The Ring Goes South

Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Broad wholesomeness and charitable views cannot be acquired by vegetating in one tiny corner of the globe.
—Mark Twain


Crossing from Albania into Greece is a lot like crossing into the United States from Mexico. If you are Albanian, you are scrutinized and searched by the intrusive and tyrannical Defenders of the Border; if you are white, the same guards wave you through with hardly a glance.

From Corcyra I took a bus across the narrow island of Corfu to the famous Pink Palace hostel, which lives up to its desultory reputation as a Pepto Bismo-colored monument to white western debauchery. I checked in and received a pink-dyed shot of Greek ouzo along with the constrictive ground rules and the programme of extreme sports, sunbathing, and drinking. I was also greeted by a shirtless douche in a sailor's hat, shorts, and flip flops, who grabbed me and demanded that I punch him in the face.

"I need the adrenaline bro," is what he would have said if his numbed tongue had not translated it into the slurred language of the intoxicated. About five minutes later he tripped in the parking lot and carved up his leg on the cement, while his friend simply collapsed into unconsciousness on the astroturf, and urinated and defecated in his trousers in that same fluid moment. That is all you need to know about the Pink Palace.

I sound very critical, but it's easy to make fun of the place. I did stay there two nights, was undefeated at Flip Cup, sang Bohemian Rhapsody, and relapsed into the immaturity of college life along with the rest of the beautiful and feckless hedonists who make their way there. I really shouldn't complain.

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On my second night at this sunny monastery for unrepentant alcoholics, I passed through the bar on my way to my room and Nick the bartender, a Sicilian from Brooklyn, said, "What's the matter Jonnie-boy? Why the glum look?"

"Nothing," I said. "The Bank. I have to call the Bank. They're giving me a big hassle."

I had met Nick in the shaded hostel café on the shoreline. He saw me wearing jeans and shouted at me, "Think you're a little underdressed or what?" He was a commando in the Army Special Forces before he turned in his machine gun for a spatula and a bar rag and a job chatting with college girls on the Corfiot beach, and he could probably have helped me with a lot of problems, but not this one.

Back in April, I noticed four strangely large transactions on my checking account statement, all made within a few minutes of each other from a Macedonian ATM in Berlin, and amounting to a little over $1000. Washington Mutual (recently acquired by Chase) deflected repeated emails with corporate alacrity.

I finally called them with the fraud claim that afternoon from the phone in my room at the Pink Palace, and the Bank, in a precaution I should have anticipated, canceled the offended debit card and with it my only source of cash. I protested to no avail — I could not withdraw money unless I was standing in front of an ATM at that instant — and finally got them to promise to expedite a new card to me in Greece. They needed an address, so I got one for a hotel, talked to Nick, called them back, and learned that WaMu was just going to mail it to my parent's house in Canby, Oregon, via general delivery.

To paraphrase an aggravating and tedious phone conversation, WaMu's statement was: "Yes, we realize that we are leaving you stranded in a foreign country without access to your money for 7-10 business days, and that you only have $5 and a credit card, which is not as universally accepted as in the land of its birth; however your fraud claim is already in our computer, and due to our digital bureaucracy and general incompetence we are unable to assist you in any human capacity. We nevertheless, as per the script, offer our corporate sympathies and, as spokespersons for our computers, wish you luck with your new found destitution." Then I said something mean about Washington Mutual, and they hung up on me.

At the front desk of the Pink Palace, you can charge your card as if for a purchase and receive money for beer and ouzo shots, minus 5 percent interest. I took advantage of this and charged my credit card €300, which I hoped would last me until the card arrived, so long as I adopted some thrift and abnegation. I had made acquaintance with excess in Albania, where I swaggered around like a bloated white imperialist, eating everything I saw and drinking as much wine and raki as I liked because it costs nothing, at least in my Westernized eyes. Even a nice restaurant is comparable to McDonalds in expense.

Greece, too, can be very cheap. My diet is composed of souvlaki, a savory wrap like a gyro, in a pita with french fries and a sauce of yogurt, cucumber, and garlic called tzatziki; greasy and flaky pies of meat, cheese, or spinach, which in Albania are called byrek; 1.5 liter plastic bottles of red wine, which cost as little as €2; a lot of farm fresh fruit, especially cherries and strawberries; and the tried-and-true combination of bread and Nutella. All of this is very good, although maybe not very nutritional.

Why tear your hair out in bereavement? Sorrow isn't cured by baldness.
—Bion of Borysthenes

The same day that I got my €300 budget, I took a bus back to Corcyra. I saw the Venetian fortresses there, pivotal during the wars between the Most Serene Republic and the Turk, and the old town and a few of the museums, and then in the early evening walked down to the port and found a ferry across the Straights of Corfu to Igoumenitsa.

I went to the bus station and met an Albanian, who, following the hospitable custom mandated by his tribe, offered to help me out, even though he was homeless and had even lost his sleeping bag. I asked about hitchhiking, or "auto-stop" as the Greeks call it, and the Albanian told me, "No chance. Once they see you are a tourist, you are forgotten." They rely on tourism in this corner of Greece, said the Albanian, and do not approve of those who circumvent their profitable institutions. It was late and Igoumenitsa was not a nice town, so I got on a bus inland to Ioannina (pronounced Yah-nih-nah), the up-and-coming cultural and economic center of Epirus.

Epirus is one of the ancient territories of Greece whose name has survived centuries of foreign domination, along with the names of her heroes. I saw statues of King Pyrrhus, who was the first invader of Italy to march with elephants, and of the Epirote princess Olympias and her famous son by Philip II, Alexander the Great. I saw those the next morning, since the bus arrived near midnight and I slept proudly on a bench at the station, an occasional necessity of vagabonding made comfortable by the warm Greek weather.

The next day I walked around the modern, characterless city of Ioannina on the banks of a lake with the same name. I visited the Ottoman fortress, built behind walls made to resist cannons on a wide peninsula that sticks into the lake, and the tomb of the famed brigand, libertine, and admiral Ali Pasha, and then, unable to find cheap accommodations, started walking south through a bleak plain with my thumb out and a smile on my face, emboldened by my success at hitchhiking in Albania. I walked this way for five miles to a crossroads, where some gas station attendants pointed me toward Dodone, an ancient Epirote city nine miles into the western hills. A dirty hatchback carried me half of the way, and a mangy dog conspicuously stalked me as I trekked the rest.

Dodone is one of a string of villages installed, like most old towns in the Balkans, in the defensible banks of a hill. It is a place where people expect you to say Hello when you pass them in the street, and look strangely at sweaty foreigners who stagger in under a backpack at 7 in the evening, though not without trying to help you get where you are going. I found a hotel called the Art Hotel Mirtali, run by a girl named Katerina and her mother, and bargained down a room. It was still expensive, but I could charge it — and my Plan B was to sleep under a tarp in a boat I had seen on my way up the hill.

I spent the night in the Apollo room resting my feet and watching TV, which has become a mythic novelty on this trip. Every time I stay in a cheap hotel with a television, I can't help but check for English programming. One stand-out memory from my time in Albania is catching CSI New York, with Albanian subtitles. In Dodone I blissfully watched some movie with Sean Penn, in Parga had to break my self away from a tranquilizing stream of reality TV cooking shows, and in Preveza I was lucky enough to catch The Mummy just as it was starting.

Anyway, Katerina's mom made me breakfast and gave me a flaky pie with spinach and feta wrapped in tin foil for lunch, as well as a bottle of water. I asked Katerina about the ruins of the Greek city down the hill, and about the oracle that once drew inquisitive pagans from all over the Mediterranean.

The story goes that this most ancient oracle of Zeus was founded by a dove. The Thebans of Egypt set two free; one went to the Siwa Oasis in Libya to found the oracle of Zeus Ammon, and the other came across the sea to Dodonis, where it landed in an oak tree and spoke to a girl, telling her to found an oracle. Zeus and his consort Dione lived in the roots of the tree and spoke prophecies through the shifting of leaves and the noise of the wind and the movements of birds, until the Christians chopped down the sacred oak in the fourth century.

"There is an energy here," said Katerina. "You will feel it. It will help you find whatever you are looking for."

I found the tranquil remnants of temple buildings, sanctuaries of Zeus and Dione and Herakles, and a semi-circular theater built by King Pyrrhus and turned into a combat arena by Emperor Augustus, with seats for 17,000 spectators and acoustics so munificent you can hear a pebble drop from the highest of the 55 rows. The oracle survived the destruction of Roman conquest but not that of Christian conversion, as zealots chopped down the sacred oak in the fourth century. A large oak tree now stands in the Sacred House of Zeus, and a younger one in the stone circle outside where the ancient oracle grew.

I did see one omen at Dodone, if you believe in that kind of thing: A big fat snake slithered off into the bushes by Zeus' Sacred House, glistening a monochromatic mud color that made him look like bad CGI against the tall grass and bushes. Many of the most accurate Greek prophecies seem to have been augured, or at least interpreted, retroactively and with a good mind for politics and morale, so I will say that my snake fortuned a quick pickup on the highway west of Dodone to Paramythos, and another up over the mountains to Parga on the coast, where I arrived in mid-afternoon and got a good deal on a room in a pension.

Prophets are best who make the truest guess.
—Euripides

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The next day I endured staggering heat to hitchhike 12 miles down the road from Parga to another ancient site, this one bearing the Lovecraftian name of Nekromanteion of Ephyra and the correspondingly terrifying purpose of containing a doorway to the Underworld through which pilgrims could speak with the shades of the dead. The temple complex, ruined except for the underground chamber and the chapel of St John the Baptist that rests neatly on the walls and ten feet off the ground, was sited near the coast on a hill overlooking the River Acheron, one of the rivers of Hades.

Huge, alien spiders spin webs on the structure outside and wiggle their mandibles in hunger, but nothing lives in the cthonic pit, although the stairway is open. The rusted steps lead through a narrow gap in the floor, down into a sepulchral room of brown and riveted rock lit eerily by dim floodlights. The air is so cold you can see your own breath, and clammy as a reptile cage. Stone arches hold up the ceiling. Potholes in the ground, shaped like monstrous footprints, are filled with still water that reflects the vaulted roof and gives the impression of deeper and stranger chambers below. Down the rock of the far wall, from floor to ceiling, runs a crescent crack, an unnatural fissure in a door better left shut.

After ascending from the Nekromanteion, I went down the hill to the Acheron. The deep blue water and green banks, the tinkle of sheep bells, and the pleasant blue sky and bright Epirote sun defy the Stygian legendarium of the river of woe. I had a nice lunch and then got back on the highway, where a truck driver stopped and took me back to Parga. I remembered Achilles' undead words to Odysseus:
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than to lord it over all the exhausted dead.
Parga itself is a nice coastal retreat, a vacation spot for local Greeks known to only a few outsiders, who for the most part skip that vast and mountainous western region between Corfu and Attica. Shops, cafés, and hotels cram themselves around canopied cobblestone streets in a bay between the surrounding hills and rocks.

Atop the northern hill, which stands higher than the rest and out in the sea, is another great Venetian fortress, this one in far less repair than the Corfiot bastions, and also more open to exploration. I clambered around the ruins on my second day in Parga and used my camera flash to illuminate the rooms off the shattered and overgrown hallways, a technique I first learned in the catacombs of Paris.

I also sat around a lot, ate what food I could afford, enjoyed the beach, and watched Athens beat Thessaloniki in some Greek football tournament. A drunk Swede was at the same bar, and broke off our conversation to ask me, "Why aren't you speaking English? You're not speaking English. You're speaking American." The most animated onlooker was a robed and bearded Orthodox priest, who shouted and tensed along with the Athenian team, and who was sipping a beer at a table with his two sons.

I never realized how distinct Eastern Orthodox is from Western Christianity. I've visited a few Orthodox churches in the Balkans, which are always more open and communal than the great cross-shaped cathedrals of the West, focused on the priest who links his followers to God. The churches here are full of icons, and the faithful approach them with ritualized obeisance. The priests go in the back and do their thing, and the laity come in and do theirs before the icons, immersed in parochial singing. It's just you and God and his clergy of saints. That's all I know.

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I settled for a bus south to my next destination, since one was leaving at the same time I passed the bus station the next morning. My funds still amounted to about €200, enough for the luxury of an air conditioned nap. I hopped off when I started seeing Roman ruins north of Preveza, at the old city of Nicopolis. The city's massive western walls still stand, and I immediately climbed up to the top of the 50 foot gate. Beneath the walls are the ruins of a few temples and Byzantine churches, and to the north under the hills are a long stadium for chariot races an the huge husk of a theater, which I nearly killed myself climbing up.

Hitchhiking failed so I just huffed it five miles to Preveza, on the northern end of a wide gulf, and then a few miles more through the city to the tunnel that leads under the bay.

Before I set out again, I wanted to see the Straits of Actium, where in 31 BC Octavian Caesar defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, simultaneously ending the Hellenistic Age and the Roman Republic as he became the sole sovereign of its empire. I pushed my way through willow bushes and out onto a beach, which the Greeks had inexplicably carpeted with a layer of thin wood shavings a foot deep in some places. Across the water to the east is another Latin fortress, but the battle took place to the west in the open sea, just outside of the two peninsula that guard the narrow entrance to the gulf.

On my way back to the highway I saw a sign, "Rooms For Rent," and haggled over a one-night stay with the elderly proprietors by writing numbers in the dirt. They had furnished three rooms in a building behind their house, with air conditioning, a TV, a shower, and double-beds, and I could not ask for more. I gratefully dumped my stuff and set out again.

Outside, a truck drove up and down the street, repeating the same three phrases over and over. I mistook it for some sort of old-school political campaigning mobile, chanting a mantra for one of the Greek candidates in the hotly contested election for the European Parliament representative, but found out later that the truck was probably selling produce and saying something like, "Best potatoes. Good potatoes. Delicious potatoes."

It was still light after I got food from Preveza, so I walked further down the beach than I had before and around a bend in the coast, to make a more thorough inspection of the ancient battlefield. I saw yet another Venetian fort, commanding the entrance to the gulf on southwestern tip of the peninsula, and crossed the springy shredded paper beach toward it. Under the lion of Saint Mark, the beach-front doors opened to a wide courtyard surrounded by empty black doorways. The fort had disgorged its resident bats, who whirled and squeaked overhead.

I found a ramp and took it onto the wall, then climbed up some stairs to the high tower and the graffiti-marred chapel that squatted on the ruin. South were the straits where a few starstruck Romans and Egyptians changed the world, and to the west the Sun fanned out her rosy coattails and unfurled her lavender cloak to trail her in descent.

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The next leg of my trip, the 400 kilometers to Athens by way of Delphi, took two days of hitchhiking in sweltering heat, and sleeping on buses I happened to find. I went from Preveza to Vonitsa south of Actium, to Agrinio in Aetolia, to Amfissa near the coastal plain below the oracle, and then to Delphi itself, arriving at 6 in the afternoon, just in time to see the last rays of sun sweep down that long rocky slope of Mount Parnassus and illuminate the ruined treasuries of Greece and Lydia and Persia, all faithful pagans to the Temple of Apollo and its mythical phoneline to the god of prophecy.

Dodone was the first Hellenic oracle, but for a long while Delphi was the most important. The Pythia, the Priestess of Apollo, sat on a hole in the ground to hear the words of the god. (The hole effuses trace amounts of natural gasses, which if concentrated in an enclosure would explain the Priestesses' nonsensical visions, always interpreted into cryptic and tactful hexameter by the Priests.) Before the battle of Thermopylae, the Pythia told Sparta that she must lose a king or be destroyed, and before Salamis she told Athens that a wooden wall would save her.

The ruins at Delphi are stunning and monumental. All that remains of the Temple are a few standing columns and a stone outline, but those remnants suggest an incredible size. Up above the Temple and the boastful treasuries is a great theater, for plays in honor of Dionysus, and above that on a flat ridge is a long hippodrome for chariot races, its stone grandstands and racetrack markers still visible.

It took me two hours to appreciate everything. By then it was too dark to hitchhike and too late to get a bus, so I began to consider my lodgings. Seven days after the conversations with the Bank, my surviving fortune had been reduced to about €50, which would not carry me far in the Delphic resort town.

The tiers of ritzy restaurants and hotels, bearing the names of every mythical figure and even an Athenian courtesan, look down onto the scenic valley beneath Mount Parnassus all the way to the Gulf of Corinth, that curious trick of geography where the sea bursts into a narrow valley and divides Greece in two. In places the sea between Aetolia and the Peloponnese is no wider that the Mississippi, or seemed that way in the clear air. The Greeks say clear air portends rough, muggy, and overcast weather, while a white haze over distant landmasses or islands signals a hot day.

On my way back from the site, I met some classicists and a firefighting neurosurgeon from Colgate College in New York, who had hired a bus to take them from Delphi back to Athens and the fields of Marathon the next morning. I asked them if they had room for one more and they heartily said yes. With greater hesitation, their awkward professors said the same, the Post Modern fear of animosity overruling their American fear of strangers.

I forgot how incongruously inhospitable Americans are, and that we don't usually offer rides or meals or any sort of aid to strangers or even acquaintances for fear of the malicious caricatures on the evening news; and I shouldn't have been surprised when in the morning the Colgate crew told me they wanted to take my passport to ensure my good behavior, and then that they couldn't take me to Athens after all because of insurance reasons. They said they were responsible for their students and couldn't afford to be responsible for me too. I said that was okay and thanks anyway, and went down to visit the stones of the gymnasium and the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia before starting the long journey to Athens, thinking as I walked about how I didn't want anyone to be responsible for me but myself.

Still, the generosity of strangers is not something to be dismissed as a myth or the quaint prerogative of the naïve, the backwards, and the impoverished. In the sanctuary I met an old Israeli couple who have traveled as far as Uzbekistan and China. When they found out I was going to Athens they immediately invited me to drive with them, and bought me coffee on the way. Mark Twain was right: It just takes a little personal experience of mankind outside negligent hearsay and sensationalism to convince people that the World is nothing to fear.

As Eli of Israel, a tribe which has every reason to believe the contrary, said to me, "All people are inherently good. Sometimes a few do bad things, but there is no group of people who are really evil."

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