I’ve been through Georgia before, of course. But this was the first time I’d driven through alone, with no one to distract me from the scenery. The countryside astounded me.
Just off the coast of Ft. Myers, Florida lie a string of islands with exotic Spanish names, hailing from a past drenched in imperialism, piracy, and probably some heavy-handed exaggeration. I recently found myself on one of these islands while staying with Chris’s family. Although Cayo Costa isn’t named after Spanish princesses or infamous pirates, it does boast 7 miles of beaches and a state park, making it an attractive choice for an island day trip. It felt a little less attractive once we arrived at the dock for our scheduled departure.
Perhaps it was the weather that dampened my enthusiasm: a high of 69 F and wind speeds reaching 20 mph doesn’t exactly scream “tropical island.” Or perhaps it was being packed into a ferry with a large crowd of senior citizens that kept saying helpful things like “Oh, this isn’t even winter weather!” Or perhaps it was the nagging voice reminding me that my windbreaker was sitting at home in the closet, useless, while I died of exposure (the voice belonged to my mother-in-law).
Regardless, after a 50-minute boat ride through choppy water, we arrived. We made our way down to the beach on the western side of the island to eat our packed lunch. Unsurprisingly, it was just a beach. The water was no bluer and the sand no finer than any you can find along the mainland’s coast. In fact, when compared to the white sugary expanses of Ft. Myers’ Beach that we lounged on two days before, the gray shell composite was a little underwhelming.
Following lunch, we fell asleep among some cacti and scrubby sea grapes that provided little shelter from the wind. The sun felt nice, but there wasn’t much redeeming about the bare, windswept beach.
So, Chris and I rented a pair of ancient beach cruisers from the camp store and headed up to the north side of the island in an attempt to warm up. The ride was only 1.5 miles. By the end I was comfortable enough to strip down to my rash guard and shorts. When we arrived at Old Quarantine Dock, which is sheltered somewhat from the wind, two massive driftwood trees greeted us. Gray skeleton sentinels, looking out into the Gulf.
Accidentally Bare Toes
In my excitement, I forgot about the incoming tide and rushed down onto the sand. My sneakers were immediately soaked through. I have a long history of falling into various bodies of water, so I’m actually surprised my shoes were the only casualty. Leaving them to dry on one of the driftwood trees, I convinced Chris to get barefoot, too, and roll up his pants. We walked for a ways down the beach. Our path wound between bleached branches and sharp mounds of shells and other detritus that would one day be sand. Before too long, we had rounded the northern tip of the island and the wind began to buffet us again. So we turned back.
Chris found a bench to sit on while I waited on the beach for my shoes and socks to dry. A fallen palm tree, sheltered from the wind but still in full sun, made a perfect lounge chair. Leaning back, I basked in the warmth and silence, drinking in the quiet beauty. To my left, several tall palm trees leaned out over the water. To my right, the rounded leaves of a sea grape tree fluttered in the breeze and just beyond a cluster of mangroves sent their tendrils out in search of moisture.
A Quiet Moment
There wasn’t a single other human in sight. Just me, a friendly honey bee, and one tiny, stranded sea urchin. Luckily for him, the tide was incoming and would soon sweep him back out to sea. For me, however, that meant I had to abandon my fallen palm tree and solitude. The crazy wind, nauseating boat ride, and wet shoes were worth those few minutes of sunshine and quiet. Really, that’s all I ever ask for when I travel. Just to spend a few moments in a quiet place, so that I can write that beauty on my heart.
When I was a kid, my grandparents owned a tarantula. After a few years, they decided to downsize the number of strange pets they had (including but not limited to a turtle, a salamander, an iguana, several chickens, and a whole aviary of doves). But did they sell the tarantula back to the pet store? No. They drove up into the mountains surrounding Yosemite and released it near the Merced River. Now, I’m not much of a spider person to begin with, so releasing one large enough to eat small birds (or, for all I knew, little girls) for breakfast in the mountains of Northern California struck me as a singularly bad idea. My only reassurance was that – at least to my knowledge – tarantulas aren’t native to Northern California. The same is not true of Puglia.
A Different Kind of Spider
Using the word tarantula in this case might be slightly misleading as the region of Puglia, Italy has a proliferation of what the locals call tarantule (a name which originates from the province of Taranto), but they’re actually a kind of oversized wolf spider, not what the rest of the world thinks of as tarantulas. In either case, they’re not really all that dangerous to people, although the Puglians seem to have missed that memo.
The Legendary Bite
See, way back in the day – we’re talkin’ B.C.E. – the bite of la tarantula was believed to be incredibly dangerous. There’s some contention about whether or not it was originally considered a cure or a symptom, but all accounts seem to agree that the victims of the tarantula would dance. That’s right. Dance or die, friends! The dancing that derived from this bite became generically known as la tarantella and it is accompanied by a specific rhythm, usually beat out on the tambourine. During my stay in Lecce, I was introduced to the charm of the tarantella, or as they call it in the province of Salento, la pizzica. Literally translated, it means “the bite”.
I thought this dance would have died off along with the notion that you can exorcise poison from your body by dancing, or at the very least remain popular only among elderly folks in rural areas. My image of the standard pizzica enthusiast looked something like this: A comfortably plump, leathery woman is dishing pasta out to her family around a weathered farm table. Her granddaughter turns up the radio, blaring some new American hit single. “Bah,” the old woman says with contempt, “you call this music? I remember when music meant something! When it stirred a fire in your soul!” A misty look comes into her eye. “Did I ever tell you how your nonno and I met? I was dancing la pizzica in the piazza-” Her granddaughter interrupts, “Basta con la pizzica, Nonna! We know…” And the family chuckles good-naturedly over Nonna’s sentimentality. [End scene.]
But in truth, I could not have been more wrong.
A friend and I were invited to a free concert one night, put on by a local band. We decided to go as a spur of the moment decision, arriving after they finished their set list. The chairs had been pushed to the sides of the room and the audience, most of whom were our age or a little bit older, were all on their feet. The band had put away their mike stands and guitars and were sitting on the edge of the stage, with a tambourine and an honest-to-God accordion, playing that ancient tune, la pizzica. The female vocalist was whirling and stomping in rhythm on the stage, her red scarf and skirt whipping in her wake and everyone was stomping and dancing along.
There certainly weren’t any tarantulas in evidence at the concert – of either kind – but the energy was infectious. Suddenly, I understood the legendary frenzy of la pizzica. This was no little old lady reminiscing about the past, this was a heaving body of young people living out their cultural heritage with unironic abandon. I wanted to dance with them, even though I had no idea what the steps to the dance were. I wanted to share that feverish joy with them. I should have checked myself for spider bites because I was definitely bitten by something. Maybe it was a tarantula – if tarantula venom makes you fall in love with Salento and never want to leave.