by Richard Rueda
(Editor’s Note: Richard Rueda is an avid world traveler with a deep respect for diverse culture and an appreciation for wine, coffee and local native rituals. Richard is a member of both the California Council of the Blind and CCLVI.)
This past September I was honored to be among six individuals participating with the newly formed Diakron Institute, a non-profit whose mission is to mediate the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary exchange of relevant and diverse human perspective. During the eight-day adventure, the experiences of nature in the raw, with its vast depth, smells, sounds and sights, left me in deep fascination and awe, all the while wanting to extend the trip indefinitely.
This was an eco-cultural multisensory journey deep in the country side of Italy’s Abruzzo, Lazio e Molise National Park, about 2½ hours outside of Rome. This was a true immersion deep within nature. Although we had comfortable lodging, we were never far removed from the animals that roamed the grounds and deeply forested mountainside. A typical morning included waking up with hot, strong Italian coffee and witnessing cows and horses just outside our window. If we were quick enough lacing up our shoes, we could be outside in mere moments and pet both the cows and horses happily grazing.
Our week also included extensive hiking throughout the national park, learning about nature and the ecology of the region. Often us blind participants were handed various natural materials including plant leaves, barks from native trees, wild berries, mushrooms, and other artifacts of the area to touch and smell. On one of our adventures just outside the park, we met with a local wildlife expert who walked us through a path introducing plants and other wild grasses and leafy greens that are edible when adventuring in the wild. The emphasis was also on alternative ways to remain health-conscious.
We frequently met with naturalists, ecologists, archeologists and locals to gain insight and perspective on how the locals interact with native animals and other species in the region with minimal impact to the environment. During some of our excursions we happened upon the red deer. In early autumn, the red deer’s rutting (mating) season is at its peak. It was fairly common to be as close as 50 yards from the active rut and yet not disturbing their activity.
We also learned from the local park rangers and locals who frequently walk the park paths that there were two active bears in the region. The widely accepted attitude about the bears was “chill.” In fact, there has been no attack from bears recorded in more than 100 years. One of the local bears, fondly referred to as Gemma, was known to be a party animal who would ransack garbage cans, fruit trees and gardens of area homes in the village.
Our itinerary also included frequent visits to local taverns and small family dining and coffee establishments. It is no surprise that the Italian culture adores its caffeine ritual of cappuccino, coffee and yes, vivid tasting wines. Wine and cheese tasting throughout the region is a must and is deeply rooted as a part of the cultural thread.
There are no Starbucks in Italy. I say this to underscore that Italy largely appreciates locally owned establishments, from lodging to food and more. Our tours of these smaller eateries and coffee houses were often met with getting to know the barkeep and learning the lay of the land, how food and beverages are deeply honored and served. Two of my favorite finds during our adventure were that of sampling sheep’s milk cheese and a locally produced liver sausage. The flavors and texture were simple yet powerful. I do not believe that throughout the eight-day adventure, we went without bread during any meal. Fortunately, our active hiking explorations kept us from gaining too much weight.
A common sign of gratitude in parts of Italy is that of sticking both thumbs into one’s own cheeks with fingers of each hand rolled inward and making a twisting motion. This is the equivalent of saying with gratitude that food and beverage consumed is wonderful.
During our travels, we witnessed the gracefully aged yet environmentally sound layout of the small villages dotted throughout the region. Often spanning an entire block, many of these tall stone buildings would house local eateries, homes and other small businesses. When there were sidewalks, often they were short and narrow. I had to stop myself from walking outside to the virtually nonexistent sidewalk so that I would not be run down by a car or carriage.
Other highlights included closely researching local animal life. To that end we had opportunities to gently observe and touch recent undisturbed tracks of deer, wolf and bears. Nathan Ranc, our trip leader, guided us through the plaster cast steps of tracks of a red deer. After the deer tracks were plastered and dried, they provided us a three-dimensional, hands-on view of the footing of a typical red deer. In late evenings, we would venture throughout various known locations in the national park to listen to wolves howling. Led by Nathan, we went to various locations, both in remote forests and closer to settlements, with the hope of hearing the wolves. During one of our late-night listening attempts, we heard a short yet powerful wolf howl surrounded by a cacophony of barking dogs.
The Casone di Colleciglio, a historic waypoint for shepherds, which is integrated in the landscape along the shore of Barrea Lake in Abruzzo, was our home for the eight-day trip. Surrounded by wildlife, dirt roads and animals literally at our front door, our ears feasted on the red deer rut, cows and horses and birds off in the distance.
Our group size was small yet comfortable. Meeting staff and participants from across Italy, France, Greece and the United States, we shared similarities in lifestyles on blindness, guide dogs as well as how things are accomplished differently. We learned of each other’s passions, love for coffee, wine and eclectic music. Often conversations would move on deep into the night around the large indoor rustic fireplace. This is what Diakron hopes to achieve in its mission. On this inaugural adventure, the outcome could not have been better planned.
This was the first of what is hoped to be many more multisensory travels planned by the Diakron staff. Having been a part of many non-profit travel organizations during my lifetime, I have not seen a more respected and deeply committed group of people plan and passionately share and experience together the journey. I certainly departed from the trip with a far greater and deeper profound knowledge for the simplicity of the European and Italian lifestyle. Also, as an unintended outcome of this extraordinary travel event, learning about the wins of planting and preparing organic food for consumption doubled my commitment to buying organic as often as possible.
For more information about the Diakron Institute, visit www.diakron.org.