Assignment 11 in the MatadorU Travel Writing Course: Shoot a series of 6-8 sequential shots that tell a story you want people to deduce just by looking at your photographs. Post the photos on your blog without any captions and invite friends and family to view the essay and leave comments.
“But why don’t you just get the bus?” asks my bus-driver out of Thessaloniki, when I tell him I’m going to hitchhike. “Where would be the fun in that?” I reply with a smile, and he drops me at the road to Vertiskos.
I walk a little way up the small dusty road and extend my right thumb. A few cars pass, some look at me, none smile – none even consider stopping. A small white dog notices me from a nearby house and announces his disapproval in a repetetive, yappy little way. This has the usual effect of provoking all the other dogs in the vicinity to join in. Half an hour later it’s getting cold, the dog is pissing me off and I’m beginning to get “that fascist feeling” from the passing cars. This is reinforced when I notice a ‘White Power’ symbol graffitied on a wall on my way back into town. I’ve decided the bus might be more fun after all.
The main square of Vertiskos village might be big enough to squash one more bus into, but not much bigger than that. It’s raining lightly and my umbrella, gloves and coat are all collectively broken or missing in action, but it’s not long before a dark blue four-wheel drive turns up with my new friends inside and we go for a drink in the one and only tavern in the village.
Here are Maria, Yorgos, Constantia and little Maya – Maria and Yorgo’s 19 month old daughter. After a beer we drive down the track to the two Forestry Commission buildings they’ve been occupying for the past three years. Originally there were more people here, but slowly they all drifted off leaving Maria, Yorgo, Maya and another girl who’s not here. Constantia is just visiting, like me.
It feels geat to replace towerblocks with trees and wake to the sound of the goose (quacking?) rather than cars honking and the mechanical sound of men flogging vegetables from car tannoys. There’s no internet of course and no sun for 12 days means rationed electricity, but there’s a wood burner inside and it’s cozy and warm.
It’s “Clean Monday” – the first day of lent. There are celebrations happening in every village and we’re just getting ready to leave when we notice small white flakes floating from the sky outside. Could it be? It certainly could, and within half an hour they are very large white flakes and rapidly covering the ground. We decide to go out anyway, but only to Vertiskos. We will visit Maria’s parents in the village. In the Orthodox religion, “fasting” is basically just veganism, so this is a great time of year for people like me – but I’m disappointed to discover that fish doesn’t really count as “meat” and a lot of people cheat and eat yogurt anyway.
Still, there’s plenty to eat. I’m especially pleased with the tradtional dolmathes which I helped to prepare – wrapping the cooked rice, leek and herbs in vine leaves and boiling them with a plate on top to weigh them down and stop them from unravelling. Another part of Clean Monday seems to involve drinking a hell of a lot of tsipouro, which doesn’t seem very clean at all.
When we have scoffed and drunk a fair bit we walk to the main square, where an “orchestra” of two cold looking men – one with a keyboard, the other singing and playing a bouzouki – play to a small group of drunk old men. Gradually more people arrive, the second round of eating and drinking begins and much dancing and merriment is had by all.
I’m developing a routine: wake up, make the fire and sweep the floor as Anna wakes and we lay our mats down on the floor – twin yoga shadows in black trousers and polo-necks bend and stretch in front of the fire. Maria, Yorgo and Maya arrive and I go over to the other house to meditate, then back for breakfast and coffee before my walk – my favourite part of the day.
I sit on the hill, check my phone messages, dance to the music I have stored in my phone and sing out loud on the way back down. Often I take a detour or walk on further, explore the forest, climb a tree… and always I am escorted by at least one, if not two, dog escorts. I’m told when some couschsurfers came to visit on bicycles, the dogs followed them over twenty kilometers and they had to shut them in a cafe and call Anna to come and get them, lest they follow them all the way to Turkey. More loyal canine friends cannot be found.
I’ve never been very good with children, I don’t really know how to speak with them. Usually we just gaze shyly at one another or ignore each other completely. Not so with Maya. This little girl demands attention, and she knows exactly how to get it. By day two we’re already building up a relationship. She adds “hello” and “bye” to her few words of Greek vocabulary, and will often potter over to where I am to see what it is I’m up to, turn my laptop off unexpectedly by pressing the pretty blue button, or simply demand “pano!” (up) with her arms outstretched.
The snow is slowly melting away and Maya can hardly find any “xoni” (snow) on her “voltitsa” (little walk). The sky is blue for the third day in a row and it feels like spring is really here.
The Hunger Strike continues in Thessaloniki. We listen on the radio for news. We hear first that two women have been arrested for preventing doctors from giving the men food in hospital. Then something astonishing happens – the hunger strikers win! The strike is ended! Ok, they didn’t exactly get their demand of “unconditional legalisation for all migrants living and working in Greece” – but they did get rolling six month “tolerance” permits, until they have reached the new eight year work requirment to entitle them to stay permanently, with the ability to leave and return to Greece in the meantime. Many of the men have already been working in Greece for more than eight years and so will be legalised right away – more details here.
City day – well, town day at least. Anna and I drive to Langada to collect Constantia and Sma. They and some others are visiting for the first firing up of the big cob oven which has now been finished. We also need to buy food and wine for the occasion.
Five men are driving up to visit us – very exciting, but their car breaks down and they go back to Thessaloniki instead. Everyone is very disappointed, but we drink wine, bake cake and pie in the new oven and barbeque vegetable kebabs, mushrooms (and meat for the others) on the fire. Barbequed mushrooms are definitely the most underestimated culinary phenomenon ever to hit my pallet. Smoked delisciousness – I could eat these forever.
Sma and I are both leaving. The others are driving to Thessaloniki, but there’s no room in the car for all of us, so Constantia, Sma and I walk for a few kilometres while Anna drives the others to the village and comes back to collect us. The walk is spring foresty goodness, mountain views and a surprise waterfall – the perfect goodbye to the forest I have called home, if only for the past week. Sma and I get a lift to Langada before we get a chance to say goodbye to the others. Maya is asleep in the car. I have to whisper – “Bye Maya! Bye!”
Hitching to Trahila is easy – an amble in the sun, stop to admire the scenery, a car stops and takes us a little further, repeat…
A few kilometres outside Trahila, a car is parked. A hippy is outside speaking with the driver. He has shoulder length blonde hair with a dreadlock or two, a big beard, green braces holding up his green trousers and a Jim Morrison t-shirt, which the other man is taking the piss out of – “Flower power was in the ‘60s! Get a job!” He sees me and begins singing loudly. The hippy in the green trousers is just smiling at him. He smiles at me too. “We’re on our way to see Dieter”, I tell him. “Do you know him?” He does, he’s going there too. We walk away from the other man, who’s singing increases in volume.
Soon we see a dark red camper-van with a white roof in the distance. “Coockadooo! Cooock-a-dooooo!” calls the hippy, whose name is Erik. “Coooockadoo!” comes the reply. We walk up to meet them. Dieter greets me first, then his partner Angela, and finally a small elderly woman. “This is my mother, Irene.” She looks at me with foggy eyes and a clear smile “Hallo.” “Hallo,” I tell her, “ich bin Jo.” Ten minutes later she greets me again, “Hallo. Ich bin Irene.” “Oh, nice to meet you…”
The sun is setting. We watch as it turns magical colours and sinks into the sea. Irene says something in German – “She says you look sad,” Dieter translates. I swallow the tears that had been rising. “Oh no, I’m fine,” I say, and smile. Irene is still looking at me. I turn away.
We all get in the van and drive back to Trahila, where Erik shows me the olive orchard and the half-built house they’re living in. I have a choice between a bedroom with Sma and my tent in the orchard down the road, next to the little village church.
Once upon a time Erik was on a walking caravan from Austria. He met a German couple at some hot springs in Kaiafas who said they wanted to start a community… they “pirated” him, his girlfriend and some others away to Trahila where they lived in a ruined house on top of a hill, until the owner found them living there… “oh great, somebody’s using it… would you like to live in my other house?” So now they have this other house, just pay the bills and the owner lives away in the city most of the time. One problem: hot and cold running salt water come from the taps and there’s no fresh water in summer. So now everyone has left but Erik and the German couple. And now we’re here.
It’s late and Sma and I are in bed in the house. We hear the front door open and Dieter’s voice – “we have a visitor!” Dreadlocks and a backpack appear in the bedroom door. This is Assaf, from Israel. He’s come from Beneficio, the Rainbow village in Spain. It seems he had enough there, was told about this place by a girl he met and, well, came. I give up the small bed to him and join Sma in the double bed, despite protests that he’s happy on the floor. I’ll put my tent up tomorrow.
We have breakfast around the fire in the olive orchard, outside Erik’s caravan. Erik makes a big pot of porridge on the fire, there’s herb tea and Angela has a little basket of her raw food items. We hang out a while before Dieter takes the others to see the vegetable garden. I mean to follow them, but when I see the village and the amazing clear blue sea, my feet just start walking. It’s love at first sight with Trahila.
A day later I’m sitting on coral rocks by the clearest, bluest sea. Erik, Assaf and Sma sit nearby; Dieter and Angela swim naked in the sea. For now, everyone is silent, with their own thoughts and the sound of spray lapping at rocks.
Later, Dieter tells us they’re going to harvest olives tomorrow and asks if we’d like to help. Yes, I would.
We pile into the back of the camper-van and set off. I’ve no idea where we’re going or how long for. I have my backpack and everything with me, just in case.
Dieter knows every avocado tree on the way. We stop and collect some, and oranges too. I ask how long it will take to get there. Erik shrugs, “I’m on the Dieter train,” he says, laughing. I’m puzzled, but notice Angela scowling.
We stop with friends for the night in Tholo, in the beautiful guest house they made themselves.
When we go to our camping place the next day, two vans are already there. One has a German licence plate that makes Dieter and Angela cry out in recognition – it’s from the city next to theirs! Our new friends are Roland, Lena and their dog Pollie. The other truck is a converted horsebox with a French numberplate, occupied by Charles (French), Patricia (Spanish), and their canine friend Boutin. They gape as we all pile out of the camper-van.
I put my tent up while Assaf does the same. Erik pulls out some rope and tarp, gets his knife out and knocks up a shelter in no time. Sma, who doesn’t camp much and likes to travel light, only has a hammock. There are two trees nearby, but they, like every other tree in the area, are dead and bunt. There was a massive forest fire a few years ago and everything got torched. The place has a strange atmosphere now – like a desert in a way. Even the ground is sand-earth, with a lot of long dry grasses, the burnt trees and occasional tiny flowers. Sma carefully cuts the thorn bushes under the trees and strings up her hammock, with a tarp over the top.
We breakfast with our new friends before heading off to work, leaving them directions so they can come later, which they do.
Dieter gives a brief induction in the art of olive slapping. We spread giant tarps out beneath the trees, then slap the branches with our plastic four-pronged devil sticks, which Assaf affectionately terms “slappers,” despite me informing him what that word means in English. One person climbs the tree and saws branches off, throwing them down to us to get slapped. It’s repetetive, physical work, but it’s fun, and gives ample opportunity for chatting and debating…
A hippy and an anarchist – Erik and I are coming from very different places. I often find hippies can have a blindingly-positive perception of the world, and the subsequent refusal to look at the negative infuriates me. These things still exist – you’re just not looking at them! Assaf has been travelling in Britain and met a lot of anarchists at protest sites like Bilston Glen. He’s had anarchism explained to him and it seems to have changed his perspective, unlike Erik. We begin our debate…
After work we climb over the gate of the thermal spring next to our camp at Kaiafas – the same place Erik first met Dieter and Angela one year ago. It stinks like rotten egg, but it’s nice and warm and good to swim in. At least if we all smell of egg we won’t notice one another.
On our second night a storm hits. Smaranda and her hammock are soaked and Erik’s tarp isn’t completely waterproof either, though Assaf and I are dry. We spend the following night at “The Museum” – a curious place filled with oddities, acting as a free tourist attraction and hook for customers for the homemade condiments Dieter’s friends make. Here we have wireless internet and a giant TV: everyone lost in their own world of screens. We have a choice to stay here from now on, but it’s no choice really – back to camp for us.
Each evening we go back to camp, then Dieter drives Angela and Omi to stay with their friends. Then we have our time, cooking and chatting round the fire, as Erik and Assaf take turns with the guitar. Our debate has been progressing. One day Erik looks me in the eyes and says, “I’m very happy I met you, Jo. I’m starting to change my story about anarchists.” Well, maybe I’m also starting to change my story about hippies. I give Erik a big hug before I go to bed.
Every morning I practice yoga outside my tent, then wake Assaf for meditation. We have breakfast by Erik’s shelter as Dieter arrives, before being whisked away to the olives.
After four days – well, half days – we have ten sacks of olives to take to the mill…
Somehow when I asked Dieter how many trees there were and he told me sixty, he neglected to mention the forty trees in the other field. I can’t quite believe someone would make such a glaring ommission by accident, but anyway we move to “The Kinderland” – the other field, and begin on the next lot of trees. These trees are smaller and only take two days, despite our reduced workforce. Charles, Patricia and now Lena have all gone traveling. It’s near the end of these trees that Dieter mentions another field… no way, that’s it. I’m taking the day off and going to town.
I hitch the small road into Zacharo, a small town, where I find a wifi cafe and drink a coffee, buy some luxury food (soy cheese, chocolate) and hitch back to camp where the others are packing up. It’s our last night in the area and we’re going back to the Museum.
I get a text message from Diane. She’s doing the olive harvest on Wednesday and would we like to join them? More olives? God, no! But I mention it to the others and the idea grows – wouldn’t it be nice to turn up and finish the olives quickly for Di and Paul? I text back and say we’ll come.
In the end it’s Erik, Assaf, me, Patricia and Charles – back from their jaunt – who are dropped at Di’s yurt to help her and three other helpers with the olives. Paul is in hospital so she can really use our help.
We waved goodbye to Sma, who’s hitching to Patras to wait for me there. She’ a city girl and she needs a good solid internet connection, like a drip in her arm. Me, I’m going back to Trahila. I’m not ready to leave these people yet and two days wasn’t nearly enough time in that beautiful village.
Back in Trahila, I’m becoming aware that Erik, Assaf and myself have developed a little clique. Our debate is now into it’s third week and has widened to include a range of political, spiritual and philosophical topics. Now we trust each other, thee equals in discussion, no longer needing to defend a position. We also spend time watching films and Krishnamurti videos, reading to one another, dancing around the kitchen, cooking and laughing at Assaf, the perpetual clown.
Charles and Patricia are still with us. They cook space cakes one night and in the morning we notice a whole one is missing. Omi is behaving very oddly indeed – staring at herself in the mirror for long periods of time, wobbling around and sitting giggling in her chair, unable to hold a cup properly.
Now Erik joins Assaf and I for morning meditation. Angela also comes sometimes. We clean the big room upstairs and make a mediation space with some carpets a neighbour throws away.
Violent storms hit Trahila. I go back to my tent one night and the sides are flapping badly. I’m not sure it’ll last the night. Erik prepares the second bed in the caravan and we both get little sleep as even that feels like it’s about to say goodbye to Kansas any moment, juddering violently with loud screeching noises as branches scrape the roof. I try to stop myself looking out the window as giant trees outside sway towards us. Perhaps we will die tonight?
We’re all still alive in the morning, but Erik thinks the storm will last three days. I pack my tent up completely and move into the caravan.
There’s a knock at the door of the house. “Ellla!” yells Dieter. Nothing happens. “Come in!” shouts Dieter. A French man with a large backpack appears around the door – oh yes, our hitchhiking visitor – we had all forgotten! How will this new arrival affect our clique? Well, he seems to fit right in. Anthony is quiet and attentive, but knows how to have a good time and is as happy dancing around the kitchen table as the rest of us. He’s not so into meditation and seems content to just listen to our philosophical discussions, but he’s always smiling when I look at him.
Dieter, Angela and Omi drive to Athens for the weekend to collect Dieter’s daughter who will stay until they go back to Germany for the summer. This leaves the four of us “home alone”. The days are stormy, so we mostly stay inside and occupy our time with films, discussions and lots of dancing and merriment.
My last day in Trahila I take a walk to the House at the Top of the Hill and sing over the village. I walk to The End of The World and say goodbye to the thirteen cats, the donkey, the olive trees and the wild waves.
Anthony and I synchronise plans to hitch north together. Returning to “Babylon” is a scary prospect, but Trahila has been good for me. I haven’t felt this open, grounded and focused in over a year. Erik and Assaf are helping friends in their mill, so Anthony and I get a lift to the nearest road. I hug Erik goodbye – a long hug with a big squeeze at the end. “See you in five minutes,” he says, but I know he’s lying.