“Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God” – Kurt Vonnegut
Distance travelled: 228km (total: 19,821km)
The phone blasted us awake at 5am for the 5.30 bus ride back to the airport. Would we finally reach our destination? I had a headache, but decide not to take a Panadol. I’ll check in my bag with the Panadol inside, and if we get on the plane, I’ll be too happy to have a headache; if we don’t I’ll collect my bag from “Lost and Found” for the third time, and hurl down as much medication as I can find. One way or another, my suffering would be relieved.
Annamarie, Taki and I stop for a coffee, and make our way to the gate. It doesn’t feel good: they are not even paging us. Could it be another delay?
We all sit, joking, hoping. I ask the flight attendant at the desk; she claims to know nothing. Her eyes speak of the sadness of unreached destinations. My heart sinks.
Anna-Marie hands me a Tylenol . She is a cool chick. I spot the door to the outside of the gate opening; a man props it there. The first positive sign! This is followed by the announcement: today I will reach Santorini after all.
We crowd around the gate, madness and frustration relieved. Onto the bus to the plane, and then on board: this is really happening! Hurrah! A smooth flight descends over the island, with Oia on the right. Fellow travellers lean to spot their first glimpse of this magnificant island. It’s greener than I am used to; more rain has softened the look of the landscape as we bank left for the airport.
Thomas is waiting for me, smiling, such a relief to be here. As we drive to Oia, he speaks to me of difficult times. Thomas and his partners used to drive one of the 40 or so taxis on the island. He has now invested in two minibuses, and is off to Germany tomorrow on business, his first trip out of Greece. I warn him that the food is not as good.
As we drive, glimpses of the magnificent caldera appear on the left, and within 20 minutes we are heading into Oia. Not much is open, the roads are quiet. My favourite bakery is, though, I am assured, open. Today, there is no electricity before 12, as Greek workers are on strike: thank goodness I have charged everything I am carrying.
We stop in the car park, and Chelidonia’s porter hurls my heavy case onto one shoulder, and leads me up to the main street. Somewhere, a dog barks. (Just kidding, thought that line would be funny). We walk down stair after stair, and I wonder if I am once again in House Paris, my haven. The porter is incredibly fast for someone carrying 40 kg worth of my crap. I never cease to be amazed by how quickly the locals can race up and down these enormous white staircases. He heads way, way down – to House Paris! My old friend the lounge chair awaits on the enormous balcony, and my wonderful hosts have left me 6 large bottles of water. I unpack, put my wet clothes on the line, and finally feel home.
Santorini on a Sunday morning in March is quiet. No music, no sound of people. Some workers prepare the cave houses for next month’s start of the season. Although I’m hungry, I’ll wait a few hours to head out and search for a bakery and a supermarket to stock up on what my mum calls “basics”: the staple of any self-catered holiday.
Today it’s overcast and cool, and I feel sorry for all those people who arrived with me today after delay upon delay: they are not seeing this place at its best. For their sakes, I had hoped it would be clear and blue, and breathtaking, so their shoulders would finally drop from their ears and they would be overwhelmed by its beauty. Perhaps tomorrow.
The church bells ring now: it’s 10am.
I snooze, waking up freezing and clutching my single blanket (more in the cupboard); I snooze some more and read one of the 14 (!) books I have brought with me called “Persipolis”. Persipolis is a town in Iran I am to visit and the book is a graphic novel (ie a comic – I know what you were thinking) about a young girl grappling with the Islamic Revolution. So far, it is delightful, funny and insightful.
At 1.30pm, Trianthophyllos (known as Rose although, yes he is a man) drops by. He greets me, then resolves to cut the pomegranate tree; he has enough pomegramates, and this one is spoiling my view. Rose was born here in Oia, and his family owned land in this bay where his hotel now sits. He was here in the 1956 earthquake that destroyed much of the village. As a younger man, 25 years ago he rebuilt the houses owned by his family, and then built more. He could have built extra to rent out to tourists, but he wanted to ensure the feel of the area that was around before the earthquake lived on. So, he and his wife run about 8 traditional houses, and they live in the largest of them, close to the street-level office. His wife, Erika, is from Austria. She travelled here when she was around 19, and Rose fell for her straight away. After she returned to Austria, Rose kept calling her asking her to return. Eventually she did; the rest is history. Every year I see Erika and she doesn’t seem to get any older. She’s a gorgeous blonde Austrian, who switches between fluent Greek, English and German at a moment’s notice. They run the hotel together, her on the email and Rose looking after the houses. Unfortunately for Rose, his back is too far gone now for him to work hard physically, which he’s done all his life. Their 22 year old son, Leandros, is now in the business after spending a year’s compulsory service in the Greek army, and is paid as any outside worker would be to help with the manual work – right now, that’s painting and fixing up the houses for the start of the season.
Rose has arrived this afternoon to invite me to join them for some lunch and music in Perissa, on the other side of the island. He promises to come and collect me at 2.30.
In desperate need of supplies, I hike up the 90 steps. Normally, by the time I have reached Santorini, I have been fitter, at the end of holidays spent scaling old ruins and walking all day. My marshmallow arse has trouble scaling the stairs, and I stop a couple of times, pretending to myself to admire the view, but really it’s about gasping in enough oxygen not to die. I locate the supermarket, and buy up big on deli meats, bread, eggs, honey, yoghurt, butter, taramosalata, tzatziki, Cretan rusks (more about them later), feta and kefalograveria cheese (mmmmm), and red vinegar. The walk back, I must confess, is just as hard but I manage to carry all this back without toppling down the uneven, often cobblestoned steps.
At 3pm, Rose comes, and it’s up the stairs once more. We head out in Rose’s car, with Erika and her youngest son (12 in 3 weeks) in tow (cannot recall this kid’s name) and stop by the local army office where their middle son, Paris, is posted and spends 12 hours per day guarding the Greek army’s supply of weapons for the islane. The army has posted Paris here because Leandros, their 22 year d son, was posted on another island, Kos, and they try to only have one son away from their family. Paris receives a E5 allowance to eat, and often gets ‘home delivered” souvlaki from the local. Today, mum is delivering an impressive array of food for him to munch on while he whiles away his time on TV, Play Station and his computer. Of course, he must be there the whole time and the army phones randomly to check.
I do wonder out loud why the army feels the need to keep a stash of weapons on Santorini, but Rose assures me that it’s in case of “problems”, and indicates (maybe jokingly) that air attacks may be one of them. Hmmm.
We reach the tavern, located across from one of Santorini’s black sand beaches. During the summer, the line-up of bars and tavernas are filled with British package tourists, who arrive in droves on their charter flights – exactly the type of tourism I do my best to avoid. Leandros, who soon arrives with his girlfriend, tells us of the beach parties at which, apparently, DJ’s and models arrive from Athens to attend and the crowd ends up in various stages of undress as the day and night wear on.
Today, though, only the owner and his staff, including one bouzouki player and a guitarist, are there. No-one else has turned up, probably because of the weather. Rose orders a huge spread of eggplant, fava (a specialty of Santorini, think warm, blended yellow lentils), chips (done beautifully might I add – hand cut, from fresh potatoes), stuffed peppers, and we each order a main course on top of it. Everyone mainly speaks Greek, but I don’t care – I feel like part of the family, and the food is sensational. In a quiet moment, I present Rose and Erika with some Aussie wine to say thanks for having me there.
Erika and I speak about how the GFC has affected them. Her bookings are as strong as the last 2 years, so she is not concerned. For her, the fact that the Greek economic crisis has killed the Euro means that it is more cost effective for people outside Europe to stay there, so it is good for business. The challenge is in the taxes and other price increases: in each of this year and last year, electricity has gone up 20%, and they will now have pay taxes of 50% f all they take in. They survie on the earnings from the hotel, but she has not put up her prices in a few years, and they need to have money to invest in the hotel: new windows are doors are due soon.
They did have some good news though when the tourism inspector came by recently, and looked at their property, declaring it the best he’s ever seen in 15 years. I’m not surprised – Chelidonia is absolutely beautiful, and they keep the houses in immaculate condition.
We also talk of dowries, which still exist in many families in the form of an expectation that the bride will bring with her a house. Families buy land to build a house, and if you come to Greece you will see unfinished houses everywhere. Famlies build what they can afford to and, because of zoning laws in Greece, the government only permits houses to be built over 200 m outside of village zones if they family owns over 4,000m2 of land. Even then, they can only build a house up to 200m2, and often give one floor each to two children. The part-built houses are to protect the family’s right to build the property: the law may change and they want to ensure they can build and if they get the frame built, word is that this is enough.
Leandro’s girlfriend was worried she would be rejected by his family because she was one of three daughters in a poor family and came with no dowry. Lucky for her, Rose and Erika do not care about this, and only want some good for Leandro. She earns a paltry E800 per month as a hair dresser.
As we’ve been at lunch, the weather has turned bad – dark clouds sit on top of the high side of the island where we are heading.
I leave Erika and Rose and as I descend the stairs in the dark, Rose calls out “Be careful on the stairs, Karen!”. I make it safely, finding the house warm. I phone mum and send a couple of emails, one to Anna-Marie who is in Firostefani a few kms away.
I have received an email from someone whose name I don’t recognise. I go to delete it, and realise it’s someone from the IMF about a short-term contract in the Carribbean that a wonderful friend suggested me for. He wants me to complete a form – but I can’t seem to type on it and ask him to send a Word version. Oh dear – does this mean I’ll get an offer I can’t refuse and will have to call my trip short?