The news arrived via a phone call. Simone had died.
I was standing in a courtyard in Thakek, Laos, waiting for my Couchsurfing host to finish his lunch. Right across from me was a shovel, left to rest on the wall. When that unknown, but always very well expected, feeling of loss started mounting inside of me, I was watching ahead, eyes transfixed on the shovel’s handle. Fuck me, it had the word “Pollo” (which means “chicken” in Italian) etched across its top.
I don’t know if that was Murphy’s Law, or if fate just has a very shitty sense of humor: “Pollo”, in fact, was the surname I gave Simone on the second time we met as teenagers. He was driving his scooter back from town, hauling a 10kg bag of chicken food between his legs. I thought the chicken food was for him, had a sore laugh, and that silly surname stuck forever.
That weird connection in Laos, thousands of kilometers away from Voghera (the dull Italian town we both called home), instantly erased a friend and the musical history behind him forever after. I had played with Simone, a very talented drummer, in the Italian metal-punk band The Nerds Rock Inferno, from 1997 to 2007. We all parted ways when I decided to try a teaching job in China, because playing with the Nerds had lost all its primeval manic aim.
Without talking too much about me, I moved on to China and then Southeast Asia, settled in Penang, Malaysia, and have been based here ever since. Since 2007, I’ve met Simone only 3 other times: on the second time, he finally came to visit me with the band in Malaysia — we kicked up a nice tour in 2015. On the last time we met though, in the summer of 2017, he wanted to tell me about the life-changing trip he was preparing.
Simone had never really traveled independently much before deciding of cycling in Central Asia, starting in Uzbekistan, throughout the Pamirs. “I have been there, and I think that those places are really safe and beautiful to see… but maybe you should try somewhere else first,” I suggested to him on a friend’s balcony, after the last meal we shared together.
I never doubted that Simone could make it; but I also believed, with 10 years of overland travels under my belt, and after having played and toured with him for a decade, that Simone — who had been to Asia only once to play some punk gigs, and knew next to nothing about it — should have tried something less intense before cycling from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan.
Our promises of discussing the topic further in the next few months vaned, and the next thing I know, in mid June 2018 he’s on a plane to Tashkent. I was in Laos researching the Laos and Cambodia chapters of the Fodor’s Thailand guide at the time, and checked his updates only sporadically. Last thing I know, he writes on his Facebook that the sun is incredibly hot and the going is though, but he’s having the time of his life. Cool.
On June 28th 2018, about ten days after he left Italy, I receive a call from Italy. It’s Boss, the Nerds’ singer. He says that Simone had an accident: he seems to be fine, but he’s in the hospital in Bukhara now. I freeze and then hear that he’s also unconscious. A driver hit his back wheel and he shot forward, crashing on the ground. Tiziano, his friend, was pedaling in front and didn’t see how it really happened. Cranic trauma, he’s in a coma.
For the next few days, ten years of memories mix with reviewing restaurant meals, checking timetables and spending long hours in local buses, while I keep receiving encouraging messages on Simone’s recovery. Tiziano Finotti, the Italian friend who left Italy to accompany Simone on this first far-flung adventure, is dealing with the situation in Bukhara, where Simone has meanwhile had a brain operation. The Italian Embassy helps, and his wife and father are rushing visas and getting ready to leave for Uzbekistan and stand by Simone. Thinking back to it, it’s even pretty ironic that Uzbekistan’s new visa free regime started only in February 2019.
Then, on the 5th of July, after a lunch of noodle soup in Thakek Laos, Pollo dies through the airwaves, like that shovel abandoned on the wall. Fuck.
I may have ranted too much about the back story, sorry. But I have been trying to write this stuff down for the past 6 months. Right after Simone passed away, I asked Steven to help me spread the sad news to the community of adventurous travelers who keep planning their crazy Central Asian trips on Caravanistan. I just wanted to bring another voice in, something a bit discordant from the rest of success stories we always seem to hear. In a nutshell, remember that we are going to die, sometimes.
Unfortunately, and with many apologies to Steven, it took me way too long to write this. Each time I tried to sit down and nail it, it just felt very wrong and disrespectful of Simone’s memory.
So let it be: please forgive my awkwardness in mourning. I didn’t talk to Simone much in the past 10 years to be honest, but he was like one of those screws that always keep old memories hanging together in the back of your brain. Simone was a life’s peg. And even after 6 months, it’s my duty to remember the death of a dear friend in front of the travel community he so much wanted to become a part of.
Simone, like many of you readers, had a head full of itineraries and dreams, and feet so itchy to get wet in the wonder that offbeat foreign travel can be. Like many of you, he was also leaving behind a job that didn’t fully satisfy him — Italy, I am afraid to say, is a tough place to live happily at the moment. And he just didn’t make it back. What makes me cringe the most is that Simone never had the chance to go home, to reflect on how the new things he saw far away had changed him in very profound ways. Sadly, he never got to grow.
I don’t even want to sound like a jaded hippie nearing his retirement age, but when shit hits the fan like that, there’s not much one can say without sounding like a bloody moron. Shit happens, and it happened to my dear friend: Simone, you will be sorely missed.
All of you… take home whatever point you need. I’m not advocating against bicycle touring (in fact, I just spent 5 days cycling from Kuala Lumpur to Penang) or visiting the ‘Stans. But I just want to make people aware that while we are en route to our dreams, we are all living life. And in life, shit happens all the time.
As far as I’m concerned, my take home point is that I started living free only when I stopped being afraid of dying, and embraced the unknown with travel. The ensuing wealth of experiences was what Simone was finally after. I think that he no more wanted to be a cog in the wheel. His daily life needed a serious shifting of gears. But death, I’m afraid, is always real and something to consider as a potential part of any trip. Rest in Peace Hell Pollios, beater of a hundred bloody snares! I salute you!
Marco “Monkey Motherfucker” Ferrarese