Two days after leaving Cassis we were on the train to Naples, Italy. It was about a 20 hour, overnight ride, so we reserved spaces in a couchette – a small room with six fold-down bunk beds! We were glad we had; we got to lie down, stretch out, and sleep (after our picnic dinner of bread, cheese, water, and chocolate). Nothing exciting about the trip – our compartment had three women from Spain traveling together, a guy from Marseilles, (and us!) and we didn’t interact much… it was friendly and safe feeling, though; and that helped us all sleep well, I think. We arrived in Naples about 10:00 a.m.
When we disembarked in Naples we tried our newly developed a arrival technique: we put our baggage on a cart, found the table to sit at while we became oriented, and just chilled out. Next, while Eileen stayed with our gear, I exchanged some money and looked for a map. Although we’d planned to stay in Naples a few days and see Pompeii and Torino (two nearby sites of interest) we were not happy to be in yet another big city! It didn’t take us long to decide to just continue on our journey south. While Eileen continued to watch our stuff, I went to find info about bus transportation to Brindisi on the eastern coast of Italy where we could get a ferry for Patras, Greece. Good news – a bus left at 2:00 p.m. After checking with Eileen, I went and security tickets (the difficult, confusing mission without any Italian vocabulary)… the tickets were sold outside of the train station in a small bar at the LOTTO counter. It took a while to discover this and make it through the avid LOTTO purchasers continuously crowding the ticket window from all sides. It was equally challenging to find out where to meet the bus, but eventually (20-30 minutes later) I got an official-looking person to tell me where the bus picked up passengers and a bus driver at the stop to confirm it. I returned with my transportation mission accomplished to Eileen at our table, adjacent to the train station.
We still had a couple hours to pass before we left, so we checked our bags (the first time we’d done that; slowly we were learning!) and went to get a bite to eat, look at Naples a little, and supply ourselves with food for the next 5-6 hour bus ride across Italy. The part of Naples we were in was an unbelievable bustling jumble of cars, trucks, motor scooters, and pedestrians, all overflowing the very narrow alley-like streets and sidewalks everywhere… and added to the traffic (pedestrian and vehicular) were hundreds of street vendors selling anything and everything – a HUGE flea market inside of a human ant-hill… swarming motion all around in every direction, and motor scooters and cycles, seeming like buzzing hornets that we had to constantly be dodging! By the time we made it back to the baggage check for our stuff we were very glad we’d decided to move on to warmer and calmer places. It was a fragmenting, scattering walk; two hours of sensory overload. We breathed a joint sigh of relief as we settled into our seats on the bus for Brindisi.
It was a fine bus ride – the seats were fairly comfortable, the scenery of vineyards and tiny villages on the tops of hills every now and then was engaging (we did pass by Mt. Vesuvius as we left Naples, and it must’ve been HUGE before it erupted and dusted Pompei; what remains of the volcano, even today, is truly massive!). The bus stopped halfway to Brindisi for a pit stop – bathrooms and a small restaurant for the passengers to refresh and supply themselves… then on we went, arriving in Brindisi after a mediocre video on the bus, and also after sunset. After more than a mile of walking with our packs and guitars (the bus stop was on the edge of town) we secured a hotel room. It was an expensive room, but this evening, rest, safety, and comfort were of more importance than the best bargain on a room. It was great – good firm beds, lots of hot water for showers, and even a TV to amuse us.
We awoke rested and refreshed, and the hotel let us keep our luggage in the lobby while we looked around the city. Thinking we might stay another day, we secured a less expensive room, and moved our gear to it before investigating ferries to Greece. To our surprise we found that there was a ferry leaving that evening, and it was a 14 hour trip. There was nothing of interest to us in Brindisi, and since our hotel willingly refunded us what we’d paid for the room, we purchased tickets and went for the ride to Greece, combining our night’s lodging and the next leg of our journey by doing so.
This ferry ride turned out to be a marvelous trip; we had our only experience of traveling in the group when six of us became a cohesive unit. There was a chemistry amongst us, and quickly a comfortableness and trust developed. This all took place in the first half hour of the trip. It was Eileen and I, Annabelle from Australia, Jane and Andrew from New Zealand, and Jeff from California; we were up ‘til midnight sharing stories, guidebooks and snacks. It was refreshing interaction (we all spoke English), and the phrase “a social oasis” (the concept brought up by the New Zealand couple) truly captures the feeling of the experience.
In fact, our cohesiveness continued after we docked in Patras. Eileen and I began our arrival ritual and secured a table near the train station and ordered some drinks. Again, she stayed with the gear while I went and found a money machine for some drachmas; I ran into Jane on her way to do the same on my way back to the table. Annabelle was already talking with Eileen when I got back, (she’d come directly to the train station with us, about half a mile walk from where the ferry had docked) and it wasn’t long before Jane, Andrew, and Jeff had found us, and our whole group was reassembled on dry land! We spent the next two hours at this table, all of us taking turns doing errands while the rest stayed with our (collective) mountain of luggage. What a treat, to be able to get tickets, info and food without having to carry (or be concerned about) our baggage!! After a waiter took a group photo, everybody but us boarded the train for Athens; twenty minutes later, we climbed onto our train headed for Kalamata on the southern coast of Pelaponese, the island we were on.
It was a 5 hour ride on a slow, old train that rocked, creeked, and literally chugged its way through the agricultural countryside, stopping at every town it passed through. It seemed that the train was the ‘entertainment du jour ’ at a majority of those little towns, (with as many people looking at us as there were on the train looking out!). We arrived in Kalamata after dark, but thanks to Annabelle’s guidebook we’d looked through in Patras, we only had a two blocked walk to a hotel, and were able to secure one of the last two available rooms. Since it was still early, we had time and energy to stroll around a little, and were surprised to find lots of activity and sidewalk cafés filled with people eating and drinking – ideal conditions for working! We even saw a couple wandering amongst the tables of a sidewalk café: a man playing guitar and singing, the woman playing tambourine and collecting change. It was encouraging and promising – it looked like we’d be able to be working musicians, even in Greece!
But even here if it was getting cool and was drizzling; where was the hot, sunny weather we were looking for??
We decided to continue heading south.
The next day, after a short trip out for our morning coffee, Eileen returned to our room to rest – she’d developed another cough with some congestion – and I went to find travel information: where (in Greece) were the sunny beaches, anyway?, where was the bus station? (we were already at the end of the train line), where could we catch a ferry south for Crete? (and when did it leave?), etc. It took all day for me to find these things out; fewer people spoke English here and they, generally, were not helpful, either. We went out for a Greek salad and a crepe filled with vegetables for dinner (very tasty), and made our plan to leave the next day for the port town, Gythio, where we could get the ferry to Crete.
After another night in a hotel without hot water we were glad to be on our way, and got to the bus station in plenty of time for our bus. This is where of the foreign alphabet and unhelpful locals became almost distressing – I watched our 1:15 p.m. bus pulled away immediately after I’d been told it wasn’t even here yet!! The next one left at 5:00 p.m.; Eileen and I couldn’t believe the person we thought was helping us had let this happen. We were discouraged, to say the least! Fortunately, I found a compassionate younger man in the package shipping department of the station, and he knew of a bus that left in only 45 minutes for Sparta, where we could connect for Gythio. He let us know when the bus had arrived in time for us to board, and we thanked him through the window of the bus as we pulled out of the station.
About 3 hours later we arrived in Sparta, after one of the most breathtaking rides through mountainous terrain we’d ever experienced – stark stony mountainsides, most with sparsely scattered olive trees, and deep ravines with the road seemingly chiseled into the cliff side; and a huge area of former forest that had been devastated by fire. We passed many small shrine-like structures along the way that all had someone’s picture, a candle or candles, and a container of water arranged in a niche (another passenger ‘crossed’ himself each time we passed one of these altars); and once we even stopped on are 1 ½ lane road for the bus driver to buy some vegetables from a wizened old lady who was using a rusted and stripped Volkswagen van as a roadside produce stand! We were well pleased with the dramatic scenery and unique quality of our bus ride, and glad that the confusion at the Kalamata bus terminal had resulted in such an exquisite travel experience… another spontaneous, synchronistic, redirecting of our route and itinerary that truly enhanced our trip. It was still only late afternoon as we descended from the mountain pass and pulled into town; in less than an hour I’d secured us a room, we’d dropped off our gear, and we were strolling through Sparta – checking out the scene and looking for the evening’s dining spot. It was cool and drizzling; after we ate we returned to the hotel, showered, and ‘crashed’.
We’d decided to stay two nights in Sparta, thereby coordinating our arrival in Gythio, on the coast, with the departure of the ferry (our desk clerk in Kalamata had helped us with ferry information; there were only two ferries leaving for Crete from Gythio that week). We wound up having a great visit in Sparta, it just happened to be Greece’s independence day, a national holiday complete with a parade, music, and folk dancing by hundreds of schoolchildren in various colorful uniforms that went on for hours in the square-block sized plaza right behind our hotel (we could watch the dancing from our hotel window).
We also went for a walk to investigate a small sign we’d seen the day before labeled “Ancient Sparta “. We only walked about a mile, maybe less, before we came upon a partially excavated amphitheater in the middle of an orchard of ancient olive trees. We were amazed; we could explore this site however we chose: walk between ancient foundations and columns, sit on the curved seats that Spartans had sat upon a millennium or two before us, run our hands across carvings of stone done centuries upon centuries ago – still beautiful and still here to testify to the ancient peoples that did exist so long ago!It was our first experience of ancient ruins and we were impressed (even though there were no diagrams, pictures, or drawings to show how it once was when in use by the local people). Also in this area we saw the excavated foundations of several other unidentifiable buildings and walls, a sealed-up spring, and a herd of goats with bells clanging as they grazed… it was Greece, ancient and classic, even in its present day reality.
The next morning we were up early – early enough to be packed, checked out, and on a bus by 9:00 a.m. heading south for Gythio and a ferry ride to Crete. It was a short ride (maybe 2 hours) and we easily secured our ferry tickets - we wound up with four hours to spend before departure. After we had our meal together, I stayed with our gear on the dock, and Eileen did some shopping and sightseeing in this small, quaint, picturesque coastal town. When we ‘rendezvoused’ about a half hour before boarding the ferry, we both agreed that this was a most pleasant and safe feeling place… perhaps the most comfortable of all places on our trip.
We boarded our ferry for Crete as planned; but this time there was no magical group of travelers that formed. The most unique aspect of this ride were the roaches we began noticing scurrying around the cabin – yuck! (It had never occurred to us that such a situation might exist – roaches on a ferry!). Fortunately it was only a 5 hour trip; we avoided contact with the bugs, and still got to play a little music and take a nap before landing in Kissamos, on the northern coast of Crete.
We decided not to take the ride offered us by a man in an ordinary car on the dock – to his amazement, judging by the expression on his face! Although it was dark (perhaps 9:30 or 10:00 p.m.) we shouldered our packs and headed for town and it’s hotels, 3.5 km away. The packs were still heavy and it was a ways to walk; but we were in good spirits, able to walk easily and discern the way with our trusty flashlight, and felt safe, as we plodded along with the dark island of Crete to our right, and the Mediterranean to our left, sparkling in the moonlight as it lapped upon the shore… a soothing scene to be part of and a comfortable temperature for a nighttime stroll, also. Even so, we were ready to drop our packs at the first hotel we came to… too bad, though – it was closed! Another ½ km down the road (still in good spirits) we found a hotel with the door opened and the desk clerk still up (he even offered us coffee, which we graciously turned down). Not just a room for the night; the nicest and cleanest of our entire trip, with the beach and the Mediterranean just outside our sliding glass door. We took luxurious hot showers and slept peacefully and soundly.
…to be awakened by the sounds of building construction on the lot next to us when morning arrived – oh well! As we had our morning coffee (Nescafe, of all things!) we perused a map of Crete to see where we might go – still looking to be as far south as possible, and in a small coastal setting. We decided on Sfakia, a little dot on the southern coast at the edge of a large green area of Crete that showed no roads at all on our map. Eileen stayed in our room (rain looked imminent) and I went to get bus tickets. With only moderate difficulty I found the bus station, bus schedule, and purchased tickets. By noon we were on a typical Greek bus, the driver’s area decorated with red lace, pictures, statuettes, and small stuffed animals, headed for Hania, where we could make connections for Sfakia.
By the time we got to the bus station in the center of Hania we knew we wouldn’t be staying there; fortunately, a bus left for Sfakia in just ten minutes, so we continued on our way. It was yet another totally decorated driver’s area on this bus, (it must be a Grecian custom; every bus we used in Greece was thusly decorated). It was another scenic ride, though the scenery was not very diverse. This ride took us over a mountain pass and along a steep gorge. Except for the occasional small village, the countryside was very desolate: steep hillsides covered with gray rock, olive trees, herbs and low bushes (we later found out that what appeared to be bushes were actually clumps of tightly intertwined thorns!). Near the villages there were often fields divided by rock walls and a herd of goats with bells, foraging on the sparse vegetation. When we came out of the gorge, we were high on a mountainside, and had a breathtaking view of farmland stretching out below us from the mountains to the island’s edge, and the deep blue Mediterranean beyond. Although we couldn’t see it, Sfakia was somewhere down there on the coast… possibly our place to relax, rest, recuperate and be casually, artistically creative before returning to the U.S. We descended to the coast and Sfakia in excited anticipation.
We were not disappointed. It was truly an end-of-the- road town nestled in a small cove, complete with a beach and a small harbor. There were very few tourists besides us, and after checking all of the 5 or 6 hotels in town, (and after some bargaining) we got a ridiculously inexpensive room ($15/night) that had a small balcony overlooking the Mediterranean which gently lapped against the seawall only 10yds. from our hotel. We’d made it to paradise, as Eileen put it, and were well pleased. When we found out from some Germans that owned a couple shops in town that all the hotels except the one we’d chosen would be closing within another week, we considered looking for an apartment and renting it for a month or two – this little town (about to be reduced to less than 100 residents) was ideal for the winter retreat we had planned. We even called home that evening to tell Eileen’s Mom that we’d be in Sfakia for an extended stay (the news from home was that Eileen’s Dad, whose health was steadily declining due to Alzheimer’s Disease, was worse than ever, sleeping 20-22 hours a day, and barely eating or drinking anything. We knew before we left that her Dad that might pass away before we returned, and trusted that the appropriate decision would be made as our trip and his condition progressed).
Once again, and unforeseen change in our whole plan was only hours away. The next morning – our first full day in paradise – began as many had on our trip: after awakening gently (well rested after listening to the motion of the Mediterranean all night), we casually dressed, left our room, and ventured out for our morning coffee. It was a beautiful morning, so we sat outside at a café, sipping our espressos, soaking in the local scene and sounds, and began recapping the previous day in our journal. We were relaxed and enjoying our morning.
It was quite a surprise (to both of us) when Eileen (who always did the actual writing in the journal as we discussed the previous day’s events) began crying uncontrollably; tears streaming down her face she said “We need to go home”. “Yes, we do” I agreed, knowing without a doubt that this was true, and was the new direction we needed to immediately go. We had no questions or regrets about it; this was the ‘natural and organic’ flowing of our trip. We had to wait until morning for the next bus out of town, and spent the rest of the day calmly soaking in the scenes, sounds, and vibes of the locality (and arranging a refund for 2 of our 4 prepaid nights’ stay).
The next morning we left on a bus for Iraklion where we caught a ferry for Athens in the afternoon. The ferry got us to Athens the next morning, and with the help of a taxi ride to the international airport, we were able to get a flight that landed us in Paris that evening. We opted for a room at the Ibis Hotel that night, not far from the Charles De Gaulle Airport. We freshened up a bit and got a good night’s sleep before we boarded the twelve hour, straight-through flight from Paris to San Francisco the next morning. There were no problems or delays; and we landed at 3:30 p.m. that same day, November 4th, at SFO. After a grueling ride with bill and Chano (who’d met us at the airport) through rush-hour commute traffic, we picked Beth up from work, and all had a quick meal at Lupés (our favorite local Mexican restaurant) on our way home. It felt great to pull up in front of our house; it been a long trip. We slept well that night; but our journey had not ended.
The next morning, after a quick trip to our storage area for appropriate clothing, we were on our way to Sacramento. Eileen’s father had passed away on November 1st, while we were on the ferry to Athens, (we’d found this out from the phone call that Eileen had made to her mom from the airport in Paris) and we were needed in Sacramento – to help, comfort, grieve, and share with the rest of the family the reality of this event. I’m glad we were able to be there, do what needed to be done, and share the complex and deep personal impact that his passing had on each and all of us. It is inspiring to see, and be part of, the love that sustains, supports, binds together and heals the McCullough family in any crisis; and Eileen’s family’s loving cohesiveness was beautiful. They all help each other through this very trying time – grieving unabashedly their loss and yet still celebrating their husband and father’s life with stories (humorous as well as serious), songs, music, and food – an Irish wake, and a poignant close to our journey.
It was difficult for us to readjust to our life in the U.S.; our trip took on a dreamlike quality – had we’re really gone to Europe??! Here we were in California, living out of backpacks in friends and relatives houses… no jobs, no home of our own, not even a plan… sort of a limbo that we floated around it, watching the day’s unfold before us, one at a time!
Looking back our trip (yes, it really did occur!) we see that we experienced quite a bit… and survived. Truly an adventure – unplanned except for arrival and intent, directed by desires, guides and options of the moment, concluded by a truly cosmic event. How could we be anything but delighted! We not only traveled to distant lands and visited places we’d both dreamed of most of our lives, we were able to live ‘in the moment’ and had the chance and freedom to choose from the opportunities of the day; and we got to subsist as musicians “increasing the beauty and harmony in the world” as we did (as one of our new friends put it!) We had the privilege of realizing and living a dream that we both shared, and I still don’t have words to express the ways we’ve grown in were enriched by it.
Looking forward, we see the early May departure date for our second European tour fast approaching! Yes, we are returning next spring to Paris and new places beyond. Our first trip acquainted us with the realities are dream: the skills, resources, attitudes and situations that are all part of the lifestyle… now we can prepare appropriately for our second venture. Again, our intention is to travel through several countries; possibly more northern ones during the summer, (Scandinavia, Germany) and head for southern Spain (the Costa del Sol, Ibiza, Menorca, and Mallorca) as the summer turns to fall. We may even meet friends in Ireland in August. There will be only a minimum of rigid travel plans, to allow for the spontaneous and unforeseen to occur and direct our path, once again. This year we hope to pack even lighter, and be computer literate, e-mailing all of you much more frequently ourselves. We’ll see, looking forward is often no more definitive than a look at a cloudy crystal ball!
Anyway, we had an amazing trip, fulfilling our hopes and expanding our realities, sustained by unseen and yet undeniable abundance, directed and guided safely and synchronistically day after day… would that we could somehow infuse all of you with our experience! At least we have language, and we’ve enjoyed sharing these highlights with you via this medium; it’s wonderful to have you to share this with.
Hoping this letter finds you and your family in good health and enjoying the miracle of being alive, as we are –
Peace, Love, and Namasté,
David and Eileen