Swelling street puddles. Bicycle tires swishing. Right arm rigid and stretched out straight at the elbow. Handlebar gripped tight with right fist. Left arm shooting up towards face. Fiddling, tugging nervously at the hood’s hem (cheap rain jacket) with benumbed fingers – constricted, clammy, cold swollen, dripping rain. Stealing along the barren boulevard.
Gela is dead.
Ever since last night’s bustling crowds clustering around the Chiesa Madre della Assunta and thronging the Corso Vittorio Emanuele from Piazza Umberto I at one end to Parrocchia San Giacomo Maggiore at the other the city has sunk into a drugged winter torpor.
Sporadic echoing blasts of late night fireworks.
Emptied beer bottles clinking down cobbled streets and shattering at the sidewalks.
Frantic baby shrieks rending the night.
Swallowed by the silence of an impenetrable 2 am lull – abrupt, heavy, viscous and soaking up all sound.
San Giacomo Maggiore looms forlorn over the deserted piazza.
Rain trickling down the church facade brickwork and front flight of greyed stone steps.
Cold damp air. Knifing gusts of a frigid Maestrale.
No street chatter of school kids on holiday.
No hum of motor traffic.
No wailing of street corner fruit and veg vendors flogging the local produce.
The golden limestone hues of the church’s facade and front steps have been drained of all colour and faded to a leaden grey.
High above the shut front door, the lofty main arch encircling cross and sky seems threatened of being crushed any moment by bloated rain clouds bearing down heavily on the church.
What a dreary prospect and how annoying! Shut out of the church in the rain at 9 am by the door sealed tight and left to contemplate all alone on New Year’s Day the sterile minimalism of the arched and rectangular spartan decorative patterns carved out of the stone.
Arrow shaped TV aerials jostle for space on the flat concrete roof of the main apartment block flanking the piazza at San Giacomo Maggiore.
One pegged white sock is imprinted with bold black letters -‘ITALIA’.
That sock shall stay wet all day. Pick it off the washing line in the evening and it’s just as clammy and sodden as when you hooked it up last night.
And it’s not just the rain – Gela`s winter humidity levels wreak havoc with clothes hung out to dry.
Could you live in such a place?
Cracked concrete balconies bleed rust through gaping fissures.
Brown stained stonework.
Rolled down slatted steel garage style doors block out the window views. But hey what views?
Functional aluminium apertures fitted with dark tinted glass windows must let in meagre light with such dull and lifeless weather.
No fancy wrought iron pregnant curves embellish balconies – only a dour enfilade of slim steel verticals crowned by black painted horizontal rails.
A lone cactus is trapped into a corner between stone and steel.
Blacked out or still legible scrawled graffiti – ” Marty I love you”.
But perhaps it’s just me I guess and the weather mucking around with my head – people do choose to live here right into their old age. Apparently San Giacomo’s elderly parishioners have chosen this very apartment block to meet up and share life stories – Associazione Anziani San Giacomo.
From where I stand in the middle of the piazza I can just catch a glimpse through the perspex door entrance of slippered feet and someone slumped into a white plastic chair crouched over a cane…
Never trust Sicilian weather especially if you’re cycling solo in the winter months. Two days earlier and golden sunlight was raking across the multi-storeyed terraced houses and apartment blocks arrayed either side of the steep cobbled serpentine streets slithering down to Lungomare Federico II.
Great to savour Gela from up close in such weather even if just for a day or two.
Noisy, polluted, haphazardly planned and designed, Gela may indeed feel repulsive, especially if it’s your first ever visit, but have patience, suppress the revulsion, give this city a chance and care to take a closer look.
Slow down the pace, put the bike away for a few days, strap a tiny mirrorless camera around your neck and you’re all set to discover moments in time you’d surely have missed hadn’t you lingered unencumbered for a while longer.
I’ve always believed that capturing the moment as it unravels is one of the most fascinating aspects of memorable travel street photography.
Not just a picture of an apartment block, neither just the play of combing winter light on limestone but a perspex door that suddenly snaps open and there she is peering out the darkness of her den away from the blinding low angled light.
That’s what makes the picture – a serendipitous meeting of mind, lens and subject lasting only a few fleeting seconds.
That picture shall last long.
Gela is best discovered by wandering around the city alone and on foot.
Alone because you’ve got no time to waste with anyone yakking on about how long you’re taking to frame a shot or how slowly you’re traipsing across town or about how on earth you could possibly keep up with walking for hours on end with the sole and silly purpose of taking pictures.
On foot because that’s in the nature of street photography. Cycling around would be simply too fast and too cumbersome to observe more minutely what’s happening all around you in as uncluttered a manner as possible .
But Gela is big. The unregulated frenetic development characterizing the city after the last war resulted in a chaotic urban sprawl that has never stopped mushrooming and sprouting in size and confusion ever since – the city sure is one hell of a challenge to explore if you’re strictly sticking to walking around the place!
Situated on the Mediterranean coastline at the estuary of the river Gela halfway between Ragusa to the northeast and Agrigento to the northwest, you’d be justified to give Gela a miss when cycling along the SS115 skimming the entire northern peripheral length of the city.
That’s what I did for many years always opting to either cycle on to Agrigento if heading west or to Vittoria or Scoglitti if backtracking eastwards in the direction of Pozzallo.
This time I was determined to stay, even though New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day almost certainly meant that the ancient Greek archaeological sites would be closed for visitors.
No worries, bygone Gela could wait. I could still discover today’s city – vibrant and alive – in the way I loved best: armed with an ultralight camera that could easily fit in the palm of my hand.
And no guidebook – an unhindered spirit of spontaneity should be my only guide.
I never saw the Gela of the murdered tyrant Cleander nor the extant remains surviving the sack by the Carthaginians.
Nor even the thirteenth century Castellucio ten kilometres out of the city’s centre.
Instead I witnessed modern Gela`s seedy grandeur.
Grand boulevards, derelict and dishevelled and littered with garbage.
Public gardens strewn with paper and plastic litter.
Narrow warren streets winding on forever – pockmarked with countless abandoned dwellings emblazoned with city council bills warning passers by that these buildings were infested with vermin and laced with rat poison.
Pet owners beware – keep your dog on leash or well muzzled.
But never mind the rats. What a sane choice it was to stay put and not cycle to the next town on New Year’s Day! Supermarkets, grocery stores, bakeries, even the bars and cafes were closed for the holiday. Wise to stick around with a room to go back to after plying the streets until the city woke up for business on January 2.
Plenty of time to trek right out of the city centre to the extremest western point of Gela’s lungomare. Then follow the coastline all the way back to my bed and breakfast accommodation on Via Francesco Crispi.
I so badly wanted to take a picture before slogging it back for another five kilometres.
But what was there to shoot? The breakwater quay?
That’s when he shuffled into the frame, fishing rods in his right hand, bait bucket in his left.
Take a deep breath in, wait awhile, frame tight, focus and shoot.
“As you grow older you’ll find that your choices narrow down, and you’ll have to decide once and for all which rock you’re going to die upon. Choose that rock and defend it with all you’ve got…”
These words flitted through my mind the moment I noticed them on the beach – two fragile silhouettes with the New Year’s sun and shimmering sea and wisps of cotton cloud at their backs, grasping each other tight by the elbows as if afraid one of them might suddenly sink into the sand or be reclaimed by the sea.
An old American friend of mine had once warned me about procrastinating, putting off taking important decisions. No point in being scared about casting free and making bold steps forward in life:
“If there’s one thing for certain it’s that nothing shall ever be the same again – everything changes however hard you try to keep things as they are…”
Where had I been since then? What had I achieved? How was it that I was now trudging back alone to the city centre?
Alone. I had always travelled alone – from the very first time I had been away from Malta there was no question about looking around for a travel partner. This newly discovered liberty of being free to go it alone, as I chose, whenever, wherever, was too intoxicating to give up. And so on for twenty years since.
You’ve got to choose. True. But having chosen this solitary wandering existence it does strike me at times if things could have been any different. And it does make me feel sad.
All Text and Photographs Copyright (c) David Bugeja 2016