July 31, 2005

Spanish Fleas

Nothing brings out a city's true colours like a market, and in Madrid there is an explosion of colour and life when you get off the metro at La Latina on any given sunday.

Standing on the corner of Calle de Toledo I could listen to an arabic jazz band go wild I picked out a nice lithographic etching to add to my travel wall. I could have bought some truly beautiful leather bags, purses and wallets but I was overwhelmed with choice and indecision. I didnt even take a picture of them. When the band moved on the air was silent for but a moment and the empty space filled with the latin music of a stall. Every form of traditional and regional spanish music from what I could tell.

Further along the street the quality drops off a bit but the intensity of the crowds goes up a notch. Tourists and locals alike mill down the tree lined streets like a slow moving river, forming transient eddies around stalls of note. T-Shirts were predictably popular but offer great value for just 5 Euros. Spanish fans for the senioritas are ornate but compete with the cheaper asian versions and the quality of each product suffers as a result. Most of the jewellery is from India and Thailand too, but a number of Madrid artists offer their ceramic alternatives for those with an eye for detail and originality.

On the side streets little clusters of shops proliferate. Oil paintings take over one section entirely with stalls setup while the artist paints from a photo, and shops that spill out onto the river of shoppers . Here the value was far less compelling but the choice generally excellent. Another street was tip-to-toe with pets and in particular caged birds. I'm no authority on the subject but they seemed to be primarily canaries and they were enough of them to feed all the cats in Greece. I kept moving on and managed to avoid buying all manner of enticements such as... giant flags of Espana with El Toro emblazened across the stripes, flamenco dresses for girls under five, thai silk scarves as you would find in Bangkok's sunday market, and camel leather bags brought over from Morocco.

By mid-afternoon the tide began to ebb. You could feel it. The colourful jazz expressions had given way to mellow blues rifts, the bedazzled beam of the eager shopper had melted a little under the sun, and the vendors themselves were greeting the potential buyers with a weary expression born of a desire to be home for siesta.

I grabbed what I needed and headed for the corner just as the first stalls began pulling down the merchandise and packing away into cartons. Having emptied my wallet and filled my bag I was in desperate need of food and drink. I found both.

Most tapas bars will offer seafood of some sort, even in Madrid, but this one was special. They *only* did seafood. The special of the day was a tapas plate of sardines for 1 Euro. A full rashion would set you back 3.20 Euros. Forget a bread roll with ham and don't bother asking for a salad. The menu only had 6 items on it, all yummy offerings from the mediterenean and grilled or fried on the spot. I looked for somewhere to put my bag down and realised there wasn't one - the floor was ankle deep in discarded serviettes, prawn shells and sardine bones. No lie. I was standing in the rubbish bin. This is common for tapas bars to toss unwanted bits on the floor by the bar, but when a place turns over 100 people an hour since 12 noon the result is a mountain of mess.

Naturally, I was only encouraged by the sight. The food must be good! I couldnt come at the sardines, they were too fresh from the ocean for someone precariously holding a rolled up poster of a matodor and a small etched print. Presents are most gratefully received when they are not covered in fish oil, scales and rock salt. The calamari however is served with a modified toothpick and can be consumed relatively cleanly. "Tinto de verano, y, calamares grande por favour!" I downed my tinto so fast the ice cubes could have stuck to my lips. The calamari was incredible. Again. Flakes of rock salt cut through the freshly fried strips. As I devoured my plate and a second tinto I watched the old lady hover around the grill, tending to batches of neatly prepared squid and sardines with one hand while flipping at the griller with the other.

We exchanged a few smiles and I took a photo. She must have thought I had a lost a few marbles. (The hardest part about being a photographer is the number of times you willingly make yourself look like a dick.)

I was nearly done. I had slowed down about half way through. Why is it that the better the quality the bigger the serving? But I had to finish the plate - growing up as a child I must have been constantly starving because I learned that you don't walk away from a meal without licking the plate clean. I just can't leave food, especially when it's delicious and divine. One last piece remained and I prepared myself mentally to dispatch the tastey morsel and consider it a job well done. But I paused too long. Out of nowhere a second batch of calamari came tumbling down onto my plate. I didn't see it coming and I don't think I could have stopped it anyway. I looked up and the old lady was smiling to me. She gestured with her hands to finish off my plate.

I gushed 'gracious' a few times and took a deep breath.

July 12, 2005

Trailing Goats

High on the west side of Sikinos I sat next to a chapel and watched the sunset in silence. The final warmth of the sun drifted across the sea and out of sight. Far in the distance the silence was broken by a herding cry on the goat trail. Within minutes the farmer and his stock were upon me, nimbly edging their way through the ancient village walls, urged onwards by the fatherly calls of the little man.

The trail weaves among terraced gardens that yield a multitude of primary produce. Dusty beds for grape vines, narrow strips of irrigated vegetables, rocky pits with established olive trees or simply untended earth over run with wild herbs. The purple flowers are of particular note as they fill the air with a sweet scent like honey sweet rosemary. I follow the herd with my camera, the light now reduced to a soft echo from over the horizon. The goat trail is well maintained with stone walls to encourage herds to continue forward and avoid distraction. Further back from the trail remains of homes lie in a state of organised decline. They are buildings which have never seen the white and blue paint these islands are famous for, the dry stone walls expertly constructed so that centuries later the goats and tourists can enjoy the view.

Where the trail cuts back along the contour of the hill I get a closer look at the herd. It is my first chance to appreciate the distinctive personalities among the mob. One goat is almost fixated by my presence, starring at me intently and needing constant reminding to move forward. Others are only partially concerned about me and the rest pay little or no attention. These differences are accentuated once we arrive at the old village. The herd is closed in before being run down into a pen for the night and the females take turns to watch gaurd while the males take turns to watch the females. Each goat has it's own set of mannerisms, such as nervous observations, indifferent posturing, or annoying the other goats as a power play.

The farmer rattles his milk tin and heads down into the pen. Grabbing a female by the back leg he starts milking the goat in an efficient but gentle manner. One by one the females are relieved of their full udders. A little lamb calls this pen home as well, and it follows the farmer around in hope of milk. There is a tone of loneliness from it's bleeting too. Sheep are smarter animals than most people realise and they have a capacity to form attachment. None of the female goats oblige the lamb for a feed anymore than the farmer does.

I take my photos of the proceedings in the ever dimming light. Occassionally the farmer looks up at me and smiles or greets me with "Yassis". I reply the same. As I head off back to the main village I pass the sounds of chickens and goats and donkeys in their lock down pens for the night. The air is finally cool and pleasant as the hot summers day retreats into nightfall.

I am mindful of a very old Hollywood movie and make a small adaption to one of it's more famous quotes - Winter must be cold for those with no warm livestock.

July 11, 2005

My Greek Ferry Disaster

At 3 o'clock in the morning I found myself wandering the central village of a small Greek island looking for a room. It turns out I was more lost than I thought - I wasnt even on the right island!

Earlier that day I decided on a whim to head for the island of Folegandros in the South Cyclades. It is famed for beautiful cliffs and beaches, and makes a cosy stop-over on the way to Milos. I figured if I had to find a new room tonight anyway then I may as well start in a new island.

Not many people travel this direction it seems. The ferry was not even half full and there ample room to sleep in the bar lounge. I had set an alarm to wake me and a little after 2 in the morning I ripped myself away from an exciting dream which featured time travel and large cruise liners full of Italian students. I took a stroll outside to see where we were. In the distance I could see lights from an island, and guessed it was probably Ios. I found it impossible to discern when the ferry was moving and when it was docked - the roar of turbines droned incessantly in either case and the tall steel hull cut a stealthy path across a flat and windless sea. I approached the port side and was happy to see the stern wave below confirming we were still underway.

My thoughts turned to food and drink but at that same moment an announcement came on. I dashed across to the starboard side of the boat and realised to my surprise that the ferry was about to dock. I tried to listen for the english version of the announcement, the speakers were very muffled and the was thick and fast. I thought I heard him say Folegandros, I swear it! I checked the time, we were due to arrive 25 minutes ago and we left Paros about 30 minutes late. This must be it. I joined the small band of passengers and stepped onto the gangway without delay.

As I had hoped there were indeed a few people touting for rooms, even at this hour. Beyond expectations was a local bus with 'Hora' written in Greek. I had read in my Rough Guide that the Hora on Folengandros was the best place to stay and one of the most beautiful Hora's in all of the islands. I turned down an offer for a 20 Euro room nearby and got on the bus. At the bus stop there was no one touting for rooms. I pondered what this scene might have looked like had I not been travelling alone but with one of my highly strung ex-girlfriends who at this point would either be yelling or crying - possibly both. I was not daunted. Rough Guide told me that east of the bus stop was a tavern offering good value rooms in my price range. I looked up at the night sky and wondered which direction was east.

Plan 'C' kicked into action, and I picked up my bag and headed up the hill in the hope of finding the heart of the Hora and a sign for rooms. Eventually I encountered three people outside a little cafe enjoying a very late ouzo. They told me how lucky I was to find anyone up this late, let alone three people. They knew a fellow who had a room and would call him. This was typical of the easy and kind manner in which Greek people have treated me for the past two weeks. On the wall of the dimly lit cafe I saw a map and strained my eyes to take it in. I thought it odd that a map of the neighbouring island, Sikinos, was on display. But the two islands are often referred to in unison and maybe the connection goes deeper. Then I looked at the name of the harbour town on the map. My mind flashed back to the bus, it had written in greek "Alopronia - Hora". I stepped outside, unburdened my backpack and asked the remaining two people which island I was on. "You are on Sikinos. What island do YOU think you are on?" I had a flashback to my Rough Guide - several days ago I was reading about Folegandros and chanced upon the next page and a breif description of Sikinos. It was described as so small a population that it was not until 1980 that a road was put in from the harbour to the Hora and a bus service instated. Donkeys had done all the work until this time.

So now I am sitting in a studio apartment overlooking the sleeping Hora in Sikinos. The nice man who was awoken to arrange my room did me a deal and I have two nights for 50 Euros in total. He could have charged me anything and I would have no choice but to pay it, but he showed his character in our dealings and after he discounted the price for two nights instead of one I made no attempt to bargain any further. The room is equipped with everything except a fan. It even has a laundry tub and detergent which is no small consideration given the state of my clothing after two weeks on a yacht.

In summary my studio is spacious and comes with a killer view. I think. The sun hasnt come up yet but I can see the lights of the village not far below and I can see the lights of Santorini far off in the distance. When the dawn breaks I should also have sight of Folegandros, just a few miles to the west. Teasing me. I can hear a few roosters calling out to the stars already - must be time for bed.

It will be a treasure in the morning to awake and find out exactly where I am - at last!

July 01, 2005

Yainnis The Skipper

The life of a charter yacht skipper rolls from one place to the other making dreams come true for aspiring travellers.

The azure waters of the mediterranean are no longer a playground for such skippers, but a thinly woven collection of friends and transient homes. The yacht itself is both a vehicle of freedom and a vessel of containment, never far from the mind or body. Yainnis is one of these skippers. He spends all summer criss-crossing the islands, watching passengers come and go, and sharing morsels of his philsosphies with those who care enough to listen.

After several years working in these waters Yainnis has made friends in almost every village we pull into. He rarely decides which cove or harbour will be home for the night until the day itself, allowing the wind and weather to be his guide for navigation. In the more familiar destinations you will find our skipper talking late into the night with a near constant supply of sourma or araki. On the boat he is a man of few words. Just enough to get the job done. At 2am he is gentle tide of knowledge, lapping curious annecdotes of wisdom onto our shores. Each night the ebb and flow of his life is revealed a little further.

Yainnis is the personification of a Greek island. A combination of respect for history, committed study of culture and the arts, and impossibly difficult to lock down to a schedule. His catch cry is "cega cega", or 'slowly slowly'. This expresses not only the relaxed pace of life in the islands but the reality of uncertainty - nothing is taken for granted, nothing is assured, all things may vary. Better to enjoy what you have now than worry about what cannot be changed. While this manner of thinking becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy it none-the-less provides a gentle groundedness which enriches the Greek lifestyle.

The history of the islands reveals successions of occupation and punctuated growth of civilization. Yainnis is not so dissimilar. His working life has included construction work, warehouse labouring, courier and pizza delivery, and about 30 other fill-in jobs. Most of this work was to fund his study and passion of music. He played the trumpet. Fleeting success with a band eventually led to dissapointment and the young man began travelling the islands with a wandering spirit. On a remote beach in the Cyclades he met a man who wanted to be a sailor. "Here is someone who knows what he wants to do, but isn't doing it. I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I decided to do it for him."

All these years later Yainnis still isn't sure what he wants to do, but he is happy on the yachts and would like to own his own one day. When he sails the music of his travels is with him on CD - jazz numbers from America, latin rythms from brazil, and bazouki beats from Greece. He says the music makes the sailing go quicker, you dont mind how long it takes to get anywhere so long as the music is good. He has no CD's from his own career as a musician however.

"I always sail looking forward. Cega cega."