17 December 2010

Once

Koumbara (aka Sunset) Beach, Ios

Once upon a Grecian isle... in the summer of 1980. First a flight to Athens and then a service bus down to the nearby port of Piraeus. It's where ferries embark for the islands - the Dodecanese, Crete, the Dardanelles, the Cyclades and the inner islands of Spetses, Hydra and Aegina. Greece lays claim to over 6,000 islands and islets but only two hundred or so are permanently inhabited and of those only around eighty have populations in excess of a hundred. Mimicking other islands, each of the sunny isles of Greece is like a world in itself.

I had been to Greece a few times before and considered myself something of a Grecophile. I loved the sharpness of colours against rich blue skies and placid seas, old weather-worn men and women dressed in black leading well-laden donkeys back from sun-seared fields, the sound of bouzouki strings under starry heavens, the taverna tastes of retsina and ouzo and that shadowy but palpable sense of an ancient culture populated by heroes and gods.

This time I was heading back to Ios in the heart of the Cyclades, between Santorini and Naxos. Our ferry floated away from the Greek mainland and soon the rhythm of gently undulating waves accompanied our ship's engine's continuous humming - lulling the majority of passengers into suspended states of animation. Rocky islets drifted by. Near Delos, two dolphins performed their acrobatics as an old lady poured sunflower seeds into my open palm. "Efharisto".

Hours disappeared and the sun's fierce Aegean heat began to diminish. By early evening, we arrived at Ios's only port. With hefty rucksack on shoulders, I dodged my way through the throng and headed purposefully out of the port and along a dusty track that I remembered would take me back to Sunset Beach with its lonesome taverna.

I made the beach as day surrendered to night-time in a blaze of glory and as luck would have it, I soon spotted a recently abandoned beach shelter. A low horseshoe wall of rocks had been roughly piled up with bamboo stalks and reeds making a roof. The front of this humble shelter was open, looking straight out to sea and the gold-crimson place where the sun had just sunk away. Crawling into my little "cave", I unpacked my sleeping bag and mat, found my electric torch and prepared to head back to Ios Town which peers down upon its adjacent port.

It was well after midnight when I returned, my belly full of stuffed dolmades, my head spinning slightly with the after effects of a full bottle of retsina. Before crawling back into the shelter, I lay supine on the beach looking up at distant stars, listening to musical Mediterranean waves lapping.

For three or four days, I would rise in the early morning and run out into the sea, swimming towards a lobsterman's bright orange marker float. The water felt cool after sleep and it sharpened my senses. Clinging to the plastic orange globe, I looked back at the shore where a few other beach dwellers were stirring and to the taverna with its whitewashed walls, concrete cistern and sun terrace with vines entwining to make a green canopy.

Word of Sunset Beach seemed to have spread because in late morning, invaders arrived from the town with their towels and snorkels, plastic bottles of water and rubber flip flops. Some claimed beach spaces close to my humble dwelling. Their conversations disturbed my peace and my concentration on "The Dice Man". I decided to go off exploring along the rocky north western coast.

Less than a mile from Sunset Beach, I peered down from a rocky promontory to the arc of a secret, unvisited sandy bay. It was no bigger than a goalmouth. Carefully I scrambled down the cliffs. My feet dislodged sun-baked rocks which tumbled down and once I had to grab on to a defiant thorn bush to prevent myself from falling.

Finally, I was down. Naked in my solitude, I swam out into the little bay where the sea was as clear as springwater, magnifying rocks and seaweed fronds way below me. I read and sunbathed. Swam. Read and sunbathed. Swam. I may also have slept before slaking my thirst by emptying the only bottle of water I'd brought there.

It was time to head back to Sunset Beach but I was weakened by swimming and sunshine. Try as I might to ascend the beach's enclosing cliffs, I could not find a safe way up. At one point I lost my footing and slid back a dozen feet. My heart was racing and after several futile and exhausting attempts to escape I began to accept that I was in fact trapped. Perhaps I could swim out in to the open sea but the currents were unpredictable and besides in my little day bag I had my passport, wallet and transport tickets.

The sun was on its way down again and the prospect of a thirsty night on that unvisited beach became a real prospect. Then I remembered I had a small circular mirror in my bag. I needed it for hair-combing and shaving. I chuckled briefly as I imagined myself, like a character in a "Boy's Own" adventure, trying to reflect the sun's last rays in order to summon help.

Then magically, perhaps five hundred metres off shore, a fishing boat appeared from behind the headland. There were less than ten minutes of sunlight left. I shouted and waved my shirt and then held my little mirror to the sun, subtly altering its position with small wrist movements. The fishing boat continued on its coastal voyage and for a heart-sinking moment, it seemed that they had not spotted me but then joy upon joy, the boat turned shorewards, silhouetted against the very last rays of the sinking sun. I was saved.

There were two old Greek fishermen on board. They spoke not a single word of English but my dangerous predicament was patently clear to them. They offered me water and I downed it with relish. They refused my offer of various drachma notes when they deposited me on another small beach just along the coast. This one was not surrounded by tumbledown cliffs and from it a little track led to the hinterland. I shook my saviours' calloused hands and waved as they continued their evening voyage and then, in fading August light, I wandered through sweet-smelling olive groves back towards Sunset Beach, elated that I was still alive.
Ios Town
Photos by Nick Gent (Panoramio)

5 comments:

  1. Thank you John. I tried hard to capture that time but thought for a moment that no one was going to leave a comment about it.

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  2. Great story and one that brought back warm memories of sunshine on a cold December night.

    Santorinin is one of our favourite places and we must return there one day.

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  3. I have always wanted to go to Greece. Thanks to you, I feel as though I have just been there.

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  4. I would also love to read a book by you consisting of short chapters like this one containing vignettes of your travels all over the world. It would be fascinating! Chile, Greece, Thailand, Sheffield....

    I already have a working title for you: Once Upon a World.

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Mr Pudding welcomes all genuine comments - even those with which he disagrees. However, puerile or abusive comments from anonymous contributors will continue to be given the short shrift they deserve. Any spam comments that get through Google/Blogger defences will also be quickly deleted.