Hydra – A Greek Paradise

IMG_3357This post is originally from September 29, 2019

This weekend has been nothing but a Greek paradise. Arriving in Hydra at night, all we could tell was that it looked super cute with the white washed buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. Waking up and seeing it in daylight turned the island into vibrant colours. The sea is so blue that it looks like a painting and the cute little white washed houses perched on the cliffs with colorfully painted doors as far as the eye can see are just breathtaking. There are so many cats and the majority look well fed and healthy. This truly is a kitty paradise! (Today I stopped to sit down and pet one cat and pretty soon I had about 10 around me. A couple thought I had food for them but it turns out I am just a magnet!)

Yesterday we hiked along the water’s edge until we found a beach. The beaches on Hydra aren’t sandy but it doesn’t take away from the beauty. Getting in and out of the sea on the other hand is a bit of a feat. The rocks are far from comfortable but once in the ocean it was refreshing and beautiful! I had my share of laughs watching people get in and out on all four because the rocks are so jagged and slippery. I wasn’t entirely graceful myself, but managed to get out with my bikini in tact.

The path along the cliffs near the ocean are truly picturesque as they are lined with olive and grape trees. Xenia and I plucked a black olive from a tree and took a bite out of it. We both thought we had been poisoned. The taste was like chemicals and we couldn’t get rid of the grittiness on our tongue. Obviously we are both still alive so no harm there.

The rest of the evening we walked around town and had dinner in the harbor. One appetizer we shared was feta cheese wrapped in filo pastry and covered with honey and sesame seeds. It was like a feta baklava and it was amazing!

IMG_3349IMG_3359IMG_3370IMG_3378IMG_3382

Today we got up early so that we wouldn’t waste any of the day. After having breakfast we decided to hike to a monastery. It was fully uphill and I was struggling with my ankle. Going uphill, my foot has to bend upwards and I was falling behind the other girls. (I make it sound like it was just my ankle, but it’s also because I am terribly out of shape.) When we took a break to look at the map and see how much farther we had to go I knew I was in trouble. I decided that I’d split from the girls and make my way back to the harbor alone.

Along my travels I ran into a couple and we got talking. They are TV producers from NBC and are making a pilot for a new show called Where in the World. Apparently they drop 5 people off in different locations around Greece and give them a hint.  It’s a race for the people to find each other at the undisclosed location where the winners obviously get a hefty prize. They need one more person to participate and they asked if I wanted to do it. Yah! UNFREAKINGBELIEVABLE right!? I would have to meet in Athens tomorrow and it would take a week. I’d be on my own but with my own camera crew and all expenses would be paid. Unfortunately I can’t do it because I have to be back at the camp in the morning.  You don’t know how much this pains me. I wish it could be for the week after and maybe I could change my flights.   My stomach just flips when I think about this opportunity but I know I can’t do it. Imagine coming all this way to do something selfless but then quit half way through to be selfish. My heart … my heart – plus I wouldn’t want to leave Lucy when we only get to see each other for these two weeks.

Anyway right now I’m sitting in a cafe at the edge of the sea waiting for the girls to get back from the Monastery.  I wish we had more time here as it truly is paradise, but nothing lasts forever and it’s almost time to catch the ferry back to Athens.  Until next time…

IMG_3385IMG_3416IMG_3422IMG_3424IMG_3433IMG_3458IMG_3453

Working in a Refugee Camp ~ week 1

This post is originally from September 27, 2019

Today is Friday which is the last day of work for the week. Lucy and I spent most of the day in the warehouse sorting through clothes and again came across some real doozies of outfits. We seem to literally get caught  with our pants down as every time we find a hilarious get up we can’t help but try them on. Today as I was trying to pull a pair of shorts off (the shorts had more material than Lady Di’s train) and I was caught yet again by a resident who volunteers in the shop. I think I gave him quite the scare because he ran by saying ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’.

IMG_3280IMG_3301

At one point we came across a box of pants that was riddled with mouse droppings. It was quite disgusting and we made the executive decision to just get rid of the contents of the box.

IMG_3298

After finding a box full of mouse poo we decided to throw the contents out!

There are a few residents who have started little businesses in the camp. Like a small coffee shop, a place to buy cigarettes and a falafel shop. Today we ordered a falafel before leaving for the day and boy oh boy was it delicious. The man who makes them was so grateful so I’ll definitely have to order more for lunch next week.

With our volunteer schedule, it leaves little time to do a weekend getaway. We don’t leave the camp until about 3:30 so organizing transportation from Chalkida is a bit tricky. We were successful though – we were able to figure out connections from Chalkida by train to Athens where we’d catch the metro and switch lines to the port. From there we caught a ferry for a 2 hour journey to the island of Hydra. We weren’t sure how much extra time we’d need so we literally went straight from the camp to the train station.

IMG_3315IMG_3317

All was good by the time we got our tickets at the port. We even had a bit of time to spare before leaving so we decided to grab a drink and some ice cream while we waited. We got so caught up in chatting at the coffee shop what we nearly missed our ferry. Our ferry was supposed to leave at 7:30 and at 7:15, Xenia noticed the time. We quickly scarfed down the ice cream  poured the water from the glasses back into the bottles and made a mad dash to  find our ferry. We thought the number system would be straight forward but unfortunately these massive ferries take up a ton of space. The four of us were running in among the car lanes frantically trying to find our boat. And by running I mean the 3 other girls were a mile a head of me while I trailed in the back looking more like a grandma as I can’t properly run on my ankle. Run Forest Run!!!!! There’s nothing like catching a ferry by the skin of your nose.

We arrived into Hydra after the sun set but from what I can tell it looks absolutely amazing. White washed buildings, cobblestone pathways, adorable cats and no vehicles. The only mode of transport on Hydra is by foot or donkey. Giddy up!

IMG_3415IMG_3417

IMG_3384

More pics of Hydra to come…

I’m looking forward to tomorrow where we can go to beaches and explore the island.

Volunteering in Ritsona ~ camp life so far

IMG_3569This post was originally from September 26, 2019

The last few days have been productive as we have been able to go into camp to work. There are a few NGO’s working in the camp. There is  IOM (International Organization for Migration) which is part of the UN and they are the big bosses – they make all the big decisions. And then there is I Am You – they provide English classes to kids and adults as well as giving residents glasses if they need them. Lighthouse Relief deals with children and teens. Their programs are geared toward protecting children ffrom physical harm and psycho-social distress through extracurricular activities. And Cross Cultural Solutions which is who I’m volunteering with. CCS has 3 main services. The laundry – where residents are given appointments so they can drop off their laundry at certain times and we are there to do it for them. The second service is the Female Friendly Space which I talked about in my last post. And 3rd is the warehouse/shop – this is where items are brought in and distributed.

For the last few days Lucy and I have been assigned to the shop where basically we are at a Goodwill/Oxfam and have to sort through all the incoming clothing donations and stock the ‘store’. I use the word store loosely because it’s a space for residents to come get clothing. It’s separated into sections for men, women and children. In each section are bins of clothes. Organizing the shop is complete chaos. Nobody leaves things where they found them and so it’s really difficult to see what category needs restocking. And then you go back to look for more items in that category (like boys jumpers for example) and we have nothing in the back.

It’s hard too because so many of the items donated are for hootches. I’m sorry but no Muslim woman is going to wear a crop top and mini skirt. Or then you have the prom dresses and high heels. There are so many items that just aren’t useful. Water wings? Come on!!!!

The items that can’t be placed out front and have to be specially requested are shoes. Some people don’t have any shoes so we can’t have them out in the shop. Instead they are handed out in special circumstances.

What we also really need is underwear and leggings. There are a few pairs of used knickers I have sorted through but it’s really too bad that there can’t be more new packages to hand out. Leggings are also in high demand because the women like wearing them under their abayas.

The shop is also operated by appointment. Families are given a scheduled appointment to come to the shop and once a month they are allowed in. They can take as much as they need (in moderation) but it has to be monitored to some degree because then you have residents taking what they don’t need and selling it on the side for profit. I have heard my share of arguments between residents if one person gets something of desire and the other one wants it. Or I have heard our volunteer resident arguing with the ladies saying ‘you don’t have a baby, you can’t take these baby clothes’.

Tensions are high in the camp anyway because over the last month they’ve had an influx of over 200 refugees. Not only that, they are actually clearing the land next to the camp to build more space for more caravans and more incoming refugees.

This morning we couldn’t go into camp at our regular time because there was a police raid and they were looking for drugs. Apparently there was more hostility towards the doctors on site because they would not give out medication without the person taking it in front of them. People want to stash the drugs and then sell them.  Drugs obviously lead to more violence so I know there has been talk about moving the ‘sketchy’ residents to another camp.

Later in the day Lucy and I went to the Female Friendly Space and tried to fix the fence surrounding it. It’s a wire gated fence but there has been tarp around it so that the men can’t see in. Unfortunately the tarp has been stolen so Lucy and I were weaving prickly branches in between the wires so that it is more difficult to see in. Maybe my next venture with The Urban Gypsy will involve basket weaving.

IMG_3708

IMG_3299

This is Xenia – hard at work doing laundry for the residents

IMG_3300

Once the laundry is washed it is placed outside for pick up and then each resident is responsible for hanging their laundry to dry.

IMG_3157

Lucy (Sally) and Maria in the warehouse sorting clothing donations

IMG_3159

perhaps a prom dress isn’t the best item to donate overseas???!!!!

IMG_3236

IMG_3239

Lucy and I working hard at weaving prickly branches through the wire fence so men can’t see into the Female Friendly Space

I have to tell you about Mrs Fortini. She is the lady who comes to our apartment and cooks and cleans. She doesn’t speak a lick of English so Google Translate has been our friend. She has a heart of gold and is so kind. This evening she picked us up to go for a walk. Instead we showed up at her daughter’s door and had an impromptu visit. She served us cherry juice and then a shot of traditional liquor from the island of Chios called Mastiha. Next we went for a walk and had a second dinner and wine with them. They are absolutely lovely and it is just so amazing to meet such wonderful souls.

IMG_3255

The AMAZING Mrs. Fortini and her lovely daughter Konstantina

 

Day 1 at Camp…or Not! Volunteering in a Refugee Camp

This post is originally from September 25, 2019

What can I say about the last few days? Yesterday was Monday and it was supposed to be my first day working in Ritsona Camp. We all got up, had breakfast and were ready to go when we got a call that there was ‘a situation’ at camp. It turns out the situation had escalated and due to protocol we weren’t allowed to come to volunteer that day. Basically if there is any sort of threat within the camp all precautions are taken and volunteers are evacuated. Seeing that we weren’t even there yet, we just had the day off.

adfdca68-676a-4691-a511-63b2cac9e6e9

All I know right now is that the door to the Female Friendly Space was broken down. The Female Friendly Space is a bone of contention with a lot of the men in the camp. Basically it’s a safe space where women can go. The majority of the residents in the camp are Syrians, Kurdish, Iraqi and Afghani. (There are also some from different countries in Africa too.) Obviously with the Islamic culture you have to deal with the difference in gender equality and for a lot of these families, women have very little say. Maria and Xenia (the other two volunteers) have said that they will often see a women who is 7 months pregnant doing all the work and carrying all the bags while the husband is nowhere to be seen. Having the Female Friendly Space is a  place where they can get away and have a break from all the work. Here they have people come in and teach them English, lawyers who help them navigate seeking asylum and midwives coming to explain birth and child development. Then they also have fun things like arts and crafts, yoga, facials etc. Because it’s so controversial the centre is situated just at the edge of camp with a fence around it so nobody can see who is seeking this service. It seems so simple for a women to take time for herself but for these men it is extremely threatening to have women go and learn these skills. Maria has worked at the Female Friendly Space for 6 weeks now and has seen the transformation of some of the women. Slowly she is gaining their trust and she has been able to see small breakthroughs with the women. One story that stands out is that she saw one of the lady’s daughters playing with a few boys. The boys told her she couldn’t do something because she was a girl and the little girl stood up to him and said ‘no, girls can do anything that boys can do!’ It certainly shows how educating and empowering a women truly is educating a new generation.

Anyway, because we had a free day off I was able to catch up on some much needed sleep and then in the afternoon Lucy and I walked into the town. The streets are not in square blocks so the two of us got terribly lost.  It seemed like we had been walking for ages and at one point walked next to an abandoned building that smelled so rank you’d think there could be dead bodies inside.

Eventually we found the ocean and spent a few hours gazing at the sea while having a delicious lemonade at a cute cafe. On the way back to the apartment we came across the ultimate crazy cat lady. There could have easily been 20-30 cats surrounding her while she fed them all. I do remember from my last trip to Greece that there are no shortage of cats here, so seeing this woman bring food for them truly made my heart pitter patter.

IMG_3132

Getting lost on the way to the ocean…

IMG_3114

Lovely Chalkida

IMG_3115

Lucy found her hotel!

IMG_3117IMG_3116IMG_3120IMG_3123

IMG_3128

I love how this lady makes her own cat food and feeds all the neighborhood cats. The world needs more like her!!!

 

Tourist for a Day ~ Arriving in Chalkida and exploring Athens

IMG_3061

This post was originally from September 21 & 22nd, 2019

Saturday September 21

Touching down in a different country truly is surreal. I can’t help but be in awe of how you can be on one side of the world one day and the other just hours later. Not to mention in a tin can that flies through the sky!!! Our world is pretty mind blowing when you think about it.5A71F75E-1B4D-42AD-8485-70DD06A459E0

As soon as I touched down in Athens I was picked up by a CCS staff member named Saif. The drive from the airport was about an hour to Chalkida. Although it was fairly straight I was lucky enough to to get motion sick yet again. I hate making bad first impressions but I think asking him to pull over instead of yakking in his vehicle was probably the better impression I could make at the time!!! We pulled off at the side of the highway so I could get a few breaths of fresh air. Eventually we got back on the road and soon enough we arrived at the apartment.

I was welcomed by two friendly girls who have already been here for 6 weeks. One is from Mexico and the other California. Both are babies at just 18 & 19 years old. The apartment is really nice. Clean and spacious with a lovely balcony. Yes,  I’ll be sharing a room with 3 others and yes there is only one shower, but I think I can easily suck it up for a few weeks.

We waited for Lucy to arrive a few hours later and once she did the girls showed us the way into the main town. It’s about a 20 minute walk through twisty roads so good luck to us finding that again!!!  The waterfront is really pretty with cafes and restaurants overlooking the ocean. This is where the original hotel is located. In all honesty it’s a way better location but the apartment itself is probably a better option long term as it’s more like a home.

8BF711B8-0E26-409F-AF19-9E2A637F8B1E(2)8551DE31-EE23-4461-9643-9ECED47337BE

Chalkida is on the island of Evia and is home to the phenomenon of the changing tide currents (which is literally the only place in the world where this happens). The sea currents in the Evripos Channel (the narrow strait of water separating Chalkida from mainland Greece) flow in a northerly direction for 6 hours. At this time there is a period of approximately 8 minutes where the water lays still. After this, the waters change their orientation, reversing direction and flow southerly for another 6 hours. Cool eh!

 

Sunday September 22

IMG_3317

Sunday Lucy and I got to be a tourist for the day. We caught a train that took us into Athens.  From there we switched lines and made our way to the Acropolis. The Parthenon is situated high on a hill so you can look up and see it from pretty much anywhere. At night they light it up so it’s really quite stunning. The area below the Parthenon is called the Plaka with restaurants and shops to serve all the tourists. We made our way to the top where we got a great panoramic view of Athens. From there we had lunch – falafel with tzaziki and Greek salad. It was delicious. We then tested our directional skills and hopped on a train to get to a different part of the city called Psiri. Here it had a more bohemian vibe with cafes, street art and traditional music coming from every direction. It really was the perfect place to sit back and enjoy the afternoon while people watching. At this point my jet lag really started to hit me and all I wanted to do was to get back to the apartment and close my eyes. Unfortunately we had a few trains and ‘layovers’ to get through before making our way back to Chalkida. I literally fell asleep outside on a metal chair while waiting for our train. Good thing Lucy had my back.

IMG_3033IMG_3038IMG_3045IMG_3049IMG_3052IMG_3060IMG_3067IMG_3070

IMG_3077

Meet Lucy…aka Sally

This is Psiri…

IMG_3085IMG_3088A5D3D422-E8B0-4DC6-ACAE-5C7093F241BC997A731D-2AFB-4CD8-A30D-FF069B87CDCE3408980E-D43C-433B-8C0B-5C87D7AE5DAD92844529-F127-429E-B95A-496AE8501BF0

IMG_3095

I was shocked to see the amount of graffiti that littered mainland Greece

E252A146-758C-4B33-94E6-8D7E0006843F

It was a pretty fantastic day I’d say. I had to pinch myself a few times to remind myself that this is real and I really am in Greece! Tomorrow will be a new adventure where we start working in the camp.

It’s all Greek to me!

F96D55AC-1DE1-41E1-AB2B-A4F0B47728EF

Hey there Everyone!

Yep…it is that time again. Twice in one year!!! I feel absolutely lucky to be able to go overseas not once, but twice this year. As most of you well know traveling is one of my biggest passions, so to be able to do this twice in 2019 is truly super exciting for me.

This trip is not like most of my others. It is a volunteer trip where I will be working in a refugee camp. The plight of refugees really tugs at my heart and over the last few years I have been researching and reading more about it. I know that being amidst heartbreak and struggle will be extremely challenging but I also feel like it will be rewarding in ways I won’t even know until I am there. The human spirit is incredibly resilient and I feel like those of us in the west need to take a few notes on how to be grateful for what we have and realize that the little things we seem to think are stressful are truly only bumps in the road that can make us stronger. (So that means I need to take my own advise and stop complaining that I missed the last half hour of Bachelor in Paradise, right?)

Tomorrow I will be heading to Chalkida, Greece and working with an organization called Cross Cultural Solutions. gr-country-map I volunteered with them in Tanzania about 10 years ago and my experience with them was amazing. When I saw that they had a placement in a refugee camp I knew that this was meant to be. I will be there for only two weeks and although it is not a lot of time I hope that I can help in some small way.

Originally I had planned on going alone but as luck would have it, my friend from the UK that I met in Brazil this year decided that she would join me too. Her name is Sally but I call her Lucy. Why? Ummmmm, no particular reason except that she looks more like a Lucy to me than a Sally. I am so excited that I get to see her again. She is an amazing person and I know it will make my time in Greece so much more memorable with her by my side!

I have to admit that this week I have had somewhat mixed emotions about this trip. Until yesterday I really had no idea where we would be staying. Originally when I signed up I was told that we would be staying in a local hotel in town and be driven to the camp each day. About a month ago however we were notified that instead of the hotel we would be staying in a house a little out of the town centre. I was a bit disappointed because a big bonus was that the hotel was near the ocean. On Sunday the Facebook page for this particular placement blew up as one of the past volunteers complained that the Home Base was unfit to live in. She posted photos of a staircase without a railing, broken electrical outlets and doors without locks. She said she left after 5 days and was taking this organization to court. Obviously this was a little unnerving as I was leaving in less than a week. For the last few days I have been trying to negotiate where I will be staying and figuring out if this company is even reputable anymore. In the end it looks like we will be staying in an apartment in town (but not as close to the ocean as before) with 5 people. It may not sound as comfortable as a hotel as we will be sleeping on bunk beds and sharing a washroom but I am pretty confident that it will be ok. I mean if worst came to worst at least I would have a good story to tell you about right?!!!!!

Anyway, I really don’t know what to expect but I can’t wait to experience this trip and share it all with you. If you get a chance you should watch the Netflix documentary Born in Syria.This is a documentary that is told from the perspective of children as they flee the violence in Syria and try to find a safe place to live.