each sloping peak and valley she touches.

I set my coffee down, my sleepy eyes now wide and I’m scanning for a way out of this glass case on to the rear deck. I heave all my weight against a dry rotted wooden exit door and am met with the chill of the ocean air as it opens. The early Spring New Zealand air still carries the reminder of the winter they are trying to leave behind and the sun is not yet high enough to warm us into believing summer has arrived. A massive steam engine erupts from the rear high above the ship sounding its existence through a thick cylinder of aqua and navy painted swirls. Blocking the speck that is now Wellington in the distance, it splits my view in two, a few scattered villages along the mountain slopes to my left and untouched hills on my right, the sun making its way up from behind them and kissing my right cheek.

The only sound is the slow and steady rumble of the engine beneath me and the muffling of the wind in my ears. I can’t see where we are going but only from where we are coming, each new landscape sliding past me a thrilling surprise. And I’m like a stunned child walking from one side of the deck all the way to the other to admire each new cluster of floating hills, unable to decide which one I like best and for some reason needing to. Sloping unscathed hills enter on my right and they are so close that I’m sure I could touch them if I reached, dragging my fingertips against the brown rock, over the coarse short shrubbery, flickering yellow and green with the sun at its back. A solitary white lighthouse stands assuredly at the very top, stretching up through the shallow clouds, the only evidence that man has ever been there.

The floating hills keep coming, each one greater than the next, as we slowly weave in, out and around, careful not to disturb them. Lying sleepily and unmovable like giants floating on their backs in the calm blue water, fat and wrinkly, with round soft curves and a blanket of mossy skin stretching smoothly over their massive bellies and chubby thighs. Protectors of the Marlborough Sounds, only to be woken in dire circumstances.

The giant on my right, still and peaceful, left alone in his ancient peace. Small colonies of barnacles and Mollusks have embedded into the ankles and drooping thighs, under arms and chunky fingers of the lounging giant to my left. I wonder if he minds that he’s been colonized, or if he notices the people and their villages at all amidst nature’s other life forms growing from his mossy bed. How long have these massive creatures been hibernating and what happens if this man made giant roaring past shakes them from their prehistoric slumber?

I imagine the inhabited giant to my left yawning and stretching his bright green arms, shaking the tiny parasites from the folds of his neck as he sits up to see who has dared to disturb him. Timber and shingles crumbling off houses, china plates falling off shelves and sliding across floors that have now become walls as the woken giant attempts to realign his vertebrae with a thunderous crack. Tiny people hanging onto door knobs and mailboxes for their lives as they dangle in the air now high above the giant’s legs and their neighboring town. Little villagers sliding down the giant’s face as he uproots their homes with a furrow of his overgrown grassy eyebrows, or shooting into the sky like dust as he twitches his now tickly nose and sneezes.

His face is sunken and his ancient skin droops now that he’s upright, covered in porous scars and scraggly facial hair. Long sparse strands of slimy seaweed hang from his scalp, their ends still floating in the deep blue waters at his waist, and his arched back is covered in a rug of coarse hair, thick as tree roots and caked with mud. He cracks his neck with his pruned palms, looks over at us sleepily, and disinterested, settles back down in the sea covered sand, irritated that we’ve disrupted the perfect mold his body had made in it after all these years, unaware and unchanged by the tiny lives he’s just uprooted.

“I said wake me up if it’s something important,” the giant mumbles grumpily before settling back into one of those slow and shallow, reassuring snores.

I smile as we leave him be, wondering if he’ll even remember it in the morning, whenever his next morning may be. 

27 Hours

I don’t know whether to blame my underlying stupidity, refusal to plan, or stubborn outlook on life for believing that winter in South Africa was a myth. But I did. And it wasn’t. Completely unprepared with shorts and summer attire, ready to surf the Cape Town waves, frolic on the beaches, and leave myself to a wild tribe of African tigers (they live in Asia, I have recently been informed), I was pent up in a beautiful 18th century African bed and breakfast (Villa Rosa), run by what could only be Nelson Mandela’s daughters, with fits of cold wind and rain pelting against my glass windows.

I had arrived in Cape Town two days ago with no clue as to what time zone, time period, or day it was, feeling like I had just battled through 3 world wars in 17 different countries. I’d slept for maybe an hour over the course of 27 hours on 3 different planes in 3 different countries, and by the time transport spit me out at Cape Town International, saying goodbye to Meg in Athens’ airport the day prior felt like a distant dream covered in a foggy haze.

From what I remember, those 27 hours were comprised of (but not limited to) the following: 3 different types of drunk, 3 rare form hang overs, tearful fits during 3 different movies including the god damn Lego movie, a 9 hour layover in Turkey spent in an air lounge with (who I can’t be certain, but am absolutely positive was) Lock from the TV show, “Lost,” 9 glasses of wine, copious amounts of different language barriers, some terrible make shift homemade Irish coffees, and a chain smoking cage box in Istanbul. Oh, and I’m pretty sure I almost got involved in a possible drug smuggling business carrying packages into different countries in exchange for free flights and 400 USD.

A stranger to myself, as if waking from a head injury, I am left wondering what the shit just happened in the past 27 hours … not to mention, for the love of God, why am I in Africa? And why have I chosen the furthest place possibly south in this giant continent. Also, I’ve just found out it’s winter here so that’s unfortunate.

I stand at baggage claim watching the backpacks and suitcases spin hypnotically by me and I’m almost certain I’m a figment of my own imagination. I think that my bag is probably lost and I hope that it is. Unfortunately, the bastard comes rolling through, the last on the line.

Somewhere in the back of my mind there is a faint and vacant hole where once headed African advice had been, but I can’t locate it so I get into the first taxi I find. Being the travel extraordinaire that I am, I shortly realize I have no clue about social customs or norms here, nor did I even think to look into them prior. Do they tip? How much should a taxi be so I know I’m not being ripped off? What the hell is a Rand and how many USD does 1 equal? Am I going to be driven off the grid and sold into slavery? No one knows and no one cares.

The taxi driver’s voice drones in and out of my consciousness as he talks about Table Mountain and such. He asks me what I think of South Africa and so far it looks pretty much like any other place in the States I’ve ever been. We drive down a regular looking highway towards the city with regular looking land on either side and he nonchalantly points out a “township” that we pass being the largest in Cape Town. I follow his arm motion and squint out my window. I’m not sure what a township is but I can’t make it out with this massive heap of trash in front of me. Some sort of dump or landfill, I presume.

“What’s a township? I ask sleepily, “I don’t see it.”

“Right there,” he says motioning to the heap of trash and scrap metal on the side of the road, “Townships are very poor towns here in Africa.”

“That right there??” I ask, bewildered, “That’s a town? People live there?”

“Sure do,” he says with nothing but normalcy in his tone, “gets awful hot in the summer and dreadfully cold in the winter, what with those dirt floors, ya know.”

I stared out of the window with my jaw dragging on the concrete behind our tires. It looked like a stretch of land covered in cardboard boxes, scraps of metal, sheets, and trash, all piled on top of one another. I ripped my gaze from the place and looked over the back seat. I could still see the airport and Victoria Wharf, the sophisticated and exquisite set of shopping centers, restaurants, and high-class condos. How was this possible? These people lived next door to each other, in neighboring towns. How did people pass this everyday, leaving their fancy homes on their way to their fancy jobs?

That was the day I first saw the expansive gap of inequality between rich and poor in Africa that everyone speaks about. A third world country and a first world country living side by side, and often in adjacent neighborhoods. I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly, the past 27 hours were irrelevant, shamefully miniscule. Now I was fully awake.

I would quickly find over the following weeks, that these townships sprung up everywhere, all clustered together climbing up hills, and squeezing between mansions, anywhere they could find and they grew almost overnight. Depreciating wealthy neighborhoods in a matter of days, turning their backyards into places of crime and fear. Unlike anything I had ever seen, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. We had poor areas back home, sure, but this stark contrast living next to and on top of each other was staggering. And furthermore, who had let this happen??

This starch contrast in quality of living is an epidemic in South Africa and no one knows what to do about it. Men sit out on every street corner waiting for construction work or anything to compensate their labor, but there aren’t enough jobs for the poor, so after all attempts at making money fail, they take it, turning their wealthy next-door neighbor’s world upside down. Women walk the streets in ragged skirts with babies tied to their backs in sheets while they carry an even smaller one on their hip or shoulders. Babies are everywhere. The crime has reached hideous levels where driving out of your two door garage and three story house, down the road is no longer safe. Last week, an elderly man was dragged from his car and beaten almost to death with a bat for his cell phone. The week before another infant was found in a dumpster. This happens everyday. Trash cans, gutters, lakes, fields. Live, breathing, newborn babies are abandoned and left for trash. And no one is doing anything about it.

The government pays these township people a stipend (about $300) for each baby they have, in attempts to help them, but instead of providing them help, they’ve provided them with a perceived way out, a means to live. Keep birthing children and then trash them when the small amount of money comes in. I feel physically ill when I learn this, passing two women carrying at least 3 children each. Wondering how many more they had and discarded.

Frequent rants and complaints from the President are aired daily on the radio. He’s angry that the government cut his budget for his mansion renovation. One of his 6 wives or 23 children aren’t happy or aren’t well. This is a man who, prior to his election, raped a HIV infected woman, and responded only with a public statement about the impossibility of him contracting aids because he had showered after the encounter. This man is not only running this country, but somehow got put in the highest position of power by the people themselves. Contrary to American politicians who sweet talk and maneuver their way through elections, politically correct at every turn … this man’s flaws and injustices were not unknown to the public, nor were they hidden. And by the sound of it, solely due to his lack of intelligence or regard for anyone else. So how did he get here? Who voted for him?

Easy. By offering a glimmering promise of hope to the people of these townships, the lowest levels of poverty who make up the majority of the population. Promising them housing, a future, and a chance at a better life. If the votes are in the numbers and the numbers can be found in the most desperate and broken people, than the victory is as good as given. They will soon forget that this man did not deliver on any of his offers, nor make a slight attempt at pretending to do so, and they will grasp at the chance when the next candidate comes along, failing them again.

The radio announcer reads off a list of current news and I can make out just enough through the static. Another infant found in a nearby lake; two found in the underground gutter system by construction workers, an old couple pulled from their car and beaten – their phones and wallets the only things missing, a single mother lie bleeding in an alleyway after someone caught a glimpse of her iPhone, a neighbor’s car window smashed in – a laptop gone.

I feel sick again and look out the window past the woman draped in sheets with a toddler strapped to her back with a tied blanket, his back arched unnaturally, drooping in the makeshift sack with his cheek pressed firmly against the woman’s middle back and his eyes wide, seemingly lifeless. I force my gaze past them to the victorious mountains behind them, surviving wildfire after wildfire, covered in yellow shrubbery and the bright blue ocean glistening from around every corner. How could a place this beautiful be so broken?

(Epilogue: it wasn’t until I met a few of these township folk, that my world was irrevocably shaken….) 

^See subsequent Blog post “Elma & Me”

Falling for Franschhoek

It’s a warm, blue-skied, spring morning in Franschhoek, on a date I am unaware of and a day I have no reason to place. Jack pants beside me in the lush green grass and my fingers run absentmindedly through his golden fur as I watch a pair of birds waltz together among the tiny, purple wildflowers that dust the bright green floor. The sky is the sort of blue you’ve waited a very long winter for and everything comes alive under the South African early morning sun. Rows of barren grape vines stretch longingly upwards toward the warmth. Even the lake at the end of the yard seems to be finally relaxing. The only sound for miles and miles is residential bird choir practice and Jack’s gentle breathing. I wonder in between dosing off how Linda and Bruce would feel about adopting me so I never have to leave this perfect little cove of heaven. I could just stop right here and never go any further. Just me, the birds, the flowers and Jack.

Nestled at the foothills of the Franschhoek mountains, outside the quaint little town, stands a modest piece of land and small family vineyard owned by Linda & Bruce, where they run the charming Chanteclair guesthouse. With the ease and graceful hospitality that makes you forget you are paying them to stay there, it is impossible not to feel like a welcomed guest in their home. A few elegant bedrooms named after trees hide privately in corners of this ivy wrapped, rennovated farm house and breakfast is served out on the terrace each morning, homemade by the Petro and Leonora. This is my favorite part of the day here, with their yellow lab, Jack patiently waiting for scraps at my feet (I’ve been feeding him against instruction in hopes that he will follow me when I go) as I watch the world wake up. A torrent of white clouds comes crashing over the mountaintops each morning, as fast and furious as tidal waves, racing each other in their expansive playground, tumbling down the slopes like an avalanche of powdery snow and breaking on the shore, dissipating into nothing amongst the vines. 

 (www.chanteclair.co.za)

(www.chanteclair.co.za)

I’m in Franschhoek because some few days after my 27 hours of travel agg, I’ve remembered and regained my purpose for coming to South Africa in the first place – the wine. (Huh? South Africa has wine?) Yes, they do in fact and some of the greatest in the world at that. The Cape winelands are located only 45 minutes north east of Cape Town and have been making some of the most unique wines ever since this lush landscape was discovered. However, only since the 80’s have they been world recognized.

My quest began in Stellenbosch, a town only a 30 minute drive from my current location, founded and claimed by Sir Simon van der Stel who, with an ego no smaller than this country, decided to name this haven after himself, because, hey, why wouldn’t ya? Surrounded by mountains, the most famous of which is said to look like the arrogant bastard, drunk lying on his back with a bottle of wine. And that is exactly what it looks like … lazy van der Stel himself napping in a drunken haze, his profile in perfect view showcasing his rather large nose, and his hand gripping a forgotten bottle that rests on his rotund belly just below his sagging chin, ready to drink or passed out from it.

Here I discovered the native South African grape Pinotage, after which, I spent a shameful amount of hours comparing every version of this exciting wine. A wine that I had been rather uneducated in and often getting a bad rap, I instantly developed a fond fascination with this varietal. The love child of two separate grapes, Africa has birthed an heir to the New World wine family that is as unique and exciting as it claims to be. It was long since discovered that the beloved Pinot Noir did not take to these South African climates quite as well as English and French settlers had hoped and thus, some genius decided to cross breed it with the polar opposite grape, Cinsaut (formerly known as Hermitage in SA), creating the perfect offspring of the two. Pinotage yields the delicacies of its mother – the elegant and soft-spoken Pinot Noir- with the bold resilience of its daring father, Cinsaut. A dark maroon in color, this wine varies vastly from winery to winery in terms of nose and mouth, from simple table wines to elegant and robust centerpieces. The best of it’s kind, in my opinion, delivers an orchestrated dance that begins with a warm chocolate and coffee nose enticing you in before delivering a punch and loudness of fruit to shock, surprise, confuse and intrigue you. Certain to keep you coming back for more.

 (store.spierwines.co.za/spier-signature-chenin-blanc-2014/) 

(store.spierwines.co.za/spier-signature-chenin-blanc-2014/) 

Despite it’s close proximity, Franschhoek has a different feel entirely to it’s brother counterpart, Stellenbosch. Discovered in the 1600’s by the French Huguenots, this quaint little town known as the “French Corner” has all the elegant feel of France without the upturned noses, and the remote picturesque landscape of Africa. What you find here today is the beautiful fusion of bold South African wine traditions intertwined with the subtlety and grace of its knowledgeable French mother. A unique and undeniable success in the marrying of Old World wine traditions and New World wine explorations.

A much smaller, quieter place than Stellenbosch, although its food and wines do not shy away in comparison, Franschhoek has all the quaint small town feel, breath taking landscape, and lazy Saturday afternoons that anyone could ask for. The town is comprised primarily of one simple street - Main Street - and what it lacks in distance, it makes up for in depth as "the food and wine capital" of the country. Just a short, peaceful walk from Chanteclair, Main Street is bustling on a Saturday with markets, African jewelry, and families enjoying lunch, wine, and laughter outdoors. One small restaurant in particular catches my eye on this certain Saturday with it’s white linen table cloths and Porcupine Ridge embroidered umbrellas, tucked into a small stone square by a bubbling fountain and although I’m not quite hungry, I ask for a table for one (a routine that I have become incomprehensibly comfortable with). I am instructed to sit where I please and a four-person table ornate with all the silverware and fancy dressings of a 5 star restaurant accompanied by farm charm aura, is the only one open so I pull out a chair.

No sooner do I allow my weight down into the white chair as elegantly as I know how, do I tumble over backwards. One leg of the chair abruptly wedging down into a grate in the cobblestone floor, landing me boots over head, ass out in daisy duke denims, sprawled out on the concrete, and knocking the back of my head into the legs of a proper lunchtime date behind me. A little more than slightly mortified in front of all these sophisticated types, I laugh hoping these fancies might join in the fun and games however, they decline. Twenty plus stares and pauses before turning their attention back to their meals while I wrestle with a chair, trying to pry it out of the grate in silence. Not my finest hour.

Taking a seat in the most poised manner possible after such a debacle, I join in the pretending that the little charade did not happen and order my lunch. Franschhoek, although a modest little town, is unabashed in boasting about the food delicacies they prepare and the perfect neighboring wine pairings they orchestrate, and my first food experience does not disappoint. Lightly battered calamari stuffed with pesto, pine nuts, and harami cheese, drizzled in a sweet chili glaze, accompanied by a glass of Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc, already has a ring on my finger before the delicate artichoke hearts dripping in a pool of garlic butter has time to seal the deal.

 

Careful not to trip over my own feet as I exit the restaurant, I decide it's time for what we came here for - the wineries. The Franschhoek Wine Tram hop-on-hop-off is a thing of genius and the most charming way to explore the lush wineries of this infamous Cape Wineland region. A small fee will get you an all day pass. Plan your winery route accordingly, or just hop off at one that happens to strike your fancy. An old trolley cart with open windows and an educated, bubbling driver, it gives any traveler the ideal view of the countryside and picturesque beauty that this small town encompasses in a big way. (www.winetram.co.za)

If you know me, you will assume that, clearly, I did not pick out any wineries beforehand, nor did I care too. Taken with the ride, I simply waited for something to tell me to get off at each winery I passed and trusted that instinct. Because so far, albeit getting me into some bastard situations, it hasn’t quite steered me wrong thus far. 

Having spent the previous night dining at Holden Manz, a romantic dinner for one that postively surpassed any date that I have ever been on, I was already swept away and couldn't wait to see what the other Franschhoek wineries had to offer, or if they dared to top my first love. Candelit tables next to a crackling fire, overlooking the stretch of Holden Manz vineyards, along with a mouth-watering, daring menu that would get any adventurous food lover's heart pumping, Holden Manz provides the same elegant and cozy, family feel that the small town of Franschhoek does, while delivering bold culinary and varietal statements that everyone should witness. (www.holdenmanz.com) 

Today, I come to the culmination of my previous Pinotage quest for perfection at La Couronne. An intensely ripe, fruit boasting mouth feel disguised in a chocolate and espresso aroma. Well balanced and entirely intriguing – definitely one of my favorite South African wines. (www.lacouronnewines.co.za)

And my venture would not be complete without the savory lunch menu of Moreson winery, a stroll through their enchanted Orchid greenhouse, and their endearing, hilarious Miss Molly collection of bubbly and wine. With tasting notes like these, I am right at home …

“MISS MOLLY IN MY BED ~ Miss Molly, the captivating Môreson Weimaraner, doesn’t do mornings. Her late night social schedule ensures that, by sunup, she’s ready for bed. After Miss Molly’s breakfast is served, and devoured, she loves to climb (uninvited) into whichever bed is available. In My Bed is a wine designed to be two of Miss Molly’s favourite things – comfortable and easy going.”

Moreson is a must stop on any Franschhoek winery tour. Perfect for that midday break and a quick snack to soak up some of that early morning wine and fatten you up for a full day’s worth of drinking ahead. (www.moreson.co.za)

 

And after today, I am certain that I need to live here forever and I can't think of anything I'd rather do than curl up by the fire at Chanteclair with a glass of their newest red and Jack at my side. 

OIA SUNSETS: Drenched in Satin

There is something undeniably magical and God-like about sunsets. I don’t care who you are. Everybody loves a sunset. It just so happens that in a tiny town, on a tiny island, in a tiny country far away, the most infamous of all sunsets can be found. Thousands come from all over the globe to visit the picturesque town of Oia, set high atop Santorini’s cliffs, Greece’s most visited island in the Cyclades. This sunset is not just something a few passerby’s stop to admire and capture; it is an event. Every single night.

Never have I seen the sun so overwhelmingly massive and close up, encroaching on us as if it’s about to swallow the world whole. This morning’s bright blue sky and sea now dripping in gold. The hustle and bustle of Oia’s quaint marble street shops and overlooking seaside restaurants goes silent; villagers and tourists alike stop in their tracks, haulting with baited breath to observe this majestic display of nature. The famous windmill is a favorite spot to watch the sun’s performance, although I believe that Meg and I have the best seat in the house sitting atop Mimaw’s roof (see previous post), basking in the evervescent glow of the sun as she drapes this tiny island in her most glorious and extravagant silk.

A public terrace nearby plays Charriots of Fire (it's all very dramatic) as the galaxy’s most brilliant star is coming to her final piece, shooting gold, orange, pink, and purple hues out across the sky. The Aegean Sea, hers to own, held captivatingly blue by daylight, is now set afire with swirls of warmth, a giant looking glass for her to observe herself in. When the sun has finally danced her last number, bowing behind the mountains over the blazened sea, the entire village erupts in cheers and claps, begging this great performer for an encore that no amount of claps can bring. This happens every night, 365 days a year, and each time is like the first time no matter how many of her dances you’ve witnessed.

You simply cannot watch this sunset without being a very part of it. My eyes hold her gaze as she pulls me into her while pouring herself into me, overflowing my swelling soul with all the beauty and wonder that our humanness cannot hold. Standing atop that white cement roof, drenched in otherworldly colors and wonder, I feel smaller than I ever have, yet stretched to capacity and larger than life, holding on to as much of this universe that my little heart can grasp. And I can’t help but wonder if this great performer notices us at all from her grande stage and why she graces this tiny island with the very best she has to give. There is something in the way she sets the entire sky and sea afire with passion in this particular spot, and I know that this tiny island holds something special above the rest of the world in her eyes. She goes on to set elsewhere each night for those who pass by without noticing her elegance and beauty, monotonously fulfilling her duty, but she must adore this praise, this place, these people. Proudly shining larger and brighter for them, bowing as gracefully and majestically as possible for these loyal and appreciative fans, waiting in anticipation each and every day until she can dance for them again.

Finally, she bows with a blushing glow, sending fireworks shooting across the sky, disappearing behind the distant and abandoned island, relishing in the uproar of praise that follows her exit. Awaiting the next 24 hours with anticipation and adrenaline to again perform for her favorite place in the world.

Meeting Mimaw in Santorini

“Krissss … “ Meg whines exasperated from behind me. I can almost feel the breath from her sigh on the back of my neck. Actually, I wish I could. She doesn’t need to say anymore. I know exactly how she feels. It’s hot. That stagnant, sticky, thick, brick wall heat where any amount of breaths you take are in vain, leaving you even more winded than before. I had heard July in Greece was brutal but this was on another level.

“Meg. In case you were wondering, I am not having fun either,” I try a laugh but don’t have enough energy for it, attempting to wipe the stinging sweat from my eyes but blinding myself instead with the sweat from the back of my hand. I look back at my younger sister, her long brown hair tied up in a bun with valiant attempt, now sagging and dripping under the relentless sun. The light has drawn each and everyone of her adorable freckles out to meet it. Her tiny, green eyes are nearly shut into squints as she looks at me with a pained expression and I smile inwardly relishing in one of her most endearing childhood habits.

This is the most beautiful place we have been in Greece thus far and rivals for the most beauty I have ever seen in my entire life, but it’s too hot and we are too tired to appreciate it. We woke up this morning in a fit of chocolate and Sagnaki in Kamari, a small beach town in Santorini, with no idea where we were staying once we reached Oia, just knowing we had to move. Now that we are here, we’ve already struck out once despite our pleading attempts to sleep in cots on the roof at the last hostel.

The marble streets are straight out of a Grecian dream and the flowers that overhang above our heads in tapestries of magenta are passed by without enough brain capacity to yet realize them. Donkeys pass through the narrow marble streets carrying cases of water or suitcases, led by sun-scorched men with whips. They push around corners and ramble through the crowded narrow streets, eyes mocking our own exhaustion and brushing up against our sweaty skin as they pass, leaving a dust of dark brown hair against our sun tortured arms and legs.

“She said this place might give us a room, it’s just a bit further,” I assure Meg in broken syllables without looking back, securing my palms on my thighs, pressing down with each step, willing myself up this hill. It feels like I’m carrying a 250 lb. dead body in my backpack and I am not entirely sure that I am not at this point. A mass of Asian tourists creep along in front of us, parasails in hand, faces wrapped in embroidered scarves to protect them from the blistering fire in the sky above us. It’s all I can do to not start a stampede to get through them.

After an abundance of entrances and exits between these quaint shops, knocking over delicate embroideries and glass blown extravagances in a disgruntled fit of discomposure and awkward weight trying to find accommodation, we’ve been led towards a home that may or may not take us in. Meg is silent following me and I know she is having a terrible time. I urge us both to keep moving up the stone hill and we make a right as instructed between an art shop and clothing boutique, both displaying their creations outside – vibrant seasides in oil paint and delicate dresses against the caramel stone buildings. The marble walkways turn to ragged, uneven stone and we duck under magenta flowered canopies, a drab and dripping blasphemy in comparison.

A wooden sign, reading Marcus Rooms, hangs on its side from a post jutting from a dusty, white washed house. “Here,” I tell Meg as I push open the faded blue doors that swing open like saloon shutters from an old western. They open up to a courtyard full of white linen hanging on close lines blowing ever so slightly under the scorching sun, also desperate for the slightest movement in the air. An elderly Greek man turns while hanging the sheets and stares at us. He looks confused and intruded on and I’m sure I’ve walked into some family home.

 “Um, hi. We were wondering if maybe you had a room we could stay in tonight,” I ask. I can hear my heartbeat against my eardrums and the throbbing pulse banging beneath the skin in my neck.

The wirey man is balding with a few remains of stubborn grey fighters poking from his scalp and his expression does not change, as he looks up from his fogged up spectacles. “We don’t have any rooms,” he says in a thick Greek accent while observing our deflated composure and faces. I nod, feigning nonchalance, pressing my lips into a forced smile and we turn to go.

“Let me ask wife,” he interjects abruptly as we are turning our backs, “Come.” And we follow the impossibly tanned, old man through more overhanging bed sheets and faded blue swinging doors to an adjacent cement terrace a few feet above the narrow road. It looks much the same like everything in Greece does. White washed with blue trim. I wonder again how they got the whole country to agree on this color scheme but I don’t have enough energy to sustain the idea. Pushing up the sleeves of his hemp smock, the man shouts for his wife in what sounds like aboriginal mating calls in his native Greek tongue. An apparition of a woman (whom Meg and I later take to calling Mimaw) appears in a floral scrap, floor length gown; curvy with much more to her than her husband, her dark long hair hangs in coarse, waist length tangles, highlighted in a cloudy gray that matches deep gray eyes peering at us behind a black raccoon mask of make up. Her face appears to be visibly melting off her chin and hangs in folds of layer cake in her neck. My hand instinctively moves to my own neck, seeing if I, too, have melted under the sun like this fabrication of a withered woman before us.

“We have no room,” she reiterates her husband’s first response and the four of us stand facing each other in silence for a moment. I know I should regain composure, tell them that it’s fine, and form some sort of idea about what to do next, but instead I just stand in front of them zombie like and blank faced; Meg at my side, a taller and slimmer frame showcasing the same empty stare. The couple turns towards each other as Meg and I remain dripping lost puppies waiting outside of their harsh Greek whispers.

“We have small room downstairs. We don’t rent it. But, we give it to you if you want for small price,” the melting raccoon tells us.

I glance at Meg and we both nod silently in grateful approval. Mimaw disappears, telling us to sit while she cleans up the basement storage chambers for us. We both collapse into the cushioned bench while we wait. There is a floor length mirror peering back at us on the other side of the bench, which I resent whole heartedly and I stare blankly at our sweat soaked reflections for a moment until Meg and I simultaneously erupt with wheezing laughter at the state of ourselves. Mimaw’s husband hands us a glass of juice and sitting opposite, watches silently as we chug the entire thing. Still dripping in sweat, we declare it to be the most delicious homemade juice of all time. Stubbornly optimistic, we make up stories while we wait, about Mimaw picking fresh fruit this morning and painstakingly squeezing it into this godly nectar while her husband washes the linens against wooden boards by the river at sunrise. Mimaw and Pop Pop. We decide that we love them. (Tomorrow we will find out the juice comes from a knock off brand container found in discount supermarkets and the following day Mimaw will shout at and rebuke us in Greek after our knocks at the kitchen door cause her to bring us a jug of water completely naked. Pop Pop will never speak to us again after this first encounter.)

Mimaw returns above ground carrying a bundle of dirty laundry and I have never wanted to shower and lay down more than right now. We thank her repeatedly before we turn to go downstairs, but she grabs us to show us around. I take a deep breath as I follow her around the house, not caring in the slightest what she’s saying but trying to be polite in exchange for her hospitality. Beautiful antique wooden chests hold silverware and cracked china, an overstuffed fridge full of groceries, light bounds through fresh white curtains and bounces off each white wall… Our footsteps creak over the wide wooden floor boards and an open room catches my eye, pressed white sheets tucked over a beautiful queen bed, the sunlight streaming in the open windows through elegant, sheer curtains. I can taste the feeling of sinking into that plush bed; it’s so close it almost hurts.

"Thank you," I say eager to get to our room as the tour ends. Picking up our bags, we turn towards the steps from the deck that Mimaw had come from. She stops us again and motions us over to a table full of picturesque books of Santorini, pressing one of the heat absorbed hardbacks against Meg’s torso and into her hands, as she thumbs through the others. Meg’s eyes widen as she mouths “the book is on fire,” nearly dropping it. We oblige Mimaw for a moment and nod brainlessly as she flips through the colorful pages and details all the important buildings and where her house is in relationship to each of them - the old churches (all 37 of them), the famous windmill and all the unfamous windmills, red beach, black beach, white beach, and all of their cousin, aunt, and uncle beaches, complete with her rankings of best to worst, intertwining with her life story. Mimaw grew up in the town of Oia. Born and raised in this very home, she bleeds pride and admiration for the town and I can’t bare to break her heart cutting her off, so Meg and I stare glassy eyed at the pages while her broken English washes over us and wait for her to release us.

Somewhere in between showing us the tiny dot where we stood in comparison to the windmill in 15 different views in 4 different books, and her returning to the beaches to change her mind about their ranking order, I lose my mind. Almost certain that someone has slipped me acid this morning, I forgo all certainty and clarity of where I am, with whom, and why. “Just one more actually,” Mimaw says for the 82nd time, holding us hostage with her finger in the air as she flips through pages, "So many surprises to discover."  Black spots are beginning to appear in my vision as I restrain with everything I am from being rude, shutting her up, and at last resort, knocking her out so we can lay down. I’m still sweating and I think I’m going blind. I hear a small snort of laughter while my vacant eyes bore holes into Mimaw’s back; I can see Meg out of the corner of my eye, biting her lip while watching my pained expression.

One excruciating hour later, we follow Mimaw’s lead and climb down the small opening in the white concrete floor beneath the outdoor terrace, ducking around and down the winding, cement stairs. We are underground now in a narrow cave, open on either side to the street just a few feet above and everything down here feels wet, including the air and the walls. The door to our room is swollen in the heat and doesn’t shut and its window is missing the pane, leaving a gaping hole, covered in an ancient hanging tea cloth. Inside is a windowless room, dank with white wash cement walls arched in the shape of a rising sun above three beds, box springs poking through starched sheets, and broken, wooden headboards that are nailed into the wall instead of attached to the bed frames.

“You can use this refrigerator,” She opens the door of an empty, yellow stained fridge and the door falls off. “Use the one upstairs,” she slams it shut, turning her back on the hanging open door and keeping her eyes ahead, motioning us to the bathroom.

It’s the size of a basinet; faded pink tiles cover the floor, walls, and ceiling, accented with ornate mold decoupage. There is a toilet leaking onto a wet floor, a sink standing like a desk in front of it so close that you may wash your hands while sitting on said toilet, and a detachable shower head above so that you may also wash your hair while sitting on said toilet.

The hallway leads to two storage closets and three crumbling stone steps climbing to what used to be a miniature door, perfect for an elf but big enough for a person to duck through to exit to or enter from the cobblestone street we came from earlier. There is no longer a door here, but simply a wooden frame in a cement wall leaving the entrance open. The tan ankles of a couple pass by our faces and the sounds of their petty disagreement wash inside and echo off the old concrete walls. But nevermind the multitude of broken openings for possible serial killers in the night, Mimaw repeats “safe, safe, safe,” as she waves her arm at the 4 by 5 view we have of the outside, “you keep open,” she says with finality as if we have a choice, picking up old clothes and broken objects on her way out.

Meg and I are still laughing about our current whereabouts after Mimaw has gone, as we spin around the corridor pointing out each delicacy as if we are amidst upmost royalty. “Ohh, look at these lovely little dreams,” I coo while stroking my fingers across a wilted and weather stained curtain as if it is the finest of lace.

Meg giggles and joins in without missing a beat. “Oh yes, but what about this antique craftsmanship,” She circles the tiny wooden chair sat just next to the crumbling stairs and killer entrance of a window. “A throne for Queens no doubt,” she puts her hands out to her side in a curtsy air and sits daintily on the dark stained wood.

No sooner has Meg delivered the most grace she has ever possessed, all four of the chair’s legs buckle underneath her, dismantling her poised face and leaving her in a heap of wooden shards and dust on the cement floor with a shriek. Now I’m laughing. Tumbled over and shaking in belly aching laughter as Meg looks up at me with a mixture of pain, confusion, and hysteria in a cloud of dust and wood chips.

After a very cramped and very interesting shower in the wet room, we crawl out of the open wooden frame in the wall and out onto the cobblestone path, ready to discover every secret and capture all the pixie dust that oozes from every crevice of this ancient town.

Greek legend tells an ancient tale of a furious Poseidon turning the nymphs into these very Cycladic islands, revengefully trapping their whimsical souls and enticing trickeries into 12 beautiful land masses that he could keep an eye on. If I didn’t know better (and sometimes I’m certain I don’t), I would swear that you could feel the personality and soul of each nymph thumping from beneath the ground of every individual and very different island. All twelve beautiful and unique captured in stone, but Santorini being without a doubt the most seductive and romantic of all. The gem of the Aegean.

“Around every corner …. surprise,” Meg mimics Mimaw’s speech from earlier, “here,” she stretches her arms out and bends at the waist as Mimaw had explaining every picture, bowing as we approach a bend in the road, “surprise.”

The buildings, the marble foot paths, windmills – everything is blindingly florescent white like the other island towns, however Oia is speckled in peach churches and coral corner stores, The town is set miles above on the top of a massive hill, surrounded by water so offensively blue that it hurts our feelings, matching the turquoise blue of the building’s shutters and church steeples. Each narrow road winds in between tall buildings, leaving every upcoming turn and street a surprise until rounded.

“At edge of cliff,” I bend with open arms, “surprise.” The path stops and opens up to the sea at the edge of the cliff; luminescent white buildings tumble down the mountain like a rolling avalanche of snow ready to disappear into the bluest sea I’ve ever seen, hungrily awaiting its approach.

“You go find them all,” Meg echoes Mimaw’s Greek laced English instruction, and we barrel down the treacherous 289 winding stone steps to the beckoning sea, laughing and sliding the whole way without a thought or care for the return journey upwards.

Paros: You Dream, You

We arrive in Paros covered in fleas and hideously offensive sunburns. My lips are so swollen that they put Angelina Jolie’s to shame, my metatarsals are still slewed so I walk with a limp and I’m pretty sure I have kidney stones. I am not well.

Squinting in the bright midday sun as the ferry ramp lowers to let us onto land, we are met with a quaint sea side town, glowing white buildings, each with turquoise shutters, doors, and accents matching the impossible blue sea at its feet. Even the rare act of defiance was graffitied in a respectable matching blue. Small fishing boats of every color bob excitedly at their leashes next to the road and the whole town seems to be awaiting our arrival, waving us in with ‘welcome home’ smiles; even the air smells wholesome and life affirming.

“I love this island,” Meg states with conviction just before we touch land, “I want to have a baby with this place.”

My younger sister Meg, has my father’s exact small and deep set green eyes, as well as his relentless and diligent obligation to planning. So it was no surprise that the day after I left on my trip back in May, she was telling me that we needed to book ferries and hostels for when she visited me in Greece in July. Despite being the worrier of the both of us, her ever futile desire to embrace the present like her older sister, keeps her much more open than my father to unexpected turns and breezy whims and I was addicted to pulling them out of her. Thus, we had ignored her instincts and planned nothing.

Meg had arrived in Greece only 4 days ago. After a night in Athens where the closest we got to culture was sitting atop the roof of our hotel looking out at the Acropolis and discussing on how to tell our Catholic father that Zeus was, in fact, real, we had set out for Mykonos, full of promise and excitement -the first island in our two week Cycladic Island hopping adventure.

Mykonos – the island of wild international adventures – one we had ALMOST saved for last because we didn’t believe we could top, was in fact a cesspool of sex-craved tourists, nightclubs, thatched roofs, and aids. And it had utterly destroyed and stripped us of everything we were worth in a matter of three days. (Blog post may or may not be released to the world at a later date depending on the offensiveness of its nature.)

 (Post Mykonos Meg at the port awaiting escape)

(Post Mykonos Meg at the port awaiting escape)

This island is the supreme opposite to the last, full of motherly good will and breath taking tenderness. There are no nightclubs or more importantly, Australians; everyone is Greek and to our surprise, they love us. We are taken in at a small family owned hotel by the sea, Grivas, and Meg instantly longs to be apart of this family, desperate for their love and approval. The woman is tall and blonde with a natural, earthy beauty and a two-year-old baby girl on her hip as she shows us to our room. Her husband is tall and broad, handsome with dark Greek skin and can be found anywhere from fixing light bulbs to rocking toddlers, or bartending on any given night.

We spend most of our days at the restaurant down the street where they know us by name and love us almost as much as we love them eating everything in sight that resembles a gyro. Gyro pizza please; is it possible to get the fettuccini with a gyro on top; yes, I’ll take Saganaki but please add a gyro and double the fried cheese. Everything is laid back and peaceful here, so unlike the tourist trap of Mykonos we just escaped. 

 Post Paros arrival Meg at our favorite restaurant

Post Paros arrival Meg at our favorite restaurant

Against our brother’s wishes, we decide to rent an ATV and out of stubborn spite, I demand that I know how to drive one. Her name is Gertrude, this ATV we are given and she is a hot mess, red paint splintering from her core leaving white splotches on her body, her once black racing stripes are now gray and melted, but she is a fighter, spitting and spewing as she heaves breathlessly to get up every hill. Flying past cars and motor bikes on downward slopes only proves to be embarrassing once they pass us laughing as Gerty fails us in a mock attempt to get up every slope, slowing to about 2 mph from 30.

Still, she whips us around every curve and bend in the rumbling roads along the coast, the inconceivable turquoise water whizzing past at our side, a vision of sea foam and mermaid tears that can’t be anything but mythological. We stop at a forgotten folding rock of ancient ruins jutting out towards the sea and venture lightly into this ancient habitat, careful not to wake whomever clearly still claims it. The bright sun and piercing blue waters peer through the cracks in the walls and the wind whips through the windows, rapaciously whipping into scornful torrents within the abandoned stone walls echoing the howls of Aphrodite’s broken heart. A crumbling stone carving outside along the bank reveals an ancient Greek script translating “with their lives in the embrace of the waves,” and now I’m sure we need to live here, right in this stone wreckage left behind in a fury of Olympic waves.

Meg agrees and so it is settled, we will move in with the Grivas family, and live in this little village until we are as old and dilapidated as this ancient rock temple. 

Napoli: An Utter Wasteland

Naples is a foul city and after the Amalfi utopia and then John leaving, I can’t stand a single part of it. Trash covers the streets and blows around your legs as you try to make your way through millions of loud and dirty Italian men. Graffiti covers the walls everywhere; places are boarded up and abandoned; horns and sirens ring ceaselessly throughout every street. And even after 15 showers, it is impossible to feel clean when it seems contracting aids is inevitable if you fancy breathing. 

Men shout, honk, and stare at you like some sort of alien creature and whole rooms go silent when a woman walks into a shop or bar full of old greasy Italian men, briefly before erupting again in jeers and propositions. There has to be a ratio of at least 9:1, men to women in this place and it’s not a wonder why they all left. 

I tell myself it’s okay because I am locking myself in my room for 4 days to do nothing but write, but I cannot get over how ugly the place is. It has no right to be in Italy and is an utter disgrace to everything Italy is. It feels as if everyone who cared anything about beauty at all fled long ago, leaving the city slickers to waste away in their own filth. And that is exactly what they are doing, over crowding the grime covered streets and eroding buildings, mixing in with the trash around them.

After a strike in 2008 where municipal workers refused to pick up trash or keep the streets clean any longer and certain landfills overflowed and subsequently shut down, smart citizens of the city did leave. But further research shows that this trash filled city (and the later strike) stems back to the 1980’s when a particular branch of Italian mafia, the Cammora, realized just how lucrative waste management could be. They sent hundreds of trucks to illegally dump trash throughout the city, hiding some and dispersing others – vast mountains of toxic waste endlessly showing up all over the city. (No wonder the workers all went on strike). Some suspect that the mafia is still dispersing trash and other forms of toxic waste to this day. The crisis has yet to be resolved, leaving this once glorious and third largest Italian city in an apocalyptic and filth ridden desecration.

 

(In all fairness to Napoli, I did end up finding some nice areas, such as Amadeo. However, if you do venture to this war zone, do not for any reason stay in Garibauldi or Gianturco)

Striking out in Sorrento

No sentences are constructed this morning. Thoughts come out in turret like syllables, bounce off each other like walls, and are dismissed as fast as they came. Neither of us try to reconstruct them but allow them to lay where they fall; after 24 years growing up with each other, no words need to be spoken between my brother and I to convey how lost we both are. Last night’s energy, laughter, and adventures are left in broken shards on the hotel floor as we try to pack our bags and check out. If it were only my brother, John, in this morning after disarray state, I would thoroughly enjoy it as I always do, watching my sibling as I have so many times before, try to regain his memory and his brain as he attempts life after last night’s bender, laughing uncontrollably and poking him the whole way through. But it’s not just John, it’s both of us. And the only thing worse than one Thomas unable to function and live life, is two of them together. In a foreign country, checking out of a hotel, with no concrete plans, just a mere string of possibilities strung together last night by some blinking sea captains and World Cup fans that we have dubbed the next course of action.

Well, the best and only prospect of plans is crushed and annihilated by the hotel desk clerk, an Italian suave type with dark, shoulder length pushed back hair straight out of a Pantene advertisement. John is looking across the desk at Mr. suave in horror after asking him what he thought of our subsequent Italian plans. Suave shrugs indifferently and says things like “that place is okay,” or “it is different,” in his complex sing song tones and all I’m thinking about is where the hell he gets his shampoo. The thing about John is he likes confidence; he trusts confidence no matter what you’re selling. Suave here just unraveled everything the confident sea captains had sold to us yesterday – Pompeii, Ischa, and then Naples. As if that wasn’t enough, John finds out looking at a map that we never actually made it to Amalfi when on our coastal scooter adventure and had stopped at the town just before it.

We leave uprooted, without a shred of direction and a robbed Amalfi dream revealed as fraud, with a complete inability to make any decisions. The bags are heavy and it’s hot, the surrounding air is aimless and the first order of business is food. I had been bragging to John about the food in Italy for years and so far we had struck out twice – a hard feat to accomplish in this country. But yesterday’s tasteless lunch robbing us of a devastating eighty euros and the previous “slimy testicles” (aka gnocchi) dinner that John had gagged up, looking at me appalled and offended for suggesting, had left him in a doubt filled world of fear. See, John is the sort of person that plans his next meal while he’s eating his current meal. He goes down in a deterioration of hypothalamic sweats if food isn’t an option when he’s hungry. So we decide on the first place we see- something safe – an Irish pub and take a seat.

The thing about Italy, and Europe in general, is that none of the pictures on the menus look appetizing. Unlike the marketing gurus and mouth watering lies of American foodies, these people literally snap a polaroid of said dish and feature it in their menu. John orders the picture of the huge Italian cold cut, which mockingly comes out as a plate of slimy hams and RAW bacon (yes, raw) with no bread. The distraught in John’s eyes as his mouth furls and his eyebrows sink is soul destroying and impossibly hilarious. It’s too cruel to laugh and I feel as crushed, so I pay for the food, get John up quickly before he goes into an epileptic fit, and decide for a redo. We’ll eat lunch again somewhere else and pretend that last one never happened.

Our brains are still misfiring and there is a complete inability to form choices this morning, so we sit down at the first American restaurant we find, complete with red Coca-Cola chairs and umbrellas out front. John orders a hot dog in Italy because he’s a fool and it comes out as five baby toes on a soccer bun with french fries inside. My burger tastes like a sock and now I am trapped in hysterical fits of laughter that I cannot stifle observing John’s face, sunken in mortification and I know his feelings are personally hurt by this meal. We don’t eat more than a bite and walk to the bus station hoping someone will hold our hands and tell us where we should go from here.

The bus is an additive in a string of foul play and hideous choices made this morning. There is no room for our bags underneath, so we sit crammed together in the front seat with them on our laps. People pile in like shipwreck survivors at every stop and when no seats are left, they push their way through and against each other in the aisle. Every time someone new comes in, a catastrophe of shoving and flailing limbs falls against John’s unwell body, shoving me against the glass window. His face twitches in pain as a screeching Teradactyle of a woman talks shrilly on her cell phone up against his ear, while two Australian teenage girls jabber incessantly in high pitches from the seat behind us. The bus, which is entirely too large to even fit on these costal roads, let alone make it around any of the never ending turns, wheezes and spits painfully along the cliffs. There is a lot of jerking and haulting and clashing of horns, as buses stand off to see who will reverse first back along the path and let the other through. A cruel and relentless game of chicken.

John lifts his eyelids ever so slightly to look at me as his head sways. They seem to be more weight that he can muster and they flutter upwardly as he looks at me. “I don’t even care if you throw up on me, just so you know. I won’t even move,” he says before his head drops back down into a sleepy haze, bouncing and swiveling around on his neck with each bump and jerk.

I am dangerously near a cloister phobic panic attack smashed against this window and my legs have gone numb under my bag. Sucking in deep breaths through clenched teeth and closed eyes, I attempt to regain composure before flailing limbs and bags go everywhere. The bus driver stops again along the cliff to let more people in and I stifle a panicked whimper; there is no more room and no more air. Sweating and trying to find any angle that allows movement, my head slams forward as the bus driver screeches on his breaks. He’s crashed into a row of parked scooters, and I watch them fall one against the other like dominos out my window. Glancing at the driver after I hear a few Italian curse words that I recognize, I watch him shrug, shake his head and go on his way.

Two hours later, the bus dumps us out in Amalfi looking like we've just clawed our way from beneath the earth. Neither of us have a clue where we are staying because the decision to get on the bus to Amalfi in the first place came from the inability to make any other ones. Ideas to go back to Capri are tossed around and shot right back down when we are informed that the sea is too rough and no ferries are going out today. Will there be any tomorrow? Who knows, the woman shrugs. Right on.

It is now appearing that there are no hostels in this luxurious coastal town unless we want to trek a few miles up the mountain with our bags, and all hotels are massively out of our price range. I look up at John across an outdoor cafe table after passing this information along. His lips are pressed together and his eyebrows furrow in a concerned and exasperated look. “Is this what you do? All the time?” He asks in concerned disbelief, the quiver escaping his voice betraying his confidence.

I laugh, shrug, and then let my smile fall again and nod at him seriously. His expression makes me laugh again. “Well, this is insane then,” John lets out half a laugh. 

"This is the gypsy breeze agg* for you. Pure agg," I smile, "Allow it because it's always worth it."

It’s time for me to do something to get us out of this since I got my brother into this trip in the first place, so I walk back into the travel office and ask about accommodation. And that’s where God intervenes, putting an end to our morning madness, unable to watch it any longer Himself. The woman behind the desk is an ancient, scary little creature, hunched over with a round body and a round head, leathery brown with a tuft of hair to match; she is so passionate when she speaks that I flinch as if everything she is telling me is a slap in the face. I wait as she sings some Italian into the telephone to her friend who lives upstairs. She appears to slam the phone when she is finished and yells at me that her friend has room for a good price and he will be right down.

We follow an impossibly tan man of maybe thirty, with a kind face and no English language through the tiny cobblestone streets of Amalfi. Under hanging dresses from windows above and around corner shops displaying disgruntled lemons, florescent yellow under the sun and bigger than John’s head. Everything in this town is yellow and the whole place smells of lemons; shops selling lemon soap, lemon candy, lemon liquor (home to the infamous Lemoncello), lemon wallets and purses and candles.

We squeeze our way up three flights of crowded, two way stairs, round a corner up the street and enter the very building we had just come from a few stories below. The buildings and houses here, all built atop one another up the mountains and into the rocks. I look back at John with wide glaring eyes when I see the vertical stone staircase upon entering the building and heave myself up behind our host. He keeps turning around and peering at me sympathetically, saying “sorry,” as we round each corner revealing more flights of vertical stairs. I just smile at him and nod since I can no longer breathe, sweating and panting, using the railing to drag myself to the top. Around the tenth flight of stairs, John is laughing in broken breaths, wheezing “holy shit,” under his breath behind me.

Once at the top, we enter another large wooden door, pass a kitchen where someone’s grandmother is making soup while awaiting her hair dye to set in, the dark creamy liquid covering her scalp. She nods and smiles, wooden spoon in hand over a boiling pot and I smile back through the dizzying spots in my vision. Just down the hall, our guide's wife - a beautiful Italian woman decked out in fushia finishes cleaning our room through the open door. She is humming and scurrying around as the breeze blows off the sea through the floor to ceiling window behind her, twirling the sheer curtains at its side and her long dark hair. John mutters “holy shit,” again from behind me – this time only loud enough for me to hear as he pushes past me towards the window. The view is staggering so high above the sparkling sea and coastline. Music fills the room as a dance camp practices routines on the concrete below us, muffling the sounds of horns and screeching buses.  My bag hits the floor with a bang, shaking the stone floor beneath our feet and my palm finds the bed, lowering myself down to sit attempting to slow the thud of my heart against my rib cage. The pretty wife is speaking Italian at me but her words are just echoing against my pounding ear drums. I try to confirm the price we were told, as John paces around the room whispering that it can’t possibly be that cheap, but neither of us can understand each other and I can scarcely get words out in between breaths so I just smile and nod, not knowing what I'm aggreeing to, until she leaves.

After napping on a pile of rocks that this country deems a beach, John and I set out to find the best seafood on the coast, no matter the cost in desperate attempts to right our earlier wrongs. And that is exactly what we find. Fresh lobster, squid, mussels and prawns. The most delicious and interesting dishes atop this seaside deck; not a plate is disappointing and everything exceeds our expectations. We sit there above the sea, a hole shelled out of the rocks, for hours just because we can, taking our time to enjoy every bite. We laugh as the waiters sing to us their Italian phrases introducing each dish as it comes.

“I love this country,” John says in between bites, “Best people and best food I’ve ever come across.”

I laugh, "How's that agg* looking now?" 

 

*Agg: a term coined by the Bonnet Boys (see past post "Snow White, 6 Dwarves, & a Joffrey); deriving from the words agony or aggrivation. May be used as a noun, verb, or adjective whenever circumstances call for it. (i.e. "What an aggy bus ride," "This is the aggiest day of my life," "I am in pure agg.")

Capri with Mario

Mario is just about as tan as anyone could be, with dark hair and those Italian eyes like melted chocolate. His sunglasses hang around his neck as he commands the twelve of us on the dock, oozing charisma and explaining how this excursion is going to go. Everyone obliges his jokes even though it’s far too early for laughs. Everyone but John, who is in a dark place this morning and would most likely be whimpering in a corner had he been on his own. Instead, his mouth is forced into a thin, straight line, in desperate attempts to coax strength back into his broad shoulders and embrace this Capri adventure.

Mario is our skipper for the day and John swears every skipper in the world is named Mario, although I am unsure of how many he’s met, I believe him. Mario asks for a brave soul to be the leader of the group for the day. The group consists of twelve very disappointingly dull others and I instinctually volunteer John, nudging him foreword. I look up at the exasperated horror in his eyes, remembering how ill he is and it’s too late to bite my tongue. John is the leader of the gang.

Shortly after boarding the small boat, a suicidal Mario drives us abruptly close to the cliffs and I am sure he will smash right into them. He stops below a “fresh water” waterfall pouring down from miles above us and John leans and hangs over the front of the boat, letting it pour down over his head and exorcise last night’s demons.

We are dealt a very dull and lacking hand for friends aboard. A sixty-year-old Gilligan sits to my left with a Chestershire cat smile; he laughs and shakes in his blue and white striped sailor’s outfit with his eyes closed in smiley squints as his skin slides down his face. I can’t hide my judgmental dismay as he flops around the boat with the balance of a 4-month-old infant while his skinny blonde wife cackles like an ally cat. An Australian couple much younger than John and I lay out on the boat in boredom and are about as interesting to engage as a moldy rock. A wiry, frail excuse for a boy lays down next to John in a fit of pale seasick horror as the love of his life dismisses him and checks out every other male aboard. Mario is looking better by the minute.

We fly across the choppy Mediterranean Sea, bouncing about, salt sprayed and laughing. Our neighboring passengers panic at the choppy state of the water; Gilligan tosses about the boat as seasick boy near vomits on John’s foot. Completely sure that we will capsize and not caring in the slightest if we do, John and I indulge in fits of laughter. The sun glistens off the turquoise sea and Mario cracks jokes that are lost in the wind. With the Amalfi coast at our back and a vague rock temple covered in mist ahead of us, we cut through the sea.

There is nothing that can prepare you for the majestic awe of the towering rock that is Capri, standing small in circumference but ferocious and powerful in stature in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The boat falls silent as we near the mirage, craning our necks looking up at the breathtaking, chill-producing and terrifying beauty of this island mountain. Looking like it just rose from middle earth, powerful and mighty, right in front of our eyes, this island could not possess anything but mystical powers, standing there amidst an eerie well of clouds. I stare wide eyed from the front of the boat, not daring to blink, in fear that the place might vanish at any moment right before our eyes, leaving our boat in it’s wake and us wondering if it was ever really there at all.

This ancient island standing in tremendous depths of water is a mass of limestone rock, Mario informs us; time has eroded holes beneath it and openings in its sides that have left caves that can be entered when the sea level is low. The light trapped in these caves underneath the mountain reflect off of the limestone and create an illuminating blue glowing space, which radiates in the dark caves from the water. That’s the somewhat scientific reason for this phenomenon; however I am so converted to magic in this moment that if someone told me Poseidon had banished one million tiny fairies to be trapped inside the mountain for all of time and their waling tears produced this radiant blue glow, I would have believed them.

The silent space we have all been frozen in passes when Mario docks the boat and allows us to swim in these mystical waters. The water is so salty that it seals your eyes shut and John and I laugh as we try to decipher just how deep this crystal clear expanse underneath us is.

“You know, this ocean floor here is covered with Octopus. They hide behind every rock right below you, but it’s almost impossible to catch them since the only thing you can see is their eyes,” Mario calls to us from the boat.

Well, that’s all he had to say. John is the last one left in the water, diving down in valiant attempts of catching this sneaky sea creature. We watch from the boat as Mario whispers to me that he’ll never get one and I smile, 100% sure that John will. I can just see him climbing back up the ladder and slapping down an Octopus at Mario’s feet, flashing him that sideways grin, cracking open a beer and sitting on the bow of the boat, casually telling Mario, “let’s go.” But time does not allow for John’s excursion and he has to be reeled in as we press onward.

We round the island and Mario has a terrible time trying to dock at the port, letting us off for a few hours to explore Capri, as he waits out at sea. After wandering aimlessly with our sea legs for a bit, we decide, fully addicted, that we need to rent a Vespa again and John, in his confident way, assures the renters that we will be just fine on the roads which are even more steep and narrow than the Amalfi coast. Hugging the right side, we whip around each sharp turn, climbing up the mountain, with a pair of headphones split between us; music blasting, we laugh and dance as we ride the cliffs. With swaying arms on either side, I bounce along on the back, singing each tune off key with all the heart I have and waving at passerbys.

We pull off at the top of the mountain in Anacapri at a small beach bar and watch swimmers get thrashed against the rocks with the wind. The island’s lighthouse stands among this top most point and we hike up to explore an ancient look out tower. With the wind whipping around us violently, standing at the edge of death on top of the world, every nerve ending buzzes with electricity in my ears mixing with the sound of waves crashing on the rocks miles below us and I am completely alive.

Windblown with risk still thumping behind our skulls, and a bottle of wine later, we meet the rest of our crew on the dock to wait for Mario. They shoot questions back and forth and compare shopping bags and stories of how they spent the past four hours before asking John and I what we did.

“A little exploring. Not much,” I respond, averting my gaze and then sneak a smile in John’s direction. They give a polite nod and go back to shopping chatter.

John leans over to me, “We are winning,” he whispers.

The Secret to Life

{In honor of being in Italy, my first love, again 6 years later ... I'm going to share with you an excerpt from another trip journal - the end of an Italian journey 6 years ago and my first time in Rome. Unedited and straight from the pages of a 19 year old Kris's journal}

"There's a new wind blowing like I've never known and I'm breathing deeper than I've ever done." - Keith Urban

The endless possibilities of life are more enticing than ever and the unsteady mystery of not knowing what lies ahead has never been so appealing as it is now.

I've found the secret to life...to live each day as an adventure, to make the ordinary magical, and to see the good in all of the bad. To stop to breathe and take it all in. I mean, really let it sink in deep. The smell of the air, the feel of the breeze and the taste of joy. Never have I tasted something so simple, yet intoxicating. And to find this joy in any place. In observing people, in a laugh, in a tear, the crash of a wave, or the sound of a song, in the cry of a bird, the rain against your face.

It's found in a child's spirit. The spirit of mystery, of unfaltering faith and joyous wonder. This is the secret to life. To live as a child with all their simple awe and simple joys. To live with this spirit within you

Vespas Down the Amalfi Coast

“Have you had any experience driving a motorized scooter?” The cute, Italian girl at the Vespa rental office asks John. Her dark, mahogany hair is falling out of her loose ponytail in long, silk strands that hang down over her bare shoulders. Her tight, black tube top is oddly paired with a baggy, green, floral pair of pants clearly made out of a hang glider and I can’t stop searching for the cord that’s got to be pumping air into them from somewhere.

John feigns a sympathetic laugh, “yeah, not a problem. I own a motorcycle,” he smiles at her.

“Oh! Wonderful; we’ll skip all the boring stuff then,” she hands each of us a helmet and John the keys.

John does not own a motorcycle, nor has he ever driven one, but naturally she believes him. My younger brother is almost a foot taller than me, strong, with the same light eyes, dirty blonde hair, and reckless streak of adventure. However, he possesses a practicality and drive to succeed that far surpasses the impulsiveness of my free spirit. With that, he has this unfaltering confidence in himself against anything the world might throw at him that is grounded purely in his ability to literally destroy anything that may come at him. This confidence emanates from him and people just believe him because he believes himself.

Of course, John won’t let me near the driver’s seat, but I’m more content and at peace than ever sitting behind him. It feels like I just finally let out a breath that I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding for the past two months. Traveling alone, being alert and guarded and aware constantly. These are things I haven’t always been used to doing and with John at the wheel, I can do what I do best and recklessly throw caution to the wind, just enjoying the ride, because the person I trust most on this earth with my life is in control. I exhale and stretch my hands out on either side of me, arching my back with my face up to the sky as we fly around every narrow and winding, dangerous bend along the Amalfi coast, feeling like nothing in this entire world could touch or hurt me.

Cars honk around every bend and avoid head on collisions at every turn while John weaves in and out of the chaos. My hands find his waist out of instinct, squeezing and laughing as we cheat death. One wrong move and we are road kill on the left or tumbling miles down towards the hungry sea on the right, breaking bones on every rock we hit on the way down the cliff. John follows the road as it dances with the coastal mountains, both engaged as one in nature’s version of Russian roulette. Nothing here is built the way it is back home, where we demolish and destroy land to build upon. The roads, the buildings, the vehicles, they all ride the land in this strange and perfect dance, fitting in where they can, springing right up from and with everything else. The towns crawl up the rock cliffs, built right out of them, houses one on top the other in every radiant hue; yellows, salmons, creams, pinks, oranges, blues, greens … each building a part of the next.

I duck as we fly under an overpass of bright, magenta flowers wrapped around the bamboo shafts that bridge over the road. It’s exhilarating and heart wrenchingly beautiful and utterly peaceful all at once and I could ride up and down this coast for the rest of my life on the back of this Vespa, never needing to get off or go anywhere else.

“Bar?” John asks as he cranes his head to the side so I can hear him in the wind. I look to the corner ahead where a flat, white stone building lies with the words “BAR” written on a sign above it. “Yup,” I answer and John pulls the Vespa off to the side of the cliff.

The only ones there, we are escorted downstairs out to a terrace jutting out over the Mediterranean Sea and I have to stop to catch my breath. John laughs, leaving his jaw gaped as his eyes touch each crevice of this unknown world slowly and methodically, memorizing each curve and flow. Below the railing, dozens of terraces jut out from the cliffs in every direction with families and couples lounging privately outside of their hotel rooms. One on top the other from contradictory angles, built right out of the rock.

“Bubbles?” I ask John, glancing over the menu. Nothing else feels appropriate aside from Champagne, so we indulge as we lounge on the couch, somewhere in between land and sea, dangling in the air.

“How much do you think it is a night to stay here?” John asks, grinning, “If it’s not much more than our place, I’ll do it.”

My face catches fire with mischief, “I’ll be right back,” I say.

I strut inside to the front desk with as much confidence as a Parisian bank heiress, not minding my wind blown hair and make-up less face, and inform the clerk that I would like to see the prices per night for their hotel.

“Of course, ma’am,” a Titanic butler, in his best blues, spreads the pricing list out on the gold plated, oak desk in front of me, “which room would you like?”

Creasing my brow in feigned contemplation, I linger a few moments on the list of 630 euro – 2500 euro a night rooms, wave my hand in the air with the false posh snobbery of a Kardashian and tell him I’ll be with him shortly.

“Let’s get out of here,” I say to John as I venture back up to the terrace. We laugh over the audacity of such a place as we down our bubbly, get on our ride and speed off.

Weaving amidst the coastline during daylight is one thing, but the view from the sea as dusk falls is another thing entirely. Lying on our backs out in the water, staring up at the town of Positano, the bright blue sky lends itself towards darkness as each house turns on their lights, reflecting their own unique colors against their neighbors’. And I think I could maybe fall asleep here like this, floating in the Mediterranean Sea, underneath this vibrant stone village, watching it’s every movement and hue change in the varying light.

“Why would anyone live anywhere else?” John asks as he floats on his back next to me, not taking his eyes from the view.

“I have absolutely no idea,” I sigh.