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The Bandits of Orgosolo
[ Non-fiction : Crime/ ]

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Few people are familiar with the small island of Sardinia, lying to the west of Italy’s boot, Sicily, but closer to the sands of Tunisia than any European coast. In tourist brochures and websites the country is sold as a sleepy, unspoilt paradise, strewn with irresistible, white coastline, wild mountains and sleepy hillside towns. In labyrinths of cobblestone streets the friendly bustle of Italian culture, bubbles from each shop doorway, café and restaurant, and makes for a pleasant holiday destination, but hidden away from the high streets of the larger towns lies a very different Sardinia.

The ‘Sards’ are a proud race with traditions and cultural oddities far removed from toady’s modern world. The distinct lack of an outside influence can be felt in towns and villages reachable only by rough mountain tracks, perilous highways and road signs convoluted enough to throw any G.P.S system.

At the time I was living in the capital, Cagliari, with my girlfriend, Michelle, and decided to visit the perilous central regions where I had heard only the locals dare to go. We had established ourselves in the community of the old castle walls: an eclectic mix of artists, students, proud Sards and fiery left wing activists. I found myself frequenting a dubious bar opposite my apartment, home to an eccentric community and became friendly with the owner. I’d heard through my friends at ‘Il Castello’ that he had been in jail for twenty-six years for acts of terrorism. I didn’t ask much more.

One week we left Cagliari for the country, weaving our way amidst the sound of horns and the blur of espresso fuelled drivers, the sleepy town fading behind us. We spent the day by on a perfect beach, deserted apart from a few bronzed fishermen, then headed into the mountains to find somewhere to pitch up. By this time we were tired from the heat of the sun and sunset wasn’t far off. We passed through some of the most outstanding scenery, including Europe’s largest canyon, heading for the first town on the map, deciding that it would be safest to camp somewhere near civilisation, but not too close to attract unwanted attention.

We approached and passed through the small town. Many locals seemed to be making a zombie like pilgrimage out of the town, on nauseously winding roads, even miles out into the wilderness. It was a strange sight, and maybe even stranger for them to see two foreigners in a weathered Rover Metro brave the small back roads. We passed old men, farmer hats and deeply carved faces, young men dressed in traditional black suits, fiery and intense, all on horseback. We passed small old ladies walking in groups, dressed almost like nuns, clad completely in black, all the while great cliffs towered over us and fell away to the side of the road. Rocky peaks jutted against the dramatic evening light and mesmerised us.

As the sun faded over the crimson skyline, and the air cooled, we passed over a hill and the next town came into view: Orgosolo. It looked like a ghost town; the eerie monotony of the houses looked like they were carved out of the sandy rock of the hill on which they perched. It looked like the settlement of a nomadic desert race, hardened by the fierce sun, not a quaint European village. We took a left turning as soon as we could, consulting the map to take us to a secluded spot.

After a few minutes off the main road we pulled over. We had positioned ourselves on top of a hill, with a view over the small valley. The sun was long gone behind the horizon, and the shadowy slithers of rough tundra seemed to merge together and assume a more homogenous form, spreading over the land like one dark deformed hand. We started to unload our rucksacks from the car but stopped when we noticed a small light come on somewhere deep within the coarse undergrowth. After a while we saw another, a little closer, then another. The lights weren’t houses, but small fires all over the forest. We looked around in amazement as more and more appeared.

We’d read in the guidebook that Orgosolo had been know for its infamous band of fierce bandits – outlaws living on the land, and robbing innocent folk - but that was a long time ago. It didn’t take long to reach the conclusion that it was probably best to be safe than sorry, and we rather hastily re-packed our rucksacks into the car.

We arrived in the ghostly Orgosolo, dressed in dim evening light, and found a small B&B. The owners were friendly enough, if a bit befuddled by the appearance of two foreigners and clumsily arranged a room for us. We stood awkwardly in their living room whilst he fiddled with keys, it was bare except a dusty, dark, green sofa where an old lady, presumably his mother, sat, watching a fuzzy chat show on an old television. The night was humid, like all the nights before, the sheets were as hard as cardboard, and a congregation of mosquitoes waited patiently above the net curtains.

My skin was warm from the sun-clad day and tiredness swept over me like a flash flood. Just as my flickering thoughts were forming in front of my eyes, and the room fading away, my body shook. There was the room again. Darkness. What was that sound I heard? Silence again. It sounded like a gunshot. I glanced at Michelle. Her eyes were wide open, with a confused expression. A thought ran through my mind: someone is in this room and has shot her. Terror ran through me for a moment but was quickly dismissed, “what the hell was that?” she said in whispered tone. “I don’t know” I said. We could hear the voices of young men, similar to the raucous call of Saturday night drunks, but wilder, more desperate somehow.

I got up and went quietly to the window where a pale yellow light was filtering through the net curtains. The mosquitoes were gone. I peeked from behind the dirty white lace but couldn’t see anything. Through a gap in the wall ahead of me I could see half the colourful face of a wall mural and every now and then a shadow passed by. The painted eyes were strange, longing, and poor. The voices continued, ebbed and flowed, louder then quieter again. It was useless. I crept back across the tiled floor and into bed. I crawled onto the bed, and lifted the sheets to get in when all of a sudden another tremendous ‘bang’ made me jump almost out of my skin. I got into bed and listened. The voices and banging dimmed, then stopped a while later. We decided that it was probably just drunk young men, and fell asleep.

I was awoken by another banging sound, softer this time. It was the door. Who could be calling? Maybe we’d slept in and it was the owner asking us to leave, but it was only nine. I answered the door and sure enough it was the clumsy little man. He looked scared. He motioned for me to come with him. “There is problem” he said in a very serious tone. I wondered what on earth it could be. I went with him down the narrow flights of stairs and out into the warm morning air.

The night before I had parked my car across the narrow cobbled street, we’d got out in a hurry and foolishly left most of our clothes and camping things in the car. I could see what had happened now. My car door was open, the engine left running, wires protruding from under the wheel like a bad haircut, and everything was scattered about in the car. It wasn’t the sound of gunfire we’d heard, it was the sound of someone bending the back door of my car open! Everything had gone except our clothes. They’d taken the tent, our sleeping bags, my girlfriend’s new camera with photos from our beach trip, and my new MP3 player. We were devastated.

I’m not the kind of person to really care about things going missing or my car being a little dented here and there, but it’s interesting that when something is stolen that belongs to you, it feels like some part of you has been taken. That morning I realised more than ever that the useless junk, or kipple that we accrue, even when travelling, really does end up becoming part of, or owning us. Buddhism teaches non-attachment to the material world, as an end to suffering, and these bandits, who scared me witless with their legend and forest fires, and robbed me of my possessions, became rather like Zen masters in their own way. Existence certainly is transcendent, and sometime it takes a little shock to really feel that truth directly. I felt a little freer from that day on.

Philosophising aside, if you ever find yourself in the strange land of Sardinia, I’d certainly recommend veering away from the tourist resorts scattered along the beautiful coastline to some of the inner villages, and take some time to look at the haunting murals and desolate landscapes. If you take your car, ensure you have a good security system, and if some ragged, sun-parched Italian offers to sell you a camera, and a black iPod with a large collection of Bob Dylan outtakes, well, I hope you enjoy listening.

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