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Friday, May 29, 2015

Entry 9: YOLO in Volos

YOLO in Volos

Yolo στο Βόλο 

(using yolo ironically, ok? (and now I'm saying that I'm using yolo ironically, ironically))

I returned from my disorganized island adventure on Skiathos to the city of Volos where I couchsurfed again with Christina.

Somewhere around Sunday May tenth...

Christina, her boyfriend Christophe, and I hiked around Mount Olympus. Not up. Just around. For six hours. With a group hiking tour along with dozens of old people, some around 80 years and counting, they climbed faster than me. Unfortunately knees were in immense pain despite carrying just my water; there's no way I could climb the whole mountain. Thankfully one of the older hikers loaned me his carbon fiber hiking poles after I collapsed a third of the way through desperate to rest my knees.

You see, when I left America six months ago I overpacked, bringing everything from a rechargeable ultraviolet water purifier and three water bottles/camelbaks to heavy pocket knives and plastic bowls to camping gear like rope, matches, a bivouac sack, and tarp. I've only had to use my sleeping bag once so far, on the beach of Eilat, Israel.  While I only carry around my huge 95 liter Whitney (brand) backpack from Gregory (company name) once or twice a week at most, its immense weight had been aggravating my knees more and more over the past six months. The Olympus knee disaster was the final straw, so at this point given my painful joints at just 25 years of age I figured it's best to ditch half my stuff. I mailed home almost five kilos, and might mail home more. 

Why did I have all that? Because in my mind at the time, leaving the country with just over a thousand dollars to travel for a year meant survival mode: living on the edge, the peak of supposed masculinity, foraging and hunting for survival -- none of which I had to do at all. My individualistic perspective was shattered by the collective hospitality I've experienced, helping me along from the roads to the cities. Being a white, male, American, English speaker got me this far with so little money too. Privilege is never talked about on those "How to travel the world for free" books and videos but is without a doubt a huge factor that cannot be ignored. One day I will dedicate an entire blog entry to this subject. You'll get a taste of that here but there's too much to talk about overall.

Fri 5/16
I went to the synagogue in Volos again this time bringing Christina along given her fascination with Jews and Israel. Getting free food at Shabbat dinner is a huge plus, I plan to visit synagogues wherever I go just for this, not to mention the interesting people I meet.

At 90 years old with the tattoo on his arm still visible, I met the last Holocaust survivor of Volos, who might be among eight or nine remaining Holocaust survivors of Greece. He struggles to walk and talk, drooling slurred Hebrew at me when I said "Shalom," but still makes it to Shabbat services and dinner.

With a hearty loaf of challah bread I left with an invitation to return next week.

I suddenly had a slew of couchsurfing hosts cancel on me, so in urgency that weekend I used AirBnb for the first time paying just nine euro for three nights. Since the guy was new to airbnb like me we both wanted to try it out with little money -- and blowing up condoms to the size of a person with a hair dryer (video:

Thanks to sheer luck, people I met at parties offered to host me through the next week, like Kostas who fed me delicious Greek meals and then his friend Serhat, a Turkish speaking Kurd from Istanbul studying in Greece. I beat him at his own game of backgammon and learned a lot from him from the PKK ( to revolutionary Rojava (, so I must visit Kurdistan eventually.

Fri 5/22
The synagogue had invited me back this weekend, so figured it was ok to bring a different guest this time now with Serhat. Big mistake. While the police guard who is always there let us in after checking his passport and my American driver's license, he ended up calling in backup police after half an hour through our dinner. In plain clothes they escorted us out and told us they would take us briefly to the station that was close by -- utterly false. Twenty minutes later we arrived, ears still buzzing from the constant interrogation on the way there. They told us that to enter a synagogue we needed State approval (which Christina later told me was bullshit), so this means the the guard lied to us to lure us into a trap, or they made up some law for their enjoyment.

Since I didn't have my passport, I had to wait at the station while they drove Serhat back to his house to get it from inside my backpack. My boring hours with a secretary watching tv didn't hold a candle to Serhat's experience with both policemen interrogating him all the way to his house and back, a forty minute round trip. It was me who left his passport behind, why did he suffer through it? Obviously his Turkish passport and our lack of Greek language tipped them off to his terrorist ways of using me to bomb the synagogue. Or since half of policemen are in Golden Dawn, the Greek Nazi party, they felt like making up a law to uphold their racist beliefs.

After two hours in police custody we were finally let out, thankfully driven to the city pier after midnight. Unfortunately it was too late to go back to the synagogue and apologize to explain what happened, and the police warned us not to go again even though the Jewish community of Volos welcomed us in with open arms.

In a game of backgammon and a round of drinks at a cafe, we vented out our frustration and wondered if this would end up on our records. Hopefully neither of us have to face this at the border as we exit Greece.

I introduced Serhat to CouchSurfing and gave him his first reference to start his own journey. He's disillusioned with university and wants to drop out and travel like me. His English is good enough to get by but his Turkish citizenship and Kurdish background may hold him back. Hopefully one day I will host him in America, and the police will let him be.

Sat 5/23

Mon 5/25
After a month in Volos and Skiathos it was time to leave. I left Serhat's at 7 am, took the bus to Velestino, a small town just outside of Volos by 8:30 AM, and started hitchhiking to Athens right away. Initially it looked hopeful with two rides easily hitched to start my journey down the national highway, even as one warned me it was "zesty" outside, or hot. But the third ride never came after four hours of waiting -- still just a half hour's drive from Volos.

Police abruptly stopped by, scolding me why it's illegal to hitchhike on highways, so I asked them for a ride elsewhere but they replied that they weren't a taxi. My rebuttal? "If your law says this is dangerous then why don't you protect and serve your people and help me get out of here?" Unamused, they drove off. The only thing dangerous about hitchhiking is getting sunburnt while people who think it's dangerous won't pick you up.

After surveying my surroundings for a way off the pavement I walked through the brush alongside the off ramp to a small country road that paralleled the highway. I refilled my water from a nearby farmer, asked the local village of Aerino where the closest bus station was to no luck, and then took off hiking south toward the next town a two hour walk away, Mikrothives, hoping for the best.

Despite my sunscreen and water surplus, thirst and sunburn were unavoidable while hitchhiking all day. Up and down the dirt road the thunder of trucks roared off the highway, mocking my slow pace. At least I got to enjoy the scenery of rolling hills and farmland, as mountains soared in the distance between puffy clouds.

Every so often the dirt road connected to the other side of the highway through a tunnel underneath where I took refuge from the sun to relax in the shade.

Upon cresting the next hill a blue roof glistened in the distance, a sign of shelter and hope alongside the sparsely populated rural coast. As I neared, the smell of only what could be described as a Greek oasis awakes my dormant hunger: a souvlaki and gyro stand in the middle of nowhere. Is it real? "Yasas!" I called out, "Yasoo" replied the large bellied man as he served a customer, one of the many truckers who stop by. I'll have what he's having. Smiling at me with broken English, "Ketchup? Mustard?" Yes. I'll have all of it. Pouring out the coins in my wallet, he gestured that the meal was on him. You tend to learn quickly what gestures mean free food on my travel budget. I thanked him profusely, and ate in a way I haven't ate since I swam two hours daily as a teen. No thinking. Just eating.

I thanked him and trekked onward, satisfied with the extra burst of energy. Despite the few tractors that passed by not acquiescing my thumb the walk felt much shorter.

As my shadows lengthened I neared Mikrothives, where I found people for help. They could barely speak English but gave me iced coffee, chocolate, and cold water until a younger person they called for arrived to help me. It turns out there was a bus stop in that town towards Athens but it was due in the next ten minutes, and walking there would have taken too long, so another guy put me and my backpack on the back of his motorcycle. As we drove off I yelled goodbye and thank you, holding on for dear life. He dropped me off at the bus station with just a few minutes to spare.

Grateful to rest my legs I sat down next to the guy closest to my age, hoping for a good English speaker. To my good fortune we got along very well and he invited me to an unpopulated island with him and his friends for a week of smoked fish and rest under the sun. I'm not sure if I'll have time in my last two weeks of my Greek visa to go but I'll keep this on my mind.

He brought me into the taxi he got and dropped me off on the metro where I went to my next Couchsurfing host, Elena.

As of now I have two weeks left before leaving for Albania.

Notes: I have a new PayPal account, so if you want to donate to my travels use and I will dedicate a song to you on my ukulele and share you the video.

While in Volos I've hit ten euros an hour on a good day busking with my ukulele. But if I play it a lot, everyday, my wrist starts hurting, so I try to limit myself to a few hours a day every other day.

My initial reaction to both police incidents was positive, thinking they wouldn't be so bad or would help. It was Serhat's experience that opened my eyes to what was really happening. Given my white skin I don't have a that much of a conditioned reaction of anxiety or fear when seeing the police.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Entry 8: Six months

Wed 4/22

Thurs 4/23
Left Garifallia's to head to my next CS host in Volos, a port city on my way to Skiathos, an island I'll volunteer at for a few weeks. After staying up late the previous night writing my blog and procrastinating, I got to the train station at 11am, bought a night train ticket for that night, and walked away immediately regretting that decision. After busking for a couple hours I realized I really, really wanted to try hitchhiking in Greece instead of taking the exhausting night train again so I said to myself, "Fuck it, I'm gonna return this ticket and get a refund." They could only pay me back 90% of the 18 euro ticket but that was fine for me. I bought the next ticket to Oinofyta, a suburb of Athens easier to hitchhike out of for four euro and then jumped on board.

Some nice people helped me when I had to switch trains and told me which stop to get off at, and when I did I had to walk 2km to the on ramp for the highway but hitched a ride halfway there at around 4:30pm thanks to an Albanian guy. Then it took me another half hour to find the next guy, a Romanian with the tips of his fingers cut off from his furniture making work who has a wife and kids here in Greece. He drove me out of his way to a rest stop on the national highway by 6pm where I tried hitchhiking some more. And tried. And tried. And no one came. I had to spend the night there, unpacked my sleeping pad and silk sleep cover to sleep inside the 24/7 cafe. The workers kindly gave me some seasoned bread and pastries, way too many than necessary, and tea for dinner. Greek hospitality isn't as widespread and constant as Palestinian hospitality but when it happens you are overwhelmed with food. Absolute truck loads of it that can sustain you for a week. I'm sure some of this bread will go moldy before I eat it, or perhaps I'll share it with someone else when I get to my CS host in Volos.

Despite the noise of TV European league basketball and cheering, I slept right away when my head hit my sweater turned pillow. At midnight however I awoke to a thunderous yelling, and jolted up to see what was the matter. Expecting the worse that could happen at a rest stop at this time of the night it was just a few excited fans hyper-focused on their blaring basketball game. I guess they're as enthusiastic about their sports teams as many Americans are.

Laughing and relieved at the situation I fell back to my spot in the dark corner of the room under a table and tried to fall asleep again but this time with great difficulty. I definitely remember dreaming in the early hours, as I dreamt of people I haven't seen since I left America. In fact, several times I was caught in that paralyzed state where I'm half-dreaming and half-awake, and I tried moving to avoid the dream's events but couldn't as I found myself paralyzed under the table. It pales in comparison to the night terrors I had as a kid so it wasn't too scary, in retrospect I find it rather interesting.

Fri 4/24
Perhaps it was because of this, the noise and fluorescent lighting that eventually my brain just gave up trying to sleep and I could only relax with my eyes closed until my growling stomach demanded breakfast at 6:30am. Thanks to plenty of bread the staff gave me the prior night I had a gooey, sweet cheesy, flaky cake as well as olive bread before hitting the road. Before 8am another Albanian picked me up and drove me all the way to a rest stop outside Lamia, 2/3rds of the way from Athens to Volos, where I thumb this into my iPhone's notes with Goody's wifi, a Greek burger fast-food chain. All of my rides so far could barely speak English so there wasn't much conversation unfortunately.

After waiting two hours with no ride I resorted to asking the nearby gas station for cardboard and a marker to make a Βόλος/Volos sign, which worked quickly to catch a car from an English speaking Greek who told me I was in a bad spot for picking up rides. He dumped me off two minutes down the road at a more convenient location where I easily hitched with an English speaking Greek couple on their way to Volos, the last ride I needed. They liked me enough to invite me for drinks and appetizers on them at their favorite cafe/bar in the city with their friend, who then drove me to my next CS host, Christina. Still tipsy from the drinks I updated this diary on my new couch.

After borrowing Christina's bike to tour around Volos, I found a memorial to the Jews who died in the holocaust, checked my map and discovered the synagogue was just a block away, so why not check it out. They gave me dinner and I stayed until services started at 9:30pm where I met an elderly man who as a child was smuggled under a boat deck to escape the Nazis from Greece to Turkey where they were welcomed because his family had Turkish citizenship but were living in Greece. His family had lived in Anatolia (Modern Turkey) since the Spanish Inquisition as the Ottoman Empire welcomed the Jews when they were kicked out of Spain, and as many Sephardic Jews did and still do he also spoke their dialect of Spanish.

I left early to find Christina and her friends at a local bar/cafe.

One of her friends is also distantly related to Apostolos Kaklamanis, my grandmother's famous Greek politician cousin, which in a way makes us very distantly related.

Christina's a really cool urban planning student, lots of similar interests like activism and leftist politics.

Sat 4/25
Busked for over four hours on the boardwalk of Volos, made a record breaking almost thirty euro. I only stopped because after playing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah for the zillionth time a guy in his house-boat across from me called out:
"Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah! [yelling in Greek]" then upon realizing I couldn't understand, "Four hours of playing over and over again please go somewhere else!"
Fine with me but if you had a problem you should've mentioned it earlier. As I packed up and started counting and sorting my coins a younger guy from the same boat walked over and handed me a two euro coin. Thank you. "Paragallo," *your welcome*.

At this point I have three songs memorized, and four more I can play well with sheet music at my feet. The awkward fingering of Blind Melon's "No Rain" has finally gotten easier.

After an authentic Greek yogurt dinner, I joined Christina to a midnight outdoor queer dance party she helped organize at her university. Not unlike most parties I've been to, loud pop music, booze, and strobe lights flooded the thousand person venue. I met Christina's friends and other students like Kostas, another CouchSurfing host who I messaged, many of whom...

Sun 4/26
...  coincidentally found me busking on the seaside walkway the next day. I chatted long with Christina about many shared interests of political views and activism, travels and hitchhiking, and especially Israel and Palestine, which she had a particular fascination for.

Mon 4/27
I left Christina's before she awoke for a ferry ride to Skiathos, an island where I'll spend the next few weeks volunteering. The boat officials wouldn't accept the half-off student discount I bought online but thankfully let me on without paying the full price with a warning not to do it again. Views of the sea, nearby mainland and islands faded in and out with the morning haze as Hellenic mountains appeared for brief hellos only to disappear moments later. Contrasted with such surrounding scenes my two and a half hour boat ride's population within included seasonal workers reclining on the sofas, junk food snack bars, fluttering moths, several TVs playing what looked like a live action Dragonball Z, and a full parking garage in the lower decks that could fit several 18-wheelers.

Soon after arriving at Skiathos I met Stephen who took me to Joyce 'n Fun, the play lounge/day care he owns with his partner Elektra. They have one adorable and energetic five year old, Joyce. I'm volunteering with this family cooking them meals, walking their dog, and occasionally helping out at the daycare. They're very nice and chill people but very disorganized. They're house was a mess as if they've been waiting for me to come and clean it for them. They had no food stocked yet wanted me to cook for them. I didn't know one of them was vegan until hours after I got here (nothing wrong with that, I just like being prepared). I asked for a schedule and they mumbled off and couldn't give me one. They had piles of dishes as if they hadn't washed anything but for days expecting me to come soon and wash everything for them.

Pretty island though and the kids are fun, probably a dozen coming in and out throughout the day. Except for one asshole who hits the others.

Tue 4/28

Wed 4/29
Chasing kids is a question of zone defense or one-on-one defense.

Thurs 4/30

Fri 5/1
Walked their dog into a house of cats and then a chicken coop. She fucking killed a chicken.

Sat 5/2

Sun 5/3

Mon 5/4

Tue 5/5

Wed 5/6

Thurs 5/7

The past several days have been a blur. Another chicken died thanks to their dog, thousands of steps have been hiked along the island's hills, and many sunsets watched over the water.

My first experience of utter chaos turned out to simply be the island's culture. Stephan and Elektra are super chill and nice, and didn't seem to mind that I only cooked for them once, a huge pot of lentils over saturated with olive oil.

Fri 5/8
After finishing a jar of peanut butter for lunch I left Skiathos after just a week and a half with them and took a boat back to Christina's in Volos.

Sat 5/9
It's been six months since I left America. Christina, me, and another CouchSurfer went to a rooftile and brickworks museum in Volos, touring its once industrial past. While it could've been boring our lovely conversation about Nazi's in Greece made it fun. Did you know that half of every Greek policeman votes for Golden Dawn, their Nazi party?

Notes: Whenever I ask places to fill up my water bottle when I'm on the go they assume I want hot water. Why? I have no idea. And this has been the case since I left America six months ago. In fact, my first day in Europe during a layover in Belgium on my way to Israel a airport worker filled my bottle with boiling hot water only to have it fall all at his feet.