I am staring at the reflection of my passport photo in the windshield. I’m on a road winding through the forested northwest slopes of Mt. Etna, and every time I pass from the treeshade to the sunlight on a curve, there it is: my face, with a silly grin; my signature, in Sharpie; the bold words USA (in frills), PHILADELPHIA (where I was born) and New Orleans (where the thing was issued, but which European hotel clerks always assume indicates where I live, so that’s what they write on the check-in form I have to sign).

My passport is there, up on the dashboard, staring at me accusingly, because it needs to dry out. It needs to dry out because I took it swimming with me this morning, breaking a half-dozen of my own iron-clad travel rules in the process.

As my Brazilian friend Daniel would say: lemme ‘splain.

When I left Taormina this morning town, I followed the same twisting road winding down to Giardini Naxos that Jay and took on scooters seven years ago (on which ride, if I recall correctly, I bent my right thumbnail back almost in half flicking the starter, which still ranks as my one and only scooter-related injury). I followed the valley of the Alcantara Torrent inland to the point at which it issued from the tall, narrow basalt walls of the Gola di Alcantara, which means Alcantara Gorge but actually translates literally (and more poetically) as the “Throat of Alcantara.”

South of the Taormina promontory, all of Sicily is Etna-formed territory, and the Throat of Alcantara is one of its most striking features. The volcanic basalt here cooled into long, geometric columns ranging from pentagons to octagons — geological cousins to Giant’s Causeway in Ireland and Devil’s Tower in the States — all fitted together in giant woodstacks and pipe organs. These formations have subsequently been lifted, twisted, and turned by volcanic convulsions, carved into a narrow, twisting slot of a valley by the Alcantara, and polished to a smoothed, gleaming leaden gray by millennia of water flow.

The effect is remarkable, and in the wide valley floor where the close walls of the Throat open up, allowing the Alcantara to braid itself into several streams rushing around low, pebbly island flats, Italians by the dozen were strewn out, raisining themselves. Their kids, too impatient to lie there roasting for hours on end, were splashing in the shallows or wading up to the opening of the Throat, where the water swirled above their heads in a deeper pool and they could haul themselves up onto some rocks and challenge each other to jump in.

I, of course, stripped off my shoes and socks, zipped off the legs of my convertible pants (momentarily becoming more interesting than their sunbathing to the surrounding Italians), undid my belt with the camera bag on it and slung it over my head and one arm like a bandoliero, emptied my pockets of cell phone, wallet, and change and stuffed them into my shoulder bag along with the pants legs, took my shoes in one hand, and started wading across to the far shore of the braided streams and as close to the Throat as the dry land went. There, under a scrubby tree, I broke another major travel rule. I put down my shoulder bag — which contained several thousand dollars worth of electronics, my irreplaceable notebook, and various and sundry other items — took off my shirt and left it on top, and then walked away from it all, around a corner and well out of view.

I waded into the deep pool at the Throat, holding my camera bag and belt way up over my head, and sort of breast stroked/doggy paddled to the slick rocks at the entry to the gorge. One of the Italian kids, a morbidly obese little guy of about 11 called Tancredi (it’s nice to know that some names from Sicily’s early medieval Norman dynasty survive down to today), saw me and called down for me to hand up my camera to him so I could use both hands to scramble up the slippery rocks.

I thanked the kids, left them to dare one another to jump off the rocks, and continued wading up the now much deeper waters inside the Throat, taking pictures and fretting endlessly about the camera over my head and the unattended bag way back on the beach. I got several hundred yards in, just before the turn where the Alcantara rushes down over a series of waterfall rapids, when it became too deep to go any further–not to mention too cold. Tancredi had told me the water temperature was about 14 degrees (57 degrees Farenheit). “In the afternoon, it gets as high as 16 degrees, but now, it’s about 14. Maybe even 13!”

By the time I got back, it was getting on lunchtime. The little pebbly beachlets were clearing out, and the kids were gone. I managed to slither down the rocks, swim/wade back to dry land, and located my (thoroughly unmolested) bag. In wading back across the stream braids to the far shore — at some point I had lost my Molefoam, and the sharp river pebbles were murdering my heel blister — I even managed to find a nice souvenir stone with just the right leaden color and smoothed geometric form to recall the geology of the gorge. I sat on a rock to dry out a bit, reassembled my pants and footwear, and hobbled back up the trail to the cafe-cum-car park at the lip of the valley.

It was when I went to the bathroom and unzipped my fly that I realized there was one precious item I had not left unattended in my bag on the beach. My moneybelt was still safely clamped around my waist under my clothes, and it was dripping wet. Inside it was a small Ziploc-type (and, apparently, not waterproof) baggie filled with folded-up twenty-dollar bills, and a soggy, lumpy roll of some kind of cardboard that turned out to be my passport. Cursing, I took it out, flattened it as best I could, and placed it on my dashboard when I got back in the car to hit the SS 120, the old back road towards Cefal├╣.