Back in the game and clearly enjoying it, Michalis could not be stopped. We drove to Mesochori, the remote village on the western side of the island where he grew up. Descending the steep alleys that zigzagged between Lego-like housing cubes stacked all the way down the mountain, we strolled unannounced into relatives' empty houses. We crossed the churchyard and basketball courts where he played as a youth. But strangely, instead of children playing on a beautiful sunny day, men in their twilight years, smoking and playing cards at outdoor tables, invited us to join them. Almost overnight, Karpathos was becoming an island of Greek-American retirees and tourists. Puffing on his e-cigarette, Michalis was symbolic of a generation caught between bucking the trend and capitalizing on it. Unheard of in Greece, we declined the invitation to linger.
Almost giddy now, Michalis stuffed the obedient Americans into his little car and raced around hairpin turns leading us from one village to the next. I did a double-take in Piles when I paused to take a picture of an iconic cat sitting in a window with lace curtains, and then suddenly realized that the whole scene was painted onto the building. Good Greek boy that he is, he brought us to meet his parents for lunch.
By early evening, we ended up at the coast, and I was again able to indulge my preoccupation with all things ancient. Picking my way through patches of aloe and other scratchy vegetation, I climbed a hill to a cave whose entrance had a concrete-like substance framing the top and sides. Large enough to walk into, the jagged cave interior had light filtering through another smaller entrance about a hundred feet from where I stood. I was seeing the earliest traces of human habitation on Karpathos, and there were no locked doors or glass cases between me and history.
Like one of those improbable chance encounters that happen in a movie, we left the cave and ran into a woman walking a brutish, but sweet dog. She happened to know actual archaeologists who had been on the island studying the cave. She told us that the cave dwelling dated to about 1500 B.C. In the century preceding Christ, Romans built housing around the cave, which explained the squared-off framing. Around 600 A.D., pirates from the Arab world invaded Karpathos and slaughtered residents. Finding ready-made shelter, they took refuge in the complex. The archaeologists unearthed Roman coins and other artifacts in the area supporting this timeline.
Evening shadows danced between my footsteps as I walked away. But a strange sense of calm in these dark times came over me. The setting tangerine ball behind the sea framing Lefkos village in one direction, and the near-full moon rising above the glowing mountain in the exact opposite direction, personified the push and pull of good and evil, of life and death. Things happen, but beauty and all that is right with the world endures time.
We spent the rest of our days hiking among the former shepherds' houses on the small, adjacent island of Saria whose last inhabitants left in 2001, and touring Olympos, a mountain village so isolated that residents still speak with a local dialect. We made makarounes, simple pasta shells and poked our heads into innumerable hilltop chapels.
Before heading to the airport, Michalis curiously insisted on one more stop. We walked through the church cemetery sitting atop a knoll in Pigadia, Karpathos' main city. Unlike the American cemeteries where my relatives were buried, there were no grassy stretches between the gravesites, but rather narrow stone paths. The white marble crypts were side by side, wholly or partly above ground. Statues and flowers adorned the graves. Typical of Greece, stunning blue sky and sea formed the backdrop.
What grabbed my attention the most, however, were the stray cats that prowled around the cemetery gate. Among the gaunt, short-haired cats looking for food scraps, sat a perfectly content long-haired cat who stared at me and then closed his eyes peacefully. I stopped in my tracks as my friends continued back to the city center.
The cat was a striking lookalike of a sweet and playful Maine Coon mix who departed my world after only a year. Barney had been my constant shadow at my little farm cottage when I purchased the fixer-upper thirty years ago. Had he traveled here to live out his ninth life on a peaceful Greek island? A lot older, he somehow looked wiser. Having no one to brush it, his fur was matted. His ear was bent, possibly from a street fight. Could I take him home? Of course not, but I knew my visit wasn't about cats. Maybe we instinctively see ourselves in another dimension and time. In the blink of an eye, gentle souls move in and out of our lives. Things happen. Capping an abrupt end last year to a troubled life, my brother's memorial service would be this upcoming weekend after I returned home.
The Greeks deal with life and death on a continuum that appears seamless. When you live your life fully and with so much joy, it may make it a little easier to let go.
David Lee Drotar's travel stories appear in Earth Island Journal, The Buffalo News and numerous other publications. Drotar is the author of seven books including Steep Passages: A World wide Eco-Adventurer Unlocks Nature's Spiritual Truths (https://www.brookviewpress.com). He is the recipient of the 2016 Excellence in Journalism Award from the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association for a past Perceptive Travel story.
Looting Memory in Corinthian Greece - David Lee Drotar
The Concrete Corpses of Cyprus - Darrin DuFord
Uncovering Greece, Underwater and Underground - David Lee Drotar
The Way of the Octopus in Galicia - Beebe Bahrami
See other European travel stories from the archives
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