Tuesday, August 12, 2014

itineratis itinerandis

the wu wei on fire
For the sake of the wu wei principle, we poured down across the map to the shores of our good ol' mare nostrum, confident in our fate, acknowledging the sea indeed refused no river. As in the antique myth, the flood washed all sin from the face of the earth. And when God's anger calmed down, we woke up in Italy, only to remember like in a dream this rainstorm shower we took in the woods, somewhere back up in Germany. To all those who never tried, being baptised while dancing naked under the pouring rain, feet splashing in the mud puddles is of the most amazing experiences. It soon becomes one of the most frustrating at the same time, though: when you find out the paradox of being eternally soaked without getting rinsed or rid of the soap, ever. Surrounded by trees, by pitch black completely black. black-as-pitch-trees, feet on the ground, naked and connected.  The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is. Refreshed and renewed we drove in the van, and headed to our latin terra mater. While we wheeled, we watched in silence the blurry movie of the landscape and spent hours laughing and drinking and telling stories.

But the rain shouldn't get all the credit for taking us back to the very cradle of all this latin culture of ours. Part of the reason why we drove these exhausting 900+ kilometers of Dharma - sweat, asphalt, big cars and traffic jams - was the party GiGi had organized and invited us to be a part of: the "La festa del Porchetto" which takes place once every four years or so. A pilgrimage of GiGi's friends from around the world to the heart of Tuscany, for a solemn homage to Bacchus. After crossing the Alps, we ran down into narrow gorges through the Apennines, feeling thankful for what lay around us. It was the work of the quiet mountains, this torrent of purity at our feet, creeks scattered along the way. Nobody to be seen around, hardly an abandoned house every now and then. This is the beginning and the end of the world right here. Look at those patient Buddhas lookin' at us saying nothing, we uttered. There, in the depth of the starry nights, the silence was an intense roar. In the tiny flat-roofed-villages, we experienced the mercy of the goddess of water. We drank the fresh blessing of Her simplest, most essential gift at each of Her shrines. We realized in a brief instant of enlightenment how this life She gives through Her springs and fountains and the Roman aqueducts, this life She also takes back with the other edge of her lead sword. Oh the wheel of the True Meaning! Oh the greatness and decay of all civilizations! Oh the infinite cycle of life and death!

at our arrival at GiGi's: sunset, slackline and chill-out in the yard.
And finally, we got there. As we parked the van under that old apple tree, right on top of a juicy carpet of fruits that had already crossed their own Styx, GiGi was waiting for us in his nice little shack by the Serchio river. The first thing we did was to take a shower in the yard, while watching the sunset behind a corn field. The second was to find a convenient couple of trees to set up the slackline.

The party took place over the weekend and the preliminaries were already on their way: cutting the grass, spreading chairs and couches out in the yard, putting up a splendid table of wine, pickles and antipasti and lighting up the candles, a big bonfire to roast the porchetto and the pizza oven. And of course, the never-ending soundtrack, carefully mixed by an expert GiGi, who gained his skills through DJ-aying all night full moon party sets on the other side of the earth... The next day (Saturnday) as people arrived, the available hands multiplied exponentially. The thousand armed, Shiva-looking party, started its own lifecycle. It divided into several parts, some cooking in the kitchen, others taking care of the burning pig, others loading the freezer with ice cubes, others making sure the couches wouldn't fly away would  the wind unexpectedly start blowing: they practised do-nothing. Like all living creatures, the party sprouted, grew and blossomed, extending to the whole venue, until the point neighbours came in and melted.

After the times of frituur and other northern food, we felt with wordless pleasure the taste of actual meat. We sensed deeply how much the Whole (pig) was boundlessly more than the sum of its unsubstantial, processed, tasteless and fleshless (wurst) parts. Sipping red wine by the bonfire, we spent a while with Christ., who self-assignedly took care of the pig. Even though one might feel they are taking care of the Porchetto, humility and the sense of active passivity ultimately takes one back to the simplest truth: everything takes care of itself. The pig dealt with the gentle fire on its own and expected nobody to handle the torch. More or less as the party did... Christ. told us about this awkward attraction of his for nothing but the lowest parts of the pig: ears, nose, guts and feet.
chatting al fresco
At least, that's what he willingly confessed. But what at first appeared to be a genuine culinary taste soon enough proved to be a cathartic relationship to flesh and the responsibility of killing living beings for the fulfillment of a predator instinct. Chewing every piece to the bone without wasting a thing was his trail to redemption. In the Chinese Book of Changes, a year ago, we had tossed a couple of pennies to see what the prediction of our fortune was and it had come out, "you will feed others. In fact, that's where we spent most of our time during the last year: by others' hot stoves, baking cookies, brewing teas, boiling soups, stewing stuff, roasting lambs and such. And that's where we spent most of our time during the party, too. Cooking for others somehow gave us the feeling to be where we belonged. Or perhaps was it our own way to redeem? 

The party went on all night. And the next day, with the sun already high in the sky, people woke up who had fallen asleep here and there: on the couches, in the backyard, by the fire, along the corn field. We lit up the embers in the pizza oven to warm the focaccia up for a late breakfast. As the day passed, people gathered their belongings, clothes and blankets, packed and said goodbye. The four of us - we and GiGi - tidied, cleaned and closed the barn. Everything comes to an end.

Now came the time for our big mountain climb […]  under an immense spread of natural park trees, firs and ponderosas a hundred feet high some of them, a great quiet starlit grove with frost on the ground and dead silence except for occasional little ticks of sound in the thickets where maybe a rabbit stood petrified hearing us. GiGi offered to take us to the Pannia della Crocce, their holly mountain among all, here in the Apuan Alps. We woke up with the sun, got to the end of a valley, then up a long sharp ridge to the summit. The trail had a kind of immortal look to it, […] the way the side of the grassy hill seemed to be clouded with ancient gold dust and the bugs flipped over rocks and the wind sighed shimmering dances over the hot rocks.

summit of the Pannia della Crocce, and the long way down to the valley.

This pleasant half-day trek was our farewell to GiGi, who had plans elsewhere. But we stayed in Apuan Alps and started to hike on our own. The next morning, we left the van at Val Serenaia, put the sleeping bags, food and climbing gear in the rucksacks and heading up, straight towards Monte Pisanino. At Foce di Cardeto, we hid the rucksacks to climb up light. Another sharp, impressive ridge to climb. The secret of this kind of climbing, is like Zen. Don't think. Just dance along. It's the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on flat ground which is monotonous. The cute little problems present themselves at each step and yet you never hesitate and you find yourself on some other boulder you picked out for no special reason at all, just like Zen. Which it was.

Go off somewhere and find perfect solitude and look into the perfect emptiness of our minds
and be completely neutral from any and all ideas.
We reached the summit by noon and had lunch up there. We sat down and say, and run all our friends and relatives and enemies one by one in this, without entertaining any angers or gratitudes or anything, and we say, like 'GiGi, equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha', we don't use any name, just people we know because when we say the words 'equally a coming Buddha' we want to be thinking of their eyes, like you take Futuna, his big green eyes behind those glasses, when you think 'equally a coming Buddha' you think of those eyes and you really do suddenly see the true secret serenity and the truth of his coming Buddhahood. Then you think of your enemy's eyes. We enjoyed the silence,  only disturbed by the fury of restless machines chewing with their steel jaws the very flesh of the mountains. Marbelous land'art, absurd temples settled there for no god, if not that of industrial ages. These very quarries - said the old men from the valley - the Romans were so fond of, provided the white marble Michelangelo's David is made of… What is a Renaissance masterpiece worth? A million years old one?

in the marble temples; down from Pisanino; Uccello across Val Serenaia ; Un(t)ravelers on the ridge.
Down we hiked and back to where the rucksacks were. We walked towards Orto di Donna's guarded shelter, but decided to spend the night at a little tin shack called K2, some distance from there, instead. We lit the stove with leaves and branches we gathered around, cooked a simple soup and  called it a day. We slept like logs until the next morning.

Our goal for this second day was a mult-pitch climb to Monte Cavallo, a route called Gli smemorati, whose first ascent was credited to a mountaineer and a priest… We were told that, while the pitches bolted by the mountaineer showed a certain distance between anchorages, the ones opened by the priest had been excessively bolted: we found a piece of anchorage every meter or so. Wasn't the priest the one who should have been less afraid of death? An intense fog rose as we climbed up the beautiful gneiss wall, which didn't let us take the trail back down. We had to abseil down the wall crossing on the way, not only one but two parties (one of two and another of three!) going up in spite of the bad weather and the late hour. If you wonder why there are tragic accidents in the mountain, here you have part of the answer. As the guide of Orto di Donna shelter reminded: "the one goal of mountaineering is to come back alive ; summiting is only an option".

climbing Monte Cavallo: misty ascent, misty descent... and moisty rope coiling!
Later on that day, as we hiked back down to Val Serenaia to get the van back and drive to Gramolazzo lake, the air began to get warmer and nicer and in fact we thought we could begin to smell people again. We could smell the nice raunchy tide-smell of the lakewater, and flowers, and softer dust of down below.  […] Here there was the smell of sun-heated wood, sunny dust resting in the moonlight, lake mud, flowers, straw, all those good things of the earth. We sat down the peer, our feet in the water, and rested a while under the evening sun, our bodies tired and sore. 

Let the mind beware that, though the flesh be bugged,
the circumstances of existence are still pretty glorious.

* All fragments in colour are from Jack Kerouac's novel Dharma Bums we were reading during those days in Toscany and Apuan Alps. His words and thoughts walked along with us and inspired us.

you have to become water...

- Un(t)raveling through a rainy month of July -

We’ve been un(t)raveling for nine months now and we’ve shared most of it in these pages, which you maybe followed. Or didn’t. Or maybe will, now we try and write them in English too. It’s been unexpectedly easy and rewarding: Oh, the places we’ve seen, the treasures we’ve hunted, the friends we’ve met, the friends we’ve made, the lives we’ve shared, the things we’ve learnt every single day! The list is too long and we hope this blog has been able in its own way to express our gratefulness to all these moments and to transmit how thankful we feel for all we’ve received, and keep receiving, along the way. Living on the road is a beautiful thing to do and an amazing gift.  We’ve had more trees, lakes, mountains, rivers, seas, cliffs, castles, churches, rocks, flowers and birds’ whistles in our van’s backyard in nine months than one can dream of seeing through their home’s windows in a lifetime! Needless to mention the starry skies, electric storms in the night and full moons over the horizon. We’ve had breakfasts, lunches and dinners in front of the most beautiful and unique scenic views one can imagine, and we’ll keep having them for much longer, there is no doubt.

just a short selection of night views from the TRANSITion!, beaches, mountains, moons and more (full) moons...
But living on the road also has its downsides, obviously. Let’s call them challenges, since downsides may sound like a complaint, which it isn’t. Living two people in six square-meters for nine months can become a subtle art – and anybody who’s car-camped for more than four consecutive days will understand quite exactly what I’m talking about: an over-packed, open-space, super-small place, where doing anything often means an average three-step process of reallocating stuff, with no concern about your being tired, sleepy or – incongruously - in a hurry. We didn’t talk much about this other side of Un(t)raveling so far. We tried not to, because we believe the people following this blog like to know about us and we want it to be as positive and (at least we try) entertaining as possible.

So obviously yes: some aspects are more complicated than simply enjoying the gift of waking up on a new morning every day. One of the little daily challenges is inherent to being in motion and to the blessing of the ever-changing landscape lying in the backyard. The bathroom actually IS in the backyard, literally speaking. 
just one of the many versions of the ever-changing backyard... 
And that’s where most of the routine activities take place too, even though only partially. So, one wants a clear flat ground with trees, bushes or a shrubbery, a water source and a view, shelter from heavy winds and from inquisitive neighbours… all different everyday and coming to life spontaneously at the appropriate time by the side of the van. That’s already more than the regular three wishes. Showering or using the bathroom outside is not always easy or pleasant. It can be absolutely gorgeous, though. And when it’s not, there are still cafés, pubs or McDonald’s to go for a coffee or a glass of wine with the occasional snack or fwench fwies. Just below on the wish list are fast wi-fi and free clean public bathrooms. The latter are a must, if not a myth. Public swimming pools are cool to get a good hot shower.

… and bedroom views by nap-time.
They are great to get a swim, too. Public libraries aren’t the best for the shower, but can provide a good load of amazing material to read while using the restrooms. Campsites come last on our list, because it all seems too easy, ready-to-use and kind of postmodern to us: pay and get everything neatly set up for you to use. No fun (I do declare there were times when I was so lonesome I took some comfort there, sang The boxer).

So obviously yes: in these columns, we complained a little bit about the rain. Because it’s certainly the first and main daily challenge one has to face. And Ford, did we face it! Honestly, six square-meters if you cannot open doors and windows is a pretty amazingly small surface when it comes to cooking, working, sleeping, tidying, cleaning, doing the dishes and keeping personal hygiene. Then comes dealing with garbage, dirty clothes, wet shoes and towels, soaked raincoats and such. Cold is not such a big issue as long as it keeps dry. True thing. We’ve both hiked and camped enough in our respective teenage summers to know this for sure: moist is the enemy. One can learn a lot, but one cannot learn the power to dry stuff. No ninja move, no secret mantra, no lucky charm, no forbidden word, no forgotten song can change something wet into something dry. There’s even this infamous Archimedes’ second law: "a body immersed in a liquid comes out wet". After a rainy winter and a rainy spring, we entered Belgium only to be given a cold welcome by the rainiest summer ever – which has been terrible for many and only mildly uncomfortable for us in comparison. We met the sun for a generous six hours in Antwerp, then for a delicious couple of days in Amsterdam and in family (read it here, in Spanish). And that was it. Everything else was rain.

As a brutal paradox, water is an actual issue while living as a nomad (or two nomads). And it’s no less true under a pouring rain. Our water tank is twenty-five litres only and has to supply for drinking and cooking, to do the dishes, for the coffee and tea, to brush teeth and for the shower. We came to master the art of spotting springs and fountains at sports facilities and gyms, in public squares and parks, by the churches and the city halls, next to the statues and along the secondary roads. But Spain, France, Portugal and Italy somehow trained us to a culture that happens to be but a paradisiac exception. Un doux mirage. From the moment we crossed the Ardennes, public water – understood as drinking water available in the public space – disappeared. Woosh! It simply vanished. Not a spring in Belgium or the Netherlands. Not a single one in three and a half weeks. The old fountains? Dry. The countryside century-old stone-carved spring? Covered by years of leaves and soil. The taps along the football grounds or behind the log-cabins in the parks? Closed, locked and screwed tight. Period. We eventually confirmed the last places with running fountains were the cemeteries and found the water to be refreshing, but had to recognize the whole thing tasted a bit awkward. From a spiritual point of view, it has to be quite a healthy and nutritive process for the soul, though. I read recently that the president of one Latin-American country (blame my poor memory for remembering neither his name nor his country’s) had struggled so hard to get the U.N. write down the access to clean water in the list of universal human rights. Do not misunderstand me: I am conscious that mine is not an issue when compared to the one a good 70% of the population faces everyday. Of course, where this does not exist, it should. I just thought and meant to say that where it existed not so long ago, it should not disappear. Talking about access to clean water, but also to education, to health and to the right to happiness.
the average scenic view of the Rhine Valley (Fever Virus?)
Anyway... On a smooth highway we entered Germany, only to discover the same situation: a fountain every too many villages, even in the lush green countryside and fertile valleys. And at a very specific campsite by the Rhine (whose name I was hard on me not to give here), along the gorgeous scenic road from Koblenz to Mainz, we met the most discouragingly small-minded souls trapped in the bodies of a family of camping owners. They cold-bloodedly charged for the spot (a dirt parking lot with no trees nor grass, where the packed campervans could hardly open doors), for the power (fair enough; only they didn’t provide the exotic socket to actually plug-in to it), for the shower (not even warm and five-minute long) and for all the tap water you’d care to use. Which practically meant following you, tracking your movements inside the campsite, searching your clothes for any kind of liquid-container when you intended to enter the bathroom, chasing you off the dish-washing room and insulting you in German for basically being about half the age and slightly more southern-looking than the rest of their guests.

This raises a first question: what is it they charged us for in the first place when everything comes as an extra? Then a second one: how do they expect me to brush my teeth and flush my poop? Then a third one: if I happen to swallow a little bit accidentally while washing my teeth, is it a sin? Then a fourth one: how come they still have guests? Then a fith one: I am the one who got something wrong? Then a sixth one: who am I? Then a seventh one: why are we here? Only to begin with…
traffic jam on the road and under the rain: Germany!
traffic jam on the road and under the rain: Austria!
Trying hard not to make a general rule out of a small group of genetically-related individuals, we left Germany the next day, tired and thirsty in spite of the never-ending rainstorm along the way. We managed to convince ourselves this was but a poor sample of the wonders the country had to offer. Moreover, the campsite owners were not the only ones to blame: our French phone company (which missuses the word “free” to sell glittering lies, a surprisingly poor coverage and very creative ways to overcharge your bills) suddenly suspended our line due to “a 100+ euros worth in long-distance calls” we never made and they themselves admit having no record of… After two weeks of (paying) calls to their customers’ service from abroad, the line is still locked, the calls are still nowhere to be found and they keep advising us to “pay the amount now to get the line back, we’ll refund you afterwards when it is solved”. At more or less the same time, we received some freelance job offers that urgently needed to be answered, accepted and treated. Rain, moist, no internet on-board, no phone service, no place to park the van, no water available. Nothing but the soccer world champions in their most frenetic representation of “the control freaks rule da world” (what do you call a cliché?). We gave up.

getting bored? put some Tyrol in your life!
We surrendered to the water. We melted to and became water. We followed the flow, southbound again. The highways are free up there; it sure is a good thing. Just, when you need to go to the bathroom on a service area, you are asked to pay 0,70 euro, of which 0,50 is refunded in the form of a discount ticket to buy a coffee at a machine. An instant coffee costs 2,50 euros. So, with a smile, they explain the bathroom is only 0,20 euro as long as you buy a coffee worth 2,50 euros but that technically costs you 2,00. Brilliant: the 0,50 euro you just paid never existed and you hardly can understand why it’s not I your pocket anymore! I myself understand the bathroom still costs 0,70 euro and the coffee 2,50 since I didn’t buy it. And this half euro is lost. Not the end of the world, for sure. Fuck it. We drifted to Austria. On the other side, things were more or less the same. Same same, but different. There stood the Alps! Gorgeous, beautiful, magnificent Alps and their fifty shades of green. And the purest water at the first fountain we finally found, not too far from the Italian border. We met the local version of rain and a two-hours traffic jam on a tiny secondary road, due to a collision between a couple of vehicles and a train, with local police officers tagging bright graffiti with sprays and no less than five ambulances. Blame it on the weather, but all these brand new Mercedes and SUVs definitely drive too fast... When we got off it was dark so we camped close to Innsbruck. The next morning, we went window-licking for some sexy-but-trendy Tyrolese cosatumes before entering Italy. There lied in the sun the cradle of latin culture: the tiny chapel surrounded by cypresses, olive trees and stone benches.

an austrian panorama featuring the TRANSITion! and some of the fifty shades of green...
We’ve been in Italy for two weeks now and there will be posts about our time here soon, so I don’t want to spoil a single thing now. Just wish to conclude with more positive notes than today’s average: Un(t)raveling has its challenges, but re-read the first part of this post if you need to convince yourself they are nothing compared to what we are treated with every day! First, learning the price of a single cup of water is priceless, even where water is free. Then, experiencing home almost anywhere you choose to park the van and open the doors is of the nicest gifts ever. After the German adventures, it is also a beautiful thing to realise how much the Mediterranean is what the two of us are made of. What bread, olive oil and tomato taste like when eaten in the sun in front of the sea or a mountain lake. Plus, here are two of our backyard views of the last few days:
our backyards-for-a-day in Val Serenaia and Lago di Gramolazzo (Alpe Apuane, Toscana).

So, if not Un(t)raveling, then what else?