...an island out of time...

 

Kassos

Kasos is a mountainous island with a steep, rocky coastline and few beaches.

Its first inhabitants are thought to have been the Phoenicians. Homer mentions it in his catalogue of the Greek cities that took part in the Trojan War (1193-1184BCE).
 In the 18th century, Kasos established its own merchant fleet and grew rich from trade. It played an active role in the Greek War of Independence of 1821, earning the revenge of the TurkoEgyptian armada, which set fire to the island in May 1824 and subsequently slaughtered its inhabitants. Only a few survived. Present population about 1200.


 

 

 

Leaving Karpathos on the 5am ferry to Kassos meant me sleeping fully dressed in my bag on the beach and keeping my boots on even with a blistered toe. And when the friendly chimes reurned me to consciousness, my eyes slowly opened to the wonderful misty silver smile of the joyful Milky Way. The twinkling constellations of our hemisphere, a vast ever-flowing river, what could I do but wave and smile back? Down on the quay there was already a queue of trucks and people milling about - some with luggage and parcels and some on their way to bed after the discos. But we have always done this, we who wander. We're a constant transient tribe, searching, visiting, rambling and forever grasping after something or other, and even the simple crossing to Kasos had faint echoes of our initial migration from Africa.

Back at the beginning of this trip, on the boat from Rhodes, I'd made a friend of a German girl, Jutta, then bumped into her several times in Pigadia. When she heard I was planning on this trip to Kasos, she presented me with a cassette of some music she said would change my soul. I'd forgotten all about it until that morning, standing in the half dawn, and it seemed like a good way to pass the time. At first there was no sound from my dictaphone, just absolute stillness and I thought something must be wrong with the tape but then I began to hear a distant grieving cry, gently growing stronger. It was a wail of despair and at first I thought it must be coming from the crowd but it was definitely the cassette. The voice seemed so desperate I was transfixed and actually gasped. This was the opening to the soundtrack from the film, 'Rembetiko'. There on the crowded quayside, at the point of departure, the music of rembetika was in my head for the very first time and it has touched me ever since - in fact, I am playing that very tape as I write. With this soulful companion I stood and watched the ferry easing forward from the horizon, sensuously, persistent, just like the singer on the tape and as she cruised closer there was the swelling anticipation of the passengers just waiting to explode.

Once on board I wasted no time in finding somewhere to make base. I found an empty seat amongst three travelling musicians, whispered 'Kalimera' and quietly established my bag. The atmosphere below decks was stifling and smelled of sweaty human bodies and spices. It is possible that our boat had come all the way from Piraeus. I tried to read but my throat was like parchment. I needed something to drink. I saw the closed sign on the bar and took a stroll. I smiled at a discarded Nero bottle and before I could think, I'd opened it and taken a long, long draught - not particularly tasty when warm but thirst-quenching nevertheless. Over the sea an orange sun was tinting the purple sky and the crescent moon looked small and rested. A good omen. I found my comfy seat again and soon my head was nodding in time with the others and there I was again - living, doing, in my dreams, in another world then back again, bleary in my seat.

 

I was awakened by the usual cursing and shouting and protestations from every member of the passengers and crew who thought they had a better idea than the captain for how to dock the huge Apollon Express against the tiny Phry fishing quay.

The fishing boats and skiffs looked on, shook their bows and grumbled. But the sailors managed it - as they always do - and the on-loading of incredulous travellers began. The nomads, the students, the vagabond bands, the trucks carrying furniture and bedding, the motor bikes and cars, as well as a small, two-tiered ute' with at least fifty horned goats squashed on board. Of course there were parcels and cardboard boxes, all manner of cargo to be carried forward on a choppy sea to next stop, Kphth. I walked up the slipway and turned to watch the mayhem in that wonderful entertainment. Then with a 'fare thee well' as my ship sailed away out of sight, there came a real sense of a Man Friday on the quayside of Kasos. The day was already hot, dusty and dry and under that sun the colours fade from everything.                                                                                                   
                        

The harbour front of this old pirate's nest seemed to consist of a house, a steepled church and the Kafeneion Mathaios. I flopped into a chair there and stashed my baggage under a big round table before ordering a revitalising coffee with the consistency of toothpaste! In the company of about forty men, loud in talk and loud in Tabla, I asked the mamma if she would allow me to leave my backpack while I went for a walk. She shrugged and went back to her crocheting.

      Behind the port lay a modest village of perhaps five dozen whitewashed houses. I walked to the right along poetic passages between romantic homes, between old dilapidated houses of wood and mud and stone. Some with little kitchens, fireplace rooms, wood storage rooms, courtyards with pebble mosaics in abstract flower designs, ancient gnarled trees still flowering bright crimson and deep blue. Beyond the village I climbed a steep bank to an old windmill then down to an old fallen tree where I sat and let my thoughts of past and future fade away. Time fell still, or I fell out of time. I could hear the constant wash of the waves and feel the breeze on my face in the continuity of the living moment. Then a shout, a single word, from down in the passageways and I was back. There, lay a dead new-born kitten and trails of giant ants, fright-filled cats, ducks, chickens, cocks already simply meandering  in the severe early heat between the graveyard of dead houses.

Closer to the port there was a little more life. Shiny tiled kitchens, white lace curtains that flapped in the meltemi and kept away the flies, the smell of cleaning fluids and gentle early morning music.

 

Then, an older ruined house, full of character and mystery, and the feeling that, with a little conscious discretion it might make the perfect place to sleep. In this village, it seems to be a character of two-story houses that the staircase to the second level is often on the outside of the building so after a quick look round to make sure I wasn't drawing attention to myself, I climbed the crumbling stone steps to see what I could find. One large room with just enough sound flooring left to sleep on and although it looked safer than the steps outside, I decided it might be more sensible to make my base at street level. Then, just as I was cautiously making my way back down into the lane, at the bottom of the steps I almost fell over an elderly man squatting there amongst the rocks and thistles with his trousers round his ankles attending to his morning duties. We made eye contact. I smiled weakly and  whispered, "Excuse me", before scurrying off in search of a less convenient place to sleep.

Having decided to stay for at least three nights, I would have to find a room and being thirsty and hungry with my throat once again drier than the land beneath my boots, I wandered around very aware of regular hunger spasms and yet there was absolutely no sign of a single 'Rent Rooms'. Phry was a Mexican village - no shadows, few people, the occasional standing donkey, mountains on three sides, no trees, people moving slowly and always, the intense, dry heat. I went back to the Olympic office, changed some money and asked a young guy about Saturday's ferry. 'It leaves around 12pm.' I asked him if the next village was far and his wife said, 'Too hot and two hours!' 'Might you know of a place I could sleep in the village?' And the man nodded, 'Of course.'

 

He took me to what appeared to be an hotel under construction with only the top half habitable. It didn't look open. On the stairway leading to the second floor door sat a man, smoking and coughing, and a boy idly staring into space. Once the man knew I was looking for a room he leapt into action, all smiles and apologies and showed me a very pleasant, clean, bright, room that was very cheap. I asked no questions and moved right in. I unpacked my bag into drawers and immediately felt at home.

I lay down and slept for about an hour then went out for a frappe but the heat zapped me indoors again where I read a little until the sleep returned. It was the hottest I had ever known Greece. Slowly, I showered, shaved, trimmed nails and hair. Busker and good friend Bee, once warned me of dirty fingernails and head lice being constant threats to health when you're an independent traveller and I've never forgotten his advice about personal cleanliness. I decided to take those three days out of my journeying and treat myself to a little luxury because once I returned to Karpathos I would be living on the beach again.  

The next morning was Thursday. I was woken by a rooster crowing from the top of its lungs and seemingly from my window sill. 

My breath was sour. I felt very, very weak and when I coughed my kidneys ached. Decision time was yelling in my ears. I decided to cut down on my drinking and to stop smoking forever. I'd just eat more. And although I'd had fun sharing with friends in the past, I knew in future I'd have to have to have my own space, somewhere I could be me. Somewhere I could arrange my life more positively and maybe even get back into yoga. I was waking to a brand new day.

I seemed to spend the day creeping round from face to face asking for the whereabouts of the ancient Minoan site but without much response. The day floated by. It was just before sunset. I was sitting on my petrified tree overlooking the blue Aegean simply allowing my senses a kind of blissful solitude after a day of frenzy and noise from the cement mixers and rattling machinery and whatever they use to fill in part of the sea and build a new harbour. Up there on the old scrubby hill, so far from the noisy town down below, at last a sense of calm was returning. The whole harbour area had been like a building site that day with no respite and the hottest I'd ever known, but that evening, with the sun below the horizon, it had grown cool and you could almost feel a general sense of relief about everything. Time to go down and see if the ouzeri had opened for my dinner. I passed a Pomegranite tree flourishing with bold fawn fruit and then a crisi, a sort of fig tree, giving off a fragrance that would guide you to safety even with your eyes closed. Somewhere on the island was an ancient Minoan site but so far, I'd been unable to trace it anywhere. Next day, time for some enquiries.

No! The ouzeri was closed so I crossed the road to a small taverna that overlooked the sea and the sunset and there I sipped an ouzo and its companion, nero. Yes, the sunsets from Kasos are definitely spectacular with such a flawless penumbra drifting from blue to orange that you feel life is happily unfolding just as it should and that there's absolutely nothing to worry about at all. I sat watching a spider weave its web and it appeared to be walking on air. Maybe there's a moral there. That was it! Definitely I would find my own simple space. I could not think of a better explanation at that moment and it wasn't that I didn't appreciate the favour from my friend back home in Cornwall in renting me a room in his flat, it was just that I wanted more self-expression in choice of surroundings and now I knew this would happen when I got back. I'd even give up working at the local Arts College if I could find another source of income but siga-siga, it will all come slowly. But that night, at five past eleven, I had a swollen belly.

Mother of Zeus, what a marvellous day it is now - warm, slight breeze, the fragrance of cinnamon and baking. After a hot and humid night, what a feeling it was to shower it all away this morning, then to climb the hill and sit on my old tree in the early morning sun. I think I'll have another coffee and fade into the background. Oh yes - last night's dinner was in the ouzeri after all. At one point as I was eating and feeding a scrawny white kitten, when a family and a couple arrived and two tables were placed in the street even though there was plenty of room inside. It was interesting to watch their evening. The mother talked incessantly. The father looked on silently, most likely having come to terms with this scenario years ago. The sister of the mother nodded and added fuel to the boiler with the odd criticism. The husband sighed and studied the sea or the cats. The three children wore glasses like the mother's and their aunt. That evening Valeria came to my rescue. Dressed in a tight-fitting, crimson jumpsuit, she leaned towards me across my table and breathed, "Woo yoo like a raaaki?" She told me the drink, raki, is made from the Olympic flame and tastes of fire. I nodded and quivered then asked her about the elusive ancient site. Valeria smiled. She is proud of Kasos and so she told me of the earliest Minoans, the Telchines, and was able to direct me to their site. It is called Panagia. I was delighted with this information and took my time strolling home in the pretty night, under a starlit sky, through the narrow streets ready for bed. When I opened the door, I could hear the jolly fridge humming away and knew it was chilling my water and juice for the night's dry heat and for quenching this body at breakfast.

That morning I met the Athenian architect, Nikos, who lived in Paris. He was in Phry presenting a series of talks on the redevelopment of the harbour. Since I was passing his house, he invited me in to meet his wife but she had gone swimming so instead he showed me round. We had lemon tea and talked in English and Greek. On one wall he proudly displayed a large painting of his wife that he had made himself. - "I have never been so afraid", and he even looked scared. He was very funny.

Just after four that afternoon I passed Valeria and she's remembered there are captains chapels, graves and maybe a half a windmill at the ancient site. Then suggested I postpone my walk till five at least or I would burn up on the climb to Panagia. I could have a drink on the house. But, as usual, I didn't listen though I wished I had because after almost two hours of steady climbing in the heat and without shade, I was almost fainting when I got there, and immediately had to steady my dizziness by sitting in the doorway of an old dilapidated house. Even the old sleepy donkey I met inside could hardly waft at the flies with his tail. Dust, flies, birds and a strangeness came over me - like watching myself from a distance. I found the six captains' six chapels which, to my surprise, are joined like a row of terraced houses. I can't remember the names of them all but the first three are Agias. Yiannis, Ag. Barbara and Ag. Antonis.

                                                                                                       

                                                                                                           

 I tried each door in turn, hoping to get out of the heat but they were all locked. I felt surprisingly jaded and disappointed but I pushed on and tried to find Valeria's shaft graves and yet again was met with disappointment. The pain of that anti-climax was bruising and tiring. Right then I seriously needed some shade from the heat. 

 Then I remembered her phrase, ''alf a windmill', and over to the right and behind the chapels was a decaying half windmill. I could hardly believe it. Sitting on its threshold, I looked around yet still no graves, just some handmade dry stone lava walls dividing the terraces. Along the track, an old widow lady was slowly making her way accompanied by what might have been her pet turkey. I wished her good evening and wondered where the graves were. She returned my greeting with a wide smile and as I watched her move away, my gaze caught sight of a perfect right-angle cut into the lava face on my right. I went over and there was a definite man-made slice in the rock.

  

  Down at ground level two openings each about one metre across and arched to a height of about a half a metre. They seemed to recede for about five feet at most. Within the shadows, rubble and cobwebs were all I could see. I took numerous photos then sat down in what shade I could find to soak up a little of the peace and stillness that was so palpable and maybe make some notes, but it almost felt disrespectful. Without any further attempt at writing I decided to get out of the heat and get something to eat. There appeared to be a short cut on my left that should lead back and down to the town but I'd only gone ten paces when something told me to go back to the shaft graves. When I arrived at the space in front of the shafts, pottery shards covered ground and if these were early Minoan they must be from at least fifteen hundred BCE.  

I gathered some just to touch, and to think of the hands that made them, and then that person seemed so near. That's when, raising my eyes, I realised I was standing in a circle of stone slabs about  five metres in diameter. I had to sit and be still just to close my eyes and be amongst it all.   But I was losing energy so made my way back to the old windmill and even then, saw yet another man-made slice out of the lava face. The very, most spiritual place I have ever been in Greece. On the way back I lost my way after taking the short cut which I should have ignored after my first hint to retrace my steps but eventually, after quite a hike, I found the oasis ouzeri of Valeria and Pano. A happy ouzo and an ancient sunset over a wobbly table.

My last evening in Kasos was most bizarre in that the restaurant I'd chosen was just like a stage set and I found myself seated on a veranda in the dusk observing what might easily have been a selection of clips from forthcoming comedies.
It was at the 'Estiatorio Kasos' and overall, you might be forgiven for thinking the restaurant had a sparkling air of panic, more like a Mexican Cantina than a Greek restaurant. Inside, I could see the white-walled kitchen, the neon strips fiercely lighting the preparation area, the stove and the ovens. Outside, my table, one of four, was illuminated from the glare inside. It was theatre.

 On my left, steps led down to a sort of toy-town square where there were a dozen or so more tables. There was a definite sense of farce. I could smell paraffin. From my seat I could see the barbecue being lit in the corner of the square below. Relayed from a run down cassette, floated Greek music from the forties and this happily mingled with the smoke from the barbecue and the fragrant herbs hanging in baskets all around. The kitchen temperament was loud and spiky as were the naked light bulbs - it was all so typically chaotic and, being a chef myself, I couldn't wish for a more perfect revenge. Over the town square area, a wooden framed canopy had been erected and covered with bamboo to lend a rustic effect. Unfortunately, the senior citizens behind me on my left were rather upset and very concerned about something and were raising their voices in waves. Suddenly, they fell into a hush and became very serious. The music stopped. Suddenly an incredibly thin guy appeared. The one who was most concerned went to meet him. It turned out the thin guy was a doctor, a stethoscope was produced, the doctor disappeared, then reappeared with that bag. A syringe was seen. The one who went inside returned all smiles. The music would fill the silence any second. And it did.

The kids at the tables in the square were oblivious to it all. And I'd found a bottle of Retsina on my table. At home Retsina tastes a little like turpentine but in Greece it tastes like Greece. Then a tractor and trailer rumbled past and I was the only one who seemed surprised. It must have been late but I was in my favourite place - which is anywhere but England on a night as hot as that with the sea in my eyes, the stars in the skies and the moon a fading fingernail on my right. You know it's the height of summer when, no matter how careful you are, you look in your glass and there's something swimming in the liquid, and usually on a li-lo. I thought about the next day, and of being back in Pigadia and of my decision that, if persistent bi-sexual Antonis propositioned me again, even after all my protestations of my well-established preference for the ladies, I was definitely going to find somewhere else to sleep other than on his beach beds and therefore out of his debt. Maybe nearer the taverna or even ask Ari if I could sleep on the roof of his hotel. Just then I was distracted by a motorbike and side-car making a hill start. The senior citizens returned to their seats but with reinforcements and of course I had to pretend I'd noticed nothing.

It was time for sleep so I ordered one a last Metaxa. I love gingham table cloths at that time of night when I feel a little squiffy in Greece on a warm summer's night and long haired women who are my age and, though now grey, look as interesting as ever and are wearing silver. In the morning I would swim, have coffee, and walk.

One of the long-haired ladies passed my table in returning to the square. I focused and smiled. Then I recalled the painting Nikos had shown me earlier, "Hello, today I think I met your husband." She looked straight into my eyes. "I think you did not. I have no husband!!!" She was cross and swept away before I could say any more, but then she came back and, smiling said, "I'm sorry. You must mean Nikos, the architect. I have often been told I look like his wife, so thank you. It's a great compliment to be told I look like a woman I admire." She returned to her seat from where she had kept a taxi waiting whilst finishing her dessert, and by that I mean slowly savouring her ice cream. Definitely a woman in control of her desires.

At that time in the evening, to my great surprise, the restaurant was becoming a little affected like those around the harbour of night time St. Tropez - the correct watch, the correct sandals, the correct coloured partner and probably the correct Bosnian guest. And then the Athenian smoothies arrived looking just like any other designer smoothies. I had to be careful. My mouth had got me in trouble before - often. And it is strange watching farmers acting like waiters. 'One more Metaxa, sir?' 'Yes please', after all it was Kasos, but, if they weren't careful, it would soon be Agia Galini . We tourists will destroy its normality - we're good at that.

Saturday morning was looking pretty in her gentle golden beauty. I leaned out of my window and took a deep breath. The air was soft and juicy. I packed my stuff, left my cigarettes and Zippo in the bedside cabinet drawer, paid my bill and walked down to the harbour.

  Four mornings ago when I first arrived and sloped out of the Kafeneion Mathaios to have a look around the village, I'd found another workers' bar next to the Olympic office that looked like my kind of place but it hadn't been open. It had no name but as I trundled about I began to realise that very few places in Phry had name signs since it was not geared up to tourism - then. But, on my last morning, like a farewell gift, the doors were open for business and as soon as I crossed the threshold I was seduced. Some places just have that sort of effect on you - as did this on me. The owner, another Nikos, proudly explained that he had left it unchanged since he first got his license in 1950 or 1949.

Blue walls and blue floor. Green window frames overlook the harbour on one side and the sea on the another. It must have been worth quite a tidy sum even then, and yet it probably only took about forty pounds a day - maybe forty-five on a good one. Big enough for a hundred and fifty people but mainly full of - well not full of - perhaps used by, ten old timers playing tabla. I felt completely at home there - completely comfortable. I only realised it having my breakfast. 

I had tried for food but, 'Authentic kafeneia don't sell food', and so I stood to go and then Nikos said, "er...unless you want some yoghurt and honey, my friend." So there we sat, me enjoying my breakfast whilst Nikos showed me old photographs of Kasos and all went well until he placed before me a particularly moving picture showing the Greek flag being raised as the Dodecanese regained its freedom in 1947, with the women of Kasos - in traditional dress - watching. A supreme moment of emotion and relief for the inhabitants. In the photo they are standing next to an old windmill. I recognised the 'alf a windmill of Palagia. I was so stunned I took off my glasses to take a closer look and accidentally placed them in my bowl of yoghurt. But Nikos, ever the gentleman, kept talking and pretended not to notice. I fished them out, licked off the yoghurt and replaced them on my nose. Nikos whispered, 'This kafeneion is the spirit of Kasos. See those seven men on the large table? Three were ship's captains when they were young.'

He then sat amongst his pals, cooling himself with a hand-held fan.

I liked the way the telephone was in a window cupboard so when the doors were closed they cut off some of the noise - if any. And like most bars and shops, there were two entrances. I would have gone there that night if I had known it was so real, or rather, if I had stayed. I even had a morning raki with my pastry. Not that the day needed charming but just to be free in Phry.

Actually, I could have stayed if I really wanted to but I felt it was time to visit Mesachoria or somewhere else. And if I want to avoid tourism and what I call 'New Yorkistry' then I will return to Phry some other time and even maybe the extreme south of the island or even the north. So much more happened here in only a few days but now I had my ticket for Karpathos in my wallet and it was time for my last swim. I have a ritual when I take my last plunge in the Aegean, I let it dry naturally - I mean, in the sunshine. The sea was very calm and clear so I would snorkel. I found a diving mask on the sea bed and gave it to Pano and Valeria. I had the sniffles again. My toe looked as though it has been drilled where the blister burst but at least it was clean and healthy.

 
                                                                                       Nikos

 

Nikos poured me another Raki and his gentle wife, Savina, joined him at his table by the door. They were in love - they sat so close together - then, 'Here is your boat.' from Nikos. So I stood, raised my glass and wished them well - downing the last flames of fire with gusto.

Then, with pack on my back, I rambled down to the quay and took my place in the ebb and flow of transients. I was the only English. Kasos had been a rare and learning adventure but, as usual, before I could really appreciate it, I was standing at the stern of the Apollonia Express skimming along the top of the island eastward back towards the southern tip of Karpathos and the second half or third week of my stay in the Dodecanese.

And on my sandals? Of course, Raki stains!

 

 

 

 

 

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