words & images anna weber
“Alright, will you all listen up? Two seconds, please. Can I get your attention?”
Our hundred-strong group of teenagers, stretching our legs from a two-hour boat ride, taking in the curved bay lined with white stone houses and tall cliffs, finally quieted enough for our leader, Jacques, to talk. Eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses, he examined all of us from his perch on a large boulder with an air of mixed boredom and exhaustion. It was the fifth or sixth day of Belgium’s Rotary Youth Exchange trip around Greece—he was sick of our shenanigans, and we lived our days fearing his footsteps and cowering when he spoke.
“All right. Thank you. So, here you are in Hydra town. You have about three hours of free time before we all have to take the ferry back to the mainland. There are some restaurants along the bay, or you could take a long walk: Do as you like. This is your only afternoon all to yourselves, so I would suggest you make the most of it. Okay? Go on, then.”
Pockets and cliques of fours and fives began to disperse along the docks and through the narrow alleys. An early spring sun glowed on the facades of the trim buildings and the surface of the sea. Merchants in open stalls and fisherman's caps lined the boardwalk, arms crossed, selling produce, trinkets, souvenirs, dried pasta, and beans. I turned to the Boat Boys and Boat Babes, my camera looped around my neck, and raised my eyebrows. Now what?
It had been a long two-hour boat ride to the port of Hydra, a name that comes from the word for "water" in Greek. The island was not named for the ocean that surrounded it, but for the springs that gushed forth from its hills during Antiquity. Just before Christ, Hydra itself had all but disappeared from history, as for centuries no visitors or natives reported on its goings-on. Foreign invasions, pirate attacks, and the plague only served to worsen Hydra's plight of increasing invisibility. Its one major moment of glory came under Napoleon, who thanked the ships of Hydra personally for their help in running the British blockade.
When we visited Hydra, most of the springs had long since dried up—much like the population, much like the stagnant economy, much like the entire country of Greece in April of 2010. But we, naive foreigners, willfully ignorant tourists—we were blissfully unaware of our host country's background as we passed around bottles of sunscreen on the ferry, some of us deploring what the Belgian winter had done to our skin. ("I have been needing a vacation like this. I've never been so white in my life.") We sprawled out on the deck of the boat, covering our eyes with scarves and sunglasses, soaking up the vitamin D we'd been sorely lacking, gulping the crisp ocean air, a nice change from the suffocating humidity and dampness in Belgium.
Occasionally one of us would mumble, "Are we there yet?" only to receive a whole-hearted, "Who cares?" Who cares? We were on a boat in the Aegean Sea. This was the only moment that mattered. We christened ourselves the Boat Boys and Boat Babes, always ready for adventure on the high seas and always looking good while doing it.
The Rotary students on exchange in Belgium had had the choice of an 11-day trip around Italy or an 11-day trip around Greece, occurring simultaneously, forcing a difficult decision between the two. For half of the students, these trips would be the beginning of our last hurrahs—our exchanges would be finished in June or July. We were determined to make the best choice and the most of the experience. Some of us were from Europe and had already seen one country or the other, but most of us were from the US, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico; only sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old, we'd never seen either Mediterranean land.
"Go to Greece," former, older, and wiser students informed us. "You can always go to Italy, but you won’t think to go to Greece on your own." And, here they'd snicker behind their hands or wink, jostling our sides with their elbows, "there are so many more occasions to party." Not a single "oldie," as we called them, had mentioned the island of Hydra. And yet our afternoon on the island is the only full afternoon that distinguishes itself from the rest, radiating bright colors of sun and surf, standing out in the form of a tree, the tree we spotted from the beach, the tree that prompted Joel to turn to the Boat Boys and Babes and say, "We're hiking to that point there."
Donkeys and carts are the official method of transportation on this island of some two thousand residents, the roads being too tight and too few for cars to make sense. After ten or 15 minutes of climbing, we were wishing for a donkey and a cart ourselves, eyeing every equine beast we passed with longing. "Hey, handsome. How'd you like to take me all the way to the top?" I strummed a baglamas I'd bought in Athens the day before, picking out warbling children's songs by ear—"Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," which I changed to "tree," and "Mary Had a Little Lamb," which I changed to "donkey." In my head, I was a shepherdess, calling my flock. I was a troubadour, crooning to long-lost loves. I was—
“—annoying, Anna, please find another song to play.” “‘Freebird!’” someone yelled.
Panting, sweat trickling down the smalls of our backs and onto our upper lips, dragging legs gone lazy from eight months of beer and fries, we paused once or twice on someone's front steps or underneath the shade of a citrus tree sprouting out of the pavement. Water and sandwiches in aluminum foil made the rounds while we took in the whitewashed buildings edged in blue, clumps of yellow buttercups crammed in between the cobblestones and along the ridges of steep hills backing the port town. The olive trees and cacti flourished along the fields, the water lapping the docks and rocking the sailboats and catamarans below, the donkeys dozing in the sun, the ubiquitous cats slipping in and out of the narrow alleys with their eyes always on us, and the tree, our destination, which we reached in an easy half hour.
George pointed. New goal: "We hike over there."
That's how our day unfolded—picking higher and higher points until we'd gone as far as we dared, nervous about the time it would take to get back to the boat. We reveled in the simplicity of our adventure; it was no more complicated than keeping an eye on our watches and picking out the trail to climb. There were no moments of frost-like indecision about diverging roads— we rocketed forth to meet the next broken stone step or boulder, the next moment soaked in sea and sunshine, “carpe-ing the diem,” as one of us put it. Our final summit stretched above the lefthand side of the cove, topped by a bare metal mast. The wind whipped across the hills, dragging salt through our hair, pushing us laughing into one another as we high-fived to our success. We made it down to the boat just in time, cheeks flushed with light sunburn, dozing on one another's shoulders on the ferry back to the mainland.
A month after our trip, the Troika launched their first bailout loan to help Greece out of its debt. A year later, they'd have to give Greece another bailout, due to the deepening of the crisis. Austerity measures plunged increasing proportions of Greece's population into poverty. Two months after our trip, we were all saying goodbyes to our host families, our friends at school, Belgium, each other—we were saying goodbye to a formative year in our lives. When would we be back to Europe? When would we see each other again?
I went to college in the fall and spent my freshman year under a daze of reverse culture shock, staring at the Belgian flag on my wall until I fell asleep, dreaming nightly of my adopted country, wondering when I’d feel again the way I did while on exchange—like every day was a quest, an accomplishment, a triumph.
I found the neck of my baglamas warped a few months after returning to the US. It wouldn't hold its tune and every note sounded false. My dad, a musician, said it wasn't fixable. I think it's in the back of my closet now, warping still.