Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

May 10, 2007


There is an inherent level of stress associated with any job, but it seems as if that level gets escalated just before the realization of some days off. This time was no exception, and I was busy with the last minute preparations needed to be able to then leave “the office” for a ten-day trip to paradise, or in other words, Greece.

The trip didn’t start auspiciously, as we made our early-evening way in pouring rain to the Frankfurt Airport, only to get completely lost looking for a car park some distance from the airport proper that cost less than at the airport. A phone call didn’t help any, the man on the other end refused to help us with directions because his English sucked and told us to just take a taxi, when it was the purpose of the whole place to park our car there for the time we would be gone…. It took a slightly drunk, Italian-speaking man in a café we stopped at with his hand-drawn map to finally get us to the lot, only an hour late, with both of us swearing and hoping not to miss our plane.

We made it to the check-in counter though luckily, and landed in Athens at two in the morning. Thence began our first sleepless night in the Athens Airport, and our first day in Greece. At 5am we gave up our attempts at catnapping, and threw our bags in storage, and caught a bus to the center of Athens. We wandered the streets as daylight grew brighter, and slowly made our way to the Acropolis. We were the first ones in when it opened at 8am, and had the place to ourselves for a while, which gave Rob great chances for pictures of the Parthenon, and gave me a chance to nap on a bench in the warming day’s sun. And plenty sun there was, in a cloudless deep-blue sky, and from a high vantage point overlooking sprawling Athens, we could even see the Aegean Sea. We visited the Acropolis museum, where I compared the statues inside to a bizarre game of Mr. Potato Head. In one room we found an assortment of headless statues in various states of dress, and in another, many decapitated heads waiting for a suitable body. However, the curators weren’t impressed when I asked to rearrange the statues to make them match up. By the time we wandered back outside, tourists traffic so thick throughout the grounds, that we could barely walk down the steps to get out of the place. We spent the rest of the morning amongst other nearby ruins, and caught a great nap in the shade of the Temple of Agora.

By early afternoon and after strolling the back streets of Athens, we were back at the bus stop to catch a ride back to the airport for a short flight to our real destination…the Greek Islands. However, just at that moment, a small group of protesters carrying black flags made their way up our street, closing it to traffic. They were soon gone though, but the bus we wanted to catch never showed. And the several scheduled buses soon afterwards didn’t arrive either, and the bus representatives only shrugged their shoulders and said, “Perhaps the buses aren’t running anymore today.” Luckily, the city metro also ran to the airport, and after only a short time of concern and delay, we made it to the airport and onto our flight, and by late afternoon landed on the Greek Island of Milos.

The three taxis waiting at the tiny one-gate airport were soon filled with fellow passengers, and we opted for the 6-kilometer walk to the port town. It was wonderfully sunny and hot, and the strong island winds were both cooling and massaging as we walked around the curve of the bay to the nearing quaint port town also called Milos. The very friendly and helpful Greek man at the information center quickly found us a studio apartment for just € 30 a night, and that made it easy for us to quickly cancel our camping plans. However, his response to our question about island tour boats was less satisfying. Our goal in coming to Milos, was to see the volcanic cliffs and hidden coves around the island. Travel books we’d read, wrote of boats that would circle the island and stop at beautiful beaches. But it seemed, and we would notice this everywhere we went, that we were just ahead of the main crush of the tourist season. Many places were still cleaning and painting and otherwise preparing for the hordes of summer visitors that would descend in just weeks onto the islands. So the boats weren’t running yet, and we were left wondering what we would do the next day. But to give us a little hope, the guy made a phone call to a boat captain he knew, who said that if six people could be gathered, we could go out the next day.

So at 9am the next morning, we met another couple at the dock on their honeymoon from Washington DC, and the four of us turned puppy-dog eyes and hangdog looks at the captain, until he couldn’t stand our begging any longer and relented to go out with just the four of us. So on another simply sparkling Greek morning, the five of us took off from the harbor in a shiny new 250,000 euro 25-foot catamaran, and we were soon clambering like deckhands all over the ship, bouncing in the rope netting up front, helping to put up the sails, generally making a nuisance of ourselves and having a blast doing it. Out in the open ocean, the swells were fun and rolling, and Rob and I stood in the front hanging onto the front sail mast, lifting often off our feet and being sprayed by the cresting white caps.

We eventually pulled into a small bay where the winds suddenly disappeared and where the water was clear, tranquil, and colorfully blue and green. We gladly took the opportunity to take our first swim in the Aegean Sea, yelping a bit at the still chilly spring waters, but it was ever refreshing as well. Captain Nikos busied himself with making lunch, and removed a dead octopus from a net that had been hanging from the back of the boat. He said that the salt and pounding waves helped tenderize it for eating. Indeed, later on in our trip, we saw other people bashing them repeatedly against rocks for that same purpose. Soon then, a stew was brewing on the stove, and we were on our way to our next destination.

After another hour or two of sailing in playful seas along spectacular coastal scenery, we rounded a corner of the island and came in to paradise, or at least that’s what it seemed. Hugh white cliffs dropping into the sea, turquoise water, natural arches of stone, and a calm cove where we dropped anchor to enjoy the ambiance. We swam again, through arches and around rock outcroppings, and spotted goats perched precariously high on the cliffs above us. Then just as Nikos was regaling us with tales of Pirates using these exact waters for clandestine activities, I spied someone swimming towards our ship. I quickly counted heads, and came up with the five of us onboard. We were all curious of who it could be, and perhaps a bit nervous with buccaneer stories recent in our memories, especially since it seemed impossible to reach this place from land.

As the swimmer approached us, he called out in English. Then recognizing him a fellow tourist, we quickly invited him onboard to hear about how and why he was in the water. Turns out, he, his mother, and sister were trying to hike to one of the island’s secluded coves from the road and had gotten a little lost, and eventually reached the water nearby to where we were by means of walking down a steep goat trail, that they were afraid to go back up. He said he jumped in the water and started swimming in hopes of trying to find an easier trail back, and in doing so suddenly turned a corner and saw our boat. We were a little befuddled, considering how to get his mother and sister to our boat as well, because the captain was willing to give them all a ride to an easy spot along the coast to get to the road. We offered the Canadian swimmer a glass of wine while we all considered the problem, and finally in a gracious gesture, the captain offered to lower his dingy hanging off the back of the catamaran, to pick them up off of the beach hidden around the corner. In the meantime, we thought they might be getting worried about their missing companion who’d of course hadn’t drowned, but was happily sipping away. So he eventually jumped back in the water, extracting our promise that we’d arrive shortly to pick him and his family up off of the beach after we’d eaten lunch, and then he swam away.

Lunch was as good as it had smelled: Greek salad with tomatoes, olives, onions, and cucumber; fresh bread; locally produced red wine; and the macaroni and octopus stew that had been simmering all morning. We filled up sufficiently at our catamaran dining table in our own private cove, and still had enough to spare to feed our stowaways once we picked them up. Lowering the dingy, the Captain and I motored through an arch and a cave and piled the three castaways and their various backpacks into the rubber boat. Then once contentedly aboard our luxurious catamaran, we invited the newcomers to plates of stew and salad and a glass of wine, which of course represented a sudden and dramatic turn of events for them. Then as they relaxed in comfort and in their good fortune, we left the three of them while our original five went for a special dingy ride. Nikos knew all the facets of the cliffs and caves, and he motored us with cameras clicking through amazing caves and narrow crevasses. He said it was a protected area for seals and was actually illegal to boat through, but since there were no other people around, and no seals, we did it anyway, and it turned out to be a very special treat.

Then back with the eight of us on board, where it still didn’t seem crowded (Nikos said that he takes up to 25 people in the high season), we reversed our course and came back around the corner of the island into the wind. But shortly afterwards we entered into a big bay, where we dropped our visitors off in chest deep water near to a path that would eventually take them to the road and their car. The bay itself was beautiful, and we took time for a last swim, and then we began our long trip back into the main bay towards the port. We sailed into the harbor at 7:30pm, peacefully sun burnt and wind blasted. We gave a heartfelt thanks to Nikos for the beautiful day, then after quickly showering, met Ed and Felicity for a late supper at Nikos recommended restaurant (the one with the brown chairs). We tried Moussaka and other Greek favorites, and stayed late chatting with our newlywed friends, then were surprised with a free desert when we asked for our check, … a typical Greek thing that happens a lot.

The next morning, we caught a large car ferry to the next island of our trip, Paros. It looked fairly close on the map, and should have taken between three and four hours to get there. But the boat lazed its way to and passed a variety of tiny Greek Islands offering a grand scenic introduction to the Cyclades of Greece. It was a very relaxing trip drenched in sunshine, with plenty of time for naps, deck bathing, and dolphin spotting. We didn’t get to Paros until after eight and a half hours had passed, but we were on “island time” and really in no rush at all. And once on the mellow island, we weren’t in much of a mood for roughing it, and walked out of a campground in exchange for another € 30 a night third floor studio apartment overlooking a beach, the town harbor of Parikia, and a sunset made from postcards. And after a couple of Greek gyros for supper (very good, but not to be compared with Turkish Döners), we fell gratefully into bed to the sound of lapping waves outside our balcony door.

Paros is very well known for both kiteboarding and sea kayaking, so we set off the next morning after sleeping in, to find out which one we should do first. The island bus system seemed an adequate way to get around, but renting a moped for ten euros a day was definitely the island thing to do, and we soon sped off into the unknown. The moped only went fast going down hill, and Rob grunted from behind me when I hit potholes, but we made it to the kiteboarding beach on Paros, which turned out to be a world renowned spot for the sport because of normally reliable steady winds. But the wind this day was nothing more than a friendly breeze, and the grounded kiteboarders looked glum and bored (no pun intended). So we were told to return the next day to try our luck, and instead took a very short ferry ride with our moped to very nearby Antiparos Island, where the kayaker place was. But when we arrived, no one seemed to be home, and we instead found a deserted secluded cove along the rocky shore for a great swim and splendid time sun bathing under another absolutely cloudless sky, all before we putted back to Paros and a sunset dinner.

The wind was up and blowing the next morning at the kiteboarding beach, and I quickly signed up for the beginner level class. Now I must explain, that kiteboarding is something that I have wanted to learn how to do for a long time, so the chance to finally learn the sport was a dream come true. So over the next two days, I spent my daylight hours on that wind-swept beach. My instructor was French, and knew just enough English to explain the basics to me, and under her accented exclamations, I spent hours learning to launch, fly, and land an air-filled kite. I also donned a wetsuit, harness, lifejacket and helmet, and then started with a small 3-meter kite on the beach, weaving figure 8’s in the sky, trying not to crash the kite, crashing it, and then learning what to do after a crash. By the end of the first day, I was up to a 7-meter kite, gleefully using it to body-surf in the water, learning how to fly it one-handed, drag myself into the wind, and use the power from the kite to pull me along.

Of course, for those of you familiar with the sport, you will recall that there is also a wakeboard involved. The difficulty of the sport seems to be 80% kiting and 20% boarding, so the board didn’t come out until the second day in my intermediate class. Ignoring the cut in my foot and the multiple splinters from sea urchins, I dived back into the water and learned to pull myself with the wakeboard and recover it after getting separated, and finally put my feet in it and pulled myself around. Unfortunately though, it was just around that time that the wind dropped again, so the kite never had quite enough power to pull me out of the water all the way to really start boarding. I’d learned all my lessons well though, and was awarded my certified kiteboarding card anyway. It was a bit disappointing not ever really getting up and boarding around and doing flips, jumps, stunts, and twirls, but I knew that with my card, I could now rent kiteboard equipment and continue practicing anywhere else in the world. And anyway, after two full days on the beach, I was quite sun burnt and tired, and actually glad that I wouldn’t have to step on any more sea urchin splinters.

Rob had kept himself amused during the two days with lots of time on the moped circling the island while I was learning all about wind characteristics and kite techniques. He searched out photo ops and pristine beaches for swimming, and returned every once in a while to see how I was doing. My instructor told me after I graduated, that if it was windy the following day, I could return to continue practicing, even though Rob and I had planned to continue on with our journeys. So with that next morning, and prepared to rearrange our travel plans if need be, we listening for whistling power lines and thrashing palm leaves from our bed. But the air was hush still and the sea glass calm, and actually a rare condition for the islands at any time, but boy was it beautiful outside. And it was easy to determine that the chances of seeing 20-knot winds anytime that day, were not very good. So, we checked out of our plush apartment after four peaceful nights, and caught the 11:55am ferry to the nearby large mountainous island of Naxos.

The nice lady at the hotel that we’d just left, called ahead to a friend on Naxos, and a gal named Maria was waiting for us on the quay with a handmade sign that said Robert Ertman, and we were quickly whisked away to another beautiful studio apartment, still for only € 30 a night. Our only real goal for that day, was to rent two high-power mopeds (13 euros each) and raced each other around the mountain island. It was another sunny hot day, with still virtually no wind, and the sweeping vistas we encountered as we reached the 1000-meter high summit were spectacular. And way out there on the deserted and distant back side of the island, we rode for long quiet stretches into and out of dramatic wildflower filled canyons, and along high cliff edges of road cluttered with wandering goats. The sparkling Aegean Sea was also always only a glimpse away, and distant far off islands dotted the horizon. We must have made about a 50-mile round trip ride that lasted all afternoon and from which we returned at sunset. And of course we took a short break during it all, for a cooling dip in the emerald ocean. And strolling the port shores that night, a peaceful delight of interesting shops, outdoor cafes, and luring hidden alleyways.

I can’t forget to say that everywhere along our journeys, all the Greek people we interacted with seemed genuinely friendly and happy. They spoke great English, were easy to talk to, and willing to go the extra mile because they seemed to care. We didn’t ever have even one moment of nervousness at being in a foreign country at all, as is the case sometimes over here in Europe. Probably because we always knew there would never be a communication gap because of their proficient English speaking skills, and because the islands were just soooo laid back.

Our arrival the next afternoon on the island of Santorini was no exception. The port was at the bottom of a cliff, where we were reeled in at the dock by a waiting fisherman turned fisher of men, and he agreed to drive us to his hotel called “Honeymoon Beach” to stay in yet another € 30 studio apartment, but this time with a heart-shaped pool outside of our door. Then not only that, but he agreed to let us stay in our room past the usual checkout time until 7pm the next evening, and then agreed to drive us to the airport to catch our night flight home for only a small extra fee. When we asked about local transportation options, he quickly called a friend, who arrived within minutes in his van, and who took us to his shop to rent us yet another moped. And then instead of needing to return it to the shop, he told us to just leave it at the hotel when we were done with it. Sometimes “thank you” just doesn’t say enough.

So our last day of the trip was spent exploring the most spectacular island we had visited yet, and perhaps the craziest of all the Greek Islands. The island of Santorini is the remains of the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history, which occurred around 1600 BC. The moon-shaped island surrounds an enormous sunken caldera, and the 400-meter sheer cliffs gave credence to the power of the ancient explosion. In the center of the submerged circle is the small remaining volcano, which lures tourists with hot springs, and last exploded in 1956. The backside of the main island slopes gently down to the sea, with fields of grapes everywhere, and where the beaches are black with volcanic rock. Our accommodation was there in the beach town of Perissa, but it is the towns of Fira and Oia, perched back high on the cliffs, which lure the hordes of tourists to the island to walk the narrow streets and snap photos of amazing sunset views.

We were no exception to the rule, and took off on our moped up the slope to visit the cliff towns. The weather, which for eight straight days had been nothing but gloriously sunny, hot, and absolutely cloudless, changed a bit during our two-hour ferry ride from Naxos to Santorini, and strengthening south winds finally brought in a few clouds. The cliff top gusts thus made our moped ride a little tricky, as we tried hard at times to keep from being blown off the road. But the scenery from the cliffs was well worth it, and the town of Oia a breathtaking charm of a place. The next day when we woke up to something we hadn’t seen before, … dark ominous looking clouds, and when we went out for a moped ride, we were chilly even wearing the warmest clothes we had brought along. Then sure enough, drops started to fall, and we high-tailed it for home on our moped in a developing driving rain. We arrived wet and chilled, and were more than willing to just take a hot shower and a deep nap instead of trying to do anything else. That rain event unbelievably, was only the 3rd time this year in Greece that it had rained, and we were even more grateful then to be in a snug hotel room instead of in our tent, which had stayed bundled in our backpack for our entire trip. It stopped raining just long enough in the afternoon, that we made one last moped trip to the cliff towns, and then we packed up and enjoyed a scenic ride to the airport. Then with time to kill before our flight, we walked to a nearby town for a last Greek meal before catching our 10:40pm flight to Athens, where we had to sleeplessly wait until 4:15am for our flight back to Frankfurt, … the result of cheap tickets. But, the German sunrise we saw from our Lufthansa plane was magnificent, and everything again was lush and green and very schön.

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