"The Hurt Locker": Too Many Choices

We watched “The Hurt Locker” last week and with all the harrowing suspense scenes, the scene that resonated most for me was the “cereal aisle” scene towards the end of the movie. It's a scene that a traveler just back from a long trip can relate to. Sergeant First Class William James is back from his Iraq bomb squad tour of duty and he’s trying to cope with normality back home. His wife Connie asks him “Do you wanna get some cereal and I’ll meet you at the checkout stand?” Her patient smile tells us that William’s re-entry has been just as much of a challenge for her as it has been for him. William says “Okay, cereal,” and walks a few paces and says “Where…?” then keeps walking. We cut to William standing in the cereal aisle looking at the myriad of choices in front of him. I paused the frame and counted seven different types of Cheerios/Toasted Oats varieties alone.

(For the record: Multi-Grain Cheerios, Honey-Nut Cheerios, Toasted O’s, Whole Grain Cheerios, Cheerios, Honey Nut Toasted O’s and Apple Cinnamon Cheerios)

I loved the image of a macho bomb squad dude who thrives on pressure and adrenaline, who always knows what to do, yet is completely befuddled by the most mundane scenario imaginable. My wife and I had a similar feeling when we were in Los Angeles over the New Year’s holiday after having been in South America for 6 months. While I’m in no way comparing traveling in South America to being on a tour of duty in Iraq, there are similarities. Being in a completely foreign environment for an extended time provides you with “instant perspective” upon your return, a perspective that is quickly dulled the longer you are there. I’m sure that if William had stayed in suburbia long enough, he’d start seeing the plethora of options in the cereal aisle as normal.

While traveling through South America, one is not confronted with an array of choices that we have in the United States. In restaurants, there is the menú, the set meal of the day that everyone orders and usually all they have to drink is Coke or Sprite. In the supermarkets there is some variety in the produce, grain and meat sections, but there are usually one or two brands of tea, jam, beer, yogurt, milk, bread and yes, breakfast cereal.

With our week in Los Angeles, we had a long shopping list of things to buy: swim suits, hiking sandals, a new laptop-friendly backpack, safari shirts, mosquito repellent, quality sunscreen and many other things that were hard to find in South America. After a few days of shopping we were completely bewildered: we had too many options. There were always dozens of choices and the time needed to weigh the pros and cons of those options was considerable. I think it was shopping for food in a Marina Del Rey supermarket when we realized that we’d had enough. A dozen types of bagged salad, hundreds of wine brands, two dozen brands of artisan breads…ugh. This is the experience that flashes in my mind when I watch William in “The Hurt Locker.”

In the end, William prefers the shrapnel waiting inside a bomb to the processed corn shrapnel inside the cereal boxes; he signs up for another tour of duty. Even though we only had a week in Los Angeles, we were ready to continue our tour of duty.


Welcome To Athens: Where's Your Wallet?

First impressions can be lasting and for Athens’ sake let’s hope not. After taking a long bus ride from northern Greece we hopped on the Athens metro to get to our apartment where we planned to stay for a week. At our final metro stop we alighted and stood in front of a street map with quizzical looks and our mouths open…a gesture that instantly branded us as tourists. After about 15 minutes of reconnoitering our position, we headed up the escalator confident that we had an idea of where we going. While on the escalator, three young men stood very close to me, which I thought was odd but quickly forgot. We started walking on the street and reached a narrow, crowded pathway and I once again saw the same three guys, this time standing very close to my wife. I quickly called out to my wife, “Stop right there…wait for me,” which allowed the three men to pass. They continued walking, turned right and headed into a different metro entrance. As we continued walking, I looked back and saw them watching us – a family of four with about ten bags clearly not knowing where we were going…in other words, a target. I made eye contact with one of them and he smiled at me and returned to the metro as if to say, “I didn’t get you, but I’ll get someone else.”

After our adventure with our Athenian greeting party, we settled in to our spacious apartment. My wife has a genius for finding great apartments whenever we are staying somewhere more than a couple of days; this one was found on Athens is fairly expensive so having lots of space with a kitchen, washing machine and DVD player is a travel luxury for us. The next morning we went on a walking tour of Athens and started out in the National Gardens. While looking at the Roman ruins, which were discovered while digging the metro station in preparation for the 2002 Olympics, my daughter found a purse in the bushes. Clearly, the purse had been pinched, money and credit cards taken out, and had been tossed aside. We held on the wallet and continued our tour, hoping to run into a policeman or police station. We finished our tour without seeing either and spend another hour walking around looking for a police station. We were starting to wonder whether Athens was a safe place or not. We got back to the safety of our apartment and watched a movie that night.

The next morning we went to visit the Acropolis and the Parthenon. We had brought sandwiches and we stopped at the Beule Gate to have a picnic lunch. We found a stone bench in the warm sunshine that was out of the wind and sat down to eat. While there my son found a wallet under our seat. Same story: no cash or credit cards and dumped somewhere after it was stolen.

Yes, it was a first impression – okay, a strong first impression – but we did not let it disturb our enjoyment of Athens. We enjoyed all of the Acropolis, had a fine meal in a local restaurant in the Plaka and loved seeing the gold death mask of Agamemnon in the National Archaeological Museum. The changing of the guard at the unknown soldier tomb was interesting, my wife and daughter really enjoyed the Sunday flea market in the Plaka and we walked what felt like the entire city without further incident. Most importantly, we left the city with our wallets.


Where Are The Spartans?

Prior to visiting Sparta, we had viewed “300,” the animated movie about the 480 BCE battle of Thermopylae, the clash between the Spartan-led, Greek city-state alliance and the Persian Empire. While the Spartans lost this battle and almost every warrior in it, their heroic last stand inspired their allies, the Athenians, to drive out the Persians and prevent them from conquering Greece. The film does a good job of capturing the Spartan ideals of discipline, austerity and honor as well as detailing historic events. As we drove to Sparta we felt our kids had a good foundation for learning more about this important culture. When we arrived in town, however, we looked around and asked ourselves: Where are the Spartans?

Where we expected to see ruined castles and fortresses we saw quite a few multi-story apartment buildings lining the town’s modern streets. Where we thought we’d see serious, athletically-proportioned citizens purposefully marching to some important task, we saw smiling youngsters hanging out in trendy cafes. There was a clear disconnect between the modern town we were seeing and its illustrious reputation. The only reminders of Sparta’s glorious past were the King Leonidas statue in front of the soccer stadium and the unimpressive ruins of Ancient Sparta behind that stadium. It was almost as if Sparta wanted to forget its militaristic past. Completely unimpressed, we decided to skip boring Sparta and stay in Mystras, the ancient Byzantine capital about 5 miles away.

The Spartans were conservative, xenophobic and a little strange. Spartan obligations to the state overrode any duty to self or to family. Spartan nurses taught babies to not be afraid of the dark, to not cry or scream and to not throw tantrums. From the age of six, boys were removed from their homes and subjected to a tough state-sponsored education that instilled obedience, discipline and resourcefulness. By sixteen they were part of a secret police force, by twenty they began military service and by thirty they were full citizens. It’s clear that self-actualization was not a Spartan value. The austerity of their lifestyle gives us our word "Spartan." The Spartans also had a reputation for extreme economy in the use of language, and the term "laconic" derives from the Spartan aversion to long speeches. (Lakonia is the region surrounding Sparta) In the hands of the Spartans, however, brevity could be put to good effect. When Philip II of Macedon sent the Spartans a letter threatening to “raze Sparta if he captured the city,” the Spartans’ letter allegedly returned with the one word reply: "If"

The next morning we toured Byzantine Mystras and afterwards took a drive up to the Langada Pass. The beautiful pass is between Sparta and Kalamata and cuts through the spectacular Langada Gorge, the place where Spartans left babies who were too weak or deformed to make the cut as Spartan warriors. The gorge was beautiful and at several points in the winding road, dramatic tunnels and rock overhangs were cut into the granite and limestone. We saw some rock climbers with technical gear but no abandoned babies left in the wilderness. That night, we went back to Sparta to have dinner. We found a small diner, sat down, ordered four souvlaki gyros and looked around us. At the table next to us a pack of teenage boys slouched in their chairs and sat around with bored expressions. 2,500 years ago these kids would be members of the secret police force, with impending military service on their minds. The only thing on the minds of these kids that evening was winning the attention of the young waitress serving them. It made us again wonder: where are the Spartans?


Skype: Indispensible Travel Tool

Skype was a name that I’d heard a lot prior to our trip but I’d never had any direct experience with it. While exchanging emails with a potential NGO employer a year and a half ago, my contact suggested we Skype each other to conduct our interview, adding that all I had to do was download the free software and we could call from one hemisphere to the other for free. I gave it a try and we had a crystal-clear phone call interview that lasted 45 minutes without any interference or static. I was sold.

As we got further into planning our trip, one of my biggest worries was my Mom. I ‘m her only child and she’s in her mid-70’s and we are the only family that she has. I talked her into upgrading her computer and helped her get a high-speed DSL connection and then signed her up for Skype. A few weeks into our trip, it became clear that Skype was a godsend; we were able to have video calls with her every couple days, she could see and talk to her grandkids and she felt “connected” to us in a way that was not possible without Skype.

Skype also allowed us to occasionally see our dog, which was being cared for my sister- and brother-in-law in Los Angeles. My wife and her sister would start the Skype call, covering the latest news and then at some point my sister would say, “Would you like to see Nacho?” At this point the kids would howl “Ooohhhhhh!” and we’d all crowd around the computer screen and talk to our dog. Nacho would wag his tail and wonder where the strangely familiar sounds were coming from as my wife and kids would say “It’s a puppy!” or “It’s a wee-bitty-bit-of-a-Natch!” in high voices. We also had a few “Wine over Skype” evenings with family friends along the way. We’d schedule a time for a call, pull up some chairs to the computer and open a bottle of wine. These calls started out fun, but a four-way video call on Skype can be difficult. Anytime two of the four people would talk at the same time, no one could understand what was said.

Along the way, we’ve noticed that Skype is not a well kept secret. Many internet cafes, advertise their ability to host Skype calls. While checking my email in such a café in Baños, Ecuador, an Irishman next to me was calling his family on Skype. His voice was loud and I couldn’t help but listen to him as he explained to his father why and how he spent the night in a Panamanian jail: “Well geez Da…I really thought it was the guy who pinched me camera. After I punched him, I said I was real sorry.”

Just when we thought our Skype experience couldn’t get better, we learned that it had a feature buried within its VOIP functionality that we really needed: U.S. toll-free dialing from abroad. Traveling through many overseas countries means that from time to time, we have to make calls to U.S. credit card companies, banks and airlines. These companies have toll-free 800 numbers and they all have their own convoluted process that promise free international access to them, but in our experience they never work and we end up paying for the “free” phone call. In Dahab, Egypt my wife made several trips to the internet café in order to make a bank wire transfer. In Istanbul she had to march across town to call our credit card company to reassure them that it was us going on a shopping spree in Turkey. In Athens, many Euros were lost trying to make a change to our flight itinerary with It was in Athens that she discovered that we could just dial the number in Skype for free. No hunting for an internet café, no costs and we could make the calls from the comfort of our hotel room. Even my son got in the act. With the Skype iPhone app loaded onto his iPod Touch, he paced our hotel room a few weeks back and called Apple’s toll-free customer service number to follow up on a problem.

We’ve yet to explore the Skype services that actually cost money, but we’ve been extremely happy with the free ones. In our experience, Skype has been an indispensible travel tool.


Miguel Andrango: Backstrap Challenge

As published in Hand/Eye Magazine on January 31, 2010

Miguel Andrango foresees a rocky future for backstrap weaving in Ecuador

On the surface, the remarkable success of Otavalo's craftsmen and musicians is a blueprint for indigenous people everywhere. Ecuadorean Otavalenos have become the wealthiest and most commercially successful indigenas in the Andes. Land Rovers, overseas clients, brand new houses and Otavaleno expats living in New York, Milan, Barcelona and Tokyo are visible manifestations of that wealth. Miguel Andrango has seen much of it happen during the 33 years his Tahuatinsuyo Workshop has been supporting traditional weaving. But just like Miguel's intricate two-sided backstrap weavings, there is a story underneath.

At the Tahuantinsuyo Weaving Workshop, in the small hamlet of Agato which overlooks nearby Otavalo, Miguel sits on a woven reed mat and eases into his backstrap loom. Miguel is a master at creating double-faced weavings using complementary-warp pick-up and multiple heddle techniques. "To be a backstrap weaver you need a lot of patience," Miguel says, as he places the shuttle over and under alternating warps to create the waves in a lake motif. He is working on a traditional Inca manta with a central geometric design, flanked by ojos de dios ("eyes of god") and wave designs, which symbolize the tranquility of the nearby Andean lakes. Just to run the shuttle through each of the warps, it takes him about three minutes. "For example, a well done, hand-made poncho takes about a month to produce," says Miguel. He and others in his workshop are part of an ever-decreasing number of backstrap weavers in Otavalo who still make woven goods by hand using natural dyes and fibers. Most of the commercially-successful Otavalenos now use mechanized looms and export most of their product to clients in North America and Europe. These businesses can crank out two or three lesser-quality ponchos per day at prices of less than half of what a high-quality, hand-made poncho will bring. As the economics of this proposition suggest, the future is uncertain for traditional weavers.

While Miguel works at the loom, his daughter Luz Maria and his brother Manuel explain and demonstrate how the sheep wool is cleaned, spun, carded and dyed. Luz Maria handles a leaf of penco cactus and explains how it is chopped and pulped to make the mild soap that cleans the sheep wool. Manuel demonstrates the carding of the wool using flat, wood card-combs with metal teeth. He then holds up a much older one with twelve dried thistle heads framed to form a two-sided comb, a reminder that this process has been around a very long time. Luz Maria then sits down and carefully spins and pulls thread onto a spindle from a lump of cleaned and carded cotton. Miguel walks over and displays a basket full of natural dyes -- walnuts for brown, lichen for yellow, cochineal insects for various shades of red -- and then holds up a small wooden basin for dyeing that has been in his family for several generations.

For hundreds of years Otavalo, a two hour drive north of Quito, has been the site of one of the most well-known markets in South America, and in the past 20-30 years it has changed markedly. Two decades ago, most of products in the Plaza de Los Ponchos market were hand-made and young men proudly walked around in their traditional costumes: fedoras, blue wool ponchos, white pants and sandals. Today over 90% of the textiles at the market are machine-loomed using synthetic dyes and materials and the young men are wearing Hollister hoodies and Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts. "The changes have been good and bad," says Miguel. "A little more bad than good," interjects his brother Manuel. Miguel continues, "The young ones don't wear the traditional clothes and they don't want to eat traditional foods. Instead of taking the time to prepare the flour and corn and make tortillas (savory or sweet corn pan cakes) they want fast food, like hamburgers and hot dogs. They are too impatient."

While in many ways Otavalo is a success story for indigenous artisans, not everyone has tasted success. "Many weavers can't afford a permit to sell at the market and it is very difficult to get a visa to go overseas to the U.S. or Europe to sell," says Miguel. Perhaps larger than these impediments, the international market is telling Otavalo that they prefer the cheaper, machine-loomed goods. "I'd like to start a museum and textile center here in Otavalo to educate the public, but it is difficult to get the money." Other Andean weaving communities, notably Nilda Callanaupa's Centro de Textiles Traditionales de Cusco in Peru, have had success supporting weavers to get fair prices, getting young people involved and getting buyers to appreciate and pay more for hand-woven textiles. The question remains whether the commercial success of the Otavalenos has dampened the desire to start such a center here. Facing a mountain of mass produced, machine-loomed products, Miguel Andrango and his Tahuantinsuyo Weaving Workshop continue to weave beautiful handmade textiles one piece at a time.

Miguel Andrango's products can be purchased at the Tahuantinsuyo Weaving Workshop on the main street in Agato and from the store at the nearby Hacienda Cusin hotel.


Heinrich Schliemann: Genius Or Fraud?

He made a fortune in the California gold rush and dined with the President. He traveled the world extensively and was conversant in 13 languages. He increased his wealth by cornering the Russian market for indigo in the 1860’s. Based on his reading of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, he found the ruins of Troy and the site of the Trojan War. Based on those same readings, he later uncovered copious treasure at the ancient Greek city of Mycenae and personally unearthed the gold “Death Mask of Agamemnon.” German-born Heinrich Schliemann accomplished a lot in his colorful and eventful life but he had his share of detractors.

To be primarily responsible for the unearthing of a World Heritage Site is pretty special and to have two attached to your name is almost unprecedented. Both Troy and Mycenae were key city-states in the Trojan War and both ruins are on UNESCO’s list. (Jean-Louis Burckhardt stumbled upon two World Heritage Sites: Abu Simbel in Egypt and Petra in Jordan - see earlier blog entry here) Schliemann was born in Germany in 1822 and had a pretty uneventful childhood. His luck changed in 1850 when he left for California to become a buyer and seller of gold dust. While in the U.S. he made a fortune and in his memoirs he claimed to have dinner with then-President Millard Fillmore. His doubters say that the Presidential records don’t show any such meeting and neither do the newspapers. They also say that he left California abruptly under a cloud of suspicion.

He left California in 1852 and arrived in Russia and married Ekaterina Lyschin and began to invest in the Russian indigo market which he was able to control, thereby increasing his already considerable wealth. He expanded his fortune further as an ammunition component contractor to the Russians during the Crimean War. After three children with Ekaterina, he divorced her and married Sophie Engastromenos. In 1868, based on his reading of the Iliad and the ongoing work of a British archaeologist Joseph Calvert, Schliemann decided that the Hisarlik site in Turkey was the site of Ancient Troy. He worked with Calvert to begin excavations and over two separate campaigns uncovered much of the Troy written about by Homer as well as other cities built both over and under it. No one doubts his role in unearthing ancient Troy (or his language fluency, for that matter) but detractors point out that he absconded with many artifacts and one account details that some of the treasures were found adorning the garden at his home. He was constantly battling Greek and Turkish authorities over possession of the historical artifacts that he was finding. Perhaps the biggest knock on Schliemann was that his archaeological methods left much to be desired. When we toured the Troy site a few weeks ago, I overheard a tour guide take pains to point out a large chunk of the site allegedly dug out by Schliemann and said, “Unfortunately, we have lost everything here because of Schliemann’s ‘amateurish’ methods.” At ancient Mycenae, the site was well known but Schliemann found 19 graves and a treasure trove of gold and silver objects, including the aforementioned Death Mask. Skeptics think that he may have manipulated both the mask and the location of the find to suit his theories about Mycenae.

Despite Schliemann’s methods there is now little doubt that the sites of Troy and Mycenae, as depicted in Homer’s books, are real places and not imaginary settings for historical epic poems. He was not the most ethical or professional archaeologist but he may have been the luckiest. Say what you will about him, but before Heinrich Schliemann the Trojan War was just a nice piece of fiction about some dudes fighting over a pretty girl.


The Last Fez In Cairo

As printed in Hand/Eye magazine on April 8th, 2010

Mohammed Al-Tarbishi is a man of his word.

Before his father died, he made a promise to carry on the family business started by his grandfather over a hundred years ago. The business of the family is the fez, or as it’s called in Egypt, the tarbouche. Buried deep within Cairo’s frenetic, market alleys just off the famous Khan al-Khalili bazaar, the small Al-Tarbishi storefront factory continues to handcraft the iconic tarbouche. While attitudes in Egypt towards the tarbouche have changed dramatically in the past couple hundred years, time stands still in the Al-Tarbishi factory, the last remaining fez maker in Cairo and indeed all of Egypt.

The tarbouche is the familiar-looking, truncated cone hat made of red felt that is topped with a black tassel. Its origins are somewhat of a mystery but its rise to prominence started during the Ottoman Empire in 1826, when the sultan Mahmud II decreed that all males should wear the hat. At that time, the tarbouche symbolized Ottoman modernity and the brimless hat was perfect for Muslims when they pressed their forehead to the ground for daily prayers. In 19th century Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha mandated the tarbouche as required headgear for Egyptian males. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, most men in Morocco, Egypt, Turkey and Syria proudly wore a fez or tarbouche.

Its decline began in 1925 in Turkey, when Mustafa Kemal Attaturk outlawed the fez in his successful efforts to make Turkey a more modern and secular country. Egypt followed suit in the post-revolution 1950’s. “Before the 1952 revolution the tarbouche business was much bigger,” says Mohammed. Indeed, hardly anyone wears the tarbouche in Egypt these days and the al-Tarbishi business is a fraction of what it was prior to the 1952 Egyptian revolution. Mohammed’s principal livelihood is as an engineering consultant, but he continues to keep the factory going and he looks in on it a few days a week. He apprenticed in the shop while in school and university from the time he was 15 to the time he was 27. While his grandfather started the business and he and his father have carried it on, the future is uncertain. “My son doesn’t want to continue the business. When I retire…,” and he leaves off with a shrug and rueful smile.

Mohammed walks over and displays the raw materials, which are now all made in Egypt, but during the business’ heyday were imported: felt for the outer surface of the cap (previously from Austria and Czechoslovakia), woven straw for the interior padding (previously from Greece), leather for the interior headband (previously from Belgium) and silk for the black tassel (previously from Lebanon).

He continues over to the waga, the large tarbouche press that takes up almost a quarter of his dusty thirty-five by fifteen foot storefront factory. The waga looks like an oversized brass stovetop upon which rest three large hand-tightened presses. Each press has a large handle on top that hand-cranks pressure downward onto the forms – which in turn resemble two upside-down, brass pails that nest on top on one another. With heads coming in all sizes, the factory needs to keep quite a few sizes of brass molds on hand. One of his workers, Ramadan, works at the waga heating the molds that shape both the inner straw padding and outer felt surface of the hat. The inner form is hollow and Ramadan heats it on the waga’s stovetop. “The mold is heated to 90 degrees (Celsius) and there is no thermometer on the waga,” says Mohammed. As he says this, Ramadan gauges the heat by licking his fingers and briefly touching the waga. He does this a couple times until he is satisfied that he’s got the right temperature. “If the temperature is more than 90 degrees,” says Mohammed, “the felt will burn. He knows what he’s doing; he’s been doing it for 40 years.” Once the inner straw and outer felt are formed they are allowed to cool and are sewn together with the antiquated Singer sewing machine next to the waga. The waga is so old that the manufacturer died 50 years ago, leaving Mohammed and his staff to improvise repairs on the ancient machine. The waga sits on a track so that the press can be partially rolled outside when it gets too hot.

“It takes about three hours to make one tarbouche,” offers Mohammed. “If I sell one hat to a tourist it will cost one hundred Egyptian pounds (about $18) but these days we only sell a couple per month. Before the revolution we sold many, many times that amount each month,” he says. With demand for the tarbouche down to a trickle, it is only orders for similar-looking religious caps from nearby Cairo schools that keep the business afloat. “There are a few workshops that sell to tourists in Cairo, but we are the last factory.” When Mohammed al-Tarbishi retires, a long Egyptian tradition may retire with him.

You can buy a tarbouche from Mr. al-Tarbishi at his storefront factory on 36 Alghoria Street, which runs between Khan al-Khalili bazaar and the Bab Zuweila citadel.


Easter Week In Santorini

It was a good idea that my wife made our hotel and ferry reservations for Santorini a few months prior. On its own, Santorini is a popular destination but add the Greek Orthodox Church's most popular holiday of Easter, the synchronous celebration this year with Roman Catholic Easter and toss in Spring Break for good measure and you have a crowded island -- a crowded island that used to be much bigger. (Santorini is an island community that sits perched on the rim of a blown-out and submerged volcanic caldera. The white towns with their connecting sugar-cube houses sit on the steep edge of the crater and look down at the azure blue Mediterranean Sea. Geologists estimate the eruption around 1630 BC and describe it as one of the largest earthquakes ever, similar in scale and magnitude to the 1883 Krakatau volcanic eruption.)

Pyrgos on Good Friday
The Holy week festivities started on Holy Thursday when the tsoureki bread is baked and the hard-boiled Easter eggs are dyed red – symbolic of the blood of Christ. We spend the day touring two beaches: a red-rock beach sprinkled with white pumice stones and a pebbly black beach. When we got back to our hotel, the wife of the proprietor knocked on our door with some red-dyed eggs and some sweets. We learned later that the Greeks have a tradition that is similar to the American tradition of the Thanksgiving turkey wishbone; they knock the red eggs against each other and the one holding the un-cracked egg is supposed to have good luck.

Holy Friday is the day that the church's priest takes down the Christ icon from the cross and wraps it in linen, reenacting ancient burial rituals. The icon is then placed in a casket surrounded by white lilies, and paraded through the town as worshipers lament the death of Christ. While many people refrain from meat on this day, we could not resist the pork and chicken gyros at the local take out restaurant on the main square in Fira. After eating, we went to Pyrgos, a pretty hill town about a 10 minute drive from Fira. We climbed up through the maze-like town to reach the church on top of the hill and gathered with a few hundred Santorians dressed in their somber Sunday best. After the mass, the action began. Scores of teenage boys with blow torches started lighting the candles that sat on every wall and rooftop of the village. The candles were coffee cans with filled with citronella wax and wood shavings and the boys did their work quickly. Within a half hour, the entire village was adorned with thousands of these lit candles, an incredible sight that we’d not seen anywhere else in the world. After spending some time milling about the town and admiring the view, we climbed down and got some hot tea to warm up. Afterwards we walked back to our car and turned around to see the entire town glimmering in the distance, as if on fire. The town was even visible from our hotel in Fira.

Greek Easter eggs
The next morning, Holy Saturday, my wife was reading a description of that night’s festivities. She described the late night mass and the special mayiritsa soup, a “traditional soup composed of…” and her voice trailed off after that. The kids were distracted but I knew that meant there was something in the soup that might make someone think twice about trying it. I decided to wait until after I tasted it to ask about the ingredients. Late that night we milled about in front of the church during the mass. At midnight, the priest called out Christos Anesti! (“Christ has risen”) and others responded Alithos Anesti (“Surely he has risen”). At this point, everyone lit their candles, supposedly from the same eternal flame that is brought to Greece each year from Jesus’ nativity cave in Jerusalem. With Easter officially arrived at midnight, everyone went for a meal and the mayiritsa soup. The soup was not very good; it was a whipped, green vegetable soup with some unknown pieces of meat in it. After getting down about half the bowl, my wife told me the meat was sheep intestine.

The next day we woke late and headed out at noon looking for our Easter lamb dinner. We had made reservations in one restaurant in Pyrgos because we were told that they would have traditional dancing in the square below it. When we got there, the restaurant was empty and there was no dancing. We decide to continue on to the south side of the island. We saw many lambs rotating on spits but many were in somebody’s front yard intended for a private family party. We headed for a beach restaurant we’d seen the day before with about 10 lambs on spits, figuring that they were set up for the public. While going there we passed a restaurant on a cliff overlooking the water and the owner gave us a friendly wave as we went by. We arrived at the beach restaurant and were told “Sorry.” At this point all of us were hungry and we’d stopped by a handful of restaurants that were closed to the public; it was time to go back to man with the friendly wave. The restaurant was great and it had only a few local families in it; no spring breakers or tourists from huge boxy tourist buses. We had roast lamb and vegetables washed down with some dry Santorini wine overlooking the Aegean Sea. Our dinner was the perfect ending to a great Easter week at Santorini.


Kalambaka: Grecian Ghost Town

The bus pulled over to the side of the road as soon as we got to Kalambaka. We were expecting to stop at the bus station but the driver hurried us out of the bus, unloaded our bags on the side of the road and then roared off in a cloud of exhaust and dust. When the dust cleared and we caught our breath we saw the imposing stone pinnacles of Meteora rise above the town of Kalambaka. We also saw that in addition to our 10 scruffy, dark-colored bags there was also a large, red travel bag that none of us recognized.

With neither bus nor bus station in sight we loaded up the red bag with ours and started walking to our hostel. It was late afternoon and overcast in Kalambaka with very few people on the streets, many businesses closed and no taxis in sight. The hostel where we had a reservation was over a mile away so we started walking while looking for a taxi. After 40 minutes of uphill walking we arrived at our hostel and found out why the town was so empty: there was a taxi strike and the following day was a national holiday. The son of our hostel owner told us that we should immediately buy food because nothing would be open tomorrow. He graciously offered to take the red bag to the police station for us. Our plan for the next day was to hike through Meteora, a forest of towering stone pinnacles, many of which were crowned with monasteries.

My wife and I walked to town to find a supermarket while the kids did their homework. We could find nothing open in this Grecian ghost town until we found a solitary older man who spoke a little English. He greeted us in English and we asked the one-word question “Supermarket?” He energetically told us to follow him and led us through a parking lot, a back lot and a deserted alley. “Tomorrow holiday. Everything closed,” he said. “Yes, Greek independence holiday,” I said, referring to the anniversary of independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. At this point he stopped, impeded my progress with the back of his hand against my chest and said “We beat those bloody Turks. We keep Europe safe from those barbarians!” We were taken aback at how deeply he felt about this. His arm dropped from my chest and we started to move forward when the arm shot up again. “We keep the world safe for YOU!” he said. After this he seemed satisfied that he’d made his point and we continued walking. We rounded a corner and came to a Carrefour supermarket, possibly the only place to buy food in town. We thanked our patriotic guide and bought our food supplies for the next day.

The next day we started out early with lots of food and water to explore Meteora. There was no one else staying at our hostel and we saw no one on the trail until we reached the first monastery. Meteora is the name given to a group of massive stone pinnacles that were formed by weathering and erosion over thousands of years. At one time twenty pinnacles had monasteries on top but nowadays only six or seven of them remain. Without taxis or buses, we would try to see as much of Meteora as possible on foot. We walked up the trail leading to Agios Triados, the monastery made famous in the 1981 James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only.” In the film Roger Moore climbs with ropes and technical equipment to reach Greek bad guy Kristatos’s hideout. Instead of ropes, we climbed the stone steps that circled around the pinnacle until we came to a door and found that it was closed. No taxis, no buses and now no monasteries.

Our luck was better at the Agiou Stephanou monastery, which was open and had a large tour bus in the parking lot. The impressive site was high above Kalambaka and was accessed only by a narrow wood drawbridge. There was a small museum and some newly painted frescoes in the church. While the monastery was interesting, the inside was nowhere near as dramatic as its physical location. After a picnic lunch with a panoramic view, we walked to the Agias Varvaras Rousanou. Again, it was a nice monastery – frescoes of the resurrection and transfiguration of Christ -- but the site was what was interesting. Rousanou had a rope ladder hanging from the side of the building – a throwback to the days when monks climbed them and pulled them in to escape invading Ottomans. We hiked back on one of the monopati (footpaths used by monks) but must have got lost en route. We spent more time crawling though bushes than walking on a trail or path. Aside from the tour bus, we saw very few people in one of Greece's largest tourist destinations. We arrived late in the afternoon and got to bed early that night.

Next morning was Friday and Kalambaka was back to normal. We walked down to the bus station and watched old men chat, flip their worry beads and drink strong coffee in cafes while women bought produce at the bustling market near the main plaza. The sun was shining, people were smiling and the town was jumping. Apparently the taxi strike was over -- we saw a line of them near the market. We'd caught Kalambaka on an off day; it was no longer a Grecian ghost town but a vibrant and festive community.


Civilization In A Cup

Living out of backpacks and staying predominantly in inexpensive hostels can be wearying at times. With all your belongings in a single backpack there are times that you crave a quiet, civilized moment. That is when we break out our favorite travel gadget: the immersion heater. It’s basically a metal coil connected by wire to a wall plug, but it has transformative properties. It can transform even the most dreary of situations and cheer them up a bit. Just stick the coil into some water, plug it in and in less than a minute you have a boiling cup of water. Add some tea and sugar and you have civilization.

After recently travelling all day to get to Bodrum, Turkey, we found ourselves tired and hungry in an empty hotel in a residential neighborhood at 9:30 at night with no restaurants open. We whipped out the immersion heater and made Cup-a-Noodles soup for the kids to satisfy their hunger pangs and brewed some tea for my wife and I to feel civilized and relax after a long day. Credit for us having the immersion heater must go to my wife who has long extolled the virtues of this travelling appliance. She carried it with her twenty years ago when she did her 2-year around-the-world backpacking adventure. When she packed it in her bag for this trip I thought “there’s a waste of space,” but I have been proven wrong countless times.

The Istanbul-Kayseri train was clean, modern, spacious and comfortable and our cabin came with a small refrigerator but the train didn’t have a dining car. Whenever we needed a cup of tea for the long 19 hour journey, we unplugged the refrigerator and plugged in the immersion heater for our boiling water. We don’t typically carry tea mugs with us because we usually find some kind of vessel to use. On this train, we found two very thin plastic cups – the kind that you’d think would melt with hot water in them – and they worked fine. While on the road we’ve used many different vessels for tea cups: clear-glass drinking glasses, melamine and ceramic mugs and for awhile we even carried 4 small, hard-plastic jello molds that also doubled as mini cereal bowls. Besides tea and Cup-a-Noodles, we’ve also made hot chocolate and instant soups.

The immersion heater allows us our moment of civilization on our own schedule. On our Piraeus-Santorini ferry, the restaurant closed about 2 hours before we arrived at port. I went and purchased some drinking water and acquired two flimsy plastic cups then dug in the bag for the immersion heater. I asked my wife “Would you like a cup of tea?” She smiled and nodded, understanding that this was code for “Would you like to feel civilized?” I plugged it into the wall socket behind our chairs, and had two cups of tea ready within a minute. Now that’s civilized.

This post was part of Vago's Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival Essential Travel Tools at Vagobond.