Thursday, May 22, 2008

Here's a big one- took me a while to write

I really think I’m ready to put some thoughts down about my greatest world travel ever. I’ve been letting my ideas incubate for about two weeks now- I didn’t have the energy to pour all my experiences out. It’s not that I don’t want to share them- the main problem I have is knowing that I will never be able to record every detail and no matter how eloquently I express my experience, you will never be able to truly see what I saw. I can show you through my words, but I can’t make you feel what I felt. That’s my dilemma. Nonetheless, I’ll give it a shot.

My travels started on a chilly Thursday night. It was 10 pm and the inky dark streets of Evangalistria gave of a menacing ambiance wet with the absence of color. My friend Yomi had flown in from London to enjoy the first week of my spring break with me and we were saying our goodbyes. Duffle bag in one hand, backpack slung across my right shoulder, I stepped out into the night dressed in black and crimson. I was excited, I was curious.

A lone taxi ignited the shadows with its blazing sign and we hailed it without hesitation. This was second nature. We casually tossed our bags into the trunk resulting in a chaotic heap that I’m sure we were charged extra for. We commanded the driver to deliver us to the train station to catch the 12:00 am train to Athens from where we would leave. In the States, train stations are not known for their high-quality clientele and Greece is no exception to the rule. All types of vagrants, transients, ghosts and ghouls lurked the terminals of the station. I was not uneasy, but I was anxious to leave. Keep in mind that Sunday marked Orthodox Easter. Everybody wanted to travel. We sat, and we sat, and we sat. When we finally realized our train was being called, it was the final warning. Our group of 12 sprung to attention simultaneously and dashed towards the correct platform pushing past ticket takers, hurdling small children and dodging pickpocketers. Girls with 60lb duffles showed super human-strength as we exploded out of the tunnel like a bottleneck and onto the platform. Visualize us leaping onto the train as it began to pick up the speed of a mild jog and having the last door close behind our group before picking up warp speed.

The train itself was nothing short of dismal. Being that so many people wanted to be in Athens for Easter, all the trains reserved for humans had been booked weeks in advance. We were stuck in what looked like a holocaust boxcar. Wooden planks were nailed together to resemble makeshift seats, moth-eaten curtains adorned peeling and decrepit walls. From the back of the train lofted the putrid smell of urine and cigarette smoke as the door opened and closed. The train from Hell. We all got through it. We are young, we put our heads down, iPods in and slept it off. After seven hours we finally slowed to a stop in Athens and I could not have been happier. It was 6:30 am on Friday.

Fast forward to 2pm that day and we were standing in Piraeus, the port of Athens. It was breezy by the water, which made it even more evident that in my haste to leave I had forgotten to bring a sweatshirt or anything substantially warm. When we finally got on the ship (I use the term LOOSELY- I was more like a big ferry) and we started eating, I was so hungry I was not quite sure if the food was actually good or not. The answer to that became increasingly apparent as time wore on. By the end of Saturday, we were exhausted and ready to sleep.

SUNDAY: it was the only day where we didn’t have any where to be. As we sailed out of Greece and into the Mediterranean, we took the time to relax in the sun, play cards and unwind our souls. It was a restless day in anticipation of Monday.

MONDAY: Israel: I never thought in my lifetime that I would be here. Besides the fact that my family is not overly religious, I never felt the need to go. You see the news reports on CNN, you read the stories in the paper. What good ever comes of Israel? Despite it’s historic and hallowed past, its present state makes it somewhere to be avoided. Sacred land will always be fought over I suppose. I had an image of dry shanties in my head. A picture of desolate poverty, but I was quite surprised. As the boat drew ever closer to the pristine coastline of Port Haifa I became excited. I saw gleaming skyscrapers slicing the ancient blue heavens and lush greenery. Much different than I expected.

We pulled into the port to retrieve our passports and skipped off the boat fully aware that today we would see Jerusalem and Bethlehem: two cities that transcend yet simultaneously epitomize lore and myth with their esoteric natures. We got on the bus and began what was to be a two hour trip. We entered Jerusalem but kept driving and we pulled into a massive complex with what seemed to be hundreds of armed guards, razor wire and sniper towers. Men could be seen patrolling with visable flamethrowers in full riot gear. Then it dawned on me. I whipped out my iPod Touch to consult a map. We were headed into Bethlehem first, which is located in the West Bank- under Palestinian control. At that moment, our Israeli tour guide was escorted off the bus and my notion was confirmed. No Israelis allowed in Palestine. Everybody was ordered off the bus and searched with German Shepards. As I leaned against the side of the bus being scanned for weapons and C4 I couldn’t help but laugh. I never thought I would be here, being foricibly searched at the entrance of Palestine. Not in a million years. We all got back on the bus and drove to Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity where Jesus Christ was born. I can’t fully describe the feeling of being there. In a word: surreal. My mind and heart were full to the brim, on the edge of exploding with both scattered confusion and deep comprehension. Jerusalem was equally exciting. At the end of the day we sat down to eat a delicious meal at a 5 star hotel in Port Haifa. A perfect day.

TUESDAY: Egypt: Another place I never thought I would go. We sailed into Port Said on a clear sunny day and were ushered off the boat quickly. The plan was to go to Cairo- but something was different about today. I could feel tension in the air unlike anywhere I’d ever been before. And I was right. As I stepped onto the port, I was immediately bombarded my vendors with no regard for my personal space (I’m well aware this notion of personal space is an American concept, but still). Men grabbing at me, pulling on me, thrusting things into my hands, demanding money- any type of payment, in every language. It was highly disconcerting. This was all over Egypt. We got onto the buses for the trip to Cairo when I realized that we were traveling in a convoy. We drove down the sandy highway in a staggered formation so as not to let any cars in between us. In the front and back of the line rode military jeeps loaded with men ready to jump out at any moment, machine guns cocked. Furthermore, each bus had two armed guards. Excuse me for being naieve, but do we really need all this security I wondered. My guess is that if they were providing it, we needed it. Nonetheless, a stressful experience. We passed through Cairo and gazed on the mighty Nile before heading into Giza to see the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. They were more than I could have hoped for. I stared at the face of the sphinx, faded yet regal, and I realized that hundreds of years ago Napoleon too looked on this face before he fired his cannons upon it (knocking off the nose). We also visited the Museum of Cairo, the only place in the world where one can see the actual tomb and sarcophagus of King Tut. We were expressly forbidden to take pictures. But when I gazed upon this jewel, gleaming with solid gold and sapphire luminence I was breathless. Even with the lights off, the glistening face seemed to give off a glow. I HAD to take a picture. I secured the strap around my wrist and tried to discretely steady myself. I raised my hand and took the shot, but not before an angry guard screamed at me in Arabic and attempted to smash my camera to the ground. I got the picture. It was beautiful.

WEDNESDAY THROUGH FRIDAY: My trips were spectacular, but impossible to recount here. Too much, too fast and my brain is exhausted. We traveled to Cyprus (a beautiful island which is divided into Greek and Turkish regions) where the temple of Apollo stands. Additionally, Cyprus is an independent country, which is interesting. We also visited Turkey as well as the islands of Mykonos and Santorini (the home of the famous whitewashed buildings and blue roofs). All breathtaking sights. All unforgettable.

And now I am back in Thessaloniki- I have been for three weeks and much has been going on. Mark came for two weeks, which was an absolute pleasure. He’s a brother to me. I showed him around and together we climbed Mt. Olympus: one of the tallest mountains in Europe (at 10,000 feet). And I’m not talking climbing up a path. I’m talking legit, cliff hopping, this-could-be-perilous, knee-deep in snow climbing. It was exhausting and for a while I wasn’t ready to call it fun. But now I can safely say it was a blast. Mark just left at the end of last week after staying for 2 weeks.

So what’s going on now you ask?

Well I’m coming to the realization that the trip is wrapping up. I leave in less than three weeks. Many things are racing through my mind. On the one hand, I will be happy to get home. I feel like I need to get the ball rolling and make some moves, but I am essentially useless here in Greece. Most things I still need to do in person. So it will be good to get home.

On the other hand, I’m scared of my adjustment back into U.S. life. I really have assimilated into the culture as much as possible in the 4-5 months I’ve been here. For one, I’m speaking the language at a level I did not anticipate. If I was here for a year, I know I would be fluent(ish). Second, and I believe more importantly, I’ve been able to slip into the Greek mindset. Let me elaborate. When I’m in the States, I’m exposed to American media through pictures, music and TV every day thousands of times. It makes me want things I can’t or don’t have. It makes me appreciate less what I do have. I’m always thinking about money. Always worrying, always stressing. My main career focus is making enough money to buy the things that TV says I should.

Here, I haven’t seen American TV in months. And my values have changed because I’ve gone without all those things on TV for months, yet I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. So in my mind, there is no longer the correlation between having “stuff” and being truly content. I’ve been told this before- you know the adage “money doesn’t buy happiness”. But I never really bought it (no pun intended). I always thought if I just had what I (thought) I wanted, happiness would be intrinsically contained in the possession of that new “something”. But what I’ve come to find is that happiness is in relationships. Happiness is in people- and that’s what I’m coming back to the States with. A whole bunch of great relationships. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Until next time

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