Early in July this year, I decided to go on my friend Erica’s kayaking trip. Erica is one of my coursemates on the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology down at UEL, which I’ve been attending part-time for the last few years – learning about things like happiness, trust, meaning, spirituality, and hope. Erica and I initially bonded when we realised that we were focusing on similar topics for our dissertations – the benefits of nature for people’s sense of well-being. But while I often fail to go into nature, Erica practices what she preaches – every year, her company lets her take a couple of months off to focus on her passion – taking people on kayaking adventures around the Greek island of Lesvos.
Her company is called Teach a Girl to Fish and I had heard only wonderful things from classmates who had been on her trip the previous year. Craving adventure, sunshine and fresh air, I threw down an amount of money that I’d normally be unwilling to part with (I’m pretty stingy) and invited my best friend along.
Despite the name, Erica’s trips do sometimes include men – but ours was an all-girl team. My friend and I spent a couple of nights in the capital of Lesvos, Mytilini, so we could charge our batteries before setting off on the kayaking trip. Mytilini is, according to its website, a city – although you can walk around it in a couple of hours.
After a long, gruelling couple of flights, the first thing we did was grab dinner at a restaurant on the dock. I can’t remember the name, but as the dock curves around you’ll see a popular spot with blue and white chequered tablecloths. They make amazing gyros (kebab, basically, and pronounced like “yiros”) for around 2 euros.
We saw people queueing for the cash machines just before midnight, because at that point the Greek government was only letting people take out 60 euros a day. It has since extended to 420 a week, which is still the same amount, but you don’t have to go back to the ATM every day. Every cash machine we saw was packed, so we were relieved that we’d brought plenty of our own money. For the record, never once did we feel threatened by the fact we were walking around with lots of cash – but it was a good job we had brought it, because our hotel would not accept card payments, and several places added a hefty fee if you wanted to pay by card.
We stayed at the Fontana Rooms, which were pretty small and basic, but they had everything we needed, were comfortable, and the guys at the front desk were very helpful. When we asked them to arrange us a taxi for 6.30am the following morning, they sorted it out with no problems – and the taxi was perfectly on time.
Our day in Mytilini was a lazy one. There doesn’t seem to be much to do – the castle is closed, but cool to see, and there are lots of nice shops to check out. Shopping doesn’t really do it for me, but I did see a few interesting little arty shops and places where you can buy olive products. We had lunch at To Kastro, which we stumbled upon by walking around, and I found it charming. The owner speaks some English and likes to perform lame (but adorable) magic tricks, the food is good and they gave us a plate of delicious cherries for dessert.
A word about Greek food and culture… the food is beautiful, the tzatziki and greek salad will be 10 times better than anything you’ve had at home, and TOMATOES… well, I’d never had tomatoes as red, as large or as delicious as I had in Greece. Service is slow, but that’s the pace of life – leisurely, relaxed, unhurried. It might take your fast-paced brain a day or more to adjust, depending on how quickly you’re used to living, but once you let yourself get carried away in the flow and stop trying to control everything you’ll feel that tension melt away. Good company and lovely weather don’t hurt, either.
We spent the rest of the day popping in to cafes, eating far too much cake and drinking too many cocktails. We ended up at a restaurant with pictures on the menu and a very Eurovision-like lady singing outside… I would say, perhaps avoid this as they claimed not to have the things on the menu that we ordered, pushing us instead to order fish or chicken – which turned out to be at least double the price of the things we’d wanted to order and urging us to order a side order of chips, when the meal already came with them. A bit annoying, but being ripped off a little is probably part of being on holiday.
Suddenly, it was Day 1 of the kayaking trip, and time to meet Erica and our new kayaking comrades. Everybody seemed lovely from the beginning, which was a relief. Erica introduced us to her buddy on the group, Nektarios, who runs Lesvos Adventure and acts as Erica’s man on the ground – providing us with kayaks, making sure we are safe, picking us up if there were an emergency, and giving us wonderful accommodation on the last day (but more on that later!). Erica started by taking us to a coffee shop in Mytilini to get caffeinated, then we got into Nektarios’s car and headed up to Petra, where our adventure was to begin.
We were barely seconds out of Mytilini when we saw the tents. Tens of tents, hundreds of refugees. Lesvos is, of course, one of the main entry points into Europe from Turkey. It is estimated that around 60% of the refugees entering Greece are fleeing the conflict in Syria, while we were told that a great number were coming in from Afghanistan and Somalia, too. There are around 1000 refugees arriving on Greek islands every day – no easy task for an island like Lesvos, with its population of around 86,000, to deal with.
Mytilini is the administrative capital of Lesvos, and as such it’s where refugees need to register in order to be processed and – they hope – be sent to live somewhere in Europe. However, when we arrived, it was illegal for Greeks to give these refugees a lift from where they were landing into the centre – they would face hefty fines, meaning that refugees were forced to spend 2-3 days walking in the heat. As we drove further and further away, towards Petra, we saw more and more people walking along the roads. There were, of course, women and children, most with no head protection against the sun, some whose shoes had crumbled.
But these people, Nektarios told us, were often the wealthier members of their own societies. You could tell by the clothes they wore, and – for some – the smartphones they carried. They were doctors, teacher and lawyers in Syria, and many came with ready money – the problem was that they couldn’t pay for a lift into the centre due to the fines their drivers would face. They would not beg, though, we were told – and those who had tried to ask us for money for food in Mytilini were (apparently) probably Roma, not refugees. We actually tried to slow down the car and offer the pastries that we hadn’t eaten to one of the refugees, who was walking alone, but he refused. They are very proud, we were told.
You’ll be glad to know that while we were on our kayaking trip, the government withdrew its fines for those helping with lifts, meaning that Greeks were now able to help out. The Greek spirit, from what I saw on Lesvos, is very caring and generous, so hopefully, now, a lot more people will be able to make it to register in Mytilini without having to spend days on the road. Anyway… it’s probably not the time for me to talk about this, but all I’ll say is shame on the media outlets that are demonising these people, who are fleeing war and terror.
So… we arrived near Petra and were introduced to our kayaks. We were given two dry bags – a big one for our clothes, and a small handbag for our essentials. When you’re forced to narrow your belongings down to bare essentials, it’s amazing how little you really need. I packed a couple of pairs of trousers, tops, underwear, my swimsuit and a load of suncream. Other things I’d suggest would be lip balm (the sun and sea can dry out your lips), definitely good waterproof sandals (not flip-flops as you can’t really swim in them, and you want shoes when you walk into the sea), and maybe more bikinis as you’ll want something waterproof when getting in and out of the kayaks. An inflatable pillow, eye mask and ear plugs might also help you have a good night’s sleep, and don’t underestimate the first aid kid like we did – bring painkillers, plasters, and perhaps cream to rub on your sore muscles, and sanitary products, of course!
Erica let us practice kayaking, which seems quite straightforward at first, but you’ll soon learn that there’s a certain art to doing it in a way that doesn’t kill your arms or shoulder blades. After a brief stint, she told us where we were heading – a small, uninhabited island 3km away!
3km is quite a lot to kayak on your first go, but we made it. When I said that the island was uninhabited, what I didn’t mention was that it’s home to loads of rabbits, seagulls, and occasionally a funny man named Captain Alexander, who brings people over on his glass-bottomed boat for barbecues. The island is home to a tiny chapel, and people do sail over to hike, but otherwise it was all ours. We spent the afternoon swimming, snorkelling, sunbathing and sleeping, as well as having a little explore of the island.
This wasn’t Bear Grylls-style survival, though. The beach was decked out with a little wooden kitchen space, as well as some tables and seats. Erica had packed her kayak with food, cutlery and even a pot to boil water, and after pitching our tents we helped prepare our first, delicious meal… white fish cooked on the fire (we did collect the wood!) with oregano that we’d picked earlier, courgettes stuffed with feta cheese and cooked in foil, and loads of delicious tomatoes and wine!
As I watched the sun go down over the tents, with fluffy bunny rabbits poking around our kitchen, things felt pretty surreal. I wouldn’t have been too surprised to see a big, black smoke monster approaching over the horizon. What we got instead was an amazing sunset and a night sky full of stars – the kind I hadn’t seen for ages. We lay on the sand, eating cherries and talking about the universe (well, that was me, anyway) until rats started squeaking near our heads.
Sadly, I didn’t really sleep very well – I have a pretty bad back and the seagulls started screaming at around 3am. Still, I woke up to the sun rising over the beach, took a stroll around the island and did some yoga stretches, and still felt pretty good (apart from the muscle pain).
After a delicious breakfast of fruit, bread, Nutella and even coffee, we prepared to head back to the mainland and to explore the town of Petra. In the centre of Petra stands a rock with a church on it, which is called the church of Glykfylousa Panagia. We walked up to the church, where we were able to sip some holy water and take in the view of Petra.
After that, Erica took us to a Women’s Cooperative, where they make the most amazing moussaka I’ve ever had. Try it! Their other food was good, too, but nothing like this moussaka. We strolled around for a bit, before preparing for our long journey to Eftalou.
We set off at around 3pm, with the intention of stopping for a drink along the way at a nice cocktail bar that Erica knew of. However, the seas started to get choppy, the wind picked up, and barely had we kayaked past a nudist beach when we saw a boat of refugees making its way towards us. Turkey is so close that you can clearly see it, meaning the journey was quite short – but, as we all know, it can be very dangerous. The shores, everywhere, were lined with slashed boats and abandoned life jackets – this is a humanitarian crisis, but it’s also awful for the environment. We were quite moved to hear them cheering with joy as they reached the shores of Europe, stopping to take selfies and pictures of each other. Their first impression of Europe, I like to think they will later tell their families, was six crazy ladies in colourful kayaks sailing by, smiling and waving. They smiled, waved back, and took photos of us. I wonder if those pictures will end up somewhere else!
We stopped a while later to rest, but the paddle was starting to get quite hard. The wind was facing us and our arms were hurting a lot. What we didn’t know when we stopped was that the worst was yet to come.
The next two hours was a battle against the wind and the sea. Salt water splashed into our faces, smearing my glasses and stinging everyone’s eyes, while I tried to stop my hat blowing away and our boat from veering into the sharp cliffs that were on our right. We passed the amazing-looking town of Molyvos, but we were focusing too much on rowing to really appreciate it. Waves started crashing over the kayaks, and all I could do was belt out Disney songs to try keeping everyone’s spirits up. I knew there was no Plan B… it was row or drown, and my adrenaline kept me going.
The sun was starting to set, and my friend was getting quite anxious about what was going to happen. If we stopped or slowed down, the waves could push us into the rocks. The girls behind us were lagging, but even Erica couldn’t slow down to help them at that point, as she’d put her own kayak at risk. We carried on, determined, and eventually Erica shouted over to us and asked if we wanted to land on the nearest beach – our intended destination was still another hour away. I said yes, feeling it was the best course of action.
We had turned around, having made our way around part of the island and facing East instead of North, meaning the waves were hitting us from the left. I was convinced we were going to capsize, and we nearly did a couple of times, but somehow we didn’t. On Erica’s command, we turned around until the wind was behind us, and let the waves carry us onto a beach. We landed, unscathed and without capsizing, just soaking wet and exhausted. We all hugged, lugged our boats further up onto the beach, and started to get changed. We were pretty much exposing ourselves when a nice, little old lady wandered over to see what we were doing.
It turned out we were on a hotel’s beach, which was probably evident by the sun loungers, but she didn’t seem to mind. She chatted to Erica in a mixture of Greek and sign language for a while, before we decided we were OK to stay (which was good, as there weren’t many other options). As the night started to set in, we cleared a small area of grass behind a banana boat, which would act as our shield against the strong winds. We were surrounded by sheep, brambles and rocks, so we had to pack the tents in closely together.
Finally dry and with our accommodation set up, we headed up the hill to the nearest taverna (the old lady told us where it was), which provided us with some more wonderful food. By this point, I was so exhausted that I felt as it I was still on a boat, and I could barely think clearly enough to order food. But I managed, and after my delicious lamb, we walked back and I finally was able to sleep for the night.