Greece: No plans, no paychecks, no problem

During my travels to Greece, I tried to document my feelings about journeying to a country with absolutely nothing but a return ticket to Egypt and less than 200 euros. This is straight from the pages of my little journal.

November 6

leaving on a jet plane

Two hours to kill at the airport. We left at 6:45 to avoid traffic, but everyone was celebrating Eid so no one was out. The mosques were teeming with people and bunches of red balloons marked the entrances. In our absence there will be much sheep slaughtering.

I’m stoked to get to Greece, even more stoked because I’m flying with my friends. I always travel alone, which is fun when it comes to meeting people but also risky, as I usually end up next to screaming infants who could benefit from an exorcism. It’s the little things.

This is the first time I’ve traveled without a plan. It’s going to be interesting. I’m not sure what to expect. I’m also on a tight budget–jeans-out-of-the-dryer-after-you’ve-gained-five-pounds tight. We’ll see. I’ve got to get to Santorini, even if it involves standing on a dock with half a cardboard box that reads “Santorini or bust.”

Security leaving Cairo was fairly lax until it came to Blanca’s bag. The air security staff made her open her bag. Then, they removed a tampon from her bag, and the man proceeded to thoroughly examine the tampon, smelling it and removing it from both the wrapper and the applicator, turning it over and over curiously before finally dropping it carelessly on the conveyor belt. He could have easily passed for a neanderthal clumsily inspecting a bone.

The flight itself was smooth, and we arrived in Athens happy and delusional with no plan. The reality of the trip set in when we exchanged our Egyptian pounds for euros. 1400 LE = 140 euro. And then we realized that we each had a limit of about that to spend. Our hopes had been set on Santorini, but they were quickly dashed when we discovered that flights were close to $230US. The 8 hour ferry ride was within range, but it was an 8 hour ferry ride. Desperate, we settled on Mykonos, the closer island with a 4 hour ferry ride. Once our tickets had been purchased, we took a moment to absorb the differences between Greek and Egyptian culture. In Greece, it was quiet. The Greeks could stand in lines. The Greeks had water fountains with potable water. Granted, some people drink tap water in Cairo, but these are the sorts of people who might marry their cousins or eat gum off the bottom of a chair.

Excited and anxious to get to the port with time to spare, we headed outside and purchased bus tickets for 5 Euro. The ticket vendor said that bus 96 was going to the port, so we confidently boarded. We rode the bus for an hour to Port Piraeus, traveled the perimeter of the port aimlessly, then finally asked a dock worker. He informed us that we were at the wrong port, that our ferry departed from Rafina, which was an hour away, and should we travel by bus, it was probably unreachable with the small amount of time we had to board our ferry.

just hanging out at the wrong port

At 70 euro, our only option was a cab. This was not conducive to our budget plans, but we had no real choice. An old Greek man in a cab swept us up and told us a bit about Mykonos.

“It is very safe. You know why? It is especially gay island.”

Once we reached the port – for 50 euro – we had an hour before the ship arrived. Ashley and I found a cheap restaurant where we ordered 3 loaves of bread (for .50 euro each) and a bean salad. We ate every bean and soaked up all the juice with our bread. We wrapped the third loaf in napkins so we could ration it for later and left. We’d taken too long to eat our bean salad and most of the passengers had boarded already, so we got stuck at a rumbling table on the ferry. Now, we’re 3 hours from Mykonos and we have no place to stay.

November 7

I awoke with a little over an hour left on the ferry to Ashley asking a passenger beside us if he knew of any good – cheap – places to stay on Mykonos. The man, a Greek with a head of thick black hair, had a friend who owned a hotel. He just had to make a few calls. By the time the ferry sailed into port, we not only had a place to stay for 60 euro a night, we also had the owner picking us up and driving us there. Yannis, the owner, was friendly, helpful, and eager to tell us about the island, and how the population of a cruise ship exceeds that of Mykonos.

yannis, our lifesaver

A part of the Cyclades chain of Greek isles, Mykonos is a four and a half hour ferry ride from Athens and boasts a coastline that can be traveled in its entirety in well under an hour. Its pebble beaches ring the mainland, which is basically a labyrinth of thick-walled white homes that spring from the cobbled streets like molars. Soft and square, the buildings could have been carved from soap or stone, and are blindingly white in the sun and blue in the moon. The doors and railings, by law, must be painted a basic, earthy color – but, to be fair, we did spot a pink door – and the simple white walls make the doors and the bougainvilla pop.

Mykonos’ small size should not deceive you; more than once, we found ourselves traversing the same narrow roadways and frustratedly arrived at the same Fish Me massage parlor at least five times in one trip. This is the type of island you might navigate with a ball of yarn, a place where it would not be altogether surprising to see David Bowie emerge from a side street with a pair of glass orbs and a peppy, muppet-infused dance number. Still, it’s the quaintness and small-town vibe of Mykonos that makes it endearing. Flipping through a catalog at the hotel, we found a series of photographs ranging from the 1960s until now that presented images of life on Mykonos which appeared wholly unchanged. If you covered the date, you’d have a difficult time discerning which photos were the recent ones. Ashley remarked that the town reminded her of the movie Hot Fuzz, and she wasn’t far off. Everyone knows someone else, and everyone’s uncle or cousin owns a store or restaurant. After buying jewelry from a nice man named George, he spotted us on the street – if you can call it a street – the following night and called to us by name. I had felt alarmed at first, unable to place him, but this feeling quickly concedes to normalcy. The fresh air and the narrow streets – hardly a place for cars – and the lack of pollution was a refreshing change of pace from Cairo; here, it was possible to travel a street without being swiped by a side view mirror. Stray baladi dogs were absent, and fluffy kittens abounded.

the only thing missing was meryl streep...and pierce brosnan

Yesterday afternoon, after a failed attempt at scoring a ferry to take us to Santorini, we lounged at a waterfront bar called Rhapsody to watch the sun set over the windmills. It was chilly, and as we sipped our BBCs, we promised ourselves we’d return in the summer, if not for the heat then for the dignity. Throughout our stay, we’d been asked by everyone from the hotel owner to the owner of a gyro shop why we were here in November. Being in Mykonos in November seemed akin to strapping moose antlers to your head and running through a busy intersection. It was possible, but why would anyone want to do it? Perhaps if we’d donned our Land’s End sweaters and had an ebullient golden retriever in tow, we’d fit in just fine, but instead we spent our time shivering viciously and, through chattering teeth, fielding the question of why we were there.

(I think people took pity on us, though. In one fisherman bar, we were handed at least 7 shots of ouzo and other drinks and, eventually, given an entire platter of fresh caught fish. Did I mention it was all free?)

11/9

On the ferry ride home, we used Ashley’s iPhone to find a cheap hostel in Athens and ended up choosing Athens Backpackers, a top-reviewed hostel with a two-minute walking distance from the Acropolis. We spent the night out at a bar nearby – cab fares double between midnight and 6am – and spent the next day cheaply exploring Athens. We walked to the Acropolis, presented our college IDs, and received a 50% discount, chopping the entrance fee from 12 euro to 6. The ruins are beautiful, and it’s always mindblowing to touch a pedestal or column that’s been around for centuries. What’s sort of disappointing is the amount of construction. The Parthenon was ensconced in scaffolding, and many of the archways and pillars were also surrounded by beams and, in some cases, actual construction equipment. (Unless Komatsu is going to be considered one of the Greek gods of Mount Olympus.)

Still, it was sort of surreal being there, and the top of the Acropolis boasted a lovely view of Athens, complete with the hazy line of air pollution and smog. But it was not as smoggy as Cairo, so I consider it a win. We ended the afternoon by eating some amazing sandwiches on a sidewalk curb and indulging in the first gelato I’ve had since Italy. They didn’t have Nutella, but unpasteurized milk makes a good flavored gelato anywhere. It was the perfect end to a lovely, relaxing vacation.

[…that sent me home with a starving wallet and an empty bank account.]

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