Thursday, September 11, 2008

Surviving Santorini

It might not be so bad to be a stray dog or cat somewhere in Greece. People pretty much tolerate them lounging around. I am sure that some of the restaurant owners in Adamas feed the cats who seem to have the run of the town most of the time; they beg at the feet of diners or chase each other under the tables. The diners never seem to complain and the restaurateurs don’t seem to discipline. Early in the morning I saw the same cats sitting on tabletops in some of the open air tavernas. This became information I tried very hard to forget again at dinnertime.
And the dogs certainly sleep peacefully on the streets, they don’t seem to mind the people at all. In Santorini today I saw a sordid and brief lovemaking session between a small tannish bitch and a somewhat bigger mutt in front of the doors of a bank.

Being a stray cat or dog certainly beats being a donkey hard at work in Fira. Dozens of them are forced to climb up and down the caldera path packing people and baggage from the port at the bottom to the town at the top. From my bedroom window I hear the bells begin early in the morning followed soon after by the sight of eight mules following each other on the long slog down the steep hill and then back up again. One mule master sits atop a swayed back in the middle of the pack with his long switch bidding them on.

On Milos, the calm waters and blond beach of peaceful Paleochori banished all travel stress from my consciousness and I reclined topless with a dozen or so other bathers and dipped myself into the translucent waters that revive and cleanse.
In comparison, the black stone of Kamari Beach on Santorini is cluttered with tourists chattering away. Non-Greeks troll the beaches with their laminated cards advertising Henna tattoos and massages. Is it really possible to squeeze out a living selling massages for 15 Euro on the beaches of Santorini?

The sound of the rough surf charging to the shore sends me dreaming away for a few hours; but, soul searching evades me on Santorini.

Arrival in Santorini was a confusing adventure. For reasons I will never understand, the only ferries from Milos to Santorini arrive at three thirty in the morning. They drop tired and inexperienced travelers at the port way at the bottom of the caldera with few clues on how to get to the town of Fira all the way on the top.
Along with hundreds of other travelers I choke on diesel exhaust fumes in the giant hull waiting for the ship to dock quickly and unload us before it carries on to Crete. Cars, trucks and busses all idle in the cavern with throngs of people waiting for the giant steel door to lower loudly and release us into mysterious territory.

My Australian friends from back on Milos are journeying on to Crete. They bid me farewell at the ferry’s lowest passenger deck and remind me to be careful and watch out for myself. I think I might be able to find my way into Fira and stay awake until reasonable morning when I will go find Maria and her rooms-to-let. In my anxiety about the move from one island to the next I decided to book ahead this time.

The ferry liberates us out into black night and hundreds of people pile out looking like the UFO docking scene in the film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Confused, beat and with cars clipping my heels I decide to abandon my plan of finding refuge in an all night café somewhere in the center of who knows where. Better idea to listen for English speaking tourists trying to book late night rooms with local domatia owners and go with them into the uncertain terrain. Find a safe place to rest for the night, if only for a couple of hours.

Seven of us pile into his dilapidated van that chugs its way up the switch back road from the port to the top and Fira. I was crazy to think I could have done this alone in the middle of the night. Hundreds of cars, busses and foot soldiers are all filing up to the same place. Sandwiched between a wide eyed woman and the grimy window, I can still make out the majesty of Santorini through the uncertainty and the dust on the glass. Bright lights sparkle along the top of the caldera and the moon is almost close enough to touch.
We arrive at the domatia with too many people and two few rooms. A phone call and an argument in Greek ensue and now I am going to some other place with a charming backpacking couple who has not slept in two days.

It is four a.m. and all is not well. The room has no windows except for the top of the door which I have locked and locked again and locked a third time. I keep reminding myself about the people next door who would hear me if I needed them but the whole thing seems a little suspicious compounded by the unsettling odor in the bathroom. The funk of the room has won over and I am staying awake until daybreak, hiding out in my sleep sack wearing the same clothes I’ve been in all day.
At first dawn I am set to run away. The domatia owner tells me he will give me a better room if I stay another night. I decline. He offers me a coffee and a ride into Fira. I accept.

I am dragging my bag up a long path of steps. It is eight in the morning in between the Greek Orthodox Cathedral and The Hotel Atlantis and I am quite certain Theodoros is only being polite when he asks me IF I know where I am going, for clearly I do not. But, I do find Maria’s phone number in my book and Theodoros calls her for additional directions. He says Maria is waiting for me further down the road and gives me his card.
"Come later and we will have coffee," he says,
"If it is the afternoon we will have wine."

The Arhontiko Apartments are an oasis tucked into the side of the caldera overlooking the Sea of Crete, Nea Kameni and Palia Kameni Islands. I have scrubbed the ferry ride and distress off of my body and I climb the ladder to the loft bedroom that has the first double bed I have seen since leaving New York.

I will sleep well tonight, I think, after the sunset and a glass of wine. It is eight in the morning. Outside the mules are passing by my window on their first trek of the day up the caldera path.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Captain Miltos

“You are frightened now, Elizabeth?” Miltos asks me.

Yes, I am frightened now. I tell him the truth which makes him laugh. The wake rushes behind him as he steers us out into the bay. Waves are breaking against the side of the boat. The mood is uncertain. It is eight in the morning and he seems less surprised to see me than I am to be here. Sleepy Adamas Port is disappearing behind a cliff corner; there is no one else out on the water this morning, and this is not a dream.

It was when we were drinking shots of ouzo on his boat last night at the dock that he reminded me of his offer from several days before and asked me again to join him in the morning for fishing and lunch on the boat.

“I will show you how to fish.” Miltos tells me after he finishes tying lines to drop in the water for the next day. He is smoking his pipe and we are drinking out of two shot glasses he borrowed from Marinella’s Taverna across the way. I am considering the proposition and how to choose it. The church bells sound off nine o’clock in the evening, I am hungry and the ouzo is working on me.

I thank him in Greek when he pours me another shot of ouzo. He tells me you are not supposed to thank Greeks when you drink.
“Yia mas!” Miltos insists, “Because if we were sitting in a bar drinking all night and you thanked me every time I poured you a drink we would not have time to talk about anything else.”

He tells me he is crazy and from the moon and that he never wears shoes. I believe him because he also tells me that he is very kind and I can see this truth.
There is a commotion with a woman on the path. Miltos grabs a long rod from the floor and uses my shoulder to balance himself as he jumps from the boat. He fishes the lady’s pink hat from the water. She bows and thanks him again and again.
“I am a good neighbor.” He tells me when he returns.

Our conversation is interrupted by the passersby wishing him good evening, and the boy who has a lot of questions about the sea, and the other man who wants Miltos to take him fishing.
I say he seems to know so many people in this town. He tells me they know him; which is different. His eyes shine and he tilts his head to the right when he smiles from behind his thick black beard and mustache.
“Life is too short, you must make many short plans. Tell them Captain Miltos taught you that.”

He asks me again to meet him in the morning to go fishing. The ouzo is making me light headed, I do not make any promises.

“I might be here at six tomorrow morning,” He tells me, “And I might be here at seven but I will definitely be here at eight, we will go then.”

I did not sleep well during the night.

Miltos tells me the boat is five meters long and thirty-six years old. He is standing in the hole at the back from which he steers. The sun rays look like stars on the water. He asks me if I am okay and I tell him I am.

The sea is rough in the middle of the bay but calms when we get to the other side. Miltos gives me a line and instructs me to hold it out into the water like he does, pulling at it gently trying to lure the fish in.
“Anything?” he asks, referring to my line, “Anything yet?”
“Not yet. But soon.” Miltos says, “We have time, and we have dessert.”

The fish are not biting so we pull in our lines and go into a cove and try for octopus. Octopus lure is made of four small fish tied to a foot long link of chain. Miltos slows the boat and drops the line into the water and we wait. He tells me that when he catches an octopus he pulls it out of the water and holds it up by its neck and he says,
“Tell me, where are the others?”
When the octopus does not confess he kills it by slamming it against the side of the boat. He says he will teach me how to do it.
I tell him I am not a torturer or a killer.
“Okay,” he says, “I will do all the killing.”

We motor in and out of the coves and I am laughing a big laugh.
White goats graze at shore. Miltos says there are sometimes seals in this area.
“Fucking seals! They put holes in my nets.”

There is no one out on the sea with us. Not another boat, not anything or anyone. I think maybe I am strong enought to swim to shore, but what would I do after that. I tell him that maybe it is my fault the octopus are not biting today. I think I could be bad luck. Miltos says he is sure I am good luck. He starts the boat up again and takes us to church.

The tiny church is up a hill inside a hidden cove. There are no roads leading to the church, the only way to it is an approach by sea.

We dock the boat on the tiny pier and walk barefoot up the short rocky road. Miltos opens the iron slide bolt of the small door and cool air from inside blows out onto my face. There is a small step up into the church and we must bend in half to enter through the short door. A kerosene light is burning in the center alter. An elaborately carved confessional stands at the back with deep blue velvet drapes covering the windows. On the chalk white walls bright paintings of Greek saints with golden halos hang in wood frames. There is no ouzo in the alter cabinets.
Outside, Miltos rings the bell to show me how it works and we look across the bay at the fishing village of Klima down by the sea and the town of Plaka above it on the hilltop.

Miltos has brought us a lunch of fresh tomatoes and bread. We rip pieces of bread from the loaf. He washes the tomatoes in the sea water to make them salty and we take bites from them as if they were apples. He offers me water but does not tell me he had mixed it with ouzo. He laughs at me when I take a sip. I refuse the shot glass he pours for me and decline a sip from the bigger bottle that he promises is pure water. He remarks that I have stopped trusting him.

In the center of the bay the waves get rough again.
“Are you still frightened now, Elizabeth?”
I tell him I am not frightened. Miltos laughs and drives the boat faster.