Saturday, December 31, 2016


After a very bumpy cross country ride in the open-sided land rovers, taking shortcuts through private gated ranches, we arrive in paradise. Borana Conservancy is a 32,000 acre haven for the wildlife Kenya is known for. The population of Kenya grows by a million each year. As its peoples grow their flocks without the grazing to support them the shrinking greenery, and the dwindling rains, put a huge strain on Kenya’s herbivore wildlife and their carnivorous predators. It becomes immediately obvious that this, along with the adjoining 55,000 acres of the Lewa Conservancy, is an absolute oasis. There are animals virtually everywhere.

There is an 8,000-volt fence on the perimeter to keep out unwanted grazers. Driving in to the compound the electric line swings high above the entrance with wires that dangle down to discourage any elephants from wandering in. This place is all about the wildlife.

Elephants are simply gigantic. Their forelegs are hinged like ours, elbow and wrist bending in opposite directions, giving their gait a daintiness that seems improbable in a creature that is 200lbs at birth and can weigh up to 7000. When they choose to challenge you, shaking their heads with ears fanned out, and begin edging toward you something in you goes a bit squidgy. They are given a wider berth by the locals than perhaps any other animal. Close seconds are the grumpy dugaboy, an old male buffalo that has been ostracized by his herd after losing to a challenging male or the famously aggressive black rhino.

Giraffes, no matter how quickly they are running, always look as though they’re moving in slow motion. They are timid creatures. When you approach they sometimes step behind a bush to hide — their heads comically (and entirely) visible — like a small kid who covers his eyes and assumes he has now become invisible. Warthogs never seem to just walk. They’re either standing or running full out, their tails sticking straight up behind them.

A crowd of baboons bounce down the hillside, coming home from the day’s foraging with little ones riding piggy back or tangled into the fur of their mother’s belly. They sit in little clusters in the waning light of day, grooming each others’ fur before climbing into the fever trees for a vicious and screechy fight to establish who gets the best roost for the night.

The white rhinos lumber along the plains, munching at the grass with their square, fat lips. No whiter than the black rhino, their name stems from a bad translation of the Afrikaans “wyd” (wide) used to distinguish them from the black rhino with its pronounced overbite. Their double horns swing just above the ground like a scythe as they shuffle peacefully along. A pair of males, Duncan and Gordon, have wandered over from nearby Lewa and lie alongside each other in the grass.

Waterbuck, impala, grant’s gazelle, hartbeest, oryx, all the herbivores happily graze alongside one another. Usually one massive horned male stands among his harem of twenty or more females. Elsewhere, little gangs of teenage males bide their time ’til it is their turn to challenge for the top spot.

Zebra are everywhere. They’ll let you get very close, no doubt confident in their ability to outrun you. Their spectacular stripes accentuate the huge muscles of their hindquarters.

A pride of lions lazes about in the hot afternoon sun. Cubs who still have their spots tumble on top of their mum, pawing gently at her face. The male doesn’t bat an eyelash except for the occasional yawn. The females get up and start toward us but collapse into a heap again after a few languid strides.

The birds are like little explosions of colour in the shrubs. Superb starlings look like our robins from the breast down but with heads and backs painted iridescent blue. Widowbirds are like long-tailed cousins of our red-winged blackbirds. Little groups of speckled guinea fowl scatter in front of us wherever we go. The dogs have a blast getting the huge kori’s bustard to take flight. Domino plover, tawny eagles, fisheagle, egyptian geese, blacksmith plover, scimitarbills, hornbills, orioles, whydahs and weavers. A birder’s paradise. We watch a cloud of european storks spin down from dizzying heights in ever narrowing circles like a cyclone, wingspans as broad as a vulture’s, their long gangly legs dangling below them as though in preparation for landing. Whiter than white egrets hover in a cloud above herds of cattle, alighting to snatch up the bugs unearthed by the cows’ hooves or to blanket the shores of the watering hole at day’s end.

There is no such thing as going out for a casual stroll in this part of Kenya. One is always somehow tethered, either within arm’s length of your shotgun-wielding guide or by radio to a vehicle trailing right behind you. Everyone has a friend or relation with a horror story about finding themselves on the wrong side of a tusk.

We head out for an afternoon walk but find our planned route blocked by a hill full of the very belligerent buffalo. Plan B finds us coming up alongside a thundering herd of elephant. A group of more than forty cows and calves moves across the bush, parallel to the track, at an astonishing clip. Every few seconds, the cow at the rear turns to look back and shake her ears as though fending off some unseen threat. We can’t spot anything behind them but they continue to charge along, little dumbos struggling to keep up. Without any sign of a predator, JJ suspects that they’ve been spooked by bees. Whatever it is it has them speeding alongside us for what seems like ages. JJ says he’s never seen anything like it.

There is nothing familiar about this place. The animals, the trees, the birds, the bugs. I feel like my vocabulary has doubled — with a few Samburu and Swahili words but mostly with the names of a wealth of creatures I never even knew existed. What these conservancies are doing to preserve this amazing variety of life is simply wonderful. I just hope Kenya can rise to the challenge of figuring out a way to use this precious resource to enrich all of its people.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Christmas Day

Our Christmas day outing is very mellow. We walk to a distant outcropping and do some climbing with ropes and harnesses. Those who aren’t climbing scramble up the rock to the very top and are rewarded with a gobsmacking view. My sense of pride withers a bit when I find elephant droppings at the top. The pale blue sky is dotted with clouds that creep along, casting vast expanses into shade. The wind whistles, swallows skim the treetops, the red landscape rolls out around us. The hush is only broken by the occasional sound of a donkey braying or a goat bleating in the nearby village.

Back at camp, our gift exchange is followed by a feast that I would have been proud to serve. I’m lying around in my tent afterward and hear something brewing outside. A song starts to build in the distance and I head over to have a look. The Samburu men, about 15 of them, are standing shoulder to shoulder and singing. They take a step with the left leg and then bring both feet down together to pound the ground as percussion as they sing a call and answer song. It’s more rhythm than music and when I ask what the words mean, Rana tells me they’re more sounds than actual lyrics.

As they sing, they shuffle around in a tight group facing the same way. Then they pair off, holding hands and move around in a circle. They eventually stop, facing the centre and three or four men wrap their arms around each other and move toward the centre, jumping as high as they can while thrusting out their heads. They move on to jumping duels, taking turns leaping skyward in the middle of the circle. They are smiling and giggling, very obviously having a laugh. They stand in two long lines facing each other, grasping the hand of the man opposite, they shimmy down to a low crouch to the beat of the music. They are very good about getting the kids to join in.

Kerry says that she never knows when the men are going to break into song, that the spirit just seems to move them and they spontaneously launch into it. I love the way she talks about, and to, the Samburu — with profound respect. You never get the impression that she is ordering them around. When the guides are undertaking something, be it unloading the camels or setting up camp there is banter, as though in constant discussion, about the best way to do things. It’s all very peaceful murmuring. The Swahili they speak with Kerry is sing-song while the Samburu they speak to one another seems more about getting the message across and an economy of noise and movement. There doesn’t seem to be much of a hierarchy among the Samburu beyond the respect shown to the elders and the way they communicate with Kerry seems to indicate a similar and honest mutual respect.

I have noticed that while some of the guides are covered in beads — bracelets, necklaces, anklets, calf decorations, earrings — others wear only the remnants — ear lobes stretched five times their normal size without the bone or wood that once filled the hole. Why is that? I ask Kerry. The men are most adorned as young warriors, she tells me, but as they move up through the ranks of junior elders and then elders, they gradually shed the adornment until they wear nothing at all. It is helpful because, aside from the jewelry and the occasional white hair, the Samburu seem somewhat ageless to me. We are shocked to find that the playful Tatián, who I would have pegged as a teen is, in fact, 31. We whiteys, on the other hand, seem to have them assuming that we are all middle-aged, including our teenagers.

Kerry has bought two goats for the men for their Christmas feast. They’ve already had one this morning and she asks if we’d like to go see the second goat killed. Then she asks if we’d like to drink some blood. Yes. And most definitely no.

We stroll over to where the men sleep and they pull the goat out of the bushes and lie it gently down on its side. One man holds the back legs, another holds the front and a third holds the muzzle and essentially suffocates the beast. It is over quite quickly. When the kicking stops, they cut a slit from chin to breastbone and peel back the hide to create a pocket between the skin and the flesh. Only then do they cut the goat’s throat, letting the bubbling blood fill the pocket that is just big enough to accommodate the volume. The men take turns dipping their heads down into the pouch and drink deeply. Only Rufus, Kerry’s son and Rafe, the second youngest of our group are brave enough to have a go.

Boxing day we are again woken at 6:30. One of the men walks along the line of tents and pours warm water in the basin outside, calling out a gentle good morning. The trees that line the river are alive with birdsong. We watch the men break camp as we have breakfast. They move toward the tents in twos and threes and have it all broken down with practiced efficiency. A camel is led over to each tent and made to kneel by banging the ground near their front leg with a big stick. The first thing to go are our sleeping mattresses which double as cushions for the camel’s back, then a metal frame is cinched around their waist and last our tents and bags are tied on to the frame.

We walk up another limestone mountain, taking in the spectacular view. Again amazed to find that, as we scale, we are following in elephant footsteps. It seems this hike is a favourite with our leathery friends. We make it to the top with some pushing and pulling and watch Kerry's husband, James, slip over the edge of the cliff in what, to me, seems a hastily planned rappel.

We pass around the binoculars and struggle to translate directions from Samburu to Swahili to English before everyone manages to locate the herd of elephants Kesheeneh has spotted meandering toward a distant watering hole. In the end the herd makes it very easy for us all, standing at the water’s edge, their massive black shapes silhouetted against the pool turned silver by the setting sun.

Alice spends the walk down the mountain getting the guileless Tatián to mimic a series of totally impractical English vocabulary, much to the amusement of the other guides. She is feeling optimistic about her efforts until one of our group tells her that Tatián’s English hasn’t improved by a word since they were with him three years ago.

The next morning we all gather on a big rock. As the Samburu come to join us, they shout at each other and back to the camp kitchen “garou pitcha, garou pitcha”. I am thinking it means something like farewell and then realize that they’re saying “group picture”. We squeeze in together on the rock, goofing around one last time and then say a very fond and sad farewell to our kind and gentle hosts.

Thursday, December 29, 2016


Kerry asks us if we’d like to go to a ceremony. What kind of ceremony? I ask. A circumcision. Like a bris? Will there be bagels?, I joke, but nobody gets it. No, nothing like a bris. Gabriel, one of the Samburu guides, piles a bunch of us in one jeep, a second group go in another and we start driving. I’m sitting behind him but I pull up as close as I can to ask him the million questions that have my brain buzzing. How old is the boy being circumcised? Between 13 and 17. Samburu warriors, which is what one becomes after the circumcision ceremony, have three weapons, the club, a beautiful foot-and-a-half long branch with a rounded knot on the end, a spear and a machete. They are all used for self-protection out in the bush. The club, called a roongoo, is used first — thrown at the charging animal, then the spear and, if it comes down to it, the machete for hand to hand combat. He goes on to say that kids here only start school at seven or eight. The walk to school may be quite long and they only go when they have learned enough tricks from their dad as to how to survive an animal attack.

Is it scary for the boy? I ask him. For two weeks before the ceremony, boys and men from neighbouring villages come to visit and sing him songs of bravery to bolster his courage, he tells us, by way of an answer. Two people of confidence are chosen by the boy or his family to attend to him during the ceremony. One holds his back and another holds his right leg during the circumcision, which is only attended by men. From that day on the two will serve as godparents of a sort for the boy. I was chosen to hold the back of one of his relatives, he says, and that is why we have been allowed to attend today. If the boy blinks or winces, or demonstrates even the slightest indication that he is in pain, the ceremony ends, the guests all leave in disgust, he brings eternal shame to his family and suffers a humiliation that will follow him for the rest of his days, Gabriel tells us. Have you ever heard of it happening? I ask. Never, he responds. Is there a set age for a girl’s circumcision? I ask, thinking there is only answer that will satisfy me. No, he says, if a boy is being circumcised, for reasons of practicality, his sisters’ will be done on the same day. But they are allowed to cry and go on as much as they want, Gabriel reassures us. I hold my tongue about the world of difference between the removal of a skin flap and the excision of an organ.

After the ceremony, the boy and other recently circumcised boys will be given a couple of days to heal and then they head off together to spend a month surviving in the bush. They used to have to kill a lion to become a warrior, Gabriel says, but in recent years with the growing population of people we realized that we would soon run out of wildlife. When the boy returns intact, the village sacrifices a calf is in his honour. The now-warrior cuts a piece of flesh from the beast and offers it up to his mother as a token of gratitude for raising him and that is the last meal he will eat from his mother’s kitchen. He is allowed to return for drink — tea, water or milk — but from that moment on he is on his own.

After an hour of driving through the bush, along rutted tracks and dipping in and out of dry riverbeds, we pull up outside a little village. We park beneath an eight foot high length of barbed wire strung between some trees to stop any marauding elephants. We’ve seen the damage they can do on our walks — skeletons of trees, dessiccated trunks, limbs ripped to shreds. The perimeter of the village is fortified with thorn bushes five feet high and a couple of feet across to discourage leopards or hyenas or lions from making a feast of the village’s cows or goats. Gabriel explains that if an animal manages to get through the thorns, the dogs will raise the alarm and the men will be up in a flash to defend the compound.

As we get out of the car we are greeted by a dozen women singing a call and answer song. The call is done by a young woman with a sweet, high voice and the rest answer. They are all dressed in bright colours, some with necks adorned with intricate beading. They come out and each of the women in our group is taken by the hand and escorted back through a narrow opening in the hedge. They launch into another song for us while Gabriel explains that the first was a song of welcome. The smallest kids stand glued to their mum’s legs or strapped across their back in folds of colourful fabric. One of the women wears a t-shirt with the letters Stop F.G.M printed boldly across the front. Could she be quietly making a statement or is she simply wearing a a free t-shirt?

They sing and sway, thrusting their head forward on the beat. They get us to clap. They giggle as they struggle to remember the lyrics of songs sung only on circumcision day. They pull us into a dance where we stand in a circle and hold each other by the elbow. At some point in the song, a point which was very clear to them and less clear to us, they cross the circle to bash knees with a woman on the other side. Kerry and her husband James later explain that it has something to do with claiming one’s cow’s superiority over another’s. The hut we stand before, the first hut on the right as you enter the village always belongs to the first wife, Gabriel tells us. Subsequent wives will be housed in the next huts. The mother of the boy who was circumcised this morning dips in and out of the hut and joins in the singing. Her husband is perched on a stool in the shade of a nearby tree with one of his older sons. He looks tired but proud.

We walk around the village which is perhaps six little huts within the thorn hedge. There are three corrals of similar thorn inside the perimeter. One for the goats, one for their kids and one for the cows who have been taken off to graze where the rains have come.

We go back to the house of the circumcised boy and are invited inside. It is dark, Gabriel warns us, but your eyes will get used to it. The round, red soil hut, maybe ten feet across was built by the wife, whose duties also include getting the water every day, collecting the firewood and doing all the cooking. The structure is branches surfaced in mud on the inside and out. I can’t even imagine how much water the poor woman must have had to collect to make it. We step inside and it is as black as night. There is a little alcove to our left as we squeeze through a very narrow passage into the main room. On the floor, in front of us, is the mother sitting, tending the fire. To our right, behind her, is a platform made of branches covered with cowhide and another similar one across the hut. When our eyes adjust we see that there are people lying down on the one behind her and we are encouraged to go take a seat on the one opposite. The group of us entirely fill the her small home. The people on the bed opposite are the boy who has been circumcised and three of his recently circumcised peers. Gabriel asks them their ages and they are all 16 or 17. There is a bit of grimacing as they shift, with legs well apart, on the bed. They smile good-naturedly and answer Gabriel’s questions. The smoke from the fire wafts through the space. There are pint-sized openings in two of the walls and through them pour shafts of light spinning in smoke. It is quite hot and the air is quite still and it’s hard to breathe. The mother holds a gourd in one hand, withdraws a burning a stick from the fire and pokes it into the gourd which she then quickly caps. She is heating the milk, Gabriel explains, to make it last longer. The gourd is going to go out into the bush with the boys when they leave her.

Gabriel asks us if we have any more questions. I ask her if the mother is sad the day her son goes off. He declines to ask, answering for her, no. I would have liked to ask the mother.

We hand over the little solar lamp we’ve brought to thank the mother for letting us invade her space and her important day. She thanks me very graciously and all I can think is of all the other things I should have brought her.

We step back outside and say our goodbyes and thank yous. Just outside the compound is a week-old camel lying in a thorn pen. When our Samburu friends open up the pen, it pokes its head out and cries out in fear. Seconds later, answering her calf’s call, the mother comes charging at us through the bush. The baby has a little drink and one of the village girls brings out a plastic container to milk the mother as she nurses.

We drive back in the waning day, this time up on the roof. The wildlife is out. Dikdiks, gazelles impala, zebra, hares run for cover at our approach. The rock formations pepper the horizon, the red soil is aglow in the setting sun.

We fall asleep to the sound of frogs chirping and a leopard prowling along the opposite bank.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


The flight to Nairobi is painless. The gorgeous flight attendants flit around in their bright red skirtsuits. Two back-to-back red eye flights have left us a bit dizzy and dopey but not unable to appreciate our incredible good fortune. We step off the plane on to the tarmac and into the cool morning light. We collect our luggage and are escorted through customs and outside to the other terminal. Dozens of flagpoles, most of which are flying bedraggled flags or bare, frame a median decorated with lifesize sculptures of the local wildlife. A choir sways in the shade of the terminal singing christmas carols and songs in swahili for the new arrivals. We zip through the domestic terminal where we go through not one but two security machines — the first of which neglects to notice the full water bottles in our backpacks. We are warmly greeted by Noah and then the rest of the Jonas team in the terminal.

Out on the tarmac our little plane awaits. Just enough space for the two families and in a few minutes we’re up over Nairobi. The land around the airport is grassland but soon gives way to the shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Every cluster of houses — a tight grouping of rusty tin roofs from above is bordered by colourful piles of garbage. Mist whips across the wings as we climb. The city, with its very sparse skyline, fades into the distance as we sail over bigger houses and greener neighbourhoods. The streets give way to fields and compounds of houses and shacks with yards hemmed in by shrubs and little corrals for goats. The clouds billow around us, looking substantial enough to step out on to and they unsettle the little plane. We see Mount Kenya piercing through the cloud cover in the distance to our right and below, expanses of tan scrub interrupted by the occasional road or landing strip.

We come down after what seems like minutes on to a landing strip in the middle of nowhere. Three jeeps and the other two families await. We meet our travel companions along with Kerry, our guide, and jump into the jeeps. Some of the kids climb up on the roofs, we pull over briefly to watch the plane take off overhead and then head into the bush.

Kerry drives, snaking along tracks and weaving in and out of dry stream beds. We pull in to camp where we are greeted by a crowd of men dressed in layer upon layer of colourful fabric. Some have stretched earlobes, some wear elaborately beaded jewelry and headdresses. All are smiling from ear to ear. We are greeted with a cool washcloth and a glass of water or juice. We walk around and take it all in. The camp has been set up very thoughtfully, with communal spaces and a long line of tents leading off into the bush. Behind the tents are a line of showers and latrines. The outhouses are a rectangle of canvas with a velcro door and inside a foldable wooden open-sided box topped with a seat over a freshly-dug pit. The dirt that came out of the hole sits beside the box and you shovel in a heapful when you’re done. Each of us has a canvas tent big enough for a mattress on the ground with just enough space for our bags. Outside the front is a washbasin with towel, a little table with mirror, drinking water and a chair. The bed is draped in colourful fabric, with a bathrobe, towel and headlamp. Not a lot of details overlooked in this place.

In the distance are two rock formations that jut above the flat terrain. They are this afternoon’s destination. The ground all around is rutted dusty dirt or sand with clumps of bone dry grass and the occasional shrub or small tree. Nothing is very tall and the land is quite flat except for a few distant outcrops of rocks. The flora consists of plants that look like a solitary spike of aloe popping out of the earth in clusters, acacia bushes and the occasional spiky tree.They haven’t had rain this year and it shows. The only animals who flourish here are the ones that don’t drink. Ever. Grant’s gazelle, impala, eland, dikdiks and gerenuk — variations on a theme which vary in size, colouring and horns but who all jump like champions and dash off at an impressive clip at our approach.

We scramble up a little hill of rocks and find dry puddles of baboon droppings. From the top we watch a hyena scramble away, we see a few giraffes’ heads comically pop up above the tree tops. Tatian, one of the guides, amuses himself and us by mimicking baboon noises and popping out from behind bushes to scare the daylights out of us. The sun is punishing. We are above 5000 feet and our December lily white skin is suffering.

We head back to camp, stopping at the local soccer pitch — a field of dust with four upright stumps buried in the soil for goalposts. Our guides and some of our team kick the ball around in the blazing sun. Some tiny local kids come out to watch — it’s hard to tell from where with nary a building in sight. They stand huddled close together a few yards off and are rewarded with a handful of candies to share.

Back at the camp we find the camels all hobbled — a rope running from one front leg across the back of the neck to the other front leg.

We all bundle up in our down jackets and have cocktails — sundowners — around the fire and watch first Venus, then a dazzling display of stars emerge from the darkening sky. We sit down for a feast. It is amazing what they can produce in the makeshift kitchen tent. We head to bed and find hot water bottles in our bed for the surprisingly cool night. We lie awake listening to the wind and the hyenas call — first from one side of the tent then the other. Close enough to discourage any midnight trips to the outhouse.

We are woken at 6:30 for our 8 o’clock departure. The kids start the walk with a little camel ride. Kerry and Rana, one of the Samburu guides point out gazelle middens, baboon spider nests, leopard and hyena droppings, and the tracks of a dozen animals — from dikdiks to baboons to giraffes. Everywhere are mounds of dried ]elephant droppings. Kerry explains that the lack of rain here while other areas have had their share means the animals are in short supply.

The landscape goes on and on, as far as the eye can see. We are heading for a river a few hours’ walk away. The sun beats down with little to no shade, crisping all the skin that didn’t get fried in yesterday afternoon’s outing. The kids, with their hot pink cheeks, are taking today’s warnings about covering up a little more seriously.

We walk single file and then clump up. The closer to the front or to the guide, the better your chances of seeing wildlife or hearing the explanations of what we’re seeing. Kerry leads the charge with a shotgun slung nonchalantly over her shoulder in case we get charged. Every growing thing looks to be at death’s doorstep and is peppered with spikes which seem to reach out and grab at your legs or clothes, leaving fabric torn and skin in bloody tatters. The prickly tree is dubbed the fish hook tree as it cleverly plucks hats of people’s heads or plunges itself deep into our flesh.

We see common zebra, lots of gazelle, eland and dikdik and the occasional foursome of giraffe. Rana point out baboon spider nests in the ground, perfectly symmetrical holes that look practically woven. Someone dangles a piece of grass into the hole, trying to bait the spider into defending its lair. It finally latches on, the guide pulls it out in one fell swoop and deposits the massive hairy crawler on someone’s hat. A little smaller than the palm of my hand, it is covered in pale brown fur. It isn’t aggressive but it is huge and those of us too proud to chicken out give its soft down a stroke before depositing it back in the hole. They bite, Rana tells us, but it doesn’t hurt that much. Pass.

Kesheeneh finds a tortoise and flips it over for us to have a look. It pees in self-defense, undoubtedly trying (and succeeding) to make itself less appetizing to us. In the process it loses precious moisture that will not be replenished until the next rains. Rana counts the stripes on the two-foot long creature’s breast plate and divides the total in two before telling us it’s about 16.

I’m learning that you can tell a lot about an animal by its scat. Leopard and hyena may have the same diet but a hyena’s stomach is able to dissolve the hair and bone fragments that a leopard’s will just pass. The hyena’s is white and chalky while a leopard’s just looks like a big cat poo. Aardvark bury their droppings underneath other animals’ middens, their pellets sparkle with the metallic looking heads of termites.

We arrive at our new camp, this one strung out along a winding river. Kerry looks crestfallen when we arrive. The river is so low. Each of the tents faces the meandering river and the smaller people head down to play and wade in the shallows. Everything around us is dry and dusty but the river is alive with birds. Herons and hawks, weavers and starlings are fishing in the eddies or dipping overhead. The trees are full of nests — elaborate, cleverly designed constructions like the social weaver’s nest which looks like a a woven ball. It only has one door until the eggs hatch and then the parents open a second as an escape hatch. The duplex of the bird world. They are called social weavers because they nest in large colonies, making the tree they’ve chosen look a little like a christmas tree dripping with ornaments.

Jamie, Kerry’s husband, joins us for Christmas eve. A fish hook tree is strung with tinsel and ornaments. I can’t quite accept that tomorrow’s the big day in this oh-so-unchristmassy setting.

After another terrific meal, we watch monkeys screeching and gamboling on the opposite shore. We hear a leopard grumbling as the sun sets, as it paces along the opposite bank. Hyenas call throughout the night and the guides hear a lion roar but we sleep through it.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Airports and burqas

A Saudia plane has landed at the same time as ours and the Ataturk airport is a sea of burqas. It’s interesting how something that is designed to conceal the woman makes them stand out so very much. All individuality may be erased but the very black burqa is by no means a subtle presence. We line up behind a group that is predominately women in burqas and it isn’t for several minutes that I realize it’s because there are two female passport agents and one of the them is ours. One man goes toward the booth with three or four women in tow. He hands over the passports and does all the talking. The women wait until prompted and then take turns lifting their veils for the agent to show that they are, in fact, the one in the passport. It seems the children are completely free to do what they like — running back and forth beyond the passport control and back which obviously enrages the Turkish passport agents who cannot communicate their frustration in arabic and therefore gesticulate vigorously with little or no effect. The little girls are beautiful but you can see, by the age of about eleven — I suppose the threshold of puberty — their beauty gets sucked into the vacuum of black.

The tram is a lesson in courtesy. The citizens of Istanbul seem to be competing to see who can get up the most quickly to offer their seat. Not just for the very elderly but for anyone even nominally older than themselves. It is done so quickly and without fanfare. We are sitting on one side of the tram and Henri is on one of a pair on the other. A man asks Henri if he wouldn’t mind moving to another empty seat so that his wife and daughter can sit together. Henri misunderstands and gets up and moves to stand away from the seats. The mother motions to Henri, the father motions to Henri but he’s actually pretty happy standing so he smiles and waves them off. The father, seeing the now unoccupied seat sits down. A move he learns to regret. His wife gives him an earful – appalled that her husband would take this kid’s seat and make him stand with his luggage. The poor guy tries to explain and we watch him move away from his wife and then back, trying to get back into his wife’s good books. For 18 stops she gives him the silent treatment.

When we make it through the ancient crumbling walls marking downtown Istanbul we go by a baklava/tea shop and see packs of teenage girls perched on their stools around a table. They giggle, take selfies and chat. Some are in headscarves, each a different colour to complement their outfit. Offering at least an opportunity to show a little individuality, in Istanbul the headscarf is a fashion accessory. I’m still not sure what a burqa is.

Our hotel, this time, is on the other side of the Galata bridge. We dump our luggage and head back to the foot of the bridge to take a ferry to Asia. The sun is going down, setting fire to the skies behind the endless mosques that dot the skyline. We’re determined to watch the sun set over Europe from Asia. There is so much traffic in the Bosphorus Strait, over a hundred shipping vessels a day on top of the crazy constant flow of ferries bringing people and cars from home to work and back — only part of the remarkable and cheap public transport system that moves the 14 million residents of Istanbul.

As we move away from the shore we watch a line of men on both sides of the bridge yielding gigantic fishing poles and the tiny little fishing vessels getting tossed in the ferry’s wake.

Once on the other side, we hustle to the jetty to watch the sun go down. Vendors are out selling mussels, roasted chestnuts and the ever-present simit, the turkish version of a bagel, more dense, with a twist and covered in sesame seeds.

Feral dogs and cats fight over scraps of food along the water. Couples and packs of teens lounge on the huge boulders lining the shore -- I imagine as protection from erosion. We sit and watch the Strait and the city beyond – dozens of container ships queuing for their turn to unload, cormorants diving for fish and, of course, the setting sun.

I can’t get over the fact that one city straddles this huge, fast moving channel. Constantinople must have had quite the firepower or a wicked reputation in order to defend such a vast territory and stay intact.

As we head back to the ferry terminal, the air crackles with the muezzin’s call. Unlike the ear-splitting cacophony of Morocco, the Istanbul call is a haunting, evocative serenade. It’s hard to imagine why every mosque wouldn’t want their invitations to be as tempting as the ones we hear here. We head back across in time for dinner, the deck of the ferry decorated with empty tea glasses sitting in their dainty, colourful saucers.

We walk through the Karaköy neighbourhood — hip central. The streets are lined with cool cafés, shops with interesting jewellery, mid-century furniture, curated collections of everything under the sun. People are out having drinks or dinner, some sitting on low stools eating from a communal plate — a large flat tortilla-looking thing called a dürüm, heaped with delicious looking spiced, minced beef and peppers.

We have an amazing dinner – yummy mezze, octopus, lamb, smoked fish and lots and lots of a meal component we found completely overlooked in Italy, namely vegetables.

In the morning, with no time to waste, we stride past the early risers downing their morning coffee with baklava or picking up simit to eat on the tram. We’re rushing to the Blue Mosque. We managed to botch the times on our last stopover and missed seeing the inside.

We loiter around ‘til it opens, edging in front of a very enthusiastic Japanese tour group. We stop at the booth to pick up the blue potato-sack skirts that women in pants or short skirts need to wear. Our heads were already covered with scarves I’d brought. We all removed our shoes and placed them in a plastic bag ripped off a roll (think vegetable shopping) and stepped inside. Wow! The volume of the building is mind-boggling. Smaller domes feeding into larger domes feeding into even larger domes dotted with hundreds of symmetrical windows and all of it supported by massive columns. Despite its size and the fact that it can hold 10,000 worshippers, a series of rustic candelabra hang from hundreds of cables about eight feet off the ground, both illuminating the space and bringing the huge vaulted domes down to a very human scale. Every inch of ceiling is covered in tile, in gorgeous contrasting geometrical and floral patterns. The Sultanahmet may be the biggest in Istanbul but it is only one of many impressive mosques that are scattered all over the city. I’m afraid those will have to wait until next time. And there will be a next time.

Çok teşekkür ederim Istanbul!

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Arrivederci Napoli

A late start and a welcome sleep-in for the girls with their colds. We asked Vincenzo if we could skip breakfast this morning and instead have a little packed lunch for the road. We woke up to two brown paper bags full of speck & mozzarella sandwiches.

We walked down to where the Minori road meets the steep walkway up to the agriturismo, sad to say goodbye to our little mountain retreat.
Vincenzo brings our bags down in his ancient, miniscule green Fiat and a few minutes later the taxi pulls up and we load all our crap in the back. We confirm the price and then the destination. The driver is NOT happy that we are not going to the airport as he’d been told. He calls up his capo to talk it over. The dialect is unreal. It’s all shh, shk and dz. It’s a bit like Cuban Italian — the ends of words never quite making it out past the teeth. The capo tells him no. The driver explains to us as he points to the letters on the windshield that if you don’t have a Napoli permit you are only allowed to drive to the airport or the train station but nowhere else. The Napoli drivers in turn are allowed to three coastal towns but not all of them. Classic Italian bureaucracy. I’ll leave you at the airport and you can take a pullman to the centro. -- Ehrrr, no thanks. We tried that one. Leave us at Piazza Garibaldi and we’ll jump on the metro. -- I’ll take you to the airport, he says, and you can take a taxi. Very simple. -- Is your capo going to pay for the taxi? -- No, no, no. I’ll take you to Piazza Garibaldi but you don’t need the metro, he says. It’s a two-hundred metre walk. --Not exactly. More like a kilometre, I tell him. Aargh. He finally agrees to take us to Piazza Garibaldi.

We jump on the now-familiar metro and walk to our hotel, a lovely 6th century building that has been beautifully restored. We dump our stuff and head over to the Capella Sansevero, a teeny 16th century chapel built by the di Sangro family in their garden. The garden is long gone, as is the palace it was attached to, but the artwork in this little room is still very much there and leaves you humbled. The tile work in the floor alone is a trip — a three-D illusion. The basement houses two intact corpses with their circulatory system intact, down to the tiniest capillary. Two-hundred and fifty years later experts have still not figured out how they managed it. In the centre of the chapel lies the very famous veiled christ — a lifesize portrait in marble of Jesus lying beneath a shroud soon after his death. I was and am totally gobsmacked by the craftsmanship. How one could accomplish, in marble, the illusion of a body under a translucent veil, complete with lace fringe — the holes in his hands and side, the nails and nail puller at his side… I can’t even find words.

We step into the restaurant next door for an amazing lunch, creative dishes with lentils and veal meatballs, pumpkin, octopus. Mmmm. After lunch we asked the chef for some suggestions as to where we could get a traditional ragù on Sunday and he very kindly gave us some names. We’re all getting super excited to see SSC Napoli play tonight.

We join a huge wave of people on the train heading to Stadio San Paolo. The resounding advice was to get there early. We walked around the outside of the massive stadium looking for our entrance. The place can hold 60,000 and the overwhelming presence of police and carabinieri and finanza cops is, I suppose, an indication of how poorly things can go. The sidewalk is packed with vendors selling hotdogs, slices of pizza, flags, scarves and lots and lots of tiny bottles of liquor. We find our gate and get the initial identity check — a thorough look over the passport and tickets and a little notch put in the ticket. Then to the second check where the ticket is scanned in a machine which opens a scissor gate onto the stadium grounds. The game isn’t for two hours and there are already lots of people seated. Each ticket is printed with your name and date of birth, a section and seat number but if there are numbers on the seats in the stadium we sure couldn’t find them. We find our section and follow the taxi driver’s advice – find the best seat you can in your section and take it.

The game is a riot. From the moment the Napoli team steps on the field to warm up there is massive cheering. But as soon as the goalers of Chievo pop their heads out of the underground dressing rooms the stadium erupts in jeers and whistles. Yikes. As the Napoli team is introduced the crowd screams out the name of the player three times. When the team is finally on the field a bunch of guys in front of us unfold a banner that covers the entire section of the stadium. The crowd is as fun to watch as the game. Can you say partisan crowd? Without a doubt the most unsportsmanlike conduct I’ve ever seen from fans, who literally whistle every single time the other team gets the ball. And they do get the ball, putting it in the net in the first minutes, catching Napoli totally on their heels. The incredulity is comical. Cries of “Mamma mia” and “Non è possibile”. Neighbours turn to each other asking heartfelt questions – as though earnestly looking to each other for an explanation as to what just happened. The hand gestures of the crowds! We try them out to fit in but they are so uncharacteristically dramatic that we’re not very convincing. Lots of hands in prayer waving them toward and away from the chin and the ever popular straight arm palm up thrust. Lots of “che catso fa?” and “Madon’” and “porca miseria”. The Napoli team can do no wrong in the fans’ eyes.

The short ends of the stadium, the “curvas” are packed to the rafters with the hardcore fans who sing and shout and jump and clap and sway in unison to the sound of a drum. Occasionally a smoke machine backlit in red belches out a huge waft of fumes. The fans sing an endless repertoire of songs. When one curva gets quiet the opposing end kicks in. Hawkers work the stands loudly advertising their wares — beer, soft drinks, nuts and yummy Fonzies(!), an Italian yellow cheesie.

Napoli dominates. Missing an astounding amount of shots on goal but they still manage to pull off a 3-1 win, putting them firmly in first position in Series A. It all went by very quickly.

When the game finishes, the fans scatter in all directions. We head to the metropolitan train and run to catch it as it waits on the platform. We stand for fifteen minutes in the car, wedged in like sardines waiting for the other cars to fill up before heading back to Centro.

We got off at Dante around midnight, expecting things to have quietened down but the streets are packed. Couples out for a stroll, street vendors selling crêpes & nutella, hazelnut cotton candy, hotdogs. Teens, dressed in their finest, zip madly through the crowds three to a scooter or hang out outside bars. There’s something crazy about mundane daily life happening with this beautiful backdrop of historic buildings. You can’t walk more than a block in this town before stumbling upon some new architectural treasure tucked out of sight. The place is simply dripping in history. This city has seen riches but sadly it has also seen better days.

Napoli works, it seems, but just barely. There is a lawlessness that runs just below the surface of everything. There are lots of “systems” but none of them seem to work as intended or to take any of the others into account. The tabacchieri gets frustrated answering questions about transport tickets and schedules but there seems to be no effort to make it easier for people to find the information on their own. Even figuring out which direction your metro is heading in is a challenge. People smoke everywhere — in restaurants, in trains, at the game. Kids as young as ten are driving scooters helmetless through the streets. We wander through a fish market and a guy goes flying past us like he’s running for his life. Around the next corner we see police clearing up his illegal cigarette stand. We wonder whether the poor guy is fleeing because his cigarettes are illegal or because he is. I can’t help but think it wouldn’t be hard to disappear in a city like Napoli. That being said, it’s young and vibrant and alive. I wouldn’t want to do business here but what an amazing city to experience.

Our last lunch was a memorable one. L’Europeo Mattozzi is the kind of establishment that has probably been in business for a hundred years. Ceilings twenty feet high, the walls covered in black and white photos and oil paintings. We are greeted by the owner who sits at a little desk in his cardigan and cravat welcoming his guests and making everyone feel like they’ve come home for Sunday lunch. The kitchen rivals the size of the diningroom — six tables of six filled with families in their Sunday best digging into some amazing food. We eat like kings and then roll home along via Toledo with every other family in Napoli out for a passeggiata.

Arrivederci Napoli.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Sentiero degli dei

We walk down into Minori. After yesterday’s stair extravaganza my knees are trembling and my calves are screaming but it gets better as the muscles warm up a bit. While we wait for the bus to Amalfi, Henri and I kick the ball around on the pavement until the local crazy comes to shout & gesticulate in Henri’s face about playing so near a caffè. Some of the other residents try to talk him down. I get the distinct feeling this isn’t the first time this has happened. The bus takes us into Amalfi where we catch another bus to Bomerano. Amalfi is a zoo compared to sleepy Minory but it is beautiful. The bus ride is all switchback away from the coast into the mountains. We’re happy but dopey from the gravol.

There are three other couples of tourists on the bus. All of us worry about missing the stop. Aside from the bus stops on the main road the indications of where the bus will let you off are little panels that read Fermata but which can’t really be seen until you stand in front of it. Not very helpful when you’re on the road and the bus driver sits under a sign that reads “Don’t talk to the driver”. I finally pluck up the courage to go sit up beside him to ask where we should get off and he answers me before I get a word out. This bus must be overrun by the likes of me in the summer. He tells me where the stop is and which road to turn up to get where we want to go. When everyone gets off, they all kind of loiter around waiting for us to lead the way. Imagine the confusion when we head into a caffè instead of hitting the trail.

The sentiero is just beautiful. Much more groomed and well-travelled than the one we were on yesterday. The views are stupendous in all directions. On the left, the mediterranean stretches out beneath us, a pale clear aqua for a few metres off the shore and blurring into gorgeous greeny-blue beyond. We can see the white peaks of the Sicilian mountains across the water. The Sorrento peninsula juts out into the sea ahead of us and the terraced lemon groves slice the hillside into tidy little parcels behind us. We have to share the trail with a few other groups but we’re mostly on our own except for a goatherd with his flock and trusty dog.

Frances woke up with a killer cold so our intention had been to take it easy and end the walk in Nocelle with a bus ride into Positano but we must have taken a wrong turn because we ended up missing the actual town and found ourselves on another endless chain of stone steps down, down, down. How many hundreds of steps down… into Arienzo where we waited less than a minute for a bus back to Amalfi. The bus ride was incredible. Houses notched into the mountainside above, homes that looked literally carved out of the rock in the grottoes and inlets below.

Again, the fun is in watching the bus navigate the wicked curves and oncoming traffic. We got in a couple of classic jams today, one with someone who didn’t stop far enough back from the curve for the bus to get around. The driver of the oncoming car first tried to pull alongside us but there wasn’t nearly enough room and there were too many cars behind him to get them all to reverse so he backed into the space in front of us (almost squishing a local woman who warned him off by banging the hell out of his car) and reversed up and around a corner until he was at the back of the pile and we could get around him. I pity the tourists who try to take on this road in the height of the summer season and end up suffering the wrath of the locals. The bus drivers are unbelievably good at backing around curves, sending messages to one another with honks. They are not, on the other hand, a very forgiving bunch, sending expletives flying at cyclists, tourists and inept drivers.

An older guy with a cane got on the bus and almost fell over trying to get onto the seat beside me. The road is so windy that if your bum isn’t fully cupped by the curve of the bottom of the seat you find yourself in the aisle pretty quickly. I ended hooking my arm in his and hauling him up beside me before we went into a curve. We chatted for a while but his toothless dialect was a challenge for me. He very sweetly took the time to turn and shake my hand as he was getting off. I’ve seen a few stroke survivors and people with crutches trying to navigate the rough cobblestones, the slopes and the endless, uneven steps. This is not an easy place for the disabled.

Back to Minori. It’s funny how getting to know the rhythm of a place, the times of the church bells, the bus schedules, the drivers, the shortcuts, can make you feel so quickly at home in a place so far from home.

Sitting on the terrace in the setting sun, drinking a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade. Our last night in Minori and it’s sad.

Maria has made us dunderi (little pillows like gnocchi but made of ricotta, 00 flour and fresh water). It is phenomenally good but filling. Her secondi is a plate of fish with potatoes and a spear of boiled cauliflower from the garden. So good but SO full… Then homemade lemon cake, lemon-flavoured mascarpone dotted with black raspberries.

There was another family in the diningroom tonight. A couple with a five year old girl and a five-month old baby. We admired the adorable baby and the dad very sweetly came over so we could get a better look at her. We dodged the five-year-old’s very pointed questions about why we didn’t speak better Italian. Very adorable. I told the husband that we were excited to go see Napoli play the following night and his eyes lit up. He started describing Napoli’s star players and pulled out his phone to show us a picture of Higuaín. The five-year-old ran over and started swiping the screen, revealing an endless chain of photos of the player as her dad sheepishly looked on.

Forza Napoli!


We wake up to a drizzle and the round tones of rain-dampened church bells bouncing off the valley walls. The buildings that line the mountainsides are all yellow or pale pink or cream with terracotta roofs, the walls dotted with tall, symmetrical windows and the merest suggestion of a balcony on each. The sea is grey today but looking at it through an arbour of sunny yellow lemons brightens up the whole scene.

We walk down to the main square for the bus to Amalfi. Henri buys a soccer ball while we buy tickets for the bus and he and I kick it around as we wait for the bus. The piazza between the road and the beach is lined with white trucks with awnings and folding tables laid out with bras, underwear, sheets, second hand clothes, cleaning products, kitchen gadgets, vegetables, you name it. The local ladies have come down from the hills and are doing the rounds with their shopping bags. These trucks probably do a non-stop tour of the local towns, bringing the big city products to the small town clientele.

The sprinkling turns to rain which turns into a torrent and then a hailstorm. I get out my trusty I LOVE NAPOLI umbrella and keep kicking the ball. Henri, being Henri, does not and gets soaked. The bus finally comes. It is a steamy ride. The driver stops every few minutes to clear mist off the windshield, starting on the top left corner (the second most important visibility spot as he brushes against the plants growing out of the cliffside every left hand turn). The drive is a stop-start affair — a dance between him and oncoming traffic. There isn’t enough room in the curves for two vehicles when one is a bus and the negotiations that ensue are serious entertainment. The driver honks as he approaches a curve and waits for oncoming traffic to clear enough space by either coming on or staying put for him to pull around. When a truck pulls around a curve up ahead the tension in the bus palpably rises as the two drivers suss out the best line of approach. They eventually squeeze by each other, eyes casting back and forth and side to side in the mirrors, watching the inches shrink between them. If I had a window that opened I could kiss the truck driver without even having to crane my neck.

We get to Amalfi, then jump on another bus for a twenty minute ride up to Pogerola (Poh-JEH-ro-la, I am politely corrected). I chat with the lady who sits beside me who reminds me a lot of my auntie Joan. I ask her whether she is from here. No, No!, she replies vehemently, I am from Pogerola! (five kilometres away). I ask whether she rides this bus every day. Oh NO! she exclaims, only when I have shopping to do. We get off the bus after her and wander into the sleepy village. We step into the first bar and have some hand-pulled coffees and buy a few snacks for the walk. We ask the owner if he can direct us to the beginning of our walk and he shakes his head. The weather is not nice for a walk, he says. That’s true, we acknowledge, but we’re going all the same. The weather for a walk will be better tomorrow, he says. That’s also true, we say, but today is the day that we’re here. The rain will make the streams difficult to cross, he says. Also, the wind on the mountains will be rough. And those umbrellas, they will not work on the mountain, he says. We shrug and when he sees that we’re not desisting he reluctantly agrees to show us, walking us a hundred metres up the road and pointing out the beginning of the trail.

Thankfully the path is in much better shape than the goat tracks we were trying to follow yesterday. We’ll basically be skirting the flank of the mountain, heading inland along the valley created by the Dragone river, over the river and along the other side of the valley into Scala. The woods are beautiful. We are so unused to the combination of elevation and hardwood. Giant chestnut, oak and beech, the path littered with acorns, brown leaves and prickly chestnut husks that look like forest urchins. Streams and dramatic waterfalls intersect the path. The mountain, in stripes of chalk and peach stone, towers over us on the left, the valley a sheer drop on our right. Wil is battling his demons. His fear of heights is playing tricks on his brain and his gut while the rest of us are having a ball. The kids had balked at the walk this morning. Alice came to breakfast with an alternate plan of tourist attractions but walking is what we came here for and now we are all happy to be out. Soon enough the threatening clouds start to unleash on us, the wind picking up pretty furiously. We were out on a little embankment jutting out into the valley and we all pulled out our umbrellas. Alice’s flipped and broke almost instantly, Henri’s bent and then snapped at half mast. He tried splinting it with a twig but it didn’t really hold. Fortunately the rain didn’t last. The sun came out and it was hot and welcome.

Up and down through the wood, scrambling over rocks, up and down stone steps, little animal tracks crisscrossing the mountainside. When we finally reached the source of the river the setting was like something out of Lord of the Rings, old-growth hardwood and a lush, green carpet of grassy fronds sweeping up the mountainside. As we rounded the most inland part of the valley we heard muted bells jingling in the valley below but we never caught sight of the goats. When the bells were loudest we rounded a corner and came upon a lovely golden lab lying like a sphinx in the sunshine. It didn’t move an inch as we passed. It just watched us walk by — perhaps sizing up whether we were a danger to his flock. The highest ridge of the mountain top was lined with a crumbling stone wall. Beautiful vista upon beautiful vista, the gorgeous aqua water of the Med stretching away, the shores of Sicily glistening in the warm sun.

We made it into Scala and eyed Ravello on the other side of a ravine. Every town around here seems to have its share of staircases but usually just the one road. The trick is finding the staircase that leads to the road and avoiding the one that leads to the bottom of the valley only to have to climb the equivalent number of stairs on the opposite side. We asked everyone we saw and the answer was almost always the same. Sempre dritto (always straight) although the path rarely was. The expression “all roads lead to Rome” kept coming to mind as most of the staircases seem to end at or near the village church. I wonder if the diocese financed their construction. We finally managed to get across, encountering a few horses and donkeys and being barked at by more than a few furiously barking dogs trying to get at us through an iron gate or over a stone wall.

Ravello is lovely, perched on a promontory that hangs over the sea. We sat in the sunshine in the piazza, had a panini and watched a pair of old guys in jackets in caps with their backs against a sunny wall. They chatted and greeted the locals with an enthusiastic “Giorno”. We had a meander through the Villa Cimbrone, the only piece of flat land for miles around. The villa is picturesque — tree-lined paths, arches framing stunning views, flower gardens that must be beautiful when in bloom and some lovely sculptures combined with some seriously fugly statuary. We pretty much had the place to ourselves and we wandered around as Wil read the poorly translated but immensely-entertaining flowery descriptions of the garden features. Ravello is all cobblestone and whitewash, stone walls and romantic walkways that lead you up and down and around the town. Ninety percent of the shops were closed, which suited us to a T.

We headed over the ridge to Minori. Our agriturismo is probably not much further below Ravello from an elevation standpoint but even when you can see a path across the valley that might get you to where you want to go, finding the right combination of stairs and walkways to get to that one path is a crap shoot. The odds are definitely not in your favour. We were so hoping to get across without having to go all the way down but yesterday’s adventures had us a little gunshy about off-roading. So down the stairs we went. Stairs, stairs and more unforgiving stairs. I bet we went down a thousand stairs. So many stairs that by the end my knees were screaming and my thigh muscles would shake involuntarily whenever I stopped. We made it down into the valley at 3:27 and the comune was heading back up the hill at 3:30 so we ran across the piazza and by the church. With rubber legs I’m sure it wasn’t pretty but we made it and we sure earned our dinner.

Friday, March 04, 2016


One last walk to the bar for a quick caffè and to pick up some cornettos and other treats from the local pasticceria. I love watching the deliveries happening in the morning, but in Italy it isn’t the paper being delivered, it’s caffè. There is an army of baristas, dressed in little vests and an apron around the waist wandering around the streets of Napoli. They’re all carrying colourful plastic trays with a clear dome on top and on the tray one, two, or more tiny little cups of espresso. I love imagining the people receiving these deliveries. Do they get them every day? Is it always the same clientèle? I’m going to have to ask when we get back to Napoli.

We head back to the apartment for our 9 o’clock taxi to Minori. We lock up the apartment and go down to the street to find Nicola waiting. Nicola isn’t the driver we hired. It turns out he is his brother-in-law and it becomes apparent very quickly that not only is he not our driver but that he is not A driver. Two seconds up our road and he is asking for directions on how to get to the highway from the Centro. On his second corner he clips the front bumper of a car. Unfortunately for Nicola, the car was occupied and the driver of the car opens his door looking very put out and stands up, craning his neck to assess the damage. There is a lot of gesticulating but apparently the damage is minimal so we were allowed to proceed. I can’t even imagine what happens here when there is an accident worth reporting. My guess is that it is dealt with as quickly as possible without getting the police or carabinieri involved.

Nicola tells me, by way of explanation, that his car is much smaller than this car. No!! Nicola had spent a good five minutes punching the details of our destination into his tablet before we left but seems to pay no attention to it once the machine started speaking to him. At first I thought it was because he knew some shortcut to avoid traffic (which was chockablock) but I soon realized he was doing the exact opposite of what the computer was telling him. A sinistra, the computer would say and he would turn a destra. A destra, the computer would say and he would turn a sinistra. Oh boy. A taxi driver who is not a taxi driver who can’t tell left from right. I start chatting to him and he was not the easiest to understand. I realize that most Napoletanos are probably making an effort to be understood by speaking their school Italian to foreigners like me. Nicola didn’t appear to have much Italian per se and napoletano is not a lot like Italian. To my ears, it sounds like a cross between Catalan and Portuguese. When Nicola isn’t driving his brother-in-law’s cab he is a supermarket fish man, I find out, and has been for twenty years. I ask him questions about some of the things we’re seeing as we finally clear the city. What is that island? Ischia? He doesn’t know. I’m not talking about a little dot on the horizon here. It is a big island and it is very close and he is a born and bred napoletano and he has no idea. This could be a long ride.

He tells me about his girlfriend of ten years who just left him. People get married and then divorced right away nowadays, he laments. He tells me about his salsa classes and, with a smile, about how outnumbered he is by the women in the class.

Soon enough, we’re weaving through the mountains. Every inch appears to be segmented into terraces — scaffolds of sun-bleached wood sectioning off lemon groves and grape vines and orange trees. Men in coveralls dot the hillside, pruning and tying down the lemon branches to help bear the weight of the fruit. The Amalfi lemons are famous, for their sweetness but also for their size. They make grapefruit look like sissies. There is black or green netting on everything to protect from frost and the high winds that come over the ridges. All the netting will come off in April when the weather is more reliable. We finally crest and start moving down the hills toward the coast, coming into Minori soon after. We drive along the piazza which separates the road from the beach and turn up into the hills. Switchback. Nicola has finally accepted me pointing him around corners because we’ve backtracked so many times.

He leaves us at the entrance. I have no faith that he’s going to make it back alone in time for his four o’clock shift. We walk up a steep broken road and then some very taxing stairs up through a lemon grove and along a wall green with moss to the terrace of Agriturismo Villa Maria. We’re very early but are welcomed very warmly by quiet Maria and then her husband, gregarious, adorable Vincenzo. In two seconds flat there is a pitcher of fresh-squeezed lemonade with five glasses and we’re shown to our rooms which are side by side along the terrace, glass doors looking out over Minori and the sea.

Vincenzo gives us the lowdown. He is lovely and chatty. Telling us about ehvareetink and how, in the old days, you had to carriage ehvareetink upa da mountain. He tells us about the history of the place. It was Maria’s family farm and when they decided to turn it into an agriturismo the horror stories of regular caribinieri and police visits trying to throw sticks in his wheels. He talked about the bureaucracy and the challenges of building before the road came up the hill ten years ago. He told us about old folks who walked down the thousand steps every day to town to buy their supplies and then headed back. No one was fat in those days he says, holding up his pinkie.

We thought we’d take a quick walk to Ravello, another hillside town a few kilometres west of here as the crow flies and asked Vincenzo for directions. Walk up the stairs and go left and then you’ll come to the Convento, then keep going into Ravello. Great. Off we go, up the stairs. And up some more stairs and then some more stairs. Huff and puff. The stairs end and we’re not quite sure where to go as there are goat tracks going off in a dozen directions. We pick a track that seems likely and off we go. About ten minutes later the track ends and we don’t know where to go. We start bushwhacking — some of us scrabble up and others scrabble down. The bush is not very friendly. The hillside is covered in vines – very, very prickly vines. The kind of vines that stab you through your jeans and hang on for dear life as another grabs you round the ankle trying to bring you down. The sun was warm so Henri had changed into shorts and Wil was in a t-shirt. It wasn’t long before they both look like they’d both been flayed and were dripping with blood. Oh, are the Ravello natives going to laugh at us when we emerge from the brush, we thought. Frances finally finds a track that looks promising and we head along it ‘til it starts climbing up into a ravine. There is a fat cable leading down into the valley on the left and up, up, up on the right. We follow it up ‘til we find the end bored & knotted into a big tree stump. There are piles of wood, probably last year’s harvest, seasoning on the hillside. Maybe the cable is the wood delivery system into town. We have no luck finding a continuation of the track. The kids head up over the crest of the mountain as Wil and I stand and wait in the ravine. They’re soon back with no luck. Back down the way we came and further still. Not ten feet beyond the spot where we first emerged from the bush onto the track is a fork in the trail with another track, THE track! Oh, how they’re going to laugh, those Ravello-ans. Along the hillside for forty minutes, through a beautiful olive grove, along a little monorail that runs up the side of the hill. Finally some signs of life and then stairs down. More stairs and more stairs. Then narrow, paved walkways and staircases between white-washed buildings, with flashes beyond of sea and sky. Colourful doors, every inch of outdoor space trellissed, pocket gardens full of cabbage and flowering rapini. Madly barking dogs and little lizards flitting out of the way. All the way down into the piazza. The piazza of Minori.

We asked around for bus tickets. Trying to figure out the system and the schedule. We were told to go to the tabacchi so we went and asked. No, I don’t sell tickets, the crabby shopkeeper told us, obviously not feeling the urge to help. Can you tell us where? We ask. At the giornalieri, he responds patently exasperated and not feeling the need to indicate where the giornalieri might be. Lucky for us not ten feet away is the giornalieri who definitely has tickets for us. Where does the bus stop? We ask. Right here, he answers. Right here like, right here in front of the store? Or right here in Minori? These are the kinds of questions one asks oneself a lot in Italy. It becomes very clear that the shopkeepers are willing to answer questions but just one. Then it just gets to be a bit much. We wander back toward the piazza and ask around. The fermata (bus stop) is right here so we wait. Soon enough we’re on the bus to Amalfi with a huge group of high school students coming back from Sorrento. The drive is mind-blowing. The scenery is insanely beautiful. The bus swings around corners revealing tiny hamlets hanging on the cliffside. We’re in Amalfi in no time and walk along the shore and onto the jetty, the end of which is surrounded by cement breakwaters that look like someone was playing a gigantic game of jacks and left them lying around. The next jetty down the coast is surrounded by breakwaters shaped like rounded dice. I wonder whether they do different things to the crashing waves or whether the cement contractor was just a fan of games. Into the town through archways to the fountain and the hulking staircase of the cathedral. The bell tower is all colourful ceramic, the face of the cathedral beautiful (I can’t resist stripes). The tour of the church is well designed, taking you through the cloisters and the chapels and church treasures before you’re allowed the spectacle of the main cathedral.

We soon head back to our little piece of heaven, taking the Minori comune — the local bus which leaves the piazza every hour or so ferrying the locals up the mountainside. Vincenzo comes and chats to us some more. About Italy’s role in the war, about the difficulty of getting anything done in Italy, about the crappy Spanish lemons, about how no one wants to pay the real cost of things anymore and how much pigs should weigh when they’re slaughtered.

Maria makes us a feast. Antipasti di casa — prosciutto, speck, ricotta, sheep’s milk cheese, pitted olives, picked zucca, all amazing, all homemade. A primi of fusilli with tomato sauce with a hearty slice of homemade sausage, followed by a secondi of pork chop with lemon. The kids are in heaven. We’re drinking Vincenzo’s Vino San Vincienz. Dessert is tiramisu in a sundae cup with a little glass of green limoncello. When Vincenzo isn’t bringing us food from the kitchen he sits with his little chihuahua, Honey, in front of a little heater watching a tv mounted high on the wall. He’s enjoying an Italian version of trivial pursuit with a twist. Each contestant stands in a large circle and when they get the answer wrong the floor beneath them drops and they disappear into thin air.

The sheets are crisp linen. The shower is scalding. Sleep comes very fast.

Thursday, March 03, 2016


We spend the day walking around in the pouring rain, finally capitulating and buying some cheap and very tacky umbrellas that proclaim “I LOVE NAPOLI”. Everyone in Napoli seems to own an umbrella and they are all, without exception, better-looking than ours. There is a salesman on every streetcorner and at every metro exit pushing a baby stroller laden with umbrellas and even THEY have nicer umbrellas than ours. We are hunting for a power cable for our laptop. We managed to come to Italy with the wrong one. You try typing a blog on a phone! Again, an interesting adventure in misinformation. We cleverly found a giornale (day) ticket for the bus and metro and we’re using it to check out all the potential mac stores and their neighbourhoods. Napoli has some amazing neighbourhoods. Some are gritty and a bit rough – with tatty laundry on the line and ripped garbage bags strewn all over the street, others are polished to a fine sheen with upscale shopping and not a speck of litter. I think we saw them all and we have compiled a few of the rules that seem to govern Napoli:
  • Helmets should never be attached and should only really be worn if the driver needs to hold an iPhone to his cheek.
  • Three is the maximum number of people allowed on any one scooter, unless two are children in which case the maximum is four.
  • One-way signs are merely a suggestion, as are red lights.
  • The right of way is determined by whomever has the biggest balls and/or the crappier car.
  • Just because a road appears to be too narrow to fit two lanes, one should always try to be sure.
  • The line down the middle of the road is actually a scooter/motorcycle lane.
  • Travelling in the wrong direction on the other side of the median is allowed, providing there is enough room.

Whichever neighbourhood you’re in, there is a marked absence of toilet seats, everyone smokes and the baseline conversation level when outdoors seems to be shouting. The gesticulating is downright comical. Drivers excoriate each other, passengers argue with bus drivers, neighbours shout at each other from balconies, children and parents scream at one another. Hands down the favourite Napoli gesture is the thumb and forefingers pinched, palm and fingers pointing toward the body and a back and forth motion, the faster the motion the more upset the speaker. Runner-up is both hands, thumb and forefingers pinch like holding a harmonica and moving it toward and away from your chest. There is also the open palm turned toward the body which can be waved either toward and away from the face or wagged side to side with fingers wiggling for added effect. Having no audience seems to have no impact as some of the most violent gestures are used when walking down the sidewalk alone while talking on a cellphone.

After our walking tour of Quartieri Spagnoli, Centro storico, spaccanapoli and piazza garibaldi, we finally find the cable in Chiaia. Next is, of course, pizza, and then a tour of the tunnels beneath the city. Once used to mine the lava rock to build the city above, those clever romans built a system of cisterns which were fed with water piped from 70 kilometres away! The walls of the cisterns and channels were lined with lime plaster to render the porous rock impermeable. The system of wells supplied the city’s water for two thousand years but was finally condemned during a cholera epidemic in the 1880s. They were resurrected to be used as air raid shelters in the 40s. Our guide announces with understandable pride that the Napoletanos were the first to kick out the Nazis on their own. The date of liberation that is celebrated by all of Italy is, in fact, Milan’s moment of glory, which came much later than Napoli’s.

We took one of Napoli’s funiculars up the hill to the Vomero neighbourhood for dinner and wandered around with everyone else doing what Italians do in the evening — the passeggiata. Italians like to go out in the evening, not to sit around in the zócalo like the mexicans, but for a stroll — a veeerrry sloooow stroll — so everyone can see and be seen in their smart clothes. Babies are shown off, deals are wheeled, the oldies chew the fat. I targeted the best-dressed one of the bunch and asked him where to go in the ‘hood if we wanted to mangiare bene. He sent us to Donna Teresa’s, a little hole in the wall — the kind of place where you fear opening the door because everyone seated at the five tables is within ten feet of the front door and it’s cold and rainy out. We stood in everyone’s way for five minutes waiting for someone to finish and then they pushed two tables together for us. The walls were covered with paintings of the owners and their daughter (our waitress). There was no menu or wine list. She asked us simply “pasta o zuppa”. The kids got an amazing dish of penne with a simple, perfect tomato sauce, Wil and I gobbled up a bowl of the most delicious bean soup EVER! Plump, buttery white beans in an unbelievably rich broth with some kind of greens. The next choice was “carne o pesce”. Alice asked for fish and the rest of us asked for carne. The waitress explained that we wouldn’t all be getting the SAME carne. Of course not! She appeared not long after with two huge meatballs in tomato sauce for Frances, a hunk of braised meat in tomato sauce for me, a veal scallopini for Henri, Wil got two little lengths of homemade sausage and Alice had a plate of breaded, deep fried anchovies and shrimp. The dishes were tiny, not one extra thing on the plate, but they were perfect and we fed each other little pieces of our dish so we could all taste. Dessert was a wedge of syrupy, chestnut torte. We took turns taking the stairs up around the kitchen to the bathroom to see Teresa, a blonde, stoutish, bespectacled woman in her seventies working all by herself in the kitchen.

Went home wishing I could find the man who gave us the advice so I could thank him for the tip.