Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Paxos

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.

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