Tuesday, August 21, 2018


The feeling doesn’t change when we see the house we have been invited to share. Stone walls with grey-green shutters, everything else painted a crisp white, comfy seating areas everywhere, lovely pool —- all of it overlooking Mongonisi Bay, a tiny little harbour on the southeast tip of Paxos. The drive to the house from the port is comical. We pile into four little cars and start winding our way through the village toward the house. The road is barely wide enough for one car, never mind two. As we approach the house, the woman showing us the way stops and runs back to our car. “The driveway is very steep. Don’t chicken out!” She wasn’t kdding.

The island of Paxos is just thirteen kilometres from top to bottom and made up of cream-coloured, jagged rocks. The shoreline is ragged, little rocky coves and sheltered bays on the east side, tall chalky cliffs on the west. I take a little walk around the bay. The roads are textured concrete, bordered by stone walls and gates — all of it carved up into villas or rough homesteads. Friendly dogs on chains at the end of a dead end road guard skinny, shaggy sheep in small pens. Now I know where the tinkling bells I hear come from. Access to the water is impossible without trespassing here. Elsewhere on the island it’s often a scrabble down a gravelly path and, it seems, the more difficult the path, the prettier the water.

Our first day on the island we head around the southern tip to the west coast. We anchor the boat and swim around with our masks and goggles being wowed by the visibility and the colour of the water. We marvel at the incredible geology made visible by erosion and landslides. The tall walls that hang over the water are chalky layers of stone, some as straight as an arrow, some look like rough waves of white — whorls frozen in time. We need a geologist to explain. The boys climb the cliff face and take turns giving the rest of us the willies as they jump from higher and higher into the sea. The cliffs are punctuated with caves and the one before us is called the Blue cave. We make our way toward the cliff face and then through it. Once inside, we swim another forty feet until the rough walls and roof start to close in around us and then turn back to see how the cave got its name. Above the water the cave walls frame a small triangle of sky and below a massive cone of shimmering deep blue. Wow.

Parking the boat on our return reveals a whole new set of etiquette and vocabulary. A man cuts across our bow as we’re easing in and takes the spot we’re aiming for on the crowded pier. The outrage! Apparently it is Just. Not. Done. When you’re in close quarters and not out on the open water waving hello you realize just how valuable all these boats are and how easy it is to damage them if the wind pushes you ever so slightly in the wrong direction.

Stone walls and olive groves. In the shade of each tree lies a boulder atop a pile of folded black nets awaiting the harvest in late october/november. There is also often a loose perimeter of lttle rocks around the trunk — presumably to counter the slope and help the net catch any olives that might roll away. Most trees seem well-tended while others look as though they haven’t been pruned for generations. Perhaps there’s more money to be made renting boats and houses to the tourists. The island’s appeal to visitors is understandable. The waters are aqua. Access to it, however, is limited — definitely easier for those with a boat and their numbers reflect it. Multi-million dollar yachts, cigarette boats, huge sailing vessels and dinghies are moored cheek by jowl in the bays. It is immensely entertaining watching the skippers jockeying for spots in the bay. Time is easily whiled away watching the boats choreograph pulling up anchor in the morning and mooring in the evening. What they say about pets resembling their masters seems to hold for boats. The preppy yachtsmen don polo shirts and long swimming trunks while the sailors look like savages, half-naked, leathery dark skin barely covered by tiny speedos. The sailing families, once ashore, seem more than happy to put some distance between themselves and their family members after being cramped into their claustrophobic living spaces. They are predominately Italian but the flag of just about every nation flutters on the masts.

The fenders (plastic buoys that hang on every boat’s sides) are the only space that separate one vessel from another when they are « parked »; families are essentially having breakfast in each other’s laps and just a plank’s length from the main pedestrian thoroughfare of the island. The windows of their bedrooms are inches away from their neighbours’. I can’t quite reconcile it with my romantic notions of sailing around the Med. God knows how much it costs to moor here (and how far ahead one needs to reserve the berth). Perhaps the silence and intimacy of life on the open sea makes one more keen to cozy up to one’s fellow travellers when on land.

The local fishermen still ply the waters despite having to compete with yachts, dozens of sailboats and the likes of us yahoos towing kids around on wakeboards. We spot the rare solo fisherman out on his boat, tugging at his oars, pulling in lines hand over hand in a fluid, practiced rhythm or sitting hunched over his tangled nets. Some of the brightly-painted boats are so tiny it’s hard to imagine a full-grown man prying himself into the wheelhouse. Thankfully the men from Paxos are not giants.

Sadly, Jimbo is leaving us and needs to catch a ferry to jet out to his next gig. The gentle rain which began first thing in the morning has turned into a full-blown storm before we leave. Getting into the car, a bolt of lightning strikes the other side of the bay and the accompanying thunderclap is so close, and loud, and violent it makes us all literally jump. We stop for coffee on the way at a little café in Gaios. The Greek take their coffee very, very seriously. The Greek language is Elliniká, their coffee is Ellinikó. Greek coffee, by all accounts delicious, is not however good to the last drop. One has to know when to stop sipping or one finds oneself with a mouth full of grounds. They sweeten it before bringing it so the order includes the temperature, the sweetness and the milk. The assumption is that it will have sugar. Men huddle over their cups under a dripping tent. The owner kindly shuffles a table away from the windspry to make room for us. I watch the locals discuss but can’t understand. The olive harvest, the weather, the seas, I suppose. What rural men chat about over morning coffee the world over. One man has a cell phone and seems to get the last word in every exchange. What would once have been an opportunity to defer to the elders when discussing things like the coming weather has become an internet check. The phone has usurped the role of elder as expert.

The ferry is broken, the lady at the port reports, and the seas are up. The ferry is not coming and Jimbo is going to miss the first leg in a series of flights. A quick chat with fellow stranded travellers finds us racing up the island to Lakka, another port, to find a sea taxi driver willing to go out in this weather. Thankfully, Jimbo the sweet talker manages to convince someone and makes his flight. The concept of being so much at the mercy of the seas is a bit disconcerting for me. It leaves me feeling a bit trapped.

The drive to and from Lakka reveals a whole other side of island life — gorgeous, abandoned homes set in overgrown groves, crumbling stone walls, the island’s elementary school with artificial turf soccer pitch. An extravagance, I think, until I realize that grass requires topsoil and what little there is on Paxos is a mere sliver clinging to these hostile rocks. Finding purchase must be hard work for the trees. Thank Athena for the olive tree.

The road back to Mongonisi through Gaios isn’t what most people would call a road. It’s more like an obstacle course threading its way through town, leaving us sure it’s about to deadend in someone’s courtyard. The manoeuvering involved in getting from A to B is a serious laugh. It’s stop, start, pull over, backup to a wider spot, all with scooters slipping past. It all works though and makes us wonder why we, in North America, devote so much precious real estate to our ridiculously oversized cars. Apparently there are seatbelt and helmet laws here but, as on the mainland, they are consistently flouted. The most likely place to find the helmet on a motorcycle rider seems to be sitting on the tank between his legs. There are often more than two people on the bike or scooter but there is never more than one helmet.

The water is divine, as clear as could possibly be. Details on the sea floor are visible at twenty metres or more and the temperature is perfect. It’s so salty that buoyancy is completely effortless. Lying back in the water, eyes closed, ears submerged, lulled by the underwater silence save the quiet clicks and bubbles of fish, with the warm mediterannean sun soaking in to your every pore is absolute heaven. With a mask and goggles you can watch streaks of dappled sunlight on your arms and legs below the surface. I’ve always been afraid of the ocean but the ocean has never been like this. Not exactly teeming with marine life but you do see the occasional crab or starfish, sea urchins and lots of little fish. I found myself in a little school on our last day — little silver minnows swimming above and below and around me, completely unconcerned by my presence. Being able to see so much of the topography of the sea floor elicits a whole other level of appreciation for the oceans and the life they harbour.

On a grocery store run into town on our last day, I notice little dutch doors on all the buildings closest to the harbour. About two feet high, they are gasketed and caulked to the walls around the front door. Just the thought of the seas getting this high is terrifying. Some of these homes and businesses are more than several hundred metres feet from the harbour. There is no way I would survive a winter on this island. The locals are tougher than I’ll ever be and, like so many people who live by the ocean, their resilience will undoudtedly be sorely tested by rising sea levels.

The week is a spent laughing at a series of lazy, delicious lunches at long tables set in shady olive groves or under parasols by the sea. The glaring sun makes the colours of the water pop — turquoise, translucent aqua, shimmering greens, the gentlest of waves lapping the rocky beach. Alpha beer, retsina, amazing greek wines, grilled octopus, deep-fried anchovies and sardines, sea bream and tuna steaks, olives, garlicky tzaziki and the humble but satisfying greek salad. I am amazed at the variety of greek cheeses — a selection of soft, creamy rich whites, sweet, firm cheddary blocks and, of course, briny, fruity feta that bears little resemblance to what we get at home. Makes me wish more Greek food was exported.

We’re sad to say goodbye when our week is done but grateful for one more night together in Athens on the way home.

Friday, August 17, 2018


We drive back to Athens, stopping just across the isthmus in Agioi Theodori for lunch and a quick swim in the Saronic Gulf. Beachside eateries line the shore which is heaving with locals on holiday, parasol-covered tables and sunchairs as far as the eye can see. As in almost every town we’ve visited in Greece, the actual restaurants are on the other side of the seaside drive so the waiters have to dodge traffic to bring you a frosty mug of Alpha beer.

The airport is full of travellers from all corners of the world, largely europeans, many of them running desperately for planes, many of them looking very pink and quite hung over. Our flight to Corfu is heavenly, always within sight of land, watching the landscape unfold, tracking our progress with google maps and marvelling at the shapes of lakes and shoreline below. The descent into Corfu is my favourite kind of approach — hanging over water until a moment before the wheels touch down.

Surprised by the heat coming off the plane I realize the temperature is actualy lower but the humidity is oppressive. We take the bus to San Rocco Square and then pick our way through the labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets and squares that is Corfu Town, our bags making a racket on the rough road. Our hotel is right on the main square, a dusty old place tucked behind a McDonald’s (home of the Greek Mac). The lobby, upholstered to within an inch of its life, would fit into my bedroom. The elevator is so tight it would be awkward to be inside with anyone other than one’s husband. Our room looks over one of two forts that bookend the town. Narrow streets and narrower alleys with endless shops selling identical white dresses with gold braid, seashell tchatchkas, tacky t-shirts and linen. Hundreds of swallows dip and dive over the square in aerial acrobatics. The square is alive with meandering people, vendors under white tents and music. It has a bit of a mexican Zócalo feel to it.

We wander around aimlessly with the heaps of other tourists and have a very unmemorable dinner. We cut the kids loose to take in the nightlife at their own pace and hit the sack. In the morning, Wil and I walk along the sea, watching café owners setting out their tables and delivery men doing their rounds. Hanging over the edge of the seawall to admire the clouds, we spot a young man asleep on the shore, his belongings in little piles around him. He looks so perfect and peaceful, his pose so unguarded that, at the risk of waking him, i have to go back and take his picture, worried his eyes will open to find some crazy woman hanging directly above him with camera in hand.

We watch an endless line of scouts with backpacks, in shorts with khaki handkerchiefs tied ‘round their necks, trooping through the town in ones and twos. The first group carries sleeping bags and tents, the next batch boxed lunches, the last of them humping coils of rope and huge see-through tupperwares with everything but the kitchen sink. Different notions of roughing it.

We come across a young busker strumming his guitar in a square. It is the sleeping man. There’s a story there.

Churchbells peal, bearded orthodox priests hurry to service in their flat-topped skoufos hats and full-length black vestments, rope belt fluttering behind them. The smell of incense brings back memories of the tedious masses of my youth. We make our way past the New Fortress (it’s all relative as this one was built in the 1500’s) on our way home. High stone walls tower over us on both sides, a vertical drop on the fortress side, a sloping wall on the other with the road between, a perfect place to trap those bold or stupid enough to attack. Those must have been savage times. We head to the port with the kids and our bags for our meeting at 2 to meet the sea taxi. We look up from our table to see a familiar face go by, the one-and-only Jimbo Measures, who is waiting for the same sea taxi and our hosts.

The crossing is a delight. Everyone’s face plastered with a smile as the cousins find each other again. We are all feeling rather lucky.

Thursday, August 16, 2018


The road takes us up the eastern slopes of sharp hills, cypress dark green arrows pointing skyward. We pass through the lovely village of Mystras then past signs directing us the byzantine ruins, the palace and the castle. What we can see from the road is tantalizing — ancient terracotta structures looming over the valley below. On the peak of the mountain hangs the vestiges of a castle. It’s just too hot to face a long hill walk in the sun so we drive past, on to a guesthouse that straddles the road. Four tables with chairs on a small patch of lawn on our right, the guesthouses spread out behind the restaurant on the mountain side to the left. Heavy wooden doors open to a staircase that climbs the mountainside and charming Dimitra leads us to our rooms — a bright, airy suite in whites and blues with balconies overlooking the incredibly picturesque valley below. “Bayturr then you esspected?”, she asks. Barely waiting for us to respond with a unanimous and enthusiastic yes, she answers  with eyebrows aloft “I know!”

We spend the evening playing cards on the little lawn watching the clouds cast shadows on the valley floor. We drink some yummy greek wine, quite a bit as it turns out because we are all enjoying it immensely. We stroll up a steep little road behind the guesthouse to find a restaurant perched even higher on the hill, a huge balcony with another amazing view and a terrific supper.

The next day we head off to try to find what the staff have described as “the waterfall”. It is hard to believe there is any water running in this intense drought but a busboy gives us some directions and we head off. Through the next village, Trepi, looking for a turnoff that never appears. Lucky for us because the wrong turn leads to one of the most scenic drives of my life. The narrow road, with room enough for two on the straight bits (of which there are few), requires one to really stick to the edge in the hairpin turns (of which there are many). It cuts across the face of the mountain through tunnels that look chiselled out of solid rock, at one point the mountain positively hangs over the road — like a tunnel missing a side. A quick look at the map would lead one to believe there isn’t one village between Trepi and Kalamata (a two hour drive away). We are grateul to find a place to turn around — a widening in the road with a lookout designed for rock climbers on their way up.

Back to Trepi to find the turnoff which is a steep slope that drops down into the valley just about the width of our little car. A leap of faith and down we go. The road appears to lead nowhere but we follow it through an olive grove — the massive trunks look like the merging of a dozen smaller trees that have woven themsleves together over hundreds of years. The light is yellow nad hazy with a deafening drone of crickets buzzing in the heat. Again we do an about face, feeling lucky we haven’t left it too late and can still find the room to turn around before the track peters out entirely. We’re suddenly grateful for the puny car. Finally we find the place by listening out for running water. The waterfall, whether a bad translation or a matter of scale is what we would call a brook, with a small swimming hole. The brave among us jump in the frigid waters. I sit and watch. It seems like a bit of a miracle that there is water this fresh and cold coming out of the ground in this intense heat. A large black pipe that skirts along the edge of the stream leads me to believe the locals have found a way to put this eater to use somewhere downhill.

We go into the village of Mystras for lunch, following a man driving around on his scooter, his left arm holding what looks like a willow tree, the branches brushing both sides of the road at once. We chow down on tzaziki and salad and fries and watch the world go by.

We head back to the ruins for a look. Through a small gate and up and up and up. The main “road” is at most two metres wide and paved in local rough rock worn smooth by more than 700 years of use. A series of buildings — homes, churches, palaces and castles built around 1250. Some of the walls still bear amazingly intact frescos. It’s hard to believe this remote village was once the home of Byzantine emperors and capital of art and learning. Perhaps the brook we saw earlier in the day is part of why. The presence of abundant fresh water is not something to be overlooked in part of the world that is this dry. Wil and I are blown away imagining the horses pulling carts up these steep streets. How bone-jarring the ride must have been, how labour-intensive life must have been for the servants on this mountainside. The proportions of even the grandest buildings are very human in scale. The domes and arches in the churches no more than a large man’s armspan and yet it feels lofty and grand in this rustic, remote setting.

We walk to dinner is at a local taverna. We are served by the owner, her husband manning the grill inside. We feast and spend our last night in our airy retreat. Morning brings the fun of opening the front door to a breakfast basket full of hearty bread, butter, local honey, fresh-squeezed orange juice, custard pastry and hard-boiled eggs.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Gytheio to Mystras

We attempt to go to the Diros Caves but arrive at 10 (after the tour buses) and are told that there is at least a two hour wait for the tour. Pass. We walk down to the shore to see where everyone is biding their pre-tour time and the water is heaving. We opt to get back in the car and backtrack to Areopoli to go for a swim, struggling into our bathing suits in a parking lot. The bay is beautiful, sprinkled with little boats and one incongruous multimillion-dollar yacht.

The bay is mostly rocky with little patches of white sand. What lies underneath determines the colour of the water, transparent turquoise above the white sand, a deeper greeny-blue over the rocks. We opt for the farthest point from the port, a ramp that eases its way into the water. The old lady section. Heavy-set older ladies in fluorescent one-piece bathing suits float in little clusters while their husbands gather a little further out. The groups chat amiably as though they were sitting around a dinner table and not floating in the bay. The occasional command is shouted by the wives to the husbands. I’d love to know what they are saying.

We’re back on the road in no time, climbing out of the bay into the hills. The mountains look positively hostile. One whole mountain might house a handful of trees but it is mostly what looks like prickly scrub growing around very jagged boulders. The mountainside is carved into little sections by untidy rock walls. It can’t be pasture, I think, as there is barely any greenery to be seen. The only animals who could maybe survive here are goats and the walls are too low to keep them from doing what they do. Perhaps the hills are lush in cooler seasons? I’ll have to come back on my motorcycle to find out.

Opting to avoid the extra hours of driving into Deep Mani (which we’ll save for when we have bigger car) we cut directly across the peninsula. The villages crowd around the windy road which looks like it was built to skirt each and every bush, weaving prettily but apparently unecessarily. The rock walls of the houses are unforgiving obstacles so the drivers are courteous and make an effort to stay well out of one another’s way. Every switchback reveals a new composition of mountain and village, sea and sky. The variety of blues that the Meditarannean offers up to anyone who’s paying attention is endless. It’s all spectacular. Once over the ridge, the landscape softens. The hillsides are no longer bare of anything but rock. I’m not sure if it is a question of precipitation but the land is markedly greener and lush. There are plantations of more than olives.

On the eastern shore of the Mani we pull into Gytheio, a town buzzing with tourists and full of recently landed cruise passengers. The waterfront buildings are white and pastels, their faces all turned to curve around the narrow bay. With Wil’s usual parking horseshoe we find a spot on the pier and choose a little restaurant for lunch in the shade at a blue and white checkered table. Water and wine and olives and tzaziki and a huge red snapper. Fishing vessels bounce around in unison, tugging on their moorings, modest fishing boats alongside million-dollar yachts. We watch tour buses trying to navigate the narrow streets. Octopus tentacles hang on hooks in long lines between us and the pier. Apparently they are dried out in the sun and then pickled to be eaten with ouzo, the Mediterranean equivalent of beer nuts. 

Everyone who serves us has at least one family member in Toronto who has been living there for X years.I don’t know whether it is an attempt to connect or a point of pride for the Greek who seem to need to make it known that they have lived abroad. It is so beautiful here. I can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else if it were home but with youth unemployment hovering around forty percent I suppose some just don’t have a choice. We eat our fill and then drive a few kilometres down the coast to Mavrevouni where we find a beach of a different variety, tiny white pebbles and sand and, in our 300 metre section, barely a soul. Just to the north of us and just to the south of us are a long line of parasols and people sitting in chaise longues set out like a checkerboard twelve wide and six deep from the beach to the road. The Europeans have a very different idea of beach time than us. Can you say zero intimacy? The five of us float around in the water in a sea that has a little more life to it than the western side of the peninsula but is still easy and lovely. We are surrounded by peaks, the distant mountains of the Cape Malea peninsula across the water to the east and the mountains of Mani surround us.

From here we head toward Sparti (history lesson please) and beyond that, into the mountains and Mystras. 

Friday, August 10, 2018


The drive from Athens to Kardamyli provides a glimpse of the horror of the wildfires. Whole sides of hills charred, the trees skeletal remains, black stubble where the grass once was. Any trees with any foliage left have pine needles that look like they would ignite if you looked at them too long — the kind you throw on the fire for a little poof of flame. The houses nestled in burnt out copses are shells, soot lining the window openings. How terrifying it must have been to see the mountainside ablaze with the flames coming barreling toward you at 100+ km/h.

We cross the isthmus and stop for a look at the Corinth canal blasted out of the landscape to link the Aegean to the Ionian sea. Henri drops a coin from the suspended bridge to sound the drop and instead of falling the coin is taken away by the wind under our feet. The water is turquoise and we watch a boat that looks tiny because of the height making its way through from one side of the peninsula to the other.

The drive is spectacular. I never imagined Greece had mountains like this. The peaks are tall and numerous, popping up in every gap on the horizon with each turn. The road signs direct us to places like Corinth and Sparta. I am kicking myself for not paying closer attention in history class.

We fill up with gas and a few kilometres later the oil light starts flashing in red. Flashback! (See Mexico blog)

We stop for lunch at a little seaside eatery in Kalamata (Good Eye), and watch crowds of young people pile off a pirate ship only to be replaced by a whole new crowd. The dancing starts before the boat sets sail. I guess this is where the young of Athens come for their summer holidays.

We drove on to Kardamyli. The backdrop is unreal. A cloudless, pale blue sky, craggy peaks towering above us. A little village clings to the mountainside above us. The road from there to here notched into the flank. The buildings are all one or two-story built of local rough rock in shades of pale grey and cream and rust. The roofs all four-sloped terracotta tiles. Flowers everywhere. Passion flower, bougainvillea, azalea and a dozen others I don’t recognize in bright colours that pop against the greeny-grey background of the abundant trees and shrubs. The greenery is alive with the chirping of insects that sound like a hundred high-pitched automatic lawn waterers. I keep trying to see the little noise-makers but as soon as I approach one, the silence is sudden. A few steps back and they start up again. The trees that aren’t flowering are heavy with fruit. Limes, oranges, pomegranates and figs.

The hotel where we’re staying is just south of Kardamyli, a series of stone buildings strung out in a little patch of flat land. There are vegetable gardens everywhere. Squash, tomatoes, fennel, onions cultivated in the shade of the squat trees. The family is constantly hustling around while grandpa moves from one chair to another taking endless naps.

There is a stone path that weaves its way through the trees and under a pergola dripping with grapes down to the sea. A set of steep stairs switches back on itself, the steps littered with what look like dried tamarind pods. The fragrance of the olive trees mingles with the briny tang of the sea. The “beach” is a small, stony sheltered cove. The sharp rocks give way to rounder and smaller pebbles as you reach the water. Oh, the water. It’s just ... perfect. The temperature isn’t that different from the air making the entry as easy as can be. Not a wave in sight. Pretty sailboats bob around between the land and the small island off the shore.

We sit beneath a shady bower for dinner, cramming plate after plate onto a table for two. Ratatouille, thick pork chop, meatballs, homemade tzaziki, caprini (yogurt, onions and capers), green salad with fresh figs and grapes from the garden and a phenomenal greek salad. The feta is so fragrant and salty that the salad only needs a little drizzle of olive oil. Young white wine (lefko krasi) comes to the table in carafes. The waitress who is also one of the cooks is lovely in the greek way. Dark hair and lashes, piercing blue eyes. The greek speak a very gentle english. The “O”s sound like “oo”s, the TH sound is like a lisp, even the Ss are dragged out like the gopher engineer in Winnie the Pooh. Her every sentence is punctuated by a little tilt of the head.

The breakfast spread is full of homemade baked goods. On the instructions of the rental company, we head into town to see the mechanic about the oil light. We wait around for 40 minutes as one of the twin brothers makes the rounds of the cars that have pulled in ahead of us. We finally start the engine for him and he asks us to cut it a second later. Not good. I put him on the phone with the rental agency and the phone call concludes with the message that another car is coming from Athens. Nothing smaller, we hope, as the kids, who aren’t really kids anymore, are already squished. We wander into town, have a poke around the local supermarket, picking up snacks like oregano chips and cookies that look like little chocolate pies. The rental car company calls back and asks us to take the car back to the hotel.

We drive down to the port and park up the car, looking for a place to swim. A dead end track leads us to a cliff of volcanic rock so we backtrack to a little cove protected by little promontories of jagged craters. We pick our way down to the edge and jump in. The depth is so difficult to gauge as the waters are so incredibly clear. We float around on our backs, soaking up the Mediterranean sun. I have a moment. One of those times when all is perfectly right with the world. Surrounded by my favourite people who are all as happy as I am. Floating is positively effortless in this water and the temperature is divine. We poke around and Wil discovers a vein of freezing cold water feeding into the cove. We look for the source but it seems to come from nowhere and everywhere — we guess it’s filtering through the volcanic rock. We’re not the only ones enjoying the cold water, we startle a few big crabs hanging out where the rocks meet the sea. Henri, Alice and I opt to swim back to the pebble beach of the hotel which is a kilometre away. Wil and Frances selflessly return the car. The three of us float around, using the smallest of efforts to move through the water. Henri swims underneath us, his hair alight in the combination of sun and sea.

Wil sorts out the replacement car which has just arrived from Athens. It’s a compact. This is going to be fun. The rental company guy is in a hurry to get back to watch his team play soccer tonight.

We head into town to sit on the pier and watch the sunset over the next peninsula. A pair of old greek men with big floppy hats float in the water chewing the fat. Sunburned couples sit out on their little balconies watching the sun drop into the Med. We spend cocktail hour playing endless rounds of Asshole and drinking the local rosé.

Another delicious dinner on the terrasse. Salads and moussaka and fresh peas from the garden. In the morning we meet down on the rocky beach at 8 for a little dip before hitting the road to Mystras. Watching the kids pry themselves into the back seat is a bit of a laugh but they are thankfully good natured about it all. They’re just happy the stereo has bluetooth and that we can listen to rap instead of bouzouki music. Across the peninsula we go.


Athens is empty in July and August, George tells us. We are here on a Sunday and there aren’t even any cars on the highway. Four lanes leading from the airport to the city positively devoid of traffic. The sun is blistering. It is SO very dry. Only the tourists come here in the summer, George says. All the Athenians go to the sea but not to the islands like the tourists, just to the shore. The soil is like chalk, pale terracotta or yellow. Olive trees everywhere, with their blue green leaves shimmering in the sunlight. George deposits us at the hotel where we attempt to recover from a flight in practically upright seats two rows away from an infant who managed to scream bloody murder for at least four hours of a nine-hour flight. The poor parents!

We head out for a wander to explore the neighbourhood. We avoid the obvious for now but climb Philipappou hill in the late day sun, our efforts rewarded with a spectacular 360 degree view of the whole city and the sea beyond. From a distance we watch tourists swarm the Acropolis like so many ants. There is no shade to be found anywhere. To say that the Acropolis towers over the city is a gross understatement. Walking down certain streets earlier in the day we found ourselves regularly gobsmacked by glimpses of this structure that dominates the skyline. I’ve often found that, having seen photos of a famous place for an eternity before experiencing it first-hand it sometimes makes me a bit “m’eh” about the first real-life view but the Acropolis does not disappoint. It is just wow.

Athens itself is cool. Just the right amount of gritty for my taste, except for the uber-touristy (what Wil calls Disneyland) Plaka and Monastiraki neighbourhoods. The people are generally nice if a little grumpy — maybe because they’re the only Athenians stuck in the stinking hot city serving the likes of us. Little byzantine churches seem to be around every corner. It’s tough to get away from ancient history in this town. We are very happy our hotel has a rooftop with a pool and some shade because there are a number of hours of the day that are just too hot to do anything very strenuous (like moving). It is, however, dry as a bone and I’d take 35 and dry over 25 and humid any day.

We decide to tackle the Acropolis the next day and spend a few minutes in an endless line before using my cell phone to buy tickets online to skip the queue. The structures have seen better days. In a city that has seen its share of warfare, it is understandable that the roof is gone (note to self, never keep explosives inside). What is harder to believe is that Lord Elgin basically bribed the Turks to let him rob elements of the structure so he could use them to decorate his home. His house must have been quite a place. He ended up having to sell them to the British Government when his ex-wife took him to the cleaners in his divorce settlement. Britain persists in refusing to return them, arguing that Greece doesn’t have a suitable place to display them (condescending or what?). As far as I’m concerned, the Acropolis Museum wins the argument for the Greek. The building is all clean lines and light, hanging over an archeological dig that is cleverly displayed through the glass floors. Having spent a few weeks trying to master the greek alphabet it totally blows my mind that I can read inscriptions that were carved in stone almost three thousand years ago.

Tomorrow we get our car to go check out the Pelopponese!

Saturday, January 07, 2017


JJ is heading into Nanyuki for provisions and we can’t resist tagging along. As soon as the car swings through the gate manned by armed guards we’re in another world. The vegetation is still lush but the shacks, sticks held together by mud and thatch appear. We drive along the track, dipping in and out of ruts deepened by the rains, swerving around big rocks that have toppled on to the terracotta road. Small kids race to the edge of the road to wave, their palms held out flat. They shout out “howareyou?” and “sweets?” Little flocks of goats weave in and out of the bushes in the shoulder of the road followed by a young boy with a stick. The fifteen metres from the centre of the track is owned by the state and is therefore grazed by everyone with an animal but without a plot of land. As we approach Nanyuki, the Kenya National Highways Authority has marked all structures that encroach on the limits with a giant red X. Once the X appears owners are given two weeks to dismantle the building before the bulldozer levels it for a proposed road. The wooden shacks disappear but the skeletons of cinder block structures pepper the route.

We are heading southwest, slowly climbing onto the skirts of Mount Kenya. We drive by vast greenhouses full of roses and vegetables that will be shipped to Europe. As we ascend, the bush changes to conifers. The track turns into pavement, dotted with the occasional and unmarked speed bump. People take it upon themselves to build them at a spot where someone has died. According to JJ, these misguided attempts to prevent a recurrence in fact lead to all sorts of other accidents as drivers come upon the new and unexpected bump at full speed. His car, like most vehicles in Kenya, is fitted with a speed controller which whistles as you approach 80km/h. If you ignore the warning and continue to accelerate the engine cuts out. JJ says it makes for interesting overtaking as you find yourself in a lane of oncoming traffic in a vehicle with a motor that has just stopped.

We watch a pair of trucks a few hundred metres apart come at us at a clip with their high beams on. They are chockablock with khat, JJ explains. The trucks are carrying huge bags of the leaves, nature’s natural amphetamine, to Nairobi to be flown out to market. Only legal in a few countries, Kenya among them, the leaves lose their potency as they age so there is an obvious urgency in getting them swiftly to market. JJ tells us the headlights indicate to all in their path that they are on the move and that the vehicle will stop for nothing on its way to market. All the law enforcement on route know (and are presumably compensated) to look the other way as the driver drives like a bat out of hell no matter what gets in the way.

As we approach Nanyuki, the traffic picks up. Flimsy plastic bags are caught on every twig, in every bush and tree. There is almost more plastic than soil. Trucks laden with piles of straw that double the height of the vehicle look incredibly tippy. You have to be careful what you ask for, says JJ, when you buy a truckful of something in Kenya the truck will be delivered as full as it can possibly be. We pass carts being pulled by donkeys and hundreds of boda bodas, the little 250cc motorcycles that are Kenya’s taxis. Decorated in crocheted doilies and painted in vibrant colours, the drivers ply the countryside’s every little track and will ferry you and a companion or a goat for the equivalent of 50 cents. We watch a tour bus drive by filled with students on a class trip. The top of the bus is piled high with forty green mattresses tied down with coir rope. The threatening clouds have us hoping the kids won’t be sleeping on soaking mattresses tonight.

A little sign on the side of the road tells us we are crossing the equator — Nanyuki, Equator, 6389 ft. My first time in the southern hemisphere! The edges of the road are soon crowded with a string of five foot wide stands cobbled together with scraps of wood. Someone sits in the back behind baskets heaped with pyramids of potatoes, bunches of bananas hanging from the rafters, huge avocado and mango, carrots and tomatoes, cabbage. The other side of the road is full of squat, concrete shops. Men loll outside, some grinding bits of metal, painting four poster beds, putting the finishing touches on crooked little sheds.

Nanyuki in colonial days, JJ tells us, used to be lovely lines of buildings on avenues laid out for a view of Mount Kenya. It has grown exponentially in recent years, with shacks of corrugated metal & mismatched planks stretching out in all directions. Downtown is abustle with people going about their business. Ladies in long skirts and heels hustle to work, men sit in clutches at sidewalk stands, sorting out khat leaves and heaping it into bags.

We pull up to a brand new shopping mall. The guards at the gate of the parking lot scan the bottom of the car with mirrors looking for bombs. Entering the mall we are scanned with metal detectors and patted down for guns. It all brought back the horrific images of the 2013 shooting in Nairobi’s Westgate mall. The storefronts are brand spanking new and could easily blend into any mall in the world but half of the spaces are vacant. The grocery store is a weird mix of products from everywhere, the clientele mostly white europeans clutching lists — maybe shopping for provisions for their safari outfits. There is a young man in uniform at the end of every aisle. I couldn’t tell whether they were there to watch or to help clients.

On the way home JJ stops at one of the roadside veggie stands and picks up some mangoes, a bunch of mini bananas and a dozen avocado. The vendors jump up to the side of the car to bring us what we need. JJ barters, gently, in Swahili and we watch the vendors scramble to make change.

In the evening we head to a river on the other side of the property for sundowners. The kids jump off rocks into the water and we drink stiff gin & tonics. As we were settling in, a foursome of elephants come lumbering over the hill, obviously heading to the river for an evening drink. The mother, her two calves and a young male stood back and watched us for a while, trunks held aloft to pick up our scent. Eventually the mother and the two little ones ambled down, staying as far away from us as they could. The young male didn’t have the courage. We stood in awe, watching them pick their way across, stepping daintily on rocks in the riverbed and fishing their trunks in for a drink. While we watched, a herd of cows came over the ridge heading toward us. John, our guide, whistled softly to get the attention of the cowherd to indicate the presence of the elephants. The young men sprinted to the front of the herd, waving his stick overhead to try to turn them around. It's a good thing he managed, John said afterward, as the elephant would have charged the cows and sent them flying into the air like juggling balls with her tusks.

driving through nairobi

We are picked up at the airport by Moses and driven through Karen, the neighbourhood named after Karen Blixen. This is where she had her farm, he tells me, but the explosive growth of the city has now absorbed the former farmland. It’s now mansion after mansion, high green hedge, gates, country clubs, golf courses and the homes of diplomats and magnates. He drops us off at the Giraffe Centre, where the admission fee is used to introduce Nairobi schoolkids to the animals they’d otherwise never get to see. We climb up fifteen steps to a walkway circling a little round building. We are at eye level (about 17 feet up) with the graceful, gentle giraffes. We are given a handful of pellets (a bigger version of what comes out of the vending machines at the petting zoo) and instructed how to feed the giraffes — by holding the pellet between thumb and index. Hands held out gingerly, the giraffe sticks out its amazingly long, purple, sticky tongue to scoop it up. The dark colour apparently protects it from sunburn as the giraffe has to have it out a lot to collect 75 pounds of greenery a day. At 18 inches long, they use their tongues to reach around thorns to pull leaves off the acacia trees and also to clean out their nostrils. I don’t think people at the centre knew this when they were putting the pellet in their mouth and getting the french kiss of a lifetime.

We head over to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust where baby elephants whose mothers have been poached are reared before being rereleased into the wild. We are all directed to stand in a line along one side of a trail and to wait. We all look toward the brush in anticipation and suddenly out comes a parade of one adorable little elephant after another — home from their day of foraging. They bolt past us and are impossibly cute. Dumbo times thirty. Each elephant has its own little stall and a dedicated keeper who sleeps in a little bunk suspended from the stall’s ceiling, feeding the baby from a comically massive milk bottle at three hour intervals. Apparently when the baby is hungry he reaches up with his trunk to gently shake the man awake for his feed. One of the calves either has trouble finding or is refusing to go into his stall and he stomps around trumpeting through the crowd. He crashes into the blind rhino’s cage in confusion, no doubt trying to avoid all these strange onlookers. He might be a baby but I sure am happy none of us is in his way.

The driving in Nairobi is a bit manic. The road is often not quite wide enough for two cars. A constant game of chicken. And the speedbumps! We call them sleeping policemen, Moses says. I ask him about what happens when there is an accident. Noone wants an accident, he tells me. We try to sort it all out before the police come. What happens if you can’t? Then you have to fill out a report and tell the insurance company which is very expensive and could cost me a job as a driver. Can you convince the police not to file a report? Yes, but you have to pay and it costs between 50 and 100$. How many days’ pay does is that? I ask him. 5 to 10 days. Nairobi is a tough place to make a living, he says. He rents a one-bedroom flat with his wife and six-year-old son and it costs him 150$ a month. So you spend half your month’s salary on rent? Yes. You have to be very careful about how you spend the rest of your money, he says, and you have to find extra work to pay school fees and make ends meet. You can’t even get a job unless you have a personal contact and the government jobs are impossible unless you are related to someone. His home town is two hours away but there is no work there. I am Meru, he says, we are herders but everyone has too many animals and there is nothing to graze. We chat about politics and the corruption. Moses points out the house of the deputy president as we drive by, a garish castle that dwarfs everything around it. It must be easy to buy votes in a country where one person can afford a house like this while others make 10$ a day, I say. Oh yes, they show up in poor neighbourhoods with bags of money, he says.

Nairobi has so many of the elements I remember from the big cities in Mexico. We drive down a long boulevard, the wide shoulders of the road occupied by craftsmen plying their trade. Jewakali, we call them, “hot sun”, Moses says, because they do all their work outside. Bring them a picture of a piece of furniture from any magazine he tells me and they’ll recreate it for you for next to nothing. Men push open carts with a dozen jerrycans along the side of the road. They’ve filled them up at the borehole, he says. 5 Kenyan shillings for 20 litres and then they bring them further afield to sell it at a premium to save women from having to fetch the water themselves. He pulls up beside a mall where he is going to leave us for supper. The parking lot is gated and guarded by two men in uniform who ask us a few questions and chase off a little boy who comes begging beside the car. This is all since Westgate, he says. The parking lot is packed with well-to-do Kenyans out shopping or dining. We have dinner, at a pizzeria of all places, and it’s surprisingly good. We head off to the airport. This time through the city. The buses are like those in Mexico — an entirely private enterprise, each one blasting music and painted loudly as to be easily identifiable as the the one that got you there the fastest. As you can imagine, the buses are zigzagging in and out of traffic to get the edge on the competition. People stand along the side of the road and the buses race to get there first. A man jumps out before the bus has even stopped and begins chatting up the potential passengers. Before you know it he has rounded them up and is escorting them toward the door.

As we approach the airport, we pull up to what looks like a toll booth. No. It’s a security check, Moses tells us. Just leave your stuff in the car. You have to get out and walk through. I’ll pick you up on the other side. We all get out of the car in a daze, every passenger of every vehicle in the six lanes of traffic. We all cross between the cars to the sidewalk and head through a little building on the right side of the road — a crowd of very confused tourists milling around like sheep in the hot, dark night. We walk through a scanner without emptying our pockets. A little red light flashes and beeps but the bored-looking people in uniform don’t seem to notice or just don’t care. On the other side of the building we join the crowd strung out along the sidewalk watching their vehicle come through the booth, waiting for their driver to pull up to the sidewalk. The cars in the middle of the road cut across five lanes to pick up their passengers. Hugh jokes, wouldn’t it be funny if he just drove off with all our passports and bags. Moses pulls up and we all get back in the car. They’re mostly checking for bombs on the vehicle, Moses explains. Hopefully the vehicle check was more thorough than that of the passengers.

We pull up to the airport and say goodbye to Moses and our wonderful travelling companions. We go through two security checks to get to our gate. The extensive list of prohibited goods is illustrated with photos and is the size of a billboard — things like grenades, gasoline, rhino tusks and elephant foot trophies. The gate is jam packed with people waiting for the plane. A cancelled flight to Paris means that our flight to Amsterdam is now full and it’s late. We sit in the hard seats, fanning ourselves with our boarding passes in the 30+ heat. Despite the fact that it is the second of January the cheesiest Christmas music blasts from speakers overhead, interrupted only by deafening announcements in Swahili, German, Dutch, French and English about every possible gate change. For some reason everyone opts to get up and stand in line ages before the boarding is announced. The flight attendant asks everyone to please retake their seats but their seats have since been occupied by those who couldn’t find seats in the first place in this seriously hot, smelly, overfilled room. When the boarding finally begins we understand the volume of people as they announce that they’re beginning with rows 60 through 69.

Kwaheri Kenya. We will never forget you.

Saturday, December 31, 2016


After a very bumpy cross country ride in the open-sided land rovers, taking shortcuts through private gated ranches, we arrive in paradise. Borana Conservancy is a 32,000 acre haven for the wildlife Kenya is known for. The population of Kenya grows by a million each year. As its peoples grow their flocks without the grazing to support them the shrinking greenery, and the dwindling rains, put a huge strain on Kenya’s herbivore wildlife and their carnivorous predators. It becomes immediately obvious that this, along with the adjoining 55,000 acres of the Lewa Conservancy, is an absolute oasis. There are animals virtually everywhere.

There is an 8,000-volt fence on the perimeter to keep out unwanted grazers. Driving in to the compound the electric line swings high above the entrance with wires that dangle down to discourage any elephants from wandering in. This place is all about the wildlife.

Elephants are simply gigantic. Their forelegs are hinged like ours, elbow and wrist bending in opposite directions, giving their gait a daintiness that seems improbable in a creature that is 200lbs at birth and can weigh up to 7000. When they choose to challenge you, shaking their heads with ears fanned out, and begin edging toward you something in you goes a bit squidgy. They are given a wider berth by the locals than perhaps any other animal. Close seconds are the grumpy dugaboy, an old male buffalo that has been ostracized by his herd after losing to a challenging male or the famously aggressive black rhino.

Giraffes, no matter how quickly they are running, always look as though they’re moving in slow motion. They are timid creatures. When you approach they sometimes step behind a bush to hide — their heads comically (and entirely) visible — like a small kid who covers his eyes and assumes he has now become invisible. Warthogs never seem to just walk. They’re either standing or running full out, their tails sticking straight up behind them.

A crowd of baboons bounce down the hillside, coming home from the day’s foraging with little ones riding piggy back or tangled into the fur of their mother’s belly. They sit in little clusters in the waning light of day, grooming each others’ fur before climbing into the fever trees for a vicious and screechy fight to establish who gets the best roost for the night.

The white rhinos lumber along the plains, munching at the grass with their square, fat lips. No whiter than the black rhino, their name stems from a bad translation of the Afrikaans “wyd” (wide) used to distinguish them from the black rhino with its pronounced overbite. Their double horns swing just above the ground like a scythe as they shuffle peacefully along. A pair of males, Duncan and Gordon, have wandered over from nearby Lewa and lie alongside each other in the grass.

Waterbuck, impala, grant’s gazelle, hartbeest, oryx, all the herbivores happily graze alongside one another. Usually one massive horned male stands among his harem of twenty or more females. Elsewhere, little gangs of teenage males bide their time ’til it is their turn to challenge for the top spot.

Zebra are everywhere. They’ll let you get very close, no doubt confident in their ability to outrun you. Their spectacular stripes accentuate the huge muscles of their hindquarters.

A pride of lions lazes about in the hot afternoon sun. Cubs who still have their spots tumble on top of their mum, pawing gently at her face. The male doesn’t bat an eyelash except for the occasional yawn. The females get up and start toward us but collapse into a heap again after a few languid strides.

The birds are like little explosions of colour in the shrubs. Superb starlings look like our robins from the breast down but with heads and backs painted iridescent blue. Widowbirds are like long-tailed cousins of our red-winged blackbirds. Little groups of speckled guinea fowl scatter in front of us wherever we go. The dogs have a blast getting the huge kori’s bustard to take flight. Domino plover, tawny eagles, fisheagle, egyptian geese, blacksmith plover, scimitarbills, hornbills, orioles, whydahs and weavers. A birder’s paradise. We watch a cloud of european storks spin down from dizzying heights in ever narrowing circles like a cyclone, wingspans as broad as a vulture’s, their long gangly legs dangling below them as though in preparation for landing. Whiter than white egrets hover in a cloud above herds of cattle, alighting to snatch up the bugs unearthed by the cows’ hooves or to blanket the shores of the watering hole at day’s end.

There is no such thing as going out for a casual stroll in this part of Kenya. One is always somehow tethered, either within arm’s length of your shotgun-wielding guide or by radio to a vehicle trailing right behind you. Everyone has a friend or relation with a horror story about finding themselves on the wrong side of a tusk.

We head out for an afternoon walk but find our planned route blocked by a hill full of the very belligerent buffalo. Plan B finds us coming up alongside a thundering herd of elephant. A group of more than forty cows and calves moves across the bush, parallel to the track, at an astonishing clip. Every few seconds, the cow at the rear turns to look back and shake her ears as though fending off some unseen threat. We can’t spot anything behind them but they continue to charge along, little dumbos struggling to keep up. Without any sign of a predator, JJ suspects that they’ve been spooked by bees. Whatever it is it has them speeding alongside us for what seems like ages. JJ says he’s never seen anything like it.

There is nothing familiar about this place. The animals, the trees, the birds, the bugs. I feel like my vocabulary has doubled — with a few Samburu and Swahili words but mostly with the names of a wealth of creatures I never even knew existed. What these conservancies are doing to preserve this amazing variety of life is simply wonderful. I just hope Kenya can rise to the challenge of figuring out a way to use this precious resource to enrich all of its people.