Going back to somewhere familiar is like slipping on a pair of well worn comfortable shoes. Returning to Kolkata for the third time recently, I had that wonderful feeling of returning somewhere that I knew well. I knew how to get around, I had a fair handle on the cultural dos and don’ts and I had long ago accepted that any time spent in India will have a slightly haphazard and chaotic feeling to it. I threw myself into the familiar and relished in the unfamiliar, of which there is always a fair share in Kolkata. For example, one sweaty day I was walking down a street in a neighbourhood I know quite well, only to have a rather large water buffalo amble calmly across my path. As you do.
Returning to a place is to take another step in the adventure of getting to know somewhere, to peel back the layers and see it in its entirety. But there is no replacing the excitement that you feel when your feet land on new soil. There can only ever be one sparkling new first day in a place. It is a very special thing to look at a place with completely fresh eyes, to take the time to find out the answers to all of those questions, and sometimes to accept that the questions may not have an answer, or at least not the one you were expecting. How does the public transport work? What are the potential cultural pitfalls? What does the local beer taste like? I like to try to visit at least one new place per year, and that place this year, was Greece.
Researching the trip was bewildering; there is simply so much to see and do in Greece. On the advice of a Greek friend, we decided to focus on one geographical area and err on the side of quality over quantity in terms of the number of islands we would visit. I knew I wanted, and needed, a relaxing and relatively easy holiday as my energy stocks were quite depleted; my ayurvedic masseuse told me the week before departure that my ylang was cold which is a sign of low energy….you learn something new every day!
In the end we settled on Athens and the islands of Paros, Naxos and Santorini. Each place was unique and beguiling in its own way. The Acropolis, despite a layer of scaffolding, is impressive and awe inspiring. The Acropolis museum is wonderfully detailed and laid out, with a glass floor looking down into ancient ruins. As often happens when I am away, I got to thinking about the image we present of Dublin to our tourists. Instead of having a similar museum at Wood Quay, we send our tourists to the Storehouse and to The Quays Bar. Which is fine, but it should only be part of the picture. I can’t help but feel that, with a history as ancient and rich as ours, that we sell ourselves short by not displaying it proudly.
I had mixed feelings about going to the Greek islands. I think I had watched a few too many Boozed Up Brits abroad programmes and was expecting them to be overrun with hoards of drunken English and Irish students. That’s not to say that may not have been the case on other islands, but the picture on Paros, Naxos and Santorini was certainly very different.
There were many postcard perfect moments; cats stretched out luxuriantly on the roof of a cave house, narrow perfectly paved streets snaking their way haphazardly through an old town, white sands and turquoise waters, a group of old men in their flat caps talking animatedly over their ouzo, two old Mammas dressed in black shooting the breeze outside a blue domed church. Paros and Naxos were quieter and calmer, Santorini was somewhat glitzier and more mainstream. The people were uniformly warm and welcoming, and the way of life came across as wonderfully easy going and family focused. I have visited islands all over the world, and find that no matter where they are located, they share a gloriously unhurried pace of life; as one barman on Naxos said to us ‘Here, we never know what day it is’.
Anyone we spoke to about the current economic crisis were optimistic and accepting; but I guess if you live on an island in the middle of the Aegean you have always had an ethos of self-reliance and resilience.
Santorini was jaw droppingly beautiful. It is one of the most striking and spectacular places I have ever visited. That first view of Thira town is one that will remain with me for a long time to come. Whitewashed buildings cling to the top of the caldera with the cliffs dropping precipitously to the sublime blue of the Aegean. Everything is painfully perfectly white, with blue shutters and blue balconies, and the occasional dramatic splash of bougainvillea. The overall impression is of a place built to both cope with and complement its environment and the result, for the visiting eye, is spectacular.
And the world knows it. As with so many of the world’s most beautiful places, tourists come in their thousands. Each of the three days we were there, 3-4 cruise ships docked at Thira town and thousands of their inhabitants made their way to the already crowded narrow streets of Thira and Oia. The sunsets on Santorini are indeed beautiful and do live up to their hype, but just be prepared to share them with a large crowd of camera wielding fellow visitors, many of whom are not afraid to use their elbows. I do not kid myself with the ‘I’m not a tourist’ mantra, and I am fully a that I was one of the crowd, but I have always been slightly uneasy with manic mass tourism and what it breeds. This manifested itself most strongly for me with the donkey taxis.
The port of Thira is, unsurprisingly, at the bottom of the cliff, and the town is at the top of a very steep path that consists of 600 cobbled steps. There are three ways to make your way up and down; on your feet, by cable car or by donkey taxi. Witnessing the donkey taxis was the low point of my holiday. Heading to the port one day, we walked down the steps and passed, at a guess, 100 odd donkeys carrying tourists up the path in the midday sun. Having done the path on my feet, I can safely say that it is steep, uneven, hot and hard on your legs. Now imagine this for a donkey carrying a 90kilo man. I was shocked at how many people used the donkeys, and how many of them were clearly far too heavy for the animals. Some of the animals, especially the larger mules, were in good enough nick and seemed to be managing quite well. But some of them were clearly struggling, especially the smaller donkeys. Their breathing was visibly laboured, some of them had sores from where the crupper or girth had rubbed them, many of them wore muzzles and some of them were visibly underweight. I saw water at one of the donkey stations but not at the other two. If I could see all of this, I struggled to understand how the singing and giggling tourists on their backs could not. I concluded that everyone (or at least sizeable numbers) wants their photo on a donkey in Santorini and they are so completely blinkered by this that they lose sight of the situation of the animal that is carrying them up the hill. I was shocked and upset and utterly helpless to do anything for the animals. So I cried. The whole way down the cliff I cried and cried and thought very bad things about mass tourism and tourists and the donkey owners.
I know that donkeys and mules are hardy animals, bred in this environment and well used to carrying loads, and that donkeys had been making the trip up and down that hill long before tourism arrived on the island. I know that, from what I hear, domestic donkeys are well cared for in Greece. But these donkeys and their situation are different, they are caught up in a giant money making machine. It is €5 per trip one way, so the more times a donkey makes the trip up and down the hill, the more money his owner makes.
There is clearly demand for these donkey taxis. Some visitors feel that they are entitled to this ‘experience’ and to their souvenir photo (an attitude I have come across frequently elsewhere, for example among backpackers telling me they were entitled to climb Ayers Rock even when they knew the significance of this action for Aboriginal culture). The donkey owners are simply meeting that demand and making money in the process. To my mind, there is a marked difference between a donkey doing a few trips up and down with building materials or with a wiry Greek fisherman, and doing several trips per day with an overweight tourist with no experience or idea of how to carry himself/herself on an animal.
The demand is not going to go away, and Thira is not going to magically relocate, and the cable car is not going to treble its capacity. So what’s to be done? There have been efforts at regulation in ter past which have failed. Regulation is one way. Weight restrictions; most of the yards I have worked in had weight restrictions and it is a reasonable enough idea – if you are above a certain weight, you take the cable car. It might ruffle a few peoples feathers but they will still get up the hill, which is ultimately the name of the game. Rotation of the animals so that each animal is only doing a certain number of trips per day. Regular water breaks. Fines for neglect. I am aware this is all idealistic and I have no real suggestions as to how this could be managed among donkey owners who are set in their ways, aside from a permanent welfare presence. But this is what I thought about on the cable car back up the hill; surely there are simple ways to make it less harsh. But the most effective thing would be for tourists who opt to use the donkey taxis to think, to take off the hat of their ‘experience’ and look at the bigger picture and think about whether or not they truly want to be a part of this.
So the donkeys of Santorini left me with a dose of the blues. Animals – donkeys and horses in particular – have always been my trigger, which may seem a little odd when there are so many millions of people suffering in the world. But that is how I am wired. The donkeys of Santorini were yet another lesson in how our own individual choices can have an impact, however small and insignificant it may seem at the time. When we visit a new place we all become tourists, over that I believe we have little choice, but we DO have a choice over what type of tourists we decide to be.