Perhaps the most fulfilling human emotion is that of liberty. In a society burdened by the monotonous droning of everyday life, a sense of freedom might be the most empowering feeling in existence. Every urbanized city I’ve lived in, from grand Toronto to unimposing Champaign, has left me with the opposite; a constricting claustrophobic feeling. Even aspects of my life that are almost unanimously considered for the better of society never satisfied me, namely technology. Unlike my colleagues, as I’ve been exposed to more and more advanced technology, my interest has only dwindled. As such, I often find myself bereft of any entertaining pastimes on most days of the week, leading me to formulate an imaginary place where I can hide from the restrictions of an urbanized lifestyle. No technological advancement could trump my desire to be free from the shackles of society. I had also always experienced an innate affinity with natural beauty, so such an imaginary haven would be in the wilderness, far aloof from any technology or city, and filled with endless mountains, rolling hills, and beautiful beaches. And during the summer of 2019, I was blessed with the opportunity to visit such a place in Taormina, Sicily, a place that realized my dreams and changed my life forever.
But that’s not to say my family never went on vacation – we traveled quite frequently throughout my childhood. But instead of escaping the grip of technology and society, I spent my ‘vacations’ stuck in conference rooms, counting down the hours until my parents could drive me back to our hotel. Every other vacation followed the same trend: each museum in New York was a vastness of boring, the palaces of London were antique and too pompous for my taste, even the roller coasters at Disney World were an artificial simulation of fun, and like technology, provided a spurious sensation of excitement. For the entirety of my childhood, my dearest desire was to venture onto a camping trip, only to appreciate the beauty of the world around me. And although social media detailed camping as an obsolete, futile vacation, the image of sitting around a campfire at night, smelling the expanse of pine trees, and in complete isolation from the rest of the world. As a result, one of my childhood nicknames was ‘Mowgli’ from ‘The Jungle Book’. I have no way of explaining it, but I was drawn to a wolf’s howl and the patterns of bird chirps instead of the newest Xbox game release. And finally, after years of waiting, my prayers were answered, but in a form that far surpassed any camping trip.
At first, the trip was planned as any other: a short excursion to a bioengineering conference. However, unlike any other experience, the conference venue wasn’t in a largely populated city like New York, Los Angeles, or London, but rather the coastal village of Taormina in Sicily. The entirety of our plane ride was filled with distraught groans and haphazard “are we there yet”. Little did we know that we would soon arrive in paradise. The plane soon touched down, but instead of connecting directly to the airport and experiencing the familiar nausea and pungent smell of perspiration that came with the end of a flight, I was greeted with an overwhelming scent I only recognized from my dreams. The collection of exotic flowers rippling in the light summer breeze was both the most mesmerizing sensation, but ever so familiar. Taormina epitomized my vision of paradise, on my right the beautifully violent waves crashed against the shore, enveloping the arid yellow sand with white foam. Fishermen’s boats struggle to navigate these waves, the hulls of their ships illuminated by the bright sun. The boats’ reflections formed a piercing arrow in the crystalline water, revealing a plateau of trees and jagged rock structures. On my left, I saw an initial semblance of civilization, but for the first time, it was without skyscrapers and industrial buildings. The sand road formed a golden carpet towards the feeble shops and restaurants, the air filled with the sharp shrieks of Italian shop owners advertising their products (Dolcos, Downtown streets of Taormina). The rustic town, in its full decrepitness and commotion, called out to me – I, after years of ‘torture’, had escaped the hell of civilization and found Taormina.
Historically, Taormina was the first Sicilian colony that the Ancient Greeks founded, eventually developing into a prosperous Roman town (Encyclopedia Britannica). The town’s original cathedral and amphitheater still stand after enduring thousands of years of renovation. This theme of tradition carried over into every part of Sicilian culture, ranging from the marvelous food to other architectural structures. And although Taormina’s preservation efforts are remarkable, what especially consumed my thoughts was seeing that the disease of technology and manufacturing had not tarnished the beauty of Taormina. It was both perplexing and stunning to see an entire city sustaining itself without what any city considers bare necessities, including internet connection, sturdy buildings, and access to readily available goods. Contrasting this lifestyle with that of Champaign was bewildering; more and more, technology has invaded the lives of younger and younger children, completely desensitizing them from the surrounding chaos. As they grow older, the extent of their excitement is found in social media and the newest app release. The children of Taormina are liberated from any such invisible burden. Most children spend their days first separate as apprentices to their parents’ crafts, then together as parades of the island, in search of a runaway soccer ball or a secret alcove, without losing true human values like friendship in favor of media. It’s this unusually strong liberating sensation that’s part of Taormina’s appeal – I read extensively about how Taormina’s ambiance inspired a number of writers, poets, and artists to create some of the most famous works in history, including Truman Capote’s ‘Fontana Vecchia’. And although I marveled at this fact, little did I know that I would experience such inspiration and liberation for myself.
On the third day of the well-awaited vacation, I traveled to the beach with my family for deep-ocean jellyfish observation. And although I’d like to describe the outing, I simply cannot. I have no recollection of how I arrived ‘there’, but only a mysterious wave of nausea. What seemed like seconds after departing the shore, I found myself extending my arms to pull myself up into the opening of a jagged fracture in the side of the island ‘wall’, presumably the entrance of the cave. The cave was ominous and dimly lit, but an enticingly cool wind drew me into the cave, howling with laughter at every step I took forward. The cave’s frigid atmosphere contrasted the scalding humid air from outside. And as I progressed forward, the cave expanded into a gloomy, gargantuan atrium. Every step without sight became more and more painful, but for some odd reason, I had to continue. Lost in a trance of curiosity, I distinctly remember my mind experiencing a sort of craze, in which I expected mythological nymphs and animals to emerge. But it was only when my eyes finally adjusted to the dark that I broke out of the trance and began to truly process the cave. Gleaming into the massive crevice, I saw drawings on the wall, hundreds of inscriptions in a language I didn’t understand. It felt as if all of Taormina’s millennia-old legacy was calling out to me at once, no it felt like the Greek gods that blessed the creation of the city were calling out to me. Finally, I understood the liberation that the Italian artists felt so long ago.
I believe that every human inherently has a form of ‘paradise’ ingrained in their mind. I spent over a decade of my life imagining that paradise, formulating its every aspect. And as invigorating as that was, experiencing its power was ever so impactful. But my idea of paradise was never just ‘sunshine and rainbows’, and although Taormina certainly fulfilled such an idea, instead I desired something to help me escape the bore of everyday life. Something challenging to prompt me to step out of my comfort zone and explore the extraordinary. Although the idea of being so far out in the water and away from my family should have frightened me, it empowered me beyond measure, allowing me to finally break free from the shackles of my life in America. It helped me realize that challenges are an integral part of life and I should embrace opportunity no matter how threatening. Ever since the cave and Taormina experience, I’ve felt more harmonized with my inner self and motivated to continue through the perils of the world, proving that humans all need to find their paradise at some point in their lives to experience freedom.