Saturday, May 19, 2007

Amorgos: Love it, Hate it, Love it

This is a long one, folks, so grab a cup of coffee (not Greek--you'll be done in 17 seconds) and get comfortable!

Ten years ago on Amorgos I had my first experience with the relativity of hell. I have been fortunate in this lifetime to not have experienced real hell—awful, mind-soul-body-searing Dante’s Inferno-style hell—so I can say with breezy assurance that true hell is all about perspective.

Ten years ago, I arrived here on a late boat in late September and was met on the quay by the typically bewildering crowd of domatia owners. One caught my attention more closely, offering a room for the low low price of whatever number of drachmas it was that equaled $10.60 per night in 1997. “How close is it,” I asked warily. I’d been taken pretty far from the ferry on a couple other islands (once balanced unsteadily with my ponderous pack on the rear of a sputtering scooter) and I was tired of lugging my bag back to boats. “Only 50 meters,” she said. I didn’t believe her for an instant, but was too tired to extricate myself from our tacit agreement and find a different place, so I fuffed and resettled my bag, and plodded into a narrow alley after her.

“Here we are,” she said, two moments later at a gated courtyard. She held the gate for me, then opened the door to a room, took my passport (collateral for my rent) and left me.

I dropped my bag right inside the door and went to look in wonder at my palace.

I was in a tiny room with a single bed and an antique desk, maybe six feet by ten feet in size. A second door led out the back corner, and I went through that into a broad hallway, where a large refrigerator sat silently, cord unplugged and dangling from its handle, and from which three more doors exited! Through the door on the left I found two more beds, a wardrobe, and large windows that I ignored for the moment. Through the next door to the right was the bathroom, one of the largest and most commodious I’ve seen in Greece (which meant it was about 6’X6’). And through the final door, past the fridge, I found a little kitchen with a burner, a table and chairs, and a sparse but nevertheless complete stock of utensils and dishes. My own little apartment! Heaven! Ferries to and from Amorgos were relatively infrequent so my choices were to say two days or a week. I decided to stay a week.

The next day, I opened my bedroom windows onto a vacant lot and left them open until after dark, and that’s when the heaven became hell. As I snuggled into bed, pleasantly exhausted after a day of hiking the old donkey roads of the island, I heard it. EeeeEEEeeeeeeEEEEEEeeeee. The insistent, orbiting whine of a hungry mosquito. I batted blindly around in the dark and the whining stopped. Well, okay! That was lucky! I drifted off. EEEeeeeeeEEEEEeeeeEEEeeEeeEEEEEEeeeee. Whack! I slammed awake, shot on the light, and peered around the room. There—I saw it! I climbed on the bed, and after flailing about only a short time, managed to kill the bugger. As I knew it would be from the itch on my thumb, it was already bloody. I snuggled back into bed with satisfaction, read a few minutes to calm down again, and turned out the light.

EEEEeeeeeeEEeeeeEEEEeeeeE. On with the light, up I jumped. This time I saw TWO of the devils, hovering up near the ceiling, driving me mad. I got one, jumped around on the bed and furniture for awhile, and eventually, almost sobbing with exhaustion and relief, got the other. I collapsed into bed again and turned out the light.

EEEeeeeeeEeeEeEEEEeeeeeEEEEEEeeeeEEEEe. Almost screeching with frustration, I slapped the light back on. Two more, diving and swooping up the wall behind me. I gave up and buried my head in my blankets. I origamied a long, narrow, tortuous path for air through the sheets around my mouth, and finally fell asleep. For ever after, I only opened the window during the day, and closed it many hours before I expected to be in bed.

The next day I decided to buy some food at the local grocery store so I wouldn’t have to eat out all the time, and in the spirit of curiosity, I opened the fridge. A wall of stench slammed me in the face and I slammed the door. What the hell was that? I wondered as, gagging, I opened all the windows in the place (noting with relief that it was still daylight and so I was presumably still safe from the Midnight Whining Marauders), and plugged in the fridge, assuming that extra cold things couldn’t smell quite so bad as clearly long-forgotten warm things.

I went about my day, letting the fridge cool down, and the memory of ugh rotting something recede a little from my mind. When I opened the fridge again later in the day, I used the technique of nose closing I’d learned as a young child using pit toilets on boat trips in the San Juan Islands (you close your nose at the back of your mouth, at the soft palate, and only breathe through your throat, thus saving yourself from smelling the awful pit toilet smells . . . it’s a technique also employed when using a Neti pot), the combination of cold and nasal acrobatics allowed me to investigate the situation. Yep, in the bottom drawer, someone had left, at some point, a plastic bag with some kind of meat in it . . . and it had rotted. Hoo boy had it rotted. I slammed the door again and retreated outside where I gulped in clean, oregano and bougainvillea-scented air and came up with a battle plan.

I went back inside and grabbed an extra plastic bag, then girded myself, armed my nose, and in one motion flung open the door, whipped open the drawer, pulled out the rot and twisted it into the new plastic bag, slammed the door, and raced outside where I deposited my prize into a garbage can in the courtyard.

This, I realized, was hell. Here I was in this paradise—the absolute perfect place, a $10-per-night apartment of my own with separate rooms and a kitchen and a comfortable bathroom and even the floor tiles that I liked best (a composite of some sort of green cement and all different colors of stones, shaved off and polished so you could see into the hearts of the pebbles) . . . but as soon as I was lulled into enjoying it SNAP! A mosquito was screeching in my ear and biting my eyelid, making me look like I’d been in a brawl, or an appliance, louring and grunting in the hall, was attacking me with poisonous gases.

Still, the steep, stark hillsides topped with craggy boulders, the peekaboo beaches, and the teeny sylvan glades where surreptitious springs drip quietly into mossy, frog-filled pools are addicting, and three years ago when Ian and I came to Greece together for the first time, I insisted we come here.

During our trip last time the hell was a bit more prosaic than ogre refrigerators (I don’t remember a problem with the mosquitos, either . . . but then Dimitri’s Palace isn’t quite the Shangri-La that my first place was . . . so the torture of what might have been wouldn’t have been so great anyway). Instead, it was merely a bad map. Or, rather, a map that was evidently optimistic about what it called a “trail.” It wasn’t that bad, though; after wandering around a bit in the rather thorny underbrush and following a goat track that showed very clearly that goats are a lot shorted than humans, we did eventually come out on a road near which two friendly donkeys were penned and wowie, do we love the donkeys! I leaned over to scratch one on the forehead between her inquisitive ears and she immediately went lop-eared with pleasure, her eyes half-closed, leaning into my hand. So, a bit of hell for the scratched ankles, a bit of heaven scratching the donkey.

All told, Amorgos was our favorite island from the six we saw in 2004, and so here we are again.

And, again, our hell was really due to a bad map, or, to be generous, to our insistence on following “Category 4 (thin dashed line)” trails, which include “footpaths whose course is less obvious, or in places difficult. These routes are aimed at more experienced walkers.”

Category 4 seems to, rather than show trails, suggest directions one might walk. The directions aren’t suggested with any clarity, though, so you may—no, you are likely to—find yourselves in a similar predicament to ours.

We decided we wanted a fairly easy time of it a couple evenings ago (both of us recovering from colds), so we chose to walk out to the lighthouse we’d seen upon entering the harbor on the Milk Run Skopelitis, which is on Cape Profiti Ilia. Of course, there is also a church, the Profitis Ilias Church. The map suggested that the walk might take around one hour, and a two-hour round trip struck us as perfectly reasonably given the states of our healths.

Of course we got lost soon after leaving the paved road at the end of town, but we don’t turn back, oh no, so we kept going, over rocks and under thorns, stubbing our toes and getting scratched and irritable, arguing about what, exactly, constitutes a “stock breeding yard” or a “lime kiln”. We did make it to the point, and enjoyed touring the church and the old lighthouse, and marvelling, yet again, at the precipitous places sheep seem to like to hang out. We enjoyed a snack of fig and sunflower seed bar, studied our map and the surrounding area, and determined that our route home would be much easier.

And for awhile it was. We finally found something that looked very like “old stock breeding yards”, and skirted it as per directions. And kept skirting. And kept skirting, and eventually decided that the directions must have meant, although they did not say, and of course it wasn’t clear from the trail itself, that we should’ve skirted to the west and not the east. Well, we weren’t going to back track, particularly when it wasn’t entirely clear that we should, so we went on, letting ourselves through a gate (which we carefully closed again), and marching down a long field next to a rusty old fence. “At least we’re both up to date on our tetnus shots,” I remarked to Ian.

The field went over a slight hill, and we thought we were in the clear . . . but no, at the bottom of the field was a gully, and in the gully was another fence. And the fences were designed to keep goats out, and I’ve already hinted that we’re a lot less athletic than goats. Back up the field we went until we came to a rudimentary gate (a slightly less tied-down section of rusty fencing) and squoze through. We continued downhill in the direction of home . . . and came to another fence. This fence had a gate into the yard of something that looked like a house, which may or may not have been in use. We tried to skirt it, but that was clearly not going to get us anywhere. We returned to the gate and hurried through, tying it carefully. Okay, well, a house must be outside the seemingly endless fences!

No. Even though we couldn’t see fence from there, we hiked up three or four crumbling terraces and found more fence at the top. This fence we managed to climb over, in a slightly bent-down place that seemed to have been used for that purpose before.

This continued for, I kid you not, at least the next half-hour. Every time we thought we were out, we saw another fence. Eventually we came to a place where we could see, far below us, the end of the cement road we’d walked on at the beginning of our two-hour round trip, 3 ½ hours before.
“We have to just go down,” said Ian, as we scanned the steep terraced hillside, looking for anything clearer than a goat track. I just grunted in agreement. I’d already started swearing at the fences, and at Amorgos, and at the map, but not at Ian. I followed him as he angled steeply down, until he pulled up short at the top of a cliff-face/pile of boulders maybe 50 feet high, at the bottom of which lay our destination.

“I think we just have to do it,” Ian said. “It doesn’t look that hard.”

I tightened my day pack on my back and noted to myself that while I was a good rock climber, I was wearing sandals that weren’t terribly tight, not rock climbing shoes, and the day pack would definitely change my center of gravity. And I was recovering from a cold—at the stuffed ears/runny nose stage. In other words, self, no heroics. A part of my brain was grimly amused that I’d reached a point in my tether, almost to the end perhaps, where it seemed reasonable to climb down a cliffside to get over a fence.

As you know, we made it down safely, and were actually quite proud of ourselves. And, in our last days here, we’ve agreed to not go beyond “Category 2 (line of long dashes)”, which “corresponds to wide and very clear footpaths that have been purposely laid. On the whole, these are the most commonly used footpaths.”

And of course we’ll be coming back to Amorgos in the future.

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