I’m currently sitting in a coffee bar in the village of Ormos Korthiou on Andros Island in Greece. It’s hard to believe another Friday has come so quickly. This time last Friday Lauren and I had just returned from a hike that took us up a nearby mountain to the ruins of an ancient Venetian castle. Little did we know that our Friday afternoon would take a rather eventful turn. As we were hiking down from the ruins, I was abruptly forced into running down the mountainside frantically yelling, “Tuheros! Ela!” As I began running, an overwhelming feeling of panic flooded my body.
This is Tuheros:
He’s about as sweet as he looks. Unless you’re something he wants to kill. When I watched him sprint away last Friday, I wasn’t scared about him running away from me. I was scared about what he was running for.
It’s been a while since I’ve last written something. Quite a bit has happened during that time. Lauren and I have been to Athens twice. We’ve endured two weeks on Naxos Island. We’ve been on Andros Island since April 1. We’ve stood in front of the Parthenon atop the Acropolis.
We’ve stuffed our faces with DELICIOUS souvlaki.
We’ve had our feet measured for custom-made leather sandals.
We’ve strolled through museums where purses somehow always find there way onto my shoulder.
We’ve set very early morning alarms to wake us before boarding very early morning ferries.
We’ve experienced quite a bit. Many experiences for the first time. There is, however, one thing we haven’t done since I’ve last written: flushed our toilet paper. Seriously.
An interesting thing can happen while traveling with no determined return date. Yes, we booked one-way flights… For the highly recommended price of $270. Funny enough, I booked our flights one Friday afternoon — while at work — as a means to escape the trappings of “work”. Anyway, while traveling with no pre-determined course or dates, it’s embarrassingly easy to forget that you’re traveling, to appreciate that what you’re doing isn’t normal, and to take for granted how remarkable your surroundings are.
Early on the morning of April 1, Lauren and I were five minutes into a pre-dawn taxi ride — circumstances one must readily accept while traveling on a budget — when Lauren tapped me on the arm so I would look out her window. This was our second stay in Athens in as many weeks. Two weeks prior we’d spent almost a full week exploring the sights and culture of Athens as tourists. So as we were driving away from one of the world’s greatest, most historic cities, I failed to keep my eyes outward, to absorb every last little bit of what I had too easily taken for granted. Out there, in the near distance, sitting atop The Acropolis in the pre-dawn morning, was the spectacularly floodlit Parthenon.
That morning was the second time we’d made an early morning departure from Athens. Two weeks prior Lauren and I took the first ferry out of the Port of Piraeus headed for Naxos Island. On Naxos, we were embarking on something new. Not only a new location, but a new way of traveling. Waiting for us on Naxos was a man named Stuart who would house us for the next two weeks. We first communicated with Stuart through a website — HelpX.net — earlier this year. Stuart is a “Host”. Lauren and I are “Volunteers”. To put it simply, HelpX is a cultural exchange. To put it unromantically, HelpX is a way for curious, adventurous minds to entertain their traveling urges on a meager budget while providing labor to those who need it on the cheap. In exchange for an agreed upon number of hours of work or an agreed upon number of projects to be completed — both of which are beyond reasonable compared to US work standards — hosts typically provide volunteers accommodations and meals.
Shortly after arriving on Naxos, Lauren and I boarded an older Mercedes with instructions to head to the town of Apollon. It didn’t’ take long to realize the bus we were on was vital for Naxians who needed to get around the island. About 20 minutes into our trip a group of Naxian teenagers boarded the bus. For the teenagers, this ride was a part of their daily lives, or those days which they attend school. Today’s bus ride was a little bit different, however. In the very back were two ghostly pale tourists sipping on beers, staring out the bus windows. We couldn’t help but stare, captivated by the beauty of our surroundings. The Naxian teenagers couldn’t help but stare, wondering to themselves and likely aloud, “Who the fuck are the two foreigners in the back?!”
Two hours and a bus transfer later we were introduced to Stuart. Shortly after our arrival at Stuart’s, we were introduced to what life would be like for the next two weeks. Stuart and I moved a wood-burning oven from his main home down to the “studio” where Lauren and I would sleep.
While Stuart and I moved the oven, Lauren was asked to collect kindling to help get the fires in each oven started. Without going into every little detail here’s what life was like at Stuart’s.
Heating? We chopped wood and collected kindling to light the aforementioned wood-burning ovens. Hot water? Showers? There was a solar water heater that produced almost no hot water due to rainy, wintry conditions, which meant we bathed with a bucket. Toilets? There was a toilet, but it was exclusively used for a singular purpose. Lauren and I were told to pee in the garden. Electricity? We had electricity for a few hours at night thanks to a diesel-powered generator. Internet? Stuart pilfered wi-fi from a local village that wouldn’t connect to my Mac. Stuart’s house was truly off of the grid, so life was pretty primitive by comparison to what we’re accustomed to.
Our first project was to white-wash (paint) Stuart’s bedroom. With minimal instruction Stuart showed us how to mix a bag of “lime” with water to create a mixture for applying it by brush to his bedroom walls. The lime, which is actually a derivative of limestone — an abundant stone on the island — was as messy as paint, but it was not something you wanted to get on your skin. I found this out the hard way. Apparently, lime will suck every ounce of moisture out of your skin producing some rather irritating rashes. What we were told would be a two-day project very slowly turned into a five-day headache. Like paint, lime gets everywhere. Like paint, applying it to the walls is much easier with proper preparation and tools. Our tools were less than adequate. We had one large brush, but the handle broke on day two. We had two chairs and a wooden plank for a ladder to reach the upper walls and ceiling. Preparation was basically nonexistent.
Painting is an undertaking (carefully chosen word) that is most effectively accomplished when roughly two-thirds of your time is spent taping around the edges, laying down drop cloths on the floor, and planning out the order of surfaces to paint. At a minimum, one should make certain that all necessary tools and materials are on hand and in ample supply. Maybe you get where I’m going with this… Nothing was planned, we didn’t have the tools we needed, the ones we had weren’t well suited, which is how a two-day project deteriorated into five.
Imagine our thrill when we finished painting only to realize the lime that dropped all over the floors — the drop cloths were ruined during winter rains that flooded the cellar — could only be removed from the floor by scraping it with one of Lauren’s expired credit cards and a used pre-paid Visa gift card. Thankfully Lauren hadn’t emptied out her wallet before we left the US.
Needless to say, after being trapped in the dungeon that was Stuart’s bedroom for the better part of a week, we were anxious to be outdoors, working in the garden and his small vineyard. Over the next week — weather permitting — we fertilized and cared for his grape vines. We also did a bunch of general Spring cleaning that Stuart was much too lazy to get around to during the dragging Naxian winter.
Despite the difficulties we experienced while staying with Stuart, I don’t know if we could have asked for a better introduction to this method of traveling. And to be fair to Stuart, many of the difficulties we faced were due to forces beyond his control. He fed us well. We enjoyed wine at night. We listened to music and shared an abundance of stories. If nothing else, the whole experience prepared us well for what lies ahead.
We’ve been on Andros Island since April 1. Like Naxos, we rode a bus from the port to where our host greeted us. Our new host is a woman in her early thirties named Assimina. Assimina was born in England to Greek parents and raised in Athens. She has lived on Andros for three years in a home that was given to her by her grandmother. Parts of the house date back to the 18th century. Most of the land on the property hasn’t been maintained for several decades. Frustrated with her life as a kindergarten teacher in Athens, Assimina picked up and moved to her family’s home on Andros in 2012. Late last year she co-founded a social cooperative based in the village of Ormos Korthiou that provides services and classes for local children and adults. During her time on Andros, Assimina has also worked at restoring the land on her family’s property so it can sustain a plentiful garden and hopefully someday soon some smaller livestock. As we did with Stuart, we reached out to Assimina earlier this year to see if we could come and stay with her and to provide her with whatever help she asked of us.
We’ve enjoyed some wonderful experiences during our stay with Assimina. Here are some of the highlights:
Assimina is a member of a seven-piece band in which she sings and plays the flute. Her band played a concert in the nearby village on our first Saturday night. Most of the band’s songs were cover songs of American and English bands. There was one song, however, that surprised us with its popularity among the audience members: La Bamba. Never would I have expected a few dozen Greeks to be able to sing along to the Spanish verses of the 50s classic.
The following week Lauren and Assimina spent an entire day in the kitchen preparing for the upcoming Easter holiday. Together they baked traditional Greek breads and cookies. They also dyed Easter eggs.
Easter Sunday is a very big deal in Greece. The children don’t attend school for the week before and after the holiday. Most Greeks travel back to where they were raised— more than 40 percent of Greece’s population lives in Athens — to celebrate the holiday. We were invited to celebrate Easter at the home of Assimina’s best friend Zefi. The easiest way to describe Easter in Greece is to combine the family and feasting of Thanksgiving with the religious elements of Christmas. The main course for our Easter feast was a backyard-roasted lamb.
A few days before Easter we were invited to have dinner at the home of an older English man named John. The three of us made a 35-minute drive to a small village where we had dinner with a wonderful group of people. John has lived on Andros for several decades after traveling here during his youth and deciding to stay. There was an older American couple in their sixties who live in Westchester County north of New York City. He was a former chemistry professor at MIT. She was a former psychology professor at Columbia. They own a second home in the village near John’s where they live for several months each year. There was another older couple in their sixties. She was American. He was Greek. They both spent a long time working as artists and working in the film industry. What stood out to me is the man is a friend who has worked with Erol Morris, the Academy-Award winning documentarian. We had a wonderful evening sharing stories about how we all had come to find ourselves sitting around the dinner table in John’s home.
This past Wednesday was my 28th birthday. Lauren and I took the day off from working. We sat outside in the warm sun and enjoyed relaxing with a box of red wine. Knowing how much I miss Mexican food back in the United States, Lauren made an incredible attempt to prepare steak fajitas with rice and beans as a birthday treat. For those who don’t know Lauren, we met in New York City at a bar in my old neighborhood in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She worked there. I drank there☺. Lauren made her way to New York from Arkansas to attend culinary school. So when I say she attempted to prepare steak fajitas, what I mean is she made fajitas that were exponentially more delicious than 99% of the fajitas you can order in the United States despite the limited ingredients and the language barrier.
Lastly, one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about staying with Assimina is I’ve gotten back into a decent exercise routine. Lauren and I have been doing yoga most mornings, and I’ve been able to do some additional exercising as well. I’ve even found myself a friendly running partner. And he definitely knows how to run…
“Tuheros! Ela!” As Tuheros came into view I saw a confused group of white goats unsure of why a 30-kilo animal was attacking them. As I approached, Tuheros darted off further down the mountain. He was now running even faster. As I approached him for the second time, I could sense that not only did he know I was chasing him, he knew he wasn’t supposed to be doing what he was doing. And he loved it! Next thing I know he had scaled a seven-foot stone wall and was making a break for a second group of goats.
Stunned by the frenzied pup, the adult goats didn’t have enough time to protect one of their young from Tuheros. The young goat fleed, but it didn’t take Tuheros long to get it by the neck and pin it down. By now, Lauren had heard my screaming and had emerged from a nearby church. She was now running, yelling at Tuheros. Meanwhile, the Camelback on my shoulders had gotten caught on a fence next to the wall Tuheros scaled seconds prior. After I freed myself, I dashed over toward Tuheros and the goat pinned beneath him. Tuheros sprinted off once again, but not for long. When I approached him this time he laid down knowing his fun was over.
As I held onto Tuheros, Lauren walked over to the small goat to make sure it was okay. It was noticeably stunned, and it had some twine tangled around two of its legs, but after a couple minutes of comforting, the little one ran off toward its family. We put Tuheros back on his leash and walked him up to the small church to take a breath and drink some water. As I poured out some of the water from my Camelback for Tuheros to drink I had to remind myself that he’s just a pup. He doesn’t know any better. He could have run away. He could have killed the goat. We could have had to tell Assimina we took her dog — who we thought we could trust — off the leash and he then killed one of her neighbor’s goats. We could have rolled our ankles. We could have found ourselves face-to-face with a few angry, largely horned goats. Ultimately, we found ourselves with Tuheros sitting, looking up at us with a big smile that unmistakably said, “THAT WAS FUN!!!”
How was your Friday?
I mentioned earlier how many things we’ve experienced for the first time. I’ve been trying to keep a list of these things to share. By no means, does the list below cover every possible first time experience. Just some of the fun highlights.
- being upgraded to first class
- hand-washing all of my laundry
- letting someone take a scissor to my hair who isn’t licensed and is doing so for their first time
- being outside of the US for more than 10 days
- not shaving for more than 10 days (not my best look)
- realzing I need to live by the water. Waking up every morning, being able to look out at the sea has made me realize I need to live near the sea or ocean
- I’ve completely lost track of what day it is. This happens almost every day!
What I’ve read during our travels:
Four Seasons In Rome by Anthony Doerr
We came to Rome because we’d always regret it if we didn’t, because every timidity eventually turns into regret. But the enormity of what I don’t know about this place never ceases to amaze me.
To A God Unknown by John Steinbeck
Joseph” she said. “It’s a bitter thing to be a woman. I’m afraid to be. Everything I’ve been or thought of will stay outside the pass. I’ll be a grown woman on the other side. I thought it might come gradually. This is too quick.” And she remembered how her mother said, “When you’re big, Elizabeth, you’ll know hurt, but it won’t be the kind of hurt you think. It’ll be a hurt that can’t be reached with a curing kiss.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
His early failure had released him from any felt obligation to think along institutional lines and his thoughts were already independent to a degree few people are familiar with. He felt that institutions such as schools, churches, governments and political organizations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth, for the perpetuation of their own functions, and for the control of individuals in the service of these functions. He came to see his early failure as a lucky break, an accidental escape from a trap that had been set for him, and he was very trap-wary about institutional truths for the remainder of his time. He didn’t see things and think this way at first, however, only later on.