Thursday, November 9, 2017

My week in Greece (part 2)

On Friday morning, I rode with a friendly Uber driver down to the port and boarded the Celestyal Olympia. Since I bought a cheap cabin at the last minute, I ended up right next to the engine room, where the smell of diesel fuel and the rumble of giant engines made me want to flee. I went to the reception desk and asked about changing cabins. The receptionist was very nice, but said she couldn’t talk about any changes until everybody had boarded and she knew what else may be vacant. What she really meant was that she didn’t want to change anything until after the lifeboat drill, which is choreographed to room numbers and they were very serious about getting the lifeboat drill right.

Once we’d all assembled in our lifejackets and been inspected by the safety officer, the friendly people at the desk offered to put me into the bow of the ship, still windowless and one deck lower, but in a place much quieter and more pleasant. I met the two people who would be doing my housekeeping, and I learned who at the front desk also spoke Russian. The Russian-speakers always jockeyed into position to help me when I approached the desk, and I felt like I had my own personal concierge. They remembered everything about me and took excellent care.

I wasn’t so pleased with the dining room staff, but we ultimately warmed up to each other. The problem was their policy for dealing with solo travelers. They would only put solo travelers across the table from an empty chair, and my first meals were rather lonely. At lunch, I sat to the side of a group of four people from some American church, who talked animatedly among themselves about their pastoral duties but ignored the guy beside them who offered a couple of times to participate in the conversation. Dinner was even worse, when I got seated beside a Greek family in dirty clothes who specifically did not want to have anything to do with me. By breakfast, I’d had enough. I ignored the steward and sat down where I wanted, in the empty seat across from one solo traveler and beside another. That was much more satisfactory. After the dining room staff came to understand my preferences, meals became more interesting.

For our first port, we visited Mykonos. We arrived just as the sun set. In the lingering twilight, I scrambled up the hill to try to get some sunset photos. I enjoyed walking aimlessly through the village, the crooked little alleys and staircase streets. I didn’t stay as late as possible because I wanted to eat dinner on the ship and I knew I’d have to get up early the next morning. We’d have to assemble for our tour of Ephesus by 07:00.

I discovered that there were lots of Americans on our ship, many of whom were engaged in tours of the Holy Lands. Some of them had intended to see more of Turkey but had been thwarted by the diplomatic kerfuffle limiting visa services between Turkey and the USA. Everybody on the ship gained entry today by a special ship visa, so nobody needed individual visas. One of the churches to which Saint Paul wrote was at Ephesus, and we’d get there by a short bus ride from our port at Kuşadası, Turkey.

We had a great tour guide who knew a lot, loved her country, and spoke with enthusiasm and a depth of knowledge. She led us through Ephesus and told us about ancient life, archaeology, and related subjects. My favorite moment was visiting a public latrine downtown. We saw a marble slab running along two walls, with cutouts body-width apart. I don’t even know if this was the whole thing, but it looked like about twenty men could sit side by side and poop at once. Running water washed away the falling feces and wall openings allowed for fresh air, so one could imagine this as a social gathering place. I hadn’t seen anything like it since the three-seat “bloopers” we had at Boy Scout camp.

This being Turkey, we also visited a weaving cooperative, where a different guide showed us how they get silk out of cocoons, how different kinds of looms work, and how they make hand-tied Turkish rugs. Not surprisingly, they also offered to sell their work. I don’t know how many they sold to our group, but I’m pretty sure we bought more than a few.

When we returned to the ship after this tour, I went to the dining room and insisted on being seated with other solo travelers. The steward offered me a spot beside Annie Counts, a recent college graduate whom I had seen on the Ephesus trip. Annie, like me, reads the Bible and had more than passing interest in the historic aspects of the places we would visit that day. We discovered that we’d both ended up on the religious tour of Saint John’s Monastery at Patmos that afternoon, though both of us had thought that we’d prefer to take the other, sold-out tour that included more of the countryside and less of the saints.

The best thing about our tour of Patmos, other than getting to know each other, was that we met Pastor Mark Correll and some people traveling with him. It felt like a privilege to know these people, and we joined their group that evening to hear Mark debunk some of the myths and legends we had heard from our tour guide in Patmos. (Our guide was well versed in local legends, but not so well versed on scholarship or the Bible.)

The next morning, our tours started early once again. Annie and a couple of her friends joined the same bus group with me to Crete and the Minoan Palace. We got very wet during this tour, as it rained almost continuously. The Minoan Palace is, today, mostly a reconstruction on old foundations. The rain prevented me from enjoying it as much as I’d enjoyed other archaeological sites in Greece, and I ditched the tour when we returned to the city of Heraklion so I could see the Archaeological Museum instead of taking a city tour. Much to my chagrin, I failed to notice that Annie’s friend Mason had tagged along to the museum, and I ditched him too. Isn’t that the same failure I was complaining about from the church group I sat beside at the first shipboard lunch? Oops.

The museum was great, and I think Mason got his revenge by grasping more of what he saw than I did. We had an interesting conversation about it all on the bus ride back to the ship.

The weather cleared as we approached Santorini, and the island beckoned alluringly as we drew near the shore. I had queued for an early departure, wanting to get onto one of the first boats, and I studied the hillside as we approached the dock. It would be fun to climb up the mountain on the footpath, and that’s what I intended to do. But some Greek passengers on the same boat urged me to take the cable car so I’d get up high sooner, before the sun set. They assured me that I could do plenty of walking up there, and that I’d like to see the sunset from the hilltop.

I’m glad I took their advice. From the cable car station, I hustled off to the left, toward the town we usually see in photographs of Santorini. My pathway took me higher and higher along the brow of a cliff, with little homes, hotels and restaurants below and sometimes above me. The sky reddened as the sun slid past a few clouds leftover from the morning rain. The sea sparkled. I loved every step. Finally, as the sun touched the water I reached a pleasant outdoor restaurant with a spectacular view protected by a glass shield. Since the air was cooling off, this seemed like a perfect place to punctuate my walk. I stopped for a cup of tea and then started back down toward the cable car. For a while I considered the possibility of walking all the way down to the dock, but it got quite dark and I began to have a little trouble choosing my route. I decided to take the cable car, so I’d be certain to get back to the ship on time.

The next day, Monday, we landed (as usual) early in the morning. I walked from the ship towards the Metro station, stopping at a little café for water and a restroom. After leaving the café, I ran into Annie and her group, also about to enter the Metro. We traveled together to the city center, and then I continued on to the airport. I liked being able to say goodbye to somebody as I prepared to leave Athens. I’d had a great trip and met a lot of wonderful people. I’d certainly be pleased to come back.

You can see more pictures from the whole trip here.
And here's the first half of my Greece story.

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