Another Treasure(s)

Just when I begin to think that the island has nothing else new to offer, we find something else! With less than three weeks left in Ikaria for the year, we discovered a little known hidden treasure.  Last Sunday my friend Efthimia invited us to go with her and her daughters, Avgi and Sotiria, to the other side of the island to visit Drakano Castle (which we visited last summer), to swim at the beach in Faros (where the children had their field trip), and to visit a monastery in the town of Xilositri.

The monastery, which I hadn’t known about, had been active until 2012, when the last nun living there passed away.  We arrived, expecting to find it closed and planned on walking around the perimeter to just view the property, but when the kids were sitting in the shade, leaning against the gate, it popped open and a man was standing there.  He is here from Athens cleaning the property with a few other nuns, and it just so happened he was at the monastery when we stopped by.  He was kind enough to show us around.

The property isn’t that large, but it has amazing views of the sea and the mountains.  A number of the buildings had crumbled or had been destroyed in the fires on the island in 1993.  During the fires the residents worked hard to protect the church, and it wasn’t damaged at all.  As with all churches we have seen in Greece it has its own unique beauty, including a hand crafted, painted wooden alter.  Many of the rooms and buildings haven’t been used for years, and the kids had fun discovering things that were “quite old”–including a rotary phone which I had to explain to them how to work.

I didn’t learn a lot about the history of the monastery, but I do believe that it was built in the 1700’s.  I really hope that they are able to preserve it and do something with the property.  It was such an amazing place, and I felt very fortunate that a caretaker was there and we were able to see inside.  It would be a shame if other’s aren’t able to enjoy it.

The remainder of the day we explored Drakano again, and the kids enjoyed running around the ruins.  However, I think that they enjoyed the two-hour swim that followed the most.  Later in the evening we stopped by a wedding of a friend of Etfhimia. Sofia and the boys and I returned to Karavostamo after the ceremony, but Rea stayed on with her friends to enjoy the celebration.

This week Sofia and Stella’s brother, Chris, returned with his son Zach (who was here last summer as well).  We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to show them the hidden cave, which Sofia and I think is one of the best finds of the island.  Sofia brought along gloves and a rope so that we could travel further into the cave.  After sliding down a slippery and muddy slope we entered a larger, open area with more amazing rock stalactite and stalagmites.  Some of them were much crystalized and some reminded us of ocean coral.  We also saw a rope hanging from the roof and couldn’t figure out how it got there until Zach R. figured out it was a long root.  The closer we looked, we saw roots everywhere.

And while I share treasures, I will share these two photos.  My father swimming with the kids, and the “Super Moon” of 2013 rising of Ikaria.

Elias, Papou, Rea, and Zach

Elias, Papou, Rea, and Zach

Super Moon, June 2013

Super Moon, June 2013

So Close, Yet So Far

Sometimes I forget that I live on an island in the middle of the Aegean.  I mean, I don’t really forget.  I see the beautiful blues everywhere I go so it’s hard to not take notice.  But what I forget is how hard it is to get places when you live in the middle of a sea.

Last summer, shortly after we arrived, Chris and I took the kids to Samos for a few days, with the hopes of traveling from there to Turkey for a day.  We had purchased ferry tickets from Ikaria to Samos, but the travel agents here don’t sell ferry tickets to Turkey.  We were told to buy the tickets when we arrived in Samos.  When we arrived I tried to purchase tickets,  but I was told that the ferries were all sold out during the length of our stay in Samos.   Of course we made the best of our time in Samos, but needless to say, we were frustrated.  Turkey is so close.  But so far away.

So the weekend before last we had the opportunity to travel to Turkey and visit the ruins of Ephesus with my step-brother-in-law, Greg.  As a professor of languages, he tries to take time every summer to travel abroad, visiting various countries to keep his skills current.  He LOVES languages and always has…he is fluent in 5 or 6 (or 7) languages and can speak more languages than I have fingers on my hands.  Early spring he emailed me, letting me know that he was going to be in Turkey in June.  I told him 1) we wanted to meet him there and 2) he was going to be so close to Ikaria, he needed to come visit.  For months we tried and tried to find a way to make it work.  The dates were fixed because the kids didn’t want to miss the last day of school (June 14), and because Greg had plans to be somewhere else by June 18.  It was so difficult because the boat schedule for June wasn’t available–until the first week of June.  Every few weeks, beginning in March, I visited the ferry ticket office and asked if the schedule was out.  And every time the woman would shake her head and say, “Oxi akoma,“.   I was fine with “Not yet” throughout March and April, but by mid May I was just annoyed.  I kept telling Greg that sooner or later we’d find out if the kids and I could make it to Turkey, as long as he was flexible and didn’t mind last-minute plans.  I knew eventually the schedule would have to surface.

When it finally did, it looked as though it was not going to be possible for us to make the trip.  Boat schedules came out with new times and days beginning on June 14.  We needed to take a ferry to Samos, which although is only a stones throw away (10 nautical miles) can take 6 hours to get to from Ikaria.  Yes, you read that right, and I agree…I could probably swim there faster than that.  There are two ports on Ikaria and two ports on Samos, and one small island in-between. So from the first stop in Ikaria (Evdilos) to the second stop in Samos (Vathy) there are three extra dockings, resulting in an extraordinarily long trip for such a short distance.   Keep in mind the ferries don’t run everyday, so in addition we had to throw that fact into the loop.  And once we arrived in Samos, we would have to take another boat from Vathy to Kusadasi, Turkey. In short, by the time we would arrive in Samos, we’d be too late for the ferry to Turkey.  Later during that first week of June we found out another boat was being put on the schedule, shortening the trip to an amazing 1.5 hours!  Again, I got my hopes up, thinking it was going to be possible, only to find out that the although the trip was direct, the ferry would be docking at the port closest to Ikaria–an hour by car from the port where the ferries leave for Turkey.  It would arrive at 4;30, but the ferry for Kusadasi would be leaving at 5pm.   So on June 11th I talked to Greg and finally conceded to the fact that we were not going to be able to make the trip to meet him, but still hoped he’d be able to visit us.

Twenty-four hours later I called him back and told him things had changed!  Without boring you with details, we found a small boat that would take us early in the morning to Samos, with plenty of time to make our way to the 5pm ferry to Turkey!  We left Friday morning from Karavostamo at 7:15 am, ferried to Samos, spent the day there and arrived at the hotel in Turkey at almost 8:00pm.  Saturday we spent touring a tiny piece of Turkey, and beginning early Sunday morning (7:00am) we began the trip back to Karavostamo.  Fifteen hours later we found our way into the house…delirious from four ferry rides, two bus trips, a taxi ride, and various trips in the hotel “shuttle”–along with a day of site seeing!  It was A LOT of waiting and planning and fretting and a lot of travel for 36 hours, but so very worth it!

What was so special about going to Turkey?  And why would I want to do that, considering the Greeks and the Turks have had their fair share of “disagreements” in the past?  I wanted to see the ancient Greek city that in the first century BC was one of the largest Mediterranean cities of its time, housing over 250,000 people.  I believe that only 15% of the town has been excavated, including an enormous library, second only to the library in Alexandria, Egypt.  What remains is the impressive two-story facade of the building, which at one point held over 12,000 scrolls.  We walked the marble streets, sat in the Odeon theater created for political meetings as well as social events and concerts, pretended to shop in the ancient markets, saw where they got water from the fresh springs, and even visited the public latrines.  From the minute we arrived the latrines were a high priority to find for the kids.  They couldn’t imagine a large public restroom where “toilets” were lined up right next to each other with no stalls or partitions.   A  gutter of clean flowing water ran in front of the long marble benches so that the people could dip in a stick with a sponge in order to clean themselves afterward.  We found out that the wealthy often sent their slaves/servants in advance in order to “warm” the marble before they took their turn.

We also visited an amazing part of Ephesus still being excavated–the terrace houses or as we concluded, the rich neighborhood of Ephesus!  These homes had the most amazing mosaic tiled floors, marble walls, and frescos–so many of which were preserved to perfection.  As we traveled through this “extra” exhibit we saw a sign describing this project as “Solving the World’s Largest Jigsaw Puzzle.”  It was amazing to see how the archeologists are able to piece together the pieces that they find and recreate the walls, pillars, pipes, and floors so that visitors can see what life was like for people who lived over 2000 years ago.

After touring Ephesus with Greg and Sofia and Antoni (I can’t imagine an adventure without the two of them along), we walked around the town of Selcuk, Turkey, giving us the opportunity to take in a bit of the Turkish culture.  We visited a mosque, saw both ancient baths and the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) from afar, helped tie a few knots in a rug at a turkish rug factory, ate fruit, Turkish ice cream, and a doner kebab from the weekly market, and returned to our hotel with time remaining for a night swim.  Early Sunday morning we loaded the first ferry of the day and brought Greg back to the island with us for a short stay.

The trip to Turkey and  Ephesus was well worth the two days of traveling, the expensive ferry ride from Samos to Turkey, the port taxes, and the Turkish Visas.  We packed as much in as we could during our 24 hour stay, and I am so glad Greg is a go-with-the-flow kind of traveler.  I can’t believe that 48 hours out I didn’t think we were going to be able to pull it off!  Amazed and thankful how opportunities present themselves; you just have to be willing to take them when they are in front of you!  I have to say that I have seen a number of archeological sites over the years, and I do believe that Ephesus was the most impressive I have ever seen.  If you ever have the chance, GO!  But not by way of Ikaria.

The Beginning of the End

The ticker on the right of the page is beginning to count in days instead of months.  There were days in January when looking at “6 Months to go” made me well up with tears.  I was struggling with learning Greek (who am I kidding…I still am), and it seemed to me that all I did was spend time in the kitchen, prepare the kids American lessons, or work with the kids on their lessons–while spending time in the kitchen cleaning up dinners and snacks.  And now, there are only four weeks left until we are on a plane to return to life as we knew it.

Last Monday the entire school took a field trip, and today was the last day of school for the kids.  The end of the year was easier here than it seems it was for my friends in America.  We had no end of the year projects, poetry presentations, major exams, band or choir concerts, or awards ceremonies.  Instead, almost every day for the past two weeks the kids have come home from school, completed the school work I assigned them, and then we all trotted down the hill to swim in the sea.  And for the next 28 days swimming is about the only thing on our agenda!

I remember the day last fall when I heard and then saw the entire school walking past the house headed to the church for their ekdromie.  It was a field trip that was “requested” by the students, and the teacher’s obliged.  Throughout the year they had a few other field trips to the flat court-yard around the church, and one day this spring they even all walked up to the pevka, or pine forest in the upper village to spend a morning.  In addition, every year all the schools take a bus to another place on the island for a “real” field trip.  This year the students from Karavostamo headed to Faros, a beautiful seaside town an hour away.  (And in case you are wondering, Zach did get car sick–the last five minutes of the bus ride.)

When I received the notice they were going on the ekdromie I asked the kids what they would do in Faros.  I was told they would do the same things they do at school and the same things they did on the closer field trips….they would play soccer, run around with their friends, and have a lot of unorganized fun.  There were a number of parents who drove along separately to accompany the kids–but not as chaperones, like we have in America.  Rather, they went to enjoy the day by the sea with their friends, just like the kids.

The bus did make one stop before reaching the town of Faros, and that was at the studio of a woodworker who lives on the island.  The gentleman finds drift wood and old trees and carves them into works of art, just like his father and grandfather did.  A number of the items he makes are religious, including wooden icons, and others are dictated by the shape of the wood, such as animals and mythical creatures.  The pieces he carves are enormous and can be seen in various places on the island.  There is a large owl outside of the elementary school in Karavostamo and there are two of his pieces in the Ikarian airport.


In Faros, the kids did exactly what the said they would do.  I found Elias playing soccer on a small grass field, Rea played in the sand with her friends.  Zach bought a fishing net and he spent the majority of the day trying to catch fish–which he was successful in doing, snagging four tiny ones that he gave to his friend.  The entire “student body” sat down at a small taverna at one long table (although the oldest boys from the school sat at a table of their own) to eat souvlaki, french fries, Greek salad, and bread.  The teachers sat at another taverna and drank their coffee from afar, enjoying their ekdromie as well.

For the last day of school the students played games by class.  The parents came and watched, while the children cheered each other on.  The best game to watch, by far, was the “blindfolded feed your partner yogurt” game.  The parents were laughing so hard they were rolling and the kids were covered in yogurt.  I am fairly certain that this is a game my kids will want to replicate with their friends when we return.

Of course when the games were over the students and the parents all headed down to the platia for a few hours of relaxing and fun.  The kids will return to school tomorrow to pick up their report cards, and then there will be a small party in the platia.  My kids, however, will be missing that because we are headed on our last ekdromie before we leave the island.  We are off to Ephesus in Turkey for one final educational experience!

It’s hard to believe that my kids have finished another year of school.  And it’s amazing to see how far they have come.  I remember sending them out the door that first day of school, being so scared for them, wondering how they were going to survive in a school where they didn’t know the language.  Today I sent them out of the house as fluent Greek speakers (for the most part) for the last time as students in a “village” school.   It was a school year completely unlike anything my children ever would have had the opportunity to experience in America.  A year I wouldn’t trade for anything.

We may have to return to life “as we knew it,” and there will be many things we have no control over, such as the end of the year madness of the American schools.  However, maybe when we return we can bring back with us the “life as we now know it”– a little more free play, a little more relaxing, and a little more time with family and friends.


On Saturday night Elias, Rea and three of Elias’s friends from the village went to a classmate’s birthday party in the village of Plumari, which is a 20 minute drive from Karavostamo.  It was my job to pick them up at the end of the night.  Sofia drove me, and when we got there we found them waiting on the side of the road.  Instantly the quiet car was filled with the sound of teens–laughing and joking and cell phones ringing and everyone talking all at once.  As Sofia drove and Rea sat on my lap I turned around and saw Elias talking in Greek at full speed, gesturing with his arms, as his friends were listening intently.  And then, there was full-out laughter.  We could have been in a car in America, with his friends from Lancaster all in the back seat, reliving the events of a fun night out.  But we weren’t in America.  We were in Greece.  And Elias was being a teenager.  A real teenager.  All in Greek.  I smiled and hugged Rea a little tighter.  I was so happy for him.  And I was so proud of how far he has come since I posted Sunshine.  Funny thing.  The sun is back.  The days are beautiful.  And not only do we have sunshine to fill our days again, but now we have laughter that fill our souls.



The Big, Round, Green Tree

When we arrived last summer my cousin Sofia was here with her son, Antoni, who quickly became Zach’s best buddy. We did a lot of exploring with the two of them and took many trips out of the village to see more of the island with our kids. Sofia and Antoni made multiple appearances on the blog in such posts as Around the Island, Exploring Ikaria, and One Month. Well now they are back in Ikaria. They arrived the week before Easter and will be here throughout our stay. Although the kids are in school, we have managed a few excursions, equally as great as those last summer.

About a month ago, when Chris was still here, we all (including Stella) met up with some new friends we met while walking with the Ikarian Hiking Club (Thomas and Barbara) and headed to the western part of the island, to a region called Pezi. Pezi is a region found on the plateau of the mountain that overlooks the southern side of Ikaria. Its beauty is found in these massive rocks that have been tossed around like tumbleweeds on a ranch by winds that whip across the open space. The rocks are weathered and cracked and found resting on top of each other in ways that look like they were precariously placed there. We only explored the area for a brief amount of time before heading back to Raches, where we walked along a river, searching for cool water creatures and insects. We ended the afternoon’s adventures with a meal together and enjoyed the company of friends.

The day was such a success that last week Thomas and Barbara asked if we wanted to take another hike in the Randi Forest, which is said to have trees over 1000 years old. Impossible to resist the offer of a leisurely hike and their company, I told them we’d love to join them, but that there was a cave that Sophia and I were determined to find. I suggested that we might be able to do both Friday after the kids got home from school. Barbara and Thomas did a little research and found out that there was a cave in the village of Petropouli, which was at the edge of the Randi Forest. We would meet there, ask for more specific directions, explore the cave, hike a bit, and then head back to Karavostamo for souvlaki.

When we arrived in Petropouli Sofia asked for directions to cave. Then it all came flooding back….the multiple times I asked for directions over the year only to receive the location in terms of “house,” “tree,” “wall,” “minutes,” “curve in the road,” and the like. There are very few road markers to offer assistance–no street numbers, no stop lights, and no street names. And with abstract directions such as those, finding your destination usually takes multiple attempts–that is if you are even lucky enough to find it.

We were told to walk down the road to the “old stone house” and to go up the “old stairs” next to the house. From there follow the path like so (imagine a man waving his arm in the air, making the motion of a meandering stream–a little this way, a little that way) until we saw a hole in the ground. So, off we went, to the stone house and up the stairs. We found a “path” that split and it appeared that both ways lead to dead ends. So we turned around, walked further down the road, searching for another stone house with stairs next to it. We didn’t find another house but we did find two older women who we were able to ask for directions. Sadly, their directions were not any more enlightening. We were told to “go up the path, which had just been recently cleared, and walk ‘this way’ (more arm pointing) and look for the big, round, green tree.” The cave entrance is just a small hole in the ground. We would find it near the “big, round, green tree.” Thanking the women, we turned around, headed back to the path we started on and laughed at the completely “clear” directions we were just given. Remember, we were in a town that was on the edge of a forest….everywhere we looked we saw trees!

We attempted to find a the specific tree that guarded the entrance to the cave, but had no luck. We kept walking, splitting up, searching the base of any tree that looked like it could be the “big and round and green” one. We ended up fairly high up the mountain side and on the edge of the Randi forest. We were told by our original source that we would find yellow trail markers and trail signs, just like those that guided along the network of trails we’ve hiked all over the island. Unfortunately all we found was thick underbrush, scrubby trees, and no signs indicating we were walking amongst 1000 year old trees.

With a heavy sigh, we turned around and headed back down towards our car. We felt a bit defeated, having not found either of our destinations, but the sun would be setting soon, and we were all ready for our souvlaki. At the base of the hillside, where the path split into two, we came across a new man feeding his chickens and goats. Sofia said hello and told him we had tried to find the cave but had had no luck. He said, “It’s easy. Come back tomorrow and find it.” Again she said, “Well, we didn’t find it.” Then, with a heavy sigh and more arm pointing he mumbled “It’s right there, up that path.” So, we turned around and headed down the right fork of the path. Behind me Thomas was saying that maybe we should call it a night, and I said, no way…we were this close, we weren’t giving up…and honestly, the kids had really wanted to go exploring a cave (and Sophia and I had really wanted to find it). However, before we knew it, the man was behind us yelling at us…where were we going? That was the wrong path. He marched us up the path to the left and pointed. “There. It’s right there.” We all looked at the mountain side and thought, “What is he talking about?” Frustrated that we didn’t say, “Oh, yes, so easy. Don’t know how we missed it.” He took Sophia’s arm and pointed it towards the cave…”RIGHT THERE!” Then he did the same to Thomas, and then finally to me. I said, “I see a wall.” And that was it…he got excited and said, “Yes, it’s right by the stone wall!” Of course we wondered why none of the people we asked has mentioned this landmark before.

Can you see it? The big, round, green tree?

Can you see it? The big, round, green tree?

Once we saw the curved wall, we saw the big, round, green tree. It really was big and round, and different then the others. But in our defense, on a mountainside full of trees, it had been like looking for a needle in a haystack. The kids ran down the path and headed for our new target, and before we knew it, we had found a hole in the ground the size of a manhole. With no hesitation at all the kids grabbed their flashlights and jumped in the hole. We all followed and were amazed at what we found. An actual cave, with stalactites and stalagmites and rocks to climb over and around, all in a giant room. We were in awe. And no, we weren’t scared. It was apparently safe to explore, considering three people given us directions and none of them told us to be careful–which is something Ikarians do–tell you to be careful all of the time, even in situations that Americans don’t tend to find to be dangerous at all. And judging by the names etched in the rocks and the tea candles we found inside, it was obvious many had been inside the cave before. The kids were thrilled. Actually we were all thrilled and impressed. We were so glad we didn’t give up at the last minute and that we had found this hidden treasure that the island has to offer. Apparently there are half a dozen or so caves on the island that can be explored, although I imagine they are all just as difficult to find!

We ended the night back in Karavostamo, where we met up with another cousin from California, Mike, who joined us for dinner. We laughed at the directions we were given and talked about some of the other misadventures Sophia and I had met with last summer. Everyone here says it’s “easy” to find things, and I suppose they are, once you’ve been there and can tell the difference been trees and walls and stone houses. But it seems to me that it’s that first trip that is the most difficult.

At the end of the night we said a proper good-bye to Thomas and Barbara, with hopes that our paths will cross again. They are leaving Ikaria this week and plan to return in 6-9 months, after we will have long been in America. One of the best parts of this year has been the people we have met along the way. However, Elias duly noted last month that it is sad how many people have entered our lives this year that we will most likely never see again. Every time someone walks away he says, “There they go. Another one gone.”