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The Li Gallis - Home of the Deadly Sirens

No-Man’s Lands: One Man’s Odyssey through The Odyssey

Excerpt from Chapter 8

“Help! I Need Somebody!”

AS A SOLITARY TRAVELER, WITH A BACKPACK AND NO SET PLANS, you place your trust in help – from other travelers, from locals, from the gods.

“It doesn’t matter,” you say to yourself. “There’s always room for one more – no matter how busy the town, how crowded the resort, how inauspicious the time of year, how late or unexpected my arrival, there will always be one more room for me, and I will always manage to find it.”

If you think about it, you are also saying “The room will cost a price I am willing to pay and will be in an area I consider at least minimally safe.” You probably make several dozen other presumptions, growing increasingly specific, and if you thought it through, the prospect of finding an acceptable room might turn daunting.

Thus you don’t think it through – you show up, with your backpack and your guidebooks; you walk the streets and hope to find the tourist office; you discuss the destination with your fellow travelers aboard train and bus and ferry. Above all, you trust: there’s always room for one more. And usually there is.

So when I took the train from Trapani [toward the Aeolian islands] it didn’t worry me that I hadn’t lined up a place to stay. In fact, I had not yet even chosen which island to visit, so my research inconclusively filled a couple hours as the north coast of Sicily slid by the train windows: cedars, apartments, blue and white fishing boats pulled up on rocky shores, and an occasional smattering of palm umbrellas.

By the time I started seeing the Aeolians offshore I was still considering the archipelago, weighing various options; I had made no decision when I got off the train in Milazzo, the port city on the northeast-Sicilian shore, visited almost exclusively by people catching ferries.

Red-faced Shouting Italians

The train dumped me into a madhouse of red-faced, shouting Italians pulling huge suitcases behind them and carrying snorkeling gear. This was July, high season. Like most Europeans, Italians take their vacation time seriously, and island beaches are just as attractive to them as to anyone else. Even Mediterraneans like a Mediterranean vacation.

Different companies sell tickets out of different offices to different ferries, which depart for different islands from different piers, according to sometimes-accurate schedules that are sometimes posted in sometimes easily viewed places in offices that are always about to close. Thus when I tumbled off the train I joined a noisy throng, fighting for positions on shuttle buses, from there rushing to the waterfront en masse, crashing like waves against the doors of various ferry offices, some of which closed for lunch in our faces.

The time for choice had arrived, and in the crush I made it fast. I chose the first ferry out.

The Maltese Island of Gozo
Maltese island of Gozo. photos by the author.

I emerged from the madness with a ticket to the closest island, and after an hour aboard a hydrofoil arrived on the tiny quay of Vulcano, just after noon on a Saturday in late July. I was again surrounded by tourists, squinting into the sun, dragging their luggage and scanning for signs for their hotels.

Vulcano, an island of less than eight square miles with an offseason population of fewer than 500, has only a few hotels; my guidebook was straightforward: “Room prices erupt in July and August, when tourists storm in…. Reservations for this period should be made no
later than May.”

In May I hadn’t even known I was taking a trip, much less where or when – and here I was, blowing in with the storm of tourists, without a reservation. So I didn’t waste time.

No luck. Trudging around carrying my backpack, I tried every hotel and guest house mentioned in my guidebook – nothing. I went to the place where the book assured me there would be a tourist office: nothing. I plodded over to an agency that could supposedly hook up a traveler with an affitocamera – a rented room in a private home – but it was closed.

Listed phone numbers yielded no answers. I returned to the affitocamera agency an hour after it was supposed to reopen after lunch. It hadn’t – a commonplace in the Mediterranean, where hours of operation, if they’re even posted, are never more than estimates. I sat on a low stone wall in the sun and considered my situation: I was hot, I was tired, I was hungry, and I was homeless. The island, basically a smoldering volcano in the middle of the sea, has little shade and smells like sulphur. There are ideal circumstances for travel. These are not them.

Then I Thought About Odysseus

The wall I sat upon girded a little sparsely trafficked circle, in the middle of which was a low, dark statue – of Aeolus, represented drawing the winds around him like a cloak. Great: I had found Aeolus, but I still had no place to sleep. Considering what came next, this could not have been more appropriate.

People traditionally interpret the Aeolus episode as just one more example of Odysseus as bad boss – unable to delegate, he exhausts himself and then, at exactly the wrong moment, succumbs to slumber. Since he’s neglected even to tell his crew what’s in the bag Aeolus gave him, blame for the resulting catastrophe rests on his shoulders.

That is, this episode basically teaches Odysseus not to go to sleep when the game is on the line. But first, how dumb do you have to be if you don’t know that? Second, we learn a couple books later that Odysseus finds this lesson unlearnable: You have to sleep sometime, and if trouble has targeted you, that’s when it’ll find you. This episode isn’t about sleeping at all. This episode is about asking for help.

Not a Strong Start

So far Odysseus has been away from Troy barely a month – a couple weeks dithering around leaving Troy, a week or so getting blown across the Mediterranean, a couple days apiece with the Cyclops and Cicones, an afternoon with the Lotus Eaters. And in that month he has managed to not only annoy, with the rest of the Greeks, his patron goddess Athena, but to massively offend her even more powerful uncle, Poseidon.

This is not a strong start towards getting home. Then he shows up on the island of Aeolus, and a wonderful thing happens: First, he and his men just stay put for a breather, feasting and enjoying the party. Much more important, he does something men – heroes perhaps most of all – hate to do.

He asks for directions.

Okay, maybe not directions – but he comes close. He asks Aeolus for help. He humbles himself, just like he did by becoming No-Man with the Cyclops. Instead of the arrogant young Sacker of Cities he’s just a guy looking to get home, and he says so.

And guess what? It works again. “Trying to get home, eh?” Aeolus says. “Well, sure! Here’s unlimited power to take you exactly where you want to go, plus I’ve conveniently captured all negative influences right here in this bag, which is locked, and I’ll place it in your very own care. Just don’t do anything monstrously stupid, and home you go. It’s yours to screw up, my friend.” Odysseus, of course, is up to the challenge.

I hoped I could do better. A ferry to another island seemed a mistake; not only would I have to go through ferry hell once again, but I would lose a couple hours making the passage, with no reason to believe Lipari or Salina would be less crowded. So I took a deep breath, shouldered my pack, and began another slog down a baking asphalt road.

A Single Word

Heading towards a beach camping area that I thought might provide at least some shade and perhaps a public toilet, I passed a wooden post outside a little tiki-hut shop that rented scooters and bicycles.

On it I saw the little white “i” on a blue field that is the international symbol for information, and the words “English! Deutsch! Francais!,” all with happy little exclamation points.

It was, literally, a sign. Sweating, miserable, and at wit’s end, I followed Odysseus’s model. I walked in, dropped my pack in front of the table that served as a counter, and spoke a single word: “Help.”

A small woman with long dark hair, a deep tan, and a bikini top broke into a wide smile. “Help!” she sang, “I need somebody. Help! Not just anybody… Help!”

When you ask for help and they begin singing Beatles songs to you in your own language, this is a good thing. Then she stopped singing but kept smiling.

“I’m not really looking for a scooter,” I said. “Just a room for the night.”

She brightened. “Oh! Like a bed and breakfast!” she said. “Would that be okay?”

Before I could so much as nod she pulled from behind some bushes another lovely woman in a bikini, whose name turned out to be Rosie. Bikini number one smiled. “She runs a bed and breakfast,” she said.

Did Rosie have a room available? She did. Was it expensive? It was not. Would I follow her? I did, humping along with my pack as she rode a block ahead on her scooter, then waited until I caught up, then rode another block.

And so on to the Casa Schmidt, at the end of a long narrow road it would never have crossed my mind to wander, where she put me in a clean room with screenless windows (I was not to mind the geckos, which Rosie charmingly pronounced “jeckoes”) and access to a tiled private breezeway where I later enjoyed, in the cool of the evening, one of life’s greatest pleasures: an outdoor shower.

This asking for help is powerful stuff.

Buy this book from Amazon No-Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through The Odyssey

Scott Huler with Odysseus.
Scott Huler and a statue of Odysseus

 

Scott Huler has written on everything from the death penalty to bikini waxing, from NASCAR racing to the stealth bomber, for such newspapers as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Los Angeles Times and such magazines as Backpacker, Fortune, and Child. His award-winning radio work has been heard on "All Things Considered" and "Day to Day" on National Public Radio and on "Marketplace" and "Splendid Table" on American Public Media.

 

 

 

 

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