22 July 2011

Rovers

καλήνύχτα (pronounced "ka-lee-nikh-tuh") a.k.a. good evening!  Despite the confusion at the airport gates, an hour later our airplane touched down on the outskirts of Athens, Greece.  After just two days in Athens and two on Santorini we hopped on the bus to Πειραιάς a.k.a. Piraeus, Greece for another two.

Having stayed at the Athens Hilton already (near the area of Evangelismos) the suburb of Piraeus appeared sketchy at first glance.  The roads were puddles of dirty water; graffiti was rampant; water from the gutters on the first floor dropped onto the few, innocent people on the sidewalk; stray dogs tangled with other strays who crossed into the wrong territory but [thankfully] paid no attention to people; the city's streets seemed closed off and menacing;

Mom & I barely made it to the nearby restaurant -- Radiko -- by closing time.  Now we had adjusted to the typical Greek schedule which meant no breakfast, lunch around 12:00-14:00, and dinner at 21:00 at the earliest

When Mom & I first booked our european flights, I decided I was going to eat as much fresh fish as possible while in a country that was a peninsula.  Under the seafood section was a fried fish.  Due to my heartburn from puking so much, I asked our server if I could have the fish grilled.  "Ohi, we cannot do it that way" was her response in broken English.  I threw caution to the wind & decided to try the fish anyway.  To up the ante I also tried Stoa potatoes -- named after Greek architecture.

My mother's eyes were as big as saucers and her mouth hung open as the lady brought my μαρίδες a.k.a. Whitebait fish (pronounced "mah-ree-thez").  I steeled my nerves and surprise.  This plate of food was not what I had envisioned.  Now I understood why the fish could not be grilled.  The tricky thing about the English words "fish" or "sheep" or "deer" is the listener is unaware of quantity.  Erroneously, I assumed the description of fried fish was singular. 
In my home country, I do not eat fish tails nor heads, but then again I've never eaten fish this small. When the woman server passed by our table & observed the pile of skeletons on my plate she educated me: I could eat the entire body.  I had a flashback to the only line in the movie The Beach that I remember: "we all travel thousands of miles just to watch TV and check into somewhere with all the comforts of home and you gotta ask yourself, 'whats the point of that?' "  Okay. I was going to try my best to immerse myself in Greek culture but I refused to feast on the head/eyeballs.  I doused the fish with the lemon & dug in.  They actually weren't terrible.

Anyway, my Stoa potatoes were golden brown with a crisp shell and mouth-watering! 

Around midnight and before turning in at The Argo Hotel, Mom & I wanted to stop at one of Greece's widespread kiosks to stock up on drinks (in an effort to save money).  I felt more comfortable walking along Ethn. Adistaseos because it was well lit and there were more people on this main drag.  The mid-twenties, female worker at the deserted kiosk inquired about our trip to her country.  She approved Thira was worthy of stereotyping the country, but "not really" Athens.  Out of left field, she then discussed the political strife in Greece -- which explained why there were bunches of cops in the streets.  The country was having major problems with immigration and finances.  During this twenty minute conversation my mom & I heard resentment towards Americans only once when the woman declared "you just don't know" [about Greece's problems].  That stung a little bit.  Hate us for our obesity rates or pompous attitude, but Mom & I were both taken aback that she thought the U.S.A. did not have similar issues.  Still, it is always fascinating and educational to speak with the locals.

20 July 2011

Good spirits

The best feature about The Tataki Hotel: its prime location in central Fira. The worst feature about The Tataki Hotel: its prime location in central Fira.

At 1:00 I was lying awake in bed, listening to all the ruckus at the bars and "YMCA" by The Village People from a nearby discoteque. At 2:00 I tried my hardest to tune out "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls and assumed the clubs would be closing soon (like in the U.S.A.) At 3:00 I was irritated and perplexed to still hear "Hit The Road Jack" by Ray Charles booming. At 3:30 I contemplated popping a Dramamine to counteract the 24 hour club and its blaring bass.

Needless to say the next morning was rough.  My body wanted to rest but my mind wouldn't keep quiet.  It kept reminding me of a rebellious phrase: I'll sleep when I'm old.

Initially, Mom & I planned on visiting quite a few sites on Santorini's southern half: Kamari (a quiet, black sand beach) & White Beach (aptly named for its white sand). We stopped for petrol a.k.a. gas and other times to admire the caldera from a different perspective. Looking northeast, Fira's stark white buildings stood out against Thira's natural colors. Akrotiri, Red, White & Black Beach are not situated along the main highway so my mom & I ran out of time to explore the island in its entirety.
We locked our trusty quad in the sand lot that is the parking area. Officially we weren't at Red Beach but what immediately grabbed my attention was the panoramic view of the endless Sea Of Crete. In order to swim, we first had to traverse the steep red crags which lent their name to the cove.
To date, Red Beach is the most unique beach I have ever seen. It is only accessible by foot or small boat. We found four feet of shade by sitting under the red cliff's overhang. The shore is not sand at all -- it was volcanic ash and pebbles. Every step I took left a gray powder that covered my foot. I swam out at least 40 feet and could still see (what I still believe was) the sea floor. It was difficult to get out of the water because my feet kept sinking into the small stones; like I was walking in quicksand. My mom actually had to sit down and scoot her way up to the shore.
Meanwhile, Mom was preoccupied with studying the rain clouds that were creeping closer. I have skydived in the rain and it is quite painful. It's similar to being repeatedly stung. Though we did not intend on driving as fast as terminal velocity, Mom & I did not particularly want to get caught in the rain either. So we repacked my bookbag, passed through Santorini's wine region, and sped north to avoid the ominous clouds that surrounded Mt. Profitis Ilias.
We had used 23 out of the rented 24 hours and planned on milking that ATV for all the euros we paid. So Mom & I paused for lunch in Firostefani, a village neighboring Fira. We followed the arrows that kept leading us downward.  We descended for two stories to a peaceful restaurant perched on the cliffs.  As we awaited our meals we both sat in gratitude and stared at the iconic view for the last time.
Afterwards we returned the vessel which sadly meant our time in Santorini was waning. Mom & I roamed the narrow streets in search of souvenirs although many of the boutiques sold the same items. I strolled into Pandora -- a store that was a hodgepodge of chinsey magnets, handmade soaps and local spirits. When caught in the alcohol section of the store, I told the clerk I was just browsing for a gift. Without hesitation she introduced me to μαστίχα a.k.a. Mastika (pronouned "moss-tee-kuh"). It strongly tasted like licorice or Sambuca. Not my style -- I drink the sweet stuff. I eyeballed the small bottle of Absinthe. I remember my roommate sophomore year of college used to secretly order it from Europe since the hallucinogenic was illegal in The States. Next, the woman rambled off some Greek and poured me a potent shot of _____________. It was colored like whiskey, smelled like whiskey, tasted like whiskey, and burned like whiskey. By now I was getting a midday buzz but this lady was inexorable! She poured me more than a shot of what she simply entitled "sweet wine". The bottle did not mention the type(s) of grape used but it reminded me of Port.
The sun began to sink lower in the sky. I was glad that two days earlier Mom convinced me to come to Santorini.  The hotel manager personally drove us to the only departing terminal where gates one through six were squished into an area smaller than the Athens Hilton's lobby.  Although we arrived at the terminal two hours early, Mom & I could have missed our return flight since our plane boarded through gate 6 when the boarding passes stated gate 5.  The situation was made more confusing because we boarded through a gate labeled "Bologna" [Italy].  Mom & I disregarded the debacle, thinking it was a one-time occurrence.  Who knew how wrong we were!

17 July 2011

When the ocean met the sky

"I'm gonna carry you in, in my head, in my heart, in my soul...
And maybe we'll get lucky and we'll both grow old

Well I don't know, I don't know, I hope so


The ocean breathes salty, won't you carry it in?
In your head, in your mouth, in your soul?

The more we move ahead the more we're stuck in rewind
Well I don't mind, I don't mind, how the hell could I mind?"
-- Modest Mouse

I awoke to a hot hotel room but as soon as I opened the window I felt the cool, Mediterranean breeze and was blinded by the intense sunlight.  These factors made the day's temperature perfect.  To avoid my morning ritual of vomiting, Mom & I raced to a nearby creperie.  Much to my surprise the egg in the crepe was a chopped up hard-boiled egg, but it tasted very good.  Despite suddenly feeling queasy, major heartburn, and a 10 minute hiccup session, I did not throw up... thank God!

Our original plan was to hop on a ferry to Folegandros -- another Greek isle -- because I wanted to go to a nude beach.  Where better to do that than on an isolated, European island?  However, the manager of The Tataki Hotel mentioned a nude beach on Θήρα/Thira a.k.a. Santorini.  Mom & I decided to save time/money by foregoing Folegandros.  Unfortunately, the travel agency we visited had no account of a nude beach on Santorini, but mentioned other remote beaches where swimming naked would be appropriate.  These beaches were not along the bus route so we opted to rent a four-wheeler a.k.a. quad.
Since Santorini is shaped like a backward "C" and Fira was centrally located, we decided to explore the northern half on day one.  Given our recent snafu with the Greek language, Mom & I were pleased to learn there was only one main road to Oia (pronounced "ee-ah").  About two kilometers outside of Fira, the buildings disappeared and we were able to see the countryside.
Scattered around the flatter part of the island were quaint houses in dull pastel shades.  Many of the dwellings had places for windows cut into the frame, however, we saw no glass panes in the empty holes.  I assumed it was part of island living and -- like in Hawaii -- the houses usually remained open to the elements.
We continued to drive north, unsuspectingly when BAM!  There it was to our left.  The experience reminded me of the first time I saw Uluru.  Santorini's caldera had been there since my arrival but to see the terraced buildings in person, smell the salt from the Aegean Sea, hear the birds singing, and feel the sun browning my skin was irreplaceable.

Back on the four-wheeler, the caldera vanished behind cliffs -- typical landscape for western Santorini -- and the singular road weaved up & down, back & forth to compensate.  Now in Oia (population 763) we parked the quad on an offbeat road that ran alongside the sea at a rather steep angle.  I must admit, I become a bit autistic whenever I first lay eyes on beautiful scenery... I have to touch and afferent everything.
There was a colorful red, white & blue dinghy anchored next to boats similar in size.  Each boat looked like it could seat two sailors at best.  Cut into the rockside were a few boutiques; tavernas lined the water's edge.  What stood out most was a zig-zagging white line juxtaposed against the red rock background.  As Mom & I walked closer, we realized the white line was a paved trail for the donkeys that still transported people/cargo to the top to Oia.  This area was distinguished as Old Port.
I kept seeing soaking wet people walking around Old Port in swimsuits.  Where were they coming from?  Again, the autistic child in me had to know!  Mom & I hugged the rock wall and followed a gravel trail as far as we could.  We rounded a point and 30 feet off the mainland was a boulder about three stories tall with fifteen people swimming in its shadow.  I had found the source!
The water was so transparent I saw all the large, smooth stones that made up the sea floor (though they were deceivingly deep).  Some were moss covered & slippery.  Others were a bit jagged and I had to carefully find my footing, especially given the ebb & flow of the Aegean Sea.  I swam toward the disjoint crag because -- again, the autism rears its head -- I secretly wanted to jump off it.  Amidst climbing out of the water, I placed my right hand on another stone and immediately felt a stinging sensation.  I jerked my hand out of the sea & saw three, black sea urchins nestled in the rock's crevice.  Upon closer inspection, there were black patches (of sea urchins) on many of the stones!  It reminded me of my Australian experience where I realized, much to my horror, I was standing on a thousand Soldier Crabs buried in the sand.
I feel I am rather bold but one thing I do not mess with is the ocean.  Its creatures, temperment and mysticism earn my total respect.  I push the limits in the air by skydiving, on earth by camping in the Aussie outback, but I will always back down to the water.  So I floated on my back, stared at the infinite sky, listened to my ears fill with water, and felt rejuvenated after the trials of the last few days.
 Mom & I hoped to observe Oia's famed sunset but it was an overcast evening.  Truthfully, I was in too high of spirits to care.  I had a blast already and a fiery sunset simply would have been icing on the cake.  We wandered around the town and ate dinner (Dolmathes a.k.a. stuffed grape leaves + Souvlaki a.k.a. meat kebabs served with customary lemons) before returning to Fira. 

Back at the hotel Mom & I debated whether or not to walk to the rim of the caldera.  On one hand we were both full, tired and a tad sunburnt.  On the other hand, this was our last night on Santorini... and when would we be in Greece again?  So, we dragged ourselves uphill a few blocks and were pleased with our decision.  The buildings cast the only light.  I could see the different terrace levels, followed by endless darkness where the caldera dropped off into the Aegean.  En route to the hotel Mom wanted to drop some coins into a street band's cup.  As she walked away, I could hear the band thank then serenade her.  We giggled and jubilantly started for the hotel.

13 July 2011

The company

"Let us rise up & be thankful
for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little
and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick
and if we got sick, at least we didn't die
So, let us all be thankful"

-- Buddha

I went to bed around 23:00 local time (it seems every country except the USA uses military time so I permanently converted) and briefly awoke at 3:00.  I figured I should eat a snack since my stomach had been upset since the start of these holidays a.k.a. vacation.  The alarm clock went off at 7:30 because Mom and I had a flight to Greece's most famous isle: Santorini.   

Immediately, I went to the bathroom and threw up.  This stomach ailment was becoming chronic and ruining my trip!  I opted to take a nausea pill I had brought from home for emergencies.  Obviously that didn't work because 30 minutes later I was praying to the porcelain gods again.  Now I was getting nervous: the medicine wasn't working  (for those of you who are unaware, I am diabetic so as soon as I throw up my blood glucose numbers skyrocket which in turn makes me dehydrated which in turn makes my insulin not work correctly... it's quite a vicious cycle)

I began to feel worse and knew I couldn't make our 10:00 voyage to Santorini so my mother went to the Hilton's lobby to inquire about later flights.  Still, I felt awful for ruining the first two (soon-to-become-three-) days of my mom's vacation.  A half hour later she returned just as I was sprinting to the toilet again.  Amidst puking up air (there was nothing left in me to come up) I had visions of going to a Greek hospital.  We already knew there was a language barrier and although I had insurance, surely the price would be steep because Evangelismos Hospital was out-of-network.  Knowing that, I began to have visions of dying abroad kind of like Discovery Channel's show Locked Up Abroad.

I told my mom I felt like I was dying.  She calmly told me that my stomach problems were always worst in the morning.  I told her I wanted to go to the hospital.  She assured me I should rest and that returning to The States wasn't an option.  I told her I only had two remaining nausea pills and was hesitant to fly to an isolated island.  She clarified that I may not even need more medication so stressing about the pills was pointless. 

Then she told me the bad news: the entire city of Athens was going on strike the next day, so there would be no way to get to the airport.  We had to leave tonight or not at all.

This put different spin on the situation.  So, I plopped back into bed in hopes of pulling myself together.  At Διεθνής Αερολιμένας Αθηνών a.k.a. Athens International Airport I forced down a chicken & cheese pita.  The first four bites were rough and I had to wash them down with water.  Gradually -- bite by bite -- I began to feel human again.  We disembarked the plane and waited for the bus to Fira, but it never arrived.  Apparently, the bus stopped at 19:00.  Thank goodness the airport worker told my mother & me or we might have waited all night!  In the taxi, en route to The Tataki Hotel, I was relieved when we passed a clinic.

Drained, I laid on the bed and mentally debated the blessings/curses of traveling with a partner.  The pros definitely outweighed the cons:
CONS 
* Conflict of interest -- in relation to food, activities, and travel philosophies
* May make the trip worse/make you regret not going solo
* Challenges your patience, communication skills & compromising abilities

* Indecisiveness since you are not solely responsible for the trip
* Snoring (if applicable)
* May slow you down




PROS
* Trying each other's meals; sharing toiletries; another person knows the lock box code
* Always have someone who can relate because he/she has shared the experience
* Inspires you to be more patient, loving, understanding, hopeful & compromising
* Two heads are better than one when problem-solving
* Empathy and/or comedic relief during a terrible moment/day/trip
* May push you to do more than you ever thought yourself capable of
... like stand up from the bathroom floor, regroup, try to eat, and get on that plane to Santorini

10 July 2011

It's all Greek to me

Γειά σου (pronounced "yah-soo") a.k.a. hi!  The day after arriving in Athens I was still feeling queasy, threw up my breakfast, and went back to bed until 13:00.  The original plan was to visit to the ancient site of Delphi but that was a two hour bus ride, one way.  Not exactly what I wanted to do while sick to my stomach & jetlagged.
After we walked uphill for 6 blocks, Mom and I discovered our restaurant of choice was closed.  Apparently it was a "bank holiday" in Greece.  In addition to the tavernas a.k.a. restaurants, many of the street kiosks -- which sell gum, snacks, drinks, cigarettes, newspapers, and postcards -- were closed too.  Ironically, there was a kiosk on every block in this city of three million people, but on the day I needed food none were open. 

We continued upward and eventually found a taverna that was open.  It had only two rows of tables outside on the severely slanting pavement.  Inside was the entire kitchen.  Still ill, Mom & I resigned to sharing a liter (once again, the metric system rears its logical head) of water.  We opened our menus and were confused by all the circles, triangles and odd shapes on the page.  Yet, I was able to decipher a few words since I once worked at a Greek-American restaurant.  In the end, Mom -- unsure of most items -- chose chicken souvlaki a.k.a. meat kebabs and I settled for grilled Metalo cheese with lemon.

While eating, Mom and I noticed plants everywhere.  Lining the block across the street were orange trees.  95% of the balconies had at least one potted plant, but the majority were overflowing with bushes and hanging flowers.  The main city sidewalks were also lined with trees and on a sidestreet off of Λεωφόρος Βασιλίσσης a.k.a.Vassilissis Sofias the walls of a bar were thick with green vines.
Mom and I received the bill and were a little surprised to see an additional €2 for the water.  That would not be our first European dining surprise. We paid, moseyed down towards the hotel, and found one other shop open along the journey.  If we struggled to understand Greek at the taverna, then we drowned at the bakery.  The two old ladies inside were friendly but spoke no English whatsoever.  We browsed the varieties of sweetened bread products looking for a familiar word on the signs or a recognizable fruit on a pastry that would help us figure out each item.  Mom asked if a cinnamon/sugar-looking bit tasted sweet?  The old lady looked at her blankly & Mom repeated "Sweet?" to which the old woman answered "Nay".  We felt a little hopeful that we found how to say "no" in Greek.  I bought the cookie anyway but my mom moved on to other pastries in search of a sweet dessert.

When we returned to the hotel, I ate the cinnamon/sugar cookie.  It was tasty and sweet.... why would the Greek baker lie to us?  I decided it was necessary to educate myself on common Greek phrases via a chapter in my Lonely Planet book.  The first translations were:
No = Ohi  (pronounced "oh-hee")
Yes = Nay

05 July 2011

Dramamine

It was dusk on Sunday, June 12, 2011, as I literally and figuratively collapsed. 

My mother & I left our homes at 9:00 AM on Saturday.  As mentioned in past blog entries, two years ago I traveled for two full days from Australia without even getting a headache.  Now, at age 27, I felt terribly crook a.k.a. sick even before my mom and I arrived in Athens, Greece.  Aside from exhausted, I felt disappointed.  When did I transform into the worst traveler?  When I was in middle school, I used to fly from Ohio to California, to somewhere foreign, back to California, and finally back to Ohio every summer.  I could pass out in the middle seat of an airplane 30 minutes after take-off.  However, on this particular journey I slept in 30 minute increments for two hours at best.  I couldn't make my neck feel comfortable despite the complimentary airline pillow and wadding up my jacket to use as a second pillow.  On solid ground, I still felt like I was being bounced around in the jet.
During our layover at Rome, Italy's Fiumicino (pronounced "few-mih-chee-noh") airport I was incredibly nauseated and abstained from anything that wasn't a Saltine cracker.  Now that I was able to lay down my luggage and body I was starving, but mustered up the energy to do what every deliriously tired traveler does:  throws open the curtains to confirm you survived the journey & are seeing your destination in living color.