Monday, February 29, 2016

Farewell to Lesvos

Tomorrow I leave Molyvos on the island of Lesvos for Mytilene where I will spend one night before boarding the ferry for Piraeus on the mainland. From there I will travel by bus to Patras where I will catch another ferry to Bari, Italy. I am excited to see that part of Italy, but oh so sad to leave Lesvos. There is such a level of comfort in walking into my favorite coffee shop in the morning and having the smiling woman behind the counter ask, "Latte with double espresso?" And I love that as I walk the 2 miles to my shift I stop and talk to other volunteers on their way to work or call out a happy "Kalimera" to the locals. It has been such a wild 2 1/2 weeks here and I cannot say I have enjoyed every minute of it, but I have had so many moments of exhilaration and gratitude! And I've come to recognize that all the moments of despair or frustration were my own doing. Since the moment I stepped onto the plane in San Antonio just about a month ago, there have been constant reminders of my strengths and weaknesses. Traveling alone, I think the lessons come hard and quick as there is no one else to blame things on! The upside of that is I become aware of my part in it quickly also and I see how changing my behavior can change the situation. 
The volunteer population here is a diverse group. Probably 90% of them in their 20's and 30's. Lots of folks from Great Britain, Australia, Germany, Spain. When your job for days on end is to sort through endless boxes of donated clothing, you rely on interesting colleagues for stimulating conversation and the volunteers have always delivered. I've met some intriguing Americans - Dan and Bethany are a couple a bit older than me from the Pacific Northwest. They are giving me a ride to Mytilene tomorrow and I'm looking forward to a few uninterrupted hours in a car with them. Laura Scott, originally from California I believe, has been traveling the world on her own for years. She has a great website about her travels - 
 - that made me laugh till I cried. When we first met I quizzed her on all sorts of things (how many pairs of pants do you have? how do you decide where to go next?) and told her how sometimes fear gets the best of me. She looked me straight in the eyes and almost challengingly said, "That's okay. Fear is not a bad thing!"  And I could tell she was speaking from experience. She writes unflinchingly about her triumphs and failures both. 
As you can imagine, politics are a hot topic of conversation. Both the politics of the refugee situation and American politics, which at this point is good for a laugh if nothing else. Along with the chuckles is a sense of incredulity. Bravo America for being so entertaining!
The next leg of this trip will be a slow meandering through Italy - starting in the southeast and making my way to the northwest - then through the south of France to Spain and Portugal, where I will spend about 3 months. This includes a side trip to Morocco and a week in the Azores, along with my walk on the Portuguese Camino - 385 miles from Lisbon to northwestern Spain.
A few pics here from the incredible village of Molyvos, Greece.
The castle on the hill overlooking Molyvos. 
A view from inside the castle
Back streets of Molyvos. So very lovely!
Morning on the Aegean Sea
Clouds on the mountains. One of the views from my apartment nestled in an olive grove.
Cactus and bluebonnets right outside my door! 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Volunteering in Lesvos

It has been a busy week for me in Molyvos on the island of Lesvos, Greece. My first volunteer shift was on Wednesday afternoon at the IRC (International Rescue Committee) camp and I worked there again today. The camp sits in a valley on the mountains overlooking the Aegean Sea with Turkey visible in the distance. The site is fairly new and ruggedly beautiful. During the day there is constant background noise of bleating sheep and clanging neck bells as the sheep roam the hills surrounding the camp. Sometimes a small group will wander right through the middle of the camp. 
Above: The big main tent with the Aegean Sea and Turkey in the background.
Below: Sheep wandering through camp.
The sleeping tents nestled in the mountains at sunrise.
Starfish, the organization I am working with, distributes clothes at this camp. We have a men's tent and a women & children's tent. Donated new and used clothes are sorted by type and size into large boxes and then organized in sections within the tent. When the refugees come to the camp they are most always in wet and sometimes dirty clothes. Our job is to provide them with
clean, dry clothes and to make sure they have warm sweaters and coats for the next leg of their journey as they usually only stay at the IRC Camp one night. When I got to work this morning around 7, the group of about 60 had just gone to sleep having arrived at the camp around 4:30. At that time, any medical needs had been attended to and if they wanted, they could trade in their sopping wet shoes for a pair to wear around the camp as they got ready for bed. Frequently these are shoes that don't fit and are simply to get them to the restroom facilities and their sleep tent. We place the wet shoes by the side of the tent to dry out. We then clean them up and put then in the appropriate box inside.
Wet shoes set out to dry
Since everyone was asleep when we arrived, we busied ourselves organizing our tent as we knew the afternoon would bring an influx of people needed fresh clothing. Today my co-worker was Magda, a Palestinian woman my age. We discovered so many similarities and became fast friends. In looks and mannerisms she reminded me so much of my friend Grace!
Magda speaks Arabic, so she was a huge asset in this situation! I rely on sign language and a few words I've picked up, but everything was so much more efficient with Magda telling me exactly what the women needed. By mid afternoon we had a small line snaking away from our tent. Shoes are the hardest to provide though most everyone needs them. Not only does it seem like our supply is usually low, but sizing is so difficult. They frequently try on 3-5 pairs before they find a pair that fits. More than once I put an additional pair of heavy socks on a child so shoes one size too large will work. There will be other opportunities to gather clothing - I am just trying to get them clean, dry and warm for the long bus ride to their next stop. I find that looking into these woman's eyes, I see my daughters, my sisters, my friends. Some can speak a bit of English and thank us profusely. Some walk away quickly, eager to go to the changing rooms to see what fits. A few place their hands over their hearts and bow their heads at us in gratitude before leaving. These refugees don't know what lies ahead although I have an idea what their immediate future will bring. The buses that they board at the IRC Camp will most likely head to Moria about 90 minutes away. Moria is an old prison that has been turned into a refugee camp housing thousands of refugees for a day or two if they have the funds for the long ferry trip to the mainland or a week (or much more) if they don't. I worked there earlier in the week and it was barely organized chaos if only because of the numbers of people. The organizations do a great job, but there are many more people than beds available, so mats and blankets are spread out everywhere - on cement slabs, on the dirt alongside a building or a fenceline - it was difficult to see, I can't imagine living it. The different organizations working there each have specific tasks and Starfish (up until today when another organization took over our area in a group rotation) handled clothing distribution just as at the IRC Camp. These organizations are big on acronyms - UNHCR, DRC, IRC - and I heard IMU mentioned. When I got to Moria I spent most of the day working with them and discovered they were not IMU, but I AM YOU!
A great group of volunteers and I thoroughly enjoyed working with them. In reality, I have yet to meet anyone who isn't happy to be here doing this work. A very dedicated group of folks committed to making a difference. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016


It's a windy, grey afternoon here in Molyvos on the island of Lesvos, Greece. I walked into town this morning to sit in the sun by the sea and then buy some groceries as I was down to a handful of dried figs and some walnuts. The oranges I bought had leaves still attached (the citrus trees all over the island are heavy with fruit) and the bottle of organic olive oil from Mytilene was crazy cheap at less than $3. My small apartment sits in the midst of an olive grove with a view of both the Aegean Sea and the Mithymna Castle. At night, the Byzantine era castle sitting atop an adjacent hill is lit like an eerie nightlight. The winds have been fierce and relentless - I actually wore earplugs to bed last night to block out the howling - and when I returned from town this afternoon my hair resembled Phyllis Diller's. Go her...
I thought I would post some pics from Turkey before inundating this site with pics of Greece.
This woman was harvesting sea urchins by my hotel in Ayvalik. She had this nifty little scoop and in about 30 minutes had about 3/4's of a bucketful. They are small, but plentiful. I saw them on the coast here in Greece, too. I'd love to harvest some...yum - uni on toast!
It was Market Day my last day in Ayvalik and town was buzzing. Many Greeks take the ferry over to Turkey in the morning, shop all day and return to Greece in the late afternoon. When I arrived at the market I was a bit disappointed as I found a few vendors selling antiques from little carts, but mostly it was booth after booth of clothes. Whole blocks with nothing but Adidas jackets, Nike sneakers and tables overflowing with bras and panties with a table of housewares here and there to break up the monotony. I was about to give up when I turned a corner and my heart did a happy dance! Everywhere were artistic displays of fruits and vegetables, olives and cheeses, nuts and dried fruits, breads and beans. It was magnificent and chaotic and noisy and I couldn't help walking around with a big smile on my face. I bought a half pound of dried figs and stood watching a man standing behind a huge wheel of white cheese. He peeled a paper thin layer off the top...PHYLLO! I was pretty certain this was the type of phyllo used to make the savory cheese pastry I had tucked in my bag for lunch.
A cart of antiques
Grape leaves
Lots of beautiful veggies
That's all for now. 
Next post will be about wild and windy Greece!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ayvalik, Turkey

A lovely little town on the Aegean Sea, Ayvalik is my gateway to the Greek island of Lesvos. I had planned on being here 2 nights and then hop the ferry for the 90 minute ride to the island, but I was unaware the ferries cut back their schedules in the winter. So tonight, instead of being in my sweet tiny apartment in Molyvos, Greece, I am still in my sweet tiny hotel room in Ayvalik. It has been a relaxing winter visit in a town I am certain explodes with tourists in the summer months. I am on the 3rd floor and my terrace overlooks the sea 50 feet away.

The breakfast room sits over the water and has glass walls on 2 sides, so as I'm eating breakfast I'm watching ducks swim up inches away and can see Cunda Island across the water. It is a glorious way to start the day. Thank goodness for off season rates as I never could've stayed here in the summer and maintained my budget of $50 a day (which, by the way, I've kept to $30 a day thus far. Somehow I think that will change in about 3 weeks). I have used this time to read and write and walk through town. The main street is busy and follows the sea. Every now and then a horse drawn cart will pass by loaded with firewood or big plastic bags of goods. Along with small shops and cafes, there are the ubiquitous street vendors set up every block or so. They usually have fruit or vegetables, but today I saw a small table filled with bouquets of jonquils and my heart soared - Spring is on its way. I wandered down to the marina, passing lots of fishing boats, some selling fish out of styrofoam coolers right on the seawall, the fish scales shimmering in the sun. There were probably a dozen cats waiting for treats and some dogs sprawled on the warm concrete. I've noticed that all the stray dogs in town (and there are many) have a small plastic tab on their ear. The only dog I saw without one had large, swollen teats that led me to believe the dogs with tabs had been fixed (maybe?).
A block off Main Street is like another world. Mostly foot traffic and scooters on cobblestone streets. The stores are mostly tiny one room storefronts selling homemade goods. The buildings are different, too - not as spiffy as Main Street, but far more interesting.
As I was walking down an alley towards Main Street, I noticed an old woman walking towards me carrying a large grocery bag.  She seemed to be struggling a bit on the cobblestones. I smiled and stepped closer to her and she grasped my hand. We held hands and walked slowly up the alley and crossed the street where she let go and pointed to a nearby doorway. I asked (pantomimed) to take her picture and she looked up and smiled.
                                      The highlight of my day. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Goodbye to Istanbul

Heading out on a long bus ride to Ayvalik tomorrow where I will stay for a few days before I take the ferry to Lesvos, Greece.
                         A few photos from my stay in Istanbul. 

The Spice Market was enticing. Hundreds of booths with foodstuffs and household goods. As I was walking by a shop an older gentleman called to me, "Hello Lady" and he sweeps his arm towards his booth. "Come see? Say yes!" These vendors are good. I was walking behind a French couple and a vendor called out to them in French -as I walked by he switched to English.
You could spend weeks just visiting mosques. They all have beautiful courtyards with benches where you can sit and people watch. Today I was enjoying the sunshine on a bench watching some young boys run around the fountain playing. On the next bench was an elderly lady. One of the little boys fell and the old woman jumped up and got to him before his mother did. She was seriously spry! As she walked back to her bench she saw me watching her and she smiled shyly. I smiled back and she walked over and proceeded to have a conversation with me although I didn't understand a word. I pantomimed my desire to take a photo of her. She put her hand to her chest and said something I assumed was "Me?". I nodded my head and took her picture. She wanted to see it and laughed when I showed her. She put her had to her cheek, embarrassed. I put my hand to her other cheek. "Beautiful!" I told her. She patted my hand and gave me a big smile before she walked away. I wish she had smiled for the pic as her whole face lit up when she did.
 Every mosque has loud speakers on one of the minarets where the call to prayer gets broadcast. If there are two mosques close together you can sit between them and get stereo singing. It is odd because no two muezzin call exactly the same way. 

Ahmet has given me a hard time about getting lost all the time. Yesterday I walked almost 14 miles looking for the Hamami - a Turkish bath. The one I was looking for was about 2 miles from my hotel. I never found it but got terribly lost and after circling around to the same spot, the second time in the dark, I tried to get a taxi. The first one looked at the address and said No and rolled up his window. The second got me a few blocks away and got flustered and called Ahmet to meet us. I was arguing with the driver -he in Turkish, me in English (you can guess how well that went!) - when Ahmet poked his head in the cab door and rescued me. I had no idea I was so close to "home". We walked back to the hotel half arguing, half laughing. This man is a walking encyclopedia about Istanbul and will bend over backwards to make your stay enjoyable.
Ahmet the Great

Friday, February 5, 2016

Istanbul. Day One.

Istanbul Day One does not mean I intend to post everyday. Perhaps I am hoping, it being my first day, I will get a pass for the mess I made of the day. A wonderful mess nonetheless. I can say that now on the other side of it. A few hours ago it did not feel wonderful or even marginally okay.
I headed out after breakfast to get my bus ticket for my trip to Ayvalik on Monday and to see the city. It was chilly-mid 40's - but I was comfortably layered with 2 shirts, a wool sweater and a heavy scarf. I felt warm as I headed up the hill to the Golden Horn, a major waterway and the primary inlet of the Bosphorus. My plan for the day was to walk along the trail that follows the banks to make my way to Eminonu and the Spice Market. Ahmet, the owner of the Lotus Hotel where I am staying, had given me a map and gone over places to see and how to get there. Instead of taking the bulky map with me, I photographed the areas I would walk in. I could zoom in on the pics as needed and get everywhere I wanted to go and back again. As soon as I turned the corner to cross the busy street to the Golden Horn, a blast of cold air hit me. For a moment I was worried, but just pulled my scarf tighter and walked more briskly.  In a few minutes I was comfortable again. I followed the park-like trail, on one side boats bobbing vigorously in the churning water and on the other traffic whizzing by on a major thoroughfare. It was invigorating. Ahmet had said to cross the street at the third bridge and I would see the Spice Market. As I came to the second bridge I noticed a third bridge just beyond it. Funny- on the map they had looked much further apart. I crossed the street at the third bridge and headed into town. At the first block was a sign with an arrow, Grand Bazaar >. I headed that way. It had started to sprinkle and I was glad to see the Market was covered. As I walked in I noticed police a few steps inside wanding people with what I assumed was a hand held metal detector. He looked at me and waved me through, his wand at his side. I was immediately engulfed by the most amazing sights. Grand Bazaar indeed! The food! More varieties of Turkish Delight than I knew existed - the squares colorfully stacked up beside bins of nuts and tea. Rose petal tea, pomegranate flower tea, Ceylon tea. Fat dates stuffed with walnut halves or pine nuts (the latter resembling brown mouths with stubby beige teeth), spices sculpted into tall piles. Stalls of fancy jewelry, beautiful scarves, leather bags. Every now and then I'd catch a whiff of some exquisite incense burning. It was overwhelming! There were stores with housewares - gleaming Turkish coffee pots and shiny long handled spoons. I took no pictures, just walked through amazed. I left the Bazaar and kept walking. I had seen a sign for the Cemberlitas Hamami - Ahmet had mentioned they were the oldest Turkish baths in Istanbul - so I headed that way. I walked block after block and never saw another sign for Cemberlitas, but I managed to get myself very lost. I ended up in eastern Istanbul, in the Sultanahmet area I think, but I never saw the Blue Mosque or the Hagia Sophia which are the crown jewels of that part of Istanbul. At one point I turned onto a street and the city instantly changed. I was in a neighborhood of crumbling buildings, piles of debris in overgrown lots and trash blowing down the street. The air smelled like burning plastic. The streets were practically empty. It didn't feel unsafe, but I didn't want to stick around. I saw a teenaged girl walking determinedly ahead of me and I followed her until she turned down a narrow side street. I continued on a few blocks and came to a cross street where the city came alive again with pedestrians and kebab shops. As I walked toward what I thought/hoped was the Golden Horn and the way back to Lotus Hotel, it began to rain. I walked up streets, climbing higher and higher as Ahmet had told me the water was up the hill, the sights down the hill. I finally found the busy roadway that hugged the banks of the Golden Horn. The rain picked up and the temperature dropped. I followed landmarks familiar from the morning and finally turned away from the waterway and toward the labyrinth of streets between me and my hotel. I walked and turned down a street that I knew wasn't the one I came up on, but it was heading in the right direction. I stepped into a doorway to check my map pic and saw, when I zoomed in, only major roads were labeled - the tangle of back streets I was maneuvering were blank. The loudspeakers began to trumpet the call to prayer. The melodic and mesmerizing voice of the muezzin, the man who calls the Muslims to prayer. I stopped and shut my eyes, using the moment to ask for direction, literally. I stepped out and within seconds, the rain picked up. I was drenched and had no idea if I was blocks or miles from the hotel. I walked and walked, a few times turning around mid step certain I was going the wrong way. I tried to open my small bag to retrieve the hotel business card, but my frozen  fingers couldn't operate the zipper. A lady about my age was walking towards me and I stopped her. I took out my phone to pull up the map as Ahmet had thoughtfully put a star where the hotel was. I pressed the button on my phone. Nothing. I pressed it again. And again. And again. She looked at me, I shrugged my shoulders and she walked on. I turned a corner, walked a block and turned again. Halfway down the block I saw a sign, Lotus Hotel, and at the end of the block the grey curtained front door I'd been searching for. When I walked in Ahmet was sitting in a booth. "You are back early!" he said, watching me make a puddle on the floor. "I thought you'd be gone all day!" I grabbed my key and headed upstairs to get dry and warm and make a pot of tea. My hands were so frozen when I put them under tepid water they felt like they were burning. I rubbed them vigorously on a towel until I regained feeling. I peeled out of my clothes and took the hottest shower I could stand. I wrung out my clothes and hung them over the towel warmer. Then I crawled into bed to write and read and recover. A few hours and five cups of tea later I feel wonderful and revived. And grateful. Tomorrow I'll head out again. Its not supposed to rain in the afternoon and I'll download a better map. This time I'll take pictures. And wear gloves.