Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Spetses Run Away

I think I have developed a new superpower.

Not really a superpower in the strictest sense of the word, I suppose. I cannot use it to save anyone from a burning building, it will not help heal the wounded or see through matter to locate treasure. More accurate than superpower would be to call it a remarkable ability to go in the wrong direction each time I disembark from a ferry on a new island. That must be worth something, no?
It is really quite extraordinary how I always choose to head in the opposite direction of satisfactory accommodations.

The familiar sounds of rolling wheels staggering along newly discovered streets are unmistakably me for the first several moments after arrival in any new destination. Sometimes the roads are paved smooth, other times they are made of tiny pebbles or large cobblestones causing me to feel ever so much more self conscious rambling around the newest maze. I am louder when I am lost and uncertain in these new towns.

And so begins the hunt for a clean, perhaps even inspiring, room for my temporary stay in each new village or town.

With my head up – always, or so I hope… so I think… so I try.

After a kilometer, more or less, without success café patrons see me retracing my steps as I do the Charlie Brown return walk to the port with my head tilted downward in shame and disappointment.
And then I begin again, this time to the…. Left?

This reliably consistent method now makes me laugh. And try as I do (and I do try) to sense the new environment with an open heart, get a feel for the area, a clear picture of the surroundings and make the smart choice. Oh, for God’s sake, Beth, won’t you just read that Lonely Planet book a little more carefully, it is filled with instructions! And all along, I am making good choices, decent ones at least, but still the hunt for accommodations bedlam always starts out somewhere between something of a silly mishap or, in the worst of times, a complete disaster. Time and again I manage to take a left when I ought to have made a right. Or I walk right when the best path would have been straight ahead.

This is my newest personal challenge.

Those who dare travel with me in the future would be wise to remember that I am unreliable with the first steps out of the boat and onto the port. It is actually creepy how confidently I walk in the wrong direction.
For me, it is the long haul, I suppose.

It should be noted, this phenomena does not happen when arriving by bus.

Winter is starting to take over Greece now. The tourist season is waning all over and many businesses have closed down for the season.. The Cyclades are rainy and cold, as is the lush green Pelion, and parts up north. I had thought of a stop in Ikaria, an island near Turkey, but the weather there now is threatening and gloomy, and so, longing for the sun, I have headed further south.

I have learned that I want to be near the sea as much as possible and to stay mostly out of the cities.

One night in Athens with beautiful Michele was fantastic. We first met in our beloved Paros and arranged to come together again in Athens, which worked out perfectly. Funny to meet people in distant places and feel you feel you have known them for lifetimes. Michele and I became fast friends; we did not have a lot of time for the slow get-to-know-you, acquaintance dance. Lovely Michele is among the greatest surprises on this journey.

Athens is fun when you share it with someone. We stayed in Plaka and dined alfresco with the picture postcard Acropolis staring down at us. We drank too much Tsipouro, Ouzo and red wine and now I am nursing a hangover on the ferry to the still warm and sunny Saronic Gulf Islands off the eastern coast of the Peloponnese.
I am on the speed ferry to the island of Spetses, farthest of them all but still only two hours away from Athens. The speed ferry is a different boating experience than my usual trip. It is not nearly as friendly nor as comfortable as traveling on the slow boats. We are racing away in the enclosed pod in pre-assigned seats and I hope I will understand the Greek announcements so that I get off on the correct island. I am ready for relaxation, a few good walks, and the sun soaking into my body again.

We make a short stop in Poros on the way to Spetses. I am not trusting my instincts this time when a quiet little voice in my head whispers, “Perhaps you should leave the boat now?”

Instead, I ignore the mumbling in my mind. Maybe it is the name of the island reminding me of my Paros paradise. I am fooling myself and return to reading my book, and I choose not to watch as we pull out of the harbor and onward to Spetses.
This will turn out to be a mistake.
In Hydra harbor it is impossible not to gaze out of the scratched plexiglass window. In the appealing little village people laugh and sip coffee at cafés so close to the water’s edge they might fall in, or at least get splashed by forceful waves reaching over the cement wall. The town rises high over the low port and up into the hills.
Yet again, I am ignoring my sense of this town and the warm feeling I have just looking out of the window. I am determined for Spetses.

There are hardly any other tourists on this ferry now. Just myself and the blond woman in a seat up front who keeps staring back at me, why? And there are a dozen or so locals returning home again. And the surly boat staff who tossed my bag around like it was a sack of potatoes when I got on back in Athens. I am suspicious of the vibe here and try to temper my irrational judgment.
Create your reality, I tell myself. Expect good things. Here too you can learn something.

I am disregarding all signs, humming and sticking my fingers in my ears to make it harder to pay attention. I should have gotten off the boat an island or two ago. I am going against my instincts, looking down, closed heart…. all of it. Not kicking and screaming, rather it is with resigned acceptance that I will soon relinquish my power and give it over to the man who decides for me when he takes the handle of my suitcase and tells me to come see his hotel.

I am disregarding the dark energy that wrapped around me the moment I lugged my bag off the boat without any assistance at all from the three strapping ferrymen smoking their cigarettes in the exit.

Or, perhaps I am making it all up, you create your reality, remember. Maybe I am bringing the darkness with me.

Never mind being ignored by the strong seamen who will not help any of us heft our luggage off of the boat. Not everyone needs to be cooperative. I am not taking it personally; nor do they lend a hand the elderly woman with bungee-corded boxes attached to her overfilled rolling suitcase which is splitting at the seams. See, I we are all invisible here on Spetses.

I lift the bottom of her awkward contraption over the lip of the ferry exit door and she accepts the assistance as if it were her birthright. I can hear the two people behind me sucking their teeth and feel them pushing ever so gently on the back of my thighs with their suitcases to move me along faster. The older woman slaps my hand away when we clear out onto the flat cement port and rolls her heavy suitcase over my feet as she waddles away.

I do not like it here.

There are no cars on Spetses, only thousands of motorbikes and some horse drawn carriages. Now a professional, I set out on foot away from the port determined to find a nice room with a balcony and a place to write and read in the mornings. I am sensing go left, it will be only another mistake in a day filled with them. It is early afternoon.
After a few minutes it occurs to me that I am, once again, headed in the wrong direction so I turn around and there is Pavlos, the aggressive hotel owner who had been following me, and now insisting I go to his small hotel up the hill from the ferry dock.

Pavlos is oozing counterfeit charm all over me. He asks where I am from and continues to pressure me to tell him how long I will be staying on Spetses even though I repeat four times that I do not know.
“I have not decided,” I tell him, “It depends if I like it here.”

Later he will accuse me of misleading him when I leave his hotel and the island abruptly. He will change the rate of the room from what we agreed in the beginning. And Spetses will turn out to be an unfortunate stopover on an insignificant little island.

Why choose now to depart from what I have learned is always the better plan, Beth? Why now become frightened and close down? This is exactly the time to trust myself and I am failing completely. I should have gotten off the boat back in Poros.

Consider whispers in the future, Koritsaki.

It can get better, I think, and I remind myself to open my heart, even in this place. Dodging motorbikes trudging up the hill to the hotel Pavlos tells me about the weather and the several beaches on the island. He suggests I rent a bicycle to tour around but he cannot give me the name of a good restaurant.

“And how long will you stay on Spetses, two days or three?” He asks for a fifth time.

There are wonderful lime trees growing out of the ground in the enclosed courtyard which could turn out to be a decent exchange instead of a balcony I had hoped for. Pavlos makes me a cup of coffee and unfolds a tiny map to tell me about the roads and beaches. Things are changing. The rooms are clean, if also boring and I will stay here for the night, and see about tomorrow. I am hungry and sunset is coming fast and soon.

I drop my bags and take off to explore a little of the area and find out a few things. Evading motor bikes on this car-free island is the main form of exercise and it could be effective, but I seem to be the only one who is getting in the way. The drivers are swearing at me in Greek even though I inch along carefully plastered up against the sides of the dull buildings. I am looking for something interesting, something inspiring, and something to eat.

This is the worst meal I have ever had and I cannot finish the tiny fried red-bull fish and cold beet greens, I do the best I can and wash it down with the swill he called red wine. The first bad meal I have had in Greece. I can no longer fight it, I felt safer and happier in overcrowded Athens and Thessaloniki. At eight o’clock I am taking my life in my hands attempting to get back to my room put on a face mask, give myself a pedicure and eat a dinner of chocolate covered biscuits I hid in my suitcase for just this kind of an emergency.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Best Remedy For Fear Is Faith

Tomas and I are driving to South Pelion through the mountains and then down to the shore through towns where insistent waves crash over the short stone wall that separates the sea from the road. Water splashes the windshield when we drive through the large puddles that cover the pavement. Tomas laughs as often as possible.
We cruise around turns, around hills and mountains. There are no straight-aways here in The Pelion.
There are not straight-aways.
There are sometimes sheep.

I tell Tomas I am impressed with these well-paved, pothole-less, smooth Greek roads. He laughs at me; it is not the first time he has laughed at me and it will not be the last.

Tomas dives Greek fast, explaining that it is not really so fast. Only thirty kilometers around turns. I don’t mind the speed. I am reclining in the passenger seat enjoying the sea view to my right, mountains to my left. Shoes off; it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a car.

I ain’t scared a’nothin’!

Clicking photographs like a typical tourist.
“El la, come on! Stop with the camera!” Tomas tells me. It sounds like yelling but it is just talking loudly.
The scenery changes so much every several feet… meters… I am going metric.

Every time I quiet my mind and open my heart something unusual and unmistakable happens. I tell myself to remember this, do not forget what happens when you have faith. Having faith that you are exactly where you ought to be always. Persist with faith when you are in trouble, confused, scared, and in your own way. Persist and see what happens next.
Remember this, Beth.

We are headed down to Palio Trikeri, a tiny island on the southern tip of Pelion Peninsula. My journey continues to get even more remote.
I am very happy to have met Tomas. We laugh throughout the day, he is very smart and charming. I would not have gotten all the way down here without his generosity and readiness to adventure.

Tomas stops a car with two men headed north. They give instructions for travel down to the little port at the very end of the peninsula. They give a phone number to call when we arrive at the port to arrange for a small boat to pick us up and take us to Palio Trikeri. That is how it works, you call when you arrive on tip of the mainland and someone comes to bring you across.

This is not the first time I am impressed by the carefully detailed instructions given by people in the know to people who are in the want-to-know. There is much willingness to take the time sharing information here in Greece. People offer seemingly small particulars that make the journey a little more comfortable, a little more exciting, often more special. You learn a lot when you let people in on your plan.

This conversation between Tomas and the men is all in Greek in the middle of the road, car window to car window. There is no need to pull over out here, no one is passing, no one else is here. I am pleased that I understand some of the conversation. I miss much of the vocabulary but the openness is unmistakable.
Down at the port, the boat arrives soon after we call. My bag is again ridiculously large for such a small island. It is funny now, and not such a hardship, I drag this baggage around without much fuss these days. I have unloaded a few unnecessary items making the weight lighter and bought a jacket and pair of boats to handle the rain and chill in the north. Still, I feel fairly compact and I like it. Maybe now I am finally turning into a minimalist.
It is a five minute boat ride from the mainland to Palio Trikeri. We recline on the top of the boat against the glass windshield in the late afternoon sun. I am so very happy to be here, I try to tell Tomas but cannot explain how big a deal every moment is for me. How the simple things like a little boat ride to a remote island sets me into a state of gracious joy that is so big it hurts in my heart from the stretching.
One day Tomas will read my blog and understand.
The port at Palio Trikeri is a tiny mecca of a few tavernas, rooms-to-let, and a mini-market. No cars here, only footpaths. We head along the only road leading up a hill and away from the port and run into two women resting on a bench along the hill. Lovely, warm visitors ask us if we are headed to the monastery where there are rooms to sleep overnight.
Sleeping in a monastery, this is unexpected.

The accommodations are modest, clean and comfortable. The community bathroom and cold-water-only showers are easy discomforts to overlook. Behind the walled fortress a large enclosed garden surrounds the magnificent church. In the mid-1940’s this monastery was used as a prison holding communist Greek women. We are told the surviving prisoners reunion here yearly.

There is a grand energy in this place, nothing like anything I have felt before. Tremendous peaceful solitude and a knowing calm. It is so lovely to share time here. I feel as if there is nothing between me and the universe. This is far way from chaos of Volos and the trepidation of arriving in Pelion as it was closing down for the season. I have a memory the warm concierge in Volos begging me not to go to Pelion and now it all makes sense. Faith again.

A monastery.

I tell Tomas I am going to cry. He tells me there is no reason for that. I tell him this is what I asked for, this is what I wanted exactly. I am too moved for dry eyes.
A caretaker lives on the island, another person maintains the well attended grounds. A priest wanders from time to time; we do not see him often.
Fifty or so cats have the run of the place, they are sweet enough but will not allow you to come near them. Fig trees, giant evergreens, plants of all sorts make it a botanical spiritual refuge.
A supreme feeling of serenity breathes within the enclosed walls of this monastery.

We are hungry now so we stroll back down to the taverna at the port where the owners greet us as friends and we dine like royalty on fried zucchini cakes, delicious cabbage salad with carrots and onions in olive oil, beets, bread and fried cheese. Octopus in red sauce; beaten forty times on a rock when it was caught to soften the meat.
We devour whole boiled shrimp that we rip apart with our hands. It takes me awhile to get into pulling the head off the body to lick the juice out of the skull but I do it eventually. And then I tear off the legs to suck the meat out of the claws. I am different now.
“Can I eat this red piece?” I ask pulling a strange dark pink shape out of the body of my shrimp.
“If it is soft, eat it.” Tomas instructs.
I will remember this advice in the future.
We drink Tzipouri – my favorite! Made from grapes with anise added sometimes, poured in a shot glass it looks like water, add an ice cube and the drink turns into a milky white mist.

We wander back to the monastery sated and sleepy.

A true sanctuary in a cloud of unbelievable tranquility and I am all presence listening to the wind whipping through the trees. Watching the night sky, constellations and the stars thatare so close to me here I think I can reach out and touch them. Too many shooting stars to keep count, I have had to stop trying to keep track, and who needs to keep score anyway.
In my mind is this wonderful truth, the remedy for fear is certainly faith.