Friday, August 5, 2011

August 5 - Santorini (written by Andy)

Opening the windows this morning, I almost expected to see dark clouds bulging with rain. There's something unreal about Santorini's piercing sun, whitewashed walls, and blue domes. Yet once more we could not see a cloud in the sky. The rising heat portended another scorching day, but the breezes, sometimes the gusts that roll over the hills, bring cool comfort. So Jenny and I gathered our gear and headed downstairs to our quad. Today was our second laundry day of the trip, though this time we decided drop our stuff off. We merely needed to pack our clothes into the tiny plastic case on back of the ATV. Just one more shove before locking the container and - snap! Yep, we busted the lock.

A combination of guilt and fear of yet another rental hassle inspired us to ride straightaway to where we picked up our quad. The guy, who'd already sized us up as rookies, nodded gravely at the sight of the broken plastic. "Yes, you packed too much…" Jenny was ready to debate the matter, noting that the case was already pretty worn when we rented it [truly it was]. I knew we'd have no luck with that approach, though. It didn't matter. The guy continued, a cigarette dangling limply from his mouth, that it was "no problem" [ah... that lovely phrase]. "You two are so friendly; I will charge you ‘no cents.’"

Our plan thereafter was pure randomness. We plied our way up and down winding highways that led to towns with interesting names. Really, all we had on our three-day Santorini itinerary was "Chill." Gaining confidence on the road-hugging abilities of our quad, we took tight curves that led to hilltop cities like Fira and Oia, each topped by the occasional flutter of a blue and white Greek flag. Now and then we'd park and join the crowds of folks who'd disembarked from cruise ships sitting in the harbor, occasionally sidling up to the wall as donkeys were led past. For lunch we found a table at the Seagull Cafe, run by two guys who seemed happy to have so little business. Enjoying a serene overlook between two blue domes we snacked on locally grown tomatoes and cucumbers, plenty of tzatziki, and some yoghurt, fruit, and honey for Jenny.

Back on the road, I had a hankering for a couple hours at the beach. Almost as I spoke the words, we saw a sign that lead to Kamari. Ever the adventurous soul, Jenny was up for the diversion, and we therefore began following signs that lead to the shore. About a half-hour later, we saw that amazing view. The water was a cool turquoise color, though the rocks and pebbles that line the edge were blisteringly hot. Jenny settled onto a towel while I jumped into the water. Poking my head above the surface, I heard a thunderous splash near a cove to our right, next to a hallowed out semicircular cave. Two guys had climbed the rock, past the no diving sign and were diving from what seemed like 20 feet. I studied them for a few moments, noting how they had no problem with the depth of the water. And, heck, I used to dive with some style back in the day. Screw the warning signs.

Ascending steps, climbing rocks, and then hefting my legs over a natural barrier I joined those deeply tanned dudes and peered over the edge. As usual, the height from this vantage point seemed much more ominous than at the surface. Even though they had previously lept with seeming abandon, I could tell from up here that each dive took a moment of mental preparation. I was waiting for them, but it was clear that they were waiting for me, a middle-edged bearded guy who had maybe climbed higher than he should. One said in an accent I couldn't quite place, "You jump." The only words I could muster in reply was an honest assessment: "This is scary." But there was nothing else to do. I faced the water and tried to imagine my body arching with the grace I once could gather as a teenager. Then I uttered my standard phrase just before I'm about to do something foolish - and jumped high, keeping my legs together and preparing for my terminal turn.

Curving downward and feeling the wind smack my face I realized that I'd spent insufficient time calculating a safe distance away from the white stony hill. Altitude wasn't a problem, of course, but I wondered if I was gonna grind my chest into hamburger on bone-crunching impact with that wall. Then I saw that friendly span of sparkling teal water racing toward me. For half a second, I wondered just how deep it went; then I hit hard. For some silly reason I clenched my fists, which meant that entry was like pounding onto a brick floor. The impact was so jarring that my lungs hurt and my heart seemed jarred out of its cavity. I seriously wondered if I'd hurt myself. Unconsciously I'd turned a tight U-shape, which wrenched me back to the surface and added the pleasure of snorting salt water through my nose. I took breaths in shallow spurts and rolled onto my back, sweeping my arms to move closer to the beach. Little by little the burning in my chest dissipated and I realized that I was OK. Just a moment later I knew I'd have to dive again.

After a while, the tanned dudes had departed and two thirty-something guys were peering over the edge, gesticulating with thoughtful precision how they thought their dives should go. I studied them for a while, watching as they gingerly crossed over a rock ledge to the jumping spot - and then turned around. Both opted for an easier dive about halfway down the hill. I returned to the beach to rest and collect my wits. Jenny rolled her eyes, but she knew I was going up again. Sure enough, I hopped up the rocky stairs and greeted the guys with a curt smile. Hopping over the last border I saw that they'd gathered near to watch the show. I turned and remembered to keep my palms flat and try to arch my body into a shallow curve upon entry. I looked outward toward all that blue water receding into the horizon and then stood up straight. One sharp leap and I felt like a pilot aiming for a perfect landing. Letting gravity draw me into position, I extended my arms and pushed some air out of my nostrils, anticipating the cool splash just one heartbeat away. I rode the plunge down, slicing into the water with some elegance this time, and popped up like a cork, smiling as the water trickled from my hair. By now I'd forgotten about the two guys, but Jenny tells me they shook their heads in unison and chose the lower jump.

Later on, after changing back into driving clothes, Jenny and I cruised around the island some more, stopping where we'd see an especially arresting piece of architecture. We'd walk through villages where the sidewalks also served as roadways for tiny scooters, stopping to pet dogs that lounged in cool shady spaces and grooving on the lazy vibe. We rode up steep hills, testing the tiny motor of our ATV, stopping at hilltops to feel gusty breezes pounding at our bodies. We picked up our laundry and got a recommendation for dinner in Fira. But when we returned to our hotel, the owner told us that we could do much better at a place nearby: Tavern of the Cave of Nikolas. We took her advice and drove to the beach where, as water lapped up against fishing boats, we ordered meals prepared by the people who grew the tomatoes and caught the fish. Jenny made friends with a cat who'd learned to identify friendly tourists, while I snapped off the heads of my fish and picked tiny bones from my teeth.

Following Jenny's bliss, we took one last ride to Fira - this time at night. A half-moon hung over the island while hilltop towns lit up like alien ships landed in the desert. We took pictures and sampled gelato, sometimes surging with the crowds and sometimes sitting alone to chat. I anticipated the steep climb up the hill that leads to our hotel near the southern tip of Santorini, and I wondered if that little quad bike would hold out for one more ride. I knew that we'd make it, though. It'd been that kind of day.

Day 13 | Day 15

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