4 min read
Greece is art… a sunlit beach… a taverna and the aromas of moussaka, pastitsio and tzatziki. But my Greece had another dimension. Sadly, it was the sight and stank of tourists lying in puddles of their own tzatziki, they had just heaved. Aboard a ferry that was also heaving to and fro, fighting the waves of a stormaggedon.
This pungent tableau was nowhere on the brochure for our three-hour tour from the islands of Crete to Santorini. Yes, a three-hour tour. Sound familiar?
So how did I end up in my own version of a Greek ‘Gilligan’s Island’?
When you travel, you’re inviting the unexpected. Which is usually a welcome guest. But not this day. On the other hand, had it been an uneventful voyage, I would have forgotten it by now and have no story to tell.
That morning the sky was a blue as only you’ll find in Greece. Don’t ask me how they do it. This explosive sapphire set off the white whites of the villages and the equally white attire of the ‘beautiful’ people boarding our ship for the run to Santorini.
They were an elegant corps, traveling that day with jewelry, hair, tans and Chanel. We were slobs. But that’s what makes the world go ‘round, right?
We were island hopping - Crete, Santorini, Naxos and Mykonos. Starting in Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, my buddy David and I motorcycled through the villages, even meeting elderly partisans who took up arms against the Nazis in World War II. They liked Americans and stuffed us with dolma, olives and endless pastries.
I’m happy to report I only fell off my bike once. And only walked with a limp for a few days.
On To Atlantis
Thus slightly limping, we arrived at the port in Heraklion for our ferry to Santorini. The ride was billed as a three-hour crossing from Crete over the Aegean Sea to its relatively close and legendary neighbor.
Probably the greatest volcanic eruption in recorded history happened in Santorini, 3,500 years ago. It blew up parts of the island, destroyed the Minoan civilization and left so much volcanic evidence it fueled speculation that here was the site of mythical Atlantis.
These days Santorini is a saturated magazine spread of windmills, whitewashed villages and black sand beaches. And thousands of tourists looking for their perfect Greek moment. You are certain to find it… just try to fly there instead of taking the boat.
We boarded the ferry with our backpacks and quickly settled in for beers. Everyone was happy, the weather was perfect - sunny, calm green sea – it’s fun living on the front side of a postcard. I felt privileged to be here with so many beautiful people. Happy I could travel with them on this journey to Fantasy Island.
I liked them. The beautiful people were… well, to be honest, they were beautiful. And they matched the scenery perfectly. I also felt safe with them. They seemed so at ease. This was their milieu and I was a guest.
With beers in hand, David and I explored the ship. From the top deck, we watched Crete recede over the sea. Then we went inside to the bar to enjoy the crossing.
We didn’t have any hotel reservations on Santorini. One could always find a place to bed down on the Greek Islands. Sometimes in life, you really don’t need to have any worries. You just go where the current takes you. Assuming the current is mild.
The Lighting of Light
It’s been said the light in Greece has its own special luminance and I agree. So it was funny when I didn’t notice the quality of that light shifting. With the gentle rocking of the boat, the gold of the light had slipped to grey.
A slight patter of rain also had no significance except to bring most passengers inside – a few holding their hats from the growing breeze.
We made room for the newcomers and opened more beers. One of our new drinking companions was a big Brit, or was he a Welshman… or Irishman… or Scotsman? Definitely from the UK. He had a loud laugh, a ruddy face and I was pretty sure he’d be fun to hang with. We swapped a few ‘where ya been?’, ‘where ya going?’ moments over which travelers like to bond.
So we drank a little more, and in the same way we hadn’t noticed the change of the light outside, so it was with the sea. Suddenly we realized we were rolling, sort of like on a kiddie roller coaster. Everyone laughed and oohed, the way you do with children to make the gentle ride seem like a bigger deal.
Until we hit a wall of water – it made the boat shudder and lifted us up from our seats. Ok, this was a little more like an adult ride now. In just minutes we had progressed from Disney to Six Flags.
I glanced over to where the beautiful people sat with their drinks to see if they were still enjoying themselves. Other than dabbing at a little spilled Vodka on their white ensembles, they were happy and chatty.
This reassured me in the way I would check the flight attendants on a bumpy flight. I wanted to make sure it was business as usual. If I ever saw concern on their faces, then I would know it was officially time to panic.
The boat was pitching and I wished I hadn’t drank so much, but I knew we would be fine. There were elegant people on board who always seemed to go through these sorts of adventures and would then laugh about them in magazines stories and on talk shows. We were safe….
A mountainous wave pounded us broadside and the boat tilted harshly. Part of the bar split off and smashed across the deck. Boxes and bottles followed, crashing and tumbling past. There were a few screams. I looked about.
Where Were the Beautiful People?
They were scattered. Some were down on the deck, some were clinging to the walls. They didn’t look like they were having fun anymore.
The boat shuddered as big, dark waves pounded us. People were getting sick. A few huddled together, their eyes squeezed shut. Others were frightened. I was one of those.
Was this what it was like to reach the end?
But my new UK friend was having none of it. He thought all the mayhem was… funny. And he kept drinking! Clearly, that was his plan for the afternoon and nothing, not the ocean, not Poseidon himself was going to stop the party.
Each crashing wave only added to his enjoyment of the ride. Like a punchline to a joke, a wave would hit and he would burst out laughing. It was all simply hilarious.
His utter lack of concern distracted me. Everyone looked as though they were ready to die but this fellow just roared with each crash. He was either very smashed or just insane. Or he saw the absurdity of man’s existence and wanted to add his own commentary.
His sheer delight was in such deep contrast to everything around us. He had to be the only person on the Aegean Sea that was happy. I needed some of that quick because I was scared and I was sick. The beer inside me was roiling with its own whitecaps, threatening an intestinal category 5.
So I made a decision to join him. Not just sit near him but dive into his looney, raucous world.
This was more intellectual than emotional because I didn’t think what was happening to us was very funny at all. It was terrifying. But I prayed maybe I could lose myself and my own fear by ignoring reality. And finding escape with this lunatic.
I moved in closer and when the next wave struck, I joined the laughter. At first I was just faking it… and trying to hold down the beer. But… after a few more waves hit something happened. A little switch clicked somewhere inside and it became OK to laugh in the midst of terror. The big drama going on called for big emotions – you could either laugh or cry. We chose to laugh.
This must have confused my otherwise panicked psyche and took me to a foreign place – my extremities went numb. I could no longer feel my hands or feet. I accepted it. Strange things were to be expected.
I let go with my new buddy and rode the waves. We didn’t dread each upcoming swell. We threw ourselves into it and laughed like the madmen others around us surely thought us to be.
This was the best part of my new altered state – time just disappeared. It didn’t matter how long this ride took, we had an all-day pass. But for the others around us, sick and frightened, time surely slowed to a crawl. Which must have been torture – suffering through each crash and shudder.
My friend offered me another beer. I wondered where they were coming from but then I saw crates of the stuff at his feet- the contents of the destroyed bar. I laughed and accepted. We knocked our bottles and drank.
This was our unspoken understanding: We were the only ones on the boat too cheeky not to be terrified. He taught me; I took his lead. We were going through the ordeal in style. True, it was a stupid, sloppy style but it was fun. You couldn’t say that for anyone else.
And perhaps because we had moved out of time in our own little cosmos, we didn’t notice when it was over. We hadn’t expected relief so didn’t even notice its arrival. Later I learned our crossing had taken seven hours, not the three advertised.
Beautiful sunlight peeked through the broken dark sky and the waves eased. We were just rocking about now. I stood up on numb legs and took in the damage. People were pulling themselves off the deck. David returned with a story of continuously throwing up into the sea. Ok… that was his approach. I respected it.
Now standing with an incongruous bottle of beer in my hand, I watched the beautiful crowd. They were regaining their smiles and wiping themselves off. I envisioned quite a haul for the Island’s dry cleaners.
I felt bad for them – this wasn’t how they were supposed to make their exit. Heading for the ramp they looked at me: upright, spotless and amazingly sporting a beer. I think I might have seen some admiration in their blue, blue eyes.
I turned to thank my drunken friend for his wisdom, his insight… his beers. He gave me a bear hug, shared some more drunken inspiration but I couldn't make out a word of it.
Then on slightly wobbly legs, David and I descended the ramp, our feet landing on the crunchy volcanic soil of Santorini.
The sun was out and the air was pure - the ancient island welcomed us after our ordeal. It was as though the Greek Gods had put us through a test and we passed… we would survive this day and many others.