Disrespect the locals a few too many times and they may decide to shun you from the local enclaves and relegate you to tacky tourist ghettos. Unfortunately, that may be exactly what’s in store for visitors headed to the Greek islands.
Locals there say they’ve had enough of debauched tourists who have been wreaking havoc in the otherwise beautiful and peaceful Mediterranean region. Their solution? Set up segregated tourist zones to keep the riffraff out.The drastic plan is under consideration after a recent spate of incidents involving bar brawls, rowdy behavior and the stabbing of a British teenager on the island of Crete. The Greek islands attract huge numbers of young pleasure-seekers who are eager to party, much to the unhappiness of locals. To get around the problem, they’re looking at establishing “tourist strips” far from town where foreigners can go wild without bothering anyone.
If the Greeks do agree on the plan, it’ll be a sad day for travelers who actually want to experience everything the islands have to offer. Visiting a city that’s split in half — with locals on one side and tourists on another — is not really visiting the city at all. Think of the tourist strip in Cancun, which is nothing like the real Mexico, or Times Square in New York, which is far from representative of the Big Apple. Do we really want all of our travels to feel like a trip to the Vegas Strip? If we want to continue having authentic travel experiences, it’s time to step up and treat the locals and their way of life with respect.
Everyone who can afford it should visit Greece this summer. That was the conclusion I reached after reading a heartbreaking story about malnourished children in Greece on the front page of Thursday’s New York Times. According to Liz Alderman’s piece, malnutrition is a serious and growing problem in Greece, where the unemployment rate has reached 27 percent and even those who are employed have seen their wages slashed due to austerity measures. Alderman interviewed Greek school officials and others who have seen school kids stealing food, fainting or appearing listless due to hunger and foraging through trash bins for leftovers.
Greece is very near and dear to my heart so I had a difficult time making it through the story. Last year international tourist arrivals to Greece in the first nine months of the year (January-September) declined by 5 percent overall at a time when Greece needed tourists most. Even worse, arrivals from the United States plummeted by 19.2 percent. Images of protests in Athens no doubt scared away plenty of American tourists and some Germans stayed away in part because of a perceived backlash over austerity negotiations.
Avoiding Greece because of safety concerns is silly. Athens has crime just like any other large city but the Greek Islands are as safe and idyllic as any place in the world. Even if you are concerned about Athens, you can fly directly to islands like Kos, Rhodes, Samos, Kefalonia, Crete, Zakynthos, Corfu, Mykonos or Santorini on Aegean Airlines, or on budget carriers like Ryanair or EasyJet.
Greece is obviously not the only country in the world where there are children who aren’t getting enough to eat and it’s far from the world’s poorest country. Child poverty is a huge problem all over the world, including right here in the United States. In February, I visited Nicaragua and the poverty that exists there is sickening. But there may not be another place on earth where people’s standard of living has declined as precipitously as it has in Greece over the last couple years. There are desperately poor people all over the developing world but many of today’s poor in Greece are people who had stable jobs and incomes just a few years ago.
The reality is that most Americans aren’t going to plan a trip based on a desire to help alleviate poverty far from home. But Greece is actually an easy sell, regardless of the moral case for visiting the country. Great weather, tasty food, reasonable prices, historical sites, welcoming people and picture perfect beaches on dozens of islands where you’ll think you died and went to heaven. Greeks are proud of their country, regardless of its dire economic situation, and if you express in interest in knowing more about their country and its culture, 1,000 doors will be opened for you.
I’ve been to Greece many times, including a six-week stint in the Greek Isles last year, and I’m always amazed at how few Americans venture anywhere in Greece outside of Athens, Santorini and Mykonos. On Kos, Patmos, Samos and Crete last year, we found plenty of bargains and I’ve been daydreaming about these places ever since I left Greece last June. I’ve traveled to more than 60 countries and I have deep family ties to Italy but Greece is the place I dream about on gloomy days in Chicago. It’s the one place that somehow stays with me after I leave.
In the shoulder season, it’s easy to find comfortable accommodation on most of the Greek Islands for as little as 50 euros per night. A good meal can be had for 7-10 euros, a half liter of house wine can be as little as 2 euros and if you need to get some work done, there are scores of beachfront restaurants and bars that have Wi-Fi all over the busier Greek Islands. Flights to Greece from the U.S. are pricey but you can save money by finding a cheap flight to London and then booking a discount flight on to the Greek Islands from there.
%Gallery-162057% But will it help?
How can you make sure that your trip to Greece will actually have a positive impact? Here are a few tips.
Spend Wisely. Stay at smaller, family owned hotels and bed and breakfasts, or rent apartments or rooms from local people. Spread your money around by patronizing local restaurants rather than eating at the hotel and buy handicrafts and art directly from the people who make them.
Use a Credit Card or At Least Ask for an Official Receipt. Tax evasion has long been a huge issue in Greece and it’s easier for businesses to hide money when they are paid in cash.
Hire Guides. A local guide can greatly enrich your trip and it helps funnel cash directly into the local economy. Even if you don’t like to tour archaeological or historic sites, consider hiring a guide to take you sailing or on a hike.
It only takes a minute to buy a souvenir from someone on a beach but if you stop to find out about that person’s life, you might take away more than just the memory you’re holding in your hand. In May, while visiting the Greek island of Kos, I took an excursion boat to Pserimos, a tiny little island with just a few dozen inhabitants, and bought a handmade magnet (see photo below) from a local woman who spoke English with an Australian twang.
I was excited by the fact that she spoke English because all of the other people I’d encountered on my brief visit did not and I was curious to know what it was like to live on a remote little island with a tiny population. But almost as soon as I bought the magnet, the skipper of our boat called us back onto the boat, so I lost an opportunity to find out what it was like to live on Pserimos. I know that I’d hate living on a remote island but every time I take an excursion boat to these kinds of places, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to not get back on the ship.
Weeks after my visit, I thought about the experience again and recalled that I’d seen a sign in Pserimos which read, “Welcome to Pserimos, Pserimos@gmail.com.” The fact that the island had its own Gmail account amused me, so I fired off an email to the address on the off chance that the person would be able to hook me up with my souvenir lady.
I received a reply right away from George Karaiskos, who, oddly enough, lives on the nearby island of Kalymnos, which is famous for its sponge divers. George wasn’t immediately sure of whom I was talking about, but he filled me in on his own interesting story. He was born in L.A., but at age 8, his father died in a car accident and his mother took him and his siblings and moved to Kalymnos, where he has worked for the municipality for the last 28 years.
A few days ago, George got back to me to give me the souvenir woman’s name and mobile phone number. Her name is Vaggelio Koukouvas and she’s 53 years old. She was born on Kalymnos and immigrated to Darwin, Australia, at 13. She married her husband, who is from Pserimos, in Australia and the couple returned to live on Pserimos in 1994. When I called her, she was initially surprised to hear from me. “Do you know you are calling Greece?” she asked. But once she understood the nature of my call, she was happy to share her thoughts on what it’s like to live on a remote Greek island. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Why did you and your husband move back to Pserimos?
We bought a sailboat, a day-trip boat and came back from Australia with our four boys, and started a family business. My husband grew up until age 10 on Pserimos, then moved to Kalymnos and then to Australia at age 17. He never forgot Pserimos for one minute when we were in Australia; every day he was talking about how much he loved Pserimos. So we saved our money to go back.
How many people live in Pserimos?
About 35 people live here year round. Up until two years ago, we had a primary school here, but the kids grew up and moved on, so the school closed down. The nearest school now is in Kalymnos.
When your husband grew up on the island in the ’60s, were there more people living there?
When my husband grew up there, they had 150 kids. There were fewer houses than now, but everyone had a lot of kids – at least four. His grandmother had 11 kids, for example.
And your husband returned to look for work in Australia?
He left. We sold the boat because we got tired of it and there was too much competition in Kos with other boats. And you can only make a living doing that for five months out of the year. In Australia now, he’s working as a heavy machinery operator – something completely different. And my sons are all working in Australia, because there’s a crisis here and there’s no work at the moment.
I have my little business selling souvenirs that I make here in Pserimos and I don’t really want to leave because I’m happy. It was hard this year with the bad economy; even the tourists who are coming are really watching their money. It’s hard for me but I like this work. I’m fighting for my bread here but I want to stay.
Is it difficult to make it through the winter there?
In the winter, Pserimos is nice and quiet, especially if you’re a pensioner and have enough money to get by. But if someone gets sick, there are problems because we have no doctor on the island. No one has died though because we can always find a boat out to Kalymnos or Kos, but it isn’t always easy in winter. If the seas are bad, we can go two weeks without a way to leave the island.
Who lives on Pserimos?
We have a priest, some fishermen, pensioners and me. Pserimos is known for producing sea captains – one family can have three captains in it. There are some families that have goats and sheep. That’s all you can do on a place like this. There aren’t very many young people.
How do people pass the time?
If you have animals to care for, there is always something to do. The old people watch T.V., talk to each other, and have coffee. If we get bored, we go to Kalymnos.
But you have to be careful not to make enemies on a small island, right?
(Laughs) That’s true. Almost everyone here is related in some way by blood.
And do you all get along?
We have arguments sometimes. And there’s gossiping too, just like any small village. But this makes life a little more interesting, doesn’t it? Otherwise, we’d be really bored.
But if you get into an argument with someone on an island with only 35 people, it’s pretty hard to avoid them, isn’t it?
You can’t avoid anyone here, that’s for sure, so we do have to get along. People are busy and our houses aren’t that close to each other though, so in some ways, we are on our own, especially in winter.
I didn’t see much in the way of shops. Where do you buy food?
There is no supermarket, that’s for sure. We have a minimarket that’s open in the summer. In summer, the boats come every day from Kalymnos, so there’s plenty of food available. In the winter, the boats come three times a week, or less if the seas are bad, so it’s harder to find products – that’s why people stockpile food here.
Is it lonely living there on your own?
Yeah, it is sometimes. Now, it’s September and it’s already quiet. Most of the tourists are all gone. Sometimes I go down to the beach and I feel like I’m the only one living on the whole island. It’s really quiet – people come out of their houses when the boat arrives from Kalymnos to see what’s going on.
Is your husband planning on coming back to Pserimos?
He does come back to visit and he’ll return. He’s in Australia for work – a lot of men do that now, because there’s not much work here. He’ll come back one day because he loves it here.
How has the crisis in Greece affected Pserimos?
A lot of the people who live here are pensioners and their pensions have all been cut. And they used to get a bonus in their pension, an extra 50% payment that would come at Christmas and Easter but that’s gone now. It’s hard to live on what they get now – impossible I would say.
What do you like about living on Pserimos?
Every day is a new day. It’s quiet. It makes me happy to see the sea. I don’t care if there are people. I enjoy it here. Everybody loves Pserimos. If people could make a living here, we’d have so many more people living on the island.
During the summer season, how many hours a day do you work selling the things you make to people that arrive on the excursion boats?
About 12-14 hours per day, seven days a week. I start at 6 a.m., making the items I sell, and getting my stand ready. I’m there in the sun, the wind, with the sand blowing in my face all day. By the time I get to sleep, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning. This is how I make a living for five months of the year. People think it’s fun, but it’s not.
Will you go off to Kalymnos to look for work this winter?
I might, but there’s not much work there. If I can clean some houses that would be good but I need time to make the items I sell to get ready for next summer. You always have to be ready.
I love the little souvenir I bought from you because I can look at it in my home here in Chicago and it transports me back to Pserimos.
That’s why I make these things. I don’t make much money, but I don’t care because life isn’t just about getting rich. I know that people like the things I make and that makes me happy.
The young man standing in front of me, showing off for his friends, was so ugly and repulsive that I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He had a long, broken nose, thick, dark eyebrows, a cold, vacant stare and a long, skinny, sinister looking face that was covered in Maori tattoos. He might have simply been an unattractive young man if it weren’t for a prominent swastika tattooed across his chest.
I hated being in his vicinity. Even sharing the same beach with him made me feel tainted in some way but at the same time I couldn’t stop looking at him. He was surrounded by friends, a couple had the same working class British accent as him, but others sounded as though they were from Scandinavia. None appeared to be neo-Nazi skinheads, so how could they be on friendly terms with this thoroughly repellant individual?
The Nazi thug, who appeared to be about 30, also had a Scandinavian girlfriend, about 20 years old or so, and cute. Was dating this reprehensible human being a little rebellion or did she somehow find him attractive?One never expects to spend a summer holiday in the company of neo-Nazi thugs, but that’s exactly what happened one day two weeks ago, when I found myself on Platanias Beach, a horribly tacky, crowded resort in Crete that’s filled with working class package tourists from Northern Europe.
We met a very nice student named George on a bus who recommended we take our children to the beach at Platanias, but as we passed row after row of cheesy tourist traps and seedy looking motels driving towards the town from Chania, I couldn’t help but wonder if the beach itself would redeem the dismal main drag.
We weren’t clear on where to park as we entered Platanias town, so my wife stopped in a café to make an inquiry and a young Norwegian girl named Helena said she wanted a ride to the beach anyways, so she hopped in the front seat with me, as my wife retreated to the back with my sons, ages 2 and 4.
Helena said that she’d been coming to Platanias for years and loved the place, though she hadn’t been anywhere else in Crete, so she had no real basis of comparison. She worked each summer at a beach bar and I asked her how this was possible since Norway isn’t a member of the European Union.
“We’re not members?” she asked, surprised by my query.
“No,” I said. “I think there was a referendum a few years back and Norwegians decided not to join.”
“I don’t remember that,” she said. “I thought we were in the E.U.”
As soon as I saw the beach, I felt a crushing sense of disappointment. It was our last day in Greece, and over the preceding six weeks, we’d been privileged to see so many beautiful beaches, but this place was a mess. First, it was extremely crowded, so much so that one could barely see the sand. Second, there was a red flag up on the beach, indicating that the water quality was dangerously bad, and third, there were all kinds of tough looking punks, like the neo Nazi, getting hammered, even though it was only 11 A.M.
But the beach bar where Helena worked had a playground and before my wife and I could get back in the car and go elsewhere, our kids were already hooked, so we resolved to stay for a bit. She got a lounge chair and I settled in at a table at the beach bar to get a little work done.
I ordered a bottle of water but the waiter brought me a draft beer to go with it.
“First one’s on us,” he explained.
“But I don’t want a beer,” I said, defensively. “It’s not even Noon.”
“You don’t want a free beer?” he asked, clearly confused by my abstinence.
“Well, I don’t drink,” I lied, just to bring the conversation to a close.
“You don’t drink but you came for vacation in Platanias?” he asked, before breaking out in laughter.
Shortly thereafter, the Nazi settled in 10 yards in front of me, and two British women who might have been a member of a rugby team if they were 30 years younger, engaged in a spirited conversation within my earshot about the prices various beach bars charged for a pint. The search for a cheap pint seemed to be the most important component of their holiday.
Helena told me we should stick around for a “Zorba Dance Party” at the bar that would feature plate throwing and other nonsense, but as soon as we could pry our kids out of the playground, we got back in the car and headed east to Kalathas, a beautiful, unspoiled beach just east of Chania that we’d been to the previous day. After a great final afternoon at the beach there, we wondered why anyone in their right mind would go to Platanias.
“It’s because they have no clue,” said another George, who managed the hotel we stayed at in Chania and was less a fan of Platanias than the younger George we me on the bus.
“They come here on a package tour, the bus picks them up right at the airport and brings them straight to the hotel in Platanias. They have all their meals right there and they don’t even come here to Chania, even though it’s only a half hour away.”
The next day at the airport, I saw hundreds of pale-faced package tourists being herded like cattle onto buses and I felt terribly sorry for them. They were headed for Crete’s horrid north shore beach ghettos that have all the charm of an American strip mall. I wanted to stop them and shout, “No! Don’t let them take you to Platanias! The water is dirty, the beach is crowded and there’s even a Nazi!”
But there is no point in projecting your tastes upon others. Most of the people getting on those buses might actually like it there- the weather is hot, the beer is cold, and many who go there are in the mood to hook up while on holiday. And if all the crowds went to Kalathas then it wouldn’t be as nice as it is. So long live Platanias and all the other dreadful package tourist ghettos in Crete, sadly enough they help preserve the character of the rest of the island.
(Image via Neatjunk on Flickr, note that the author did not meet or photograph the individuals in the photo)
Twenty minutes into an uphill walk on a sizzling hot day on the Greek island of Syros, we gave up and decided to take a taxi. My wife and I were pushing a 2-year-old in a stroller, and cajoling our 4-year-old to brave the heat, much to his chagrin, but realized that our destination, the Catholic neighborhood of Ano Syros, perched high above the city, was too far away.
But taxis don’t randomly patrol the streets of Ermoupoli and I doubted there was a public bus that could get us there anytime soon. I saw a matronly woman in her 30s sitting on a second floor balcony and asked her if she knew where we could get a taxi. She seemed not to understand me, and disappeared momentarily, before emerging a few moments later on the street.
“Tell me,” she said, using a phrase you hear all the time in Greece.
“I think we need a taxi up to Ano Syros,” I said.
She said she’d call one for us and then went back into her apartment. I thought we’d never see her again but a minute or two later, she came back out onto the street, crossed to the other side and popped a phone card into a pay phone. We had no mobile phone and assumed that she had either a landline or a mobile in her home and hadn’t even entertained the possibility that she could afford neither.”Car number nine will be here for you in 10 minutes,” she told us after crossing back to the shady side of the street to meet us.
Her name was Uranus, and she refused to accept any money for the phone call. She told us that she had studied to be a hairdresser but was never able to find a job.
“The crisis,” she explained. “There is no work here.”
She had no job and no phone but like most Greeks, she hadn’t lost the tradition of hospitality. After spending a few hours exploring Ano Syros (right), we were again at a loss to find a taxi with no mobile phone. But on a whim, I asked a man who was getting into his car if he was heading our way, and sure enough, he was happy to drive us back to our hotel, or anywhere else we wanted to go for that matter.
Over the course of a six-week trip through Kos, Patmos, Samos, Syros, Santorini and Crete, we’ve experienced remarkable hospitality in Greece, despite the economic crisis or perhaps because of it. Like any where else, we’ve had a couple of run-ins here or there with unscrupulous or unfriendly people, but for every negative encounter, there have been dozens of positive ones.
On the island of Kos, we found ourselves stranded in the humdrum town of Kefalos, thanks to an extremely limited bus schedule, and I walked into a pharmacy and asked a woman named Sevy, a Greek-American who had moved back to Kos, how to get to a nearby beach. There was no way, she said, but she insisted on having one of her colleagues drive us there in her car. It was a good 20-minute ride and they refused to take any money.
Lila at Lila’s Guesthouse in Syros insisted on washing all our clothes, free of charge, and picking us up at the port, also free, despite our 2:30 a.m. arrival time. And Yianni at the Afroditi Hotel in Rethymno, Crete, picked us up, dropped us off, gave us a bottle of wine, a plate of fruit and some little gifts upon departure even though we stayed with him just one night at the ridiculously low rate of 40€.
Hotel staffs have a vested interest in keeping travelers happy but we met kind people everywhere we went. In Crete, a group of locals welcomed me like a long lost friend during the EURO 2012 tournament. On the island of Syros, I accidentally barged into someone’s kitchen in a remote village and was invited in for a meal and entertained with some live music. Monks in Patmos made me coffee, served me cookies and invited me to worship with them. And on Election Day in Naxos, the mayor of a small village offered to personally show me around and insisted on buying me drinks.
Aside from the Middle East, where hospitality is almost like a religion, and neighboring Macedonia, where guests are also treated like gold, I can’t recall such a warm welcome anywhere in the world. Greece has a lot of problems, and there are many things that Greeks can learn from Americans (for example, having some gas in the tank of a rental car when you pick it up would be nice!). But I think that anyone who works in the hospitality industry should be required to come to Greece to see how it’s done right.