I’m not going to lie and beat around the bush telling you that Crete was my favourite place. It wasn’t the best of the seven islands I ended up visiting but it stood out because it was my last. Therefore, it holds a special place in my heart as my final goodbye to the beautiful Greece that I always dreamed of seeing. Never could an island in this country be a bad experience. They have all been spectacular in their own way. I’ve genuinely appreciated and loved them all for a very specific reason, feel and light that it brought me.
I am positive that there are places in Crete that I didn’t get to see that would have taken my breath away. The problem I ran into was getting from one place to the next. I stayed in Heraklion and this was at least two buses away from most villages and even further from the islands and beaches that surrounded it. After I took my first day trip and spoke to others about a few possibilities for the days to come, I realized that unless I took an expensive organized tour, the day would go the same way. I would be spending 6 hours of it matching up bus schedules and sleeping against the window watching the city life pass by me. Not exactly my idea of a fun time.
What I did do was take this opportunity to really get to know Heraklion. It struck me in the same way Athens did. It was very much a city like the one I live in back home. The plus side always being the ocean mist only steps away. As I’ve learned multiple times, no matter how I feel initially about a place, there is always more beneath the surface. There is a piece of beauty, big or small hiding somewhere or right in front of my nose and I always plan on finding it.
This time, it came in the form of very simple moments between people and places. I arrived into Crete still feeling a little down about leaving Santorini. It took what seemed like ages to finally find the one and only youth hostel around. The language barrier was stronger here than anywhere else so even repeating the word hostel over and over again to cashiers and news stand workers didn’t seem to help me find my way. It was dark by the time I wobbled in, my legs feeling boneless from walking so much. The first day was spent alone which I realized soon after waking up was something I needed at that moment. I had been around people for the past week and completely in my element. But believe it or not, I’ve learned to appreciate alone time on this trip too. That was a concept I was never able to understand. “You mean, you want me to spend time by myself? How boring!” It’s proven to be therapeutic and necessary for me lately in order to take some big steps forward. It’s important to keep in touch with yourself every once in a while in a quiet place.
I wandered the streets of the busy and bustling city in hopes of some inspiration or a chance encounter. It was sort of nice to be back in a place that had a full sized grocery store. Before I knew it, I had stumbled onto a very deserted street and saw a man sitting at a coffee shop table. He had a calm look on his face but it seemed rather empty. I hesitated for a while, wondering if I should ask for his photograph or strike up a conversation. I did what I usually do when I ponder that question and began taking photos of things around the man. I lingered in that spot for a while until it seemed obvious that it wasn’t my main goal to take a picture of the cigarette tray. He gestured to the someone beside him who I assumed owned the cafe and told me I should take a photo of him. The owner laughed and the two pushed each other around jokingly for a bit. I walked over and spoke to the man who originally caught my eye and told him I was a photographer who was fascinated with taking pictures of interesting people. I asked if he wouldn’t mind me taking his portrait and he happily agreed. Every time I snapped a shot he replied with a “thank you” as if that was all I should take. I kept going anyway listening to every thank you. Neither him or the owner spoke very much English. I still attempted to ask him several questions about where he was from, how long he lived here and so on. I gathered that he is originally from Albania. His name is Brink which is short for something I could never pronounce so thank goodness he simplified it for me. He has lived in Crete for 23 years now and working. Back in Albania he was “a poor man” as he put it and there was no work available for him or his family. It was strange because when I asked him what he did for a living he told me he wasn’t working now. “I do a lot of sleeping”, he said. He seemed rather sad about this fact. I tried to get him to elaborate but he either didn’t understand me or pretended not to. Shortly after, he wished me a happy holiday and walked away. There was definitely a lot more to that man than I was able to discover and I was disappointed I couldn’t speak enough Greek to get it out of him. Maybe that’s all he felt he needed to share anyway.
Meanwhile, the owner of the shop (who’s name I found out was Vernellez), had offered me a glass of fresh orange juice and hurried me to a seat, picking my bag up and placing it on the next table and offering me a glass of ice for my water. It was top notch service. I could see him squeezing the oranges from the back behind the rickety old counter. The place looked like it hadn’t been touched up for decades. I wondered if he made any money at all with the location too. Everything seemed eery and dead. Vernellez and a younger Greek boy sat around chatting while I awkwardly slouched in my lawn chair listening. Well, it wasn’t entirely awkward. I just wished for the life of me I knew what they were saying. I finally spoke up and asked Vernellez how long he had run the shop. It’s a Father and Son business. His son being the boy I saw sitting next to him. It’s been in the family for 32 years (so clearly they have had some business). That was the extent of what I was able to get from him because his son had been translating. Out of the blue, the Son stormed off in an angry flurry and took the potential for conversation with him. On a side note, he could have been as happy as ever but Greek’s always seem to sound like they’re mad at each other. You just never know!
The owner and I sat face to face and alone while I sipped my orange juice and struggled with paraphrasing my English. There was nothing I could do to keep our conversation going and he seemed as frustrated as I was that we didn’t know each others languages. It’s a shame because he seemed like the friendliest guy on Earth. He had a smile on his face the entire time I was with him. Not a beaming smile, just a content one. Once I finished my juice, I decided to head off and explore some more. “How much do I owe you?”, I said as I gestured to the glass. He shook his head and told me I didn’t need to pay and shooed away the thought. It was the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me. He hadn’t had a single customer all day it seemed and here he was giving away free juice. Talk about restoring your faith in humanity.
When I got back to the hostel that night, I ran into a group of girls I had seen around since my first moment of arrival. Two of them were from Holland and one from Israel. All of them were attending school together in Amsterdam studying Psycho Biology. What I loved the most about this group of three was that they were all drastically different. Iris seemed very down to earth, someone you could have a really rich conversation with and never be bored. Annewil was the quieter one of the group, sweet and gentle but very smart. You could tell. Her father is a marvellous photographer and her and I looked at his work together, bonding over that connection. Dina is dripping with character. Her personality shines across the room. If you meet her, you’ll never forget that you did. This is said in the most wonderful way. Together, they balanced each other out so well. We sat around while Annewil finished putting together some home made earrings for me just seconds after we met. Dina had generously given me a pair of two little bicycles that still dangle from my ears today in memory. Unfortunately they were leaving the next morning but we all went out for coffee and dinner that night. This is where I got to know them as much as I could in only a few hours. It was one of the briefest friendships I’ve ever had but certainly one worth having.
One thing that made me just know that they were supposed to come into my life was the discovery of a book. Dina told me she had found it on one of those book stands in the street and something was really pressing her to take it with her. The book is based off the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and his theories. She bought it a month before she was planning to head on this trip with her girlfriends. She was having doubts about taking it with her since she was near finishing but decided that something had been pushing her to pack it in her suitcase. When they arrived at the airport, the only flight left was one to Heraklion in Crete. It all tied together for one reason or another. The book is written with very simple but enlightening style and everything I read in there pertained to the exact way I want to live my life. A lot of it has to do with perspective. I don’t know how to find this book but if you can get your hands on it, I recommend you give it a try. I sat with my nose in it for a while in the coffee shop. I have a feeling it’s going to play a big part in my journey somehow.
After saying goodbye to my new friends, I knew exactly how I would be spending the following day. I had been reading a book since my time in Athens. George recommended it to me because it had been a best seller and his mother really enjoyed it. The book is called The Island by Victoria Hislop and focuses on fictional characters but real circumstances involving the island Spinalonga in North-Eastern Crete. Up until 1956, this was a Lepor Colony where people caught with the disease Leprosy were sent to live and die. I wondered if maybe I would be able to visit this island when I was there but from the sounds of it, it seemed to be pretty out of the way. When I got there, I found out that it’s a pretty big tourist attraction and boats leave every 30 minutes from Eulounda and Plaka to visit. I was forced to take two buses and a boat to make my way to the island but in the end, it was worth it. It was shocking for me to be traveling to a place I had been picturing so clearly in my mind for weeks. I had been following characters through this place and connected with the setting as we all do in during a good read. As I traveled on the wooden boat to the island, I honestly imagined that I was being sent there with no option of coming home. This was it. Imagine being ripped away from your life and ridiculed because of something you couldn’t control? This same trip that I was on had been made hundreds of times in the past with that exact mentality in the minds and hearts of so many people. I felt so lucky when the captain told us we had an hour until we needed to report back. How some people would have killed to have heard those words.
The island was described so well by Victoria. It wasn’t very far off from the one I had pictured in my mind. The trees where the two lovers met in the evenings were the exact same, the dark tunnel that lead into the village was just as heart wrenching and lonely. This place was very sad. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. It looked so abandoned, almost like they had to flee in an instant and left in a whirlwind. One hour was hardly enough time for me to soak up the stories that lay in the broken walls. I was really glad I had the chance to go but I couldn’t help but feeling a little down after the visit. A lot of people still lived happy lives on the island but I couldn’t stop thinking about the ones that didn’t. It was eye opening.
My trip to the gorge was ruled out because of cost and travel time which was really unfortunate. If it was something I was dying to do then I would have gone regardless but I wasn’t heart broken. In fact, the lazy day may have been necessary before my 2am flight into Spain. I spent it by the harbour reading and eating ice cream. I was also able to meet this beautiful lady while walking along the ocean. Actually, I ran up to her after watching her walk away and realizing I needed to take her photo. She didn’t speak a word of English but her boyfriend told me that her name meant “first born” in Turkish. Just before I decided to head back and pack, I caught the eye of a man selling jewelry on a side street. He had on dark glasses and rocked a long, grey beard. I walked up and asked him if he made the jewelry himself. I was surprised and happy to find that he spoke perfect English. He does in fact make this all by hand. He’s been doing it for 35 years of his life. His English comes from his time in Montreal, Alberta and Toronto working in Greek restaurants as a waiter. He was interested in my trip so we talked a lot about the places I would be heading, The Camino and he shared his love for Thailand telling me all the little islands I needed to visit. I can imagine he gets pretty bored just sitting on that step all day. I walked by him every day before and his stand was always empty but his jewelry is beautiful.
When it was time for me to head back, I asked him if he had any parting words he wanted to leave with me in case I used his story in my blog. He told me right away,
“If you find something you love, make sure you do it for the rest of your life.”
And with that, I headed to the airport and boarded a plane to the next country on my list. Spain and the beautiful and highly talked about Barcelona. Greece was indescribable. It changed me in many ways, made me aware of many things and introduced me to people who will be in my life forever. It was all that I wished of and more.Yamas, my dear friend.