Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

We’re not cooking with gas October 15, 2008

Greetings from Naxos, Greece, the largest island in the Cyclades. There are dozens of Greek Islands, but the Cyclades chain is probably the most famous due to its proximity to Athens (six to ten hours by ferry), and the fact that it’s the chain that includes the two islands with the highest name recognition – Santorini and Mykonos.

As for Naxos, the ancient Greeks believed that Dionysus (aka Bacchus) – the god of wine and revelry – came from here, and there are still some ancient Greek ruins scattered along the coastline, including a pretty amazing arch right by where the ferry comes in. The middle of the island is filled with olive trees and vineyards, and I booked a little room with an ocean view which ended up being a rather large two-bedroom, four bed suite with no chance of seeing the ocean whatsoever. I hate to be judgmental, but the claims of an ocean view have been irrevocably exposed as a balls-out lie. Nonetheless, it’s spacious, so if any of you are in the neighborhood, come on by!. Although the view is blocked by the hotel in front of it, the room is just 50 meters from the beach…and a mere 5 kilometers from civilization.

Unlike Santorini, which is very tourist-focused and has several decent-sized ‘towns’ spread quite a bit apart, Naxos consists of many independent, tiny villages a few kilometers from one another. In Santorini, you are very isolated from the rest of island (25 minutes by car, an hour by 4-wheeler) and the routes are quite mountainous and not walkable. However, when you’re in your little town (Perissa, in my case) the area is heavily laden with grocery stores, restaurants, souvenir shops, and bars, Granted, 75% of them are closed in October, but there’s still a fair offering. Every building that isn’t a hotel is set up to sell something to the people staying in them, and whatever you need (within reason) can be found.

I think one of the things that perhaps made me a little overconfident about what I might find in Naxos is that Perissa (on Santorini), had not one, but two 24-hour bakeries. I don’t know how the local baker got swindled into this deal, but it seems unfair. They’re already making their product, do they really need to available at any time to sell it?

Meanwhile, on my birthday I took a late night walk in the moonlight. I decided to go by the bakery I came to prefer for its lower prices and friendly owner and see if he really was open and if he had any spanikopita. He had been there the last two times I’d gone by, so I was surprised – if not a little dismayed – to see him dozing in a chair at 11:30pm. Remember those “Time to make the donuts” ads for (Dunkin Donuts? Well, on Santorini it’s ALWAYS time to make the donuts.

In contrast, when i got to Ag Anna here in Naxos, I was informed that there are no longer any restaurants open this time of year…and the one mini-market would be closing in ten minutes (at 7pm). I rushed over there, and was immediately flummoxed. It was extremely small. And the cabbie who had charged me an arm and a leg for the ride to my studio was running the cash register. At first I thought I was hallucinating or maybe he was a twin or something, but after I stared at him for about five seconds in disbelief, he threw up his hands and gave me a sheepish smile as if to say, “Busted!”

It was like a scene from an Adam Sandler movie: You’re on a small island and everywhere you go, the same guy is working there, waiting to overcharge you. The same guy played (poorly) by Rob Schneider. Unrelated, there was a Rob Schneider doppleganger working at the hotel in Santorini. i considered pointing the uncanny resemblance out to him, but didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

As for the market, I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised by anything anymore, but this place hit a new low. Among the limited offerings and vast empty shelf space, one could find potatoes with very healthy looking 3′ sprouts (at 1 euro a pound, a virtual steal!), oranges from 1981, a variety of cheeses that expired in August, and a package of hotdogs with no expiration date, but an usual white hue along one side. In the mini-market’s defense, they did have piles and piles of canned dolmathakia (dolmas) – rice wrapped in grape leaves (as well as a variation in cabbage leaves), but unfortunately for me, I don’t like those.

As with the markets in Santorini, the place was desperately in need of restocking. The freezer had two gigantic restaurant supply-sized bags of peas and an entire octopus. You probably think I’m exaggerating, but this was no squid. The arms alone were the size of specimens more commonly seen at an aquarium. However, between the dog food and the dish soap I did find a package of linguine and a jar of Barilla spaghetti sauce. In need of protein, I threw caution to the wind ad bought a tin of meatballs. I know, I know. Normally I would be having the same reaction, but I’d already stared down an entire octopus, so I was feeling unusually bold.

Besides, I didn’t really eat much of anything today (mistakenly thinking I could get a nice dinner once I got here), and I’m hoping that they taste like Chef Boyardee ravioli or something in that ballpark. I don’t know that I’ve ever in my life WISHED for food to taste like Chef Boyardee, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

I hauled my wares back to my studio, and surveyed the scene. Somehow I hadn’t registered that one of the two kitchen hotplates was no bigger than the palm of my hand. If I had, I might not have gone with a meal plan that involved boiling water, because as it turns out, that was the only burner that worked. They’re electric and the light to tell you they’re on isn’t working, but I cranked them both up to to “3” (the max) and waited. After about five minutes, I came back and threw a little water on each of them. The larger burner didn’t react. The mini burner sizzled a little. Emphasis on the word ‘little.’

Long story short, I couldn’t really get anything warmer than tepid water out of the tap (something I will be discussing with the owner, as my shower was the same temperature), but I put a pot on the tiny burner, put a lid on it, and waited. And waited. And waited. And when the water finally got to a ‘pre-simmer’ (the most it appeared it would ever be able to achieve), I put the noodles in and waited, and waited, and waited.

In the end, they were crunchier than I might normally prefer, but they softened enough to be edible. In the same vein, the meatballs were bearable, and the tomato sauce they were in was better than the Barilla. The balls themselves were fairly standard, except for the unexpected yet unmistakable flavor of mint. It was an aftertaste, but mint is one of those things that’s so strong that even a little bit can be overwhelming. The effect was like a meatball with a smear of toothpaste on it.

Thankfully, the water here is not nearly so funky as Santorini, because one of the many things not offered by the Ag Anna mini-market was bottled water. For your drinking enjoyment, they carry a wide array of hard liquor, wines, and some orange Fanta. If you’re not in the market for booze, hopefully you’re looking for a sugar high and some orange dye.

Anyway, I realized I was thirsty about 10 minutes after I got back to my room…and 15 minutes after the market had closed. After making my linguine, I found a little tiny pot (probably meant for heating milk) and the same size as the little burner and boiled up some water. Well, I didn’t BOIL it, that’s not possible under the circumstances, but you get the idea. It’s my personal theory that if you’re going to drink something bad, may as well drink it through a veil of Earl Gray tea. Thankfully the tea tasted more or less normal, and a later sampling of the unadulterated tap water found it drinkable.

Food acquisition troubles aside, the Greek islands are incredibly beautiful – chalky white buildings along jagged coastlines, delicate olive trees, and endless blue water. I took the most gorgeous ‘sunset on the water’ photo today as the ferry was arriving in Naxos. Moreover, if you’re the kind that tends to wander on foot (like me) you will come upon hidden little spots with natural panoramas that are jaw-dropping perfection. Like something out of a calendar.

Otherwise, and to be honest, I am way out in the sticks. I thought I was in the sticks in Croatia, but I think I’ve topped myself here. For example, I have never actually seen a horse give birth, but if I had to wager a guess on the noise coming from outside my room right now, that would be my first guess. Seriously though, it’s kind of alarming, something akin to a child bawling mixed with a donkey noise, although it does help distract from the half-dozen roosters braying.

It probably goes without saying, but if you find yourself on Naxos and decide to drop by and crash on one of my unused beds, follow the sound of the distressed mule. I’m right next door. And if I’m already asleep, feel free to help yourself to some of the leftover peppermint meatballs in the fridge.

(And just so you aren’t feeliing too terribly sad for me, I will add that I ended up walking to Naxos Town this morning – which took over two hours. I didn’t mind. I could walk all day so long as it’s warmish and the sun is shining. Plus, I think it would have taken more like an hour if I hadn’t stopped on this one beach and also taken a bunch of picures on the way. And played with some cats. By the way: DO NOT PICK UP GREEK CATS NO MATTER HOW FRIENDLY THEY SEEM!!! They go from friendly feline to whirling dervish of claws, fur, and maybe even a couple switchblades in 0.3 seconds.

Anyway, I am currently savoring a lovely lunch rich with local feta and heavenly tzatziki and calamari and Greek salad AND it turns out they have free wifi, so I can post the blog! All’s well that ends well…)

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I’m in it for the t-shirt October 14, 2008

I woke up at 4am to a strange sound, only to find that I’d fallen asleep with the TV on. This time it wasn’t the wind. Or the crying dog. Instead, what had been the Jack Black movie “Shallow Hal” was now hard core porn. Like so hard core it was sort of fascinating from an anthropological perspective. There wasn’t much talking, and what there was wasn’t in English, but I will say the Greeks don’t waste a lot of time on plot and character development and watch your back should you ever come across a woman in a a nurse’s outfit wearing a back strap-on. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

It’s another sunny day here in Santorini, and I went for a long run this morning. The winds are less ferocious, and I wasn’t lacerated by a half ton of sand, which was a happy change from Sunday. Also, you should know that as of yesterday I am in training.

Against all logic and reason, I have signed up for a half-marathon in Istanbul on the 26th. My only goal is to finish before they close down the course. I’m in it for the t-shirt. How did this madness come about, you wonder?

Well, let me tell you: A few days ago, on the train from Bucharest to Sofia – the train I probably would have missed in a more efficient country where things move a little faster and tend to be on time – I met a lovely woman from Slovenia. She’s one of those people that you hit it off with immediately and then still like ten and a half hours and 246 miles (which means the Bulgarian train traveled less than 25MPH. Sad!) later.

Thus, it was a happy coincidence to discover that we were staying in the same hostel, especially since we got in late at 11pm. The next day we ended up going for a run together, and somewhere along the way she told me about the half-marathon she was doing in Istanbul on the 26th. My original plan had been to get there on the 27th, but I couldn’t shake the idea of the run. And the novelty. And having someone to do it with. And the fact that if I just tweaked my schedule a little bit, I could join her. I looked it up on the internet, and the last day to register was today. I know a sign when I see one.

To be frank, I have no business running that kind of distance. I usually run five or six miles, maybe seven if I get lost. However, at this point in my trip, the time I have remaining is about novelty and natural wonders and doing the things I really want to do, even if that just means spending two hours seeking out a thermal pool or going for a run on an empty beach.

For me, that has been one of the best parts about visiting Santorini this time of year. It’s the off-season and the beginning of ‘winter’ (albeit 25C/78F and sunny). The grocery stores are wiped out (and what’s there looks like it came out of a compost bin), windows are being boarded up, and all but a handful of restaurants are closed. If you came looking for nightlife or a swinging party scene, you’re SOL. However, if you’ve ever wanted to stroll down two miles of black sand beach under the full moon and not even see another living soul, this is perfect timing.

 

Excuse me while I do a little dry heaving… October 12, 2008

Admittedly, I’ve never been to Egypt or India, but if there’s ever a ‘world’s worst tap water’ contest, I’d like to nominate Santorini, Greece. It is AWFUL. Actually, that’s not a strong enough word: HEINOUS. HARROWING. HORRIFIC. BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD.

I thought maybe if I boiled it…??? I succeeded in ruining a perfectly good tea bag. Earl Gray, no less.

I don’t really know what is occurring, but I’d say the closest description is the ‘water cure’ at the Turkish baths in Budapest. I took a single mouthful of the salty sulfur water at the baths (out of the spigot intended for drinking), and it was warm and creepy, but bearable. The Santorini tap water is in the same genre, but not as curative. Just plain old gross.

As a coincidence (or is it???), I caught a small bit of ‘Erin Brokovich’ on the TV while using the wifi in the reception area earlier today. Just enough to remind me that the lawsuit was about poisonous water caused by PG&E. Just enough to feel a little tiny bit uncomfortable about all that I have consumed while on this trip.

In the same vein, I had my first glass of Greek wine today. A white wine apparently made in the traditional style. I had a sip, and I didn’t like it. The flavor was strange. Like herbs maybe. I couldn’t quit put my finger on it, but it was familiar.

I took another sip.

Oregano?

No.

Basil?

No.

Thyme?
No.

Mold?

Without a doubt.

Probably it came from a bottle that was corked, but I’m not sure. I know there’s a whole world of wine flavors. Is mildew a legitimate flavor profile?

Meanwhile, the hotel I’m staying at sells a glass of local white wine out of a box (less chance of corkage!) for 3 euro. However, if moldy is just the way it tastes, I really don’t want to waste the money. Thus, for now, I’ll just stick with my bottled water. On the other hand, tomorrow is my birthday (how weird is that???), so maybe I’ll live large and order up a glass of the box wine then? And I’m definitely getting some calamari.

Meanwhile, I had a strange night. After a solid week or more in hostels (and listening to people snore in all forms and fashion), I was so looking forward to peace and quiet. However, the universe had other plans. First, there was the wind. It got up to 45mph, and the sound of that is something else. At the very least, it’s not something I’m accustomed to, and some primitive instinct inside me finds it a little bit alarming. Especially when I’m on an island.

Next, there was my room. Not to pick on it, but the construction quality is little bit shoddy. The window has two panels – one glass and another wood – and they fit together and are held in place by a metal hinge that reminds me of a bobby pin. One strong breeze and they both come flying open.

Furthermore, the door to the room is jimmied into place, and a solid inch of daylight peers through when it’s shut. However, they have thoughtfully provided a sheet on a curtain rod, which I suppose is to try to block out the light or the breeze or ??? With respect to the door, the only thing that keeps it from flying open is a deadbolt which fits loosely in its slot. It’s a very casual arrangement from a security perspective, and if I knew I wouldn’t have to pay for the damage, I’d kind of be curious to see if I could body slam the door open using just my weight. I suspect I could.

Thus, due to the questionable craftsmanship and the intense winds, the door and windows spent the night slamming open and closed and creaking and straining and rattling against the deadbolt. It was incredibly noisy, and I probably woke up six or seven times. Then I would just lay in the darkness and listen to the wind and marvel at the fact that I’m lying in a bed in Santorni, Greece and my stomach is turning a little too much and does that water just taste bad or does the bad taste serve as a warning, like the stink applied to natural gas?

(Now you know why that little snippet of Erin Brokovich was particularly alarming…)

If the wind and the slamming and the creaking weren’t enough, there was the crying. At first, while still asleep, I thought it was a child. Then I realized it was a dog. In my sleepy confusion, I thought maybe it was in the courtyard of the hotel. I got up to look for it and maybe give it something to eat (I don’t have much in the room, but I do have some milk, some eggs, and an unlimited supply of hideous water). There was no one there but the wind.

I went back to bed, fell asleep, and heard it again. At this point, I realized it was coming from above my head, on the other side of the hotel. It cried and cried and cried, and I could occasionally hear it shake and the sound of a chain around its neck. I figured it must be afraid of all the wind or cold (or both), and it made me incredibly sad.

Today, I went looking and discovered a dog tied up behind a house near the hotel. I talked to the people here and they agreed that it was probably the same one I heard crying, that it’s always tied up, and that it “isn’t very nice.” I hate these kinds of situations. As much as I’m reminded of the magic in the world, it’s also hard to deny that people can be thoughtless idiots, if not worse.

If I were at home, I would go and talk to the owners and maybe even see if they would give me the dog or let me buy it from them. Anything to give it a better life. Here, and in these circumstances (with three weeks of backpacking left to do), I feel so helpless. I had to give myself firm talk about the insanity of trying to rescue a Greek dog. Or take it with me. Although if I can figure out where, I may go and buy it some meat or at least a bone. A birthday present to us both.

Speaking of birthdays, I was looking for a quote for tomorrow’s blog, and I ran across one so simple and yet profound, that it kind of made me tear up. As an added point of significance, it was said by Jonathan Swift, the writer that ‘invented’ my name (Vanessa) as a nickname for a student of his.

Moreover, it is a sentiment that has come to exemplify how I intend to live my life: by following my instincts, my heart, my emotions, and my gut. By noticing coincidences and doing what feels right. By being flexible and open and real. And by not being afraid and trusting the universe to throw out a safety net when I need it. And those ideals – as simple, as elusive, as liberating and as complicated as they are – can be summarized a little bit like this:

May you live all the days of your life.

 

The trouble with being born on Friday the 13th October 11, 2008

is that as much as you reject superstition, you possess a certain streak of vulnerability.

Throughout my childhood, the other kids would tell me I’d be dead by the time I was 13. I think we can probably thank the Friday the 13th movies (and maybe the Halloween movies a little bit, seeing as I was born in October) for that horrible nonsense. I don’t recall ever actually believing it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it wasn’t a little disconcerting. I do remember the first time I was able to respond, “I AM thirteen!” Then it my expiration date was upped to 16. Then 21. After that, I got wise and stopped mentioning I was born on Friday the 13th.

Meanwhile, as I believe I’ve told you, I collect sand. Previously, this was innocuous habit. Maybe even a little bit charming. Now it’s just burdensome – literally (my backpack ain’t carrying itself) and figuratively.

Santorini, where the buildings are white, the dogs are friendly, and the wind is howling, has not just black…but RED sand. RED. I once drug someone on a four-hour sun-scorched third-degree burn-inducing hike for some green sand. It goes without saying that I am no dilettante in that regard. In addition, red sand is a one-of-a-kind attraction. The closest thing I have is some dark orange sand from Moab (which also bares the distinction of being my only non-oceanic sand).

On the other hand, there’s a small part of me that struggles to induce reason. “You can come back,” it says. “The red sand isn’t going anywhere. You can get it another time. Who cares about sand? You don’t need the extra weight.”

This part is a fool. I hear the red grains calling to me. I am like the creepy monster thing in the Lord of the Rings movies: I MUST POSSESS A BAGGIE OF THE RED SAND.

Naturally, getting the red sand is no small chore. First there’s a volcano in the way. Admittedly, it’s been inactive since the 1940s. But still.

Secondly, it’s the off-season, and the guy from my accommodations (Niko) could be exaggerating, but he tells me that by bus it takes two buses in each direction and the timing works out that you spend almost six hours there. It’s warmish (22/low 70s), but six hours on any beach in any weather is too much for me.

Third, it’s almost my birthday. And memories of doom and gloom and untimely passings have come back to me unexpectedly. Not that I plan on going anywhere anytime soon. I think I’m just being prudent. You see, getting the sand requires renting an ATV (four-wheeler). Niko

claims this is like “driving a small car.” However, in response to my wild-eyed barrage of stupid questions, he’s advised that perhaps I wait a day until the wind dies down. Maybe I should go Monday – on my very own birthday – as “You have to be very careful in the wind so that you don’t not blow off the mountain.”

You don’t say?

In that regard, waiting sounds like good advice.

Nonetheless, barring certain disaster, I will rent the ATV and go for it on Monday. I can only imagine that some day when there’s a museum for the tourists to come and see where I lived, they will marvel at my extensive collection of sand.

(And it’s these kind of delusions that keep me going…)