Using the sun to guide me and an increasingly battered map of the peloponnese, I follow mountain paths and coastal trails, zigzagging and snaking my way south and east through this history filled land. People I meet along the way direct me onwards, telling me you must visit this place, or that place is magic; and so my map is marked and the path is laid out before me, dotted and starred with ancient sites and places of incredible natural beauty.
Following unmarked paths is a completely different experience to the Camino de Santiago, or the Via Francigena – there are no arrows to guide you, sending you across fields and through woods, with the knowledge that you will definitely arrive at your destination. Instead I use my intuition (which seems to be working so far) and I have realised something else as well which helps me every day: there is no wrong path, just different ones. But sometimes it’s difficult not to feel like you have taken the wrong path and to convince yourself that there is a better way. Perhaps I take a turn which adds 10km to my journey, and climbs to the top of a mountain and a spectacular view I would never otherwise have seen, or descends into a rich, lush valley where nature is master and I am just an intruder. But I have to remember that it’s not important, because although I always have a destination in mind, it doesn’t matter if arrive there today or tomorrow. It really is the journey that counts (sorry for the cliche!)
As I pass through villages, or walk along quiet country roads, I am regularly stopped by locals, intent on discovering where I am going, and where I am from. I am invited, and sometimes almost dragged into bars and restaurants by friendly, inquisitive people, shouting from a doorway “one beer for you my friend”, or offering me a coffee. Often the old men are the most open and kind. In the villages they sit in bars, smoking endless cigarettes, drinking short, dark Greek coffee or small glasses of cypro (the local strong alcohol). They play cards or backgammon, or just huddle around the wood stove chatting. I’ll pass through a village and their eyes follow me like a spectator watching a tennis match and I am often hailed in English by a grey haired man with an American accent. Many left Greece in the 50s and 60s and went to make their fortunes in America and Canada, and then after 10, 20 or 30 years maybe, returned to their homes, to pick up the pieces of life, homesick for the Mediterranean.
Accepting the invitation, I enter a smoke filled haze, filled with wizened faces nodding their heads in approval at the sight of me, my bag and walking stick, or on the flip side just staring at me blankly, uncomprehending.
Little by little I hear words that I understand, as word spreads through the bar there is an Englishman who is travelling by foot (“you mean you walk?” they ask, as if there is another way to go by foot), and he came here from Italy…by foot, and he’s going to India…by foot. And I see everybody’s eyes turn towards me questioningly – who is this strange traveller? Sometimes (when I’m really lucky!) they fall over themselves trying to offer me a beer, or a coffee or a cypro.
I have become used to the typical questions: where do you sleep? I point my tent (skini); what do you eat? They motion with two fingers at the mouth, and I just shrug and wave my arms, as if to say “I am provided for”; I almost always have something in my bag, and many generous and kind people give me fruit, bread and cheese. In face, so much cheese that I am in danger of turning into feta! and money? Liga lefta – very little. I explain that I try to live on 10 -20 euros a week, and that with a tent it’s very possible. And tonight where will you sleep? I shrug – it doesn’t matter. Wherever I end up. And why do you travel alone? The simple answer is because I like it. I travel without any plans (more or less). I don’t have to worry if I am having a bad day – it only affects me and nobody else, and then it passes…always. If I want to stop, I stop; if I want to have a relaxed day I can; and equally if I am determined to reach a destination, or night arrives and I am still walking, it is not a problem. Some days every step feels like I am dragging myself through mud, while others I can walk for hours without feeling even the weight of my bag.
Perhaps the biggest reason though is that I am 100% certain that my journey is so incredible because I am travelling solo. Every day I meet and talk with people because one person walking is more approachable (I also generally have a huge smile on my face which helps), and I don’t believe it would be possible to travel in this way if I was with another person.
As the sun begins to set I begin to think about where I will spend the night, and where I will sleep. My route is usually planned so that I know it will arrive in a village or town, where there is water and food. If I’m very lucky I find a kind hearted soul who offers me a space in their home, but usually I head for the local taverna and ask if there is somewhere I can put a tent or, as it was very cold at night until recently, a room where I can sleep out of the cold. More often than not I have been given a room, a bed, or just a floor space, and something hot to eat.
If I don’t find anything I have my tent and nearly always something to eat in my bag, so I have no need to worry. When I do find hospitality, I sit and talk with them, answering their questions or trying to figure out what they are saying when no English is spoken.
And so little by little I am learning Greek, the conversations often interrupted as I grab my notebook to write down a new word or phrase. And I’ve started to learn the alphabet, taking advantage of these moments to sit and learn from new teachers every day. When I arrived in Greece I was often greeted with a salutation of “tourist“, but now when I hear somebody say this I shake my head vigorously and say “odiporos” – the word in Greek for a solo traveller who goes by foot. There is a big difference! There was a time when the traveller was sacred – whether a pilgrim or a wanderer – and throughout the months I am discovering that it is still the case, as the generosity and kindness of people continues to enhance my journey, often leaving me open mouthed and speechless.
And so it is that one evening I walked into a bar in ancient Olympia, after a day of wandering incredible ruins of the ancient city of the Olympics.
“You must be English” a man cried. “Join us for drink”. I sat down with a group of 4 – an English man and his Indian/English wife and 2 other women – English and American – who are married to Greek men. We talked about my journey, about travel, and then, before they left, the American lady turned me and said “Cavafy – Ithaka. It’s your journey”. I am discovering that there are songs, or poems, or phrases which sum up everything that you are feeling…this is one. Enjoy 🙂
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.