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Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Travel

The Ways - Part 2


The following is part of a work in progress entitled Freefall.

  That’s it, I told Vangelio and Panayis one morning. I’m heading to Andia and beyond; I’ll be back in four days.

I’d felt trapped by Greece’s autumn rains and December snows, by canyonesque Manhattan during January, and I had a case of spring fever I couldn’t shake. Panayis, dipping into his breakfast of trahana, paused, spoon raised. It’s still winter, he said. Besides, you don’t know the way.

Tell me the way.

How can I tell you, if you don’t know it? You won’t find it.

Such are Panayis’s powers of description. Stella’s husband, Thanasis, and her brother, Vangelis, are far less laconic, but they’re best at confirming where I’ve been. I once told Thanasis about a cluster of abandoned homes Sakis and I had come across, describing how we’d followed a river behind an abandoned olive press on the road to Paradhisi, crossed an arched stone bridge, climbed above a small church, followed an old path westward that wound up and down one hill, crossed a second hill’s crest, and descended southward to an old threshing floor, beyond which lay the remnants of roof-collapsed stone houses with arched windows and doorways. Thanasis closed his eyes and with one hand traced the landscape I’d described, fingers sketching in air – streambed, bridge, hill, valley, crest, up down sideways. Kalana, he said upon opening his eyes, his hand suspended, it was Turkish. (Kalana? Sakis had responded dubiously when I told him.) Thanasis proved correct; I returned there once and encountered a shepherd who told me, They used to call this place Kalana because of its good milk – kala galata – but they “ate” their words (that is, mumbled).

I asked Thanasis and Vangelis about the way to Andia. You’ll find the old path to Epanohori somewhere beyond Stavros, Vangelis said, and in Epanohori you’ll find someone to ask.

At one time, many paths crossing from this side of the island to the other diverged at Stavros – literally, the cross, the junction – a small plateau I’ve wandered about from time to time some distance below Mt. Ohi’s refuge, trying to trace the now-disappeared byways that led to and from it. There isn’t much there now, just a flat expanse so worn by centuries of crossing animals and humans that little grows, for whatever earth might have covered the bedrock was long ago ground to dust. The paths I know from Stavros lead to the hikers’ refuge and the magnificent chestnut forest, and I turn away from them in the direction of where I think Epanohori lies. Beyond Epanohori is Andia, and beyond that, the last stretches of southern Evia, ending in Kavodoros’s tip.

In the direction I take, the mountain range tumbles steeply and for a long way toward the sea, and it’s broken by deep ravines, gorges, and cliffs. The shortest distance between two points here is never a straight line – the terrain begs for switchbacks, corkscrewing, and zigzags because of the steep climbs and descents – and I know that contours were treasured and exploited. Wherever people could, they hammered out contour trails that allowed them and their animals a breather between the hard ups and downs, led to water sources, and – perhaps most important – protected them from the winds.

I’ve learned, trekking the Ohi mountain range, to think like a woman with a laden mule, or a woman with 60 pounds on her back. A string of oasis-like clumps of plane trees – always a sign of water – betrayed the faint, uneven contour I followed, watching for traces of inlaid stone. I’d already ditched several liters of water in my backpack because small, clear streams poured from everywhere, much to Sam’s delight. Without the water or a tent, I had less than 20 pounds on my back. Like an ice-skater suffering from displaced gravity when the skates come off, I’d felt strange after dropping the backpack for a midday snack, and was glad to hoist it on again. When the contour petered out, I descended over a wide swath of scree that eventually led down to a broad, east-west path above Epanohori. I thought the gorge crossing might be above the village, but I was wrong; at an impassable stream, I had to double back. I retraced my steps and continued in an easterly direction, passing through what might have been a quarry before coming up against a long, high fence that stretched toward a cliff. I eventually found a makeshift gate and let myself through it; 20 feet below, the kalderimi began. From time to time I could see, far below, an arched stone bridge over Epanohori’s narrow river.

At the base of the kalderimi, a man was clearing a field by hand. His tethered chestnut horse rolled its eyes wildly at the sight of the dog. After greetings, I answered his questions (where was I from? where was I going?) and asked in return if he knew where I could pick up the path to Andia. Andia is far, and it’s winter, he responded. The horse snorted and danced and pulled at its tether. Climb above the church on the other side of the village and you’ll find the way, the man told me.

I did. At four in the afternoon, I called it a day. With Epanohori disappeared somewhere behind me and the larger, horseshoe-shaped village of Platanistos far below, I sat with my back against the wall of a small church whose graveyard contained three graves. The unlocked church lay beyond a hamlet-like cluster of houses, most of them shuttered and boarded, and just below an obvious path that seemed to lead over the mountains in the direction of Andia. After a while, I spread out my mat and sleeping bag, then fed Sam and made soup and tea for myself. Just before dusk, a woman came toward me on swollen legs, her gait akin to a wobble, pausing many times. Don’t be afraid of the dog, I called out to her, and she waved and went on to the small graveyard, where she lit an oil lamp at one of the graves before heaving herself in my direction.

She sat beside me and caught her breath. There was an oddly flat, round shape to her face; she had very few teeth. This place, she told me, was the furthermost and highest edge of Platanistos. She’d married here, though she was from Styra, a village beyond southern Evia’s narrowest point, which is so narrow that passersby can see the strait of Evia as well as the Aegean from its middle. The marriage, she said, was arranged, and she hadn’t been to Styra for many years. She sat for a long time, although I had little to say. Watch your dog, she warned at one point (interrupting a long silence), one of mine was poisoned by my neighbors.

Did that happen in the fall? I asked her. In late autumn, poison is thrown randomly about to protect the birthing sheep and goats and their newborns from fox and stray dogs. It did, she acknowledged. But my neighbors are evil people, she continued. They poisoned my dog on purpose, and they’ve threatened to kill my children. What do you think of that?

I don’t know, I told her.

Why don’t you come to my house for a coffee? You could sleep there.

I wanted nothing of the sort. I had the impression that she and her neighbors might be a bit crazy, and I chose to remain on neutral ground. She eventually left, after telling me her son would like Sam and after examining with great curiosity my sleeping bag, backpack, and headlamp. I was already in my sleeping bag when Sam let out a low growl at a figure that stepped around the far corner of the church and then fled. I turned on the headlamp and went to the end of the church and called out, Who is it?

A boy who could have been 12 or 20 eventually emerged from the shadows. He had a sweet, vacuous smile, and his face was the same shape as the woman’s. Did you come to see the dog? I asked, and he nodded speechlessly. I shined the headlamp against the church wall to deflect as much light as possible. Sam wagged her tail and thrust her nose into his palm, and the boy made a mewling sound. She likes you very much, I told him, but you should go home now, because it’s very dark and the dog is very tired.

Vrohi was the only thing I thought he said, through an enraptured smile: Rain. The stars clustered in the clear night sky. I wasn’t sure after a moment that he’d said anything at all. He let the dog lick his hand for a long time, seemed quite mesmerized by the halo of light cast by the headlamp, and then just turned away and disappeared.

At five in the morning a wind soughed and the downpour began. I dragged everything inside the church, lit candles, waited for dawn. By the time it came, the rain had ended, but the wind was howling. I pulled my rain and wind gear over my leggings and fleece shirt, left a donation, and struck out without seeing a sign of life. The path led upward straight into the blow, and eventually I gave it up and headed downward to a dirt road I thought might offer some protection. I kept to it as long as it lasted, but when it switchbacked toward Platanistos, I cut across a hillside of scree before coming out above the main road to Andia. I bit the bullet and headed for it, hoping for a respite; besides, Andia was in sight (though, I realized later, still quite far). By the time I reached the road, which is a two-lane, well-graded dirt road, I’d been knocked down several times and couldn’t stop thinking of a quote from a sixteenth-century Turkish traveler here: This place, he’d remarked of southern Evia, has such violent storms and winds that not only is a man blown off his horse, but even the horse is knocked down.

The Aegean was a sea of white, whipped into waves that crested with froth by the same north winds that were knocking me about. Baolina calls this condition “yogurt,” which is perfectly descriptive of what the villagers otherwise call the mavri thalassa – the black sea – of Kavodoros (cape of gold), which might derive its name from the gold rumored to have been found here or (more likely) from the wealth buried under the sea in sunken fleets. By the time I gave up all hope of staying on my feet, I was pondering the curiosity that, at least on southern Evia, we often say the opposite of what we mean.

The main road afforded no protection from the north wind; the backpack didn’t give me much ballast now that I was wearing almost everything I’d had in it, and I leaned on my staff with every second step, just to steady myself. Sam danced sideways, her fur ruffled. The landscape was broken by massive turbine-driven windmills, none of which were spinning. Eeeeeeeh, eeeeeeeh, where are you going? a voice called out as I placed one foot in front of the other, shoulders hunched, head down. The voice belonged to a shepherd who tumbled out of a concrete bus shelter some distance on, a handwoven bag strung over his shoulder. The wind almost knocked him down, but he regained his footing and let it hurry him toward me.

He was from Andia. You can’t walk in this, he yelled in my ear, where are you going? Andia, I yelled back, and then he yelled something I couldn’t understand for the howling and pulled me in the direction of the electrical station. By the time we reached the concrete building – a box of a place where the workers and central computers for the windmills are housed – we’d both fallen. I dropped my backpack against the southern wall, and Sam dropped beside the backpack. What are you doing, walking to Andia? the shepherd yelled above the wind, Where did you come from? Myloi, I told him, realizing he thought me perfectly mad. Myloi? he cried. Myloi? Where did you sleep last night? When I told him above Platanistos, at the last church, his expression changed: he’d glimpsed the outside chance that I had, in actuality, come this distance from Myloi.

Vangelis Orfanos works here, the shepherd told me then. Vangelis is from Myloi, and I grinned at the news. The shepherd grinned back and pushed me toward the door, opened it, and announced: There’s a woman here from Myloi who knows Orfanos.

Yia onoma tou theou – for God’s sake – one of the four men sitting about a table said. The shepherd and I were probably a sight, but they wanted the door closed and lost no time in telling us to pull up a chair. They were having a meeting and hardly skipped a beat after that. The longer I sat, the more chilled I became, being soaked with sweat under the rain and wind gear; eventually, I went back outside, and the shepherd went back to the bus station he was using as a shelter, his flock being somewhere in the vicinity. I peeled off the rain and wind gear and sat in the least windy corner I could find, letting the sun eat into my bones. And then Vangelis Orfanos appeared. When I heard you’d gone hiking, he told me, shaking his head, I said what, at this time of year?

The weather looked good, I told him.

The weather is good, he grinned, but the wind will eat you.

A few hours later, Sam and I were in a car being buffeted about the road, on our way back to Karystos with one of the very kind electrical workers. The Ohi mountain range changed its face every several miles – forested, rocky, tilled and terraced, smoothly bald, terribly jagged, or rolling and heather-covered, ridged and gullied – as it heaved its way toward the lathered sea. We passed below small villages, above wide-mouthed gorges, and far above white-sand coves. I sat contemplating the hopelessness of describing this ever-changing backdrop, and wondering if it would ever be possible to portray this landscape as mythic.

In other parts of Greece, there are places where landscape meets myth in faultless symmetry – Olympus, Santorini, Sounio, Delphi, Delos, even Pilio – and where it’s impossible not to be moved by a physical-metaphysical conjoining. It makes sense that the gods resided on Olympus’s highest peaks, closest to the heavens; it makes sense that the mightiest reach of Greece’s highest mountains served as the seat for the mighty. Santorini’s breathtaking eeriness begs intimations of Atlantis; Sounio’s temple overlooks a two-colored sea, where the tint of the Evian strait collides with the shade of the Aegean; and Delos seems holy even today. It’s easy to believe that in Delphi the oracular occurred; and it’s not difficult to imagine the gods’ summer residence in lush Pilio, amidst a population of centaurs. In each of these places, however, something exists that doesn’t on southern Evia, something akin to perspective: there are Olympus’s height, Santorini’s shape, the position of Sounio’s temple, the entirety of Delos, Delphi’s evocativeness, Pilio’s sumptuousness: in these places, the breathtaking inflamed imagination and begged interpretation – the elucidation of mystery. For what was seen in these places, to paraphrase John Berger, not only enhanced man; it also inspired him. In Greece, the result of that inspiration gave birth to myth.

Southern Evia is a mythic place. It’s here that Zeus first coupled with Hera, on the peak of Mt. Ohi – Ohi derives its euphemistic name from the ancient Greek verb, ohevo, to ride – and their liaison birthed much of what followed in Greek mythology. But that mythology leaked from here as through a sieve and trickled into amnesia, absorbed by a convoluted and harsh landscape that could retain nothing. The setting seems to have no focal point, and the elements – especially the wind – seem to inspire only forgetfulness. Indeed, what most archeologists agree is a temple to Hera (one, I like to think, that marks the spot), the local population until recently believed was a drakospito, a dragonhouse – no one knows for how many centuries, or why – a place built by a dragon. Indeed, a dragon, and not classical mythology, became responsible for everything found hereabouts that seemed inexplicable, including the fortress-like walls at Plakoti and the carved basins that lie about the Roman quarries above Myloi (which Vangelio’s generation called the dragonwalls and the dragon cauldrons).

The landscape rolled by as the car blew about on the road, the mountain range too low and ragged here, too high and smooth there, the sky always too distant. Mt. Ohi appeared and disappeared, inconstant not because of cloudcover but because, depending on the angle one moment to the next, it simply appears and disappears. There’s no symmetry, no equilibrium between sky and mountain and sea here, which – to my mind – makes southern Evia’s beauty unique. Little wonder that mythology was forgotten: for belief to persist, solidity is essential.

I’ve chosen, it seems, to live in a place where all that is solid, to echo Marx, melts into air. A place of myth whose landscape is not mythic. A place where landscape engulfs the viewer, a place where weather demands eyes on the ground. A place where even the paths, the ways, have lost much of their meaning. A place where just about everything seems to disappear.

***

I’ve since trekked to Andia, in better weather. It seems important to find the ways in this place that is so unlike the place in which I was born, where the past was not old but certainly past and where trails are well marked; it seems important to understand how people here traveled until recently, by foot and with mules and at the mercy of the elements; and it seems important to think that – should anyone ask – I might be able to direct them on their way. I’ve walked these ways to the faraway fields the people of Myloi once sowed, to other villages in which they traded, to distant churches where they once went for celebrations, to their summer and winter grazing lands, to the chestnut forests they once harvested, and to places some of them have never gone at all. That the paths they walked might have been walked for centuries means nothing to them, but that the paths were the way to get from one place to another once meant everything.

Yiannis Kakavas, Myloi’s electrician, one day told me: To understand what life was like here, you must know how long it took and how hard it was to come from the other side of the island, or from any other village, to Karystos with a sickly infant on your back. And you have to imagine how much longer that return journey must have seemed, after you’d gotten to the doctor too late, carrying your dead infant back.

Stamatis Bitsikos once told me: Those paths were our lives.

They are no one’s life now. Whenever like-minded friends come to visit, though, I take them on those paths; and when there’s no one to tow, I go alone, with Sam. It’s always the same: but for the hikers who walk from Myloi to Mt. Ohi to Kallianou, always following the same route, there’s hardly anyone in the mountains and on the paths. Sometimes there are hunters, mostly from Athens. There are a few shepherds who still summer on high pastures with their herds. There are the villagers in those villages that aren’t deserted.

Except for the few hunters I sometimes encounter, it’s always the same: the shepherds and the villagers, if allowed, will regale me – and any friend who is with me, even if they don’t speak the language – with stories of how life once was. They always talk about the paths that led to Karystos, or to other villages; they always talk about the hunger they suffered under the Axis occupation; they always speak of the poverty that came before, a poverty unimaginable except in today’s Third World. They always, always, always, lament the fact that there’s no one left. They always offer something to drink, something to eat. They often ask whether I know anyone who wants to buy their homes, their land, because they want to move to Karystos, for they don’t want to die alone; and sometimes I’m asked if I know anyone to marry their sons or their nephews.

Leaving them is always the same. I always ask the way, even if I know it. Women will buss me; men tip their hats. Sometimes a hand is placed on my wrist; there’s a tenderness, a sadness, a loneliness to these lives, no matter how gruff, how hardened, how unmannered the shepherds or villagers might be. When they let go, they always stand and watch, calling out over and again, Kalo dromo – literally, good road, meaning have a good journey – and, my favorite, sto kalo, sto kalo. Go to the good. Go to the good.

I like to think, that’s where the ways lie. To the good.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to greekworks.com. Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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