Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

When it comes to travel, the people make the place.

“The people make the place,” I told my nephew J.J. during our two-week trip to Greece last summer. He seemed to grasp this intuitively, loving Athens for the warmth of its inhabitants as much as the magnificence of the Acropolis. Yet I felt compelled to voice the thought anyway, because it encapsulates a travel and life philosophy I hoped he might adopt.

I’ve lived in the D.C. area for nearly all of my 46 years, and I have a long and dynamic list of things I love about the physical place, including: jogging the length of the Mall, strolling through the Cherry Blossoms in the spring, singing along to the likes of Barry Manilow at Wolf Trap, taking in any of the Smithsonian museums, having a lazy brunch somewhere on 8th Street and then wandering around Eastern Market, watching the Fourth of July fireworks at the Air Force Memorial, or driving 90 minutes west to hike Old Rag. It’s all familiar, in the best possible way.

But I also have a long-running list of beefs about this area, such as: traffic, soulless sprawl, politics, short-timing posers (you know the archetype: a windbag who isn’t actually from here and kicks off every conversation with, “What do you do?” as a way to gauge whether you’re worth talking to), short tempers, total inability to deal with more than three flakes of snow, and a ridiculously high cost of living. It’s all familiar, in the worst possible way. But even when the D.C. area serves up its very worst, it still has the greatest concentration of what matters to me most: my family and friends. Without those relationships, this place, while full of beauty, culture and history, would feel empty to me.

I take the same view when traveling: the way the people make me feel when I visit a place matters as much to me as the surroundings, if not more. Perhaps nowhere else in the world do the people enhance the enchantment of stunning scenery as they do on Crete. I wrote that Cretans are so genuinely friendly they make Athenians seem aloof, and it’s true. But of the people we encountered on Crete, my two favorites weren’t even from Greece, much less Crete. They were a pair of New Yorkers, Jennifer and Scott, who happened to be relaxing at our hotel’s seaside pool when I settled into an empty chaise lounge right next to them.

Jennifer said a friendly “hello” immediately, a scary opener to an introvert like me, who doesn’t always relish small talk with strangers. But after nearly two weeks in the company of an 18 year-old, I felt a bit starved for peer conversation and engaged without hesitation. It soon proved to be one of my better decisions. When I explained that I was traveling with my nephew, she wanted to know all about J.J. and listened intently as I gushed about how lucky I feel to be his aunt. Then we got to talking about the market near the hotel and discovered we both love to go to little local stores like that and shop for regular stuff, like toothpaste.

“I just like to see how it’s different,” I said.

The words were barely out of my mouth when she said, “Me too!”

Scott heard this, shook his head, and chuckled. We were off to the races.

Jennifer and I soon learned we also share a love of  handwritten letters and beautiful paper. When I write a letter by hand, I choose the writing surface carefully, the thoughts I place on it even more carefully, and the recipient most carefully of all. It takes time and effort, making it one of my favorite and most heartfelt ways to express affection. I cranked out letters weekly until the early 2000s, when the digital age nudged most of my correspondents, and me, in the direction of emails and texts. Jennifer bucked that tide. For her entire adult life, she’s been writing letters, notes and postcards to let people know that she cares about them, that she cherishes their connection.

In 1988, while traveling with Scott in Malaysia, Jennifer wrote a thank-you note on a postcard of New York for the kindly rickshaw driver who’d taken them on a tour through a town called Melaka. The impact of that note rippled beyond the driver, who saved it, and extended all the way to Rolf Potts, an accomplished travel writer who encountered both driver and postcard nearly twenty years later. Rolf relays the story, and its significance, beautifully:

Early in 1988, a newlywed couple from the States was traveling in Malaysia. While in the ethnically diverse, historical treasure-trove of a town called Malacca (Melaka), they hired the services of a 60-year-old rickshaw driver named Peter Ong. Thanks to a simple act of thoughtfulness on their part, Peter remembers them still today.

I met Peter myself in late 2007, when he also offered his rickshaw services to me. Pulling out a handful of postcards from previous customers, he seemed particularly happy with one from New York and invited me to check out the back, which read:

Dear Mr. Ong,

You’ve been a wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide through Melaka. You were kind and thoughtful (thanks for the bag of bananas!).

Thanks for recommending Chang Hoe Hotel.

Best Wishes,
Scott & Jennifer Ingber
New York USA

The card was dated January 30, 1988, and friction had so worn the front cover that New York’s skyscrapers seemed to be chain smoking. Though I didn’t take Peter up on his offer—I needed to stay on foot to get the pictures I was after—we did talk for several minutes while waiting under an awning for a rain shower to pass. I learned that Peter was born in January 1928, that he’d been driving a rickshaw for 40 years, and that he had seven grown kids living in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.

Months later I would google Scott and Jennifer and see their 1987 wedding announcement in the New York Times. Other than what I read there—he was a doctor and she a nurse—I know nothing about them. Except, I suppose, that their tangible thoughtfulness is still remembered two decades later by a man in Malacca, and has probably helped that man grow his business.

When Peter Ong holds up his postcard, then, he is not just showing us New York; he is reminding us that in travel, even when we give in small ways in a town through which we are so briefly passing, it matters.

I read the blog post while sitting next to Jennifer, its insightful last lines completing the lesson I hoped to impart to my nephew. I told J.J. the story over dinner that night.

“Are you serious?” he said, his face a study in astonishment. “That’s pretty damned amazing.” J.J. had liked Jennifer and Scott –they were the rare adults who managed to show interest in him without being nosy –and I could tell the story raised their stock in his eyes exponentially.

I pulled up Rolf’s blog post on my phone, read the final paragraph aloud, and said, “Remember what I said about how the people make the place?” J.J. nodded. “Well, those people who make a place special won’t know they did that for you unless you tell them. So whenever you can, find a way to let them know they made a difference.”

I resolved to redouble my own efforts in that department. After Jennifer and I became friends on Facebook, we cemented the connection by going old-school and exchanging home addresses. Since July, a trip to the mailbox holds the prospect of not just another $5 coupon from Bed, Bath & Beyond but also one of Jennifer’s wonderful notes. Any time one arrives, I’m transported to Crete for a few happy moments and reminded that friendship borne out of travel is an incomparable souvenir.

A recent gem...

A recent Jennifer gem…

 

Have nephew, will travel (Part III)

J.J. and I did very little the day after we hiked Samaria Gorge.

“We need a day off” I said. He probably thought I was referring to physical recovery, but I meant mental, too, because we were about to embark on the rental car portion of the program. As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Richmond and whose only experience on the roads in Greece consisted of a couple of cab rides, J.J. didn’t know what awaited us, but I did.

When Mom and I went to Greece in 2002, we had rented a car without a worry in the world. We were seasoned veterans of Beltway combat who’d seen it all and knew how to react. A driver cuts you off? Yawn. Tailgates an ambulance to get a few hundred feet ahead? Cast a disgusted glare and move on. Eats tomato soup while steering with their knees? Roll down the window and hurl a grilled cheese at them. We couldn’t be fazed, or so she and I had thought until we picked up our rental car in Athens.

I expected getting out of the city to be tough, and it was — if not for Mom’s calm and stellar navigating skills, we might still be there –but it wasn’t the hard part, it was only a hard part. Driving through the outskirts and into the countryside, where there aren’t highways so much as two-laned roads, I soon learned Americans do shoulders all wrong. In the U.S., we treat the shoulder as a place to pull off and do something, like change a tire or switch drivers. In Greece, it’s the slow lane. Why waste a perfectly viable driving surface? You also need not waste a moment worrying about getting stuck in the slow shoulder. In Greece, you don’t have to commit to one lane-ish or the other at all, you just lazily straddle the two. This leaves plenty of room for motorcycles to pass you on both sides simultaneously. And lines are neither the preferred driving formation nor boundaries painted upon a road: in both cases they’re just suggestions. All of it had taken some getting used to, but by the time Mom and I left, I was almost enjoying it.

I wasn’t sure how J.J. would feel about the driving, but I had no such worries about the car we’d rented: it cracked him up. No wider than his wingspan and just a few inches longer, it had all the sex appeal of a hair dryer, and a far less powerful engine. As I merged us into an amoeba of traffic of downtown Chania, the lack of order left my nephew aghast. I gave a dismissive wave.

“It all works out somehow,” I said, “so get used to it and watch the phone.”

Rarely do you have to tell a modern 18 year-old to pay more attention to an iPhone, but I was depending on that device, and my nephew, for navigation. He couldn’t have guided us on an actual map as Mom did — he, like most of his peers, has no idea how to read one in real time– but the kid knows his way around an iPhone. So I put him in charge of directions and holding down the A/C button, which seemed to believe it had signed up only for shift work.

He did both with calm and aplomb as we made our way out of Chania and toward Knossos, home of ancient Minoan ruins. Though only 150 km away, the drive involves a fair amount of winding and climbing. The car approached these ascents with the alacrity and land speed of a cow, leading us to dub it “Bessie.” Two hours later, J.J., Bessie and I pulled into the parking lot of the ruins.

Said to date back to 7000 B.C., the site draws mixed reviews. On the one hand, you feel real wonder as you walk on stones that remain from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages and learn how advanced those ancient civilizations were, as evidenced by water and sanitation IMG_3415 (2)systems. On the other, the early 20th century work of archaeologist Arthur Evans included not just excavations but elaborate reconstructions of the palace as he imagined it would have been, so it doesn’t necessarily feel authentic. That ruins the ruins for some people, but we knew to take it with a grain of salt, and the controversy seemed to intrigue my nephew. We spent the night in Agia Pelagia, a charming seaside village where we stayed at a hotel that resembled Melrose Place and ate at a restaurant that had what we needed: good tzatziki.

The next day we drove back to Chania. This time we established our base at Agii Apostoli, a pretty beach area about 15 minutes from the center of town. Though the area lacks the charm of old town Chania, our hotel more than made up for it: situated right by the water, its terraces offered gorgeous views and its staff incomparable hospitality, and a refreshing swim in the Sea of Crete awaited mere steps away. During our stay, we also had the good fortune to meet Scott and Jennifer, two wonderful New Yorkers who made a big impression on me and J.J., and about whom I’ll write more later. We could have wiled away our last few days at Agii Apostoli in perfect contentment, yet I wanted to make sure my nephew (and I) didn’t leave Crete without seeing at least two more of the world’s most fabled beaches.

After breakfast the next day, I told one of the hotel staff what I had in mind.

She smiled and said, “Ah, you’re adventurous. This is good!” I hoped to prove her more than half-right. She set me up with a map, snacks, towels and an umbrella, all of which my nephew and I loaded into Bessie as we set out for one more road trip. Two hours and many (many) windy roads later, J.J. and I arrived at Elafonissi beach, whose allegedly pink sands I needed to see for myself. We encountered a crowded parking lot, not my favorite sight, but one look at the beach told us why: it’s dazzling. A swath of crushed shells colors the sand coral as you step into perfect turquoise water. J.J. and I couldn’t get enough of it. When we were’t swimming, we lazed on one of the many rocks that dot the sea, never tiring of watching the water flow over and around us.

Though we could have looked in amazement at the scenery forever, after a few hours we set off for Kendrodasos, a nearby and more remote beach the hotel staff had mentioned. A crow could have flown there in moments but took us more than half an hour. Bessie struggled over dirt ruts meant to pass for roads –what would we do if we blew a tire here? –and then we ditched her to walk the remaining several hundred yards to a beautiful and nearly deserted cove. We laid our towels on low-hanging tree branches and headed straight for the water, which somehow looked even bluer than at Elafonissi. An open water swimmer’s paradise, I once again had to drag us away after a few hours so we could start our trip back. We returned to Agii Apostoli by way of a glorious waterfront meal at Sunset Tavern in Sfinari, a pebbly but lovely beach area. After dinner we paused our drive one last time for a pit stop at Falassarna, yet another famously beautiful shore.

As I was lamenting that we didn’t have enough time to truly appreciate it, J.J. said, “I guess we’ll have to come back.” I like the way the kid thinks.

The sun had set by the time we pulled into the hotel parking lot. Tired but happy, we agreed that we’d gotten our money’s worth out of Bessie, whom the rental agency picked up the next day.

We didn’t miss the car, having planned to spend our last day on the island enjoying the beautiful beach right in front of us. Instead of going out for lunch, we walked to the mini market at the end of our street and cobbled together a very respectable picnic lunch of bread, feta, cold cuts, olives and tzatziki (what else), which we enjoyed on our terrace in between swim sessions. And then there was our last sunset in Chania, which I could not miss. More than just an everyday miracle, sunsets there are a reliable but ever-changing tableau of orange, pink, magenta, purple and blue. I tried to capture a few of them with my camera, but I just watched the final one, cementing its place in my memory.

As J.J. and I cabbed to the airport the next day, my heart felt heavy. I loved the people, the food, the scenery, and the incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences I shared with my nephew (because who wants to go on a barf-inducing hike twice?), and I didn’t want to leave. Sure, I missed my people at home, but couldn’t they just come and meet us on Crete?

I guess it was too much to ask just then, but here’s hoping that question won’t always be rhetorical.

Have nephew, will travel (Part II)

[When last we left our heroes, my nephew J.J. and I had spent a few days in Athens…]

My favorite dialogue of the entire trip happened while J.J. and I were riding in a cab for the second time. We had left our hotel in Athens before 6 a.m. –hours ahead of my nephew’s normal wakeup time –and were headed to the airport to catch an early morning flight to Crete.

As we whizzed through the city in the dark, J.J. said, “Will the airport have someplace where I can brush my teeth?”

“Yes,” I said. And because sometimes you ask a question when you already know the answer but want it to be different, I said, “Why, though? Didn’t you do it already?” He shook his head.

“I never brush my teeth before breakfast. I don’t see the point.”

I understood his logic: he was just trying to be efficient. Why brush your teeth and spoil only your breakfast when, by not brushing and merely exhaling, you can jeopardize meal enjoyment for everyone within a five-foot radius?

At the risk of making the kid feel like he’d been sent not to Greece but to finishing school, I laid down the second rule of our trip: If you’re gonna have breakfast in public, always —always –brush your teeth first.

That stinker had the nerve to say, “And don’t forget your napkin.” Apparently I’m the only one who cares if the kid ever lands a second date.

He brushed, we boarded, and an hour later we had landed on Crete. It didn’t take us long to discover that Cretans treat you with such warmth they make Athenians seem aloof, and that Crete’s natural beauty rivals the manmade magnificence of the Acropolis. We once again began with a taxi from the airport to the old town of Chania. We might have found the lack of traffic-related excitement disappointing had we not been so busy gawking every time we got a peek at the turquoise sea framed by mountains and rugged rock formations. Though we’d only just arrived, I already knew I wouldn’t want to leave.

We spent our first day in Chania at the Venetian harbor, where we ate breakfast by the docks, walked along the rocky seawall to the lighthouse, and refined J.J.’s bargain-hunting skills in the shops that line the cobbled alleys of the old city. IMG_3198Though my nephew had loved everything we ate in Athens, the food on Crete blew his mind. Our first meals were unfussy but beautiful and delicious, expertly prepared with ingredients that had been freshly picked or fished from someplace nearby. And, just as we had done in Athens, we continued to eat our body weight in tzatziki at every meal but breakfast.

To increase the chances that our clothes would still fit us by the end of the trip, I signed us up to hike the Samaria Gorge the next day. I’d heard it was spectacular and that the 16-kilometer hike, while taxing, is pretty much all downhill. Both rumors turned out to be true, though the people who recommended the gorge so highly had said nothing about the bus ride to the park entrance. To get there, you have to pass through, around and over a whole bunch of mountains, and there’s just no easy way to do it.

We were still in the relatively flat part of the bus ride when the guide, who had a heavy accent but looked like a middle-aged Jeff Spicoli, mentioned he had plastic bags on hand in case the last part of the ride made anyone feel queasy. I gave J.J. a “don’t you dare” look. I love my nephew, of course, but just a year earlier I’d gotten stuck holding the proverbial bag for my niece, Emily, as my sister Lynne sped us to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I had no desire to repeat the experience with better scenery.

Thirty minutes of hairpin turns followed and the bus pulled into the park entrance. My equilibrium felt a little off, but J.J. looked positively green. Small wonder, then, that his immediate reaction to the gorge was to disgorge: the poor kid threw up everything he’d ever eaten. Future meals, too, from the sounds of things.

Though glad he’d managed to avoid tossing his cookies on the bus, I felt terrible for subjecting him to such misery. I immediately offered him an out, but he insisted he wanted to do the hike. With some reluctance, I agreed, and we proceeded slowly.

After we’d stopped for three barf breaks in the span of 45 minutes, I began to worry about dehydration and said, “I think I’d better tell Spicoli.”

J.J. got no further than “Aunt Wheat, please…” before he hurled again. I knew he didn’t want me to say anything, but I faced a true aunt’s dilemma: on the one hand, my sister Suzi would kill me if I let anything happen to him. On the other, I understood that J.J.’s ego might suffer a mortal wound if word ever got out that he traversed Samaria Gorge on the back of a donkey, which happened to be the only form of rescue transport available. I agreed to give it a few more minutes, but only a few more minutes.

My nephew used those few minutes to marshal his life forces and mount the most miraculous rebound I’ve ever witnessed. By Kilometer 5, the color of his face had improved from lime green to chalk. By Kilometer 7, he was nibbling a Clif bar, sipping Gatorade, and remarking that the way the sunlight changed the color of the rocks as we went made the gorge “magical.” My nephew is not given to Thoreau-like observations, which made me think he was suffering from heat stroke after all and that I should hail the next donkey. But he managed to convince me he really was just impressed.

IMG_3252.JPGAnd who wouldn’t be? Wild, immense, and majestic, Samaria Gorge is enchanting. It offers spectacular scenery, with towering walls that at times stand 1000 feet above you and only 15 feet apart. Lovely greenery abounds, and a near-constant stream of spring water means endless and refreshing refills.

The hike ends just before the village of Agia Roumeli, where the perfect reward awaits: a swim in the sapphire waters of the Libyan Sea. IMG_3271.JPGWe cooled off, stretched our limbs, and then relaxed on the sand for a while before taking a ferry and then a significantly less-nauseating bus ride back to the Chania harbor. We arrived in time to catch our second Cretan sunset, whose colors and resplendence overwhelmed me to the point of tears.

“Can we go eat now?” my nephew said, breaking my reverie. He was well within his rights, because there was more tzatziki to be eaten, by God, and this time we had earned it.

[To be continued…]

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Have nephew, will travel (Part I)

Years ago, in a fit of fantastical thinking, I promised each of my nephews and niece a trip for their high school graduation. It was the sort of idea that seemed so far off in time and financial viability that I treated it as a mirage, kinda like my retirement. But late last fall, my nephew J.J.‘s college acceptances started rolling in and I realized the conversion of the trips from dream to reality was not only happening, it was imminent. (My retirement remains a mirage.)

During Yanksgiving, J.J. and I talked possible destinations. Taking into account his love for great scenery, physical activity, and good food, as well as my unwillingness to fly more than 10 hours one way, I offered him three choices: Iceland, Costa Rica, and Greece. I’d never visited Iceland, but Philippa and other friends had, and they assured me it wouldn’t disappoint. I’d been to Costa Rica and Greece, the former in early 2016 and the latter in 2002 when I took a post-bar exam trip there with Mom, and I had loved them both.

I tried not to weigh in as J.J. debated the possibilities with my sister Suzi, yet I couldn’t help but hope he would choose Greece. The two weeks I spent there in 2002 gave some of my favorite memories ever, such as watching Mom go snorkeling for the first time in her life at age 60 in the Aegean Sea. She and Dad had given me that trip as a law school graduation present, an experience so life-changing it inspired me to do something similar for my niece and nephews. On top of that, Greece played a pivotal role in developing democracy and western civilization as we know it. That last point, and the fact that no country stays on top forever, seemed worth emphasizing at a time when disturbing political chasms have formed in our own country.

“How ’bout Greece?” J.J. said, reading my thought bubbles perfectly.

Before Suzi had a chance to remember that I’ve never chaperoned competently for a day, much less two weeks, I booked an itinerary consisting of two-and-a-half days in Athens, eight days on Crete, two days in London on the way home, and a travel day at each end of the trip. It looked perfect, but I wondered how it would go. My nephew and I love each other, of course, but we’d never spent more than a day or two together at a time, and always with other people around. I encouraged my parents and siblings to warn J.J. about my quirks, and they never got further than my enormous affection for napkins. (They refer to it as an obsession, because they are cave people, but I know it’s just a healthy attachment to the fabric of civilized society.) No one bothered to tell him I snore, because anyone who’s ever slept within a two-mile radius of me and has functioning ears has already picked up on that.

He packed that knowledge into the one carry-on suitcase I allowed him to bring, and on the evening of June 30, we boarded our Virgin Atlantic flight at Dulles. Once we settled in to our seats, the flight attended handed out overnight kits containing red-eye essentials: an eye mask, a tiny tube of toothpaste and paper-thin socks.

J.J. looked surprised, as if he’d been honored with a great gift, and said, “I get to keep this?” If this normally nonchalant kid was impressed by an airline freebie worth $0.14, I could hardly wait to see his reaction to the Acropolis.

It was late afternoon on July 1 before we landed in Athens, where a countrywide heatwave made it feel like Hades. I grabbed a taxi to take us downtown, allowing J.J. to experience baptism by cab ride. For 30 minutes we rode in a car that responded to the pressing of the A/C button by sending smoke and hot air through its vents. To distract us from the fact that we were riding in a toaster, our driver kept things exciting on the road: he pulled up to an automated toll gate only to realize his transponder had no funds on it, rocketed backwards and across four lanes of traffic in reverse, and then shot forward to a manned booth. I glanced at my nephew, expecting panic, and saw instead the face of someone trying desperately not to laugh. I knew right then and there we were in for a great trip.

Though exhausted, we summoned enough energy after checking in to our hotel to stroll through Plaka, eat an early dinner –J.J. pronounced his gyro delicious despite the fact that it bore no resemblance to the dish that goes by the same name in the U.S. –and marvel at the nighttime view of the Parthenon from our hotel’s rooftop terrace.

We woke up the next morning on Greek time and spent a lazy Sunday wandering the maze of the Athens flea market, where my nephew was in his element. He never tired of hopping from shop to shop and stalking bargains with the patience of a seasoned predator, unlike his aunt, who’s perfectly happy to shoot the first thing she sees and call it a day. The heat wave still gripped the city, sending temperatures up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit and forcing the closure of the Acropolis for long stretches of time. We decided to conserve our energy and take a low-key tour of local landmarks by way of a hop-on/hop-off bus that we hopped off exactly once, when it stopped right by our hotel.

The next morning, our last in Athens, dawned a good 10 degrees cooler. It felt downright pleasant as we spent the morning on a food tour, eating our way through the city’s neighborhoods with the help of a local. That afternoon found us with with an archeologist who took us through the incredible Acropolis museum –something that didn’t exist during my and Mom’s trip –and then through the complex itself, offering expert insights along the way. Over dinner that night, J.J. told me he didn’t want to leave: he liked the city’s density, appreciated its sights, and loved the food. Most of all he enjoyed the people, who, though visibly and deeply impacted by a financial crisis with no apparent end, still seem to look for reasons to laugh and who treated us with unwavering warmth. The kid was Paying Attention: he noticed the Greeks put people, and especially family, first.

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I couldn’t pass up the chance to wax philosophical about money and happiness to a kid who’s just beginning to build his life as an adult. I told him I want him to become self-sufficient, of course, but I also hope he won’t be self-centered, and that he’ll make nurturing his relationships just as important as nurturing his career. Because let’s be honest: someone’s gonna have to take care of me when I’m 92.

[To be continued…]

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