This is Greece – Athens (Day 8 to 10)

If the Caldera view provided us with a glimpse of the magnitude of beauty Greece had to offer, then the Santorini airport provided us the perfect earthbound-crashing, reality check anti-thesis to that, and probably what we needed before heading to the dense streets of Athens.

My wife was yet again anxious about the amount of time to buffer for our trip to the airport and after bouts of strenuous calculations, she arrived at the conclusion that we should leave our accommodation at least three-days before our flight (just kidding). It was probably two-hours before, but it felt longer. ‘In case there is traffic’, is often the common retort for the often voluptuous buffer. As it stood, the only thing standing in the way of our transfer was the incessant selfie-taking habits of one of our co-passengers. Like, hot pants, obsessive toy-collecting and a pony tail (on guys), there are just some things that are the game of the young. ‘Selfies’ may just be one of them. Actually scratch that, a guy should automatically be maced in the ‘cojones’ if they have a pony tail. The ride took no time at all and we suddenly found ourselves at the airport with a lifetime ahead of us before our flight.

‘We can always sit down and have a drink if we are early’, is the secondary retort that often follows the first if there turns out to be no traffic. This one works better for me. I hardly ever resist an overture to sit down and take my time over a cup of coffee so why not savor one before our flight arrives in 1,538 years?

The aspiration of thousands of Chinese uncles back home …

I spot a cafe outside the airport but the wife thinks it would be better to get into the Departure Hall and find a place to drink in there. Seems sensible. That’s what we often do at airports, just in case it gets slow at the screening stations when someone is slow in removing their laptop, camera, shoes, belt, pants and underwear during screening. Oh, you don’t have to take off your pants and underwear? The hell I would know. At the rate they are going I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if they asked me to hand over my left nut in the future.

So we handed our passports and boarding passes to the smiling gentlemen at the Departure gate and headed into the hall, ready to dunk ourselves into a vat of espresso and break into a jingle. Right? No

For one thing, the Departure hall was the size of the second room in my home. My home is 890sft. Yes, I am exaggerating of course. Actually, it was the size of about five of my second room in my home and there was about a hundred people huddled in there. This is the truth.

There was no comfortable cafe for us to sit at, no duty free stores to browse for a Salvatore Ferragamo eau de toilette. There were plenty of fragrances on showcase though, with the popular one yet again being ‘armpit’. And there may have been a cafe in the left pocket of the ground staff but I did not check. We also found out that our flight would be delayed so we had some time yet to really take in the fragrances around us, properly.

There was not enough seats to accommodate everyone so we had people sprawling all over the place, up the stairs, down the stairs and possibly even the roof. I briefly considered seating in the toilet cubicle. It was pretty chaotic. Updates were not coming through on time on the board, so instead we had to listen out for people literary screaming, ‘Flight to Athens this way’ and we herd ourselves out like lambs. It was funny cause not just hours before, we were serenaded by the sight of romance-filled Santorini and now we are rounded like cattle. Ah nothing like the sound of fantasies shattering.

An ancient city …

We did eventually find a seat at the outer section of the upper floor, but as a result we had to brave mini sandstorms every time a plane rolled in. That and holding on to our seat like our left toes depended on it cause there were throngs of people eyeing each warm seat. This was seriously five-star realism if you want a proper experience on what it feels like to try and flee a war torn country. No stone was left unturned to give us the best experience.

It did bring to mind what a guy that owned a jewelry shop in Oia was telling us two days before about how Santorini was not meant to accommodate these many tourists, ‘It’s because they filmed that Korean movie here.’ I have a theory that most of the ills of the world can be traced back to Ed Sheeran and the Korean entertainment industry. You can check up with me later on that. This airport certainly looked like it was not meant to accommodate this many people. We did meet a lovely American couple while defending the territory that was our plastic chairs. He was in landscaping and she was a nurse. They were also flying to Athens.

The street we lived on …

It greeted us the moment we walked out of Athens airport. What? The sound and soul of a city. I’ve written before that the sounds that emit from the islands, while can be rowdy and noisy, is nothing like the sound a city makes. Here is the sound of industry, of cars battling cars and of people expressing frustration at a stressed-filled life. The melodies of capitalism, so to speak. At rare occasions, a city sings to you, but mostly it sounds like it is just groaning. At least the cities I am familiar with. And Athens sounded slightly familiar.

Athens feels a lot like a Southeast Asian city. It emerges in spots and flashes. The dense city streets with buildings towering closely around tight walkways, giving the impression that it desires to collapse on to you is one way it reflects. The air is also warmer and more humid, with the island breeze struggling to navigate through the crowded streets. The streets are grimy, caked by age-old stains of industrialism, the lack of civic-mindedness and slow maintenance. Everything else moves faster here though. Cars, people, dogs and conversations. There is less time to pause, think and reflect. It smelled and felt a lot like home. It was both comforting and disorientating. I nearly called the guy at the bakery ‘macha’.

But amidst all that, there is a charm that can be seen in Athens. An ancient charm. The city it is today is built on ancient foundations, proven by how The Acropolis remains still the heart of the city, visible at most notable corners of the city. There are sporadic corners of ruins peppered throughout the city, like tomato sauce that’s eager to peek through the cheese on a pizza, Athens’ ancient foundations cannot be properly quelled by the fires of modernisation.

The thing about experiencing the Acropolis, at least for me, is that you are not necessarily staring at something beautiful. It may have been beautiful once, but it’s beauty has long been filed down by the sands of time. It isn’t like staring out into the alps, or Lake Tekapo or the Grand Hall at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. The wonder of The Acropolis lies in its history and what it stood for during its time. It’s a wonder that requires a little more imagination. There is some beauty in its sheer magnitude but that is unfortunately tempered greatly by years of middle class Chinese business men back home adorning the front porch of their homes with miniature Ionic columns (why lah uncle why?)

That same lack of need to be contemporary that was so evident at the islands, is felt in Athens as well. The branding, prose and aesthetic of the city feels dated, but not in a cool way. More like a ‘I can’t be bothered to spend more money to update myself’ rather than a ‘let’s be vintage’ mindset. People still walk around in mullets and bell bottoms and the signage at most shops looks like they were carved out of the cretaceous period.

The ancient and the less ancient …

In many ways, Athens is like a city equivalent of most of our dads. They are well aware that their time has passed them by but yet they still try to excel at the same tropes that dominated their youth. They were young once but they often act like they never were. Athens knows it is ancient, and it is happy to excel at being just that.

The fascinating for us was seeing how Greeks do in a city, how they live, eat and celebrate life. We had a glimpse of how they do on islands but this was a proper, grimy and slimy city. What would they do? There are no beaches for them to lounge about to display those gorgeous face manes of theirs (the envy is still strong) or bountiful seafood catches for them to dip their fingers delectably into. What would they do without all of this?

Our apartment. What did I say?

For one thing, they stay in higher-rise buildings and shop for furniture in Ikea (sound familiar?), if our apartment in Athens was any indication. So much like an Ikea showroom was our apartment that I half expected a Chinese family to emerge out of the kitchen having tested the quality of the drawers, ‘Good quality wan.’

A bar called Bell Ray provided a nice moment for us amidst the frantic cajoling in the city. It was located just around the corner from our apartment and I believe we hit it on the first night we were there. Me and the wife have a running thread we go to when ordering cocktails – which is that the one I order always tastes better than the ones she does. I am attracted to certain elements and I deviate quite little from them so I rarely end up with a disaster. She on the other hand, loves playing Zorro when it comes to her drinks and she more often than not, finds herself coveting mine. If you are wondering if I engineered to tell this whole background story just so I can tell you that she won this time then nope, she did not. Papa reigned again here.

It was a nice bar though. Casual. Felt more like a cafe than a heavy bar. The kind of place you wouldn’t feel judged if you ordered a Martini or an Espresso. The music being spun by the DJ was nice as well, acid jazz mixed in with a little ambience and smooth electro. That and the bartender looked like Stephen Arnell but sounded like Sean Dyche. If you don’t know who these people are, take my word for it, he was awesome. Basically he should be serving out shots of testosterone instead of drinks with names like ‘Tikki Bob’. That saying I don’t think anyone else in this world can make ‘Tikki Bob’ sound as manly as he did. No, of course I did not drink a Tikki Bob. I drank an ‘Annie and Ben’ instead. Bite me.

Two meals book-ended our meals in Athens, both at different spectrums of dining. The first was a meal at Diporto. If I have been using no-frills to describe some meals in Greece so far, then Diporto took the term and power-slammed it through a roof. The walk to it felt like we were casually going from Streets of Fire to City of God in 500 meters. We passed a grimy market, damp and suspect streets and graffiti adorned buildings before arriving at what can only be described as a building built for the third act of a gangland extravaganza. In fact what eventually convinced us that it was the right building was a piece of graffiti that we saw that also appeared in a Google search of the place. I was resigned to being stabbed by a pocket knife after dessert.

Well, that is if they served dessert. They barely served a meal. This was a stall that is situated in Greece but fashioned out of the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The ‘take it or leave it’ spirit was strong in this one. For one thing the eatery was located at the basement of the building, operating out of a space that can best be described as part-Medieval wine cellar, part Asgardian dungeon. Oh wait, no, the Asgardian dungeon was nicer.

They only had a couple of things on the menu – a vegetable broth, a lentil soup, a chickpea salad and grilled sardines. That saying I’ve always been a lot more drawn to eateries with a scant menu cause it just shows me that they specialise in things. Want to turn me off? Have a menu that covers every dish in the world, and I will probably show you a restaurant that’s not really good at anything. Anyway back to Diporto. Yes, slim pickings but I was intrigued cause the place was packed. On top of that the guy taking orders looked like what happens if Michael Pena encountered a tiger that was picking a fight. He looked grumpy but also rather nonchalant about what everyone thought and did around the restaurant. He came for orders when he wanted to. Spoke when he wanted to. Brought food when he wanted do. There is a sense that not even a Demogorgon could make him do something if he didn’t feel like it.

As it turned out the sardines were some of the most delicious we had in Greece and the wine, which was obtained out of large barrels around the basement, was pretty gritty and rustic. It wasn’t complicated food or flavors but there is a charm about eating at a place like this and ordering the kind of food locals eat as kids in Greek homes. It’s not pretty and it’s not designed for mainstream consumption, but it taste of the land. And that was what made us love this place.

At the other tangent, there was Blue Fish. Not a fine dining establishment really, but they serve pretty intricate and tasty food. I honestly don’t remember much leading to the restaurant because I think I was suffering from a bout of mild heat stroke. I remember my wife leading me through streets, I was a little zonked from some beer I had earlier and I remember feeling parched and hot. It’s at least 20% possible that I may have dreamt this entire meal up as part of some flashback sequence but I just checked with my wife and she confirms that we ate here (phew).

We had a grilled octopus dish, a sea bass tartar with a mango sauce and a red fish dashi linguine. Every dish was truly sublime. The linguine was so good that I can still taste it today. There’s just a joy that springs forth from food that is made with love out of great ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, I get a lot of joy too out of sweating my way through my banana leaf rice at Acha while meat is being dunked into a huge vat of overused oil 10-feet away from me. But this joy is different, more sophisticated and rich. To be fair it is not a joy I feel very often in my life but I am starting to appreciate the merits of it. I told my wife that before I met her, I used to drive autopilot to the nearest mixed rice shop, wolf down a plate of it and go home and cry into my pillow.

But for the most part, Athens zipped by like a blur. Perhaps it is how my mind works these days. It registers less on the forefront of my mind if I experience things that is similar to things I would do at home. Being on the island of Paros, eating fresh seafood and staring out of to an aqua marine ocean is not something you can forget easily. Walking around Plaka, being hemmed in by people and trying to get the best deal for things, while incredibly fun and entertaining when you are experiencing it, seem to register a lot less for me now that I am home.

Not that I am complaining about being back in a city. I’ve found that a city is a good way to cap off a holiday before heading home. Less of a shock, more of a gradual sojourn back to reality. Athens provided that, with its stained streets, graffiti-filled walls and overflowing thrash bins. Oh, and I nearly got pick-pocketed on the way to the airport on our last day. He wasn’t very good. I felt it. I cursed involuntarily at him. I went up the train. Also, we got scammed by a lady with roses that was supposedly pregnant, but I think she was just, overfed. ‘Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty’ Axl said. Not quite.

But yes, it’s time to ‘Take me home’ …

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This is Greece – Santorini (Day 6 and 7)

Stepping on to the ferry from the quaint and quiet town of Parikia at Paros and being dropped off at the port in Santorini is akin, I would imagine, to being born into this world under evening tones but being trusted face first into a bright spotlight immediately, in that it’s disorientating and overwhelming. The amount of people jostling in droves around the port, hustling for bus rides or just generally bumping around completely clueless is staggering. Staggering considering we just came from a port where we sat at a quiet bakery overlooking the sea, had a relaxing cup of coffee and some pastries, with a clearly demarcated information counter available clearly for you to find out where your ferry would dock when it arrives and when the time came to board the ferry, only a handful of tourists lined up civilly for their turn. Considering all that, the Santorini port was like Saigon in the late 60s.

The flavor of the trip on the packed bus was again of armpit. It was tempered somewhat by a hilarious conversation that unfolded before us of one Latino-looking guy telling another ginger-looking guy that he looked like Seth Rogen. Even if you really believe that, I am not sure you want to make something like that known to someone. You might as well walk up to someone and say that they look like a refrigerator. Ginger guy looked sheepish at the suggestion, probably caught between pretending he couldn’t speak English and rounding a left hook on the Latino. In the end he responded by saying he’s not heard that one before but there have been people who say he looks like Ed Sheeran. Okay I take my original point back, he deserved a Seth Rogen.

Being let out into the wild …

The bus stopped at the island’s main bus station at Fira so we had to take a bus to the smaller town our accommodation was in which was Imerovigli. Trying to catch a bus in Santorini made us miss home so much. The unhelpful officer at the help desk, the mess of buses parked all over the station as you walk from one to the other looking for the right one, buses who look like they are going to stop but then proceed to drive off without picking up any passengers, the lack of a civil line when trying to board one, etc. I mean who wouldn’t miss that? (I’m lying).  

We were dropped about a 20-minute walk away from our accommodation so we had to drag our luggage up what was probably a hill but felt like Machu Picchu. It’s one thing to have to drag luggage up a dusty road, quite another to be doing it while being scorched by an unforgiving sun. I finally know what that sausage feels like in 7-Eleven. It’s hilarious how polarizing Santorini was from one street to the next. At no point did it feel like we were tracking to paradise. It felt more like we were carrying our own coffins to be buried with it. The town looked cramped. With roads generally looking like they were only about as wide enough for a single bus to drive through. The streets were lined with car workshops, rental companies and travel agencies. The wife expertly led us through the cramped streets towards our accommodation Nefeli Homes and it honestly did not look too hopeful. But just a short turn or two later, we arrived and we were suddenly faced with this view.

The adage, ‘take my breath away’ is used far too frequently in conversations and 80s pop ballads but this was a genuine moment. It’s not just that the view was practically unimaginable, it was also because of where we were coming from and how quickly it went from that, to this. It was also compounded by the fact that I was largely ignorant of what places my wife booked us into for the trip. It felt like she may have casually showed me this accommodation in passing but I may have been distracted by something else. Ignorance never felt so good. It added to the feeling of being sucker punched by both gratefulness and happiness.

Our host Roula greeted us with about as much warmth and friendliness as a person who looked like a frontwoman of a Satanic post-hardcore band could. She was decked completely in black, with jet black hair and an under-cut with pale corpse-like skin. She wouldn’t look out of place at all in a Morbid Angel mosh pit. But there she was, at the center of a tropical paradise. I wonder what her dark priestess would make of her occupation of handing out room keys to Asian tourists? And before we can pronounce ‘Imerovigli’ (actually this is not an accurate analogy cause it actually took us quite long to figure out how to pronounce it), Roula was helpfully and warmly rattling off things we can do and places we can eat at. If we had played a drinking game where we took a shot every time she mentioned ‘Caldera View’, we would’ve been pissed. It was the way she said it as well, sort of a cross between Romanian royalty and evil Balkan henchman.

Of course out of the many cafes and wonderful relaxing Caldera View drinking places she recommended to us to go to for the evening, we decided that we wanted to do the two-hour track from Imerovigli to Oia instead, at 3pm in the afternoon under the scorching Mediterranean sun. Why? Because we were schmucks. ‘Just follow the grey path,’ Roula casually mentioned. The grey path at that point looked like a slick road up a Hollywood driveway. So we girded up our loafers and slippers and took off like a pair of anxious sparrows, expecting a relaxing stroll to heaven on earth.

You know how sometimes in life, you get into something expecting it to be a certain thing only to find that it is nothing like that at all but you still put up a brave front because you don’t want to lose face for being so silly in the first place, until it gets so bad that you just have no choice but to admit it just plain sucks? You know, kind of like how the boyfriends of those social media influencers feel when she takes off her makeup for the first time and tone down the Beauty function on her selfies? Kidding (not kidding). That was what it felt like halfway through the hike to Oia. The grey path, turned out to only be a path for about 30 mins into the hike. From then on it was basically a pack of lions trying to have us for lunch. There were rough gravel paths, sharp inclines, dusty and sparse lanes, thorny shrub-filled roads that we had to literally fight through. After a while, we became suspicious of the friendly smiles from hikers that were coming back from Oia. Were they really friendly or were they laughing at these two Asian schmucks who were hiking in their loafers at 3pm in the afternoon? We were offered a donkey at some point for a ride. We briefly considered it. Enough said.

“Oia is just around the corner’, said no one …

Interacting with the breathtaking views of Santorini was often like how you would a beautiful life-like painting. You are aware it’s there and what it is showing you, but there is a disconnect between what you see and what you are a part of. On many instances during our maniacal walk from Imerovigli to Oia, I glanced to my left to look at the Caldera view that was confronting me. And each time I did it, it was necessary to have a second step mentally to remind myself that I was actually there and what I am looking at was also there ‘with me’. Rarely in my existence have I encountered nature with beauty of this magnitude. I suppose what plays to the metaphor as well is that given the height and distance by which we were interacting with the scenery, everything seems almost at a standstill, kind of like a painting. Large ferries and boats were moving between islands before us, but at a pace that was not always noticeable from this distance. It was a painting except the objects were moving, just enough to inform your eyes that what you’re seeing is developing and changing but slow enough that you can take all the time you need to admire its magnificence.

Two hours later, we finally arrived at Oia, with dusty feet, burned skin and sweaty brows, a couple of hours short of the magic hour of sunset. If Santorini was a storm, then Oia was not the eye of it, it was the edges of it where cars are being flung to faraway places. There were people bleeding out of every orifice of the town. There were people on steps, people in restaurants, people leaning over edges, people under people, people on top of people, etc. If only I had a giant Green Lantern shovel I would push them all into the sea in one quick scoop. Alas it was a bright day but hardly our darkest night so we had to soldier on shoulder-to-shoulder with the masses of (mostly) Oriental straw hat/sundress-wearing types. Double groan.

Although to be fair, unlike many places I’ve been to, where the experience can be soured by the amount/type of people thronging it (To the bright neon-clad China tourists at Lake Tekapo, I’m talking to you) the glut of people at Santorini doesn’t have a nick on its spectacular beauty. As much as it’s crowded and noisy and that threatens to consume the almost unimaginable beauty of Santorini, it’s a meal far too large and magnificent for it to consume. In the end, the beauty of the island prevails handsomely over the downsides. If you feel bugged by the amount of people jostling at you at restaurants, bus stands and vantage points, just take a moment, take a step back and stare out into the Caldera View (said Roula style) and believe me, everything stands still again. It really is that beautiful.

The other experience that stood out for us in Oia was our visit to Atlantis Books, which back in 2016 made it to the top of National Geographic’s most interesting bookstores list. And to think we bumped into it by absolute accident, after being swept by the latest tidal wave of people making their way across the town to catch a glimpse of the sunset. The wave carried us and dropped us perfectly in front of Atlantis Books. Roula had mentioned it as part of her ratatatat list of recommendations list earlier but we thought little of it. But there we were, by serendipitous circumstance, in front of it. Being at Atlantis Books is quite an experience for book-heads like the two of us. For one thing to get into it involves you descending down a flight of medieval steps, almost like a metaphorical Lewis Carroll-like rabbit hole until you are in front of its rickety wooden door. And once in it you are almost literally washed away by a gush of books all around you. There are books at every direction and it can all feel a little too much to take. Thankfully Atlantis was built for a small family of hobbits so there is not a lot of space to cover. But whatever space it has is drowning in books of all sorts.

It’s a wonder in itself that we are able to step out of the torrential windfall of tourists above our heads and tuck into a basement filled with history and literary wonder. Most of the people crowding the streets of Oia were more interested to take another selfie than look at books, which really worked for the handful of us who were in Atlantis. A man could be heard telling the girl behind the counter, ‘It’s his money so he can do what he wants with it’, in reference to his son who is interested in buying a set of pricey but rare editions. Said girl behind the counter was heard telling customer later that she had just started at Atlantis two months prior and before that she was working in Spain. She is from America and she’s been making her way around Europe, working and traveling at the same time. Another man gestured to his elderly father at a wall of first editions. On quick glance, you could see first editions of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘The Little Prince’, ‘Madeline’ and more. ‘Want a copy of ‘Mockingbird’ for €13,500?’ The father looked un-fussed. We bought a pocket size copy of ‘The Little Prince’ as a souvenir from the place because that was the first book we read together as a couple. How cool that they stamped the book, so that you can prove that you were there.  

In her magnificent efforts in machine-gunning recommendation to us, Roula dropped a mention of Anogi in Imerovigli and how it was her favorite restaurant. She got us a reservation earlier and in hindsight, it turned out to be an inspired choice, not only because of the magnificent food, but also the fact that it was really close to where we were staying. Our feet was feeling a lot like they’ve been bathed in dragon fire after our hike so even a short walk felt like a torture. Many options were considered, from renting a donkey, praying for the powers of flight (or at the very minimum, float) to hiring a catapult and having it launch us on to our dining table. Nothing stuck, so we walked instead.

That rooster pasta was really something else …

Anogi turned out to be one of our most memorable dining experience in Greece. So joyous was our first time that we went back there again on our second night. It wasn’t just the food, but just the vibe and feel of the place. No-frills dining featuring food cooked in rich techniques but rustic in presentation and taste. Oh, and the wine was cheap and fantastic as well. But above the food, what was fabulous about Anogi was the people. Everyone, from the two bosses who run the place to the variety of different front-house people and servers were just a delight to deal with. They were friendly, humorous and were very forthcoming with recommendations. Over-the-top good service doesn’t always happen back here at home so it’s not like I head out to restaurants when I am traveling expecting it. But when you do get it, that’s when you understand just what a difference it makes to someone’s dining experience. It was a cold and chilly night and the both of us were relatively ill-dressed for it but the soulful food and the friendliness of the people really warmed us up. Well, that is until the next gust of wind and we feel like our souls were being strangled by a yeti again.

The outstanding dish at Anogi for us, turned out to be the rooster pasta. Deceptively simple but really delicious, it’s a rooster poached in wine, baked and served on top of a bed of pappardelle pasta cooked in tomato sauce and Mediterranean spices. It was so good. How good? We had it two nights in a row. The smoked pork belly we had on the second night was pretty damn delicious as well. ‘How was the food?’, asked the male boss. ‘It was fabulous,’ I exclaimed. ‘No way, it was horrible right? So horrible that I am going to give you a desert for free’. Look, I am well aware that everyone gets the desert for free probably, whether you pretend-hated the food or not but it was still nice to banter with the person serving your food. Again, like Yannis at Mykonos, here is an establishment run by people who are passionate about what they do. It’s infectious seeing them work. They are constantly moving, tending to all the needs of the diners with patience and attentiveness.

Which is probably why people are thronging the place all night. Yes, all night. We were offered a reservation on the second night at 10pm. Felt a bit silly to be eating at that hour but given we had a pretty food-filled day, we decided to take it anyway. As it turned out there was a line out there, at 10pm. The line hardly subsided until 11.15. This was not a drinking establishment with food. It was a dining restaurant and people are willing to wait until pass 11 to get their dinner. Granted as we were starting to observe, Greeks do eat pretty late, this is still pretty remarkable. The female boss remarked to me that the kitchen would still be buzzingly dishing out main courses-till pass midnight. Forget ‘maggi goreng’ for supper when you’re feeling peckish later at night in Santorini, go for a pork shank instead.

I don’t need to constantly do stuff when I am traveling. Some of the best moments I’ve had while traveling have been the days when nothing is planned and something magical just drops on my lap. As I’ve said before, it’s either I am the luckiest traveler in the world or perhaps, I am a person that is quite easily satisfied. Or perhaps, my wife is just amazing at making something out of nothing at all. Probably that (saying this cause she has a gun to my head).

So in the spirit of being chilled and serendipitous, the evening of the second day at Santorini provided a magical moment for us in a most unexpected way. We had spent a fairly innocuous day shopping in Fira and visiting a farther-away town of Pyrgos. Sat on top of a hill, Pyrgos offered almost panoramic views of the island. We declined a further 3km hike up to the Holy Monastery of Prophet Elias that is sat on top of Mount Profitis Ilias, which would have been spectacular. Why? Because we are on a holiday and not in an iron maiden. The day had instead zipped by in a haze of ice Freddo Americanos. On our way back we somehow made our way to a church building near our accommodation in Imerovigli that was overlooking the Caldera, and there was a small crowd gathered there.

Lucky cat.

We did not manage to catch the sunset satisfactorily in Oia the day before because we had to take in the sight of the sunset often together with noisy barbaric Chinese aunties waving their monopods around like maces. This was a decidedly more serene experience with everyone just relaxing in their respective spots, with minimal chatter and no jostling because there was enough space for everyone to have a good view of the sunset. It was magical, like life painted over in a warm hue or a gorgeous filter. It was like my soul took a huge and long breath at that moment, ready to face the rest of its existence, from there onwards. The sky danced to the tones being painted by nature as the sun made its way to embrace the horizon. It started out in bright yellow but gradually dimmed to a magenta, like the lowering of curtains after a spectacular show.

In many ways, that was the fitting end to our time in Santorini and more broadly the Greek islands. We would go on to have a dip in our accommodation’s freezing pool overlooking the Caldera and a second meal at the wonderful To Honaki chip shop (so good that I forgot to mention the first time we ate it) before leaving on a plane to Athens but that sunset, where we managed to, for a moment, slow dance with one of nature’s finest sights, will always be the official ending to our sojourn at the islands. It has been an unbelievable magical journey through landscapes that at times, beggar belief and partake in experiences that we would remember fondly for the rest of our days.

Athens awaits.

This is Greece – Paros (Days 4 and 5)

If we were to imagine Paros as a person, then that person would be a teacher.

We braved a bit of a tourist-storm at the Mykonos port earlier this day. Have you seen a port filled with people who look like extras from a Korean skincare TV commercial? No? Lucky you. But alas it was a storm that turned out to be mostly blowing towards Santorini, which gave us much needed reprieve but offered us a glimpse of the influencer-packed, straw hat-totting, sundress-flowing typhoon that awaited there later in the trip. There is a kind of charm that is attached to boarding a ferry from one island to another. It offers a glimpse of how people would’ve traveled in older days, offering oneself to the elements just to get from one place to another. Granted the only elements we had to brave here on this relatively large ferry (it was large enough for more than a few pickup trucks to drive into it before swallowing a few hundred tourists), was being bombarded by a song-long commercial of the company who offered the ferry services. That saying, you don’t know what you’re missing out in life if you’ve never sat through a power ballad called ‘Paros Jet’. The name Paros Jet offers quite little opportunity for your imagination to flex on both the intended destination of the vessel, nor the speed it was going to hit to get there. It does reek of insecurity issues though. Wished you were taller? Had longer legs? Six pack? Ryan Gosling’s features? Meh. How about a ferry who wants to be a jet? There you go.

Oh right, the teacher bit. Yes. We got schooled by Paros in the age-old lesson of ‘not judging a book by its cover’, or in our case, ‘not judging a Greek island by the how much it initially looked like a city wrecked by civil war’. I suppose we have little else to blame but our own narrowmindedness. What triggered the impression? Narrow dusty roads, mud-stained buildings, dry and parched landscapes, etc. In another mindset, this would all be framed as ‘charming’ but we’ve just come from what was essentially paradise (when I type this, I am thinking about the beaches in Mykonos, and not the grandads trotting around in speedos when they really should know better) so forgive us while we adjust to suddenly being thrusted into Helm’s Deep. We had to take a 20-minute bus ride from the ferry port of Parikia to the fishing port of Naousa and the journey was about as scenic as the interior of a dilapidated cow carriage. And because buses were less frequent in these parts, they pack them up real tight, like they do back home. Nothing like the whiff of an afternoon armpit to remind you of your motherland. At this very moment, Agios Ioannis, the beach, and dreamy lifeguard seems like a dream and two nightmares away.

We alighted the bus at the Naousa bus station hoping for some reprieve but found little. The roads were caked with dust, the buildings stained yellowish and the kids were playing with Uzis at the back of pickup trucks (just kidding, although they might as well be). Ten minutes into our walk to Despina’s Mare, where we would be hanging our weary sails for the night, we found some reprieve at the skirt-end of the town center of Naousa, with a little more cobblestone walkways, restaurants and buildings that did not look like they’ve just tangoed with a sandstorm. It’s hilarious in hindsight because the path we took to get to our accommodation was just a street away from what is certainly the most charming town centers of this trip, and quite possibly ever, to me. In fact, we would later realise that the bus station was just a short walk down the road from a charming bent of seaside restaurants and a clear sight of the gorgeous aqua-marine Aegean sea. But we saw nothing of the sort as we made our way to Despina’s Mare. It was almost like an anti-Truman Show, where forces were conspiring to keep our sight away from the beauty of the island to teach us a huge slap-of-a-lesson in being judgmental.

Slap One

Despina’s Mare as it turned out, looked delectably comfortable. Not quite like the meat and potatoes accommodation we had to get by with at Mykonos. For one thing, they had a sign here right upfront which helped us not to have to literally sail the seven seas to find it. Despina’s daughter Konstantina greeted us and informed us that there is a nice beach about 10-minutes away on the right by foot up the road and that the main town center of Naousa with its restaurants and bars, also a short 10-minute walk to the left. At this point of time, given how famished we were from the trip from Mykonos and the fact that we had to walk through what was essentially Mogadishu in 1993, we would’ve been okay with a McDonald’s. Actually I kid, my wife would’ve probably started a civil war herself if I had made her eat at a McDonald’s. No, there wasn’t a McDonald’s on Paros. At least I don’t think so.

The room was a sight for dusty eyes. Granted it wasn’t exactly the Waldorf Astoria but it had a large comfortable bed, a spacious restroom where you don’t need to feel like an Argentinian center back planting an elbow on an unsuspecting opponent every time you reach for the shampoo. There were welcome cake and pastries on the table, two spacious side tables with USB plug points and there was going to be breakfast in the morning. As far as we were concerned, it was The Jetsons in 2063 for us. But it wasn’t the slap yet. The spacious bed and breakfast spread was that fraction of second before a slap makes its intended contact, the point when the hand leaves your side, raises to form and prepares to strike hard.

Then we drew the curtains and slid open the door and we were greeted with this sight.

Now that was the first slap.

Slap Two

The walk into town brought us a little more back down to earth. Winding cobblestone roads cramped with messily constructed homes. Not too dissimilar from Mykonos except a lot more poorly curated with many homes looking incredibly cluttered and the roads just a degree grimier. It was like experiencing a Greek island town with a little South East Asian filters on.

Greek towns and villages seem to become more beautiful in relation to how close they are to the sea. Granted most of them are settled near the sea, but the disparity between settlements inland to those near ports can sometimes be quite gob-smacking. There’s of course a very logical reason why this is so. Tourists in these parts tend to flock to seaside towns and so there is more money floating around in them, hence the better amenities and honestly, it’s quite difficult to be ugly when you’re joined to the hip with that sea. But I prefer the more romantic notion, that the Greeks get their lifeblood from the sea and the closer they are to it, the more nourished and alive they seem to be.

Ouzeri Mitsi was our pick for lunch on the first day at Paros. Not because the menu enticed us or because the name of the restaurant sounds like a Greek superhero but because we were famished and it was the first restaurant we came into contact with. Life becomes a lot simpler when you’re faced with food or death decisions. Eating at Ouzeri Mitsi proved a couple of things to us. Firstly that, because the standard of accessible Mediterranean fair and freshness of seafood produce back home is a lot more touch-and-go than go, walking into any random restaurant on any Greek island is generally going to taste pretty decent. And secondly I am never going to eat pastas back home again.

And if I still had lingering grunts about how Paros looks more like the end of a shotgun barrel than a Cyclades paradise then, it gave me a second lesson in not putting my mind’s boots into its own metaphorical mouth by offering us a spectacular view while we chomped on our sumptuous lunch. The only thing inhibiting this view to our left was the sight of a portly man in an unbuttoned white shirt at another table in Ouzeri practically making love to the fish he was eating. I mean it’s one thing to enjoy your food, it’s another to be licking your fingers seductively with an orgasmic look in your eyes. Actually we’re glad we ever laid eyes on him eating. He has basically changed the way we view eating fish forever. That ‘bulus’ back at Acha Curry House is never going to be devoured the same again.

In fact the food in Paros may just be some of the best we had in Greece. The fried calamari in Taverna Glafkos has properly set a standard for all other fried calamaris to contend with for the both of us, and we suspect it will remain so for a while yet. Maybe we were starting at a very low base, but it was amazingly delicious. Not that it was gastronomical science or anything, just baby squids perfectly deep-fried in batter, garnished with pepper and salt and a squeeze of lemon. But the taste was just tantalizing. It provided me just a moment of realisation at just how much rubbish tasteless frozen calamari I’ve been eating all my life back home. There was also this charming little café called what I can only roughly identify as Kafeneio, where they served small plates of Greek dishes. Our favorite was a dish of freshly cut tomatoes, feta and olive oil. It’s a dish that appears so simple that it feels like a restaurant should be ashamed to serve and charge money for it. But yet, it’s a dish that feels almost impossible to replicate back home because it was all down to the natural quality of the tomatoes, the feta and the olive oil. The tomatoes in particular were the stars, sweet and juicy to taste, not at all like the sour bombs we often get back home.

That was the second slap.

Slap Three

Naousa’s town center is not large, but it compensates for its lack of size by being interestingly intricate. We explored them for two days and even on the second day, we were finding little nooks and corners we could tuck into and discover things. Whether it’s little knickknack shops, fun-sized gellatorias or to-go pizza joints, Naousa is like the town that keeps giving. At the heart of its night life is the restaurants around the port. Packed with tourists of all shapes and sizes, the clinking of wine glasses against each other, utensils against dining ware and the sound of indistinct chatter punctuate the serene and calm skies of Paros. It’s noisy sure, but quite unlike the sound a city makes. There are no awful stabs of frustrated honking by motorists, raised frustrated voices against each other and against the city or thumping pop music emanating from departmental stores. This was a more joyous sound. The sound of relaxed revelry, of happiness at conversations and the joy that can really only come from having a meal in a gorgeous island in the middle of the ocean with people you love.  

This ‘sound’ was what endeared Paros to me. It felt like nothing I had ever felt before. Suddenly it all made sense. That life can also be a celebration beyond just birthdays, anniversaries and the holidays. That life itself can be a celebration. I’ve always been apathetic about food and celebrations. I generally eat to live and I’ve not had many celebrations since my sixth birthday that was more than just my family going out to a Chinese restaurant and ordering a few dishes to fill our tummies. But suddenly, standing there in the middle of the Naousa port, watching the people there, hearing the ocean cooing behind us, it suddenly all made sense. How food, culture and celebration all came together in a more relatable sense to me. It wasn’t about gifts and fancy outfits. It wasn’t about just enjoying a moment, or a day. But it was about enjoying life itself through these things. Even as I reminisce these things now, I no longer associate Paros to the first impression I have of it – the mud-stained buildings and dusty streets. In fact, those initial memories are fast-fading, replaced by the scent and sounds of the lighter side of Paros.

This was the third slap.

Slap Four

A trip to Greece is always going to be about the beaches. The seafood, sunshine and the facial hair sure, but on top of that list, the beaches. We would eventually work the ‘beach itch’ out of our system during the trip but we were still at the height of it when we were in Paros. After our lunch at Ouzeri Mitsi, we walked another 10-minutes up pass Despina’s Mare and just as Konstantina said, we reached a beach called Agii Anargiri. It’s quite a different experience from the organized beach at Agios Ioannis back in Mykonos. Here, the beach front is just a few steps away from the vehicle road and splayed out in a way that appears unappealing at first because it had patches of uncut grass all around and the sand appears stodgier here. The wonderful thing was that it did not cost us a cent to be here. Just open up your towel over the sand and you’re good to go. Don’t expect any tropical cocktails though.

And while Agii Anargiri may rank as probably the least appealing beach we spent time at in Greece, all you need to do is look sea-ward and everything else no longer matters. Not even the fact that you’re laying your towel just ten steps from where a Prius just zoomed by. The sea is all that matters and when you get into it, besides the fact that you immediately feel like curling inside a microwave oven because of the cold, you feel free and at-one with mother earth. The sea here, as is the case throughout Greece, is gorgeous and being at the center of it, with the sun beating down and the waves gently caressing your chest, you just feel like it’s possible to just close your eyes and lose yourself to the calming elements.

Like the building blocks for a castle in my mind, these little experiences have slowly warmed me more and more to the idea of finding a belonging on a beach. Agios Ioannis in Mykonos was a crucial piece, but so was Kolymbithres beach here in Paros, which we went to on our second day there. We took a short boat ride over to the beach, traversing through unbelievably clear aqua marine waters to get there. The water felt deceptively inviting with its color, like diving head first into Jell-O. But given that we were more or less in the middle of the ocean, my guess is it won’t feel like Jell-O if I decided to plunge in. Given my inability to swim, it will be more like a big fat sack of rice being dumped into the ocean.

Once there, occupants of the boat flooded into the different segments of the beach like ball bearings slipping into the different nooks of a pinball machine, to grab themselves an umbrella for the day. We initially got a paltry one that was two rows from the sea at the first beach front we got to. But my wife had that look. Let me explain the look. It’s basically the look of someone who has been forced to watch a litter of puppies being drowned. Okay, I jest. Let me try again. It’s the look of someone who has been forced to watch a puppy being drowned. Yup. So we moved. You move when your wife has that look. That’s my marriage advice for everyone out there. Free of charge. So move we did, to the next beachfront, where it was almost empty and we had our pick. And score, cause now she looks like a puppy greeting her master at the door or an alcoholic influencer at an open bar. I can never tell which is which.

Some moments of the day flash to mind. The American family and the father with the sardonic wit and two women who we couldn’t distinguish were either his daughter, wife or mother-in-law (yeah I know it doesn’t say anything well about the women in discussion). The wonderful cold hit of fig tequila on lips against the punishing sun. Me getting my leg wedged against two rocks from a slip which threatened to ruin my beach day but papa powered through. The sight of a heavily pregnant but fit woman dancing around the upper regions of the queer rock formations that characterizes Kolymbithres, with not much of a care in the world. I mean why would you when you have the sight of that ocean in front of you? Yet another entry filed under the folder ‘Things a Middle Class Asian Will Never Do’ in my head. My sporadically dipping into the calm, clear sea, watching fishes swim around my frame. It was a wonderful day indeed.

This was the fourth slap.

There’s a unique sense of wonder and romanticism that comes from being a person who was raised in one end of the world, under markedly different conditions than the people here and somehow ending up in this relatively small island in the middle of the Aegean sea, taking in their culture, eating their food, breathing their air and walking on their streets.

Even now as I sit here back in humid and dense KL, typing this, my mind is bathed in endorphins as I think about what it was like to be in Paros. That things are chugging along just as they were when we were there. Despina is still welcoming guests to her abode with her warm smile and hearty breakfasts in the morning. Glafkos is still dishing out delectable calamari and turning away hopeful diners because they are fully booked. The streets are lined with visitors from around the world, baked by the Mediterranean sun but joyful for being in the midst of a gorgeous island getaway. And Lola, the aged and grumpy cat I met somewhere in the town centre of Naousa is hopefully still guarding the entrance of that cute boutique that’s tucked under the stairs. ‘She’s an old lady’, a girl sitting outside the boutique assured me when Lola gave nary an expression to me when I tried to play with her.

Lola the Grump

The same can probably be said of Paros. An old lady of the sea, glistening throughout history from her renowned white marble. She may not be as zesty and sociable as Mykonos or as breathtaking and spectacular as Santorini (as we would soon find out), but she has a charm or two up her understated sleeves yet. It’s not an obvious charm, but once properly unveiled, it can be quite breathtaking. It says a lot, given our initial impression of her, that Paros ended up being our most favorite portion of this Greek sojourn and will probably always hold a special place in me and my wife’s hearts.

Santorini awaits.

This is Greece (Day 1 – 3)

Mykonos.

I have an occasionally fractured mind.

I’m not a person with an elaborate wish list in life. It’s a habit. Wish for less, and you get less disappointed when you don’t get your wishes fulfilled. But as I began writing this I am suddenly reminded of something I did as part of some group exercise years back – to identify some dreams I may have in life. As part of the exercise we were asked to draw out our dreams on a sheet of paper that we were supposed to frame up. I remember drawing the Greek flag. I don’t actively remember Greece being one of my dream travel destinations to begin with, but I do remember the activity of drawing that flag. Which probably means Greece was somewhat floating in my mind as a place I would like to visit at some point in my life’s existence.

Yet, when the wife put forth a query to me on where we should travel to this year, my answer was a rather resounding ‘anywhere’. That is if a response like that can be resounding. It was truly really an ‘anywhere’ for me. I mean I would’ve preferred to answer an ‘everywhere’ but remember that ‘wish-for-less’ thing about me? Yes. And to then have to decide between chocolate, banana or butter cake when I never knew cake was important to me until three years ago is like being asked at a buffet line – ‘what are you going to eat’? – ‘I guess I will decide when I get there’. Not even when Greece was mentioned as a possible destination at the start of the year, did my ears perk up and my memory jogged. In fact, I even offered a lazy retort for our original choice of Croatia and Bosnia, because well, Daenerys (In hindsight Greece over Croatia could not have worked out any better).

But yet as I sit here writing this, tanned like a Bronze hyena and taste buds sufficiently tingled by the taste of exceptional Mediterranean seafood, I am suddenly reminded of that activity and me drawing that flag. So it turns out that I had a wish fulfilled when I had forgotten it was a wish to begin with. Does that even count? Can you name and tag something on to your bucket list, after the fact? Hmm … feels like it’s cheating.

I had quite little inclination regarding Greece before I got there. I am not always one to do a clinical investigation into the history and details of a country before I visit it. Why? Because I am not a dignitary who is trying to build trade connections. I am on a ‘vacation’, and that word can be categorized broadly into just about anything from having an uneventful cup of coffee at a café at Paros port, powering an ATV rather unconvincingly across Mykonos or just spending the night in café hotel in Santorini. I don’t always need my vacation packed with eventful nuggets. I suppose I should, given we (me and my wife) really don’t travel that often. Perhaps I have taken my wife for granted because she always comes through with us having the best experience on any vacation or maybe I am just someone who can find happiness in almost anything when we are on vacation. Yeah, probably the second one (coughs).

Greek weather is like being hugged and slapped at the same time. The first thing I felt when stepping out on to the airport tarmac to the plane that would take us from Athens to Mykonos is the wind. It’s gusty, enthusiastic and chilly. It lulls you into thinking you should reach into your bag for your jacket and just as you do, it fades away, leaving the punishing heat that more than often feels a little like you’re a bell pepper being roasted on a slow charcoal fire. Not that I would know what that really feels like but I am assuming it’s just pretty bloody uncomfortable. And this parlay basically plays out back and forth, like being the center of a tug of war between Buffy Summers and a, err vampire?

The plane we were taking to connect to Mykonos was tiny. How tiny? Well not as tiny as a two-seater sea plane but tiny enough for it to have propellers and the attendant requesting that we redistribute ourselves in a more balanced manner across the plane for weight management. There might’ve been a slight possibility that if I made some strategic efforts to lunge myself at the right side of the plane that we could’ve had paella in Barcelona instead that evening.

Our vessel.

People have impressions of certain countries. They may be pretty accurate or absolute nonsense but they are impressions nonetheless. I had patches of impressions of Greece of course – the Moussaka from that café in PJ, Zeus and his philandering ways, Angelos Charisteas’ winning goal against Portugal in the 2004 Euros and the Kraken in Clash of the Titans. I have since discovered that the Kraken belongs to Scandinavian folklore, which perfectly explains why it did not come greet me at the shores of Kolymbithres beach on Paros even though I implored it so fervently to. If you can’t trust movies anymore, what else can you really trust?

But buried deep under all that fluff, I have always had a more subconscious impression of Greece – that it’s a dated country and its datedness would be confirmed by the mullets the people choose to wear on their heads and the dated classic rock they choose to play on their stereos. I am not sure why this is the case. At the same time, I quite consciously banish these thoughts because well, it’s silly, disrespectful and probably completely inaccurate. Right? Yes. Well, that is until I boarded the bus upon reaching Mykonos airport and tucked into the driver seat was the bus driver, who looked like an offspring of a union between wrestler Shawn Michaels and well, Shawn Michaels (Okay, my bad, shouldn’t have brought you there) and fitted out with a flowing mane of The Rockers-era mullet. As if things cannot get more testing for my mind, he turns on the stereo and what does it play? ‘Walk of Life’ by Dire Straits. I mean of all tracks the uncoolest, bandana-waving classic rock dross you can find. It was the most open invitation for my mind to misbehave.

I started out as a novice traveler years ago, bandying the idea that I was someone who preferred a vacation in the city rather than the outback or the beach. I’ve since revised this view dramatically but if I were to experience a city while traveling, my preference is to experience cities that are dense and chaotic with imperfect pathways, uneven steps and shops and buildings with messy configurations and sizes. I mean what’s the point of experiencing a city that’s impeccably planned, perfectly outlined and neatly constructed (I’m looking at you Sydney)? If I wanted that, I’ll just buy a Lego set. Actually, Mykonos doesn’t exactly have a city. Chora is often cited as its main hub but it’s at most a vibrant town. There are no skyscrapers or wide and long streets filled with automobiles. In fact not even bikes and ATVs are allowed into Chora so you can walk in relative peace and not to have to worry you’re going to get mowed down by an enthusiastic grandma on an ATV. Instead it’s bustling with people decking through its complex and windy streets. Streets that are just bursting with little nooks and lanes that lead to even more nooks and lanes. Essentially, it’s a maze, but a maze lined with gellatorias, fish taverns, cafes and even a gorgeous port, so you don’t actually mind getting lost in it.

I suppose you wouldn’t mind getting lost if it means stumbling on to something like this.

That saying, it’s that same messy and irresistible structure of the city that resulted in us being thrusted into a roundabout quest to search for our lodgings. When you ask for directions and someone says, ‘It’s two streets back’, it’s a little problematic when it’s not really clear what constitutes a ‘street’. The amount of small lanes running through building and structures can sometimes cause you to wonder if you’re doing the math right. Was that two streets, or just one and a half? So we tried various mathematical permutations and we were still very much lost. I was starting to think that a ‘street’ is really a ‘continent’ in these parts and that maybe we booked a lodging in Minnesota by mistake. Alas, we found the place eventually. Turns out it was a nondescript building that we must’ve passed by about 560 times in our search. Perhaps someone should tell them that it’s really a lot easier to look for something if you have a sign upfront?

Actually, it feels a little overzealous to call the commerce and home structures in Greek islands ‘buildings’. Huts? Pods? They are mostly the width of living rooms in developing Asian nations and do not go more than two stories high. It’s common for people to be living above nick-knack shops and bars on a busy street. There’s a kind of romance to that, living in a Mediterranean concrete hut, right in the middle of a Greek island buzz, with the sound of revelry and dining all around you. While that’s generally the case where I come from as well, it’s not quite as romantic when you’re eking out an existence in a grimy flat above a dense and humid street as opposed to living in an arctic white structure (with pastel-colored window panes) between charming cobbled streets with the cooling Mediterranean breeze blowing through your home and the sound of the Aegean sea waves greeting you in the morning.

Much like how I took my first travel steps convinced that I prefer city vacations, consequentially, I used to say that I dislike beach ones as well. Why? Well what is there for me to do? I don’t swim, nor look good topless running in a pair of sexy red shorts or able to move gracefully while playing volley ball in a skimpy bikini. As you can see I have no bloody idea what really goes on at a beach or that whatever I think goes on, is probably about 20 years outdated. Our trip to Danang two years ago opened my mind up to the possibilities of how lazing on a beach can be fun for a tubby swim-light human being who is afraid of the open ocean like me. All you need is a book, and own the act of ‘dipping’ like you were born for it. Yes, dipping. Some people swim, others like me dip. It’s a thing. Watch this space.

Agios Ioannis beach on Mykonos provided us with probably one of our most memorable days in Greece. But it’s not like a lot happened. If anything it’s arguably a day where the least happened for us. Perhaps it’s the tranquility that only a secluded beach could provide, with the waves roaring against the beachfront as the radiating sun cooperates with the sea breeze to construct a haven for you to just sit back with a book, shutting your eyes occasionally and just allowing your mind to take a long and deep breath. I could never see the logic of how some people would say they love running because it helps them think. How can you think when you’re in a moving iron maiden. Now lazing on a gorgeous and secluded Greek beach, this I can understand how it helps you think. If only what helps me think doesn’t make me fatter but actually helps me get fitter instead. I guess that’s my lot in life.

It was a sand, Pina Colada and sea kind of day at Agios Ioannis. I of course say that, completely aware of how contrived it sounds, except that for someone who has only very recently learned to appreciate the merits of spending time doing nothing on a beach and drinking alcohol, I am pretty much still in the impressionable pup phase of this sojourn so don’t mind me as a pant and stick my tongue out for a bit. I became so comfortable with sand on my feet that I took quite a bit of it with me to the restaurant for lunch. At some point I stared down in the midst of stuffing my face to find a pile of sand under me. It looked like I’ve tunneled like a mole from the ground for some sea bream.

Not to show the obvious but, yeah …

I got acquainted with the Aegean sea as well over the course of the day. By sporadically dipping (yes own it). The water is always deceptively cold in Greece. With the sun funneling down like an aerial barbecue pit, you would think that at some point it would heat up the sea. No chance. I suppose it’s akin to biting into a fried ice cream pastry. The thrill is in the torture perhaps? Me and the wife usually do a three-count, dive in and surrender ourselves to Poseidon’s cold, cold heart.

The coldness of the Greek sea is not only mitigated by the searing heat, but also the warmth of the people living in Greece. There was some heat emitting from the fit and dreamy lifeguard at Agios Ioannis as well but I suspect that was mostly felt by my wife. We would encounter individuals, vendors, servers throughout our 10-day sojourn who would come to redefine friendliness and service to us in many ways. At the top of the list was Yannis who works upfront for Kounelas Fish Tavern, whom we met on our second visit to the place on our last day at Mykonos. It’s infectious to see him work, chatting with passersby, cracking jokes with diners and attempting to speak the local languages of the different people he meets. He thought Malaysians were generally ‘darker-skinned’ than we were, explained to us what Mastika was and how to drink it (‘We sip it, we don’t do shots’) and attempted to speak decent Mandarin with us when he told him we were ethnically Chinese. He was not self-conscious about his love for the food he was selling, the people he worked with and the job he was doing. It was enlightening to watch such candor in action. Here was someone who has eked a meaningful existence on a gorgeous island, doing what a lot of people would foolishly call ‘insignificant work’ but has radiated the days and nights of so many diners and revelers by just simply loving what he does and believing in what he is selling. And why wouldn’t he? Kounelas serves some of the most delectable and freshest seafood I have ever tasted.

Cured sardines at Kounelas. Not from a can …

A friend remarked that Greek food is ‘simple but delicious’ and I couldn’t have concocted a better description of it myself. Nothing we ate was very complicatedly put together or terribly fussy up till this point. Just some of the freshest ingredients (particularly seafood) tossed on a searing grill and salted. No sauce or a thousand ingredients, just food tasting the way it’s meant to be tasted. We had a rude awakening on just how large a pork Souvlaki can be in these parts on our first day, but since then we’ve dined mostly from the grocer in the sea and it does not look like it was going to stop anytime soon. The Greeks treat their seafood seriously, which is basically an all-encompassing love letter to my wife. They treat fish like Asian do, good from head to tail and we felt so at home eating there. Every meal was paired with lovely wine and a side of bread. No sauces are given beyond olive oil, balsamic vinegar and lemon slices. It’s like taking food back to basics, to what it should be really about – the freshness of things, of dining straight from the produce of the land and sea, without the commerclialisation from middle men who step in to provide us with produce that are pricier, less fresh but more convenient to purchase.

The sea urchin pasta. Looked just a tad better than it tasted unfortunately.

We experienced the full gamut of dining options in Mykonos, from the sit-by-the-sidewalk style meal of pizza and ‘Portokalopita’ (orange cake with honey) from il forno di Gerasimo, a charming Greek-style bakery to the fussier end of the spectrum with Spilia at the other side of the island. Our conclusion? Finer Greek dining options doesn’t have a lot on its grimier counterparts. You’re better off saving that additional €30 and spending it on fancy late night cocktails. Sea urchin pasta sounded like the pasta equivalent of a Randy Savage/Hulk Hogan team-up to my wife but it turned out ridiculously underwhelming at Spilia. To top it off it was quite a quest to get there, about 19-minutes on an ATV.

I know, 19-minutes is hardly a lifetime. In fact, in most fantasy canons it would be laughable to call that a quest. It’s more like stepping out to the garden rather than journeying to Mount Doom. But if you factor in the fact that it’s left-side drive in Greece, most roads in Greek islands are single lane and that I have never been on ATV before, those 19-minutes felt like the third act in Endgame. In hindsight it was a scenic, breezy drive up and down hills and coastal roads to get to our dinner but in the midst of that 19-minute journey, it was like trying to read Shakespeare while being strangled. So stressed was I on the contraption that any missed turns was not resolved by a three-point U but to go straight and hope that the road doubles back somehow like a faithful boomerang. My wife felt necessary to point out the fallacy of renting an ATV for flexibility but not being flexible myself. Boo bloody hoo.

No u-turns on this baby.

Mykonos is often cited as a party island. But that seems to suggest that it’s packed with drunks, getting overtly fresh with everyone and piercingly-loud music punctuating the air. We experienced none of the sort. In fact, so much so we started wondering where were the ‘parties’? Our money’s on the beachfront clubs but Chora, for a city boy like me, hardly registers much on the city-vibe scale. There are clearly a lot of people, but it’s people dining over good food, with a glass of wine or two. It’s hardly a London rave in the 90s with Begbie.

The truth is Mykonos does offer plenty of options for seclusion if that’s your preferred beverage. Moments that spring to mind is us having coffee on separate occasions at Little Venice, just taking in the sun and the turquoise sea, or staring out our bedroom window at the empty cobbled streets in the morning, buying delicious spinach and feta pastry from a home-style bakery around the corner. Don’t get me wrong, there was clearly a lot of people buzzing about, but the beauty of what was around you was louder and more pronounced than tourists in sundresses. We still managed to feel alone, amidst people.

Paros awaits.

Yesterday once more

We sometimes forget just how much our pasts inform our present. I visualize our pasts to be like a petulant kid who has uninvitingly intruded into your home, parks himself (it’s a boy in my head) in an inconspicuous corner of your house and refuses to leave. You’ve tried various approaches to get him to leave but he refuses to. He largely sits quietly in that corner. Pretty soon you hardly notice him anymore. So you go about your days like he wasn’t there. But occasionally, he lets out a shriek to remind you that he’s still in your house and then you experience the entire turmoil of having an intruder in your home all over again. But eventually you become complacent and not notice him again and you get on with your life. Except, he’s still in your home.

I think moving on from your past involves you knowing what you’re moving on from. My past has been viewed through a variety of filters and lenses that has severely distorted what really happened, what it really meant and how I eventually interact with it in my present. I have been trying recently to inquisitively prod and investigate these things in my mind, to open doors I had conveniently closed and kept shut with a huge sticker upfront that says ‘Out of sight, out of thoughts’. It hurts to drag these facts and events out into the light again and to properly see them for what they are.

It’s been a painfully humbling experience over the last couple of weeks. It feels a lot like skinning your inner man slowly with a pocket knife. I’ve had to face things that make me feel worthless, emasculated and emotionally immolated. Things that I have dressed up in pretty dresses that are in actual fact horrendously ugly in form and I have had to stare that ugliness in its face.

I see God as the social services worker that is eventually going to come around and remove that ‘petulant’ boy from my home. But right now, I have to first get to a point where I can consistently convince myself that that he needs to be removed. That involves me dragging a chair in front of him, looking into his eyes and seeing him for what he really is.

Something that should not be in here …

Last night I dreamt that somebody loved me

Perhaps this is somewhat improper to say but there are not many Biblical characters that I truly resonate with. Some people may pitch the likes of Paul, Moses and David as their heroes but I never felt much of an affinity with them. Mostly because if the Bible was represented as an American high school, then these are your jocks. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying they are perfect. We all know all of these characters displayed flaws in the course of their life’s narrative. But they overcame whatever supposed dysfunctionality they had and transformed their narrative into something entirely different. Something more … jockey?

Being someone who has never pitched himself even remotely close to the popularity stakes, I find myself slithering into the dark side of the Word of God to find people within its pages that I feel, at least represents some of the same struggles I have. Jonah comes immediately to mind. The very fact that his book sits within the pages of God’s approved-canon suggests at least to me, that the God I love and serve has to have some kind of sense of humor, and more importantly is not above having a discourse about the weaknesses of men.

More recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Saul. Yes, the King, initial human benefactor of David’s rise to political power, gradually, his sternest critic and eventually, his enemy. Reading Saul’s Biblical narrative, one can’t help but wonder if we’ve missed maybe a whole chapter where he flicked a finger to the heavens and boiled every firstborn of Israel at the time.

I can imagine myself stumbling into the same potholes Saul did. The same indecisiveness, scatterbrained-ness and insecurities he seemed to have, I seem to have in great abundance today. I suppose you could argue he was king and as such should be held to a higher accord of abilities and fortitude. But I can’t help but feel in most of the key encounters he had with the people around him and with God, he resembled more a boy trying to find his footing but finding at each step that he had no support, which results in him stumbling even more. I’ve been there myself, doubting myself when it felt like the people around me was not giving me the support.

As his narrative unfolded it just gradually became one of the most contemporary human ones in the Bible. He eventually devolves from king to schemer/murdering despot, driven insane by the insecurity that was consuming him. Again, I have seen myself abandon logic and serenity during times of duress and great insecurity. What he did (besides the murdering bit) was well within the realm of comprehension for someone who is suffering from great insecurity. But yet to have proper context is to examine the circumstances that led to his state of great insecurity. It’s hard to make sound decisions when every step you make seems to be a misstep in the eyes of the people around you.

There are many sad moments in Saul’s narrative but none more so than this encounter with the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15:24–28: 24 Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them. 25 Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.” 26 But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!” 27 As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. 28 Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you.”

Ouch.

I sometimes wonder what God sees when he looks down on me. At other times I wonder if God plays favorites. If I have to be honest, the Bible is filled with characters and situations that polarizes me personally as a believer. Some I have resolved by applying scant internal logic, some I continue to struggle with. Saul is one such character that I wrestle a little with. I know God does not demand perfection but obedience and that was ultimately what he failed at but I’ve been in many situations where intent is rather different from the outcome. What then? Am I also put to the sword on that technicality? If so, then principally, given how dismissive I am of people who behave that way, what does that say of my relationship with God?

So many questions.

This blue world

Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man.’ – From ‘Walking’ by Henry David Thoreau

I’ve just finished Frank McCourt’s wonderfully snarky ‘Teacher Man’ In it, he referenced a lecture by American poet. philosopher and tax resister, Henry David Thoreau concerning the idea of just continually walking the earth, experiencing nature, without the need to double back to the start. The thought immediately intrigued me.

The thought that intrigued me was not about retreating back into nature, which forms a large portion of what he was trying to say. Not that I don’t like nature. I just like it with a little air-condition. Make what you wish of that statement. The thought that interested me was the idea of allowing ourselves so much freedom that we would not need to double back to anything. It’s never occurred to me until now that an important tenet of civilization is the need to close the loop. Exploration is encouraged but not unconditionally. Otherwise you’re just a vagabond. It would seem the term ‘explorer’ may be either somewhat elusive or entirely conditional (explore, but you have to return) in this modern age.

My wife’s dog comes to mind. How he is more often than not, intent on zipping out of the gate when it is opened. When he has intention to do so, he is completely single-minded and driven to accomplish his mission. He truly believes in that moment that freedom and doggie heaven awaits him beyond those steel bars. But yet when he does get out, he often never allows himself to get very far, or at least, far from the ‘familiar’. Namely, us. The trick to lure him back in is not to chase after him, because that just encourages him to run farther because the ‘familiar’ is just a few steps behind him as he makes haste. The trick to getting him back is to close the gate and to head back into the house. Counter-intuitive I know, but works like a charm every time. Because as he plays temporary explorer and glances back towards the porch, he sees no one familiar. No one beckoning him to return. It would seem freedom then quickly becomes overrated when weighed against the prospect of having nowhere to call home. Pretty soon he is at the gate, beckoning to be let back in.

I’ve never entertained the thought of just walking out and never doubling back. I’ve loved the thought of it, of not being bound by the expectations of society and my social connections. When I decided against the concept of God years back, I inserted myself unknowingly into a vast plot of free land. I have up to that point labored under the expectations of religion, family and relationships and have mostly reciprocated accordingly to all of them. But suddenly I found myself completely free of all those expectations. Barring disease and social norms, I could’ve booked myself an escort for a good night and it would’ve fit somewhere within my acceptable moral compass at the time. I could’ve gone out and drunk myself into a fool and come home to my bed, without much condemnation from myself, and little from the people around me. But yet I did none of those things. I continued to go about my life like I still had those initial expectations placed upon me. Why?

Perhaps like my wife’s dog, I have grown accustomed so much to the familiar that absolute freedom no longer seems as appealing. I no longer need actual freedom, but just a notion of it, a whiff of it once in a while, and I can be contented. Perhaps I am indeed wedded to the breast of society. But just entertaining the thought of dropping all my routines, lifestyles and expectations, opening the door, heading out and never coming back still causes my heart to do a little skip. I don’t know where that skip comes from. Perhaps it’s the little explorer in all of us. The based nature that civilization has gradually built on and snuffed out. Perhaps it is a thought that appeals to all of us at a very, very fundamental level.

But if personal history has told me anything, it is that if I was indeed offered an opportunity to walk, I would most probably chicken out anyway.