Thursday, July 18, 2013

Northern Karpathos - A Darkness on the Edge of Town?

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 9/10-2013—Diafani, Karpathos, Greece
Back in Diafani. This is one of the odder places I've been to in Greece, which is part of the reason I made sure revisit this place this time around—even though it  disturbs me in certain ways I'd really like to figure this region out. I'm not sure overall how much I like it here, by which I mean northern Karpathos. A part of me is drawn to this place, while another part of me feels a bit trapped once I'm here; it feels like a place ruled by the past, a past that hasn't served it all that well then or now, and when I'm here I feel partially forced into this past. OK, I realize that what I've just said might seem more than a little bit cryptic (and tangled grammatically). Let me see if I can explain what I'm trying to get at …
            Karpathos is a pretty big island, but I think what determines certain aspects of it culturally is not its size but its shape: it's a long island, with a wide southern end that more or less tapers after a certain point as one gets farther north and then starts to widen again at the top; it's a bit like a vase with a fairly fat base and a bell top. The southern half has always been more open to the rest of the world, whereas the north has, until relatively recently, been cut off from, well, most things; the road that now runs north south has only been completely in the last several years, and I'm not sure if it is yet completely paved. The people up here are different from those I've met anywhere else in Greece. The local dialect is different (I'm told it still contains remnants of ancient Doric Greek, but I know nowhere near enough Greek to know if this is true, though the way people speak up here does seem to have a different flavor than in any places I've been in this country). People dress differently here as well, in that, with the older women at least, the old-fashioned country dress of black dresses and head scarfs accompanied by more colorful embroidery is still quite common. This is no quaint backwater, though, as the tourist guides say—there's a darkness here, which is connected to the people's past, as symbolized by these types of traditions. The trouble I have is putting my finger exactly on what this darkness is—it comes to me thru a vague, yet complex set of feelings that I can't quite account for materially.
            First off, northern Karpathos is a wild place: big rough pine-covered mountains meet the sea with coastlines of few beaches, let alone much in the way of substantial inlets or safe harbors: the mountains generally just disappear under the sea. Traditionally it's been a place for farmers and fishermen. Both are still here, but trips into the hills reveal how much of the land has been abandoned—miles of old field terraces dominate whole valleys, which are now home to little besides the inevitable goat flocks (wild goats too are found in the high hills, living a life that's so much more beautiful and I'd argue worthily than that of their domesticated lowland cousins). Now this describes a lot of Greece I've seen and even more that I've read about, and it alone cannot account for what I see and feel with the people here, the vibrations I've run into here and nowhere else in this country . There's a loneliness I've felt while hiking the mountains of this part of the island, a loneliness which seems to have seeped into the villages, like the mist that sweeps across the mountains even during the warmest months. It's more than loneliness, though. There's an undercurrent (at times slight, but always present) of hostility here, maybe even contempt. There are far fewer of the warm smiles here that I routinely encounter in other parts of Greece, the open-hearted curiosity that seems to be a general hallmark of being Greek seems to have been stunted and replaced with a suspicion that I hate to say seems to dovetail all too easily into a kind of dull meanness, into a stultified clannishness. What this all comes down to, I suppose, is that the people I meet here, the locals, as a group, seem very unhappy.
 I can't say why this is for sure, but it's as if their exposure to the outside world has left them in a cultural no-man's land. By this I mean, knowledge of what's out there, coming back here from people who have emigrated to America and other places and brought in by the relatively small numbers of travelers who find their way up here, has left the old ways exposed and vulnerable to the new ideas coming in. But the people have neither taken up the new ideas in force, integrated them into what's best of the traditional ways to create a vibrant hybrid (which is what I've run into in other formerly isolated places in Greece) nor have they rejected them to celebrate what they have always been …
I just read over what I've written. Intellectually I can tell that it's too harsh and sweeping; I know I haven't been here long enough and certainly don't have the information to make such big damning pronouncements. But on the other hand I feel no need or desire to take back anything I've said. What I'm working with are my feelings—everywhere here all I've said seems to come at me, thru the people's faces and actions, thru the general vibe that runs thru the culture, that seems to hang in the air even when there are no people around. Over my life I've learned to trust my feelings—I'm generally perceptive and I tend not to react to that which I don't at first understand. Because of this, I know that my what I'm feeling is fundamentally correct—there is a darkens here, something very unhealthy underpinning this place culturally. There's something going on here that just ain't right …
            That said (like I can just walk away from such statements) … Why am I here? I'm not sure. Like I've said, I feel drawn to this place: there is something fascinating about northern Karpathos, even if many aspects of the place trouble me. Since I've arrived I've most been getting into the backcountry; there's is some of the best hiking in Greece here (or at least the parts I've been to). I've also met a lot of people here, returning locals and travelers, I really like. Actually that's one of the weird things about this that fascinates me. Many of the people who come here, both outsiders and returning Greeks, seem to have an almost religious devotion to this place—I've met numerous people who have been coming here, sometimes for weeks at a time, for ten, fifteen, twenty straight years. 
And there really isn't all that much to do here, besides hike (like I've said, the hiking is great, but also very challenging—there's no one some of the older people who are so enamored with this place can participate to extensively in this activity). The beaches are small, stony, and windy (with one little exception, which, for reasons I haven't figured out, few people besides me seem to bother with) and there's nothing in the way of museums and the like. In Diafani itself there's really little to do besides sleep late and hang out in the tavernas. But again people keep coming back. I sense a little why this is, though I can't really explain it in any reasonable fashion. Basically, northern Karpathos exudes a kind of narcotic affect. What I mean by this is that there's something about this place that just captures and holds you, even when your experience here is troubling—you just can't break away. I've been feeling this. I know I need to get out, that I have other things I want and need to do more than hang out here. But a part of me is always manufacturing excuses as to why I can't yet leave.
OK, none of this is working: I know I'm not explaining anything about this place properly. Partially this is because I've left out its lighter side. I've met some wonderful people here. The beauty of the countryside is staggering. The dark feelings I get, which, as I've said, seem to come from the land itself, are definitely not shallow: whatever is going on here it definitely has meaning. What that meaning is, though, I have no idea. Maybe I will become one of those people who just keeps coming back. I feel the pull. I, as of yet, though, do not consider this necessarily to be good thing …

[Onto lighter things, stuff I've been doing …]
Yesterday I took a coastal trail high into the mountains heading north (I did it last time I was here and was so blown away by it that one of the reasons I came back was to it again). The trail actually is a huge loop heading inland and then across the island to its west coast. I did that one last time thru and it took me like thirteen hours or something. My ankle (though is it improving) won't let me do that kind of hike right now so I settled for about a six hour turnaround, which took me thru most of the coastal part of the trail. It was just as spectacular as I remembered. Being up there on that rugged (but surprisingly well-marked trail) so high above the ocean below is remarkable. So is the countryside. This island is so green and piney, which makes it a lot different from a lot of Greek island hiking. The only negative is that I went down hard on the trail when I was heading back. I went down a couple times on my first hikes this summer on Crete, but haven't had it happen since. This one was an odd one too, not really my fault, I'd say. All of a sudden the trail just vanished underneath me: a big chunk of it just crumbled away down into a deep drainage (I was lucky I didn't go at least part way down the drainage with it). Without warning my feet completely went out from underneath me and I went down hard on my right side, half into the stones and half into a thorn bush. Though I’m still pulling out thorns I was actually lucky I landed on them. Even with the half cushioning (if you can call an armful of little spikes “cushioning”) of the bush my arm hit the rocks hard and I ended up with a big welt that feels like it goes all the way to the bone. If I'd landed just on the rocks I might have broken my arm.
Today I went inland to the agricultural village of Avlona, which is a truly beautiful hike, thru surprisingly dense pine forests, which give way to rocky highlands half shrouded in mist that surround a surprisingly productive little high-altitude plain. I've been to Avlona before, so I didn't linger there (there's not much to do there anyway, besides hit one of its two littler tavernas and be stared at by the locals—few travelers make it up there besides those brought in on day trips by tourist company out of the south of the island and those who do are interesting enough to warrant eyes peaking out from behind curtains, etc.). But instead started back on a slightly different, more rugged trail that eventually linked back up with the one I'd taken in. The hike took about six hours and that was all I could handle for the day. It was definitely a good day on the trail, though …
Tomorrow I leave, head down on the tourist boat (the one that brings the day-trippers up). The boat doesn't head out until about four-thirty, though. So I think I'll beach it in the morning and hang out in a taverna in the afternoon. A part of me want to stay another day (there's that narcotic affect), but I know it's time to move on—I'm not going to be sucked any deeper into this place on this trip: I have too much more of Crete I want to see, too many places that make me feel lighter (if not better) than I do when I'm here …

Diafani (from the boat)

Trail heading south

Inland into the pines

East coast from the trail

My own private beach

Misty mountain hop

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