A Travellerspoint blog

A Greek Tragedy

Life in a small village in Samos island

Samos is one of the Eastern Aegean Sea islands. It is the greenest island of the group and its economy is based on olives, wine, fishing and, to a certain extent, tourism. For a small island it has a big history which includes, according to mythology, the goddess Hera being born there. Some of the best scientists and philosophers in ancient Greece originate from Samos including Pythagoras of Pythagora’s theorem, Aristarchus the first person to conclude that the earth revolved around the sun and Aesop of the famous fables. But my personal favorite is Epicurus who claimed that the principle of life is to satisfy the needs of the stomach and who’s advice the Samians have embraced wholeheartedly.

It was from this island that my partner’s family originated before they immigrated to Australia. He returned to the island many years later and discovered his mother’s family house abandoned. They rebuilt and now use it as a holiday home. The house has spectacular views over the town and port of Karvalossi and on a clear day Turkey can be seen in the distance (it’s 1 km across the water). The village where the house is located is a long steep walk up hill or, for those with a heart condition, a short drive. Locals in their 70’s put me to shame by bounding passed me as I gasp for breath and take numerous breaks to ‘admire the view’/have a drink of water/collect firewood (any excuse will do) before commencing my crawl upwards. If anyone is considering climbing Mount Everest this is the place to go into training.

The first time I arrived on the island and stayed in the house it was apparent that the place needed a good spring clean. It was to say the least a little grubby. The lounge rug had 5mm of hair covering it, cream curtains were grey, soft furnishings had unsavory stains on them, cupboards were dirty and the bath – well use your imagination. Apparently friends of the family often borrowed it and cleaning was obviously not on their agenda. So being a bit of a Hugh Hefner I cleaned the house from top to bottom and discovered by chance that the way to ingratiate yourself with the women of a traditional Greek village is to scrub the doorstep until it shines. Thanks to my cleaning frenzy I became the favorite foreigner out of all the visitors and ex-girlfriends that had stayed there over the years – because according to local lore the slobs hadn’t even whisked a duster around the place. The women showed their approval by often stopping to speak to me as I labored away, bringing gifts of lemons, homemade biscuits or whatever fruit was in season from their orchards. They spoke Greek and I had no idea what they were saying but we still managed to agree that it was about time the house was given a thorough scrub.

Since then whenever I visit the house the first thing I do is clean. First, because the local women love me for it and I get free food. Second, scorpions sometimes take up residence when the house has been empty for some time and it pays to flush them out before they sting anyone. They won’t kill you but it bloody well hurts. Third, other visitors who use the house still don’t do a good job of cleaning and tend to leave half used lotions, potions, broken toys and other rubbish lying around. On one occasion a friend of the family staying in the house before us left dirty stained sheets on the bed and a heap of sexual aids in the bedside cupboard including half used lubricating gels for anal sex. Next time I find anything of that nature I plan to send the offending articles back to the owner via the postal system. Hopefully he’ll some explaining to do to customs and excise when they open the package up.

Unfortunately, the elderly woman who lived next door to us in Samos must have been the exception to the rule when it came to village standards of hygiene. The husband was sick and bed bound, she was eccentric and their house was a health hazard. When the wind blew in our direction the smell of fish, cat crap, rancid food and unwashed flesh from next door wafted through the house. To pass the time of day she used to sit at the bedroom window which looked out onto the street below. This allowed her to keep her husband company and busy body the neighborhood at the same time. She had the voice of a fish wife so there was no need to walk downstairs to have a conversation with passing neighbours as she could shout her complaints and dislikes about others down to them.

Early one morning we heard the usual shouting from next door. But this time Vasos was calling out for my partner to come quickly. Braving infectious diseases he entered the squalor and found her with her husband who had passed away in the night. As he helped her organise funeral arrangements the family gathered outside the house, sat in the street sewing a shroud for the corpse and kept vigil over an empty coffin propped up outside the house. The coffin was not occupied because it had arrived before the funeral directors, who were late. Which was inconvenient for the street because as the day progressed a new smell added its unpleasant odors to the foul ones already emitting from the house. By evening there was still no sign of anyone from the funeral parlor so a DIY laying out of the corpse was carried out by some of the locals and my partner. Balancing the open coffin on their shoulders they walked precariously down the road to the local church where they left it over night – after putting the lid on of course. All a bit undignified really.

Not being Greek orthodox I had no idea what to expect when I was invited to the funeral. So I was a little apprehensive when the bells rang out calling family, friends and acquaintances to pay their last respects. The first surprise was that on entering the church we were given unlit candle tapers which we were expected to pay for. The second one was the sight of the corpse in an open coffin over which the widow was wailing very loudly. The ceremony commenced and as the smell of the body started to compete with the burning incense and the air thickened with cloying candle smoke I nearly passed out. Moving to a seat near the open door I recovered quickly which was fortunate because I would have missed the best part if I’d fainted. The brother-in-law staggered into the church so drunk that the grieving widow had to break off her wailing to find him a seat to slump in. Delving into a plastic carrier bag he produced a can of beer, cracked it open, drank it between bouts of sobbing then proceeded to fall asleep. As I was trying hard not to laugh two labourers wandered into the church disappeared into the interior and returned carrying a very large ladder. As they walked past the coffin and the now snoring relative to get to the door the candle sellers started to walk around the church, snuffed out the half used candles and collected them – presumably to resell. By this time I was spluttering into my hands trying unsuccessfully to contain myself. Finally it was over and as I emerged into the fresh air a piece of cake was shoved into my hand.

“What’s this for” I asked in a horrified tone, thinking there was no way I could swallow anything with the smell of the death still in my nostrils.
“It’s to sustain you on the walk up to the grave yard for the next part of the ceremony” my partner replied with a grin.

I looked down at my kitten heel shoes which were totally unsuitable for a hike and sighed. No one had told me that there was a second act.

Posted by travelhappiness 17:33 Archived in Greece Tagged people travel village life living humour abroad samos Comments (0)

Fiesta time and the blessing of the cars

Copacabana, Bolivia

Bolivia, land of dazzling salt plains, spectacular volcanic landscapes, dizzying breath defying heights and UNESCO world heritage sites. Here one can play the highest golf course known , bike down the deadliest road in the world, or eat delicious troucha (trout) whilst watching the sun set over the shores of Lake Titicaca in Copacabana.

We travelled from Peru to Bolivia and arrived in Copacabana late one afternoon. Taking time out to have a drink and something to eat, we became acquainted with the local drop out bar, it’s eccentric owner who dressed like a Bedouin and the resident green parrot who was eyeing up a patron’s plate of food. Silently sidling up the fence, the parrot crept up behind the diner who was totally oblivious to its presence. We were sat opposite and watched in fascination as the bird peered over her shoulder to check out what she was eating. Thinking we were laughing at her, she looked uncomfortable until we pointed out the green bobbing head playing peek-a-boo behind her.

After deciding which hostel to head for, we trudged up hill, past a market and church, climbed yet another hill, only to find it fully booked. The altitude was high, the air thin and the sun shining so walking with a backpack became an endurance test as we sought out
accommodation. Finding a half decent place we booked in. An interesting discussion ensued with the owner as to why we‘d only been given one towel between two people. They said - one room one towel, the audience said - stingy. No matter how intimate I may be with my roommate sharing towels is never a preferred option. Luckily I carry my own. It may be small and only cover about an eighth of my body but its light, super absorbent, dries quickly and comes in a fetching colour of muddy blue. I discovered a new novel use for the towel when I had a shower and received a shock from the taps. Naked, wet, cold, slightly stunned and wearing rubber flipflops, I eyes the thongs that had failed me. I had no idea how I was going to turn the water off without getting thrown forcefully out of the bathroom. Wrapping the towel around my hand I gingerly turned the tap - it worked a treat. The only problem was that the towel was now wet and I was back to sharing.

Later that night we heard music from the square and walked down to find Copacabana’s citizens ready to celebrate the mayor’s birthday and party big. After having their names called out and being summoned into the church to meet and greet the main man, they passed through fresh flower covered archways to the exit on the other side of the church. Free drink and food circulated as people settled into the seating provided around the square in anticipation of the main event. A variety of bands played to keep everyone entertained until the dancers and singers took their place for the main act. Everyone was having a great time and became extremely friendly, including us, as the local firewater circulated time and time again. After fireworks the disco started and we headed for home to get out of the biting cold and to recover in time for the blessing of the cars the next day.

Strange but true. Blessing of the cars takes place several days a week. Locals who’ve bought new cars deck them out in finery and take them along to the church. Here the priest will sprinkle holy water on the engine and intone a few prayers in exchange for a few Bolivian notes. A whole industry has sprung up around this ceremony. Market stalls line the outside of the church walls selling garlands, tinsel, fruit, dolls, banners, and all manner of other gaudy paraphernalia for proud car owners to trick their prized possession out in. It was interesting, somewhat bizarre, but if the rest of my travels in Bolivia were going to be as unique as my first few days, it was going to be an amazing journey. I would not be disappointed.

Posted by travelhappiness 17:22 Archived in Bolivia Tagged people parties cities travel humour journey Comments (0)

Help. My boyfriend's been kidnapped by an orangutan

One of the main reasons I chose to travel to Borneo and Sumatra was to see the orangutans – the only two places in the world where they live in the wild. It has been predicted that if something is not done soon these wonderful creatures will no longer exist in 60 years time. The sad fact is that mankind’s actions are pushing these animals towards extinction by the destruction of their habit or by poaching. Every day an area of forest, equivalent to six football fields, disappears and is turned into human settlements or used for agriculture.
In Sumatra we travelled to Bukit Lawang where we stayed for a few days. At the time the locals were still recovering from a freak tidal wave that killed many people. The residents thought it was a sign from god that they had become greedy and exploitive of both tourists and the orangutans. We arrived at a time when they were still repenting but the hard sell was beginning to ramp up again so I guess by now it will be business as usual.

We signed up for a trip, got up early the next day and headed off with our group and guide. First we visited the rehabilitation centre before heading into the jungle. It was a tough gig, steaming heat, scrabbling up and down hills, climbing root systems and trekking with no apparent path. A couple of hours into the walk we broke for a drink. The guide talked about the rehabilitation programme and the animals that had been released. Many of the baby orangutans had been rescued from poachers who had shot their mothers and sold them as pets. Because these animals were so used to being with humans it was difficult to rehabilitate them completely. Jackie was a case in instance. We were warned that she had been known to come down from the trees when she heard human voices and attach herself to someone because she wanted a cuddle.

“ In the unlikely event that she’s in this area and she makes a move for you don’t runaway and don’t resist, she won’t hurt you but orangutans have nasty bite if they get pissed off” the guide said.

About an hour later we got lucky and saw two female juveniles checking us out from the trees above. Wandering a short distance away from the rest of the crowd I looked up and saw a large orangutan laying along a tree branch looking down at me thoughtfully. My partner came up to see what I was staring at and started to dig around in his backpack for a camera. Without taking her eyes off us she quickly climbed down the tree. I had bad feeling and in the tradition of all good cowards hid behind my strong, brave partner who I could rely on to protect me (yeah right). The guide spotting what was about to happen started to call out instructions as he ran through the trees towards us. But Jackie beat him to it, grabbed my partner by the hand and started to pull him off into the undergrowth. He was told to throw his bag to one of the guides who thought that this was what she was after. It wasn’t and giving the guide a look of disgust she continued to walk away dragging her captive behind her.

“Oh look you’ve lost your boyfriend to another women” the guide said as we pursued the couple through the dense jungle.

“Must be the hairy arms that she’s attracted to” I called back trying to video record and run at the same time .

Finally Jackie stopped and sat down on a fallen log then wrapped her arm around her new friend’s neck. He tried to tentatively pulled away but to no avail - this babe was a strong and was not taking no for an answer.

“Talk to her” the guide encouraged “don’t try to pull away it might upset her”.

“You know I can’t climb the tree after you” said my partner as Jackie looked upwards. With a chat up line like that I’d of taken off like a shot but she stayed put.

Ten minutes later having tried all sorts of distractions, bar food, to encourage Jackie to let go we were all hot, sweaty, and bored, whilst my partner was looking a bit squashed. Suddenly Jackie decided she’d had enough of us all gawking at her, needed some down time alone with her new playmate and walked off with him in tow. Once again we played follow my leader through the jungle until one idiot, oops sorry a fellow traveller, decided that he wanted to play and held out his hand for Jackie to take. She accepted letting go of my partner at the same time.

Hunkering down with her new man another ten minutes passed. The guide, resigned to the fact tha the only way to get her to relinquish her hold was to bribe her with our lunch, started fishing around in his rucksack for banana. At that point a male orangutan turned up to see what all the fuss was about. Jackie took fright and headed up the nearest tree – problem solved.

Before we left for the trek we had been told not to touch the animals and rightly so because they are susceptible to human germs and have no resistance. But let’s face it if you were confronted by a 6 foot high female orangutan, weighing more than 20 stone with the strength of an elephant who wanted a cuddle and was determined to get it, would you say no?

In Malaysian Borneo it is possible to see orangutans in Semeggoh rehabilitation centre. This used to be a main tourist attraction and although the animals still come to feed the rehabilitation of the orangutans has now switched to Matang wild life centre in Kubah National Park. We actually went to Semeggoh and saw a huge male and a couple of females but the best was when the tourist buses and cars departed and we walked through the conservation area to catch a bus back to Kuching. As we passed some workmen having their lunch there was a rustling in the trees and a mother orangutan and her baby appeared. She fancied a snack too and although the workmen retreated to a safe distance she hung around for ages and played with her baby – it was amazing. A friend says the Sepilok rehabilitation centre is also excellent or taking a trip down the river and staying in the mangroves/jungle is another good way to spot wild orangutans. In Sumatra, orangutans can be found in the North of the island, some in the wild and some in conservation areas such as Bukit Lawang and Gung Leuser National Park. Without getting too officious it is important to remember that if you are going on a trip to look for orangutans make sure that you go with trained, approved guides – less scrupulous ones will encourage the animals down from the trees with food. First this does nothing to help them become independent and second they become trusting and therefore easy prey for poachers.

Posted by travelhappiness 16:57 Archived in Indonesia Tagged travel treks humour sumatra orangtan Comments (0)

Happy to Service You

When I travel I love to read signs and menus in that have been printed in the English language. They often are a veritable feast of mispronunciation and inadvertent innuendoes. My most recent find was in Hanoi Vietnam. A shop had "please cock here" pasted to its window. I think they meant please stop here and look at our merchandise but one can never be too sure. Other gems I have come across include "happy to service you", "chessburger, seebuger", "Creepes" (crepes - to my delight it was halloween, I was in Bolivia so presume no pun was intended). Today I found a "humburger". It certainly puts a whole new spin on entertainment while you eat and I look forward to ordering a whistling hotdog and a singing sandwich.

Not all errors are delightful though. Hanoi restaurants seem to be particularly masterful at using incorrect English to sell substandard food. On our first night unbeknown to us we fell into such an establishment. We listened to a guy ordering his dinner in an exasperated tone. He was extremely specific about what he wanted and called the chef over to make sure he had been understood. Pumpkin soup, vegetables on the side - not in the bowl, no chillies, no salt or pepper and could the waitress spoon feed him as well? No please or thank you - just a fuck off and get on with it attitude. My partner and I made faces at each other, commented on the ignorant behaviour, generally put him down and smugly agreed that we would never behave like that. When his dinner came there were no vegetables just a small side salad and the soup had chicken in it. He didn't handle it well. We ordered and this is what we discovered.

Vegetables = salad = one piece of lettuce and 2 slices of tomato. If you choose mash potatoes over the chips, chips will be served anyway. You will be overcharged for a scant meal when you were expecting - according to the menu - "a feast". The next day we ate somewhere else. Again we learned something new. Pork chop in sweet and sour sauce actually means pork rib bones with a bit of gristle on them. Sweet and sour sauce = hot chilli sauce. Mash potatoes still means chips. I began to empathise with Mr fustrated, he'd probably been in Hanoi for a while and had lost all patience. I decided to follow his shining example and complain - the meal after all was not cheap. There followed a heated conversation with the waitress and owner. Gesturing at different body parts for emphasis I debated the difference between ribs and chops. But they insisted that the ribs- all five one inch long bits of bone and gristle - were in fact a chop. I began to believe that it was genuine language mistake and feeling bad for making a fuss, paid the bill and left.

At breakfast the next day, having ordered eggs, bacon and toast and received in return an egg and processed ham sandwich, the conversation over the table turned to food experiences in Hanoi. Someone mentioned that they had the same rib/chop saga a few days earlier than mine. I had been conned. In future I will send anything back that does not match the description in the menu. Silent humbugers, chess burgers that don't make a move or creepes that fail to frighten me will all be returned to the kitchen and if staff really are "happy to service" me there will be no problem.

Posted by travelhappiness 16:49 Archived in Vietnam Tagged food travel humour spelling mistakes menus Comments (0)

The most Dangerous Road in the World

La Paz, capital of Bolivia is the place to go if you are a thrill junkie. Here you can eat the hottest curry in town, play Russian roulette with prison by frequenting secret coke parties, tackle the highest golf course in the world or play with death by hurtling down the world’s most dangerous road on two wheels. The prize for surviving the curry and the road are tee shirts emblazoned with a logo proclaiming how brave the wearer has been. I am not a thrill seeker and have a fear of heights so I was relieved to hear that the death road had been closed to 4 wheel vehicles and replaced by a new, wider, safer one.

Being unable to cope with heights is a pain; in the past I tried to conquer my phobia thinking I may outgrow it. For example:-
St Paul’s Cathedral in England, the whispering gallery. I ended up on the floor, pressed tightly to the wall and had to be talked down by my mother and sister.

A ski lift carriage in Austria. It broke down and had to be hand winched into safety. I ended up on the floor, whimpering whilst the rest of the passengers looked on pityingly.

The Eiffel Tower, Paris. My legs gave way and I was helped/carried into a glass bottomed lift then lost sensation in the rest of my body when I looked down.

The tree walk in Victoria, Australia. I body glued myself to the central post and bonded with fellow phobics.

It didn’t work and I still can’t climb a regular sized ladder without feeling dizzy. So I passed on a trip down the death road which starts at 15,500 ft altitude. Where there are drops of over 1,000 meters on a mainly unpaved 2.5 meter wide road with no barriers and where the death rate in one year was 320 people.

However, at the end of the road is a lovely village called Coroico. I was informed that it was possible to take a boat from here and travel downstream for a few days and finally end up in Rurrenabaque (the starting point for trips down the Amazon Basin). I caught a regular bus which travelled down the new safer road to Coroico and congratulated myself on bypassing the dangerous one.
On arrival I was informed that the boat did not leave until Saturday. As it was Tuesday and not having the luxury of time I bought an ongoing bus ticket for the next day. What I didn’t know was that the route out of Coroico was a continuation of death road. Thinking the views would be good I sat on the window/sheer drop/oh my god where has the road gone/shit the wheel just spun out into thin air side of the bus. Other travellers proclaimed in glee that it was better than the bike ride and grinned inanely as we lurched around blind corners, inched passed oncoming traffic, listed out into the void and hung out of windows taking pictures of the breathtaking but stomach churning sheer drops. At one point I looked down and seeing no road just thin air threw myself sideways across the bus and grabbed a sleeping man’s leg for stability – I gave him a nasty shock for sure. I swapped seats. Then it rained which raised the stakes a bit higher. We slide and slew downwards for at least 2 – 3 hours in which time even the most fearless went pale and quiet. Determined not to fall asleep thus increasing my chances of survival if the bus hurtled over the edge of the precipice (self delusion had set in by this time) I silently screamed until we reached the river bridge at the bottom of the pass.
So readers if you are ever La Paz, want to go to the Amazon Basin and have nerves of steel and a death wish, go for it, the views are stunning. If that doesn’t scare you silly, then do it all again in reverse back to the capital. If you’re chicken like me - take a plane. The views are still amazing and you will actually see them because your eyes won’t refuse to open. Needless to say that after my trip down the Amazon I caught a plane back.

Posted by travelhappiness 16:38 Archived in Bolivia Tagged travel bus of humour journey heights fear thrill seeking Comments (0)

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