Monday, August 29, 2011

What Better Place to Conquer Your Struggles

Money worries won’t stop us making the most of our trip. Our second full day in Santorini we had booked a ‘Santorini in One Day’ tour that would take us over land and sea to see the best the island had to offer. It had all started because on the ferry from Athens it had come to light that despite me only ever talking about going to Santorini and having known our plans for months, Courts had it stuck in his head that we were going to three islands. I didn’t want him to be disappointed only going to one so I googled day trips you could do from the island and came across this tour.

It started early, at 9.15am, so it was yet again another alarm day. We were picked up a 5 minute walk from home and were off to the first stop, two churches on the highest point of the island. One of the churches I believe dates back to the 1920’s and one the 50’s from memory, but I may be wrong. 6 priests live up there and harvest small crops and make crafts to sell. The tiny churches (they only fit 6-8 people at a time) were very cool, with thrones around the edges and as much artwork as could be crammed in. I think most people were more interested in the view though, which stretched from our place on one point of the crescent shaped Island to Oia at the other end.

Our second stop was Pyrgos, one of the oldest towns on the island. Having had to do the same at the mountain, we again had to leave the bus at the bottom of a hill and walk up to the view point we were aiming for. To be honest I’m not really sure why we stopped in Pyrgos. It sounded awesome - little shops on every corner, narrow winding streets – but we bypassed all the quaint village character and went up to see another view. The island’s not that big and the view was much the same. The selling point I think was that we were seeing the view from the remains of a medieval castle, but the ruins were little more than stairs and foundations. Courts didn’t even realize it was a castle until I told him on our way back down to the bus and it was easy to see why.

From Pyrgos it was off to the port to board a huge wooden boat to be taken to the volcano. When booking the tour I didn’t realize we actually went on the volcano, which we learnt from other travelers the day before. Luckily we wore walking shoes because the people that wore jandals looked like they were doing the walk a lot harder than we were. The volcano itself looked amazing from the boat, black and grey and red rocks, all harsh and sharp. The entire island is lava having not existed before an undersea eruption. It is still active and expands from time to time as more lava hardens in the water.

The walk was horrible and showed me just how unfit I am despite all the walking we have done. Off to Bootcamp when we get home. We walked uphill 5 minutes and waited for the guide, who somehow got there before us despite being left at the bottom. He told us how Santorini, the neighbouring island of Therassia and the small island between them used to be one perfectly round island. The inhabitants were so advanced all these hundreds of years ago that they had three story houses with separate toilets on each floor, and they pumped water from the hot springs all the way up the mountain and through pipes in their walls to heat their homes. It is speculated that they may have been so advanced they knew the eruption was coming, because there are no human remains in the ruins that have been excavated. Either that or they had the means to escape but didn’t make it in time and are somewhere under the ocean in lava layers that can never be explored.

When the big eruption happened, pieces of rock landed in Italy and ash landed in Iceland. Geological changes have been discovered in South America that could only have happened due to a massive seismic event, and this was the only one that happened in the world at the same time. A 250 metre tsunami travelled at 350km an hour to obliterate Crete and wipe out most of the Minoan civilization. Many people thought the tsunami ended the Minoan civilization but in very recent years they have discovered remains that are post-tsunami.

The result of all this was that the middle of the island ended up splattered all over the world and we were left with two crescents, one from either side – Santorini and Therassia. This wasn’t the end because in 1956 the volcano blew up again, destroying pretty much everything on the island and creating the volcanic island in the middle that we were, at this point, now standing on. Essentially everything on Santorini has been built since 1956 except for ruins.

The tour guide also explained though that the volcanic activity is the only reason there is flourishing life on the island now. There is no natural water on the island – clouds don’t form properly which is why it always looks hazy and never rains – but the dry earth is full of pumice, which sucks the humidity out of the air and feeds the plants. The barren weedy lands we had passed on the island were infact successful low-lying wineries, cherry tomato and white aubergine crops. Of course the volcano is also responsible for creating the caldera, the massive cliff face that makes Santorini’s views world-famous, and is essentially a cross section of the inside of a mountain.

Now that we knew the power of the black island we were standing on (including the fact that in the 1956 eruption one of the 6 or 7 craters didn’t blow, which means it’s full of pressure) we still had to walk up it, which takes us back to how unfit I am. The path was loose and soft and quite difficult to walk on, but the worst part was climbing a hill in the insane heat of a Greek August only to find at the top that it dipped down and we had to climb all over again, even further than before. At one point I honestly thought I wouldn’t make it to the top, standing on a pile of lava feeling light headed and shaky.

I probably shouldn’t admit to any of that except that I did  make it to the top, eventually, and I’m proud of myself for not giving up when I wanted to. The view from the top was incredible, you could easily connect the dots and see the perfect circle of the original island. We stood on the edge of the main crater which is actually two twin craters in one big hole. The tour guide used a rock to scoop up lava sand which sparkled. He let us touch it and it was hot, hence the rock he used to pick it up initially. Smoke pushed its way out through holes in the crater, only a little bit, but enough to fill the air with sulphur. Americans nearby remarked how bad it smelt but it reminded us of home, because the town of Rotorua smells the same for the same reasons.

The walk back down the mountain was far easier of course, and getting back on the boat I was very thankful for the cold Fanta at the little shop on board. Our next stop was the one I was looking forward to the most – swimming in the hot springs that are heated by the volcano. Some tours take you right into one of the hot springs so you get off the boat into hot water. Ours didn’t – we had to get into cold water and swim to the spring, which posed a couple of problems. First and most superficially, anyone that has been swimming with me will tell you how long it takes me to get into cold water. With a boat load of people behind me I had to just go for it and I wasn’t looking forward to that.

Secondly, I can’t swim. Well, I can keep myself afloat and I can project myself forwards, which I suppose is swimming, but I can’t do it at anything that could be defined as speed or with anything that could be calld technique  and the hot spring was 70 metres away. The tour guide even said, if you’re not a strong swimmer, don’t go. I am stubborn though, and I was not missing out on the hot springs. There was a rock somewhere halfway and I swam vaguely towards it until I could see people standing on it and knew where to aim for. I rested on the rock and then swam the rest of the way using Courtney as a floatation device every now and then.

It was worth it, the hot springs were awesome and I can now say I swam over a volcano. The water was yellow and we were warned in advance it would turn jewellery and white clothing red (Courtneys white and blue Hawaiian boardshorts are now rusty). Sulphur sludge floated on the surface and people used it to write on the black rocks that protected the little bay we were in. Some people covered themselves in it, but for me I was happy holding onto the edge of the bay and feeling the hot water of the spring.

After awhile, the whistle blew to return to the ship and we had 10 minutes to get back. Swimming out of the bay was no problem but the ship looked a lot further away than it had been and the water in between was daunting. I missed the half way rock entirely and when I turned around Courtney was a few lengths behind. I had no choice but to go for it, and I made it most of the way before breathing at the wrong time and getting a nose and mouth full of water. I wasn’t far from the boat but I panicked and turned around to look for Courtney. He was further away than the boat so I kept going and when I finally grabbed the ladder I was happy I hadn’t given up. Despite the incredible views and other-worldly scenery, the highlight of the day had been claimed – I swam 70 metres without stopping and without help.

Courtney being Courtney and liking the cold, hadn’t really seen the point in swimming in hot water when we were in Greece. He much preferred the next stop on the tour, which was two hours at Therassia, the small sister island of Santorini. To get to the little village at the top of the mountain, you had to walk 200-and-something steps, but each step was three steps wide, so they were tricking us a bit when they counted. There was only one place to buy food up there though, so instead we stayed at the bottom where lots of restaurants beckoned. We walked past the busy restaurants next to the port, all the way until we reached the very last one. It was quiet, a victim of hungry people filtering through the restaurants only as far as the first one they liked. The food was amazing though – Courtney had fried calamari and I had traditional stuffed eggplant – and we easily got a seat on the edge of the terrace, inches from the clearest, bluest water we have ever seen.

It wasn’t long after we finished eating that those waters beckoned. We found a spot where I could sit in the sun and Courts could swim, but the rocks were slippery and we decided to move. Literally seconds after I stood up and picked up our bag, a wave crashed up, soaking the spot I had been sat on (which was over a metre back from where any previous wave had touched). We moved to a spot closer to other swimmers, but it turned out all the rocks were slippery. We left our stuff up near someone elses belongings and both went for a swim. You could see the bottom no matter how deep you went, and it was nice to wash the sulphur off but of course Courts stayed in much longer than I did and I retreated to sunbathe nearby.

Our last stop of the day was Oia, to watch the sunset. The boat docked at the Old Port, from which the only way into town is almost 300 of those nasty wide steps – or donkey ride. There are several points around the island where you can choose to ride a donkey uphill instead of walking and we had been wanting to give it a go since we arrived. We paid a grumpy old Greek man 5 Euro each and he showed us one at a time to a donkey. The second I was on the donkey (or at least half way on), it decided it needed to be ahead of all the other donkeys, and pushed past as many as it could to get to the front. Courtneys did the same and it wasn’t until we got off at the top that we realized the donkeys at the back were being whipped so of course they were all constantly trying to be at the front of the pack.

Riding up steps on a Donkey is an experience to say the least, but it’s a far cry from horseback. Several times I was sandwiched between other donkeys in my donkeys effort to get to the front. It’s not so fun to have one knee a sneeze away from a donkeys bum and the other from another donkeys teeth. It’s also not so fun to have your donkey try and pass another donkey on the outside of the path, ramming you leg against concrete beyond which is a sheer drop. Despite all these not so fun aspects, riding a donkey was awesome, I’m really glad I did it, we just felt bad for the donkeys afterwards when we saw them being whipped. It can’t be the most fun job in the world to walk up and down 250 steps all day in the summer heat being whipped.

We weren’t so fussed on seeing the sunset from the best possible vantage point so we spent a bit of time exploring Oia town. If we could have, we probably would have gone home at that point because we were 10 hours into the tour and we were knackered. Finding our tour guide to tell him and then finding a public bus was more effort than just waiting it out though, so that’s what we did. We went to the restaurant next to the meeting point we had to go to post-sunset and had coffee and panacotta. There was a small gap between buildings where we had an awesome view of the sunset so everyone on the terrace crowded around for the last few minutes of red and gold.

The bus home was a blur of half asleep-ness and the bus took a secret route that bypassed the massive traffic jam we had experienced a couple of nights before. 12 hours after we boarded the bus, we were off again and stumbling home. Definitely one of the longest days of the trip so far but I conquered a mountainous volcano, 70 metres of ocean, we swam in hot springs and on a tiny Greek island. And we had the best Panacotta I’ve ever tasted.