Friday, February 29, 2008

¡Dios Mios!

February 28, 2008

It's six in the morning and I've never appreciated last call in the States until this very moment. I smell like a stale hookah—no , a USED hookah. Ugh. I spent the last 10 hours washing dishes at one of the busiest bars/nightclubs in Chios. The night started out pleasantly enough, cappuccino in hand I sipped the liquid caffeine that would get me through the night and surveyed my surroundings. Everything was in order, no problemo.

At about 2am we ran out of water. I’m the dishwasher and there is no water. My world sucks ass right now. As the dishes piled up and up and up and up, Britney Spears sang “Gimme, Gimme, more…” Little did I know they would be continuing to give me more until 5:45am.

I feel like I’ve smoked five packs of cigarettes, my feet hurt, my back hurts, I have tiny cuts all over my hands thanks to multiple glass breakage—the intense hot and cold from the ice and then the dishwasher makes the glass extremely brittle. In 40 minutes I will have been up for 24hours straight. I must have expended 3,000 calories tonight. I am starving. Can someone please get me a gyro????

On top of the hours of hard labor I just did, I now have to walk 2 miles home—in the dark. But the sky is quickly changing; it’s gone from a pitch black to a deep midnight blue. I’m sitting on a bench across from a large square. I breathe deeply, hoping to muster enough energy for the walk. The city is starting to come alive, but I’m about to die.
my own personal hell

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hello, I’m your Mexican

February 26, 2008

Huong and I have been exchanging questioning looks as Mr. Vardakas explains the job that he thinks he can get us at his cousin’s bar. “Well,” he says nonchalantly, “you start at about 8pm and then you’re done whenever the bar is closed. Sometimes they close early, sometimes they go until 8am.”

We find out that the pay is 30euros a night, regardless of how long the shift is. It's a bit of a dilemma: do we spend our nights working, days sleeping, barely making any money, or do we throw caution to the wind, plough through our savings, but have a blast for the next 3 months traveling about?

We have an appointment at 3pm to meet the boss and Huong and I have been weighing our prospects. On the one hand, the bar is situated in a primo location, right on the main street that hugs the sea, it’s always packed, and the potential for getting more integrated into this culture increases by working in a social environment. So far, our interactions have centered around Mr. Vardakas and Poppy, a Bulgarian woman who also works at the bar 7 nights a week and rents a room from Mr. Vardakas.

The reality is that our options as illegal immigrants are few and we find ourselves in a curious position—we are the Mexicans here. We share a cramped living space, we don’t speak the language, we will be working long hours for little pay, our country’s currency is significantly weaker than the country we are currently in, and we don’t have the official paperwork that would allow us to get a job that doesn’t require menial labor.

Steyo, one of the three partners of the bar, breezes down from the upstairs office. He greets us kindly and says, “So, would you like to work here?” I stall by asking questions. I knew Huong was still on the fence, but I had just about convinced her that this job could lead somewhere. Where that might be, I had no idea, and although I had only planned on working at a restaurant as a last resort, the journalist in me wanted to be a Mexican.

So when Steyo asked if we wanted the job, I served us both up on a platter. After all, I’ve met some of the most amazing people I know in a bar.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

“…but I don’t love to arrive.”

February 24, 2008

There’s a line from my favorite poet, Mahmoud Darwish, that describes my mood right now: “Addresses for the soul, away from this place…I love to travel to any wind, but I don’t love to arrive.”

All the anticipation, excitement, flurry of activity, day dreaming about what things will be like once you arrive, plus the physical effort expended to get to your destination puts you on an adrenaline high that heightens every sense. Then you arrive and you still can’t relax—a new set of realities is greeting you at every turn, your own reflection in the mirror looks strange...everything is foreign.

Our one bedroom apartment is literally one room rectangle about 12’ x 10’ with a smaller hallway for a kitchen in back and a tiny bathroom. It could be worse. I remember my friend James’ apartment in Paris had the toilet in a utility closet—so small that your knees brushed the door when you sat down—and you had to step up onto the kitchen counter to take a shower. But, at least there was water and even hot water, unlike the apartment in Jordan, which was huge, yet missing these key elements much of the time. Given the small space, right now our luggage looks like it threw up in the room.

But, despite our clutter, some nice details greeted us: fresh vine-ripened oranges on the shelf and in the refrigerator, newly painted walls, two new beds, and my personal favorite, which words cannot do justice:Was this little shrine left over from previous tenants? Or, was this Mr. Vardakas’ personal interior decorating touch? Best not to dwell too long on this subject…

While our little hut on the rooftop is small, we do have the entire rooftop to ourselves and we wake up every morning with a view of the sea. We’ve decided that we will claim the rooftop as outdoor living space and make it cozy.

Later in the day we got our first look at the island with Mr. Vardakas as our tour guide. We met an Orthodox priest, who is the lone caretaker of the Mersinidiou Monastery, apparently because everyone else has died.
We asked Mr. Vardakas what will happen to the Monastery when the last priest died, he shrugged his shoulders, picked some geraniums and handed a stem to each of us. Next we strolled about Lagada a nearby town to the North, very idyllic, with its main street floating just above the sea. Not bad for a short Sunday drive.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Mr. Vardakas

February 23, 2008

Baggage in hand, I walked out of the terminal to survey my surroundings. Still no sign of Huong or Mr. Vardakas, so I parked myself on some outdoor seats and rummaged through my bag to find his number. To my relief when I got him on the phone he knew exactly who I was and said he would be there in 10 minutes to pick me up.

To my right was the sea and a deep orange sun was rising above the horizon. The hazy land mass in the distance must be Turkey. I breathed deeply, the fresh sea air a welcome change to airport terminals and airplane cabins.

A few minutes later, a short, older Greek man was approaching. “Hello, here I am!” he waved and smiled heartily. In pure American fashion I was ready to give him a nice firm handshake, but he came at me with arms spread wide open. Yes, I thought, I guess it’s time to leave my American manners behind and do the European cheek kisses. But, do the Greeks do one kiss on each cheek like Italians, or do they do three like the French, or four like the South Africans? Or is it two like the French and three like the Dutch??? I can never keep it straight… He was approaching quickly, I guess when in doubt, just act like an Italian. As I lunged left, he moved left, too. I moved right, he did, too, and my reflexes dulled by exhaustion, he planted a kiss right on my lips. Alright then—nice to meet you Mr. Vardakas! Good lord, the only thing to do now was hide my uncomfortableness in laughter and pretend it didn’t happen.

Later when Huong and I were alone, she had explained to me that this, too, was how she was greeted and she learned quickly to always approach Mr. Vardakas with the side of her face. He had already proposed that she be his “companion” and now that I was here she was quick to offer me up as bait at every opportunity. I told her I would I get her for this… But she was nonplussed, “Hey, I’ve had to endure this for the last two days by myself!” she countered. Fine, fine…I had said, she had apparently been traumatized enough. No matter, when Jenny comes to visit he’ll forget all about both of us.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

My New Island Home

February 23, 2008

I flew into Chios on the first flight out of Athens. The first signs of dawn were beginning to show and as I looked out the window the prop from the small plane was silhouetted by the magenta and blue of the sunrise. This is what I was hoping for: to fly into the island with some light so I could get a view of my new surroundings by air. The flight was short, just 35 minutes, and we were soon beginning to descend. I could see the island in the distance—alone in the Aegean sea and a ridge of mountains rising out of the water like the back of some sleeping dinosaur. I couldn’t pull my eyes away and as we got closer to the island I greedily took in the details below.

Small roads wound about the hills, some paved, but many of them dirt. This must be an off-roaders paradise. I saw multiple secluded harbors and beaches, and I could tell by the rich blue in the dim morning light that in full daylight this water would be a vivid teal. Even from so far above, I could see straight through to the ocean floor.

Movement from below caught my eye and I saw a man cruising on a bicycle on a deserted road. The road was protected on one side by a stone wall and I followed his route as he passed by villa after villa. I inadvertently smiled like a Cheshire cat as I watched him—ah…this is one of things I would do—ride a bike through the hills at dawn with my camera. The architecture reminded me so much of Italy, could it be Italy on an island?

In a matter of moments we had landed and I approached one of the smallest airports I had ever been in. I went straight to baggage claim and looked around half-expecting to see Huong and Mr Vardakas waving at me, but was greeted only by my heavy luggage. All of it, thankfully. I had been forced to check some of my precious equipment and was crossing my fingers tightly that it wouldn’t get lost or damaged. In this I had faced my first financial setback. Olympic Air had a weight restriction that I hadn’t prepared for: everything combined had to be 30 kilos. My total weight was at 55 kilos. I must have spent 2 hours at the check-in counter going back and forth, packing and repacking. This hadn’t been an issue on British Airways and the Olympic Air agent looked at me with pity as he told me each additional kilo would be 10 £, and at 25 kilos overweight that would be a total of 250 £, which thanks to our weak dollar, that’s $500 to me.

He left me on the sidelines to think about my options. None of which were any easier or less expensive. Left baggage costs close to 7£ a day, but then I would have the added burden of coming back to Heathrow sooner than expected to retrieve my bags, not to mention the unexpected airfare costs. I could call Joe and run into London quickly and store some bags at his place, but I only had 2 hours before my flight left for Athens, not enough time to get there and back. I could ship stuff home, but shipping from the airport would cost a premium and I didn’t trust my sleep-deprived mental state to be able to decide what I needed and what I didn’t, I thought I had been so good at coming with the necessities. What was really causing all the weight was my equipment. I was traveling with 3 camera bodies, 7 lenses all of which were premium glass—even heavier than the actual camera bodies, two flashes, filters, special film, laptop, hard drive, cables, connectors, flash drives, card readers, power adapters, converters, etc. etc… Needless to say, I ended up paying the $500.