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Death and Enlightenment in South Italy

An American ashram freak was the last person I expected to meet in the heel of South Italy.

Last year I had the idea I wanted to live in South Italy, what with the good weather, fine food and women with dazzling green eyes. I’d learnt Italian for the purpose and after visiting an ex-girlfriend in Bologna, I jumped on a cheap train to Lecce, the ‘baroque capital of Puglia’, ‘a rival to Venice’ as the guidebooks called it when I flipped through their pages at the bookstore.

I found an interesting couple of stay through couchsurfing.com and Valentina, a massage therapist came to pick me from the train station. She was from the area but her partner, Akiva, was a tall Californian in his late 40’s and I guessed he’d picked up his name in India. His eyes shone as we met and he had the physique and posture of someone who had practiced yoga for most of his life.

We wasted no time in getting down to trade travel stories and I learnt that Akiva had been one of the first people to start an ashram in the US, introducing yoga and meditation to the public. That project had been immensely successful but had fallen apart due to a founder embezzling the funds. He stayed in the scene though, drifitng on to other ashrams and spiritual personages.

“I was in an ashram in Oregon the last 5 years,” he said, “But they threw me out.”

“What happened?”

“We were supposed to all be celibate but I met this German girl who worked in the kitchen and… well, you can’t keep much secret in a small ashram. We managed to get away with it for 3 months though.”

Sex in the spiritual world was a common theme, according to Akiva and he’d been in several ashrams where the enlightened leader had been found guilty of seducing female devotees – or even the wives of his male followers – and no one dared say a thing. The inner circle of followers kept the sexual corruption hushed-up in return for their positions of power.

Disillusioned by all this, Akiva had drifted to Australia where he’d gotten into DMT and found a whole new wave of hippies in Byron Bay.

“Instead of sex, drugs and rock and roll, we had tantra, holy medicines and techno!” he reminisced.

Hanging out on the streets of Byron Bay, he introduced over 100 people to the visionary experience of DMT, styling himself as a New Age shaman.

“Now I hang my head in shame to think of my arrogance and how we abused the ancient sacraments.” he said sadly.

Eventually, the aborigines in the area decided he was up to no good and told him in no certain terms that it was time for him to stop and move on.

“When you have a couple of 6 ft 5 warriors staring you down it’s a good time to listen.” he laughed as Valentina brought through some pasta. We tried to include her in the conversation but our exchange of anecdotes went on for hours and Akiva told me it was the first time he’d spoken to a fellow native English speaker in months. He’d been in Italy for 9 months and barely spoke a word.

Valentina gave me a lift into town so I could stroll the streets and see if Lecce was for me. On the way she gave me the real story.

“Did he tell you how he came to Italy?” I shook my head. “I hadn’t seen him for years and then one night he called me up from Berlin to tell me he was dying and wanted to say goodbye! He’d followed the girl from the ashram back to Germany and now he was having a heart attack and wanted to hear my voice one last time.

“Of course I flew there straight away to help him and found out that the German girl had dumped him and he’d taken to drinking cheap red wine all day. It gave him such bad stomach acid that he thought he was having problems with his heart. So I brought him back here and he’s hardly left the house in 9 months. He’s wasted almost all his money in calling up the German girl for hours every day and hardly even looks at me. In the beginning he said maybe we might have a child together and you know there’s a part in every woman who wants that. Now I just don’t know. I even have to guard his credit cards so he doesn’t go out to buy beer.”

I was reminded of the book Off the Road which is the memoirs of the wives and girlfriends of all the Beat heroes – Kerouac, Cassady and the rest. The tales of the women who paid the rent, looked after the kids and dealt with all the overflow of the drugs and travel made an interesting flipside to the legends I’d grown up on. Naturally, Akiva had told me only the glamorous part of his life story and I was reminded of how we all edit our own movies.

When we returned in the evening, Akiva guessed that Valentina had filled me in and he confessed that he’d lost the will to live.

“When I meditate now all I see is endless emptiness. There’s nothing left I want to accomplish. I’ve been married, raised children and now I’m 48 and finished. All the spiritual paths I’ve been down ended in corruption and I have to ask myself if anyone knows what’s going on.”

Naturally, I tried to marshal some hope for him and boost his spirits but in truth, I knew what he was talking about. Most people’s lives were driven only by necessity – paying the bills, passing exams, trying to get laid – but Akiva had lived long and fully enough to see that they were just rats in the treadmill, finding meaning to their lives only in the next step.

Akiva was sorry to see me go; I’d been his first intellectual company in 9 months and I left him with a present of my first book, Hand to Mouth to India in memory of our meeting.

Lecce seemed a bit sleepy for me and I headed back up north to a Rainbow Gathering in Liguria and then back down to Sicily where I promptly broke my heart a ‘stroke of lightning’ as the Italians say.

I headed to an internet café to book a flight to Israel to go see my

alternative shrink and put my heart back together. After entering my card information I checked my email and found an email from Valentina – I’d written to her a few days before saying I might pass through again.

Dear Tom,
I’m writing to tell you that Akiva left his body ten days ago. We are all in shock about it. Call me if you pass through this way again.

Valentina

Akiva had moved on, into the emptiness that awaited and yet I couldn’t bring myself to feel sad. I assumed he’d committed suicide but it didn’t really matter. He’d finished all his cycles here in this life and he’d booked himself a one-way ticket out.

Part of me looks forwards to trading travel stories again one day.