Monday, 6 June 2016

europe 2016, day 12: santorini (may 9)

Currently writing this on the plane flying from Athens to Stockholm while Judy and Tiff are asleep on either side of me - I think I win for fewest hours of sleep on this trip, no contest - and trying not to think about the fact that our beautiful two weeks are over by focusing on recapping the last two days of Santorini in my journal.

On our second morning in Santorini I woke up and mumbled to Judy that I had been up until 2:30am throwing up into the toilet and that I wouldn't be joining them for breakfast but could you and Tiff please bring me something light to eat and some water? Even I had to laugh at how horribly deja vu this felt, an echo of our second day in Amsterdam, which saw me collapsed on Judy's bed with cramps while the other two enjoyed a nice relaxing breakfast outside. Tiff accordingly brought me a couple of pieces of bread, and after sleeping in til almost 11, I gamely got up and ready to go out.

We walked to Fira Center again, grabbed lunch (this was the gyros that got Tiff to say she had had enough gyros - in other words, the unthinkable happened) - just pita and tzatziki for me - and then made our way down the cliffs to the port to get on a boat for the hot springs and volcano, Nea Kameni.

In yet another instance of fantastically underestimating the degree of physical activity we were getting ourselves into, we soon found ourselves slipping down 600 large pebbly steps covered with donkey excrement of varying degrees of freshness. The descent would not have been so difficult in itself, but with the combined factors of flimsy flip flops unfit for walking on slippery smooth stones and poop landmines everywhere, it became a much trickier affair. Judy soon disappeared from our sight at lightning speed, of course, while Tiff and I marveled from an increasing distance at her agility and poop-navigating ability. We had expected Santorini to be the most relaxing part of our holiday, but in a bizarre turn of events it was quickly shaping up to be the most physically demanding.

After what felt like an eternity and then another few years, we met Judy at the bottom, and clambered onto our pretty little boat, the Hermes, with a bunch of other hot springs-bound tourists. Our boat group included a large party of Brits hailing from Blackpool, who were all there for a wedding and evidently having the time of their lives, as well as a few families with small children. The boat took us out to the coast off the Nea Kameni, where the guide informed us that we would have to first swim through a stretch of cold water in order to actually reach the hot springs, which, surprise! was more physical activity than I had bargained for.

One by one everyone who wanted to go swimming in the hot springs climbed down the ladder - some more adventurous folks dived or jumped - and with the first dip (or plunge) everyone invariably yelled or shrieked. After about five minutes of swimming we made it to the brownish-orange water where the springs were, and upon arrival everyone mildly complain-y that the water was not, in fact, hot, only warm, and even then only in some spots, which then became cold again just as you'd got settled. Not hot springs so much as sporadically warm springs.

That was all part of the fun, though, I suppose. Kind of an unbeatable way to spend a hot afternoon. And Judy did manage to find a nice little alcove which stayed reasonably warm without changing, and which we floated in happily until the horn from our boat sounded, calling us back.

Going from boat to cold water to warm water was bad enough, but going from warm water to cold water to boat was far worse. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat. When am I next going to get the chance to swim in a hot spring off the coast of a volcano in warm brown water which stained my skin a flattering orange? I don't know, is the depressing answer.

Back on the boat, and then we were taken to the volcano itself - an active volcano, as we were constantly reminded by our guide - and started on the hiking trail to the top of the crater. After yesterday's two and a half hour trek from Fira to Oia, this one was a breeze, and we were rewarded at the top with more stunning views of the main island and the water on all sides, as well as into the crater. We drank it all in thirstily. What a lovely thing that views and fresh air are free.

After we'd walked around and taken it all in - by which I mean we had taken pictures of every possible landscape - we started heading back down, making conversation with some of the other tourists on the way. We've had a lot of opportunities these past two weeks to interact with other travelers which has been pleasant in a different way from interacting with locals. There's a shared newness and novelty of the places and sights, and an openness and friendliness that comes from the general happiness of being on holiday that makes such exchanges delightful.

Once we got back to the main island, we hopped into the cable cars back up the cliffs (no 600 donkey poop steps uphill, thank you), stopped for a snack (for Tiff and Judy, as I was still feeling queasy at this point), and then made our way to the main bus stop to go to one of the beaches on the southern coast of Santorini.

Now is probably a good time to explain the bizarreness that is Santorini's bus system. First of all, all the buses on this tiny island are giant coach/tour buses, which look disproportionately large and obnoxious on the narrow roads. Secondly, the buses are sorely lacking in basic audio visual technology, which means that the only way you can tell where to get off is by listening to a dude who sits somewhere at the front of the bus with the driver and yells out the stop names as you approach them. Finally, bus schedules seem to be more a vague concept than an actual, established system. A few of the buses that we've taken arrived and departed from the bus stop way earlier than the appointed times, and we only caught them due to sheer dumb luck. All of which makes busing in Santorini something of an adventure, to say the least.

Once we got to Perivolas Beach, we stepped onto the sand and stopped short in a mix of wonder and confusion. The beach was completely, almost eerily, empty. It seemed that everyone on the island was all the way at the opposite end, watching the sunset in Oia as we had done the previous evening. It was still decently warm enough for us to strip down to our swimsuits and lie down to sunbathe, which we did, but after about an hour or so we got chilly and decided to make our way back to our b&b for a shower and then dinner. Caught our bus again by sheer luck, stopped at Ersi Villa for the most heavenly shower imaginable, and then headed out again to Fira Center to grab a late night bite to eat.

Once we arrived in Fira we sat down at a hip-looking little Greek place with outdoor seating that involved swing seats and looked out onto the lively nighttime central part of Fira. Judy and Tiff finally had their Greek salad (whereat Judy learned with some disappointment that Greek salad is "basically just vegetables tossed in olive oil") and the three of us had what I can only describe as a last-night-of-summer-camp reminiscing session. I blame Judy entirely for initiating this cheesefest. We were all swinging happily in our swing seats (well, Tiff and I were, since Judy was stuck with a normal chair), enjoying the balmy Greek evening and talking about, I don't know, yoghurt or something, when she launched her attack out of nowhere.

"What have you guys learned on this trip?"

There were a few minutes of silence as Tiff and I were forced to rapidly shift gears in our brains from yoghurt to more profound things.

"Okay, I've got one." Tiff's brain had evidently adjusted faster than mine, as she was first to say something. "I've learned to be more trusting of other people. Like, strangers." She speared a cucumber on her fork. "Less cynical than before I came on this trip, I think."

This amused me greatly, as I realized immediately after she said this that I'd learned the opposite. Characteristic of Tiff's and my opposing outlooks on life. We had apparently rubbed off on each other the past two weeks.

"I've learned to be less naive," I said, maybe somewhat glumly. I was thinking of a particular little old woman in Athens. "I think - a little less immediately trusting of strangers."

Judy laughed at this exchange for about five minutes straight. She is always tickled by any evidences of how Tiff and I are so completely different. All of our minds went to our dinner in Athens and how Tiff and I had reacted to the host telling us he knew our tour guide Jimmy even though his was not the restaurant Jimmy had pointed us to. (I still hold that he actually did know Jimmy, and I think Tiff eventually came around too.)

We've learned a lot about each other as well, what we like and don't like, how we see the world and other people - inevitable, when we've been in each other's constant company for two weeks straight. Tiff and I have learned that Judy is the kind of person who puts herself out there - isn't hesitant to ask questions, approach people, challenge things I see as fixed rules that must not be broken - more on that last one to come later. Judy and I have learned that Tiff is an exceedingly paranoid person - well, "responsible" and "cautious" are the words I'm supposed to use, though Tiff complained that those are incredibly boring. But really, as much as I like to think that I'm a responsible person myself, it's consistently been Tiff who's saved our butts with her caution and preparedness. She's the one who packed Benadryl, which I came in dire need of, made sure we carefully weighed all the pros and cons of every option for public transport for every trip, and said we should wait for the rain to stop instead of just running through it and getting soaked, which the two impatient Koreans in our group had wanted to do at Keukenhof. And Judy and Tiff have apparently learned that I am a constantly happy person, which I would say is fairly true, but I would also point out that it's not hard to be constantly happy when you are having the time of your life in Europe on two straight weeks of fun and freedom with friends. But I'll take it.

There are other miscellaneous things we've learned and experienced on this trip as well, about the places we went and about each other. In no particular order:
  1. There is tremendous value in engaging with locals in every new country you visit; it enriches the experience of traveling tenfold.
  2. There is just as much value in engaging with other travelers, though in a different way. Also, no one is unhappy on vacation.
  3. The obvious, "no, you don't say?" one which we all knew but were point-blank reminded of every day: there are other cultures in the world besides our own. Different values, different worldviews, different norms. Not better or worse, but all starkly beautiful and endlessly fascinating. 
  4. Greek hospitality is a real thing. 
  5. Walking tours are not helpful for Tiff because she is not an auditory learner. 
  6. Walking tours get Judy super jazzed. 
  7. Walking tours get me super sunburnt. 
  8. Seeing history up close, outside of the textbooks, is not only eye-opening but heart-opening, and a privilege.
  9. The same goes for art.
  10. And probably architecture.
  11. Judy is as much a junk food junkie as I am.
  12. Judy can also match me for nonstop singing and humming - the only person I've met to do so. 
  13. Navigating foreign cities is not as hard as one might expect. Then again, we had Judy and also Google Maps.
  14. Swedes really are all tall, blond, and the kind of attractive that makes you wonder anew why our world is such an unfair place. Why, God?
  15. Racism is alive and well all the world over, but so is kindness and hospitality and self-sacrifice. 
There are a thousand more things, but that's a fairly representative sample.

The last thing that happened that night was that a group of tourists sat down at the table next to us and upon one of them asking us where we were from, we discovered that we all hailed from the SF Bay Area - the first Californians we'd met on the whole trip. We ended up talking with them for a good while, making us way outstay our previously agreed upon curfew of 9:30pm, but it was nice to connect with people from home, so I think we all thought it was worth it. The whole way home we dragged our feet. Last - night - in - Santorini, and Europe - please no, no no no. It's too soon to go back. Reality? How horrifying. Just three more weeks here. Maybe a couple of months. That'll do it.

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