Sunday, May 6, 2018

Day 11 Santorini Cauldera

Day 11 in Santorini was a very exhilarating and physically strenuous day -- I had to revert back to my 20s to manage this one!  And, thankfully, that inner kid was still just below the surface to tap in to ;-)

We started the day at a meeting point not far from my hotel, and it was kind of chaos -- all different groups were meeting there, as an official "meeting" area, and trying to get it sorted out required about an hour -- in the end, I wound up on a bus not knowing if we were going to the right place, etc., but I figured I would just roll with it and fix any snafus along the way.

It ended up I was with the correct group, and we took the winding roads along the cliffs down to the port, where we boarded a sail boat and headed out for our full day of island hopping.

The day started off overcast, but we were hoping for some of the haze to clear up so the views would be sparkling.  Our guide, Tania, a very knowledgeable gal, lamented that is not usually the case.  "Here in Santorini, you do not usually see that 'clear' view until the autumn, but every year can be different".  I really didn't mind -- the views were still spectacular.

Our first stop was Neos Kemani -- the youngest volcanic island that is under 450 years old, and still active (it saw an eruption in 1958).  There are spouts of steamy sulphur plumes here and there coming up from spots in the cracked earth and the surface of the island is basically covered in pumice, making it a little awkward to walk.  Tania informs us we will be scaling to the top of the island, to see the bests views.  Well, okay! I look down at my sports sandals and hope they can manage the stones.  

After nearly an hour of treacherous paths and a few injuries -- a number of other people fell and got scraped up along the path -- we finally reached the apex of the island, where we could see the cauldera complex and the other surrounding islands.  It was very beautiful, and we stayed up there about 10 minutes, just taking photos and admiring -- before we began the descent-- which was more harrowing than the ascent.  Again, another person falls from our party, slipping on the loose pumice stones, and she is scraped up pretty good, but she keeps her equanimity as we all keep moving on.  We were warned the boat leaves on time and will leave us behind -- I wonder how long before someone came back for us and have to laugh about that.  

We all board the boat (which is now a party boat, as there is a bartender on board, and a snack bar has opened, and lots of dance music is being played) and head out to our next stop -- the back of the volcanic island, where there is a sulphur springs to swim in.  The boat cannot get too close to the island because of rock ledges, so they anchor off shore -- "Approximately 2 and one half American football field lengths" says Tania.  She goes onto the megaphone and gives us all a stern warning -- "Please.  This is very serious.  If you are not a strong swimmer, or have health, heart conditions, etc. please do not enter the water.  We have only one rescue boat, and Nikkos is not a lifeguard -- just the boat operator."  I look at the water tentatively, soberly, and think if I should consider this.  I look into the distance of the enclave where there are other swimmers from another  nearby boat, and think, "how bad can it be?"  

The ladder goes off the side of the boat, and the first of the adventurers jumps off the 12 foot deck into the water.  Everyone cheers.  With that, I join the line of other enthusiasts cannonballing off the side of the vessel.  My turn.  Without thinking, I just leap into the air.  When I hit the water, FREEZING COLD.  I surface in a bit of shock, but look around, and see a few other heads bobbling in the cobalt sea.  I swim determinedly in their direction, realizing not only is the water frigid, but the currents are strong.  And then, I get the horrified thought of, what if there are sharks?  I push that aside and just keep swimming, making some headway -- and then the water starts to warm, as I approach the cauldera.  I have reached the promised land (or sea).  As I entered the warm enclave of the sulphur springs, I saw people clinging to the rocks along it, catching their breath.  I decided to do the same.  The rocks were razor sharp and slimy, so staying on them any length of time was not possible, but it was enough for me to literally get my bearings and wind back, and then, I spent the next hour lazily floating in the warm, gentle water, like a baby in amniotic fluid.  

In the distance, we heard the whistles.  Time to head back.  I began swimming my way back toward the open sea, and could see the water had grown choppier, as some clouds had appeared over us.  I felt the temperature change as I headed out, and could also feel a very strong current working against me.  This was a bit disconcerting, as we didn't seem to be making headway, just getting more and more tired and pushed away.  I switch tactics and begin backstroking, as my legs are pretty strong, despite my one leg being mangled.  I am able to make some good progress, and the fellow next to me in the water, I can see he is struggling, looks over as I pass him, and does the same.  I see the rescue boats zipping around attempting to pluck struggling swimmers out of the water, but there are at least a dozen, and only one of him.  I can feel the first tentacles of fear touch me but I won't allow it.  I keep swimming, and flip over to try a breast stroke.  A huge wave suddenly hits me in the face and I inhale water.  I immediately go to a back stroke and keep calm -- I know that I must reach the boat eventually, just keep plugging away.  I finally am within a few yards of the boat, and I am pretty exhausted, but I know I will make it.  I hear yelling in the distance.  A girl from Milwaukee is in panic.  They are trying to reach her, but they have two people clinging to the raft.  I reach the ladder.  For a second, I'm so exhausted, I don't know if I can climb it.  But, I do.  I get on deck, and the wind is whipping, and the boat is pitching, almost knocking me down.  I slide on to a bench, like a dead fish, and just breathe for a moment.  I'm still alive! I laugh with joy, and the two elderly women sitting watching me curiously, say, "Are you okay?  Did you not drown?" Their English is broken, but I can see they are concerned.  They look over the railing to the other people now struggling aboard and shake their heads.  

After about 10 minutes of water rescues and spluttering swimmers, Tania soberly hits the megaphone.  "I am glad, my children, that everyone is now accounted for.  We didn't expect the rapid weather change, but we are all here, we are all well, so let's move on!" And like that, no muss, no fuss, we head out to our next port.  

We headed to a small island, which had a town situated high on its cliffs.  Tania advised, "Don't climb it.  It's very dangerous and not worth it.  Save your energies for our next stops" (that was the tip off).  There were several open air seafood restaurants and ice cream stands, so I found a nice seat, relaxed, and ordered a local meal of grilled prawns, and a tomato salad with fresh bread.  I shared my meal with a very friendly little dog who seemed to be the restaurant mascot.

After, I got an ice cream cone along with the rest of the group, and just sat and relaxed, enjoying the ocean.  We stayed in port for about an hour, and then headed out again, another little island, or two, but we didn't anchor this time, just flew past them.  Finally, we reached Oia, where would would view the world famous sunset.  This was optional, as Tania, stated, "If you do not want to stay with us and see the sunset, stay onboard the boat, and Stavros will take you back to the port in Fira, where you can take a shuttle back to the meeting point. But you must make up your mind quickly, because the boat only stays long enough to disembark the passengers and leaves right away!"  Well, who wouldn't want to stay and see the sunset?  How silly.

We disembark the board, and as Tania stated, the boat quickly slips away, as if hurrying from the site of an accident.  I turn and look at the island, it is breathtakingly beautiful, with soaring cliffs and the white city above gleaming like snow on a mountain peak.  So stunning, and so high above us, very dramatic.  I look around -- where are the transports?  Cable cars?  In the distance, from way above, I see movement.  As it approaches down the mountain, I can make out, -- it's herds of donkeys running down the steep mountain paths!  We all laugh and point -- "Wow" "So cute!" "That's amazing!" Tania smiles and nods.  "That is our transport!" We all stop laughing.  Huh???  "Of course, that is totally optional.  You can always climb up on foot.  There are only 689 steps to reach the top."  I look for the boat -- wait!  Come back!  But, Stavros is just a dot on the horizon by this point.  

I am torn as to whether to attempt the climb or to ride the donkey.  I hit the first of the steps, ancient, uneven stones, very steep, and shake my head.  It will have to be the burro.  The shepherd looks at me and smiles-- "You will enjoy the donkey taxi!" I smile weakly -- I'm not so sure.  After giving us some quick instructions, "No screaming - the donkey's sense fear" and "keep leaning forward and grasp the donkey's belly with your legs" I got my leg up and I was on top of the smelly critter that would take us way up that mountain to the gleaming city.  The donkey lurches, and begins its ascent, ploddingly.  I sway in the saddle and look down -- we are literally on the very edge of the cliffs.  If this donkey decided to buck me off, I would plummet about a thousand feet to my demise on the rocks below.  It seems surreal that this is happening -- I'm beyond even being afraid.  I think I might be in shock.  The donkey continues its lurching progress.  

After we reach the plateau, about 3/4 of the way up, the shepherd comes riding up on his own donkey, hitting all the donkeys with a cane, and forcing them to a stop.  "You all get off here.  We cannot enter the city with the donkeys."  So, we get off, and climb the rest of the way, which is really brutally steep, to the city.  As I am climbing, I see throngs of panting people, sitting on rocks along the way, looking at each other for sympathy.  I have to laugh thinking that if I had to climb the entire length, I would have made it at around midnight.  Finally, one more bend, I pull myself up along the rope, and like opening your eyes for the first moment after darkness, this gleaming white, ethereal city was before me.  I was very impressed.

Oia was unearthly -- everything white and shining -- like a very early glimpse of Heaven -- a pale comparison, but the closest thing to what I would imagine heaven to be like.  Little pearls of winding alleys and flower lined streets, all smelling like honeysuckle and hibiscus.  Quiet music playing here and gentle ocean breezes.  Incredible and other worldly.

I sit for a moment, and across from me are a couple, also sitting and resting, taking it all in.  We lock eyes and smile the universal understanding of, "wow".  I speak first -- "So beautiful!"  They perk up at this -- "Are you American?" I nod.  They smile, "Us too!" They get excited -- "Where are you from?"  And we begin to chat.  They are a couple from Carlsbad, CA, originally from Wisconsin, their names are Frank and Lynda, and we decided to go exploring together.  I spent the evening with them, and they even treated me to dinner, which was very kind -- but Frank insisted since they had invited me to dine with them.  

After a nice sunset (we found a place away from the massive crowds)-- we all headed back to our meeting point, where Tania guided us to our particular buses.  I took the nearly hour ride back into Fira, and was tired, happy, and in desperate need of a shower.  I was a little sunburnt, but all the better for it for the amazing day in Santorini, and thankful I decided to not skip that crazy tour!

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