Greece, Travel and Adventure

Making a Splash

This might not come as a shock to most of you, but I’m not the best driver in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never had a major accident or anything. I just seem to have lots of little issues when it comes to cars (for instance, crashing my beautiful Santa Fe into a lamppost in the middle of the day).

Due to these car problems, I have become a rather reluctant driver. I would much rather take public transportation or let a friend give me a lift home. Another reason I love living here in Greece: I never have to drive. The bus has been my best friend this summer. There’s only one main road through my little corner of the country, so the bus route passes right outside my apartment every hour. And there’s no need to walk to a bus stop; all you have to do is wave at the driver and he’ll stop! (Of course, there is the occasional rude bus man who speeds up when he sees a group of kids wanting to head to work in the morning. Desperate times call for desperate measures– like standing in the middle of the road to make sure he can’t ignore you.)

Motorbikes are also a rather common means of transportation. You can rent one just about anywhere for 15 euros a day. They’re fast, don’t require much fuel, and the breeze on your face feels absolutely wonderful! (I wouldn’t know this, of course, because my mother forbid me to ride one before I left home. Thanks for keeping me safe, mom!) A number of my housemates are rather obsessed with their newly borrowed vehicles and talk about them incessantly. But they are incredibly dangerous– most of the guys who’ve rented them have bumps, bruises, and cuts that serve to reinforce this fact.

Another travel option which can be a little sketchy is hitchhiking. Now, back in the States, there are enough terrifying hitchhiker stories to keep your thumb safely out of sight. Here in Greece, though, it is a fairly common activity. Like I previously said, there is only one main road, so you’re either going up it or down it. About half the population of this area works at Costa Navarino anyways (I might be slightly exaggerating on this point, but sometimes it feels like its true. Every time I go out for dinner in Gialova, I have to stop and say “hi” to a dozen people at the various tavernas and bars!) If you get lucky along the road, you’ll have a ride straight into the heart of the resort. Hitchhiking is the option most kids turn to if they miss the bus. A large group will stagger themselves out along the road in twos and threes and give it their best shot to look harmless and helpless. While there is safety in numbers, occasionally a situation will arise that necessitates venturing out on your own. For example, my roommate, Rima, waved down a guy on a tractor. A TRACTOR. He smiled and indicated that she should climb up the ladder on the side and just hang on!

There is only one type of vehicle that I drive here in Greece, and that is a golf cart (*ahem* golf buggy). I ride them on the course, pull them in at night to be washed, park them in their preordained spots, and pull them out for arriving guests. We have several 4 and 6-seater buggies that we use to transport guests on tours of the golf course or up to the hotel after their round. These larger buggies are also used to ferry players up and down from the range (it is a bit of a walk down to the driving area). During tournaments, shuttling players becomes a full-time endeavor. During my first week at The Dunes Course, I drove the shuttle for the Aegean Pro-Am event. It was a great opportunity to meet and interact with people. This week we had our second major tournament of the summer: the Faldo Series Greek Championship. It was a youth tournament for kids, ages 8-20, playing in their respective age categories. The winners of this tournament qualified to play in the overall Championship, held in Ireland! Once again, I stepped up to the task of shuttling the golfers back and forth from the range. The kids were from all over the place: Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Malta, Scotland, Kenya. There was even one American, who happened to be in Greece on vacation with his family and signed up on a whim. There was a lot of talent in the group. Thomas, who was young enough to play in the tournament, won his division (shooting one over par during the final round). But the overall winner? The fourteen-year-old Alabama boy on vacation with his family. I sat with them at the awards dinner last night and they were thrilled to pieces. Both of his parents are of Greek origin and were so proud to see their son find success in his first European tournament.

But back to my theme. I shuttled these kids for three days straight on a 6-seater buggy. It’s a rather awkward, ungainly vehicle, and the road to the driving range is a packed-sand/gravel track that winds around olive trees down the 18th fairway. Not exactly a delightful combination. To add to the problem, the kids were using golf trolleys on the course and many insisted on bringing them down to the driving range. So here goes this big buggy with trolleys being dragged alongside and off the back. And then there were puddles. One of the sprinklers tends to create a series of small pools just a short way from the driving range. I splashed right through without thinking… Until one girl in a spotless white skirt shrieked! The wheel of her trolley had spun the watery mud right into her lap, as she sat in the back, rear-facing row. I felt absolutely awful (and couldn’t even express my apologies to her because she hardly spoke English).

I thought this was the only disaster. I was wrong.

It wasn’t until the last night, after all the rounds, after all the driving range practice, when I was hanging out with some of the players at the resort, that somebody mentioned my other misdeeds.

We were discussing miscellaneous bits about the tournament, when one boy complained that he had had to spend half an hour cleaning the mud off of his golf bag. Suddenly, I had eight sets of eyes trained on me and the floodgates opened…

“Yeah! You got my pants soaked!”

“I lost two water bottles driving down that hill. They flew off my trolley around a turn.”

“My shoes will never be the same again.”

“I didn’t think we were going to make it down alive!”

Literally, everyone  had something to say about my buggy driving. How was I so oblivious? Well, I was often trying to chat with whoever was sitting next to me. Sometimes communication was difficult because of the language barriers, but I really enjoyed meeting the kids and hearing about their golf game. I was particularly happy when some of the kids I talked to made an effort to sit up front by me; I was rather pleased that they enjoyed my company. So I had to laugh when one of the guys who had been particularly eager to sit by me said…

“Yeah why do you think I always sat up front by you? I wasn’t going to make the mistake of being in the back again!”

We had a good laugh about it and they were all very forgiving. But I think my reputation for disastrous driving has been permanently sealed.

Greece, Travel and Adventure

Oh yeah… I have a day job

While I love telling about my travel adventures and interesting experiences, I feel like I often neglect to highlight a certain large chunk of my life. AKA my job. I am working 40+ hours a week at the Dunes Golf Course at Costa Navarino. The job, or “internship” as we’ve come to call it, has morphed through various stages.

Initially, I was assigned to the Staging Area. Basically, this is where all the carts and bags are taken care of. There are five great guys who work there (six, if you include Thomas) and they all took me under their wing from the moment I arrived. I learned how to hose down golf carts, make bag tags, assemble the clubs in the morning, check reservations, and roll towels. Unfortunately, I turned out to be rather useless. The boys do such a great job taking care of things, that it left me with very little to do. Often I just “manned the station” while they ran around doing tasks. I ended up rolling a LOT of towels.

One day, our head pro, Nicky, asked if I could help him prepare a golf clinic for 100 people. I grabbed a notebook and pen and asked as many questions about the assignment as I could think of. The clinic went quite smoothly– and I became Nicky’s new-found apprentice. I certainly wanted the experience that he could provide in the teaching realm, so it was a win-win situation. I started helping with the Academy kids, monitoring things at the larger golf lesson times, learning the ropes around the Simulator room, etc.

Once the Operations Manager, Cesar, recognized that I was capable of handling groups and had the ability to really think through a project, he sent me half a dozen emails filled with jobs for me to take over. I will be running the weekly Stableford tournament. I’m in charge of golf club inventories and creating templates and checklists for various projects.

My own little “fun project” is on the teaching end of things. Dozens (literally) of staff members have expressed their interest to me concerning the golf facilities. I would really love to get the staff more involved at the golf course… really make a golf environment around here since it is a “golf resort”. So. My plan right now is to provide two golf clinics per week specifically for the Associates of Costa Navarino. I’ll teach them the sport at the most basic level: the rules, the etiquette, grip and posture, the fundamentals of a golf swing, chipping, putting, how to take care of the course and be respectful of other guests, and so on. I am SO excited. I made advertisements for my clinics (complete with our company logos), a long-term plan, and proposed it to my superiors. They loved the idea, so they passed it on to their superiors. And now my little project is stuck in no-man’s-land waiting for someone with total authority to give the “ok”. I’m trying to be patient, but I really want to get this off the ground!

Here’s a little sample of my day-to-day at the golf course. This was my last twelve hours:

7:00 Wake up
7:15 Talk to my parents on Skype (the internet only works in the wee hours of the morning, I’ve discovered)
8:00 Go outside to wait for the bus that is supposed to come at 8…
8:17  Catch sight of the bus and jump into the street to flag it down
8:30 Arrive at Costa Navarino and change into my work clothes in the locker area
8:45 Start staking the golf course for the tournament this week
9:45 Finish with the front nine and hurry back to the staging area to meet the Academy Kids
10:00 Begin with my kiddos at the chipping area
10:55 Special surprise for them today… Their clubs finally came! We give each child a golf bag with a set of clubs, and a tag engraved with their name.
11:00 Take the kids to the 10th tee to play a few holes
11:35 Yell “Ela ela!” to get the boys to hurry up and get to the next hole. We still only manage to play two holes in an hour.
12:00 Send the kids on their way. Head down to the chipping area to clean up the mess
12:30 Grab a quick lunch in the Staff Canteen
1:00 Back on the course with my hazard stakes. It is extremely hot and the ground is impossibly hard. Thank goodness for my sledgehammer!
2:45 Finally finish and collapse in the nice, cool Staging Area. Catch up with the guys for news about the tournament and players
3:15 Head upstairs to see what else needs to be done. Nicky asks me to make some signs for down at the Academy. Petros asks me to finish editing the “Local Rules” sheet I had crafted the day before for the tournament. My friend, Themis, who is in town for a couple days, offers to help and gives me some good pointers (he happens to be one of the pros at Glyfada golf course in Athens!)
4:00 Check with all the bosses to make sure there’s nothing else I can be helpful with. It seems the tournament is under control, so I head down to the driving range
4:15 Michael (our sports marketing guy) comes down to hit balls as well. Themis is giving Thomas a driving lesson (Thomas is playing in the tournament this week. I was just a month too old to make the junior cut!)
4:45 Themis starts working with Michael a bit. We decide we should play a few holes together so Michael, Themis, and I head to 14 (which is right next to the driving range) and tee off
6:15 Birdie at 17 puts me one stroke ahead of Themis. He nearly drives the par-5 eighteenth in two, but misses his birdie putt by an inch. I try not to be too excited about it…
6:30 Head up to Flame (the restaurant at the Clubhouse) for drinks. Talk to some of the people running the Faldo tournament (its always “work” at the golf course)
8:00 Finally head back home. Twelve hours at the course? Sounds pretty amazing to me!

Greece, Travel and Adventure

The Victory

This past week, I had the privilege of playing numerous rounds of golf with a Russian man named Alexander. Known as “the orange bag guy” in the Staging Area, Alex made quite an impression with his tattoos, slick shades, and a fluorescent orange golf bag that would surely make Rickie Fowler proud.

Alexander was a fiercely determined golfer. After years of skydiving and heliskiing, Alex decided to forgo his death wish and engage in a more competitive, intellectual activity. Sixteen months ago, he took his first golf lesson in New Zealand. He came to Costa Navarino with a 16 handicap. By the end of his first week at the resort, he was playing about a 10. Today, he shot two over on the back nine.

Aside from the frustration of a brand, spankin’ new golfer beating me on my own course, I absolutely love playing golf with Alexander. He’s not afraid to speak his mind on any topic—from American foreign policy to his Russian Orthodox faith to the horrors that are soft drinks (he even called my Powerade “poison”). Occassionally after a poor golf shot, he’d let out a roar and a spew of harsh Russian words. I started referring to these moments as “waking the Russian bear”.

He had a million interesting facts tucked away in his brain, but one piece of information struck me in particular. We were discussing the state of golf in Russia and he mentioned that there were only five courses in the entire country. I was shocked! I thought Greece had a low count (they have six courses between the mainland and Crete). Can you imagine, in a country that size? Alexander went on to describe just how exclusive these five courses were; it costs a ridiculous amount to play and a fortune to become a member. Yet top Russian execs are dying to learn the game.

“They go crazy for it,” Alex said as we walked up to the green on a par three. He often referred to his countrymen as “crazy” (he also applied this term liberally to himself).

It seems the Russian temperament pays off, though. Alex knocked his putt in for birdie on that hole.

It was so inspiring to watch his game improve over the last two weeks. He practiced or played every single day of his vacation. Yesterday was supposed to be our last round together, as his flight left this afternoon. As we neared the eighteenth hole, however, he proposed that we play nine holes early this morning. I could hardly say no!

Alexander told me time and again that what he really wanted was “the Victory”. I always had to stifle a laugh, as his Russian accent turned this into “the Wictory“. Call him crazy, but I bet you anything he’ll be a scratch golfer within a year or two. I can truly say that he was victorious on the Dunes Course at Costa Navarino.

To end on another Russian note, our head pro, Nicky, likes to tell an entertaining story about another avid player from Moscow. Nicky was giving the man a lesson in our top-of-the-line golf simulator.

The Russian, gazing at the room filled with screens and cameras, asked, “How much?”

“Oh, about 50,000,” Nicky replied.

“I buy,” the Russian said in his halting, but effective English.

Nicky laughed, “I’m not selling.”

The Russian was not to be dissuaded. “You deliver. Moscow loooong winter.”

Greece, Travel and Adventure

This Is Spartaaaa

Another epic adventure found me on my day off.

I received a text on Monday night from Chase, one of my Air Force friends, saying, “do u want to go to Sparta tmrw?”

I promptly replied, “Umm… yeah! What time?”

Four guys, packed into a military issue van, picked me up early the next morning from the bus station in Kalamata. We set off down the road. And up the road. And around the road. The switchbacks were unreal as we wove through the mountains. I was glad I wasn’t driving, as I peered out the window at the sheer cliffs along the wayside. The road cut through tunnels and narrowed to one lane at times—and this was the main highway!

At last, we arrived in “Sparti”, a very modern city with a lively populous. We found the tiny Spartan museum and saw the famous statue of Leonidas. The guys were intent on getting Spartan helmets, so we hit up the tourist shops nearby. We browsed the rows of trinkets and laughed at all the “300” t-shirts. I did find it ironic that a whole group of grown men wanted to go shopping. I was itching to see ruins!

Now, we had all prepared ourselves for a little disappointment. The Spartans were not known for their constructions or artistic talent. “This is Sparta” is really no more than a pile of rubble, but we had to at least see the place.

I asked the lady at the museum for directions and we quickly came across archaeological signs for the “Ancient Theater”.  That sounded interesting, so we drove up the cobbled road, passing tourists out walking with their cameras and fanny packs. We briefly wondered if we were actually allowed to drive here, then someone in the van shrugged and said, “We’re ignorant Americans”. At the top of the hill, we had to stop for a man crossing the road with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. An excavation was taking place just above the ancient theater. It looked like the remains of an ancient Roman building, but none of the people working seemed able to communicate with us in English.

I jumped into Tour Guide Barbie mode and gave a brief history of the Spartans—from Homeric tales of Menelaus of Sparta to the three Messinian Wars to Lysistrata. My American boys nodded, examining the pieces of pottery that I pointed out on the ground. They were slightly more enthusiastic, though, about taking their picture with the giant Spartan statue at the base of the hill. One of the guys had brought a sword with him, so we were able to do some fairly epic poses.

We ate some delicious pitas and dakos (hard bread doused in olive oil, then covered with a layer of tomatoes and feta) at a taverna in the center square of Sparti, before heading back to the shops in search of moderately priced helmets and swords. Soon, the guys had to get back to base so we hopped in the van for the windy road back (after getting Magnum Bars to cool us down!).

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Sparta.

Greece, Travel and Adventure

Don’t worry, Mom. I’m totally fine!

I have been anticipating this week since the beginning of the summer. One of my best friends, Lisa, was going to be in Greece with the “Wheaton in the Holy Lands” group. We had emailed back and forth for weeks, hoping to coordinate a meeting point and spend some quality time together.

On Tuesday, that idea finally morphed into reality.

The Wheaton crew was going to be in Athens on one of my two days off this week, so I decided to make the trip from Costa Navarino. I had hoped to bum a ride to the city from my friend, but it fell through. So, I began my adventure right away—taking the bus to Kalamata, then to Athens. I arrived in the city at 10:30pm and ran straight to a cab (the bus station is not exactly in the best part of town). The cabbie spoke no English, and did not know the Plaka area at all. He dropped me off right by the Acropolis, but on the very opposite side from Aunt Renee’s apartment. I sped quickly along the dark side streets, until I reached a part of town I was familiar with. I slowed to a stroll and soaked up the feel of the night air and the summer time buzz. So many more people were out eating than when I was here in May, even though it was a Monday night. The summer had begun at last.

I reached the apartment and, after catching up with Stavros at the corner taverna, went upstairs to fix my ‘bed’ (aka a couch with a sheet covering its delicate upholstery). Renee got back late, having attended a Flamenco demonstration. She was full of smiles and crazy stories about getting trapped in a building during one of the protests last week.

At 9am the next morning I checked my email, only to find out that Lisa & co. were headed to the Acropolis Museum. I got dressed and set off up the road. The Museum was just on the other side of the Acropolis from Renee’s apartment, so it wasn’t far. I was so anxious to see my fellow “Wheaties” that I ran almost the whole way.

Bursting through the museum doors, I hardly glanced at the beautiful displays of ancient pottery (rather uncharacteristic of me). The museum layout was open and airy, so I was able to quickly scan for the group of Americans. Not on the first floor. I flew up the steps to the second, and just as I turned the corner, I made eye contact with Lisa.

I squealed rather loudly, apparently, because the entire group turned to look my way. Lisa laughed and we hugged for about five minutes. I said “hi” to all the shocked faces of my colleagues (I knew about half the group and they had no idea I was living in Greece). Their tour guide, Voula, harrumphed and regained the students’ attention. Lisa and I tried to keep our conversation discrete, and I made sure to fill her in on the most important details about the Museum displays we passed.

We finished the Museum, then lunched at Mars Hill. Sitting next to the Acropolis, surrounded by Wheaton students was simply amazing. What really stood out to me was the conversation that immediately started up as we ate our sandwiches. Lisa asked me to clarify what the rioting was about and I started explaining the political and economic situation in Greece. Hardly had I finished a sentence when some of the guys sitting near piped up that they wanted to know more, too. I gave them a brief summary and they then launched into a major discussion on EU policies (like, where does this bailout money actually come from?). One of the boys asked Voula what her opinion on the situation was and she hesitantly gave her Greek perspective.

It was so refreshing to be around Wheaton students again; students who wanted to learn and discuss and understand the world around them. I loved the new ideas and thoughts that they brought to the table (figuratively speaking, as we were eating on the ground at this point).

And it was huge blessing for me spiritually, too. As we sat on Mars Hill, Professor Lauber had us read the passage out of Acts where Paul spoke to the Athenians at the very same place. He then gave a short, theological interpretation of the passage. It was so normal for the group to have their teacher read out of the Bible. In public. Oh how I miss the Wheaton environment.

Voula gave us a quick tour of the Agora before announcing that the students had three hours of free time to roam the streets of Plaka. Lisa and I set off with our friends Bobby, Steven, Erik, and Ryan. The professors had “highly encouraged them to stay away from Syntagma Square”, where all the riots were taking place. So, of course that was topping the list of priorities.

“There’s some nice shops up this way!” I said, pointing up Ermou. Oops—everything on Ermou was closed due to the riots at the top of the street. We came up on a line of policeman, milling around their motorcycles as they waited for the call to come quell the protests. Another street had rows of police, armed with shields and wearing gas masks. A number of Greek citizens were wearing surgical masks. Within a few minutes, we understood why. The wind began to blow against us and we got a full dose of tear gas in our faces.

As it burned our eyes, we decided (in between coughs) that it was probably a good idea to go back. We turned and went back a few blocks, before catching sight of the real protests. Bobby, ever the photographer, took off up the street and climbed onto an iron fence to get a better view. I started taking videos (I’ll post the clips later) and pictures of the intense crowd moments and serious looks from passersby. Parliament was the backdrop, with clouds of smoke and tear gas blotting out the bright blue sky. Hundreds of protestors packed the square, waving signs and chanting. We met a journalist who had painted his face white to keep the tear gas from getting into his pores. He pulled from his pocket a handful of shards from a tear gas grenade. Chunks of asphalt and marble lay sprayed out across the sidewalk and a small fire was burning in the street just ahead.

We were right there.

Eventually, we retreated back down to the market area to shop for souvenirs. The rapid change from chaos to calm was unnerving. We bartered with the shop owners and passed tourists sipping Freddo Cappucinos. Just a few blocks separated the two worlds. I took everyone to my favorite little gelato shop, then it was time to say goodbye. Lisa and I parted mournfully, knowing it would be months until we saw one another again.

I spent the evening with Aunt Renee, snacking on Souvlaki before heading to an outdoor movie theater. I did not realize how close we were to the Acropolis until we climbed up to the rooftop theater and saw the well-lit Parthenon glowing just beyond the giant projector screen. The night air was warm and we settled into the beautiful setting to watch… The Hangover II.

It’s in these moments, where the ancient reaches out to touch the modern, that I find myself truly falling in love with Greece.

Greece, Travel and Adventure

Voidikilia Adventure (Part 2)

I felt quite refreshed after my lunch. In fact, I decided that I was energized enough to continue exploring the hills, rather than heading back towards the beach. I reversed my way down the orange, spraypainted route and took the left-hand fork. Soon, the slope dropped away precariously beneath me and I had to cling to branches to keep from sliding. I also had to duck my head under the giant spider webs woven between the trees. Arachnids the size of Shelob sat waiting for their next meal.

But what lay right below me was worth the steep incline and spider scares. A tiny beach popped into view over the treeline. It was a cove, nestled into the rockface. Green-gray water lapped up along the rocks. It took me a few more minutes to find a way through the thick brush. Once again, I was rewarded with a spectacular sight:

I scrambled down the last of the bank to get to the beach, when suddenly I heard a voice talking. And then a voice answering. There was no one in sight, so I crept forward. And I was rewarded with a not-so-spectacular sight: 5 guys bronzing their behinds on the beach. Before any of them noticed my presence, I scrambled back up into the bushes. So much for my mini-Paradise.

I was about to give up on my quest for archaeological ruins, but there was one more path left to be explored. I traced my steps back and forked the other way this time. Within just a few steps, I spotted an “Archaeological Site” sign, half overgrown by brambles. I jogged up the rest of the hill, with my backpack bouncing against me. A fence had been erected around the site, but part of it at the front had been conveniently rolled back for instant access. Apparently (and thankfully), archaeological sites did not attract men in their birthday suits. I set my pack down and studied the stones spread out before me.

The area had not been dug up in quite some time. Weeds grew between all the wall structures. The outline of the tomb, however, was very distinctive.

After successfully visiting all the sites on this side of the ridge, I realized that I still had a lot more to explore…. another day (such as: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5LlnS0Wfe0). Back down at the beach, I was relieved to exchange my briar-covered tennis shoes for flip-flops. The far side of the lagoon looked rather empty, so I headed off in that general direction. Halfway around the bay, however, I ran into two girls from my house! They invited me to join them, and I readily agreed. We lounged around for the next six hours, lathering on tanning oil and jumping in the water when the sun became unbearable.

I was not entirely at peace until I pulled a book out to read. Aunt Renee had loaned me a few books that she thought would be of particular interest to me. On this particular day, I had brought along Pausanius’ Guide to Greece. While I found the writing of this Ancient Greek geographer and historian rather dry, there was an amazing chapter on Messinia. The very last page of the section details “a cave inside the city, where they say Nestor and even before him Neleus used to herd their cattle…” (p.191). The commentary on this paragraph is even more interesting: “The cave is not far below the castle on the northern slopes. Nestor’s son’s tomb must be the small Mycenaean tholos tomb nearby, above the tiny harbour called Boidokoilia, where traces of worship in the classical period were found…”

Spending the day relaxing AND exploring ancient history= Priceless.

Greece, Travel and Adventure

Voidokilia Adventure (Part 1)

Voidokilia. I had heard the word dozens of times. It had taken me two weeks to figure out that it was the name of a specific beach in the area. People are rather picky about their beaches here. Every turn of the coastline brings about different wave patterns and wind conditions. Some beaches have bars and lounge chairs, while others are more private and serene. Voidokilia was in the latter category.

Today was my day off, so I decided I needed to check this place out. I needed a day to relax at the beach, but I also wanted a bit of an adventure. I asked my coworkers, Saba and Thomas (Thomas is back in town!), to drop me off on their way to work. The walk was a little farther than I bargained for, and I got a little bored– so I decided to film my adventure…

(I just found out that this blog site does not support movies. Bummer. Oh well! I’ll just put them up on youtube for you)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JD1RGcIlVgo

I walked through acres of olive groves and orange trees. A branch loaded with apricots hung temptingly over the road, but I knew there was a small market waiting just up ahead.

A very small market. But I was able to pick up a large bottle of water, some of those wonderful apricots, and a bag of fresh chocolate croissants. I continued up the road, cheered by the signs listing Voidokilia as 1000m, 800m, 400m… Why do meters feel so much longer than yards?

Just as I hit the “Voidokilia, 50m” sign (nearly an hour after I’d begun my trek), I noticed a road going up the side of the hill.

The beach was just around the corner, but I thought that maybe there would be a neat view from the top of the road. And I knew that once I made it to the beach, I would never want to leave! It was a short hike up the hill and then…

The colors are really terrible on my camera. I wish you could really see the brilliance of the water. The sea here has more shades of blue than I have ever seen before. Light blue at the tideline, then dipping to a deep navy as it gets a little deeper, then an immense span of turquoise. I headed back down towards the beach, but got distracted by another sign:

Archaeology??! Okay. I gotta go check that out. [Side note: “B”s are pronounced like “V”s in Greek. Thus the difference in spelling of Voidokilia]

I headed up another sandy path, which soon forked. I went to the right. Another fork. Uh-oh. Where was I going? I spotted an orange dot spray-painted on a rock and decided that if somebody had bothered to mark it, then there must be something in that direction! I headed off, uphill again, following the randomly marked rocks. Until I saw a little white house. Somebody lives up here? I wondered. As I got closer to it, I realized it was actually a tiny church, surrounded by a tiled patio and white pillars. A bell, rusted with age, was fixed to one corner. I slid the latch on the door and was stunned by the decor. Icons and candles filled the small room.

The moment moved me. I was standing in this old church, in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I couldn’t help but think, The Lord is so Good. He meets us right where we are and transforms our awe into glory and praise. I knelt in the middle of the room and just said a small prayer of thanks.

A little while later, I stood up and took a closer look at the paintings and beautifully crafted decorations. Several candles were nestled in a box on the table. I was not raised in the Greek Orthodox tradition, but I knew that candles were lit as a symbol of prayer. A box of matches was in a nearby corner, so I lit a candle and thought of my grandfather back home. He has been growing weaker and weaker this year, but I was able to spend two wonderful weeks with him before I left for Greece. I love my Papa and I dearly miss him.

I went back outside and felt the breeze pick up. My stomach was starting to grumble, so I took a seat and unpacked my small lunch. The apricots tasted like they had just been picked this morning and the water was still cool. I leaned back against the side of the church and soaked it all in: the mountains, the ocean, the sweet taste of fruit, the old bell, and the sense that God was truly in this place.

But that was not the end of my adventures for the day! There is much more to come…

Greece, Travel and Adventure

The PR Girl

“Kalispera! Have you ever played golf?”

The old man furrowed his bushy brows and walked quickly in the opposite direction. Another couple was heading my way, so I tried again.

“Ya sas! Ti kanete? Would you like to take a golf lesson?”

The husband laughed nervously, continuing to walk into the hotel. After he was safely through the glass doors he yelled back, “What, are you going to beat me with that thing?”

I looked at the golf club in my hands, wondering if I really did present a threatening image to the incoming guests. You see, today was our test-run promotional setup at the Westin lobby. I was standing just outside the reception foyer with a golf bag, trolley, and bucket of balls. A glass table held brochures and tees (and several large rocks since it started to get a bit windy!). I was assigned to man the station during the afternoon, as guests checked in for their weekend stay. The thinking was, “we need to be proactive about getting guests to come to the golf course!” So I was doing my best to present golf as an exciting attraction.

The thing is, I terrified most of the Greek vacationers. Not only is golf a completely alien sport to them, but I was also an American who could not communicate with them in their own language. Kids hid behind their parents, even after they saw my bucket of shiny white golf balls. Men frowned. Women smiled hesitantly but did not respond to any of my attempts at cordiality. I simply wasn’t getting through to the Greeks.

Other foreigners, I had no problem with! A family from Germany grabbed a handful of brochures. A couple from Switzerland thought it would be fun to try a lesson together. One young man, being rather resourceful, calculated how many people he needed to gather for a group lesson in order for it to be cheaper than an individual one. Several of the resort staff stopped to stare as I took a few practice swings (I promise that no windows—or guests—were harmed in this process). Three guys from Amsterdam were hesitant at first, but warmed up to the idea after I showed off the new TaylorMade rental clubs and chatted with them about beautiful golf courses. I handed them brochures, but ten minutes later one of them came back… for my phone number.

Apparently I was successful on a number of accounts.

But it is the Greek population that I truly want to reach out to. This is their land, their resort. It is their beautiful, immaculate, panoramic golf course. Tomorrow, I will be back at my station during peak check-in hours. And I think I have a clear goal to work towards this summer!

Greece, Travel and Adventure

Air Force Ones

I have a serious problem. Apparently, nobody ever bothered to teach me the meaning of “day off”. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was back at the golf course on Tuesday, teaching my coworker, Thimios, how to play golf. I was totally blown away by his game—he’s already outdriving me!! (My bitterness about this has receded enough to where I can be proud of my new-found protege.)

I spent the rest of the afternoon at Sugar Café with my roommate and several new Greek friends. We drank freddo cappuccinos and discussed the California hip-hop scene. It was quite relaxing.

Eventually, Rima and I went back to our apartment to cook some dinner. We finished our typical pasta meal with a bowl of fresh fruit, topped with greek yogurt and honey. Probably my favorite sweet treat of this trip so far!

We really wanted to celebrate our first night off, though, so we headed out to join our housemates at a beach bonfire. Well, bonfire is probably not the right word. Firewood is rather hard to come by, so they were burning cardboard, beer cans, and sticks. There was a good group of our housemates outside, sitting on rocks and white plastic chairs that glowed under the light of the full moon. Somebody had an ipod playing music in the background; it was a funky mix of American and Euro pop tunes. Rima and I danced around the fire, singing along to Akon and Rihanna. I busted out some rap during an Eminem song. Apparently foreigners do not set the bar very high for rapping– they were incredibly impressed with my skills! We laughed the night away, then ran back to the apartment when our eyelids started to feel heavy. Some of the Romanian boys asked us to come to the beach with them the next day and we said “of course!”

I woke up early, hardly daring to sleep in on my first day off without a golf course in sight. Fixing a bowl of cereal and grabbing my Kindle, I headed outside to enjoy the morning air and my first chance to read in two weeks. I managed to get through about ten pages when my phone rang.

“Hello, Debby,” a familiar voice greeted me.

“Oh hi, Nicky,” I replied, wondering what our golf professional could want from me this morning.

“Your American friends are here again and they were looking for you. But today is your day off?” he asked, prompting me slightly.

I scrambled to think of which Americans he was referring to. “You mean the air force guys?!”

“Yes, they are here, but I told them you were off.”

“Oh no… Nicky, please tell them I’m sorry. I would really love to play with them again, though.”

I was seriously bummed when I hung up the phone. Here I was, relaxing and waiting to go to the beach. But these Americans, who hardly ever had a day off, really wanted to play golf with me! I picked up my book, but my heart was not into it any longer. It was all of ten minutes before I called Nicky back.

“I’m taking the bus, I’ll be there soon.”

I threw on my golf clothes and dashed out the door.

When I arrived at the course, Nicky pulled up in his golf cart and told me to hop on. He informed me that the guys had just teed off the second hole and were excited I was coming. I met them on the tee box and Nick (one of the three I’d met last week) welcomed me with a big smile and told me I was his partner for their two-man best-ball tournament. They had brought nine air force men out to play, so there was a whole crew of Americans hacking it up on the course!  Everybody was feeling great; the guys had picked up some “road wine” on the way here (road wine (n)- wine pressed by local farmers and sold for $2 a liter along the roadside; on occasion it tastes fairly passable, other times it smells vaguely of formaldehyde) and were passing it around. I tried it as “part of the experience” (and I guarantee it’s an experience I will never have again).

We were playing in a group of six and thus played unbelievably slow. We finished the front nine in about three hours, stopped for a long lunch, then made our way over to the bag nine. Nick and I were tied with Kris and Ryan for first place, so the heckling soon began.

“Wow Ryan, I didn’t know Air Force Ones were considered golf shoes,” Nick teased. [Note: In all fairness, the guys really did try to scrape together some legitimate golf attire.]

“Hey Kris,” Ryan said smugly, “what did we have on that last hole? Was it a par? No wait… I think it was a birdie.”

“The hole is THAT way, actually,” I said after someone hit it off the toe of their club. Oops… guess I got into the competitive mode myself!

It came down to the very last hole. Nick and I, being such kind, selfless people, let Kris and Ryan win the round. I think a rematch is in the near future, though. We celebrated at a lovely Italian restaurant just down the road, overlooking the sea. About a dozen pizzas were ordered and scarfed down in a matter of minutes. Our laughter rang out into the night air, causing a number of locals to roll their eyes at the crazy Americans. I enjoyed it so much, though. It was my first meal here where everybody shared the same language, the same culture. Occasionally back in the States, I’d complain that Americans didn’t have a culture of their own. But being away from home has made me realize just how much Americans do share. And a night gathered around pizza, bragging about golf shots, and quoting “drinking out of cups” was about the most authentic American evening I could have asked for.

Sounds like a day off to me!

Greece, Travel and Adventure

Home on the Range

The minute I think things couldn’t get more interesting around here, I am proved seriously wrong. Every morning I get to the golf course with very little knowledge of what the day will hold. I like working in the mornings; we pull out all the golf carts (ahem… buggys) we’ll need that day and make sure they’re all cleaned and prepped with golf tees and water bottles. The sun is just rising at this time over the mountains and the morning air is perfectly crisp. Most of our tee times are in the morning, as people prefer to avoid the heat of the day. We’re pretty busy at the ‘staging area’ until 9:30 or so.

Sunday, I was checking some of the reservations when I looked up and saw a young boy, dressed in preppy golf attire, standing at our cart shop window.

“Kalimera,” I said, trying to figure out who he was.

He wished me good morning and then started speaking rapidly in Greek. I had no clue what he was saying, but when he pointed in the direction of the driving range and Academy, I realized that today was the day our pro coached the Scholarship kids. There are ten Greek youngsters who were invited by The Captain (the man behind Costa Navarino) to take lessons and learn the game of golf. Nicky (our pro) had asked me earlier in the week if I would help with the teaching clinics and I had readily agreed. More kids began to show up so I grabbed my clubs and joined them at the range. All ten of them showed up (some more promptly than others) and immediately began pounding balls. I could tell by their form that Nicky had been working with them on all the basics. I walked up and down the row, introducing myself and getting to know their names and swings. There are three girls in the group: Artemis, Dimitra, and Konstandia. They were wonderfully enthusiastic about the sport. After a bit of range time, Nicky and I took the kids out to the golf course. I played about three holes with the girls and was so impressed by their attitude. They encouraged each other, took pride in a good shot, shrugged off a bad one, and kept plugging away. At the end of the session, I told them to come back a practice with me during the week. I’m really looking forward to spending more time working with them this summer!

I changed out of my work clothes and into some preppy golf attire for my tee time at 12:20 with Mrs. Pappas. She was visiting the resort for the week and Nicky proposed I help her with her game a bit. We played together on Saturday afternoon and I was thrilled to learn that she was from New York! Mrs. Pappas had set up another tee time for the following afternoon, so here we were, ready to go out on the course again. The wind was vicious, but we did our best and managed to finish the last few holes very strong. She invited me to join her for lunch and we ate salad and fresh fruit at a lovely little poolside restaurant. While we were relaxing after the round, I got a call from my boss (well, one of several bosses), Cesar, asking if I could play with another threesome later that afternoon. Well, that was an easy answer!

Before I headed back to the course, however, Mrs. Pappas gave me a quick tour of the resort property. Now, you have to understand, Costa Navarino is immense. There are two resort properties: the Westin (more family oriented) and the Romanos (the ultimate in luxury). Several of the Pro-Am events had been hosted on the Westin side of things, but I had yet to really explore the Romanos. Mrs. Pappas walked me around the pool, down to the Agora (where most of the restaurants and shops are located), past the open-air breakfast area that literally sits on top of a rock pool, up the marble staircase, past the Anazoe spa, and back to the grand front entryway (where the valet ran to get our… golf cart). Completely amazing.

To finish off my day, I had one last unexpected surprise. The group that I was to be playing golf with that evening consisted of three guys from the American Air Force who were stationed in Kalamata, as part of their tour of the Mediterranean. I was introduced to Brad, Nick, and Steve, and we set off to the first tee. They were totally thrilled to be playing golf on their day off (none of them had had any free time in months). I was tired and they were rusty, so the overall skill level for our group was not very high, but they were enthralled with the course nonetheless. Personally, sunset is my favorite time to play… everything looks photoshopped into perfection. Nick was from Oklahoma and had a great southern accent. Brad rode in my cart and told me about his family, especially his daughter who is a 12-yr-old golf phenom. Steve was off searching in the shrubs for his golf balls most of the time, but always had a big grin on his face. Later, I learned that he was a Colonel.

It was getting dark just after we finished the front nine, but they wanted to try and play a few more. We skipped around the back nine to the holes that I thought they’d enjoy most (12 with its stellar ocean view, 15 with the archaeological excavations, and 18 with its awesome walk up to the clubhouse). By the time we finished up 18, the sun had set and the sky was nearly black. I’m pretty sure the Air Force guys would have continued playing with flashlights if they could.

Unfortunately, having so much fun wears me out. I ended up sleeping 14 hours last night. So glad to finally have a day off. What did I do on my day off, you might ask? What every normal, American would do– I played a round of golf!

*Note: My poor camera just can’t do this golf course justice. I’m going to start posting a few “higher quality” photos for you to enjoy– courtesy of Costa Navarino’s marketing team.