Sunday, October 31, 2010

Baggage-Free Travel

I have written before about the concept of travelling light (Travelling Light, Travelling Lighter, and my Guide to Packing Light), and I’ve tried to practice what I preach – with less than perfect results – but Rolf Potts has taken the concept to the extreme. He recently completed a round the world trip which saw him spend 42 days on the road covering 34,440 miles; 12 countries; 3 oceans; 12 flights; and 4 train journeys - all with no luggage what-so-ever. Not even a man-bag or fanny pack.

Rolf is a travel writer, and his trip was sponsored by ScotteVest, a manufacture of travel clothing, and the travel website Boots-n-All.


The No Baggage Challenge, as it came to be called, essentially required Rolf to carry everything in his pockets. I have spent several hours already catching up on Rolf’s blog posts (the trip is now over), and I have become very excited about the possibilities of travelling with the absolute minimum of luggage (I don’t think I’m quite up to travelling with no baggage at all).


Here he is introducing the trip.



...

If you are interested in the concept of travelling light, I highly recommend you spend some time reading Rolf’s blog. Having no luggage was clearly very liberating, for him, but obviously it is not for everyone.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Grand Canyon, Arizona

Image: The Grand Canyon in the early morning light


The Grand Canyon. The name seems to say it all. However, nothing really prepares you for the size, scale, and grandeur of this true natural wonder of the world. The canyon has always been high on my list of places to visit, and I was delighted to have had the opportunity to spend two nights there this past September. Let me say at the outset though, that in my opinion a day and a half is nowhere near enough to soak in the atmosphere and power of this massive national park. Having said that, it is probably more time than most people seem to spend there. But more of that later.

Located in Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park is one of the United States' oldest national parks. Within the park lies the Grand Canyon itself, a massive gorge of the Colorado River. Covering some 1900 square miles (4927 km2), the 280-mile long, one-mile deep canyon ranges in width from 10 to 18 miles across. The first European to see it (in 1540) was the Spanish explorer García López de Cárdenas, a conquistador attached to Francisco Vasquez de Coronado's expedition into New Mexico, and other parts of what are now the southwestern United States. Coronado had hoped to conquer the mythical Seven Cities of Gold.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the Canyon a national monument under the Antiquities Act. Congress declared the Canyon a national park in 1919, three years after the National Park Service was formed, and in 1979, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

On my first evening at the canyon I spent several hours at Yavapai Point taking in the sunset, and simply marveling at the powerful forces that – over a period of 17 million years – have shaped the massive chasm stretching off into the fading light. On Saturday morning, after watching the mule riders ready themselves for their journey down the Bright Angel Trail, I then spent another four hours or so soaking up the views.

Image: Mule riders descend the Bright Angel Trail deep into the heart of the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is home to 70 species of mammals, 250 species of birds, 25 species of reptiles and five species of amphibians. Somewhere out there in the blue haze also were up to 172 wild California condors, either soaring high above the canyon floor or perched in aeries looking for their next meals.


Once on the brink of extinction due to poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat destruction, the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) inhabits only the Grand Canyon area, Zion National Park, and western coastal mountains of California and northern Baja California. In 1987 all remaining 22 wild condors were caught and moved to San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Numbers have risen steadily through captive breeding and, beginning in 1991, condors have been reintroduced into the wild. As of August 2010, there are 384 condors known to be living, including 188 in the wild.

The quiet observer will see numerous squirrels and kangaroo rats, lizards, a wide variety of birdlife and the delightful mule deer.

Image: A mule deer keeps cautious watch as it grazes near the Grand Canyon Village


An average of twelve thousand people a day visit the Grand Canyon, and most of these head for the South Rim and the Grand Canyon Village. Maybe it was because I was visiting well after peak tourist season, but if there where 12,000 visitors there during my stay – I didn’t see them. Many visitors arrive by bus on day tours arranged by any number of tour companies. At most, these visitors get a couple of hours to ‘see’ the canyon. From my observations, at least ninety percent of these visitors where simple intent on standing as close to the rim as possible while friends or family members took photographs of them blocking views of the canyon itself. Having ticked the Grand Canyon off their lists of places to visit, they then rushed off to buy souvenirs, eat and drink and make restroom stops before heading off in their coaches once again.

Here’s a typical(?) tour outline:

THE ULTIMATE GRAND CANYON TOUR

Enjoy first class Comfort in our luxury Coach or Van while we take you to all the must do’s of the Grand Canyon. This full day tour includes 1st class service throughout with a 1st Class Helicopter flight over the canyon, National Geographic IMAX showing, hot lunch, south rim Indian ruins, Desert View and Yavapai indoor - outdoor overlooks, Grand Canyon flight museum, Grand Canyons El Trevor, Mules, Train Depot, and Village.


The good people at Grand Canyon Old West Jeep Tours - from whose site I took the above information - have even created a video outlining the full day tour.




...

Whew! That’s a pretty action packed day from what I can see, and little time is set aside for deep appreciation of one of the greatest natural phenomena on the planet. Clearly, if you are interested in spending even an hour or two contemplating life, death, nature, the environment and such like, you will not want to join this or similar tours.

Not that I am suggesting all the locations included in the one day tour outlined above are not worth a visit. I’m sure they are. It’s just that personally, I prefer to see them at a much slower pace which allows plenty of time for quiet reflection and deep appreciation – as this quote from John Muir’s* 1902 booklet, The Grand Cañon Of The Colorado attests:

In a dry, hot, monotonous forested plateau, seemingly boundless, you come suddenly and without warning upon the abrupt edge of a gigantic sunken landscape of the wildest, most multitudinous features, and those features, sharp and angular, are made out of flat beds of limestone and sandstone forming a spiry, jagged, gloriously colored mountain-range countersunk in a level gray plain. It is a hard job to sketch it even in scrawniest outline; and try as I may, not in the least sparing myself, I cannot tell the hundredth part of the wonders of its features—the side-cañons, gorges, alcoves, cloisters, and amphitheaters of vast sweep and depth, carved in its magnificent walls; the throng of great architectural rocks it contains resembling castles, cathedrals, temples, and palaces, towered and spired and painted, some of them nearly a mile high, yet beneath one's feet. All this, however, is less difficult than to give any idea of the impression of wild, primeval beauty and power one receives in merely gazing from its brink. The view down the gulf of color and over the rim of its wonderful wall, more than any other view I know, leads us to think of our earth as a star with stars swimming in light, every radiant spire pointing the way to the heavens. ~John Muir, The Grand Cañon Of The Colorado (1902)


With John Muir’s words ringing in my head, I headed out again into the late afternoon sun to spend another three hours sitting on various boulders overlooking the Canyon, and marveling at the forces of nature that have shaped this world renowned site.

I also marveled at the stupidity of some visitors who despite the dangers, insisted on standing on the most dangerous points they could find in order to shoot the most dramatic photographs they could get.
Image: Pushing the boundaries of sense and safety this couple climb onto an exposed rocky outcrop looking for the perfect photo op

There is much to do during a visit to the Grand Canyon apart from stand on the rim for a photo opportunity. You could hike all or part of the 13 mile Rim Trail that takes you past many spectacular viewing canyon points. You could join the mule riders for the full day journey to the canyon floor. However, you will need to book up to a year in advance if you want to ride the mule train. If you can’t wait that long, there is a year round program of exhibits and educational programs including daily lectures and films about the geological history of the Canyon and the Colorado River. Visitors can also choose from a variety of Park Service-sponsored walks and talks to enhance their Canyon experience. The visitor's center also hosts programs that focus on endangered wildlife in the Canyon and preservation of the Canyon's historical and natural resources. Finally, various other walks and talks hosted by the Park Service are listed in the park newspaper, The Guide, available at the entrance station, and at other locations.

It is almost impossible to pick a favourite moment out of all the great experiences I had during American trip. While New York tends to overwhelm the senses, the Grand Canyon overwhelms the soul and should be on everyone’s ‘bucket list’ – you know, that list of things you’ve always wanted to do before you ‘kick the bucket’!

Again, let me reiterate that two nights and a day and a half are nowhere near enough to fully take in the Grand Canyon. Instead of crossing the canyon off my list of places to visit, I have left it firmly in place since I have every intention of returning for a longer, more appreciative stay.
Image: Where’s my hat?

*John Muir (21 April 183824 December 1914) was a Scottish-born American naturalist, author, and early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States. Read more here…


Online:
Grand Canyon News…

Wikipedia Grand Canyon entry…

Friday, October 22, 2010

Therma, Ikaria

Image: Therma, Ikaria


I don’t know a lot about hot springs and their healing properties, but people have been travelling to the small seaside town of Therma on the Greek island of Ikaria for centuries to immerse themselves in the hot, healing waters of radioactive springs, which many bathers claim have cured – or at least, eased the pain of – arthritis and other rheumatic aches and pains; made infertile women, fertile, and helped lessen the impact of a variety of other long-standing medical problems.


For the past two weeks I have been staying with my niece at Therma, where she is managing six rooms for an assortment of elderly Greek visitors who have come to bathe in one of several purpose built hydrotherapy centres in the town.


While here, I have also been reading the Anthony J. Papalas book, Ancient Icaria*. I will review the book in a later entry, but it has been fascinating to learn something about the history of the island, including the little village of Therma.

Image: A flight of stairs that would test even Rocky Balboa!

Looking at this place, nestled as it is in a small, steep valley, with its whitewashed homes and multi-storied hotels; narrow winding streets, twisting stairs, confined walkways, and ever-present village cats: looking at all this, it is hard to imagine the village has a history stretching back to the 5th Century, BC, and beyond.

Image: Modern hydrotherapy centre, Therma, Ikaria

According to the Papalas book, there was a time when Therma was the island’s second city – the ancient city of Oenoe (now Kampos) being the first, or largest. Both ‘cities’ have now been reduced to large villages, and several towns – Agios Kirikos, Evthilos, Karavostamo, and Armenistis amongst others – have all overtaken Therma in terms of their size. However, Therma continues to draw thousands of visitors each year to her radioactive springs, and can rightly claim to have had the last laugh on many of the larger towns and villages on Ikaria.

This is because the peak season for visitors across the rest of the island is concentrated around the months of July and August, whereas Therma’s season can begin as early as May and continues through until the end of October, thus ensuring that villagers, café and restaurant owners, hotel operators and their numerous suppliers are able to earn a living servicing the needs of the elderly and infirm long after the tourists and summer visitors have left other parts of the island.

Image: Derelict hydrotherapy centre, Therma, Ikaria


Having said that, without the hot springs, there is little reason to think that Therma would have attracted much attention from anyone in the last two hundred years, let alone the past two thousand. The small valley floor, and the steep hills surrounding the valley are not easily cultivated. The villagers who have managed to eke out a living by working the land have had to carve small, narrow terraces out of the surrounding rock and dirt to grow what few vegetables they could. In addition, they have planted extensive groves of olive trees, which seem to thrive on the precipitous slopes. Meanwhile, the ever present goats which many families still tend in Ikaria, are perfectly suited to the island’s rocky landscape.

Image: Early morning sun lights up homes clinging to the hills of Therma, Ikaria

With the summer rush well and truly over, it has been a real pleasure to spend some time in this ancient village, winding down from the hustle and bustle of New York City and my travels through southern America. I spent a couple of hours here in 2008, when my brother-in-law Ilia, was still in the early stages of building his three story Helion (Sun) Studios. It has been a long, slow process – everything on Ikaria seems to involve a long, slow process – and he is still not finished fitting out all nine rooms. However, one more winter should see everything finally completed in time for next year’s season of health seekers and sun worshipers.

Image: Helion (Sun) Studios, Therma, Ikaria


*A note about spelling: Anthony J. Papalas uses the anglicized lowercase ‘c’ in Icaria. However, since the letter ‘c’ does not occur in the Greek alphabet, throughout this blog I have chosen to keep the Greek spelling for the island – hence, Ikaria.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The [Greek] Gods Are Angry

Image: Therma, Ikaria - pretty as a picture postcard - before the storm

Lightening dissects the sky, thunder rips the air, and sheets of water fall from the clouds, pulling a rain soaked curtain down over the hills surrounding the small village of Therma, Ikaria.

Waterfalls pour from terracotta tiles, rooftops fill with pools of water, and rivers form to wash the streets clean of autumn leaves, cat shite, plastic bags and bottles, goat droppings, loose garbage, and a summer’s worth of dirt, pebbles and powdered dust.

It is impossible to know whether the whole island is experiencing this, or just the northern side. Last night, I woke at 2.30AM, and noticed the sky illuminate with brief flashes of light. Looking out from my balcony, I could see stars and scattered clouds along our side of the island, but clearly, some other part of the southern Aegean was being washed clean of its accumulated summer detritus.

Today, it is our turn.

Mind you, it has been threatening to do this for days. The air has been heavy with humidity and dark, brooding clouds. These occasionally unleash short, violent downpours, but nothing as sustained as today’s drenching.

Looking out through the rain spattered glass of my balcony doors I can see half a dozen elderly men and women wrapped in dressing gowns. They are taking advantage of a brief lull in the storm to make their way back to their hotels and rented rooms, following their allotted session at one of Therma’s hydrotherapy centres.

They couldn’t have timed their return better.
Image: Villagers watch flood waters surge below overpass
Five or ten minutes later, my attention is drawn to excited shouts and noise from the street below. I open the balcony doors and look down onto a group of twenty or so people milling around on the small overpass below my room.

Rain water has been steadily making its way down the high hillsides. First in trickles and rivulets; then gathering strength in streams and watercourses until finally, a large mass of accumulated water has finally reached the foot of the valley where the village is located. This water is now coursing through the centre of the village along a large culvert that does double duty as a road and parking area throughout the summer. With the rain, the culvert has reverted to its status as an open drain funnelling water into the Aegean Sea.

I quickly pull on a pair of boots and head down to the street, camera in hand.
Image: In ‘clear and present danger’ these cars are at the mercy of surging flood water
Standing on the overpass with other visitors and locals, I see two cars in ‘clear and present danger’. It appears at least half a dozen cars were left parked in the culvert overnight, and now some are at serious risk of being swept into the sea by the onrush of water.

The culvert is covered from one side to the other with a fast-flowing river of dirty water the colour of chocolate. Floating and sliding, rolling and swirling, and bobbing along on this sea of brown are old car tyres, tree branches, plastic crates and bottles and large slabs of concrete that lined the culvert somewhere further up its length.

Some of the concrete slabs get jammed up against and underneath, the two cars caught in the flood. Rather than bump and push the cars further down the culvert, the slabs seem to be anchoring the cars in place, although both vehicles must have sustained some damage from the constant buffeting they get from passing debris.
Image: Flooding water gouges away at the shale supporting this car
Meanwhile, a hundred yards further down the culvert, other car owners and café and restaurant operators have not been so ‘fortunate’. One or two cafés at street level are in danger of being flooded, and one car in particular is in imminent danger of sinking into the shale twenty or thirty feet from the Aegean’s beckoning waters. The car is perched precariously over a deep gash in the shale which continues to deepen by the minute as the torrent of water gouges its way towards the shoreline.
Image: The normally clear Aegean waters at Therma covered with scum and debris

In complete contrast to the mess on land, the sea is perversely flat and calm – presumably due to an offshore breeze. Sadly, the usual crystal clear turquoise waters of the Aegean are discoloured with mud and other waste.

By midday, the storm seems to have run its course, or maybe it has simply moved offshore to drench the nearby islands of Fourni, Chios, and Samos. Eventually, the flood of water down the culvert slows to a safe negotiable flow, and the owners of the two cars up by the overpass are able to free them from the accumulated rubbish that has wedged underneath their chassis and amazingly, drive them to higher ground.

Even the car sitting perilously on the disappearing shale is pulled to a safer location.

Image: With water still around his ankles this café owner starts the clean up process

Café and restaurant owners begin hosing the mud and debris off their forecourts, and retrieving overturned plants, tables and signage.

Visitors and locals start rehearsing their ‘tales of the flood’ stories, and blog writers rush back to their computers – grateful to have something new to write about.

Image: Once the flood water recedes, cars are again parked in the culvert!

Image: This village cat is clearly not happy with the situation

Image: Storm clouds dump tonnes of water on the Aegean island of Chios

Addendum: October, 19th, 210. I wrote the above piece three nights ago. Last night another storm swept through the northeast Aegean Sea with even more force than the one described above, causing even more severe damage. Where the small white car in the image above is sitting, there is now a massive trench at least three feet deep, several yards across, and even greater in length. On the nearby island of Chios, one person lost his life when he was trapped in his car in flood waters.

Since there are only the most basic of drainage systems on many islands, storm water has nowhere to go but down hills and mountains sides, gathering force, pace, and strength until it reaches the valley floors. If there is no clear route to the sea, massive damage can and does result.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Who Pays The Ferryman?

Image: Newly built and extended Evthilos harbor

There is something very reassuring about watching the arrival of the daily ferry from Piraeus. Depending on the direction of the wind, you can often hear – and even feel – the steady pulse of its motors long before it appears around the headland that obscures the ferry’s approach into Evthilos harbour (one of two ferry stops on the Aegean island of Ikaria).


This feeling of reassurance, and the sense of security the ferry engenders has to do with the dependence islanders have on this vital link to mainland Greece. Not just because it is the most efficient and cost effective way of transporting large numbers of people between Athens and Ikaria (and the other islands along its route), but also because of the other benefits the ferry brings.


Greek island ferries don’t just transport people, they carry all the daily essentials that modern societies take for granted. From fresh fruit and vegetables, to all manner of groceries; from building materials and feed for livestock to white goods and computer systems. All these and much more depend on a vast ferry system to reach their destinations on far flung islands across the Aegean, the Cyclades, Dodecanese, Saronic and Ionian islands, and other regions.


Some three dozen companies, large and small, provided thousands of ferry sailings each month. Not only are all the major Greek islands and dozens of smaller islands serviced by these companies, but some ferries will even get you as far as Venice, Italy; Port Said, Egypt; Haifa, Israel; Limassol, Cyprus; and Bodrum, Marmaris and other ports along the Turkish coast.


Image: Loading ramp of the Blue Star Line’s Ithaki about to berth in Mykonos

The main ferry servicing Ikaria is the Nissos Mykonos, a 28 knot vessel capable of carrying 1,900 passengers and up to 418 vehicles. The seven hour journey to Evthilos also includes stops at the islands of Syros and Mykonos. From Evthilos the ferry continues around to Agios Kyrikos, the capital of Ikaria, and from there on to the island of Samos before making a night trip back to Piraeus. Travellers who like a bit of luxury on their overnight journeys can relax and sleep in one of 31 cabins provided for the purpose.

Built in Greece in 2005, the Nissos Mykonos is a far cry from the old ferries that Greece was known for 20 or 30 years ago. Owned and operated by Hellenic Seaways, this award winning vessel, like many other modern ferries provides passengers with a level of comfort, speed and regular itineraries that comes as a something of a shock to those of us who sailed on the old rust buckets that masqueraded as Greek ferries in the past. The Nissos Mykonos, even provides free WiFi for the plugged in traveler to make use of on long voyages.
Gone too, are the days when passengers and baggage had to be off-loaded from the decks of ferries into pitching rowing boats, for the final hundred yard ‘splash and dash’ to the safety of the harbor-side. Now ferries moor inside fine harbors, and reverse up against wharves which allow passengers and vehicles to pour off (and on) them quickly, efficiently, and safely.

Image: The EKO 1 fuel transporter in Evthilos harbor. Note the No Smoking sign on superstructure

Some types of vehicles seem to be absent from the decks of the Nissos Mykonos, and presumably similar vessels. These are fuel laden trucks and trailers that clearly pose a major hazard on the pitching decks of an island bound ferry. To prevent this type of accident, small, specially designed ships visit the islands on a regular basis to off-load fuel into trucks which carry their precious (and dangerous) loads to service stations across each island.


While Ikaria is reachable via a regular ferry service, the island is also large enough – and busy enough – to have its own airport. Those visitors not wishing to spend seven or eight hours on a ferry, can fly between Athens and the island in a couple of hours or so. But for me, one of the joys of travel, is the pleasure I get from journeying on waterborne craft of any size (see previous entries: Up A Lazy River…, and Brooklyn Hidden Harbor Tour…).


One of the best online sites to begin your research on Greek ferries is Matt Barrett’s Athens Guide, where you will find a wealth of information about ferry services, and a mass of information about Athens and other parts of Greece.

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