Sunday, 11 October 2015

My own Greek odyssey

When I was 19 I took a Magic Bus from outside St Pancras station and five days later ended up in Athens. From there I boarded a ferry bound for Crete. For the entire three months I spent there, I slept outdoors. Usually on a beach, sometimes under a grove of olive trees, always at peace. I have never been thinner, fitter, or browner!

In order to survive on my meagre budget, I'd pick fruit and vegetables from nearby fields and cook them up in scavenged 5 litre olive oil cans over an open fire. Most nights, I got extremely drunk. I was very happy.

After a few weeks of beach living in what was then the undeveloped village of Malia, I hired a Suzuki 250 and along with a Dutch lad I'd met, set off to explore the island. For me, a motorbike fanatic, a romantic and freedom lover, this was the ultimate trip. Riding without a crash helmet along mountain tracks and dry watercourses, across deserts and rocky plains and sleeping in the open air; for a born and bred West Londoner used to polluted, traffic-snarled streets and crammed cityscapes, it was incredible. I'd never seen so many stars!

Most nights we'd eat at a local cafe in whatever town or village we found along our way. I remember arriving in the ancient port of Rethymnon after a long, hot, dusty ride and then wandering through winding lanes until we reached the Street of the Leathermakers. At the end of the street where the road divided was a workers' cafe. We sat outside in the sultry evening heat and ate the most delicious food I have ever tasted. Greek salad with local herbs and spices, olives and feta, and calamari that had been caught an hour before and fried in golden rings that melted in our mouths, all washed down with rough red wine from a nearby vineyard. The cost, for the two of us, was five pounds.

We travelled here and there, without worrying about time or destination, and ended up in Chania, in the west of the Island, where we stopped and rested up for a few days, swam in the sea and generally revelled in life.  From there we headed back eastwards, ambling over mountains and down gorges, vaguely aiming towards Knossos, the fabled city of Daedalus and Ariadne, the labyrinth and the Minotaur. On our way, following maps that rarely matched the actual routes, we got hopelessly lost. 

Around noon on a searingly hot day we passed through a sleepy village. After a few hundred yards we discovered all the men eating their lunch outside a tiny restaurant. They watched in silence as we rode past and then seconds later, crash, because the road suddenly dropped two feet without warning. I cut my knee open and was grazed all over and Jan was similarly injured. I shook my fist at the watching men and cursed them with every Greek swear word I'd learned, but they simply sat there, utterly impassive and silent.

Leaving the unfriendly village, we limped onwards. The Suzuki's front tyre was punctured in the fall and it was hard going across a trackless waste that seemed to stretch on forever. Jan began to sob, wailing that we were going to die out here, in the middle of nowhere. I was surprised, thinking him to be a hardened traveller, but he too was only 19 and the crash had badly shaken him up. For some reason I felt the complete opposite, excited by what might happen and confident we'd find our way out of this particular pathless labyrinth.

After a few miles I spotted a tractor that soon disappeared over the brow of a hill. I followed in its dusty wake and ten minutes later chanced upon a rough track that eventually led us to a tiny village. As we rode along its one street scores of excited children ran out to greet us. They gestured for us to stop at the little cafe with the ubiquitous Coca Cola sign outside. Inside was an old man sitting at a table, who showed no interest in us at all. But the kids ushered us to a map of the world that was stuck to the wall and asked us to show them where we were from. When I pointed to London they gasped. They had never met someone from so far away and I had never felt so heroic. We drank ice cold cokes and then exited with many smiles to continue on our way. Before we left, Jan took a photo of me outside the cafe, which you can see above. The year was 1980 and in a few months I would be a world away at Liverpool university, marching against Thatcher, learning of John Lennon's death, watching Echo and the Bunnymen and the Human League and wondering what the fuck I was doing with my life. But in this moment, I was very proud and very happy.

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