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Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Alternative Life - Hitching and Dumpster Diving in Europe

Isn't there a saying that goes it's not what you do, but how you do it? It's all about the style, not the substance? Then one could also say "it's not where you travel, but how you travel."

I'm much changed from that wanderlusting traveller of Europe of 2 years past. And it is easily seen in how I am experiencing Europe in this, my third visit here.
Revisiting Budapest - this photo was from my first visit 3 years ago
Revisiting old Couchsurfing host and friend Gabor "Vandorboy - The Most Travelled Hungarian"
I am still pondering why I returned to Europe after India. The reasons are far too complex to dissect, but the journey itself promised to provide more answers. My lifestyle on the road has reflected the experimental nature of my journey as I have travelled ultra low budget and alternative, through means such as hitchhiking and Couchsurfing.
Thumbs out on the highway!
Hitchhiking with my Budapest sign
Well, now I can add dumpster diving to the list.

It doesn't need much explanation, however, for those who feel more comfortable receiving an unofficial definition, dumpster diving is recovering items, mostly food, that have been thrown out.

The act of throwing something away, or the sight of something in a waste receptacle, whether it is a bruised apple or an old cellphone, is enough for most people to deem it garbage, as in it has no longer any value or use. But most of the time, these items are thrown out for trivial reasons, and are in perfectly good shape.
My dumpster dived food from the Budapest Market Hall!
Not dumpster diving, but a generous  meal offered by a truck driver who picked me up
I dumpster dived only once before while cherry picking in Canada. I recently read an article about a guy in Austin, Texas who made lots of cash recovering discarded electronics, and was now determined to do it again, this time in Europe.

I started dumpster diving in Milano. I found a weekend market and asked in my learned Italian if I could have some slightly bruised oranges discarded by staff. They told me to come back after the market closed, and so I did, and found much more. I found oranges, apples, onions and cauliflower, all with just a few imperfections but perfectly edible. I took them home to my host, who said the food looked just fine, and we cooked them up!

In Budapest my activity picked up a little. I dumpster dived in residential bins recovering some grapes, bread and leafy greens for my host. At another weekend market after closing time, I encountered a few young people receiving loads of veggies directly from the shopkeepers! I approached them, and it turns out they volunteer for Food not Bombs, a non-profit organization with presence in cities all over the globe.

I helped them carry the food to a nearby home which acted as a storage room and kitchen. I couldn't believe how much food was in there! Baskets and bags overflowing with all kinds of vegetables and fruits, as well as donated items like pastas and rices. The next day the volunteers prepared large quantities of bean soup and salad. I got to eat some before helping them transport the food to a public place to serve to homeless people.
Weekly soup kitchen for the homeless and hungry, provided by Food Not Bombs
In Katowice, Poland I revisited an old friend from Moscow who had now become a self-proclaimed freegan. While he has a job, he and his roommate avoids paying for almost anything except the most basic of needs and a few desires. He knows where all the best dumpsters in his city are and, in addition to vegetables and fruit, has found beer, snacks and pastries. He has even struck up deals with business and shop owners for food, including a Lidl, one of the biggest European supermarket brands.
Alternative life = alternative art; Vienna
Cool street art in Katowice, Poland 
At first dumpster diving felt really uncomfortable. I constantly looked around, afraid of being judged by passers-by. But as I kept doing it, and found more edibles and other useful items, I felt enthusiasm coupled with liberation.

I realized that our vanity gets in the way of practicality, and we fear being judged doing things that just make sense. Dumpster diving is a pretty extreme example, but it is reflected in all our decisions, big or small. I often wonder why people wear uncomfortable and impractical clothing so that they can attain favourable judgment from others. Or why some people don't quit their jobs instead of complaining about it all the time?

If it just makes sense, do it! You'll survive.

A part of me definitely wondered if I was going crazy, engaging in an activity that my peers would look down on me for, ostracizing myself from them, and distinguishing myself as a hobo by choice. But now I see that while others may judge me and my actions as revolting, low or desperate, I feel they are noble deeds.

I feel that I have put my faith in human kindness to guide me safely along the highways of Europe. And that I have kept to my core environmental values through dumpster diving and hitchhiking, by reducing my impact on the food and transportation system to near invisible. Lastly, these actions are a political statement bringing awareness to the excess food waste in society.

These daily realizations are slowly forming the answer of why I am journeying through Europe again, like a fog clearing on the road before me. Hopefully with every ride I hitch, the further I explore the mental map of my mind.
A reunion with Enzo from Sadhana Forest in India! Now a vegan chef in agritourism Solimago in Italy
My amazing host Emma in Milano, with my hitchhiking sign
Cycling in Vienna with Marcus, whom I met volunteering at Sadhana Forest, India
A visit to the well preserved and beautiful Krakov, old town
How do you like my sketch of the Duomo in Milano?

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Hitchhiking and Ecovillage-ing in Italy

After getting a lot of advice recently about hitchhiking in Italy, I reasoned that while it’s not easy, it's not impossible – just be prepared to wait!

After chickening out one week ago due to rain, I didn't let the rain stop me the morning I departed Roma for Firenze (Florence). And it was raining even harder this time! 
My fancy hitchhiking sign for Florence
After quite an adventurous morning – evading the transit officer, walking through wet streets, construction sites, and soggy grass fields, and battling cold gusts of wind, laced with sideways rain – I reached the gas station along the highway rest stop.

Before I could even enter the rest stop, a police car approached me on the highway shoulder. Thankfully the cops waved me to keep walking when they realized I only spoke English. I encountered yet further protests by the attendants at the gas station. After some argument, I relented, and merely hovered a few metres from the station, waving my “Firenze” sign to motorists at the rest stop.

After about an hour, the cashier waved me over – she found a truck driver willing to take me further down the highway. After all the resistance of the morning from the weather and people alike, I was enthused to receive the cooperation of the staff. The truck driver took me 45 minutes to another rest stop, as we managed droplets of conversation with eachother in my limited Italian.

At the next rest stop I got really lucky to get a ride in just 5 minutes! And this ride was really great. My driver spoke decent English and we engaged in animated conversation. Alessandro was the manager of a sports centre near Roma, loved mountains and skiing, and wanted to make Canada his next vacation destination. He also loved speed, participating in an annual motorcycle race from Paris to Dakar, Senegal for the past 10 years.
In the passenger seat of a truck bound for Florence
Powered on that same passion for speed, Alessandro's luxury Volvo launched us to Firenze in just 1.5 hours, averaging 140 km/h. From the time I started hitchhiking just outside Roma, it took under 4 hours to reach Firenze, in what would normally take about 2.5 hours to drive. Not bad!
Satisfied, I rewarded myself in Firenze by dining on pizza and wine. Then I moved on via public transit to my next fabled destination...

Village of the Elves

Later that evening, deep in the countryside of the ancient Roman empire, I walked along a hilly country road, guided by the light of the moon. I felt like an island, lost and scared with no help available in the sparsely habituated hills while darkness settled around me - the village lights dazzling in the valley below might as well be distant stars.

I encountered a church and some homes with the lights on inside. With some creative use of Italian and hand gestures, they were able to point me where to go. I backtracked a little, onto a dark forested driveway I previously walked past and hardly noticed. Twenty minutes and a few more bouts of dark-stricken anxiety later, I rounded a hill, and wandered back into civilization …

I made it to Elfi! And just in time for dinner too.
The beautiful countryside seen from Elfi
Elfi, also known as Village of the Elves, is an ecovillage near Pistoia in Tuscany, the region famous for wine and food.

Elfi consists of a network of around 15 villages totaling around 300 permanent residents. My village, Avalon, is the most accessible of them all, and serves as the entry point to the rest of Elfi.
Avalon is situated on the side of a hill, about 300 m up, with a view of the valley below, cut into neat rectangles of olive groves and flat fields, stretching far into the horizon, where the grey lumps of distant hills give rise. Avalon consists of several acres of olive trees. There is also a garden, greenhouse, and a few food producing animals.
And a teepee!
The main building is a large old brick house, with a recent generic extension, providing at least 10 bedrooms, including dormitories for guests. Avalon has the most amenities of any Elfi village as it is the only one, I hear, with electricity. It is used for lighting only the kitchen, heating water, and for powering tools. Besides this, however, the people of Avalon mainly live off the land, with few outside inputs.

Wood is gathered and chopped to power the cooking stoves and fireplace. Besides the kitchen, all rooms are candle lit. All water is sourced from the local well, which is potable. And there is no Wifi!
In Elfi, making toilet is even more primitive than Sadhana Forest, where I volunteered in India. One goes to the orchard and, with a hand shovel, digs a hole, does the business, then closes the hole back up! 
The main house
The kitchen
The dining and living room, complete with fireplace and lots of instruments
And the people? Well, they’re pretty great. Kind, gentle and humble is how I would describe them. They know how to get along in a really close community where people really depend on, cooperate with, and give eachother the same respect and care as with the land in which they steward. Each village is egalitarian and makes decisions and solves conflicts by gathering and discussing in circles. 

Many of the people are artistically and musically talented and spend lots of time refining their crafts and passions. On Women's Day, a group of the residents gathered mimosas, and went to sell bundles of the flowers, and busk with their accordions and guitars in a nearby town.

Back home, the vegetarian meals they prepared were really tasty, consisting of salads, pastas and soups, containing lots of beans, and laced with lots of spices, perfect olive oils and vinegars. When I stayed with them, they were still using preserves canned from last autumn, meaning they were mostly self-sufficient in food. They needed to purchase a few fresh vegetables from outside to get through the winter. Oh, and lots of coffee!
People, young and old, hanging out, playing music, sewing things...
Rows of bee hives!
Anyone is welcome to visit and relax at Avalon for up to 2 weeks, giving donation at the end. Those interested in becoming a resident must visit and spend time at all of the villages, and gain unanimous approval from each village. It's a process in which new members require a full understanding of the lifestyle and commitment to the tight knit community that exists.

But it's a process that is very rewarding to those seeking closer ties to nature and community, and an alternative to the superficiality and utter dependence on jobs and economy that exists in modern society.

I stayed only a few full days at Avalon. It was still quite a bit windy and cold, and there wasn’t much work to be done at the moment. Also most of the conversation was in Italian.

However, it’s the kind of place I would come back to stay longer, in order to make a more meaningful contribution to the community and connection to individuals. I would need to brush up on my Italian first.
The Italian countryside stretching beyond Elfi

Monday, 2 March 2015

Tiamo Italia!

Buongiorno dalla Roma!

I have already surpassed my original plan to stay in Italy for 2 weeks, and I have at least one week to go. I'm having a great time and finding reasons to stay longer at every stop along the way.

This is my first time visiting southern Italy. I first landed in Roma and spent a few days soaking in the atmosphere, every narrow street and cobble of stone oozing history from its weathered surfaces. I was instantly stunned and comforted by the realization that a large city like Roma could be so quiet and pedestrian friendly, a welcome contrast from India.

In a suburb of Roma, my Couchsurfing hosts, Marco and Kuei, took me to the kickoff meeting of their community garden, topped off with a potluck serving sausage panini, wine and home baked cakes.
My favourite plaza in the whole world - Piazza Navona in Roma
Then I moved south to Napoli, with its impressive churches sprinkled around every turn and corner of its ancient curving streets. During the annual Carnivale, the food event Chocoland filled an entire street with booths serving chocolate based sweets. It took a lot of self control not to buy only a small bundle of pistacchio truffles and sugared pineapple.

In the end I did not go to Pompeii, as I chose to accompany my Couchsurfing host, Antonio, rock climbing on the Amalfi Coast (I personally did not climb). On the drive though, I had a pretty special view of Mt. Vesuvius.
A smaller, cheaper, and much less touristy colosseum - near Napoli
Mount Vesuvius overlooking Pompeii and the Napoli region
The gorgeous Amalfi Coast, near Napoli
After Napoli was Sicilia (Sicily). I heard this island was beautiful and wild, compared to the rest of Italy, but I still underestimated how amazing this place was.

Palermo, in the northwest of Sicily, was once the capital of a kingdom that dominated southern Italy, extending, at times, as far north as Napoli. This beautiful city is guarded by towering hills, nudged up to the soft sea, and boasts many churches, palaces and monuments with a melting pot of architectural styles from its past rulers, the Arabs, Greeks and Normans. As a result, Palermo is steeped in history, and it can be felt in the air like magic.
One of many hills that watch over Palermo's seaside
Mosaics glitter on the ceiling of Palermo's most impressive church - Chiesa Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio
My Couchsurfing host here, Gill, filled me in on the amazing history of Palermo, pointing out what attractions to visit. He also gave me tips on hitchhiking in Italy. I was all ready to hitchhike the morning after, but my early energy and hopes were extinguished as soon as I walked out into the pouring rain. I decided to take the bus instead.

On the east coast of Sicily, the city Siracusa (Syracuse) is highlighted by Ortigia, an island town that extends like an arm into the Mediterranean Sea. Picture all the look and charm of Venice, but without the canals and it's still something special. I took a bicycle ride with my Couchsurfing hosts, Helene and Dino, along the seaside path. Back in Ortigia, I had a picnic with wine, bread, cheese, sausage, and olives while the sea crashed into the city walls below me, and seagulls fluttered in the wind.
There's no feeling like riding a bicycle in a new city - especially in a place like old town Ortigia in Sicilia!
A classic Italian picnic, with some Kurt Vonnegut, on the seaside
In Ortigia, I happened to walk into an office run by The Hub, an international organization setting up coworking spaces for social entrepeneurs. A very nice guy, Vincenzo, befriended me and showed me around the office as we discussed social initiatives in Italy and Canada.

He then connected me with Manuela, my host in Catania, which lies under sleepy Mount Etna, Europe's largest active volcano. Manuela travelled for almost 12 years before she decided to settle down back in her hometown, finding work at The Hub Catania. Like me, she used to keep earthworms under her kichen sink!

It was nice meeting and connecting with young, energetic community minded locals again. And as insignificant as this may seem, it was also nice doing little favours for my Couchsurfers in Siracusa - cooking a meal for them, moving furniture, and giving computer tips. It's been so long since I've been of any use in any way at all to anyone (except for Sadhana), I forgot what it felt like. This forgotten feeling left behind an emptiness that began creeping into my conscience many months ago in India. I guess that not being needed can make one feel lonely, without purpose, even nonexistent.
The view of Ortigia from my CS host's flat, complete with rainbow
An antique market in Catania, with Mt Etna in the background
Italy restored more than just my own feeling of significance. It reawakened my soul to a romantic culture and renewed my senses with pleasure - particularly my sense of taste.

Of course, the main reason I chose to come to Italy (besides the cheap $320 CAD flight) after India, was... the food! The contrast between different cuisines couldn't be more evident than between these two countries.

Indian cuisine is exploding with intensity and heat. I absolutely loved the flavours and spices of the curries, samosas and dosas, and sipped tea like it was water. But I feasted on just a few varieties of sweets and generally avoided baked goods, especially from the many places calling themselves "German bakeries." I can count on one hand the number of Kingfishers and Indian whiskeys I drank all trip. And after a few months, I couldn't look at a thali, the standard dish of India, swimming with different shades of yellow on white rice.

On the other hand, Italian cuisine has soothed my tongue with its rich and finely crafted flavours, easily appreciated with every slow and tingling second of time. Every morsel of pasta and pizza is exciting, every bite of sweets satisfying, and every sip of wine blissful. What India lacked most, Italy has revived in my withered palette - cheese, bread, olive oil, coffee and wine!
Pasta alla squid ink. Seriously
This purple cauliflower is twice the size of the normal yellow ones!
It didn't take me long to realize how narrow my scope of Italian cuisine was, especially regarding sweets. In fact, gelato aside, there are a huge variety of "dolci" which are among the best in the world! Some of my favourite sweets contained ricotta cream, such as cannoli, or are sprinkled with pistacchios, such as white chocolate truffles.
This collection of popular characters and quirky objects are - you guessed it - chocolate! Chocoland, Napoli
I could go on and on about the food... but Italy has also exceeded my expectations in many other ways.

This time I have had much more success finding Couchsurfing hosts than in my past visit, and they have been nothing short of amazing. They have sheltered me, fed me, showed me local experiences, and endeared me to Italian culture.

They taught me how to talk with my hands the way Italians do. They explained the various ways in which the infamous mafia invisibly affects the machinations of daily life and politics in Italy. They lamented at how most Italians don't speak English and are close minded, while I argued that they have so much to be proud of at home, so much that is imitated by other countries, that many are quite content not travelling and discovering other cultures (not that I'm fully supporting this).
Not sure if this is Italian culture or just weird, but this guy carries a cat on his shoulder everywhere he goes
Another aspect of their culture that is beautiful is their language. Being around my hosts and listening to them talk, I have fallen in love with "la bella lingua!"

Italian really is a very musical language and is both interesting and funny to learn. For example, the simple act of adding "issimo" emphasizes an adjective - "bellissimo" is very "bella", or beautiful. Italian words are similar to French and Spanish making it relatively easy to learn compared to, say, Hindi.

When I'm not spending time with my hosts, one of my favourite pastimes is simply walking around. Italy's cities are very well preserved, feel as old as time itself and, by historical design, have inviting plazas and pedestrian friendly streets.

In India's cities, on the other hand, I felt under constant tension with my surroundings. India's public realm is uninspiring, unsettling and suffocating, providing no peace and quiet. I always felt watched or targeted by the locals, like an animal at a zoo. And I suffered from the strain of the obviously inequality, living like a king while an ocean of poverty surrounded my island of content.

In Italy I felt relieved to be able to walk around in anonymity. And to have space for quiet contemplation, and just breathing.
A typical feature during lovely walks in Italy - this palace is in one of Napoli's main square
Graffiti - or street art - is one characteristic of the lawlessness that rules Sicily
Only a few things have held me back from having a more extraordinary time. It has rained more in 2 weeks in Italy than in 5 months in India, cooping me up inside more than I would have liked. My hosts in Sicily told me it's been especially rainy this winter. Also, I have terrible luck in going to specific restaurants or attractions only to find that they are closed - maybe half the time this happened! As a tourist this is frustrating, but I respect that Italians love to relax and enjoy life instead of opening their businesses for such long hours.

Maybe my luck with these things will change when I head back to northern Italy. They say that north and south Italy are like different countries but I haven't really noticed much of a difference yet.

I have behaved a lot like a tourist so far, unable to restrain my wallet against the temptations of food and grand churches. But I will begin taking steps towards my realization of becoming a low budget traveller again, as I look to stop in an ecovillage in central Italy, then on to visit friends. I also plan on self-imposing a ban on added sugars - but only once I leave Italy :)
Cause if I keep eating sugar at this rate, I'll end up like these guys in a crypt in Napoli