Blood On the Dance Floor
On Friday morning Ivan burst onto the hostel balcony where we were eating breakfast with the news that the King of Pop was dead. The global response was just as unbelievable as the hasy obituary. Moonwalking in the Liverpool Tube station; spontaneous concerts in Leicester Square, Copenhagen, and under the Eiffel Tower — if you didn't know what a joke Wacko Jacko was two weeks ago, you would have thought by such international veneration that he was still a respected cultural icon.
Ivan saw the news in between his comprehensive survey of the security camera footage from the morning before. A man had walked in, past the camera in the entry hall, up the outdoor stairs, and under the surveillance of the second camera in the lounge, where he grabbed a British girl's half-charged iPod off the shelf next to one of the hostel's few outlets, and fled with the same confident urgency that carried him knowingly to the electronic sanctuary. Ivan was confident that he would uncover the thief, and one-track Serbian obstinacy pursued his certainty.
"He is French-Algerian who stayed here before," said Ivan. "He did same thing, stole an iPod, and they got it back on ferry to Athens. I don't know, these French-Algerians."
Kati and I started later that day on another hitchhiking venture to the southern coast, to Matala. The first to pick us up was an venerable Greek man on the last leg of his seven-hour drive from Igoumenitsa near Albania, to visit his 96-year-old relative on the island. The Greeks have a habit of living to ripe old ages of lucid independence, and will tell you it is because of the olive oil and wine. We had to stop at two stores to get supplies for the hermit, and at the second, in a gesture of Greek philoxenia, the man brought out two Fantas and straws for us.
He dropped us off near the old Venetian fountain of sixteen lion heads in Spili, a town on a long shelf of Mount Kedros. A French couple in a Kia drove us past their turnoff with a map on their steering wheel, and then we walked a ways on a road that curved willfully to avoid the spacious folds of the scrubby and shadeless landscape, until an unshaven and laconic farmer picked us up in his dirty car. We disembarked in an amphitheater-shaped town called Agios Galini, where the Libyan Sea constituted an uneventful stage, with a rocky trap room under the waves' refracting glass. Next came a talkative painter and a half-lost Czech, and then we were in Malata.
Great sandstone steps angle down into the beating surf from both sides of the bay. Within the climbable right-hand ledges, Romans tunneled funerary caves, with niches for remains and offerings, which hippies providentially discovered and unfortunately inhabited in the 1980s. A few of their pasty, long-haired race remain on the sandy beach between the climbable bluffs, hawking necklaces from wooden chests and sitting on blankets in the sun, near the invitations of the water. A painted sign of bloated blue letters on a white wall under the Hakuna Matata café reads: "Today is life. Tomorrow never comes." We climbed on the cliffs and in a café on the beach had frappes and sliced watermelon, newly in season.
Odyssey complete, we turned back to the road. A shirtless gangouri in a truck with a surfboard in the back drove us to Moires, a big and bland highway nexus northeast of the beach, and then squealed off into the late afternoon. Another truck stopped, this one full, and we climbed in the back next to a washing machine and a refrigerator, and enjoyed the aromatic breeze that blew over the olive fields on the rare plain between the dry Cretan hills, until some police waved the drivers over. They asked the Greeks, "What is this in your truck?" but let us be after checking the registration. Next came a taciturn Englishman, enjoying his retirement in a caravan on Crete, and I shared the back seat with an old hound; then a truck to Spili, and another, who thankfully picked us up as we held out our thumbs under the last streetlight in the town, since by then night had fallen and we were still twenty miles from home.
At the hostel we met another retired Englishman: an autoworker who, before his employment at a GM plant, smuggled money and papers between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He saw the Cretans as a New Money people, struggling to maintain the old traditions while they drove fancy German cars, wore new American clothes, and sold grandpa's goat ranch for millions of dollars with grandma still lying in a bed upstairs saying apologetically, "Don't worry, boys, I'll be dead soon."
Still, some things never change. A Greek told us of the Greeks, "The wife is in charge inside the house, the husband outside. The man goes to work for the family and comes home at eight, tired and in trouble. 'Where were you? You are so late!' "
Sunday I boarded a very early bus to Hania, and south from there to Samaria Gorge, through the simple mountain villages where stony men in grey mustachios and black shirts and pants swagger to their seats in the kafeneon. The bus parked at the Gorge when the morning was still cool, in the shade of a high eastern peak and opposite the roots of the canyon from another, which stuck out above the sloping forest like a thumbnail of pitted granite. The parking lot and the scenic overlooks with tourists and their busses, and all the Greeks were shouting at each other. Kati had told me that this just the way Greeks talk casually, and they aren't usually as insulting or argumentative as they sound. The walls of Samaria echoed their bandied words, which may be why they love the place, and I hustled down the gravel steps into the wild to escape the cavalcade of a shouting party.
The trail went down in switchbacks lined with Calabrian pines and the flying buttresses of their roots, and with fallen trees, nettles, and pine cones around little patches of sunlight where grass and green scrub grew. Trekkers hunched ovber against heat and exhaustion at tables set by fountains, bearded with moss and lichen, but the Teutonic visitors always charged by these in a flurry of knee-socks and metal skipoles. At the bottom, the path crossed a riverbed of rocks of every size, all bleached by the sun and worn smooth by the water of the river, now dry. The peaks had already shed the icy mantle of winter, and loomed bare, cracked, and clean over the wooded climbs. A thousand thankful cairns of smaller rocks stood piled on the boulders, waiting to be washed away when the river returned. I made one quickly since the cries of the Greeks were fast approaching.
After a few miles a spring joined the rocky water-bed, and the banks grew green with grass and thirsty scrub and fragrant with marjoram and thyme wherever the sun could get through the thicker cover of pine. Peony bloomed pink and alone. In early spring, the hills turn spectral with anemones, white asphodel, yellow phlomis, foreboding iris, and the stygian violet hoods of dragon arum. The stream had shrunk since then, and drew a silty yellow line of water down the white riverbed, which turned sapphire blue when it was deep and made more noise than it had any right to.
The stream ran for some miles, and then disappeared in a series of tiered pools ringed with flowering stalks. The dusty trail continued along dryly, uneven with roots and rocks that prevented natural observation. Where the deepening ravine narrowed, the trail climbed up one of the slopes, to rejoin its guide later. Eventually it crossed the grey ditch to the Samaria village in the contours of the hill: an abandoned ruin of rocks from the time before the gorge was a wilderness park, when it sheltered stubborn Cretan resistance to Doge, Sultan, and Fuhrer, and furnished fortresses and chapels and terraced olive groves. Now the place is full of benches and captive Kri-Kri goats. A black hose runs through it, propped up by walls and tile roofs and branches, and all the way along the trail as it follows the water-bed, under high walls and higher ridges like castles.
At the Sidoportes, the Iron Gates, the granite walls, 500 meters high, crashed down into a narrow chasm, and shrank the gorge from 200 meters in width to thirty, and later to three. A yellow sign warns of falling rocks and read, "GREAT DANGER !! WALK QUICKLY."
It was a place that makes humans feel small. The shale and granite walls were lined by their long creation and again by the passing of time, so that their whorling patterns read like the ages of the world. Trees and bushes sprout rebelliously from niches, shelves, and crenellations all the way to the forest at the rounded top. Chasms spun off to the side, and in some places steep ramps of scree rested against the Samarian walls. In others, huge boulders had fallen to the gloomy floor, and on the level faces of these, humbled trespassers had piled cairns of rocks from the riverbed. I rebuilt one which had collapsed and added one of my own.
The river re-emerged and contributed its roar to the funneled wind's howling din. For a while, the banks were green again, but then the gorge constricted too much for anything but stone to endure. The trail crossed back and forth over the river on spartan bridges of short-cut logs, and hugged one or another of the walls when only three meters separated them, until finally the gorge opened onto a wide plain of gravel and pine with a few cafés at the end before another pass that led to Agios Roumeli on the seaside, where water from the Samaria fountains costs a Euro and the packed ferry to Hora Sfaktio leaves at 5:30, early enough to hitchhike home from the familiar harbor.