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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.