Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Trip Home

So far, I've figured out that I'm not very good at planning for consequences. I didn't buy sunglasses. I wore flip-flops to hike up a volcanic island, then didn't think that if I got into the sea afterward that I'd not be able to walk out because the beach is made out of rocks and pain. I learned that I'm really aware of what gear the vehicle I'm driving is in if I'm parked at the edge of a cliff. And apparently sunscreen is good.

Oh, also, if something's made entirely out of limestone, it is terrifying to climb, because there's a non-zero chance that you'll slip off and die because your sneakers are not so big on traction.

But most importantly, it turns out that planning something a few weeks in advance, before you're travelling, might make you underestimate just how much travelling you've planned on cramming into two days.

We woke up at about 10 AM on Friday, our last day in Santorini. The plan was that we'd take a ferry back to Piraeus (the same non-speedboat that we'd taken to get to Santorini), then spend the night in Athens before getting on a plane on Satuday at 11am so that we'd be home at roughly 8pm, Chicago time. The thinking was that the speedboats are about double the cost of the non-speedboat and that we weren't booking that part of the trip far enough in advance to get a comparable deal for the flight from Santorini to Athens and hey!, Friday and Saturday are totally different days, so it should be fine to travel eight hours one day and fourteen the next, right?

Wrong. Just really, really incorrect.

After getting up, we met Jordan again for breakfast (the same buffet we'd had every time we went out for breakfast) and were eventually joined by Uncle Eddie, who wanted to check his email before heading off for a flight to Rome. At this point, I'm pretty much done with the buffet (which I'd never thought would be a phrase I would ever think), but it's only 5 Euro and it's next door, so what the hell. I left to go return the ATV, because they'd said I should do that before noon though, again, they didn't have a credit card number or any kind of collateral, so I'm not sure what they'd have done if I just drove it onto the boat and tried to get it back to Chicago, which would have been challenging but worth it. And would be even more worth it if Chicago had anything resembling terrain. I did have to put more gas in it (I gave the guy 5 and have no idea how much gas I bought beyond knowing that it brought me up above a quarter tank, which I believed would incur the wrath of the ATV guy.)

I dropped it off, they never looked at the gauge, and I left. So I probably could have gotten away with not putting gas in it at all, but then I'd have felt bad, and this was not a time to feel guilty about screwing the ATV guy out of a few euros.

When we rented it, he said he'd be able to give me a ride back to my hotel (which was located on the far end of the beach), but apparently that was just sweet, sweet marketing to get me to rent his underpowered 4-wheeler for a day, because that offer was no longer on the table. I walked back, for some reason wearing the watersocks that I'd bought.

This was not a week for reasonable footwear, apparently.

By the time I got back, Marina had settled the remainder of the hotel bill and it was time to frantically try to guess how much we could put in our suitcase without going over 50 pounds and get out to the sidewalk. We packed what we could into the backpacks and the little lunch bags that had been our welcome baskets and decided to ditch some stuff so that we'd be able to avoid paying for luggage (the snorkel set was cheap, Marina didn't think she'd ever use her aquasocks again and I left my Old Navy flip-flops out of spite and anger) We said goodbye to Jordan and stood on the corner waiting for the guy who had brought us from the port to take us back for another 15 Euro.

The ride back to the port was less "Holy Damn! We're on an island!" than the ride in, and was mostly just me attempting to get any kind of breeze from the window while thinking that I was probably never going to be back on this particular bit of the Earth. I don't know if I will; I didn't really expect to be able to go this time, so I guess it's possible I'll do this again.

Waiting for the boat was a little bit of hell, after some time having a crepe at a restaurant at the port which was filled with chocolate sauce for some goddamn reason (every other time we'd seen that, they meant Nutella and apparently just thought we wouldn't know what that was). I'd been out in the sun enough, and was very much looking forward to getting out of the heat and away from everyone and their enormous backpacks. Eventually, we boarded and I went pretty much straight away to the indoor airplane seats, which was reasonably empty because everyone else rushed to the decks. The ferry back seemed quicker (though it always seems that way when you're ending a trip; probably something to do with the fact that you're no longer anticipating the trip). I came out of the airplane seating to the deck once the sun was setting, which apparently signalled to everyone else that it was time to go back inside.

The Aegean at night is wonderfully dark. You can't see where the sky stops other than that there are no stars and an occasional lighted ferry boat on the water.

Which is, I think, healthy for me. I grew up in a relatively rural exurb and while I for the most part really enjoy living in Chicago, the constant light pollution makes me miss being a really young amateur astronomer in Western Pennsylvania. I miss the stars, and while they weren't terribly visible on the boat (because of the boat's own light), it was a lot better than trying to look at the sky on Berwyn. Some French teenagers were doing something incredibly loudly and Marina and I tried valiantly to have some of the wine we'd bought at the market next to our hotel in Santorini, more or less entirely because it was sold in a plastic 1.5L bottle and cost 2 euro. It was 2 euro because it was awful.

We stopped.

After disembarking, we got in the cab line (relatively close to the front) and rode back to our hotel, which was evidently in Omonia, which is evidently kind of seedy.

We were across from something that appeared to serve some kind of spicy food of indeterminate origin and were greeted by a really earnest man who appeared to know who we were (probably because we were the only ones not to check in yet.) We got a password for the internet on a little receipt that we were told was good for three hours and given a key to a room and pointed down a darkened hallway (which, ostensibly had motion detectors rigged up to lights which sort of worked).

Which was, incidentally, the smallest room I've ever been in. There was just enough room for a king-size bed so long as we were ok with having the suitcase either wedged between the bed and the door or in the hallway. The bathroom was a separate room (thank Zeus), but the toilet was, for some reason, in a little cubby hole behind the door. Luckily, our flight was at 11am, meaning we had to be up at 8, so we propped the luggage in front of the door (partly out of necessity because of the size of the room, and partly because it was the most "potentially housing a serial killer" hotel we'd been in), poured the godawful plastic bottle wine down the drain and slept.

In the morning, we woke, checked out, skipped breakfast and headed to Omonia Square to get on the metro. It didn't seem to be the worst place I've been (as everyone in Athens kept assuring me that it was) but I probably wouldn't want to have hung out there at night. Mostly, I was too exhausted to care. We bought our special airport metro tickets (which are more expensive and they keep signs up everywhere assuring you that you'll be fined if you don't have the ticket on you, but it seemed like no one ever checked tickets ever, so I don't know). After about an hour on the metro and some work to get through security (which was oddly immediately before our gate, rather than centralized, which was nice), we were on the plane to Philadelphia.

I have never been on a louder plane. Nothing mechanical; it was just apparently also housing roughly thirty Greeks who either knew each other or were incredibly friendly and walked up and down the aisles, talking and laughing and having a grand old time, which is great for them but hampered my ability to get any sort of sleep. We managed, made it to Philly where a sort of tired delirium set in, then (after a short layover, a bumpy flight and clearing customs) we made it back to the apartment.

We slept, because at this point it was 8pm, Chicago time, and so 4am Athens time.

I can't really think of a nifty way to tie everything up. I think everything's already been said in the other entries. We'd managed to get to Greece and back with only some minor (by which I mean rather serious) sunburn, slightly diminished bank accounts and a bunch of ticket stubs, which are currently in a shadowbox along with some pebbles from Kamari that we'd put into a test tube. Success.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Driving at Night

After spending the day roasting in the sun on top of a mountain, we decided that we should have one more night in Oia to look around more slowly and deliberately than we were able to when we were rushing to find a way back to the southwest of the island. We got ready and were prepared to take the bus from Kamari to Fira, then from Fira to Oia because there’s not a direct bus from anywhere to anywhere else without a connection in Fira.

It’s like Atlanta.

Before heading out, I drove the ATV around a bit more, figuring that we wouldn’t get a chance to use it again and that 15€ seemed like a lot to take it on one trip up the side of a cliff (and yet, a better deal than having to walk up the damn thing, which would have meant we wouldn’t have seen the top as we would have died). I plotted a course that mostly involved only ever turning right, because I’m still not comfortable with this sort of traffic free-for-all that the island has going, so never crossing a lane seemed easier.

It hadn’t occurred to me that this just meant I’d be making left turns all the way home, but then this wasn’t a week for thinking ahead. This was a week for realizing that I’d forgotten something vital, then being in pain for a long time.

I turned right at All Day Coffee Time (which sounds excessive) and eventually found my way to the fence that encloses the runway of the island’s airport. And a military installation, which freaked me out and prompted me to start heading back. Still, it was a nice pleasant ride with zero traffic (either because there’s not much traffic on the island in general or because no one uses their rented ATV to go drive around the back of the airport), and it wasn’t until I got back to Kamari that I started to get a headache from wearing a helmet twenty sizes too small for my head. I also passed the hotel pretty egregiously, but managed to find my way back.

Getting back to the hotel, Marina agreed that we hadn’t used the ATV enough, so maybe we should drive it over to the bus stop.

Which eventually turned into “to hell with the bus, let’s just drive to Fira, at which point we will decide whether we need to drive to Oia”.

It’s really scary, it turns out, driving around a vehicle you’ve learned how to use that morning through what amount to city streets (to the degree that Santorini had city streets.) Our plan was to make it up to Oia for the sunset, which means the sun was pretty low in the sky and, for long stretches of road, directly in my eyes.

I really should have bought sunglasses.

We managed to make it to Fira without getting too lost (mostly because there’s one main road, so not getting off the road will eventually get you to Fira), and I managed to remember enough of the local geography to find a parking spot not too far away from the main square.

We parked the ATV after deciding that it was probably too far to drive to Oia in time for the sunset (as I was topping out at about 50 km/h). I was very paranoid about the parking, but that’s probably because I wasn’t accounting for the difference between traffic enforcement on a little tourism-driven island in the middle of the Aegean and Chicago. So we started walking through alleys to get to the bus station. Oddly, we succeeded, which I’m pretty proud of. Sure, it’s not a particularly big town, but to go from “hopelessly lost at midnight” to “capable of knowing where we are while in alleyways” in the span of two days is pretty good, I think.

The bus to Oia confirmed two things: It’s probably better for my mild acrophobia that I slept through the cab ride on the night of the welcome dinner and that I had no business trying to take an ATV to Oia. You’re on the side of a hill the whole time and while there’s nominally a guard rail, it’s not actually going to stop you from plummeting to your death (particularly if you’re a bus). The driver was going much faster than I’d have gone, but then I’m guessing he’s done this thousands of times.

Or has no regard for human life. Either one.

We ran around in a sort of panic (as it was 7:20 pm, and we’d gathered that sunset started at roughly 7:30), looking for a restaurant that had a sunset view and only realizing then that it probably would have been a good idea to have gotten a reservation. We eventually found a place called Petros, which had a fish tank out front and a little sign that advertised a sunset view.

The latter part was sort of half true. They did have a sunset view from the rooftop seating area, but they’d bizarrely walled up the wall that actually looked directly out to sea, so that only about half of the restaurant actually benefited from the sunset view. Luckily, we were able to get a table that looked out toward the sunset, as long as you sort of leaned and didn’t mind the little Japanese kids running around the table in front of you. We ordered the standard fried cheese and teramasalata and then I’m pretty sure the waiter decided we had enough, because he didn’t come back to actually ask for our orders.

Eventually, we were allowed to order dinner beyond, you know, appetizers. Marina got some manner of Greek pasta,and I got grilled mussels, because I wasn’t aware you could grill mussels and wanted to see what that was all about. I was actually pretty impressed with Petros, as far as quality from a “fish tavern” from a place we ducked into to see the sunset. Plus, they used a dumbwaiter, which is just added awesome.

After dinner, we went back to the business of “walking around Oia without frantically searching for a bus”, which it turns out is a much better way to walk around Oia. There are a lot of little souvenir shops, most with little ceramic versions of the blue domed churches that dot the island, at least one of which has a corner full of very family unfriendly items behind a post-card stand, which leads one to question whether the market for adult toys really overlaps with the market for calendars with cats on them. Which there are a lot of. Cat calendars. They’re everywhere.

One's called "Rebel Street Cats (of Greece)". Which is a bit much, isn't it?

There are also a bunch of little art galleries and artisan shops, which are fun to walk through. No pictures were allowed, but there was a small art gallery which had a degree of incomprehensibility.

Inside, there was a bull, wearing an American flag-tie with glass innards on a glass box containing a few euros that had facts about the Stock Market Crash of 1929 written around the sides. I wasn’t expecting political/economic satire next to a bunch of fish restaurants and souvenir shops, but there it was. It was next to a mural of a motorcycle with the words “Captain America” on the side, which leads me to believe that Grecian artists on the island might not be the biggest Marvel comics fans in existence.

Away from the formal art galleries, there were a number of little shops apparently run by the people who made the crafts inside. Marina bought two small bowls from a woman who was much more excited to talk about the bags she’d made (she displayed one to a woman who was in the store, demonstrating that you could wear it as a front pouch. “Like a marsupial”, she explained.). Next door, there was a woman who had made hundreds of little marionettes which were all finely crafted and (though this wasn’t advertised) would awake in the night to drink the blood of the innocent.

About the time we’d gotten to the bowl store, I’d realized that I had been shortchanged at a market. I’d gotten wrapped up in getting on with seeing Oia and hadn’t noticed that I’d been given too little back after purchasing some small souvenirs. We darted back and tried to explain the situation, but to no avail. Still, just a few euros, so after Marina calmed me down, we went back to walking.

After a short stop in Atlantis Books (staffed by some people talking about the Canucks/Bruins series and which proudly declared via a sign in front that Lonely Planet thought they were pretty nice), we were on a bus trip back to Fira to pick up our ATV and get back to our hotel.

Again, I’m glad there wasn’t much traffic and that there was only one main road, so we were able to actually get back to Kamari without too much trouble. We met Jordan for ice cream, went to the bar to use the internet and shortly thereafter went back to get some sleep before the ferry ride to Athens.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Everybody's Gone

Everyone has left. Both families left obscenely early in the morning with the exception of Tim, who had a flight at 6pm or so and Eddie, who is staying until Friday, when he’ll take a flight to Rome to continue his vacation. Jordan checked out of the hotel we’d been staying in to move to a cheaper one down the street, so our hotel seems relatively empty.

Marina and I were determined to make it up to Ancient Thera, because it seems as though if there are really old things around you should probably see them. Ancient Thera was at the top of a mountain (Messavouno), probably out of some sort of strategic reason but more likely because the Hellenistic era residents liked making me climb up things. We’d previously stopped in to ask about the bus tour that visits the site, but evidently all they do is get you up the road safely and drop you at the gate for 10 € each, at which point you’re charged another 2 € to walk around the site without a guide. Which seemed a little much, especially as we’d entered the “attempting not to spend every penny we had in Europe” part of the trip.

Travis had mentioned that he’d rented an ATV for something like 16 € and had driven up the road to the gate (which was evidently built to accommodate Konrad Adenauer’s visit to Santorini), but that he’d stopped there and turned around to ride back down the mountain. That would be cheaper than Marina and I each paying for the bus and seemed more fun, so we decided on renting an ATV.

I probably should have mentioned to Marina that I hadn’t driven an ATV before. I may have, but if I did it was sometime in the mid 90’s and briefly around the hills of Western Pennsylvania, but I’m not sure if I’m imagining that. In any case, I’m not a regular ATV driver. ATVer. All Terrain Gentlemen.

We stopped in two shops before finding one that would rent us an ATV for 15 € and ran with that. They gave us helmets (which were apparently for infants or dolls or something, because mine just made me look ridiculous at the cost of being in any way able to keep me safe), showed me how to operate the thing and sent us on our way to get some gas.

I should note that they took down my driver’s license number and my hotel information, but they didn’t actually keep a credit card on hand or anything, nor did they demand any form of deposit. Just hand them 15 € cash and they’ll let you speed off down the road. I’ve got to presume they’ve got a way to make sure you don’t just keep it, but honestly, there didn’t seem to be a lot of controls.

Suddenly, I wished I had understood the traffic patterns of the island better.

I did a reasonable approximation of someone who knew what they were doing (which mostly consisted of speeding along and hoping no one would hit me) and managed to get to the gas station without dying, so we decided we were ready for the steepest, most windy cobblestone road that’s ever existed.

It was a ten-degree incline, roughly twenty or so hairpin turns and it was (generously) about 1.25 lanes. And, of course, it’s constantly climbing the roughly 1200 feet above sea level, so every turn is completely blind as you’re at least ten feet below the next bit of road until you’re actually turning. We only encountered one of the tour buses, and it was very much a “please don’t hit me because there’s nowhere for me to go” sort of situation. Marina seemed much more terrified by the whole thing than I was, which was probably due to two factors.

1. Difference in perspective.
As far as I was concerned, I was mostly just trying to get the thing up the mountain (the downside to renting the cheapest ATV we could find is that it was also the least powerful, though it got us where we were going well enough). If you stare at the road ahead of you and spend most of your time trying to figure out if a car is going to be barreling down the road at you, you don’t have much time to look over the side of the mountain, which I’m sure what scarier than I realized until I was at the top.

2. Having no idea if I could drive the thing.
It turns out, yes. I’m not sure if I’d have trusted me to not kill us both, though.

Once you’re at the top of the mountain, there’s a spot for you to haphazardly park your ATV, scooter or rental car and start the hike up to the actual archeological site. Well, actually, you start the hike up to the gate, which is up a very steep road (in, again, very hot weather), which is near the site only in a relative sense. There’s a very sizeable hike up from there (first up a set of stairs, then just up the road to the ancient site) until you’re actually able to walk around the ancient city, first passing a number of artifacts that are of varying ancienticity. There’s an early Christian church (which is one of the most recent additions to the site) then a kilometer long walk up toward the actual city center. Marina was too tired to carry the camera at this point, so I took a bunch of pictures of pretty much everything that had a sign in front of it, then a picture of the signs.

There’s not a lot that remains at the site, but it’s fascinating to walk through the streets and see the outlines of the foundations of houses and government buildings, some of which is around the age of the Parthenon, but some of which (the sanctuaries at the edge of the city) predate that by 300 years. We wound through the buildings to wind up at the gymnasium and garrison, where the Ptolemaic soldiers were housed and exercised. We walked past the Agora and the theater (which was set down the cliff side) and then realized that if we didn’t get water, we were going to collapse.

We wound back down through the streets toward the parking area, where an enterprising resident has a concessions stand. We bought water and started our decent on our ATV with our tiny helmets.

The drive down was somehow less terrifying, possibly because I was riding the brake the entire time to keep from speeding off the edge. After successfully figuring out which way the hotel was, we adjourned to the pool, another old thing having been conquered.

Coming up next: Getting to Fira and one more dinner in Oia.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Weddings in Clouds

Wedding Day

Today is the first day that we didn’t have travel or scheduled activities during the day. We were entirely free until 6:30, at which point we had a bus scheduled to pick us up and take us to Santo Wines for the ceremony. We actually slept until 10am, mostly because we’d learned to close the blinds so as not to have the sun blazing in. The plan was originally to take a tour bus up to Ancient Thira, and we walked to the end of the boardwalk with that intention.

It was hotter out than any day we’d had so far (or seemed that way anyway) and we were jetting off with very little water and no breakfast, so by the time we got to Kamari Tours, we’d decided to go back to our hotel rather than have Marina collapse and fall off of a mountain. Instead, we got some water, then picked a place to eat that didn’t serve gyros. We settled on King’s Restaurant by virtue of it being nearby when we decided that we desperately needed food.

A note about that lunch.

During our stay, the music in a lot of the restaurants has seemed off. Santorini is a very tourism driven island, and as a result, most everything is geared toward the tourist. It’s beautiful, but it’s not somewhere you’d go if you’re after authenticity. As a result, most restaurants play either instrumentals or American music, sometimes in a sort of confused mix of current music, stuff from the 70’s and a wide variety of genres. After we got off the bus on our first day in Santorini, for example, we walked home to the tune of “Part-Time Lover”. Which isn’t something I’d expected to hear.

It was about 11am, so we figured King’s Restaurant would be playing something mild and relaxing. We were wrong. For some reason, and only this time (as we’d passed the place before) they were playing the filthiest music I’ve ever heard in my life. Moans and inexplicable crying babies and one song that was roughly a minute and a half long and was comprised of the experience of being in a motel with walls that are too thin. It eventually got to recognizable songs and LL Cool J seemed gloriously tame by comparison. Which is something. Given that we were the only customers in the restaurant, it was a somewhat uncomfortable experience. There we are, trying to enjoy our crepes (I had a Florentine sort of thing, Jordan had chicken and Marina had nutella, which they had on the menu as nutella but refused to call anything other than chocolate) and everyone walking by is associating us with lots of moaning.

Moving on from that, we decided to postpone the visit to Ancient Thira until tomorrow and focus on actually going into the Aegean. Given that my feet were still a mess and that pebble beaches aren’t easy to walk on in general, we went and bought aquasocks and, on a whim, cheap snorkeling equipment. The sea was cold at first, but nice eventually and very calm and snorkeling is sort of terrifying if you’ve never done it before. You’re putting a lot of faith into a cheap bit of yellow plastic that you’ve bought for 13€. We didn’t invest in fins because who are we kidding, but the water was clear and fish were pretty much everywhere. After a few attempts (most of which involved going under the surface, gasping, losing faith in the idea that I was going to be able to breathe underwater and resurfacing), I got the hang of it and swam out far into the sea. I have no idea how far, except that Marina kept telling me to come back like a concerned mother. Which is fair enough.

Final note about swimming in Kamari: The airport of the island is located a little northwest of the beaches, so every once in a while a small plane will start flying directly at you and you’ll realize there’s nothing you can do to get out of its way and prepare for impact. It passes over and lands, of course, but it’s still sort of terrifying.

At 5:30, we started getting ready for the wedding and by 6:30, we were waiting for the bus to arrive to take us to Santo Wines. The bus told the hotel it was waiting to meet us, but wasn’t actually there. About a mile of back and forth by Myles later and we deduced that the bus was waiting one block over, and was huge. Myles’ family had rented a minivan and was planning on driving on their own as we were supposed to get a bus that seated eight, but instead we were given a bus that seated roughly fifty. Myles told the bus to go and ran off to get to the venue and the bus sort of didn’t. It waited, because evidently the bus driver didn’t trust him and was sure there were more people waiting to get on the bus. The people in the minivan were waiting on the bus to drive so that they could follow. After a few visits from Tim, it was decided that the entire party would just board the bus, as it was 7pm and the wedding was timed to start at 7:30 so that the sunset would be incorporated.


Everyone got on and we made it to Santo Wines on time and managed to get into position on a balcony overlooking the caldera.

I’m not one to be sappy, but the ceremony was goddamn beautiful. A cloud had covered the sun from view prior to the start only to move away when Andrea started toward the balcony and the view throughout was amazing. That’s not to diminish all the other weddings I’ve been to in my life, but this would be hard to compete with. A pair of local musicians played (on violin and on some lute-sort-of-thing that I’m not entirely sure what it was) and the officiant conducted the ceremony in Greek and English. The vows were great and memorable. There was complimentary wine, which I’m always going to be a fan of. Overall, awesome.

We headed back to a restaurant around the corner from the hotel for the reception. There, more wine, toasts from pretty much everyone (including a toast by Marina on behalf of the three of us who aren’t related to anyone) and prawns big enough to mug you in a dark alley if you run across them at the wrong time of night. Then dancing and eventually candles and sparklers.

I managed to resist the urge to write my name in the air with the sparkler. This wasn’t about me.

Congratulations again to Andrea and Myles.