Island of Islands

On Ischia, island of flowers, garbage piles in the streets. In some places, it has not been picked up in a week, in two. It is not so obvious in the places that are frequented by tourists, but if you wind down the backroads, stepping careful on the wide black paving stones, you’ll see it — trash — wedged behind grates and bursting out of double-ply plastic bags. You will certainly smell it. The island is separated from teeming, stinking, wonderful Naples by stretches of blue water, by ferry boats, but Ischia is still Naples, and if Naples has a garbage problem, Ischia has a garbage problem. And by garbage problem, I mean that Naples has a problem with organized crime.

On Ischia, island of flowers, I swim every single day. Floating on my back under jewel –toned sky, I think about how I want to swim every single day of my life, and not in a pool. In Lap Swim. In a single lane. At that point, you might as well not even swim.

I take the bus on a sweltering, cloudless day to the tiny town of Ischia Ponte which has one street, one church, two open-air restaurants, a fountain in the square, pastel tile, fishing nets, a store selling English-language books, and a castle.

The castle is built on a rock that is connected to the island by a narrow strip of pavement that I walk, heavy-shouldered and sucking down bottle after bottle of water. On either side of the pavement in the water, people swim. Families in tattered swim suits shout at each other and splash, hop off the rocks and squeal, or just sit in the sun, motionless, dripping with sweat. There isn’t even breeze.

I pay admission and pack into an elevator with six German tourists and an instant later, I am at the top. The universe spreads itself out below — Naples in miniature, Sorrento balancing precarious on its cliff, Vesuvius looming dark under its veil of smog and clouds — and blue water between.

I am not sad, but something settles, a kind of malaise. I want to see the castle because you can’t come here and not see the castle — this tiny dot that’s been wrested from hand to hand, from nation to nation, since people walked upright and could string a bow. But at the same time, I want to maybe go back to Naples to wander in its seedy little souvenir shops, to use my fractured Italian with its amiable fish sellers, to sit quiet and lazy and still under the gilded arches of its churches, to flirt with its ever-game population of excitable young men. Or maybe I just want to swim, to take the bus around the tiny ring road, to get off where it seems calm, to let the tangle of kids and day trippers and locals swarm around me, to get more tanned, more burned, to trace new stripes across my body. But I stay at the castle. This is, I tell myself, today’s civic lesson. Today’s attempt at Travel as Education.

I am an unwilling student and the sun does not help. I walk the tiny paths around the castle, sweating through the layers of my clothes. I stop to rest in the chapel, under the branches of an olive tree, behind a low stone wall, in any shady spot that will have me. Finally, I reach the convent.

The dormitories have been converted into a luxury hotel and are closed to the wandering public, but the place I want to see has not. The convent was once home to an order of nuns who believed that the living should be continually reminded of their journey back to the earth. When one of the nuns died, the others would place the body in a cell sitting upright on a special stone seat that had been fitted with a hole for drainage. Then the nuns would pray in the cells, day after day as the body decomposed. The rotting corpses often spread disease, leading to more deaths.

Of course, these cells are all I want to see. Because I want to see proof that such mania, such pure human nuttiness, was real. Using the printed map, I make my way down a narrow staircase into one of the cells. It has been whitewashed and swept and whitewashed again, undoubtedly to reassure squeamish tourists. It is lit with a single lamp set into the ceiling as though it were a designer kitchen showroom and is, by all accounts, hygienic. So there is nothing, really, to account for what happens next.

I freak out.

The feeling that rises is not so much one of panic, but of shear terror, as though I’ve just emerged into a torture chamber with blood splattered across the walls and not an entirely neat little room that could double as a cheery wine cellar. I have trouble breathing, thinking. All I know is that I must get out. I scramble up the stairs as though I’m being chased and am spit up into the sunshine, safe.

Disoriented, I follow the signs toward the exit, canceling my plans to see the other side of the rock, to chase more sun-drenched views, more cascades of flowers. I am grateful when I am joined by other tourists in the elevator, when I walk back to Ischia Ponte, surrounded by cloudless sky, by shouting children, by the stink of garbage, proof of life.

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