This is a post long overdue, but I promised that I would not only write through the eyes of a travelling romantic, but also try to give a more rounded picture of what I see. And where better than Santorini? For many foreigners it is the very essence of “The Greek Island”, but scratch under the surface a little, and look without rose-tinted glasses, and a different picture emerges; the stark contrasts and contradictions of modern life are plain to see.
Without doubt Santorini is a beautiful island. It rises from the ocean like an unreal mirage, its desolate brown cliffs a stark contrast to the strikingly blue seas. There are some marked trails and walking along the cliffs, staring out at the volcano, the caldera and the horizon is magical. Likewise the villages are like shining beacons of white light, splashed with shades of blue and turquoise, filled with charming cobbled and crazy paved alleyways. Inside these colourful labyrinths I was able to lose the crowds and leave behind the tourism. Then I felt like the only person around and I was captivated by mans artistry – the contours and rounded shapes of the houses and churches, the brilliant contrast of colours and the ability to seemingly create in harmony with the island. These smaller villages seem to capture the past life of the people and for a moment it is easy to forget that this is an island that is doing everything it can to leave the past behind.
And then of course there is the jewel in the crown: Oia, with its resort cave houses, white washed walls, blue domes and doors, dropped on the side of the mountain by the gods, is a joy to behold. It IS exclusive: the scent of money and the good life is in evidence everywhere, but the breathtaking view of the caldera, the volcano and the island of Thirasia, justify all the stories. I can understand why people would choose to sit here on their sunbeds, in luxurious and sumptuous surroundings. At every turn there is a picture postcard view, and the comedy of the sunset is something to see. The people crowd the streets, fill the walls and steps of the castle, and they have become as much a symbol of Santorini sunset as the actual setting of the sun. And there is something magical in that moment. All across the island the tourists rush to find the perfect spot to view the sun sinking into the vastness of the ocean. An hour or 2 before you can sense the activity, the waking up after the heat of the day, and for 30 minutes the power of nature takes over from the hustle and bustle of tourism. What is it about a sunset that can drive us to such lengths, searching out a place of contemplation? Indeed perhaps this is the meditation of the modern world, when we feel justified in stopping, even for 5 or 10 minutes. To BE, and to feel our connection to nature. The magic of sunset is like a gateway between day and night, and as the globe of the sun sinks into the ocean, you can almost feel the collective holding of breath, the connection between everyone, and then the sigh, the universal exhalation, as all sunset worshippers sit with just one view, one image, one flow of energy which connects them all: the sun loungers, the coffee/cocktail drinkers, the travellers, the young and old, rich and poor, the teams of people on the streets and the exclusive resort dwellers. Everyone joins in the worship of one of the most ancient customs. Apollo and the sun are still top of everyone’s list of what to do!
Everything is geared towards one thing – making money. The island runs on it. Many of the people cannot see beyond it, and the workers are bound to it. It is the lifeblood, and cruise ships spill their filling onto the island for a day, as crowds of tourists drive around this beautiful island in 4x4s, mopeds and buggies. All you can hear is the rumble of motors, and in the Oia and Fira suffocating crowds line the streets, crammed with sumptuous, over priced shops selling tourist glib. Where is Santorini in all of this? Do we really want everything to be the same? Mass produced crap (most of which comes from China), or shops selling the same, high fashion clothing you find in Milan – is this really what it is to visit a beautiful island? Tavernas which are geared towards making money and filling the belly, instead of showing a passion for food and the essence of traditions.
And then there are the people working here. They come from all over the world, many working 7 days a week, 18 or more hours a day for an absolute pittance. Why? So that their Greek masters can grow fat on “the good life”. And the reality is that if you look across Europe, the poor and impoverished are working like slaves to fuel capitalism and the production of unnecessary and unwanted goods and services. All for the love of money.
And as for walking, well you can almost forget it. There are a couple of walking routes – you can climb to the monastery, or follow the cliffs from Fira to Oia, but in general this is an island where everybody drives. But what if there were more walking trails? I have walked through the fields, along old tracks, and lost myself in the simple natural elegance, surrounded by the traditional fruits of the fields.
Instead of pushing everybody towards mopeds and buggies which scream about the island like volcanoes erupting, why not promote walking, biking and taking care of nature? Put in place the facilities for walkers and the island could become open to a different mentality: promoting Eco-tourism would be a start. 4000 years ago there was a thriving advanced city here, with running water and a sewage system in place. And yet today, in 2014, everybody drinks from plastic bottles, and the water which filters across the island is undrinkable; can you imagine how much plastic that is? And a man walking around the island is refused a glass of water by people who are so fixed on money that they forget that there is such a thing as humanity and compassion. Santorini is one of the richest municipalities in Greece. Could it not be an example to the rest of the country? An island which leads the way to a future based on eco-friendly tourism. Why is it that tourism so often means at the expense of tourists? It can be about promoting local culture, and using what nature has provided. Instead of focusing only on how much money, why not educate? I met a lady who has opened up and restored an old cave under her house in the beautiful village of Megalochori. Despina kindly showed me around and explained a little of the history, and the restoration process. It was a fascinating insight into the old way of life on the island, and we had a very interesting conversation as well. It was also a very welcome break from the sun and it was easy to imagine the farmers of the past taking shelter from the heat of the day.
Rubbish. Rivers of rubbish, and indeed mountains. Just before arriving in Fira (the ugly, and artificial capital of the island) I came across the rubbish tip of the island, a mound of plastic, paper, boxes, crates, glass – everything. And I am sure that this is not the only one. It is just next to the road, slightly obscured by a hillock, opposite a row of shops and next to a beautiful art gallery. And the overwhelming stench of trash invades the air. All around hills are strewn with rubbish which flies around in the wind, and everybody ignores it, as if it doesn’t exist.
And then there is the issue of recycling…or I should say the complete lack of it. My interest was first piqued when I was in the shop with Anna and Mihalis. I realised they had no recycling, and everything was just thrown together and dumped in the same bin. And where does it end up? In the tip. When I asked them about it they just looked baffled. It had never even crossed their minds. Then when I started walking around the island I began to understand. I could hardly walk 100 metres without seeing a plastic bottle discarded on the wayside, or a crushed can of beer, or a used wet wipe. And inside the recycling bins everything was just mixed together. When I went to the town hall to speak with them about what I saw, I was first told that there is no rubbish problem, and that what I was saying was not true…by a man with a belly twice the size of me who probably hasn’t walked around the island since he first learned as a baby. Next I was directed to an office to talk with 2 younger people who told me that these things take time; there’s no culture of recycling, blah blah blah. The same old excuses. It may take time, but first you need to want to make a change. They have been dumping rubbish for 15 years they told me, and they’ve only been recycling for a year. And before that? The truth is that as long as huge ships continue to arrive every day, filled with rich money throwing tourists from China, Russia, America, North Europe and the rest, the people in charge of the island know they don’t really need to do anything. All they are concerned about is how deep they can fill their pockets. If nobody is making a noise, then nobody hears. And in Santorini, there are little whispers, maybe some underground meetings, but the hard fact is that this island is more concerned about the good life and money than what it is doing to everything around it. Hotels, apartments with swimming pools, boat cruises around the caldera (with the rubbish tip sitting on the side of the cliff as everyone looks at the volcano oblivious to the pollution), and tours around the island. This is what people think about. But what if there was a concerted effort by everybody, starting from the top? It only takes a few people to begin: community and village groups to volunteer, involving local school children and the will to want to live in an Eco-friendly way.
Santorini is a bubble, but it’s also a microcosm of the rest of the world. We need people who are interested in change and believe in it, not in personal gain. Capitalism and the thirst for money has led to the current situation. Corrupt politicians who have filled their own pockets and those of their friends, at the expense of the people. Over the last year I have talked with farmers who have seen their livelihoods choked, each year becoming more and more difficult, because of the rules and regulations of the EU. What was once an idea to make peace in Europe has become a machine to make money (or perhaps it has always been that way!). The euro has not benefitted the people, but only increased the gap between rich and poor. Ask a Greek, Spaniard or Italian if they were better off before the introduction of the euro, and the answer will almost always be the same. Now they are becoming slaves to masters in another country, their land sold to fuel the ambitions of those at the top of the pecking order.
We are reaching a breaking point, and continue to destroy and use and ignore, choosing to conform. If I am learning anything whilst travelling it is that humans have an incredible capacity to do good, but we are afraid to make changes. Realising and believing that money is NOT the most important thing in life will go a long way to making that change 🙂