(Continued from this post)
I woke up at dawn, to the most glorious sunrise. It was peaceful and beautiful, yesterday’s rough sea calmed to an almost glassy lake. My muscles still ached, but there is something energising about waking up surrounded by nature.
Once it was fully light and everyone had crawled out of their tents, we prepared breakfast and ate it on the hotel’s sun loungers. At around 7am, one of the hotel’s owners finally noticed that there were six vagrants camping on his property, and he came over for a chat. Fortunately, when Erica told him that we were heading to the spa where his cousin worked as a masseuse, he cheered up and told us to just make sure we tidied up after ourselves.
After some Nutella-covered rusks, apples and slices of Greece’s beautiful ladotiri (a cheese that’s been made dry and hard by soaking it in oil, I believe) – as well as some hot coffee – we were ready to pack up our tents and carry on to the point where we were meant to have stopped the night before. We were thankful that the sea was so calm – it made kayaking feel so easy compared to the night before.
Within an hour, we had arrived at Eftalou Spa, where we got to emerge ourselves in near-boiling water from the thermal spring. The rule is that you don’t stay in the water for more than three minutes, and then you can jump in a cold shower for a few minutes before popping back in (as long as you don’t complete this ritual more than 3-4 times). We hadn’t had a shower for two days by this point, but the spa helped us to feel clean – as well as being good on the muscles. For 25 euros we could also have a half-hour massage… we all opted for this, given the pain going on in the upper back/shoulders. It definitely helped!
After a couple of hours and some lovely lunch (from the kayaks, of course), we carried on to our destination for the night – Skala Sikaminias. As we pulled in to the harbour, I felt myself strangely overcome with emotion at this charming little town. It barely has anything – three shops, two or three hotels, two or three restaurants. But it’s painfully cute, with its tiny chapel overlooking the bay, and after our rough day on the seas nothing sounded better than a drink at a real café.
After our drinks, we made our way to our hotel for the night (yes – a hotel!!), to be greeted by a tiny, old Greek lady who spoke no English. She seemed very concerned by our arrival, and after much hand gesturing and rudimentary Greek from Erica’s side, we realised that she was worried that we were all women – and she had only prepared double beds! We laughed, as if we were going to care after sharing tents! We didn’t even mind that the shower we had ended up cold after only ten minutes.
We had a brief nap and wandered around Skala Sikaminias for a while, checking out the beautiful jewellery shops and stopping in for a lovely ice cream at one of the cafés. While waiting for Erica to join us for dinner, the rest of us shared our concerns about tomorrow’s journey. During drinks, Erica had shown us where we were kayaking the following day – it looked like a very long journey, and it even crossed a shipping lane. After our rough journey the previous day, we were still nervous about long distances, especially when they involved passing cliffs with nowhere to land. We brought this up to her later on, but she assured us that she would not take us into conditions anywhere near what we had encountered the day before. I didn’t know it at the time, but that day had been a bit of a freak occurrence – the rest of the trip was all smooth sailing, and the sea more or less stayed perfectly still, which is how it was supposed to be.
Dinner was a fine taverna extravaganza – grilled cheese, calamari, red wine, fish and tzatziki, during which increasing numbers of cats started gathering around our table and mewing. We sat outside, with a stunning view of the sun setting over the sea, and everything was beautiful and perfect (apart from the cats trying to jump up onto our table).
After a good night’s sleep (on a BED!) we had breakfast at another local café – a lovely medley of yogurt, honey and fruits – before heading off on our journey. The water was still and the kayaking far easier, and it didn’t seem like too long before we were stopping at our halfway point – a beach, complete with sun loungers and a bar, where we spent a few hours relaxing, snorkelling and drinking iced coffees, as well as our usual picnic from the kayak (amazing tomatoes, cucumber, cheese, dolmades – which are the stuffed vine leaves – and breads, among other things).
Although we were only around 48 hours in, I felt as if I had known everyone for ages. Erica and I had been friends on my Masters course, but never really had the chance to get to know each other or talk much (she is one busy lady!). Out here, on this stunning Greek island, in gorgeous sunshine, with not a care in the world apart from possible kayak-related drowning, we were all able to share bits of our lives, our pasts, our dreams. It may not have hurt that it was an all-female group, either; there is something powerful about a group of women, especially when they are working together and helping each other to survive. It may sound silly, now, from my laptop in Birmingham, but our experience on the rough seas had acted as an experience of adversity that had brought us all closer together. As with most trying experiences, it is not until later, when you feel safe and calm, that you are able to reflect back on what might have happened – if the seas had been worse, if we had been weaker and given up, if we had tried to soldier on and not stopped when we did…
My thoughts were interrupted by a man asking Erica about the kayaks. She was explaining what she did, and she asked him whether he was familiar with Lesvos. “Yes, I’m a Lesbian,” he said, and that was that.
Onwards we went, across the shipping lane we had all feared so much – which turned out to be nothing but a calm stretch of ocean with one ship receding into the distance. We passed between two small islands and were greeted by a stunning sight… which nobody has photographed. Our island and its neighbour, almost Zakynthos-like white cliffs and sloping grasslands dotted with seagulls and goats. In the sun, with the sparkling, calm sea around them and nothing but the sound of seagulls, it felt as if we had snuck into paradise through some secret, back door.
When we landed on our beach, all white rocks and turquoise water, it was all I could do not to burst with joy. I might be odd, but to me, the human connection with nature is an amazing, mystical thing that modern society has abandoned and overlooked. Our disconnection from nature, I believe, is one of the sources of the rising numbers of mental health issues we’re seeing in “modern” society – that and our disconnection from each other, from a sense of community, which seems to be strengthened and heightened in natural settings. Instead, we lock ourselves in little boxes, staring at little screens, pushing people away in the empty pursuit of paper or numbers on a screen. We evolved with nature, and our bodies respond to sound, light and smells in the way they always have, yet we limit our interaction with the outside world to less than 5% of our waking hours and wonder why we don’t feel right. This is what my Masters is focused on, by the way, and I found that spending 30 minutes a day in nature makes people happier and can even make them feel they have more meaning in life. On this island, so far from any hints of modern society, I felt pretty alive.
We set up our tents, carefully brushing the rocks aside to create a smooth surface, and I made a little “fridge” in the sea with rocks to keep our wine cool. Erica warned us that the rocks on this island tended to explode when near heat, so crafting the campfire was a delicate affair. She made us a pasta bake with tuna, which was lovely, and my only regret as the sun set was that we had chosen such nasty, cheap wine. The stars were as clear and beautiful as ever, and all was magical… until the rats came out. There’s always something.
We went to bed because we didn’t want to be fending off rats, although I could still hear them outside my tent. I didn’t sleep well, and woke up around 3am feeling that something was wrong. It clicked, then – I could hear the sea, far louder than it was supposed to be. I put my head torch on and stepped outside, to see the waves snaking their way up to the shore, licking the lower edges of our tents. Another breath, and the next wave flooded up and over half one of the tents. Two seconds later, the girls were up and shouting, and we were all awake. Within about a minute, fuelled by adrenaline, we moved all the tents a few feet up the shore. We weren’t sure what had caused the waves; it wasn’t a storm, but perhaps a passing boat. Strangely, one of us in each tent had been mostly awake, risen by the change in the swelling of the waves.
Our plan to wake up at sunrise didn’t happen then, of course, and we woke up some time later for breakfast. Fortunately, the sea was calm again, and we felt ready to complete our final day of rowing. It was a bittersweet feeling, of course… some relief at not having to kayak again, but definitely sadness about our trip coming to an end.
The first half of our day was a pretty short journey over to a secluded stretch of beach, where we were able to swim and snorkel again, sunbathe, eat lunch and listen to music from people’s phones. The sea was a little rougher again today, and we really weren’t feeling up to facing waves again, so we turned down the option of kayaking for another couple of hours to see a 1000-year-old church.
Our final stop was a small, traditional pottery, which we had to climb up some pretty steep steps to reach. The ageing couple had turned their home into something of a showroom, and Erica explained to us how they made the clay and used their outdoor kiln to bake it. The house was full of beautiful pottery – plates, bowls, cooking pots – which were all really reasonably priced. There was no pressure to buy anything; this was just another example of the local places that Erica had managed to scope out over the years – places you wouldn’t find as a normal tourist. The other girls went slightly crazy, buying cooking pots and vases, but I opted for a small cup and kept it simple.
When we were ready, we made our final journey back, the waves easing us forward for the final stretch. A part of me wanted to cry; it had truly been an amazing few days. But I also couldn’t wait to stop kayaking, as my shoulder blades were burning and begging me for a bath. Before we knew it, the harbour was in sight, and we were greeted by Nektarios and his kids. We dumped the kayaks at the harbour and walked to our accommodation for the final night. I didn’t look back, then, although I do miss kayaking now.
We got up to Nektarios’s house and were greeted by his beautiful wife, Georgette, who showed us to our safari tent, which had three double beds (real beds!), clean sheets, clean towels, and all the luggage we’d left with them at the start of the trip. Next to the tent, there was a little kitchen unit, with food, drinks (including coffee) and a shower. You might need to camp out in smelly clothes for a few days before you can truly appreciate how happy a shower and being reunited with some of my clean clothes made me, but it was a pretty wonderful feeling.
The evening ended at the local taverna – with great red wine, lots of delicious food, and a small group of ducks hovering around our table. Oh, and ouzo, of course.
Before heading back to the airport the next day, Nektarios and Georgette took us down to their village (Mantamados) to see a beautiful little church, in which the Archangel Michael icon resides. The story goes that a novice monk witnessed his fellow monks being slaughtered – some say by invading pirates in the 9th or 10th century, others say by the Ottoman empire in 1462. The novice monk gathered up the blood-stained earth and created the icon, which reportedly grants miracles and changes colour and expression. Anyway, it was a lovely church with a very enchanting atmosphere.
The end of a holiday is always sad, but we managed to end on a high note (as long as you forget the fact that five of us were crammed into a taxi on the way back to the airport) – at Nektarios and Georgette’s pizza restaurant in the village. Perhaps it was just the mood, but I swear that was the best pizza I’ve ever had – both the “classic” pizza and their Greek pizza, which featured sesame seeds, feta, olives and pesto. The Greek salad was amazing, too, and when we were nearly bursting from pizza, Georgette brought us over a pancake made with Nutella, biscuit and white chocolate. As a golden retriever and its puppy crossed the road in front of us, I felt pretty certain that I had found paradise.
I’m sure that when you live there, things aren’t all that they seem. There are refugees coming in every day, straining the island’s resources, and the Greek economic situation is – as we all know – not great. But on a sunny day, surrounded by olive trees, great food, warm, friendly people and stunning scenery, it’s not hard to believe that things will somehow all turn out OK. I certainly felt stronger, more independent and more resilient than ever before, and I’m pretty sure that the Greeks’ sense of self-sufficiently and hospitality will help them through the tough times – at least, I sincerely hope so, because it breaks my heart to think of these generous, lovely people in this gorgeous land suffering the worst consequences of the banking system and the various wars going on around them. But if you’re wondering whether you should still visit Greece at the moment, all I can say is: read this, and decide for yourself.
Erica’s kayaking trips can be booked through Teach a Girl to Fish
Nektarios and Georgette’s adventure company is at Lesvos Adventure