The Syrian

You never know who you’ll run into while traveling. A great example of this is a guy who I’ll call the Syrian, because I forgot his name (just kidding, I think his name will be branded on my memory for the rest of my life). He spent much of his childhood in Syria, and at some point before he reached adulthood, he was being taken care of by a German family. I didn’t ask too many questions, but if I had to guess, I’d say his Syrian family knew bad times were coming and found a way to get him ‘adopted’ in a more stable country.

This guy is fucking awesome! He’s a programmer; he invested in CryptoCurrency; his skills make me a little jealous.

But beyond the basics, he’s just an all around nice guy. One afternoon, he went into town and bought a bunch of supplies. Then, he cooked an amazing pasta and fish with sauce dish (I know, my descriptions suck). Mid way through cooking, he realized he’d forgotten to buy cheese. So I went down the road a bit to a grocery store, and bought some. Not only would he not accept me paying him for the delicious meal, he insisted he pay me back for the cheese! We’re travelers, man; we can’t just be blowing money like that. So I got one of the best meals I’ve had in Greece for free.

Once when we were talking, he mentioned that he’d volunteered at some refugee camps in Germany looking for his mother. After a while, he gave up, and concluded she was dead (to be fair, that’s what everyone else was telling him too). Then, he heard some people had spotted her (or at least someone that looks a lot like her) in Greece. So he booked a flight down to look for her. Now he’s preparing to take a bus out to the Turkish border, hop off every once in a while, and try to see if he can find her somewhere along the way.

It’s no secret to my friends that I don’t get along with my parents, but hearing his story, even my heart broke a little. He obviously cares deeply for his. He told me it was easier when he didn’t have hope. Now he’s stuck in that terrible mental space where she might be out there somewhere just beyond his reach. If I was still religious, he would definitely be in my prayers.

This is what happens when you travel. You bounce around the world having a good time, then something comes along and slaps you across the face, and reminds you that the world is still a fucked up place in some areas. There’s still way too much hate, violence, and grasping for the ring of power.

But the ring of power will not be controlled by anyone. It corrupts all who try…even cute, care-free hobbits. Hell, I’ve seen it corrupt me in times past.

Sorry to bring you all down, but I felt this was a story that needed to be told. May we never forget the horrors humans are capable of. And may the mark we leave on this world make it a better place…for everyone.

 

 

 

 

Update: I saw him again, and learned that he found his mother at the Greek/Turkish border! The last I heard, he was going out to see her, and re-connect. So this story has a happy ending…which is great, because not all of them do.

The small-ish city of Serres

Having been in Θεσσαλονίκη (Thessaloniki) for a while, I figured it was time for a mini-trip. Since my Greek classes are a week apart, I had plenty of time so the search began. There’s a delicate balance to be stuck between accessibility (I prefer not to drive here) and availability of accommodation. The city of Σέρρες (Serres) met my criteria so off I went.

I booked my train ride out on a Monday. It wasn’t very crowded, and I think I was the only foreigner on the entire train (I certainly didn’t notice any others in my train car). I was pretty surprised by the scenery; it was the greenest I’ve seen in Greece. We even passed a lake! I think that area gets a lot more rain than the rest of the country. There were also some sweet views of the mountains that separate Greece from Macedonia and Bulgaria. Sadly, I was felt too awkward to pull out my GoPro and snap a few pictures…. I really need to get over that.

The city is easily navigable as there are only 100,000 residents. Everything I wanted to see was within 500 meters of my downtown AirBnB rental…including a couple blocks of restaurants. Score!

When I went out wandering the second day, I accidentally ran into the local museum. It’s housed within an old Ottoman structure that resembles a mosque. Admittance was (surprisingly) free! I spent about an hour learning about the history of the local area, and looking at ancient artifacts; some of which were from thousands of years before Christ.

View this post on Instagram

A few iconic structures in Σέρρες (Serres).

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

While wandering around, I also snapped a few shots of old buildings, and places of worship. I seemed to be the only person interested enough to break out a camera. I’d officially escaped the throngs of tourists!

Something else I really appreciated was how much easier it was to practice my Greek. When I apologized to my server at a restaurant for my shitty Greek, she didn’t immediately switch to English! She slowed down, and pointed at the ingredients she was asking if I’d like in my gyro. Thank you random person for aiding my language journey.

After a couple days, it was time to head out; I had Greek classes in Thessaloniki to get back to. I think I would have been OK with staying there for a few more days though. My CouchSerfing app said there were people that were available to hang out in the evenings. And I liked the slow pace; it’s a very chill city.

If you get a chance, I’d say it’s worth at least a day of your attention. If you like a lot of action while you travel, you’ll probably get bored pretty quickly though.

Hopefully, this was helpful. Until next time, safe travels….

So many antennas

Perhaps the best reason to stay in a hostel (especially as a solo traveler) is the fellow guests. You’re all travelers, and most people don’t have any plans. It was on one such occasion that I ran into a couple from Germany (because Germans are everywhere). They had a car, and were heading to a hill/mountain that overlooks Θεσσαλονίκη (Thessaloniki). A plan was quickly hatched for a few of us to join them. Five people in a tiny car; what could go wrong?

The hostel is in Thessaloniki’s άνω πολή (ano poli: upper town) which means there are tiny, cobble stone, hilly streets. Some of these hills were too steep for the car to make it up them with all of us in the car (at least from a dead stop). So the driver had to find a (relatively) flat spot for us to pile in. First problem solved…though we were worried for the rest of the trip every time we came up to a steep hill (which was every couple kilometers).

While we were still in the city, there was also the issue of the narrow streets and traffic. Between cars parked on the side of the road and oncoming traffic, it was a rather stressful trip (for the driver). Thanks Maxi; I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with that.

Eventually, we got out and were in the ‘woods’. The country side in Greece is rocky, hilly, and covered in evergreen trees with minor ground vegetation. It’s very different than the green forests to which I’m accustomed.

Then we got to the windy roads going up a mountain. With only a small guard rail to keep us from careening over the side of a cliff, you tend to feel your mortality a little more.

View this post on Instagram

Thessaloniki and bay

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

Finally we were at the ‘top’. Mount Χορτιάτης (Chortiatis) only gets up to 1,200 meters (and we weren’t even at the peak), but the weather was different. It was still 25C (77F), but there was a lot more wind. It’s amazing the difference a few mountains to block the wind make.

Also, the peak was covered in antennas. “Excuse me antenna. Could you move out of my epic view? I’m trying to take sweet Instagram pics here.” After walking around for a bit we found a couple places where the view wasn’t completely littered with the metal monstrosities, but it was more challenging than I’d have thought.

Since the landscape shots were so difficult, I decided to get a few of my friends when they weren’t looking. Sadly, they were my best pictures of the trip. Though I guess I could say they’re more photogenic than the scenery…. Yeah, we’ll go with that.

View this post on Instagram

Waiting for the sunset

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

We were all a bit cold after walking around in a tornado so we decided to head back…and we arrived in the city early enough to buy a bottle of wine and wait for the sunset on the city’s old wall. The clouds were in exactly the wrong place for sweet sunset shots, but the wine and conversation was excellent. Being around so many stoners (the locals there for the sunset; not us…this time), the conversation eventually turned to drugs…because what else would you talk about with a bunch of travelers?

This story isn’t as good as a lot of the others I’ve posted, but it was still a fantastic day. I wouldn’t change a thing about it if I could. And the craziest part is the night before, I had no idea any of this would happen. Well played universe…well played….

I’m on a boat!

Sometimes, acting like a complete tourist is worth it. I’d seen the pirate boat at the Θεσσαλονίκη (Thessaloniki) dock a few times, and was like “that’s such a tourist-y thing to do”. And it is. Before I got on the boat, one of the people hanging around even asked me if I could snap a quick photo of her and the ‘pirate captain’.

View this post on Instagram

Who doesn't love the occasional pirate cruise?

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

Once we got out on the water though…everything changed. I found myself a nice spot on the bow, and felt the sea air on my face. Locals would have said it was a cold day, but for me (who’s from a colder climate), it was perfect. I felt like I could have sat there all day in my jeans and t-shirt, but alas, it was only a half hour cruise…. And for most of the second half the ‘pirate captain’ stood in front ringing a bell and holding a huge ass pirate flag. Whatever, the first half more than made up for the obnoxious second.

Then, I wandered around and look a few obligatory pictures. Like this one under the famous umbrellas. Or the picture of Macedonia’s most famous person: Alexander the Great. I suppose conquering the most powerful nation at the time (Persia) makes you worthy of your own statue. Though I prefer the one of Aristotle; who has the largest square in the city dedicated to him. Ironically, neither Alexander nor Aristotle ever set foot in Thessaloniki, because it was founded after their deaths. The more you know….

View this post on Instagram

This tree looked photogenic to me

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

I did manage to take some actually decent shots though. Like a huge tree that looks amazing! It’s just hanging out in the middle of the city. I don’t think there are too many others that thought to take a picture. Hipster reputation saved!

Anyway, this was a quick post to show that there are still funny, every-day things that can be observed even after being in a place for a while. I do have to do something when I’m tired of studying Greek after all. Oh yeah, did I mention I’m taking Greek classes as part of my cultural studies? I know, I’m weird….

See you guys next time.

One by land…still one by sea

I’ve noticed that relatively well maintained fortifications tend to become prisons later on. At least that was the case with the places I’ll write about today. It’s sad, but history often is.

View this post on Instagram

The White Tower

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

The first one will be recognized by anyone that’s been to Θεσσαλονίκη (Thessaloniki): Ο Λευκός Πύργος (The White Tower). A tower was originally constructed on the site as a Byzantine fortification. Later on, the Ottomans built the current tower which is thought to have been built in the early 1500s.

During the Ottoman rule, it was used as a prison, and was called the Red Tower. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this name was due to the executions.

When Thessaloniki was ceded to Ελλάδα (Greece), a prisoner white-washed it in exchange for his freedom, and it got its current name. White being a symbol of purity was meant to cleanse (but not forget) the misery the tower evoked. Now, it’s viewed as a symbol of the city.

It’s open for visitors, and quite a few tourists (both foreign and local) visit it (especially students that get in for free). It was good to go inside, and look around. However, the plaques are all in Greek. As much as I enjoy learning the language, my skills aren’t good enough to read museum exhibit signs. If you want to visit, see if you can get a local to go with you and translate. Actually, I might be able to bribe one to do that another time…. An idea is born.

A far less popular destination is Επταπύργιο (Eptagyrgio Fortress). I stumbled upon this while I was wandering around the άνω πόλη (upper town) of Thessaloniki. Hardly anyone was there. I suspect this is because 1) no one knows it exists, 2) it’s a long way up, and walking there is a workout.

Travel hack: if love less crowded, but still history packed places, take the hike and find this.

The walls that are part of the ακρόπολη (acropolis or citadel) were built in Roman times. It’s believed the remaining walls were built in the 12th century (during Byzantine rule). Then, it passed and was maintained by the Ottomans as a fortress.

Finally, the Greeks turned it into a prison in the 1890s. The interior reflects this latter purpose as everything within the fort’s exterior walls was demolished and rebuilt. Walking around the inside started off normally enough, but then I found the museum.

20180309_121153

This plaque greeted me, and I instantly turned somber. Through the use of ‘modern’ photography, one’s able to create a far more vehement reaction than the ‘normal’ plaques and ruins I encounter in ancient civilizations. I was caught completely off guard….

And it was fantastic! I travel to learn, to grow, to feel. Mission accomplished…for now.

Thessaloniki (the initial take)

I’ve been here in Θεσσαλονίκη (Thessaloniki) for almost a week now, but I’ve found it difficult to blog for a couple reasons. One, I’ve come down with a minor cold. It’s nothing terrible (runny nose, uncomfortable throat, inordinate sneezing), but it’s made me feel off just enough to not want to write.

Two, I haven’t been taking many pictures. There are some fantastic city views, but pulling out a camera has felt awkward most of the time. This may have something to do with reason one as well…. Traveling isn’t all rainbows and sunshine; even if it’s 21 (70F) and sunny outside (like right now).

View this post on Instagram

Square in the Thessaloniki acropolis

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

I’ve been on a couple walking tours with Γεώργιος (George, which means farmer in Greek) now. He’s from here, and the tours are truly amazing for absorbing the history and culture of this place. “In this place a hundred years ago, a fire started that destroyed the city.” “There’s an old lady that lives here who you should say ‘hi’ to, because she’s friendly and knows a lot of history.” “This is the acropolis of Thessaloniki that the Turks lived next to during the occupation.”

On one of the tours, he even gave us music lessons: we learned about the Ρεμπέτικο (Rebetiko) movement. Even though the style of music hasn’t had much additional composing since the 1950s, it’s still incredibly popular with young college students. In a square with a bust of Βασίλης Τσιτσάνης (Vassilis Tsitsanis, one of Greece’s most famous musicians), he even pulled out a μπουζούκι (bouzouki) and played us a few songs.

Another time, he spent a good 15 minutes describing something few guides I’ve encountered will pontificate upon. He showed us the church of Όσιος Δαβίδ (Saint David, it’s hard to find on your own), and talked about the famous paining inside. Like any good work of art, it can be interpreted in a few ways, and there are lots of ‘easter eggs’.

When a couple of us returned to the church the next day (it wasn’t open during the tour), we encountered the ‘keeper’. He knew all about George, and quickly had us take seats in the church. Then we talked (well, he did most of the talking) for at least 30 minutes about the art we were seeing. I found it very interesting despite not being religious any more.

The day after that, I ran into George again and told him we’d seen the church’s ‘keeper’. He (George) then went into a spiel about every interpretation about which they disagreed. This multi-day discussion was highly entertaining, and speaks volumes to the caliber of the amateur art lovers involved.

View this post on Instagram

The view from my balcony

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

This city is definitely worth visiting. There are so many little historical gems laying around…even if you won’t get too many Instagram-able pictures. And ensure you find a good guide; mine was totally worth the free price…. Just kidding, I gave him a couple donations.

Meteora

One of the joys of traveling is discovering new places. Nowhere exemplifies this more than Μετέωρα (Meteora). I didn’t even know this place existed until last week, and it’s one of the world’s hidden gems. So…story time!

Day 1

I took the train from Αθήνα (Athens). The ride was pleasant until about 2/3 of the way there when the ticket-checker hopped off the train, and a few beggars jumped on. Two of them came by twice each asking for money. I would have thought turning them down the first time would have been enough, but I guess not. Some people have told me they were scared when they saw beggars, but they won’t hurt you; they’re just annoying.

About 5 hours after leaving Athens, I arrived in Καλαμπάκα (Kalabaka: one of two cities at the base of Meteora), and checked into the Meteora Central Hostel. I don’t think I’ll come back to this so I’ll mention here that this hostel is nice! Not only are the facilities pretty sweet, but the couple that run it are very friendly and helpful. If you’re going to Meteora and don’t mind sharing accommodation, I recommend this place.

That evening while eating my dinner in the common area, I ran into a couple girls from Quebec whom I’d seen at my hostel in Athens. We made good use of the games that were laying around. This demonstrates a reason I recommend hostels: you get to meet other travelers who are almost always willing to include you in whatever they’re doing.

Day 2

While eating ‘breakfast’ in the common area, I ran into the Quebecois again. They’d also picked up a German girl who was staying in their room. They told me they were going to take a cab up a little later and asked if I would be interested in splitting the cost with them. Hell yes! Especially since it was snowing….

View this post on Instagram

It snows in Greece? What!?

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

Wait, did I say snowing? This shocked the hell out of me…and the locals. Later on, I watched the news where they dedicated at least 1/2 hour to the crazy snow storm that shut down a bunch of schools, and flooded large sections of the country. Surprisingly, it didn’t stop traffic or any of the public transit from moving. Many of the larger cities even have salt trucks! I’ve seen large cities in the southern US that don’t have salt trucks, but in Greece they make shit work.

A few minutes later, I ran over to the ταβέρνα (tavern) next door that the hostel owners run. The Quebecois has gotten the owners to order a taxi and picked up another girl that spoke very little English. So 5 of us piled into a cab, and went up.

View this post on Instagram

Meteora in the middle of a snow storm.

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

We managed to get ourselves dropped off at a monastery that wasn’t open; oops! No big deal, we wandered over to one that was. FYI, cobble stones covered in snow/slush are very slippery. There were walls to keep us from going over the edge, but we could have easily fallen and hurt something (probably our asses hitting the edge of a step).

After some treking, we arrived at the monastery of Varlaam. Entrance was 3 euro, and the girls that just wore leggings had to use the free skirts that were at the entrance. And for that low cost we got to not only see the spectacular views from the endless balconies, but also the museum, and a lot of the ‘common’ rooms. I even went through the wench room where they’d lower a basket down to pull up supplies. It was well worth it.

By this point, it was getting fairly ‘late’ (most of the monasteries that were open close at 1400) so we set off for another place. We didn’t make it. So we started to walk down, and eventually ran into a cab driver to take us down. We’d been walking around in snow without proper gear for about an hour so hitching a ride was awesome.

Day 3

View this post on Instagram

The mountains from town

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

This was my last day, and the girls I’d met had left on day 2, so I was all alone. The weather was clear (thankfully) and the snow that had fallen the day before was melting. I checked out a little after 1000, grabbed my water bottle and GoPro, and set off for the mountains. I didn’t have much time so I decided to try the ‘foot path’ which runs 1.5 kilometers (a little under a mile) to the top. It took some searching (apparently, I suck at map reading), but I eventually found it.

This trail was nice. It wound around a bit, and was marked occasionally by red paint on rocks or trees. It was pretty steep in some spots though. After a while, I came to a spot that was more of a rock climb than a path. If I had rock climbing gear with me and I wasn’t alone, I would have continued. However, this was now at the point where I could possibly fall and hurt myself, and no one knew where I was so a rescue would be non-existent. I went back down having killed 40 minutes…ouch!

View this post on Instagram

Varied landscape

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

There was another path that looked easier. Maybe that was supposed to be the foot path. I followed that path for a while, and saw a lot of pretty landscape. But no way up the mountain. It seems I would have to take roads.

So I headed off taking every road that was close to the mountains hoping I would find one with a path that led to the top. There were plenty of side roads, but none that I could find lead to paths going up the mountains. More dead time….

Well, I hated to do it, but I knew the main road went up. And I had to get a sweet shot from the top while it was clear out. So off I went. The main road while being easily navigable is quite long. By the time I got to the Monastery of St. Nikolaos (which is nowhere near the top), it was quickly approaching noon. Moving on…

View this post on Instagram

Meteora sans snow storm

A post shared by porcupous (@porcupous) on

It took a while, but I managed to get back to the monastery of Varlaam. It looked completely different than the day before. There was melting snow everywhere, and the mist (clouds and snow) that was so pervasive the day before was nowhere to be seen. I snapped a quick photo with the sun in my eyes, and began the trip back down. Mission accomplished…barely.

It was almost 10 degrees out (50 Fahrenheit), I’d gotten a little hot, and drank all my water. I filled my bottle with some snow on a tree, and continued walking down while I waited for it to melt. At least now I was going down hill so the journey wasn’t as strenuous.

I made it back in time to get dinner, and chill for a bit before catching my train out. It had been a rough day, but still a good one.

Summary…sort of

So I feel like I need to give a few tips for people that are going to Meteora.

  • Ensure you have clear weather. I think the best way to do this would be to schedule a couple nights at the hostel. However, if you plan it close enough to when you’ll visit, you could get away with checking the weather report.
  • Do not take the ‘foot path’. It should be called a climbing path. I suppose it would be nice if you had climbing gear and a couple friends that could get help if needed. If you’re just planning on hiking though, I would stick to the main road.
  • Take water with you. I went up in the winter, and completely used up my water bottle. It would only be worse in the summer. Staying hydrated is crucial.
  • Be safe when walking on the road. Where I’m from (the US), I was always told to walk on the opposite side of the road as traffic so I could see the cars coming and avoid them. Unlike at home, the drivers here are used to pedestrians on the side of the road. The roads also have a lot of switch-backs (curves). So I would recommend walking on the same side of the road (the right) as traffic so the drivers can see you, and move their vehicles appropriately. There are also many places where there isn’t anywhere to go if you had to jump out of the way of a moving car. So definitely try to make it as easy as possible for them to see you.

If you’d like to see more pics, my Instagram name is porcupous. So linky, linky… And yes, I know I shouldn’t be allowed near a camera.