9 x 37: Greece Trip!

Greece, Week 1

Arrive in Mykonos

IMG_2315After a bus, train, plane, bus, ferry, and shuttle, I finally arrived in Mykonos from Istanbul late at night on August 23rd. I didn’t see the white buildings as we drove through steep narrow hills. In fact, I only saw the long rows of strange tents as we walked the long, sandy pathway of Paraga Beach Hostel. Kicking myself that I had not gotten a private room at least for my first night, I found my bed #1 in Hostel Cavo #6 at the very end of the pathway, next to seven others just like mine. In spite of the late hour, music blared from a half dozen clubs in every direction. I dropped my backpack in the locker next to seven others just like it nearby, grateful at least that it wasn’t a tent, and headed straight to the bar by the water.

There, to my surprise, I found the waxing gibbous moon and God’s sly sense of humor. Over a quiet beer and the water, I realized I was housed at the end of the pathway so that I was away from the noise of passers-by, and closest to the water of all the other travelers. The constant music kept me company. I was exposed to world-travelers who had been either been to where I was going, or wanted to know where I had been, and usually it was both. Unbeknownst to me, I was staying at a primarily gay party hostel, so overall my stay would be “safer,” or at least free from compromising distractions I’d come to avoid. In other words, I was in the safest place to let my hair down while traveling internationally solo. Finally, I was right on the rocky cliffs and water along Mykonos’s arid and rocky coastline, south of the main Mykonos town area, Fabrika. Nice place to start my dream trip to my dream island in my dream country.

Overcome with exhaustion, I slept until 5pm the next day. That’s 17:00! I was so confused when I woke up, I ran to the restaurant, in my pajamas, for assurance. I thought for sure my phone’s clock was wrong. There was no way that it was 5pm, and if so, that meant the Sun was setting in the west, but because I had arrived late the night before, I didn’t really know what event that meant.

IMG_2279“That’s west?!?,” I exclaimed to Hlias, the Greek server who seemed to enjoy my befuddlement as I pointed to the obviously setting Sun.

“Yes, that is where the Sun sets,” he grinned, and I immediately understood I was one of many hundreds of travelers who comes to this place each summer, and he was one of many servers whose Greek wisdom and sarcasm rang loud, harmlessly laughing at our expense. My first day in Mykonos was about recovery from jetlag and rest by the pool and crystal clear beach, completely lost in a strange happy confusion.

Slideshow Week 1

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Be in Mykonos

IMG_2539Awhile back, a friend taught me the value of being in a place while traveling. Not visiting, and not quite staying, but being. So often, we (ok, I) rush through sites, bothered by the logistics and the speed of movement, distracted from things that are not important. Instead, being in Mykonos for almost a week has brought me familiarity, companionship, and friendship with both locals and internationals alike. This week, I awoke every day to the sound of the Aegean Sea, its wind, and my own curiosity of what I would like to do that day. Most recently I woke up to Greek coffee, Greek yogurt so thick the spoon stands tall in it, and yoga on stages by the ocean as waves crashed over rocks nearby.
After several tries to write about the beauty of the buildings in town, I’ve given up. You’ll just have to trust me, the thousands of pictures in the world, and all of the other people who have worded it better than I could even attempt. They are beautiful. At one point, a very friendly cat followed me, stopped me, and curled up on my feet even though I was still standing. Cats are everywhere on the island, but this one found me. I shared my granola bar with it, I named it Disco, and it continued to follow me after I left.

IMG_2549Hostel life is awesome. It’s a whole new world, and a brand new day, every day. I met folks from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Barcelona, Ghana, Guatemala. Three different sets of hostel-mates, all coming and going, stayed in Cavo #6 while I was there. I did not meet any Greeks except for the people who work there. Every day the same staff… I learned how they arrive to Mykonos for four months without a day off, stay in the same accommodations as the guests, and never get breaks. Most return to Athens to continue their other jobs without a break. Some were really wonderful about it, others really grumpy. I don’t blame them, having seen how hard they work while watching everyone else lounge on the summer beach and party… Another plus of being somewhere for more than a couple of days is how the staff takes care of you. One woman was changing the sheets on other beds and fussed at me in Greek that I was not allowed to borrow other pillows, but then gave me a fresh set of sheets with a giggle. Another had my coffee ready before I even got to my seat. The more I see as I travel, the more I realize we are truly all in this together. We all live under the sun and the moon.

IMG_2012Unlike other travelers, I am not on holiday. After some adjustment, I improved my work vs. play time each day. Sadly, the internet was not cooperative in this significant week of acclimation, so I worked hard to find solutions. I plan to get a dedicated internet connection. The rest of my family traveled in the days without constant wi-fi, I wonder how they did it. My guess is they planned more than I have, and guessed less than I will.

Leave Mykonos

Today, my birthday, I leave Mykonos. I need to get to Athens today so I can get to Volos on Sunday so I can get to the Alonissus island on Monday. There I begin the research internship on North Aegean Dolphin Project’s research vessel for a big Week 2 in Greece.

Slideshow Week 2

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Travel

IMG_2768My week began and ended with overnight stays in Volos, filled with friendly quiet people and disturbingly loud graffiti. Once on Alonnisos Island, I met the staff of “MOm/Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal,” and Niki who runs the Northern Aegean Dolphin Project at the MOm’s Information Centre for the Monk Seal, as well as the rest of our science crew, Gilliam and Karine from Switzerland, and my new bestie, Elodie, from France. Together we got on the heart and soul of the operation, the 13 meter IFAW Odyssey sailing vessel captained by none other than Kostas, for a week’s worth of valuable dolphin research.

Reason

Enough with the details. What you really want to know about is the dolphins. That’s why you came to read this and a lot of why I came to Greece. To look for dolphins, right? Well, you’re right, but I found a hell of a lot more than dolphins while on the boat. I found experts in marine mammal science who’ve been on these North Aegean waters for years, friends who rely on international volunteerism to make research projects like this work, and infinite shades of blue mixed with some clarity in the summer North Aegean sea. And lots and lots of Greek salad.

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A quick word on international volunteerism. I don’t know much about it, or what your take on it is, and after this week I don’t quite buy the terms ecotourism or volunteer tourism. It’s challenging because there are so many causes and so little time to support them all. But, if you can find something like I did, an international internship with a scientific study through an NGO where your funds directly support the project and the impact is distinct (and in my case a passion for dolphins shared with like-minded researchers), then the notion of paying to volunteer might be worth it no matter how weird it sounds.

Imagine!

IMG_2973Every day we stared at the water, usually quietly, for five days. This was always followed by a swim in crystal waters with beaches on different islands and homemade lunches. (I made Jersey Dogs when it was my turn, complete with homemade seasoned sausage “hot dogs” and tiny tiny pickles.) Over the course of the whole week, we saw all of the islands surrounding Alonnisos, and the week’s activities blur as a result. Eventually I learned the names of all of the islands surrounding Alonnisos, and quickly forgot them all.

IMG_2837One day it was too windy to spot dolphins, so we hiked through an uninhabited island except for a monastery with one monk, a garden, and some donkeys. I repeat, I was on a boat in the Greek Isles and hiked in the same day. The monk provided us rani and water once we dressed in full traditional clothing. We tried to find George, the man who milks goats, to teach us how to do so, but he was missing for days. He eventually joined us for a day of sailing, jumping off the boat to find fig trees, or other fisherman as they went by. Another day we were given special access to the island where the seals raise their young and observed the island’s nature with the biologists from the National Marine Park.

IMG_3121When we were on dolphin duty and asked only to focus on the water below the horizon, my eyes played tricks on me and spotted dolphins EVERYWHERE, let alone caused some wicked optical illusions. For someone used to juggling many tasks (at times, too many), this was a huge contrast. At first it was really uncomfortable, but then it grew on me. Elodie, also my dormmate, and I would chat pleasantly for hours at times while staring from our posts, or quietly sit for others comfortably. That’s a really long time to break bread with a perfect stranger, and it just so happened we have a ton in common (including our birthdays), so it worked. Through the National Marine Park and this particular study area, I reflected on the past year. As each island quietly glided by, it was like each one was in a silent parade of every good part of me and every bad part of me. Several times I sent quiet thanks to everyone whose supported me through this crazy journey, wishing I could send them some of the peace I found in the water, right next to the dolphins that I just simply could not spot…

IMG_3000But, then, I did spot some! I saw a pod of striped dolphins about a mile out, HOURS into a staring marathon, right when I was about to give up hope. Bravo! Altogether our team spotted common, bottlenose, and striped dolphins on almost day of our journey. We photographed them (specifically the dorsal fins for photo identification) and later analyzed the images for Niki’s extensive, albeit incomplete, population distribution database.

Due to funding issues, we are the last group to go through this multiple-year study, ever. It is sad, but Niki encourages us with her plans to bring this data into her future doctoral thesis (in Greek, in case you were curious). She continued her evening lectures with us as though there were no end to this project. Also, she took us to an authentic Greek cuisine restaurant where I enjoyed tapas-style beet salad, grilled octopus, anchovies, sardines, urchins, mullet, muscles, and French fries. Oh, and garlic. Lots of olives and garlic.

People

IMG_2888People like Niki and Kostas are rare in a world of so many amazing souls. What they do and how they do it, let alone why, is unparalleled. I saw Niki take care of the company, her family, her project, and us simultaneously with nothing but grace and experience (and a cold to boot). Kostas, well, like all great captains, you just have to see the magic in action in order to believe it. Efharisto!

Elodie and I, with our Swiss friends, discovered much of the island in time including Hora, the old village, on the very tippy top of the island past the goat farms and chickens. Oh, and I rode in a vintage 50s VW dune buggy through the windy streets of Patitri- that was awesome, thanks Andy!IMG_3182

During my Alonnisos trip sandwiched by Volos nights, I finally met Greeks. A lot of them. From ferries, bus rides, cafes, my airBnB host (thanks Dennis!), and every single person on the street who helped me find my way, I was greeted with smiles, some ancient-Greek-wisdom-thing that only they have, incredible food and coffee. So many of the folks I met here are leaving, in light of the economic crisis, and taking their multiple masters degrees in engineering,  science, and English literature with them in hopes to find work elsewhere. It, like the stark graffiti on the walls of church after countless church, is eye-opening. IMG_3186

!

On the ferry back to Volos from Alonnisos (pronounced “ALONE-i-sus”), another pod of striped dolphins swam directly in front of the bow of the massive deck, apparently in a hurry to get to the swell beneath and catch a ride. I quickly counted them and watched for coupling behavior like Niki taught me.

Four (FOUR!) jumped out of the water, in line,
in unison. I thought that was really neat.

Week 3

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IMG_3379Full of surprises this week was. From spontaneously hiring a scooter to see the cliffs of Meteora to cliff jumping in Corfu, I find surprise around every corner. Of course, it’s easy to be surprised when you have no idea where you’re going or how you’re going to get there. I suppose that’s the whole point of my Week 3 in Greece. To NOT know, and to have all of the time in the world to figure it out.

IMG_3272I only found out about Meteora (near Kalambaka and Trikala, two very charming towns in the heart of Greece), because a friend told me about it in Mykonos. He made fun of me for how I had no idea where I was going “after the boat,” but also suggested I hire the scooter for the trip instead of taking public buses. Literally in between rain pours and in a split-second decision, I did exactly that. I’ve never ridden a scooter before, and it was hands-down the best 11 euro I’ve ever spent in my life. Seeing those cliffs without a roof over my head or window to block my view would have made me cry if I weren’t so busy scootering. I surprised myself with the hyper stunt, and the poor scooter guy had no idea what to do with me. I later made fun of my Mykonos friend because I found my spontaneity can get me in some really cool places, including two nights in the Meteora Hostel with highly educated Greeks and travelers alike. Then I realized it really doesn’t matter because we all enjoy our time in our own ways, and I’m fortunate to have gotten this far in spite of others’ encouragement and ideas.

IMG_3332Getting to Corfu was just as spontaneous. As soon as the ferry pulled in, I knew this place was different. Geology, architecture, flavor, it’s just completely not like the Greece I’ve found so far. The wild shuttle driver to the Pink Palace Hostel yelled into his cell phone, blared music, smoked, shifted, and somehow drove through the tight steep streets, passing cars in a torrential rainstorm. When we pulled in late at night over streets flooding with rivers of rain, I could see something like mountains in the Frankenstein-like lightning strikes. Nothing could compare with what I discovered in the morning after a night of being lullabied by thunder and rain. I was greeted by a full rainbow on the horizon of the Ionian Sea, Corfu’s famous jagged rocky cliffs, the pinkest place I’ve ever seen in my life, and a FULL breakfast and dinner with my stay. Yeah, I was surprised, too.

IMG_3895I came to Corfu because my brother just happened to recommend it, also since I’ve been in Greece. It never occurred to me that my travel now is akin to most others’ college days like his was, and it is fun comparing the now obvious notes. Thanks to the internet, I have received sound clips of my niece singing me The Rainbow Pony song, pictures of my nephew’s first day of preschool, and stories of their parents’ long summer turning into fall. I can’t get homesick when I feel so close to people even when I’m so far away, except there are no words to explain how much I crave JIF creamy peanut butter (no European substitute will do).

One interesting thing I’ve observed about the isles is that everything is uphill, especially in Agios Gordios, Corfu. It’s some strange phenomenon, even if you’re going downhill there is still some up to it. Together with the uphill streets and over 100 stairs connecting the Pink Palace’s amenities, my legs have strengthened and the weakness in my knees lessoned. Last week’s boat-ness strengthened my core. Exercise-wise, things are looking up!

IMG_3470Ever been to a Greek baptism? Now I have! Dancing, music, food, wine, kids running everywhere with balloons… the whole thing just like the movies. I never even saw the kid that got baptized but for the party which ensued. The wild animal, I mean shuttle driver, was among many of the staff partying and dancing in circles. I have no idea why the hostel guests were invited and the whole thing was a surprise, including meeting the owner of the residence with the butcher, but by this point I’m accustomed to surprise in Corfu.

IMG_3528Probably what has surprised me most this week is having time. Time laying around like the book I finally have the time to read. Time to work, write, read, study (school is also starting, surprise!). Time to explore the same beach over and over again, because I swear I missed count of how many white rocks there are vs. black pebbles, and later discover the strange popping noise the waves make as they leave the pebbles. Time for new friends and old friends, time for new me and old me. Time to take care of my ill hostel-mate (it’s just a matter of time before I catch someone’s cold), time to get caught up with time. I found the time which I lost and was making up for.

IMG_3520I don’t know how many nights I’ve been here, I’ve lost count. But I don’t want to leave until I kayak up to a perfectly good cliff and then jump off of it. Because without that today, Corfu’s strange land of many surprises will just feel like more of the same, and who wants that? This is how I know it’s time to leave tomorrow, although I still have no idea where or how. It should come as no surprise that I will know when I’m ready.

For the first time ever, I have time.

Week 4

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This short week begins in Albania (read about it here) and ends in Zakynthos. In fact, I tried to go from A-Z in one day! Alas, in Igoumenitsa, I needed to backtrack to Corfu because there is no boat or reasonable transportation that continues to Patras, then Kyllini, then Zakynthos- it’s the only Rome2Rio.com and internet fail I’ve bumped into thus far, so heads up if you just happen to be trying to do the same obscure thing I was attempting… I call it my Corfu Snafu.

Couldn't resist the pun...

Couldn’t resist the pun…

Returning to Greece, and then unexpectedly to Corfu, was very confusing to me; it felt like I lived here and was returning from holiday. EVERYTHING I’ve seen for a month has been brand new, so to see and feel ANYTHING familiar felt odd to me. Like familiar is the new new… Like I said, it was weird. Even the Greek alphabet looked familiar to me, though I can’t read it at all (yet I’m beginning to notice spelling patterns and that confuses me even further). Nope, I’m still just a visitor in Greece, just like all of my young, wise travel friends.

As you can tell, I’ve met a ton of travelers on this journey and I feel I have observed something in common with just about all of them. They always want to go, they always want to stay, and they can’t put much before their immediate needs as a priority. They also find companionship very easily, as long as it’s along the way. So even though everyone does it differently (yet all of us on a shoestring), travelers are connected by some universal map of understanding, and it’s usually to have a good time. I like all of this, a lot, even though sometimes I feel like we are easily ‘stuck’ in this mindset of constant movement.

Interestingly, I had a hostel-mate who didn’t speak English and we silently agreed to not speak. So we had private silence in a semi-private space normally consumed with public chatter. Needless to say, I didn’t get her name or where she was from, although she was very pleasant company.

IMG_3937On the plane from Corfu, through some island that we hopped on, I asked to use the restroom. I was then escorted on the tarmac to the personnel tualet! I wouldn’t have asked if I had known that would happen! Not embarrassing at all… The escort (what do you call those folks that guide the planes on the tarmac? that guy) told me all about his family in Indiana that he may or may not ever get to visit, all while yelling over the engines of the double prop planes. Once we made it to my island, I was met by a storm and roughly five more changes in plans, including an angry taxi driver, a firefighter, a man who didn’t speak English, and a crazy drive to a mansion on top of a cliff, where I stay alone.

I’ve enjoyed the variety of the different hostels, yet I’m VERY ready for this private night in Zakynthos. I haven’t had one in a month. That’s 28 out of 44 days… All of this time around loner travelers has made me need a Jess night, ha! It has a California king bed and I’m feeling happy, albeit a bit agoraphobic.

I’m overwhelmed with the hospitality of the great folks in Zakynthos (thank you Stratos!). I made a few local friends, like Nicole who took me to another village for wine and rattled off her professional dreams and adorable things like how she ‘couldn’t be bothered with things like grammar.’ Now that school has started, my play time is much less and I get to balance work and school with planning/internet time. I’m not on holiday, nor am I returning from anywhere. I’m just continuing through my trip, in awe most of each day that I get to do these things. No complaints here. I mean, come on, look at ‘here.’

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Alas, I must go just like the rest. I’m feeling the crunch to go and to see as much of Greece as possible in what ‘little’ is left of my stay. I feel like I forced Zakynthos a bit but am happy with the rest of my unplans to explore. My next step will find me, not the other way around.

 

 

 

 

As I learned from one Greek, “to hurry is to die young.”

Week 5

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IMG_3970I finished off Zakynthos, and the Ionian Sea, with a ride through the villages on an ATV that I named Zorba. I’m not gonna lie. I hit a wall somewhere between Zakynthos and Athens on Tuesday or Wednesday, maybe both.

I’m not sure if it was the long day of riding Zorba, hitchhiking to ferries, ferries, and the bus ride through the rain to Athens, or the sick folks in the hostel that kept us up all night, or the strange smells and culture in Athens… but for a whole day I was exhausted and ready to be done with Greece. Then on Thursday, when I woke up before the sun rose and walked passed the lit Acropolis to catch the ferry to Santorini, knowing exactly where to go to get my coffee and the subway to the ferry, I was OK again. I’m told the worst thing about travel is travel.

IMG_4225This little yellow Smart Car and I did not make it up this hill from the new port in Santorini. The owner just happened to be riding up on a scooter with someone else, and in a split second we switched places. I rode up on the back of someone’s scooter, he drove the car that I’d rented to the top where it promptly ran out of gas and overheated. Eventually I made it to Perissa beach to meet friends I’d met in Albania. But not before I drove through the cliffs and tiny roads in a silly little go-kart like car, happy to be back on the Aegean.

IMG_4259Me loving Santorini is no different than the millions of people who already do. It’s impossible not to love. I may love it for different reasons, however. I finally found a hostel that has everything for a great rate, so I booked a week in Fira. Always there is one thing missing, here there is everything. Towel, hot shower (with fresh water, not salt), kitchen, private light with plugs, great internet, movies (I miss movies, a lot), pool, and walking distance to everything. Fira is a great place.

IMG_4198After one of the best days of my entire life on an old fashioned ship’s calderra tours and dinner in the famous Oia sunset, I recovered with a massage I could not afford. Yet, during the massage, I realized that maybe I couldn’t afford not to have it. I have traveled for four months. This is my last full week of Greece and travel until the next big trip. Even though I’m traveling solo, I have never been more un-alone than on this trip. There are just so many people to meet and keep up with. I’ve seen so many wonderful places here.

It’s hard for me to understand that I do not live in Greece, especially when I’m surrounded by perennial travelers and locals.

Week 6

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IMG_4599When we both arrived, in a daze, to Mykonos six weeks ago, Claudia became my first friend. I saw her eating chips while we both looked over the water. I said, “I’m happy,” like she was just supposed to know exactly why a perfect stranger would say such a thing on a sunset beach in Greece. Turns out, she did.

Goodness, I’ve met so many great folks since my dear Guatemalan friend in August. I came to Greece to be alone and yet I was surrounded, constantly, by amazing souls. I smile, because out of all dozens of them, I was among the most prepared with the absolutely the smallest pack. I had Qtips, eye drops, fingernail clippers, clips, handy wipes, batteries, water purifiers, flu and allergy medication, tweezers, etc. Whatever anybody needed (with the exception of my peanut butter), I had and shared. Whenever I wanted company (or electricity), these friends, and the great folks that work at all of these hostels, were there to take care of me. Our families are far away, but we all kinda took care of each other…

IMG_4151Claudia, new to travel just like me, impressed me in her solo travels through the Middle East and Europe. Lots of folks do this, and female solo travel is not such an accomplishment as the learning from travelers and what is taught along the way. Social media has changed the landscape of how travel is done and how travelers stay in touch, even once their journeys are complete. B, my long-lost Brazilian kindred spirit “without lockers,” would agree. Or at least he would pretend to, in jest, while making fun of me for being “lazy” in the world’s most beautiful places…

IMG_4428Despite the constant tug of feeling like I should be doing something else, Santorini was very good to me. I’ve wondered what I did in my last week in Greece. I’m pretty sure I was in Santorini, then Crete, but maybe I was in a dream. I really don’t know anymore. Some days I wrote, or worked. Others I rested, recovered from my first bad gyros, or researched. Most days I went to see the famous sunsets of Fira or Oia, surrounded by friends and love, never alone.

One day I went to Akrotiri and saw the ancient ruins in an archeological site that was not complete. I mean, the ruins were complete but the dig was not. When it was discovered in 1967, they did not focus on digging up the past, but instead built the infrastructure for decades of visitors and researchers to come. It was complete with walkways, indoor structures, and immaculate signage. This previous ancient outdoor village was now one of the cleanest modern indoor facilities I’ve seen in Greece; free of graffiti, mini markets, and cats. It was simply there, in the past, cared for by people now who looked into the future then. I thought that was pretty cool.

IMG_4518I didn’t know my time in Greece would end with Crete. Unlike Santorini, I felt completely at home there and everything felt oddly familiar. I don’t know why. From the ancient palace in Knossos to the maze of streets in Rethymno, I felt at home. I hope my family will plan a holiday here someday. Maybe we can all go together sometime.

It makes total sense that Claudia, unknowing that it was my last night of my journey in Athens on layover before my very long journey home, called me to tell me about her adventures, now in Barcelona. I’m continually amazed at the wisdom behind these younger travelers (or maybe that it’s all so new it seems wise and I don’t know better yet). We chatted about our adventures these last six weeks. I was about to fall asleep on the phone, exhausted and at my physical limit from over 48 hours of no sleep, but yet I knew to relax and enjoy our conversation. Spending a lot of time in an ancient place taught me to not rush. I finally knew this.

Somehow, without me even trying,
everything came full circle.

…Shout out to some, but certainly not all, of said amazing souls I broke bread with… and a super special thanks to everybody else who bore me to get this far.

αντίο

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© 2015 Jess Rowell, Full Circle J. Productions, LLC

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