by Peter Nelson
Anyway, we’re rescued by some understanding locals. They come over to our table, pull up some chairs and join us and even order some food for us. They know what’s good, so why not? And they even insist on paying! In fact, we never paid for any food or drinks as long as we were on Tinos. The locals just passed us around from table to table like honored guests. Even breakfast back at the beach was free, but in that case, we had to do a very unusual barter to get a rather unusual meal.
The fields behind our beach camp were worked by two bachelor farmers — quiet gentlemen, maybe in their 50s, and they’d noticed us. Or I should say they’d noticed Julie! Since they spoke no English, and we spoke no Greek, don’t ask me how we got this complicated arrangement set up. Gestures, I guess. Anyway, here’s the deal — every morning at the shriek of dawn, they passed our beach camp on their way to market to sell their produce. Every morning, they gave us one watermelon, a half-dozen tomatoes, and a quart of fresh milk, still warm from the cow. OK, a weird breakfast, but everything was fresh and tasty.
And what did we trade for all this produce?
Simple. Every morning, Julie took off the top of her bikini. And the guys stared. Nothing creepy about this. For one thing, I was taller than both the guys put together, and nobody ever tried to touch Julie. For another, in Europe, public nudity is no big thing (as I discovered in Stockholm, where office workers sunbathe topless in public parks during their lunch hours). Plus, Julie being a model, she was used to being stared at.
A young girl who lived in the house behind our camp also befriended us. She brought us home once or twice a week for showers. Gotta wash off that sea salt. Between the unrelenting sun and being in warm, salty water for half the day, our bodies were soon parboiled. I came to Tinos with brown hair and white skin. I left it with those colors reversed. Bleached hair, dry skin, tan as black leather. Sunscreen? Never heard of it back then.
We did make it to Mykonos for a day trip. And it was a lot more scenic than our little island. Poor Tinos is dusty and brown and withered by the sun and has very few trees. The buildings in Mykonos are small and blindingly white in the glaring sun. Real postcard views, for sure. And we made a quick jaunt from Mykonos to Delos, where Apollo was born. And boy, you can see why the God of the Sun was born here! The sun blazes down like a flamethrower, and there’s barely enough shade for a cricket!
Back to Mykonos for a cool drink. Just like lizards, all the foreigners seek shade. All the trendy cafes are full of well-dressed hipsters drinking expensive coffee. Tourist city, or what! We’d been lucky to get off on Tinos by mistake.
When we left, the islanders gave us a farewell party in the cantina, full of wine and food and tears and non-stop music. We felt like family. Didn’t go back to Athens for another couple of weeks. The clarion call of the islands kept ringing in our ears. Why go back to that noisy city where I’m sure the taxis were still waiting to mow us down?
Paros, and its next-door neighbor, Antiparos, were next. Paros was big enough to have its own backpacker community. People live on the beach, but with tents and toilets and showers and, of course, never-ending parties from dusk to dawn. Nice to have a hit of Western culture again, but a brief hit was enough for us. The next morning, we hiked inland and wound up on top of the highest peak. Cut into the side of the mountain was a monastery with this sensational view. And it was deserted. Obviously still in use — the gardens were tended, the kitchen was well-stocked, but no one was there. Were the lads on sabbatical? Shopping in the town? Gathering grapes in the hills? An eerie feeling. We looked around, but were careful not to touch anything.
No story of travelling through Greece on the cheap would be complete without mentioning retsina. Retsina’s a white wine flavored with pine tree resin, believe it or not. It was easily the cheapest form of alcohol available in Greece, and I imagine it still is. How cheap was it? 5 drachmas a bottle. 20 cents in US money! (Even in 1968, that was pretty cheap.) What does it taste like? I’m glad you asked. One evening after dark, sneak up to one of your neighbors’ pine trees and cut off a small branch. Pour some rubbing alcohol over the cut end of the branch where the sap is running out. Then close your eyes, hold your breath, and take a very quick lick. (On second thought, don’t do this. This test should only be done in a controlled environment by professionals.)
Point is, it’s pretty strong, and it tastes like turpentine. Smart travellers (and there actually are a few!) start out with a couple of bottles of sampanizay (not sure of the spelling, but that’s how it’s pronounced), which is a Greek version of champagne. It cost the exorbitant amount of 15 drachs a bottle. After 2 or 3 bottles of that, your taste buds are sufficiently numb that you can switch to the cheaper stuff. You can just imagine what that retsina’s doing to the lining of your stomach, but hey, look at the money you’re saving!