The bus twisted and turned up the mountain, climbing higher, the landscape growing dustier, accented here and there with pink and white flowers, windows reflecting the June sun as it beat down on the Isle of Lesvos, an ancient and storied island that has weathered centuries.
We passed through small Greek towns and sprawling farmland, where goats and cows grazed, seemingly unbothered. As we ascended yet again, the bus stopped, and our group of twenty or so people got out and started walking, the dust of the road softly whipping around us in the breeze, the Aegean Sea glittering in the distance and the outlines of other mountains, on another shore, coming in and out of focus.
Onwards we climbed, higher still, into an expansive vista at once beautiful and polluted, small bits of trash here and there becoming piles, out of place yet part of the landscape; we had reached the dumping grounds of Molyvos, a coastal village of Lesvos. Almost suddenly, we came upon a line of abandoned fishing vessels, an eerie presence given our distance from the shore; they seemed a row of sentinels, marking the entrance to a valley that has long been a wasteland for all things worn and forgotten, left to wither in the sun.
As we walked into this valley, faded piles came into focus, and the faint outlines of red and blue objects became recognizable. In pictures, they are bright red and cobalt blue, moistened with water, their size doubled as they wrap around a human form: life jackets, meant to keep their wearer alive, and well. Hundreds of thousands of these jackets were strewn about the dumping ground, piles becoming hills, all framed by the mountains.
This was, we were told, The Lifejacket Graveyard. But it was also a memorial, a landmark of a landfill, for each life jacket represents one person who had successfully landed on the shores of Lesvos after a treacherous 4.1 mile journey from the coast of Turkey — from those other mountains, silhouetted in the distance, glistening on the horizon.
In recent years, months, weeks, each life jacket had adorned a doctor or a lawyer, teacher, artist, scientist, business owner, builder; a father, mother, brother, sister, daughter or son — someone who had fled their homeland for a better future, leaving warfare or political unrest in Syria and Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, West Africa or the Congo, hoping to make a better life in Greece, Germany, Europe.
As we took in this scene of discarded life preservers, overwhelming in their numbers and state of disarray, we were reminded that these devices represent life, not death; that they represent resilience — of the human spirit, of human determination, of humanity; that each one belonged to someone who made it, someone whose story continued with their arrival to Greece, someone whose story tells of the future, not just the past.
With this understanding, we began our descent, eyes fixed on the horizon.