The bus wheezed, exhaling deeply before coming to a stop. My traveling companion and sister, Lara, glanced at me with a look that said, “What’s going on?”.
We had arrived in Ischia earlier that day, and had spent the day exploring the island. The port, or El Punto, was busy, tourists, mopeds, and taxis all trying to find their way. We purchased bus passes, and got on the C bus which went by our hostel. It was crowded, but the driver was good-humored and took it all in stride with his easy grin. He was middle-aged, his hair peppered with gray, his forehead creased, a sure result of his smile, his skin was a dark tan, and his eyes were a deep brown that seemed to light up when he laughed or made a joke. I worked my way up to the driver.
The driver turned.
“Yes.” He answered with a thick Italian accent and a warm grin.
“Could you tell us when we near the Ostello?”
“Yes of course, no problem.”
The driver navigated the narrow streets deftly, at every turn narrowly avoiding disaster. He would honk at people he recognized as we passed, the horn beeping a shrill hello. After awhile the crowd began to thin, and he soon alerted us when we came to our stop. We said thank you and climbed off the bus.
The youth hostel where we were staying was situated at a place where the road passed two hundred feet above the sea. It had advertised direct access to the sea, which we came to discover, meant a long walk down the cliff on a steep dirt path that zig-zagged back and forth across the face of the cliff. Once at the bottom, there was a short walk down a path that led to the beach. The trail passed alongside a fenced soccer plaza. Ten middle-aged men were playing futból, reliving their days of youth and glory with each strike of the ball. We stopped and watched for a while. One of the men was rudely brought back to reality when he went to kick the ball, and instead of striking the ball, caught his toe on the turf. My sister and I decided it was time to move on.
Ischia is one of many volcanic islands that are situated off the coast of Italy surrounding Naples. Capri is its sister island. The emperors Augustus and Tiberius had loved the two islands, Augustus favoring Ischia, while Tiberius actually lived on Capri for a time. Ischia was one stop on our two-week backpacking tour of Italy. We had already covered Venice, Florence, Lucca, Pisa, and Naples. When we had left the port of Naples earlier, the clouds threatened rain. As our ferry pulled away from the docks, I looked back at Vesuvius, the peak covered in a gray fume. As our ferry approached the island, the clouds that had seemed so menacing before broke, the sun burning them away.
Now, at the beach, the sea was fitful, the waves unleashing their fury on the rocks and sand, and although the clouds had not given rain, the wind was punishing. I tried to swim, but the effort was futile, waves negating any progress that I made. I decided to enjoy the view with my sister. It was close to seven, and the sun was beginning to set. As it fell, a front of clouds seemed to attack from the right, while to the left of the sun, the sky was clear. Almost a battle, the sun dividing the antagonists. We stood for a while longer, each of us deep in thought, and then turned to head back the way we had come.
At the top of the cliff, we looked back at the sea. The clouds had shifted, the sun had fallen lower. Change so slight. The view was breathtaking. Although the meeting of the clouds with clear sky had been beautiful, the sun had been simply white and mostly hidden. Now the sun was revealed. A thin layer of clouds hung above the sun in a long string, veiling the tip. As the sun slowly dipped to its sleep, the hue changed from a golden to an orange, orange to a red, and as time moved, even though it seemed to stand still, the red passed to blood. I stood frozen, afraid that any movement, any noise would cause this to disappear, afraid the magic would break.
Yet, in this fear, I knew that I had to take a picture. I slowly raised my camera, setting it on a post for support, and changed the setting to a slow shutter speed to allow as much light in as possible.
We stood there as long as the sun. Not being able to afford any of the island tours, we decided to try to tour the island on one of the public transportation buses. We had purchased passes for 5 euros each and did not want them to go to waste. This driver was younger than our first, but was the drivers were the same in almost every other aspect. He too honked at passersby he recognized. He too had an easy grin, and a dark tan, and even though his eyes were blue, they too did the same dance when he laughed. Friendliness seemed to be a trademark of the bus drivers. The streets on the island were lined with pastel-colored houses and restaurants and were barely wide enough for two cars to pass. At times the road would wind around a mountain, the bus hugging the rocks. Bus driving is a skilled profession in Ischia.
The driver had pulled to the side of the road. With our limited Italian and his limited English we came to understand that this was his last stop. He was very friendly but neither of us really understood what the other was saying. It was nine and getting dark. And even though we were used to walking long distances, neither of us were interested in walking the three or four miles back to the hostel. Then I realized what the driver was saying. This was his last stop, but he would resume his route at nine-thirty. We both breathed a sigh of relief. We stepped off the bus. I asked Lara if she wanted to walk a little, but she said she would stay near the bus. She asked that I not go far.
I walked a little ways down the road, and stepped up on a rock wall that guarded vehicles from a five hundred foot drop down a cliff. Down the road a small town could be seen, the lights glowing in the dusk.
At nine-thirty the driver resumed his route. We got off one stop before our hostel to walk the rest of the way. The night air was salty and chilly, but refreshing. I breathed deeply, laughing about our panic on the bus. We stopped at a little pizzeria. A kindly gentleman led us inside and took our orders. I had bruschetta, Lara had gelato. Wine bottles lined the walls, pictures of the local regulars covered the wood-paneling, wooden tables and chairs were set neatly throughout the restaurant.
We had a tight schedule and had to leave the island the next day for Capri, but even in this short time we had come to love the island. Birthed in ash and fire, the island seemed mystical, and it could be felt. When you looked at it, the sun, the sea, the mountains, the narrow streets, and small houses, for some reason, there was something that made you doubt that this island was a part of the world you had left behind.