You'd be hard pressed to find a backpacker in Europe who does not respond to the mention of Brindisi with the remark, "Ah, sleazy Brindisi". When we arrived in the Italian port this seemed like an exaggeration. Unpleasant Brindisi, yes. Dodgy Brindisi, for sure. But sleazy? However, rhyme has a power and inference of truth about it, so soon we found ourselves muttering "sleazy Brindisi" as we pushed through the sweating crowds along the motor-scooter choked road to the port where we were to catch our night ferry to Greece.
Our packs were preposterously large and it was an oppressively humid hot evening, so when we arrived my first priority was to find a place to stow our packs for the three or four hours before we would be allowed to board. The port area was deserted except for a police post. I entered and smiled my best innocent Canadian abroad smile at the three men inside. They were wearing neat olive green uniforms accented with all manner of piping and epaulets and each sported a thick black mustache and large black sunglasses. The effect was almost comical.
"Mi scusi," I said, holding open the English-Italian section in our multi-lingual dictionary.
"Do you know where we can store our luggage for a few hours?"
"This Italia, you speak Italian!" one of them barked, thrusting a finger at me.
"Uh," I began flipping through the dictionary.
He cut me off with a brisk wave to the door and turned his back. The other two didn't move or speak.
We were traveling that day with a team of marathon runners from South Africa. John and Elke were like specimens from a Bowflex advertisement whereas Vince and Gloria were decidedly gnomish and difficult to picture as runners. Vince was the very image of a kindly old gentlemen with his snow white hair and twinkling eyes, so it was all the more jarring when he leaned over and whispered to me, "Ach ja Philipp, the black man, he don't like to work, you know, he only likes to breed." John and Elke, on the other hand, although also white, were very active in the Zulu based Inkatha Freedom Party and talked a lot about politics, peppered with bits of colour from everyday life in South Africa: "Ja, I have five guns already, but the 9 mm parabellums are too heavy. I need another smaller one." In any case, John, being imposing Bowflex man, offered to stand guard over the luggage while the rest of us went back into town and foraged for supper.
When it was finally time to board we stumbled our way through the dark labyrinthine docks to a poorly lit metal ramp where we boarded alongside a line of idling diesel transport trucks. Once on the ferry we were, to our surprise, greeted by a Russian crew. Even though the Cold War was over there was still something faintly menacing about being given instructions in a thick Russian accent.
"Cabin is on F deck. Follow me."
We followed the thin-lipped but attractive young blonde purser down a long series of metal stairways, her black pumps clank-clank-clanking ahead of us.
A deck. B deck. C deck. D deck. E deck. Then F deck, well below the waterline and constructed entirely out of grey metal with low ceilings and a disorienting grid of identical gangways leading to the cabins. She open the door to our cabin, gestured inside and then turned heel and left. We peered in. It was a box. A grey metal box. A grey metal box with bunk-beds, a sink, a ventilation grill and a large warning sign on the wall. That was it. I cannot emphasize enough the strong resemblance to a prison cell. A prison cell in a totalitarian state with a questionable human rights record. We stepped inside and read the sign:
"Note: Passengers are kindly reminded that the bow thruster which is situated below this deck makes an unpleasant noise when in use on departures and arrivals. This is quite normal and should give no cause for anxiety."
One has to wonder how many times passengers ran in screaming panic down the gangways before management decided to mount such a prominent sign. It was curiously only in English and French. Are Italian, Greek and German speakers calmer?
We explored F deck, checking out the utilitarian metal shower rooms and the various opportunities for becoming lost or claustrophobic or both. When we had milked this for as much entertainment value as possible we returned to our cell and waited for the bow thruster. It was beastly hot in there and it was morbidly fascinating to listen to the sound of giant chains being scraped along somewhere above us, presumably to secure the transport trucks. Then there was silence for a few minutes and then the bow thruster came violently to life. We were glad to have been warned.
To escape the heat we went up on deck and watched the ferry cut into the Ionian Sea in a dark so black that the sea and sky merged together. The stars were perfectly reflected on the water ahead, creating the illusion of traveling into space. After a time we went back below where the ventilation was now working and quickly fell asleep. There was no sensation of motion.