A Travellerspoint blog

Where do I put my olive stone ?

sunny 24 °C

I’m sure you know someone who you wish would go away – a long way away. Well, there is a destination for them. The first thing I saw when I exited the terminal in Heraklion was a bus sign-written Cretin Holidays. The first thing I thought was, “I must have a word with our travel agent – sending us on a holiday for Cretins, indeed. When, full of indignation, I confronted Flypaper for an explanation, she pointed out that spelling was never my strong point but if that’s the way my brain leaned, so be it. Further research enlightened me to the difference between Cretin and Cretan. I’m still suspicious and wonder if our travel agent also has a spelling problem.

The second experience was collecting the Rental Car. I should never let Flypaper arrange these important matters. We were greeted outside the terminal by a beaming man with a lot of dark wavy hair, holding up a sign that, with some imagination could be interpreted as the name my parents bestowed on me. The Greek alphabet is a strange 24 letter system that was designed to be chiseled onto stone tablets – not airport greeting signs. The bearer of our welcome introduced himself as ‘George’. I suspect 68% of Greeks are named George. It means ‘farmer’. Our George was aptly named – he had been sowing his wild oats far and wide. When he told us he visited the back side of the world every year, I innocently asked why. After a little sparing he confessed. He has a wife in Thailand with 2 children – in addition to his wife in Crete with 3 children. He spends the summer in Crete fleecing suckers like us and the summer in Thailand confusing the gene pool of our Asian neighbours. He is obviously a wicked man. Flypaper liked him. She tried to convince me that he had a charming demeanor. Only 3 days before she relied on my ‘charm’ to extract her from a worrying situation and now she was comparing that serious and practical charm with one that was adding to international overcrowding. I suspect that her next demand will be I take up farming to feed Georges offspring.

Little did I know, that was the least of my worries. Flypaper and George had conspired to fit me into an ancient Suzuki Vitara. (She told me it was a ‘Jeep’.)These Suzuki’s are affectionately known as ‘Puddle-jumpers’. A 1600cc 4WD with which I was to do battle with the Cretins and Cretans. My first thought was, “Oh, a car with both maturity and experience – just like Flypaper”. However, my involuntary expression of concern prompted George to quickly tell me that his pride was a ‘Limited Edition’ model. Subsequent experience discovered that ‘Limited Edition’ offered no exclusivity in terms of up-market superiority but indicated it had the most limited of basic features. For example, I struggled to find both the power and brakes. Consequently we struggled to keep up with the pack on the uphill sections – but downhill was another story. I suspect the brake pads were glazed. They did improve after a couple of days frantic application. The off-road tyres were also very old and hard Chinese rubber – they had similar characteristics to Ben Hur’s chariot wheels. On one occasion, due to a combination of no brakes or grip, the car started to spin towards an abyss, Flypaper uttered a naughty word. Her subsequent comments hurt my feelings. I tried to explain that I had not only just saved her life, but given her a view of the valley no other traveler had ever experienced. I take these issues very seriously – otherwise it could affect my laundry service.

The Cretans have a policy of not wasting time on the roads. Notwithstanding the Police cruising around with their blue lights continuously flashing (I was told it was an ego thing), the pace of progress is pretty brisk. Some of the tourists hold things up a bit but generally the genre of tourist who hire cars are doing so for an experience they miss at home. I noticed many passengers travelled with their eyes closed – a pity as Crete is a spectacularly rugged island. There are thousands of kilometers of narrow winding roads all over Crete. There are also a few duel carriage highways and some very good two way roads. These generally have a double white line down the centre. Universally this is recognized as a no passing division – but given the lines have a 150mm (6”) gap, the locals consider them an additional lane. You may be horrified, and many new arrivals are. However, crowded communities the world over adapt as required and become very tolerant to each others actions. Rather than become indignant, toot their horn and dial the ‘dob a dope’ number, they simple move over and accommodate their fellow citizen. We have a lot to learn.

I suspect the best business in Crete is the supply of rear vision mirrors. The majority of vehicles have new exterior mirrors – as did our puddle-jumper. This is the consequence of the narrow roads. Few drivers have eyes far enough apart to see both sides of their car at the same time. Often a mirror is wiped off against the stone wall – sometimes the trader gets two sales as both cars simultaneously destroy each others mirror. Our puddle-jumper suffered new scratches on both mirrors but mercifully they remained intact. Flypaper considers the loss of a mirror on her side as a personal amputation. The resulting speech is far more memorable than the Gettysburg Address (that focused on the Declaration of Independence) and on a couple of occasions has suggested the future independence of the inadequate driver whose judgment was in error. I pleaded diminished responsibility due to a third world attitude of the other party.

We could also learn from developing nation’s attitude to cars. They know they are not about to go away any time soon. They appreciate that public transport is only practical in large, well planned cities, and even then the plumber is unlikely to take a bus to fix your blocked toilet. As a result the majority of the world is flat out building new highways to improve the efficiency of commerce – and subsequently lower emissions. Crete (and mother Greece) was also doing this until their source of Euro’s was recently turned off. The new highways come to a sudden premature end. One uncompleted viaduct we stopped to admire had a small sign saying ”Road Closed” about 200m from the abyss. Evel Knievel would have loved it. Evidently this sort of situation maintains a higher IQ among the population and ensures a few tourist leave more money on the island than they originally budgeted. Most highways degenerate into badly sealed goat tracks. These tracks are wonderful. They wind into and through the rugged mountains servicing countless small villages and bringing tourist Euros to those who are providing the necessities of life – food … and in Crete, homemade Raki (local Schnapps).

New Zealand is about 268,000 sqkm. We have 4.4m people. Crete has 625,000 people squeezed into 8,000 sqkm – about half the size of New Zealand’s Northland region – but its really mountainous. That’s a population density about 5 times that of NZ – mostly in incredibly steep and infertile places throughout rugged mountains. Surprisingly it snows in Crete because the mountains are up to 8,000 ft high. The roading network is an asset that provides employment where it is needed and increases productivity. Cities all over the world tend to generate service industries that simply suck off the group of people who keep them alive – the primary producers. Crete, like many emerging economies that have learned from the errors of the ‘developed’ nations, provides incentives to keep people on the land. Roading is a key element of this policy.

The world’s best olives and olive oil are reputed to come from Crete. 65% of the arable land is covered by 35 million olive trees. That’s a lot of olives. I do wonder about the first person who picked up a small, hard, black, bitter olive and said, “I wonder if I do this and this and this, if the result will make my goat and wild lettuce taste a bit better?” Olive culture is a long term, labour intensive industry. In future every time I see someone who thinks they may have James Bond syndrome drowning an olive in Vodka, I will give them the same look Flypaper gives me when she considers my underwear is overdue for change. Olives have sustained societies for 7,000 years and have considerably reduced the likely hood of heart attacks and other nasty life ending conditions – thus contributing to the current overcrowding. Opposing that, I did notice that those who have been scoffing olives all their life are very wrinkled. Perhaps they are even older than they look. It is said Olive oil assists weight reduction. I ask Flypaper to smear it all over me every night but she says I’m in pretty good shape so there is no need. I fear her eyesight is failing.

We are all aware of the fact Greece, and by association Crete, is bankrupt. They lived beyond their means and have paid a terrible price. Virtually everyone has suffered beyond our comprehension. In Crete the biggest problem was the construction industry that borrowed excessively to build new homes, commercial buildings and tourist resorts. When the financiers went bust they gobbled up all the invested savings of everyone. Today there are thousands of partially completed buildings dotting the landscape. Many tragic stories are attached to them. Reckless development ruined countless lives around the Mediterranean – and could do so in our societies if we fail to learn from the experience of others.

Since the financial crash, the churches have been filled – and many have been renovated due to a huge influx of regular tithing by their growing congregations. It seems there is nothing better than divine intervention in difficult times. The lotteries are also doing well and there is a connection. Many pray fervently that they will be the next big winner. It is reported that 98% of Cretans are practicing Greek Orthodox Christians. The Priests look very content and some appear to have put on weight. Someone should talk to them about the benefits of olive oil – I suspect they waste it on their food.

Almost all buildings in Greece (and many other Mediterranean countries) appear to have been in use for many years but have an unfinished appearance. They all have exposed reinforcing steel sprouting from the roof. The rule is that if one leaves structural provision for another story then they retain their building permit forever. In some countries (like Egypt) they are also exempt paying tax’s and development fees until the structure is complete. Some new home owners have the best of intentions and temporarily put their future top story building materials on the roof to hold it down. After about 20 years when the chickens have flown the coup and the materials are deteriorated, they just give up and live like that forever. It looks like living under a pile of garbage.

This is interesting. Statistically speaking, Crete has the highest ratio of guns per person in the whole European Union. Road signs looking like Swiss cheese are common because some Cretans consider they make excellent targets. (They do) Firearms and big celebrations go together like feta and olives in Crete. This tradition is called balothies. It is traditional for Cretans to fire their guns during weddings, baptisms, New Year, and even when their favorite soccer team wins! It concerned me that they may do the same when they experienced the loss of a rear vision mirror. The other thing that concerned me and has consumed a lot of my nervous energy is, where does one put ones olive stones? At the end of a meal the Cretins never seem to have any left over.

Posted by Wheelspin 09:40 Archived in Greece Tagged crete Comments (0)

The Promised Land - just in time

sunny 27 °C

We have attempted to visit Israel a number of times but have been frustrated by wars, passport stamp problems and my preference for a pork meal at least once a week. Its impossible to drive there at present due to the troubles in Syria and issues with the Lebanese and Jordanian boarder crossings. Crossing the Sinai Desert from Egypt has had little appeal ever since the first travellers to Israel became lost there for 40 years. Not to be forever out-thwarted, Flypaper conceived the cunning idea of sneaking across the Mediterranean from Greece. She knows I like sailing around in small boats but remembers the time she & I were shipwrecked during a particularly nasty storm. Our 12 metre sports cruiser ended up surfing onto a beach and, given the lack of sufficient water up there, falling over. We eventually rescued ourselves and sailed away but to this day she recalls the serious chaffing caused by her lifejacket. Sailing down through the Greek Islands in anything less than a floating palace complete with servants, entertainment, 7 meals a day and an onboard laundry was out. She found a smallish ship that carried only 400 passengers and convinced me that because it had 5 restaurants it was unlikely I would have to suffer the company of many others at any given time. This of course, proved to be a terminological inexactitude. Having so many troughs to feed from only heightened my concerns. I was justifiably worried that the pork on the plate would be substituted by the pork on the chair. I am also very aware that, when faced with magnificently presented food (or even a humble breadstick) I have little willpower. Flypaper produced written evidence that the ship had a gymnasium. I noticed the pictures showed beautiful young women in leotards testing the equipment. They all looked very slim – so I relented.

Once on board my worst fears were confirmed. The slim maidens had been replaced by a demographic that had survived for an average of 75 years but left me worried they may not see out the remainder of their cruise. However, their infirmities had not effected their appetites or their ability to share their life stories and prejudices at a volume that catered for those whose hearing aid batteries were dead. These days, cruise ships are very considerate and cater for those with disabilities – even if the destinations do not. As a result many took a cruise to Israel which they were able to see from their cabin balcony right after their room service breakfast and visit from the nurse. I’m confounded by their decisions – especially those who were short sighted or in the instance of 3 travelers, totally blind. When, in a discussion that left me branded as an uncaring beast, I questioned the suitability of this journey for those people, I was told, “Oh, they do have an amazing enhanced sense of smell”. Smelling the Greek Islands and Israel may be the ambition of many but I would (respectfully and compassionately) suggest, they if you are in this category, you consider a guided mobility scooter tour of the local deli or herb shop on a very hot day.

However, the IQ of Cruisers is not in doubt. The cruise director (an excellent source of valuable information) told us some of the questions he struggled with were …
Does this elevator take me to the front or rear of the ship? - Will our porthole be under water when the tide comes in? - Do these stairs go up or down? - What is our elevation? - Does the crew live on the boat? - How deep will the swimming pool be at high tide? - Is this island completely surrounded by water? - Is the water in the toilets drinkable?
By day 3 Flypaper had warned the restaurant teams not to issue me with sharp knives and sternly told me not to stick pins into the electricity sockets. Jumping overboard and striking out for shore was not an option as apart from preparing to dock we were usually out of sight of land – which way to swim? Added to that, the ship had demonstrated its willingness and ability to pick up people in the water.

Early one morning we sailed into excitement and tragedy. A 10 metre cabin cruiser and a 12 meter yacht, both carrying Syrian refugees trying to sneak into Greece, collided within sight of the island of Patmos. These 2 boats were collectively carrying 59 passengers. 35 survived, 22 didn’t make it. Our ship was among the first on site and rescued a number of survivors and recovered some bodies. The Greek Coast Guard arrived in a navel vessel and seemed a bit miffed by our efforts. They detained us for quite a few hours. They also borrowed the ships dive gear and our tenders scurried around doing most of the searching for survivors until the helicopters and local fishing fleet arrived. I believe we featured on international TV news. One feels very saddened for the Syrian refugees and angry towards the unscrupulous people who crammed then all in small boats in a big ocean. As a retired Search & Rescue skipper I was surprised by the lack of co-ordination and effectiveness of the local Coast Guard. Imagine 'Dads Armey' on water. If the Azamara Journey not been on hand the tragedy would have undoubtedly been greater.

It is written that the second coming of the Messiah will be on a white donkey descending from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. That meant there was no way I was able to convince Israeli Customs that my arriving on a ship from the ocean side was worthy of their consideration. It also meant we stood in long queues to see highly commercialized sites of biblical significance in places they may (or may not) have been. Bethlehem, Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Jerusalem and all places between are not at all what one expects – neither is Israel in general.

We are victims of the news media who focus on the conflict between Israel and her neighbours. Most suggest Israle is difficult to deal with. The reality is quite different. Few in the west know that there are more Arabic people in Israel than Jews. They are totally free and well represented in the Knesset (Parliament). They are also the happiest Arabs in the world. We met some who claimed the Israelis’ were the most accommodating and negotiable people on earth. They claimed it was their own people who simply refused to accept a peaceful settlement that would benefit the whole region. I arrived in Israel interested to learn more about this troubled region and to form an opinion regarding the possibility of peace. Our Palestinian guide in Bethlehem convinced me that peace was not possible so long as both sides had politicians. His solution was to send all of the politicians for a year in the USA where they could observe real political obstinacy, while he and the ordinary hard working people of the region indulged in some serious partying that would soon result a harmonious relationship. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing anywhere in the world?

Travel results in learning lots of new stuff. For example, I never knew that the guy why took the Israelites to their promised land (that’s Moses) had a speech impediment. He stuttered. (This is true - told to me by a guy called Levi who was wearing a soup bowl). When Moses had a meeting with the Pharaoh he was asked where he wished to take his group of troublemakers. He said, “Ca-ca-can-can ca … “ Ok” said Pharaoh, “Off you go to Canaan. Have a nice trip”. As Moses was lead out he finally said to the man with the big pointed stick prodding his nether regions, “I meant Canada”. Too bad? Not so bad?. He and his descendants had to deal with Arab neighbours ever since. I wonder how Israel would have faired between America and Russia?

Posted by Wheelspin 23:42 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

It's all Greek to me

sunny 22 °C

“Every traveler deserves a holiday.” Those few words, declared by Flypaper when I was at my most vulnerable (immediately after my favorite chicken dinner – the one I declared would be my choice as a final meal should I find myself on ‘death row’), sent a shiver down my spine. Had I known ‘the plan’ I would have rushed out and assassinated a politician to get that chicken dinner. (With my luck that could have proved popular and resulted in a medal or at least my picture on the $3 note). Last years circumnavigation of the Black Sea turned out to be the toughest mission to date and I suspected ‘a holiday’ may prove to be even harder to survive. A few days earlier my European race team leader had suggested we could have 2 races to compete in this year – one in late May the other in late June. Flypaper immediately computed the opportunity for 3 weeks ‘holiday’ in the Eastern Mediterranean before the first event and a 3 week holiday in the Inner & Outer Hebrides Islands between the races. Two more extreme localities would be difficult to find. The Eastern ‘Med’ in spring is idyllic tending on hot & humid while the outer Scottish Islands are uninviting at any time of the year. The result of this travel mix is luggage that will test the strength of the burliest airline baggage handler.

Just a few months before departure, Malaysian Airlines MH370 went mysteriously missing. Not good – we were booked on a sister flight. While I studied all the conspiracy theories, Flypaper remained fatalistic saying, “Lightening doesn’t strike twice in the same place”. A week before departure news came of a guy in central USA that had been struck by lightening not twice, but 3 times. We needn’t have worried. Not only did we arrive in the UK safely but Malaysian Airlines were determined to make our journey memorable. Their strategy was to smother their guests with kindness and ply them with copious quantities of very good quality alcohol. As a result, their strategy for a memorable flight failed – I hardly remember a thing. The following day we flew on Aegean Airlines to Athens. Another experience entirely – although their Metaxa Brandy is superb.

Given the late afternoon arrival we decided the transfer from the airport into Athens would be by taxi. Usually the protocol is to take the cab at the head of the line. We had no chance. A driver, who I suspect is the Greek woman wrestling champion, lept out of taxi 5 and shouldered me aside. She grabbed Flypapers suitcase – the one that has likely caused multiple hernia’s since we left home – threw it in the boot and flicked my own more modest case into a spare corner with one hand while pointing to the back door of her cab. Naturally, being fearful of even little dominant woman, I dived past Flypaper into the car and begged her to follow. We just had time to notice the sign stating the new ‘standard’ fare into Athens – 35 Euro. The journey was uneventful and we didn’t attempt conversation for fear of saying the wrong thing. On arrival I tendered the 35E only to be told her rate was 39E. I paid – feeling that I had failed in an opportunity to make a stand for equality and mens rights.

It’s been 39 years since last in Athens. It’s changed. For a start it’s 4 times larger with 10 times the traffic. I could stop now but I haven’t offended the Athenians yet so I’ll continue. The architecture of Athens is a mix of bland and dilapidated with a smattering of nondescript. It doesn’t matter as it’s all covered in graffiti. The Acropolis is still being restored. The same scaffolding is holding parts of it up but there is an ugly crane hoisting new stones into place. It’s beginning to look like a bad jigsaw. The new Acropolis Museum is misnomer. It’s principally full of new replica rocks that show what the place would have looked like had we arrived 2,500 years earlier. I suggest travelers spend their time and money in other places – like Plaka where you will at least get some food and coffee that seems to have also been around for some long time.

Greece is considered to be the cradle of culture and knowledge. It has produced great thinkers like Socrates, Aristotle and Plato - but has never produced anyone that can build a sound footpath. They appear to be built new with cracks, missing chunks of concrete and people-traps waiting to hasten the unwary tourist into their medical system. Perhaps this is because a Greek guy named Hippocrates developed the science of medicine around 500BC and they would like visitors to appreciate that.

40% of the traffic is taxis that are surprisingly driven with quite modest ambition. I felt unusually safe in these cabs but perhaps Flypaper didn’t. Whenever we traveled in a taxi she sat with her hand on my wallet. The feeling of security takes many forms. The drivers were fluent in English and quite chatty. When one learned I was in Europe to race cars at Nurburgring he started calling me Uncle, together with suggestions that favorite nephews are usually accompany their relations on holiday.

There is a huge number of motorcycles in the city. 80% of the riders wear a helmet while the remainder ignores the law to do so. That’s not quite true as some wear them on their elbow or strapped to their backpack - so we will say 83% wear helmets. The Police are very visible on their motorcycles – 2 at a time / driver with pillion. The passenger cop seems to be continually yapping on the radio. When they stop someone for a chat, they both talk from opposite sides and inevitably 2 or 4 more cops will swing in with blue lights flashing to give them support. It’s common to see a cop not wearing a helmet and when they issue a ticket to a motorcyclist for being helmet-less its hilarious. I don’t speak Greek but I can follow the conversation quite easily.

When in Athens its compulsory to join a tour of the Acropolis – even if, like us, you have seen it previously in better times. Our guide was probably a cousin of our first taxi driver – with better communication skills. She still looked capable of a few rounds in the wrestling ring and none of her guests chanced a potentially misunderstood question. I resisted any attempt to make her laugh. However, her communication skills were tested to the extreme early in her repertoire when she told the joke … “Why did God make woman some time after man? The answer she offered, “Because he needed a practice run before achieving perfection”. Now, I’m not a sensitive type, but that’s surely sexist and I was offended that she was encroaching on my territory. I told her, “I do the sexist jokes – you stick to the propaganda”. (We are not friends and when she saw me 3 days later I was snubbed).

Athens and Greece generally, is a place which has so much for your guides to tell. They attempt to cram 5,000 years of greatness into a few hours but the result is too much information. One guide told us that Greece rose to greatness and success during both war and peace by being more intelligent that any other races. Then she paused to consider how the country recently became bankrupt, has the highest unemployment in Europe, the lowest savings and the greatest exodus of professional people in the world. Her confusion was evidence of an educated young lady who was starting to understand that intellect is not nearly as helpful as oil. There are enterprising Greeks who have attempted to reverse their financial plight. That’s why all the larger businesses scan your currency through a special machine before accepting it to pay for purchases.

Without realizing, we were in Athens on the 1st May – May Day throughout Europe. This is a public holiday – compounded in Greece by everyone who normally works on holidays being on strike. Fortunately we found a boat trip to 3 nearby islands run by people who understood that if they wish to become wealthy again they should continue to fleece the tourist at every opportunity. This turned out to be an excellent day. It started with our arrival at the boat during an enormous argument. Evidently 4 passengers believed they had a discount while the crew was of the opinion that nobody gets off lightly on May Day. The shouting and gesticulating was awesome. The disputing passengers attempted to leverage the argument in their direction by threatening to abandon the trip. The crew could see that may result in abandoning their bonus for working that day. As time for departure passed, more and more passengers entered the argument. I’m not sure if ‘hullabaloo’ is in the Greek vocabulary but we were certainly in the midst of a big one. Eventually the captain agreed to a compromise – one that involved free alcohol for the disgruntled for the day. That made other passengers question their own eligibility. By the time we departed the passengers, the crew and the captain were all highly agitated. The crew attempted to hoist anchor only to discover it was snagged on something below. After trying every option the captain furiously ordered the anchor to be cut loose. The end of the day was equally entertaining. Our bus driver back to the hotels was a very volatile character with an impressively descriptive and highly abusive vocabulary when in conflict with other drivers. The trip started badly when he became jammed in the carpark unable to maneuver his large vehicle around some parked cars. After much trying he enlisted the aid of 8 passengers and we simply lifted the 2 cars out of the way. With his dander well and truly up and being late for home, he abused every car that obstructed his progress. Often he lept out of the bus and ‘advised’ them at close quarters. Twice he left the bus to become a ‘points man’ when the traffic wasn’t flowing to his advantage. After each conflict the passengers gave him a rousing cheer – he was truly awesome. For an encore he decided to reverse up a busy 1 way street. Inspirational !!!

Observation of the Greek people, contemplation of their current financial plight and armed with new historical knowledge gave me cause to consider the rise and fall of many past great cultures and empires. The Romans, Hadrians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Ottomans, Moguls, Persians, Byzantines, Hittites etc all had one thing in common – like the Greeks, they all ate cheese made from Sheep and Goats milk. I’m claiming this as new researched evidence that explains the previous unexplainable. Do NOT eat Feta cheese if you want to be a long term winner.

Posted by Wheelspin 06:20 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

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