I rush-booked my holiday to Sicily in a period of anxiety and didn't realise the beautiful hotel I was staying at was actually in a tiny village over 90 mins outside of the main city, and the public transport was notoriously unreliable. I jumped off the bus and dragged my suitcase through empty, pastel-coloured streets lit up by the bright afternoon sun, sweat dripping down my back. At the hotel, an old woman greeted me from the top of the stairs and showed me to my room.
That first afternoon, I hired a bike and started making my way to the nearest nature reserve. A dark car slowed down and the driver said something in Italian.
'Sorry, English,' I replied.
'Ah, coffee?' he asked.
He continued to talk in Italian.
Useless words in Turkish and Spanish popped up in my head. I did not know a single word in Italian. I also did not have much patience for this guy. He was clearly trying to romance me but he had a baby seat in the back.
'No, sorry, bye,' I replied as I quickly cycled off.
The journey to the nature reserve was over 30 minutes and when I got there, I found the gates closed. Nonetheless, I got a decent bike ride out of it - south Sicily was pretty enough - and sunset was due in almost an hour which didn't leave me much time to explore anyway.
The next morning, I decided I was going to visit Taormina, a charming small town atop a mountain north of Catania, the nearest main city. But I quickly learnt the first bus into the city left at 7am and the next one was at 4pm. The next train was around 2pm and it was 3 hour journey meaning I would not have much time to explore comfortably if I was to catch the last train back. I couldn't believe it. I knew there wasn't anything to do in the village and felt stranded, my regret at not having researched the area thoroughly increasing by the minute.
I decided to bike it to the nearest town Syracuse. It was 1 hour and 15 minutes according to Google map. I remembered cycling over two hours in the scorching heat to visit a museum in Bali five years ago. 'I can do this,' I thought. I cycled for around half an hour and then decided to hitchhike. My left hand was hurting from the ridged rubber handle which left a small welt on my palm.
Countless cars drove by; the drivers and passengers looking at me expressionlessly. Eventually, a couple of tanned guys stopped. They didn't speak a word of English but seemed open to helping me. I told them I wanted to go to Syracuse, ideally to catch a train to Taormina. I don't know what the driver's response was but I'm guessing it was something like, 'I don't know how we'll fit your bike in my car,' so I backed away and said 'scusa', one of four Italian words I learnt over the past 24 hours. But he seemed to want to help. I heard them speak Arabic to each other as they fiddled around with the back seats. Somehow, they managed to squash the bike into the boot. The passenger, Ibrahim squeezed himself into the back and I sat comfortably and gratefully at the front. I whipped out my phone. Google translate was about to become my best friend once again.
'You came to Italy and you don't speak a word of Italian?' asked Mustapha, the driver.
I burst out laughing. 'I'm only here for five days.'
Coincidentally, Mustapha was going to Syracuse too. He dropped Ibrahim outside a small bar where his car was parked. We had a quick drink - a small glass of sambuca for Mustapha and some weird orange fizz for me - and then we were off.
Mustapha took me to the train station at Syracuse where I struggled to communicate with the ticket office man. Mustapha told me he was going to call his friend Carmen who was Canadian-Italian. I wasn't sure why but speaking into the Translate app to find out seemed like a lot of work so I left it him to it. A moment later, he pushed his phone towards me. I didn't quite know what to say but then ended up blurting out my struggles of getting to Taormina.
Carmen had moved to Sicily from Toronto almost two years ago. He lived in a small town called Pacchino where his father was from and spoke fluent Italian. Carmen patiently looked up train times and relayed them back to me. He offered to help in any other way he could and we swapped details.
In the end, I decided to leave Taormina for the day as there just wouldn't have been enough time for me to explore before the last train back. And time limits tended to make me anxious, reducing the quality of my experiences. Carmen told me he had been to the small town many years ago and was meaning to visit. In fact, his mum had asked him recently if he had visited it yet.
Five minutes after we said goodbye, he messaged to ask if we all wanted to go Taormina together the next day. He had a car and could pick me up from my hotel. 'Yes!' I cried, elated. 'I'd love that!'
Mustapha and I spent the rest of the afternoon driving around Syracuse and wandering around Ortigia - nothing special there - and then going to an Indian place for lunch where I ordered a chicken salad. A 57 year old woman named Anna sat on the table next to us. She was eating a saucy chicken curry with pitta bread, making me regret the salad. Anna spoke good English and it was a secret relief to be able to have a conversation with someone without Google translate. Anna thought Mustapha and I were a couple.
'I've only known him a few hours; I don't speak any Italian and he doesn't speak any English,' I told her.
She was impressed. She told me she had travelled to India, Nepal and Japan. Now I was impressed, especially as I had a curiosity for the far east.
Anna was a practicing Buddhist and I ended up confiding in her that I was lacking anchor in life and searching for something that grounded me. She said she had a Buddhist friend in London who she thinks I should get in touch with and gave me his number.
I decided to pay the bill for the both of us to thank Mustapha for the life and the company. He protested at first but I insisted. If he hadn't decided to stop his car and pick me up, I would've spent a long time coming to Syracuse and wandering this boring town by myself. I was grateful.
On the way back to Avola, Mustapha said he wanted to show me where he lived. His family owned a farm in Castible - it was gifted to his father by a really rich Italian man. I was a little tired and ready to chill out in my hotel room but accepted his offer. We stopped at an old building that his father had restored. I sensed Mustapha was trying to really emphasise something here but it was getting lost in translation. He pointed at the plaque above the entrance which didn't mean anything to me. After some time, we drove to his farm and parked outside his house. He told me they grew potatoes, olives and a few other things. A car drove up the dirt road slowly towards us. It was his sister.
'Let's go in and have a coffee with your sister,' I joked.
'She isn't expecting anyone,' he replied.
We drove back to Avola, had another drink - an oolong tea for me and two glasses of sambuca for Mustapha - and then I was back at my hotel.
The next day, Carmen picked me up from my hotel at 8.25am. I asked him what he did for a living and he said he preached god's words. I thought he was joking. A few seconds later, I realised he wasn't. Carmen was a solo-missionary. He broke his leg about eight years ago, was sofa-ridden for several months where he had loads of time to reflect on the errors of his way (i.e. chasing money, women and fancy cars), quit his well-paid job as a pharmaceutical-construction manager, got baptised, moved to Italy, set up base in his dad's old house and travelled around Europe spreading god's words. I had never met anyone like him before. Mustapha sat quietly in the back throughout the 90 minute drive while Carmen shared how he was resilient to submitting to god at first, especially over quitting his job which he had strived for for over 16 years, but in the end, gave in and it was the best thing he had ever done. Now he was at peace with himself and he travelled all over Europe sharing the love. His next big trip was in a few weeks - he was going to Serbia for three months.
The three of us - a journalist, a farmer and a solo-missionary - walked all around Taormina, a small town atop a steep mountain with a striking view of snow-capped Mount Etna. Eventually we got a little tired and decided to find a cafe for some Italian lemonade, although we ended up ordering coffee instead. Mustapha ordered some kind of a beer. I shared my anxieties with Carmen, about not feeling grounded and wanting to run away to either India or China for six months, maybe a year. He said I would make a good missionary because I was willing to travel from one country to another easily. A part of me was hoping he'd share some wise words about what to do in my time of uncertainty.
Later, I suggested we visit Isola Bella, a tiny nature reserve island that we could walk to in 30 mins. I planned on paying the bill for all of us to say thank you to Mustapha for bringing us together and to Carmen for driving us all the way here but Mustapha had secretly paid the bill earlier.
The beach that led to Isola Bella was pretty. Mustapha decided to stay on the mainland while Carmen and I waded through the low tide to Isola Bella. The small island was not open to visitors, probably because it was out of season. Visitors could only hang around the beach entrance. I was a little disappointed because I wanted to climb all over and 'conquer' her. Carmen and I sat on a step in the shade, watched people on the mainland and talked some more. He told me he had come across people who had been possessed or were inflicted with the wrath's of spirits. I asked him what he thought of me and my situation.
'I'll be frank with you, god is calling you,' he said.
That's not what I wanted to hear. I had distanced myself from religion eight years ago and did not want to go back, especially in a period of struggle. I noticed a topless South Asian guy on the beach. He walked through the water and came to Isola Belle. Another South Asian guy joined him, probably his brother. After a while, Carmen and I decided to return. I stepped into the cold water and noticed several salmon-coloured flowers floating around.
'Are these jellyfish?'
Carmen didn't think they were but there were too many, and upon close inspection, I noticed they were quite flesh-like.
'Don't worry, they won't sting ya,' said the topless guy from ten metres behind me. He was still on island.
'How do you know?'
'They don't sting.'
'Well if they do, someone is going to need to pee on me,' I laughed, remembering an episode of Friends.
'That won't be me!' he cried.
I splashed through the water - the opposite of how I had arrived on the islet - keen to avoid the jellyfish which seemed to be gathering around my legs. The hem of my cotton dress soaked up the sea water. We made it to the beach on the mainland and dried ourselves on the small pebbly sand.
The topless guy joined us a few minutes later. Conversation ensued. His name was Jordan, he was from Scotland and here for a three week stint while making bombs for the military. His companion, who was his colleague, joined us, as well as another tall, blond guy. We sat on the beach and Carmen started sharing his wise words about Christianity while Jordan played devil's advocate.
A couple of old Chinese women approached us and asked if we wanted a massage. Carmen politely declined. The lady saw mild interest in my eyes and swooped down on me. I had recently acquired some upper back pain and was in need of a massage. I had decided I was going to get a massage at least once a month as a preventive measure of jogging-related injuries.
'How much?' I asked.
'10' she said.
'And how long for?'
She drew the number 15 on the sand.
She quickly pulled down my kimono and the straps of my dress, exposing my bare upper back and got to work. Carmen and Jordan conversed over me as I sat with my eyes closed in between them. Towards the end of the massage, I asked Carmen to ask the woman of I had any knots on my back. A few weeks earlier, I had a sports massage done and the guy said I had a big knot next to my right shoulder blade. He worked on it, making the spot sore but not quite getting rid of it completely. The lady said yes and offered a small pack of heat pads. I accepted and suddenly the price jumped from €10 to €20. I had accepted beforehand that I may overspend on things while on holiday and paid without a fuss.
After some time, we all got up, said our goodbyes - and then started walking in the same direction. Conversation naturally continued, a little sporadic at first due to the uncertainty of a new relationship and then smoothly. The guys wanted to go and have some lunch and Jordan asked if we wanted to join. I wasn't hungry, neither was Carmen, but I wanted to hang out with them so we both said we'd probably order a drink or something.
We started walking along the cliff side, not knowing exactly where we were going. After a 20 minute detour which led to a broken down hotel, we backtracked on ourselves and returned to the same spot we had started from and decided to stick with the restaurant there. I ended up sitting in between James and Jordan. I asked about their work and they said they were doing tests to track submarines using sonic waves. Apparently Russian submarines constantly entered British waters which they weren't allowed to do but there wasn't anything Britain could do besides keep track. An attack would mean war.
'How do these tests impact marine life?' I asked, knowing the answer.
'It's not good,' replied Jordan. 'You'll see bodies of fish just dropping.'