October 26, 2009

The Virgin Traveler: Mama Greece

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All we needed was a little direction. Which way was this hotel? Our original plan for a hotel was not working out and we had wandered to a nearby cafe to use wifi and do a little research. We wanted to look at a hostel-type place that we thought was close. "Can you help us?" I asked Tito, the chef, who had just finished explaining to us about his snobby sister in the USA and how the little man (George Bush) had made the economy bad and how Obama was going to save the world. "Is this close to us?"

"You need rooms? You need place to stay?" Crap. "We give you place to stay for cheap and better."

"We just want to look at this place. Is it near us?"

"We give you room. I talk to owner. He give you room for good price." Tito disappeared and we tried to figure out the map.

The owner, with shoulder-length curly hair, pulled back into a ponytail, his off-white button down shirt hanging from his little round paunch over his blue jeans, approached us quickly. "You need room? You stay with Mama Greece. I call her already. She come over and show you the room. You stay like queens. Two rooms!" Mama Greece. How could we not meet Mama Greece. We relented to the bombardment.

She pulled up in a silver hatchback, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, her gray and blonde curly hair pinned back loosely with bobby pins. She motioned for us to come with her. "My place in the middle of paradise! You live like queens in my place!" We opened the door to her car, scarred by ripped out stereo speakers, giant holes gaping just below the inside door handle, and climbed in.

She sat in the driver's seat, her tank top cut low in the back, revealing pockmarks and a black bra that was half unhooked. She rattled on about paradise and living like queens as we drove less than a mile to her palace.

By middle of paradise, Mama Greece must have meant a travel agency and a rent-a-car place. She continued to tell us how we would be living like queens as she showed us the stained kitchen counter with dirty dishes on it in a Vanna-White style swish of her wrinkled arm, cigarette in her fingers.

We smiled politely and told her we'd get back to her after we negotiated out of our reservation at our current hotel. She drove us back to her son's restaurant in awkward silence and as we promised her we'd call her if it worked out, we mentally promised ourselves that we would avoid that part of town from then on. We finally found our new hotel that was less dumpy than our original one AND Mama Greece's place. Relief!

October 16, 2009

The Virgin Traveler: The Raki Riot

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[Raki is a traditional Cretan drink, made of grape skins left over after wine making. Smells and tastes like rubbing alcohol with a little cinnamon.]

Missed tweets/Facebook status updates during Final Cretan Adventure:

On the road to Theriso, on the way to Omalos, a picturesque Real Cretan Town, as noted by Lonely Planet.

Surrounded by orange trees!

Amazing cemetery shows up out of nowhere in the middle of orange tree grove!

My authentic, handmade leather sandals from Greece just broke. Am now walking around cemetery with flopping sandals.

Back in the Fiat and on to Theriso.

These roads are crazy. Dropoffs and rocks and pending avalanches. Seriously.

Crap! There's men in camouflage on the side of the road picking up guns as we drive by!

Thinking my broken sandals will make running from men with guns a little difficult.

Chelsea is certain that these men are militants. I prefer the term assassins.

Wild mountain goats in the road!

Lonely Planet, you better deliver a f***ing quaint little town since we almost died at the hands of militants, almost killed a bunch of mountain goats and nearly drove off the side of the mountain!

Theriso is cute kind of. We are eating cheese and pork at real Cretan tavern.
We are surrounded by Cretan men.

Back on the road to Omalos. Windy mountain roads again.

We’ve almost turned back three times because of the darkness and the crazy roads, but now we have to see what this town is about.

Goats in the road again! This time a lot. A lot a lot.

We made it! Omalos is at the mouth of the Samaria Gorge, which I was going to hike but didn’t have the right shoes for it. No really, it was the shoes.

Stopped at only open restaurant in Omalos, in a hotel. Everyone is staring at us.

Beans for dinner!

Waiter brought raki glasses for all of us and one for him. He is wanting to drink with us. Uh oh.

We sipped, but waiter is refusing to take no for an answer.

Fine. ACH. My throat is on fire. I can’t talk. The raki is STRONG. Waiter is laughing and pouring more raki.

Chelsea just declared that she is Mormon and Catholic and very religious in an effort to convince waiter that she can't drink.

I decline on the basis of being a wimp. Waiter points to me, “Wimpy.” Points to Jen, “Big Lush!” and pours her more raki.

Burping up raki is painful. Also, Jen is on her 5th or 6th shot of raki. Waiter is laughing at us. He is going to get us more water.

We poured the rest of the raki in the water glasses in an effort to trick him!

He saw us.

The entire restaurant is staring at us. Waiter pours more raki for Jen. We don't know how much she has consumed.

Jen is drunk. Taking one for the team. Thank heavens for the token drinker! The rest of us escaped with minor throat burns.

Singing Mamma Mia soundtrack while driving down the mountain roads. Also. Jen doesn’t feel well, but she loves everyone.

Goats are all over the road. They are not moving! We have to open our windows and shoo them to get off the road.

Amber is a good driver. Jen still loves everyone. Also she loves Greece. And raki. And Greek waiters.

Back in our beds. Five am wake up time for early ferry to Santorini!

Some of these pictures are by Jen! Thank you Jen!

October 15, 2009

The Virgin Traveler: Last Day in Crete

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I woke up late. And immediately wanted to cry. Our last day in Crete. I had just begun to be completely in love with the island.

My last breakfast in Crete was my favorite thing I ate: fruit salad with ice cream. This time, it was banana ice cream with grapes, kiwi, pears, apples and bananas.

I am also going to miss the fresh juices I had every morning, like this banana orange juice.

After breakfast, I walked around for a bit, went back to savor our apartment for a few more hours. I walked over to a little cafe and had a Greek salad like this one:

And had a lovely conversation with an older American gentleman, who told me that I would love Santorini, that Mykonos was the homosexual capital of the world for rich people, that he loved walking where Paul from the Bible walked, that he had been to Europe 22 times, that it's never too late to start traveling and that he had no idea who puts things in the internet.

Then I went back to the apartment to meet up with my friends for our last road trip.

October 11, 2009

The Virgin Traveler: Shiny, happy people.

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She was a large woman. Maybe 260 or 270 pounds. Tattoos of flowers adorned her ankles and a red flowery bikini top held up her chest with industrial strength. Rolls of fat flopped here and there, over her blue bikini bottoms, which covered just what was necessary. Her long dangly earrings called attention to her short, reddish curly hair and her permanent, toothy smile. She was treading water in the clear crisp sea water while waiting for her boyfriend to climb in.

"It looks nice," I said to my sister standing beside me, not wanting to jump in the water quite yet. The woman was watching us. "It is quite nice!" she said, her Scottish accent like music interrupting our conversation, her smile never leaving her face.

Her boyfriend, a 40-ish Norwegian, plump, bald and grinning in his red speedo, climbed down the ladder on the side of the boat. He was nervous. He gingerly put one foot into the intertube attached to the boat, and then the other foot. "Love, you don't have to climb in it!" the woman yelled as they both started giggling. The Norwegian said something and laughed and paddled about three feet before the rope held him back. He floated back to the ladder and climbed up.

The woman put on her snorkel mask and dove down with her underwater camera. A few minutes later, she surfaced and came back aboard. "Look at my pictures!" she said as she approached us with unrestrained enthusiasm. "It's my new camera. He bought it for me just before we came on holiday."

"Your first time on Crete?" We nodded. "I came here last year for four weeks and stayed for ten months. Then I met him and now we live in Norway. We had a big party yesterday when I came back into town. It involved lots of kissing and hugging and singing and drinking." We laughed. She told us how it's not so hard to learn Norwegian. She told all of her friends in Norway to only speak Norwegian and not English.

At the next stop on our tour boat, they snorkeled again, this time, with him wearing a life jacket. She took close up pictures of him underwater and then showed me, while he was standing there, looking over her shoulders, giggling and both of them saying things about the fishies they saw. They got dressed, and continued smiling while enjoying the sun and some beer.

October 9, 2009

The Virgin Traveler: The Real Creta

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It's easier to stay inside your comfort zone. To not travel outside your neighborhood, to only talk to people you know. It's safer. Even when traveling, it's easier to stay within the space that you are familiar with, to take the most traveled way. Like taking the once-a-day bus to the famous beach with all of the other 99,000 tourists. That would be easy.

But to take the road less traveled (I know, overused phrase) is the most exciting. For the past two days, me and my friends, in our bright green Fiat, drove through the Cretan mountains to the Libyan Sea and to the best beaches I have ever been to in my life. Not that I have been to that many, but I think anyone would agree that these beaches are pristine, beautiful and addictive.

It's surreal - little old Greek ladies in black, sitting by the side of the mountain road selling olive oil and honey from their farms. I kept wanting to take a picture, but is that weird? Hello, you seem like a postcard, mind if I take your picture? Luckily, the wild goats didn't mind. There are so many of them, just sauntering across the mountain roads like it's no big deal. A shepherd standing on the side of the road with his staff, watching the sheep on the other side as they grazed. It's like the movies. And it's the Real Creta.

The roads are so narrow that Amber, our fearless driver, had to honk whenever we rounded a bend as we drove through the tiny mountain villages. And even on the narrowest of roads, the motorcycles zoomed around our Fiat as if we were standing still.

And when we got to the first beach, Elafonisi. Oh. Over the mountains this clear blue vastness appeared and we all stared. It was well-kept, with clean bathrooms and a litter-free beach. People old and young, tan and white, plump and thin, everyone in bikinis. Everyone free, not wearing shorts to cover bits of cellulite, not ashamed of their imperfect bodies. Frolicking in the pink sand and splashing in the clear turquoise water. I, in my granny-like bathing suit, joined them. Social pressure be damned, I did not hide. And it was the most glorious, care-free feeling.

The water was warm and no squishiness was found at the bottom of the sea. Just saltwater and pink sand. There were a couple of refreshment stands nearby, but that is it. There are no hotels there and the nearest restaurant is a mile away. It is untouched by tourism. Well, besides the one tourist bus that comes every day at 11 and leaves at 4. But since it is the off-season, even that was not distracting.

The next day, we made our way through Sfakia (where we had lunch overlooking the water) and ended up at a beach called Paradisos.

There were skinny-dippers and few others. I spent over an hour in the water, paddling, swimming, splashing and then the most fun. I was laying on my stomach in the shallow part and huge waves would come and wash over me, sending me into fits of laughter, as it kind of tickled. Yes, I am three. But who cares. The nearest person was far away. And if I had wanted to strip naked and skinny dip, no one would have seen or cared. Besides my friends. And I didn't want to scar them for eternity.

I love the Real Creta. I wish I never had to leave.

October 6, 2009

The Virgin Traveler: Markets and Gyros

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Went to a huge market the other day in Chania. Olives, fish, rabbit, beef, veal, salt, vegetables, fruit, bakeries, nuts and lots and lots of cheese and herbs. I was in heaven, and really wished I had a gourmet kitchen in Crete.

I had a recommendation from a local guy that we could get the best gyros in the city at a fast food chain called Time Out. I know - weird, huh? I would never have gone in if someone hadn't told me that they were the best. So we stopped there for lunch. I had a gyro with veal sausage. They put french fries in the gyro, which was interesting, and a big glob of Greek yogurt, which was delicious! We all really enjoyed them and we'll probably go back again.

The Virgin Traveler: Take me to Creta.

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When we checked out of our hotel in Athens, the desk clerk asked us where we were going. The older man, probably around 60, with shoulder-length white hair, balding on top and little spectacle glasses, got a big smile on his face when we told him. "Ah," he said, "Take me to Creta!"

Yesterday, while swimming in the Libyan Sea at Elafonisi, I understood why everyone wants to come to Crete. The water is so clear blue that you can see all the way down - it's warm, there's no seaweed, sharp seashells or unknown squishiness when you are walking out in the water. Just pink sand and large masses of black rocks. I could have stayed in the water for hours. When I got out of the water, I had a thin crust of salt all over me, primed for baking in the sun.

I was entranced by the myriads of people at the beach, everyone speaking a different language. And everyone, no matter size or age, comfortable hanging out in their bathing suits, half naked, frolicking in the water. It was so beautiful.

On the way back from Elafonisi, we stopped at this breathtaking monastery that overlooks the sea. And then we continued winding through the mountain roads, lined with olive trees and orange trees and made our way back to Chania in our rented bright green Fiat.

October 4, 2009

The Virgin Traveler: Because it's all about the food.

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Greetings from the Old Port in Chania, Crete! I have been so busy the last few days. Mostly eating the incredible food here. A lot of lamb, feta, goat cheese, olives and yogurt. The thick, creamy, mild Greek yogurt that is so pristine and beautiful, topped with sticky honey or served with tender lamb for dinner.

The first night we were here, we ate at a restaurant on a sidestreet, away from the waterfront, which can be overcrowded with tourists and is like walking through the gauntlet, as the hosts of each restaurant stand out on the sidewalk and try to persuade you to eat their food. "Please, we have very good food." Or like one gentleman: "Please, don't be like the 65 year olds. Come, listen to what I have to say before you walk away, please. You can't just walk off like that." But we did, we walked away like the 65 year olds.

At the restaurant, while watching the musicians that looked like that Tony guy from that dancing with celebrities show, I ordered the fried lamb - I thought it would be an interesting take on fried chicken. But it was more like braised lamb - in olive oil, I think, served with french fries. It was good though, the lamb was incredibly flavorful and fell off the bone and the french fries only got better when sopping up the juices.

The next night we went to a very popular restaurant in Old Town, called Tamam. We got there before the dinner rush (around 9:00 at night) so we were able to get a table easily, though packed against the wall.

They brought us bread and olives and a disk of butter with chives, garlic and pimentos in it. So incredibly delicious. I must remember to make some of that when I get home.

Jen and I ordered a Cretan salad to start, along with some saganaki (fried cheese). The salad had delicious creamy goat cheese on it and potatoes that were boiled in broth or something very flavorful - these potatoes, you can eat on their own, with no dressing, butter or anything. I must figure out how they cook them!

For my main dish, I had stewed lamb over yogurt and served with pita bread and fresh herbs dancing a bit in the sauce on top. This is easily the best meal I've had here, so rich and dense with flavor and heavenly.

Saturday night, we pushed our bedtime and hung out in Old Town, eating dinner at 10:00 and watched the young people head over to the clubs. It is an incredible skill to maneuver in 3-inch heels on cobblestone, but they do it and they don't fall. Even though I did. Yes, flat on my face on the cobblestone, even though I was wearing flats and had not had anything to drink.

But anyway, we sat at a corner table on the waterfront, eating a huge plate of appetizers, including Cretan pies, boiled potatoes, grape leaves, tomatoes, fried eggplant, hummus and tzatziki. We watched a group of kids, dressed in jeans and bejeweled t-shirts from a nearby club get into an argument, yelling, and pushing, but never punching. Police, nowhere to be seen. We were anticipating a big fight, but it never happened. And then, we were tired from all the anticipation and walked back to our apartment around 11:30 and went to bed.

I found a cooking class to take, hopefully this week, at an old Cretan farmhouse outside of town. I'm so excited about the possibility of tasting cheese and olives and cooking Cretan food all day. I have also determined that I'm going to go snorkeling or scuba diving or something. Oh! And also. I'm going to buy some hiking shoes and hike the Samaria Gorge. I know. It seems like I'm a different person, wanting to do all these outdoorsey things. Well maybe I am.

October 2, 2009

The Virgin Traveler: I discover I am a sunbather.

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I have always thought laying out in the sun was fairly boring. And painful. Especially when you don't apply sunscreen prior to exposing your pale, white skin to the world. But today, I sat on a beach chair on the roof of our apartment, reading a book for a good two hours. Because how could I not. Look at the view. I'm in heaven. And I didn't even burn myself to a crisp. Yet.

The Virgin Traveler: Where I discover that I do not, in fact, hate history

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So first of all, I just have to show you what I am looking at right now as I am writing this. I'm sitting at an internet cafe on the waterfront in Chania. Here is the scene from my chair on the patio. It's about 75 degrees and breezy. Life could not be more perfect.

On Wednesday, my sister Chelsea and friend Amber flew in from Sweden to meet up with us for our Cretan adventure. The ferries only leave at night, so we had a whole day to explore Athens. We ended up taking a bus tour, where you could hop on and off of the bus at the different sightseeing spots. I was mainly interested in seeing the Parthenon, because it's probably the only chance I'll ever have at seeing something like that.

So we hopped off the shiny, red tourist bus and walked up to the Parthenon. I have never liked history all that much. Never really appreciated it. But getting up close to such a building - one that was built without all the computers, machinery and automation that we have today. It's seriously unbelievable. The mass alone is overwhelming, the structure and intricacies of the design are amazing. And by the time we got done hiking around the building, I had a headache from forcing myself not to cry.

It was breathtaking and thinking about the ancient Greeks building the same building that I was standing near... crap. Here come the tears again. I can't believe I am here!

After that, we stopped at a sidewalk cafe for some late lunch. I ordered Moussaka. A dish with potato on the bottom, a lamb and tomato filling, eggplant and a cheese topping, served in a little casserole dish. It was sweet and tangy and had just a touch of cinnamon. Warm and filling, I was ready to sleep.

Unfortunately, we had to be on our way. We picked up our luggage and dragged it onto the Metro in the midst of a communism protest in the middle of Athens and made our way to Pireaus, the port where all the ferries leave.

The ferry was huge and spacious. The Greeks smoke like nothing I've ever seen, so much that their cigarette smoke filled up the huge and spacious ferry. We sat near the open end because otherwise we couldn't breathe. Fabio was sitting near us. A big, muscular Greek man with flowing hair and a sharp nose and eyes I could fall into. Beautiful.

We arrived in Chania at 5 in the morning and hung out on the ferry for a couple of hours, since we couldn't check into our room until 11. We had a little breakfast and then made our way to Old Town Chania, where we are staying.

It's a beautiful part of town, with crumbling buildings painted bright yellow and the glistening water, clear as a window, Greek music playing everywhere and the peace and calm of a relaxed life. Suddenly I want to know how all this came about. How the town was built. Where did the people come from. What did they do. Because it matters. The history of all of it matters. And making it part of my history is what I can't wait for.

October 1, 2009

The Virgin Traveler: All-night ferry rides make for a long day.

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I have so much to tell you and show you from the last couple of days! We saw the Acropolis and toured Athens, then took an all-night ferry ride from Pireaus to Chania last night. We finally crashed at our apartment this afternoon. So tired! But I wanted to post a few pictures from the beautiful city. I am so in love with Old Town Chania that I might never leave. Oh. My. Gosh.

The views from our apartment.

The gorgeous Greek guitarist making beautiful music during dinner.

Old Town Chania at night. Isn't it a dream?