Greece

Gus Mattammal

Hello All!

(I am issuing the usual length disclaimer here…you have been warned)

I am wrapping up my stay in Greece; highlights of my travels so far:

Athens

Average high temperature: 114° F

Average low temperature at street level: 90° F, at 3am

Average low temp of my 2nd floor hostel room: 95° F, at 3am

The good news is, if you wander around in 115 degree heat all day and stay out until 3am with people from the hostel, then when you return to your room you are so tired you fall asleep in spite of the temp. Additionally, 95 feels remarkably temperate compared to 115. The bad news is you wake up 5 hours later at most bathed in sweat, which is not a great feeling. Before Athens I had never in my life willingly taken an ice cold shower, not even after a day of beach volleyball in the summer in Santa Monica. But now my eyes have been opened to the near religious experience a cold shower can be.

On the bright side, I think Athens is a fascinating city, and the view of the Acropolis up on the hill, especially at night, is wonderful.

I have discovered that just as I prefer American diner food to the food served in “nice” restaurants, I also prefer Greek diner food to the food served in the “nicer” restaurants. Chicken souvlaki, with fries, tomatoes, and onions all wrapped together in a pita, mmmmmmmm.

Santorini

Wow.

Some places are nice, some places are pretty, some places you wouldn’t go back to, and then some places are just wow.

Wow.

Santorini is a caldera rising up from the bluest water I’ve ever seen anywhere. Possibly the Cote d’Azur in France is bluer. Possibly. It’s hard to believe. But even the Cote d’Azur wouldn’t have the volcanic cliffs rising straight out of the water.

I arrived in Santorini late at night, and while on the boat I looked at the map, and the distance from the harbor (no places to stay) to the main city of Thira (good youth hostel) looked no more than 5 km. No problem, I thought, I’ve run 5K before. Not with a 50lb pack, of course, but how bad could it be? And when we pulled into the harbor, and I first saw the cliffs, I was stunned by their beauty and tricked by the illusion of distance at night. It sure looked like a 20-25 minute walk up to the top.

Well, I think based on how long it took the bus to get down the road when I finally left Santorini, it was probably about a 4K walk up a steep, winding road to the top of the caldera. Then it was a hilly walk of at least 5K after that to Thira. Of course, I had no water, it was hot, and about 23 of the way up I slumped against the little wall that prevents you from falling over the cliff and debated sleeping right there on the side of the road. The only thing that kept me going was the thought of how much hotter it would be when the sun came up.

It took probably close to 4 hours to make it to Thira. I thought I might die before then. When I got to the hostel I was the only person in my room full of bunks and so I shouted at the tops of my lungs “Yes! I made it!” Then I noticed the room partitions didn’t go all the way to the ceiling, and I heard a lot of people in adjacent rooms stirring. Oops.

If I ever become filthy rich I will pay to have a sign posted at the harbor which says:

“If you’re a stupid American even thinking for a second you’re going to walk up this road, forget it and just pony up now for a taxi before they all drive home and you’re stuck.” I think that will help.

I spent all of my time on Santorini either hiking or swimming. The thing is you have to do one to do the other. All the towns on Santorini are on the top of the caldera, and the water of course is on the bottom. So you have to walk down somewhere between 300-600 “stairs” to get to the water. I put stairs in quotes because after all Greece is a foreign country and American ideas about things don’t always apply. I always thought of stairs as being somewhat regular, at least vaguely flat, and not completely covered in donkey doo-doo.

Yes, you can hire a taxi (taxi = donkey) to take you up or down the steps. After watching them cart off some German woman who fell from one and apparently broke either her ankle or leg, I decided I’d just take the exercise, thank you very much.

So, you do the 300-600 steps in blistering sun and heat. That’s OK, because the water is absolutely glorious. The problem is you have to walk back up at the end, and when you get to the top you need another swim.

(Other good news: constant hiking, swimming, and sweating half my body weight every day has reduced my lovehandles to 1996 levels. It’s very exciting.) Anyway….

One day I walked down the wrong set of stairs to the water, and ended up at a beach with no shade or cliff diving. In the distance I saw the beach I wanted, with both these things. I really didn’t feel like walking back up the 300 steps and then hiking over someplace to walk down a different 300, so I conceived a brilliant solution: I would simply hike along the bottom of the sheer caldera cliff to save time and effort. I paused a moment to revel in my brilliance.

An hour and a half later, when I was only around 23 of the way there, I found myself standing at a curved rock outcropping I couldn’t see around, on a ledge barely wider than my right foot (which is wearing one of those canvas ninja shoes, not exactly suited for climbing), while my left foot, and left arm (holding my bag with camera, water bottle, Lonely Planet Guide to Greece, and Greek cookies) are dangling over empty space, approximately 40 feet over a pile of sharp looking volcanic boulders. My only grip on this rock outcropping was with my right hand, which is clutching a tiny little flat piece that sticks a couple inches out.

It was at this moment that I paused to reconsider previous thoughts about personal brilliance and, more broadly, general personal decision-making capability.

Then, since I had gotten myself in a position where it looked riskier going backwards than forwards, I swung my body around the ledge as hard as I could, and started grabbing for anything to hold onto. Thankfully, I found something, and I found myself pasted to the rock not unlike Tom Cruise in MI:2, only facing into the rock instead of away. Then I inched my way forward to a safer bit of rock. It took me roughly 2.5 hours to get to the other beach, but the shade and the cliff diving were worth it.

The moral of the story: I’m just like Tom Cruise, only a little bit taller. And not an actor. Or rich. Or a teenybopper sex idol. Or married to Nicole Kidman.

Later on I was sunning myself on a rock just above the water line, which is safe inside the caldera because the is almost no wave action; the outer walls of the caldera almost eliminate wave action. It was so beautiful, and comfortable, and warm… it was a little piece of paradise.

Just as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard a change in the water sounds, and just for the heck of it I sat up to look out at the water, just in time to get drenched by the first of several big waves. Thank god I had hung my bag with camera, et al up high on a boulder. My towel, clothes, shoes, and water bottle were all swept into the sea, and I had to retrieve them. Then suddenly the water calmed down again.

Later I asked at the hostel desk, and it turns out the Santorini, like the LA basin, is extremely active geologically still, and like LA, is hit with many many small earthquakes every day, which are more or less imperceptible but often produce bursts of waves. As always, I learned this crucial bit of information after the fact.

Iraklio

A mini-Athens, with a great museum of mostly Minoan treasures. Took the bus to the ruins at Knossos, which are spectacular.

Rethymno

Spent most of my time in this town on the beach. Spent a whole day playing beach volleyball and swimming, and got a little sunburned. Neat town with narrow winding streets, a huge Venetian fort on the harbor, and a neat guy named Zaharias who looks like he might be an ancient Greek. He makes cool stuff right there in his shop out of onyx from the hills of Crete.

Part of my traveling strategy is to blend in as much as possible in the areas I am in. This strategy proved itself to be working in Rethymno when I tried to follow some German and Dutch people I was hanging out with into a bar. I was last in line, and as I tried to enter the big beefy Greek security guard put his arm down in front of me to bar the way. He started talking to me in Greek, and of course I didn’t understand him, so I looked at him quizzically and pushed a little against the arm. Big mistake. All of a sudden he grabbed me by the arm and started dragging me down the steps to the street. I started protesting in English that I didn’t understand what was going on, and one of the guys in the street asked me where I was from. As I answered “The United States”, the beefy security guy grabbed the top of my pants with his other hand in a manner clearly preparing to literally throw me into the street (he appeared more than capable of doing this) when the other guy rattled something to him in Greek ending with the word “American”. All of a sudden, everything stopped and the guy let go of me and said “American??”

“Yes,” I said, “United States.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he says, and makes this grand sweeping gesture of entry into the club.

It turns out that they segregate the clubs in the tourist areas into those clubs for Greeks, and those for tourists. Cuba is also like this. After I got inside and found my group, I discovered that the more I thought about the whole experience, the more irritated I was, and so I didn’t stay long. I think it’s that I hadn’t shaven since London, plus I was wearing plain brown pants rather than jeans, shorts, or the generic absurdly tight pants that certain European men seem to fancy.

Hania

Another neat town with nice beaches and neat winding streets. Spent an hour and a half watching a guy make carpets in the traditional Cretan style, which is around 6000 years old. Absolutely fascinating to watch. The yarn is made by other members of the family who raise sheep, and he makes all the dyes he uses himself. The only thing that he buys is the feeder string that the yarn is threaded onto. He said if he made that also himself no one would be able to afford a carpet. His work is stunningly beautiful, and when I return someday with a nonzero bank account I will buy lots of his carpets.

Athens Again

Now I am back in Athens relaxing. The heat wave is broken; it didn’t get past 95 at all yesterday. Athens is really quite pleasant when the weather is nice. Tomorrow I will go see the National Archaeological museum, and then I fly to Cairo. I have met many interesting people so far … staying in hostels is a great way to meet people, and that makes up for the fairly primitive level of services (e.g., no seats on toilets, no hot water, and other mainly bathroom-related inconveniences). In the next stage I will test my four years of sales experience against the mightiest adversaries in the world: the salesmen of the Egyptian bazaars. We’ll see how I do ….

I hope everyone is well, especially the ones who actually read this far. Take care!

© Gus Mattammal, All Rights Reserved