Sorrento: Travel as Competitive Sport

The next day I am feeling that first bit of tourist glow, having somehow managed to find myself exactly where I had envisioned myself to be–trekking the six-mile loop in the hills above the village of Sant’ Agata de due Golfi, not far from a fjord called Crappola (yes, really), a half-hour from Sorrento by bus. The ride is terrifyingly gorgeous: the roads invite death since two buses can not possibly pass one another without one backing up, a game of chicken if there ever was one.

I have struck pay dirt by bringing Hikes on the Amalfi Coast, inspiring fantasy. Here it transformed into reality. Now I am sublimely and stupidly happy, wending my way through stone churches, pink and yellow houses, narrow back alleys, past chickens and donkeys, through hushed piney woods, and superb mountain vistas. Eccola! I want to shout. Here I am, eating last night’s pizza on a mountain crest, with the wrinkled turquoise sea crawling below, but there is no one to share it with. There are rocky black islands, which in earlier mythological times before they were islands, had been the sirens. Yes, the very same sirens, whose irresistible voices would have thrown brave Ulysses off course had he not lashed himself to the mast and plugged his oarsmen’s ears with wax.

I arrive back in Sorrento full of myself until I realize the hostel is now full and I have nowhere to go. I feel the panic seep into my body. Back in the day, when I was young and had traveled like this, I took my orange pack and sleeping bag and slept in somebody’s field. But this was a small overbooked tourist town with nowhere to go, in high season, on a Friday night. And I wasn’t 21 anymore.

Upon arrival in Sorrento, I had simply done what I had done in the good ole days—walked to the nearest hostel and slid into a bunk. The first night had been reassuring, and the women’s dorm was like a nunnery, with all five of us in bed by nine. After all, there was homework to do, like cramming for the next day’s adventure. The women—South African, Singaporean, Argentinian, and Italian and little ole American me earnestly swapped travel plans. We laughed like eager children at the idea of mirthful adventures. Don’t let that fool you. These women were the kick-ass travelers I was longing to be.

There was Suuunniiia (not her real name, but close) an older (past thirty) Finnish museum curator with perfectly typed notes. Alas. I want to copy her explicit directions, but I can’t read Finnish.

I can’t help teasing her, just to see if I can get a Finn to laugh out loud. I try my favorite Finnish joke: “How can you tell if a Finn likes you?” I ask, itching to get to the punch line. She slowly shakes her head: “They look at your shoes instead of their shoes,” I answer.

She looks faintly amused, and notes that Finns all speak many languages, even though, as she puts it, “They never say anything.”

“Well, Americans don’t usually speak anything but English but it doesn’t keep us from talking all the time,” I confess.

But now I run into her mid-Sorrento just as I am feverishly trying to find a room. She wishes me well, calmly trotting off to the hostel in her A-line skirt and stylish but sensible shoes. She had just returned from Pompeii, which is definitely the box to check while in the area, while I had only seen chickens, cows, clotheslines, and the rocky islands, which had once been sirens. But is travel a competitive sport? Ask travel guru Rick Steves, who my sister calls her “travel husband.” Where was he when I needed him?

Instead, I turned to the local tourist guru, the guy near the beach at the busy tourist information desk, and tell him my plight. “I have no data,” I plead since my US phone card is not working. After making a few calls he directs me to a gas station a few blocks away. “Just look for a tall guy with a laid back attitude and hair that sticks up,” he said.

Relieved, I all but run to the gas station, and begin to wait. And wait. Soon, I eye every man with hair askance. Have I missed him? I ask hopefully in bad Italian something along the lines of (I realized later how bad this sounded): “Excuse me, senor, are you the one with the hotel room?” Something was perhaps lost in translation because it seems that it is not only Finns who blush and look at their shoes. No luck.

I go back to find Senor Informatione but he is not there. The clock is ticking. At last, he roars upon his Ducati, removes his helmet, every hair in place (I am now a serious hair-noticer), and takes up his post. I feign calmness, explaining that his friend had not appeared. Another call ensues; I am sent back to the gas station. This time, Senor Messy Hair is there. Soon enough, I am ensconced in a small-unmarked apartment room with a little balcony down a maze of side streets behind a few locked gates. Clutching four or five keys I try to memorize the mental map that might later return me to the secret room. Then I slipstream myself into Sorrento’s tourist-clogged streets and find an outdoor table order. It is writing—and drinking—hour.

But I cannot write. I am not ready to admit my ridiculousness, even to my computer. Instead, I channel Italianness and play it cool. It is fun to sit back and judge the hordes of turisti parading by, girls in light dresses at the last blush of summer’s heat, kids in strollers, men looking either cool or flabby in their T-shirts. There are people of all colors and creeds and places, mostly wearing the same global styles. Our real entrée is the fact that we all carry credit cards. Yes, the world is small but only if you have money. Sorrento, the entry to the glittering Amalfi Coast, its lovely towns dotting the Tyrrhenian Sea, is just the beginning of chic town after chic expensive town. I think I’ve had enough. This is not why I travel.

The women at the table next to me are my-age Brits, old friends traveling together since one is now widowed. We all have matching fake blonde hair. After giving me an earful about Brexit (“Maggie Thatcher would have handled things differently”) they said, “Aren’t you scared to travel alone? I could never do that!”—a refrain that was to be repeated often—but not of course, by all the single younger women at hostels, who turned into my teachers, helping me with my technology and getting me to stay up past nine o’clock. These ladies were aghast at the idea of not knowing where to lay one’s head at night. I could not but agree.

The next day I discovered the secret to traveling. Indeed, it is technology. Having my iPhone retrofitted with a European SIM card and ditching my American plan was liberation in the palm of my hand. I got hostel apps and hotel apps. A black-haired black-eyed Mexican-Californian traveler in the hostel, later on, decided I was inspirational for still traveling alone. I pointed out that she was traveling alone. She said, yes, and if she couldn’t continue in her “later years” she would be “heartbroken,” adding that it was “almost criminal” for people not to travel these days because technology made it all so easy. “In the old days you had to know how to use a map,” this twenty-something said knowingly.

With my wonderful new travel guide–my reconfigured IPhone—I board the Circumvesuviana, which is an archaic Latin word meaning “dirty overcrowded train with hordes of rude teenagers which stops at every village.” Ah, but Gritty Naples was next. I said “basta” to those tourist hordes.

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