Amorgos

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Trying To Leave Amorgos On April 1

The year is 1985, the year of my first visit to Amorgos. I arrived on the Marianna. Trips on modern Greek ferries are, in good weather, a pleasure. A trip on the Marianna in any weather was an experience, and in bad weather an adventure.

Marianna was the lifeline for the small islands between Naxos and Amorgos: Iraklia, Schinoussa, Koufonissi, and Donoussa; and even for Amorgos itself, for most of the day-to-day needs of the islanders were transported by the Marianna and not by the few large ferries that occasionally called. Even today, the name Marianna conjures up an image of a tossing boat in a stormy sea; and a small cabin down below, the only inside sitting area for passengers, redolent of cats and fish. Marianna (she had the appearance of being a retired Scandinavian trawler) was small by comparison with Piraeus bound ships, even by the standards of 1985 when ferries were far smaller than they are today.

Most of the older supply boats (like the Marianna, and the Kamelia from Paxos) have retired for good - or have perhaps taken up a new career in the third world. What they lacked in speed and comfort they made up for in character, and were always laden with supplies.

Fewer boats called in at the small islands than today. Contact with the other islands and the mainland was infrequent. My first trip on the Marianna gave me an insight into the isolation experienced by the inhabitants of these small islands. In 1985, I reached Amorgos after an eight-hour trip on the Marianna. Particularly memorable were the stops at the smaller islands of Iraklia, Schinoussa, Koufonissi, and Donoussa. I remember the look of glee on the face of one woman islander when she took delivery of a new broom, and a young girl sitting by the harbour avidly poring over a newly delivered newspaper. Today package tours are available to these islands, but ten years ago they were less visited. Along with the rest of the passengers, I gaped in amazement at the two tourists who landed on one of the islands. Not a single tourist embarked or disembarked at any of the other small islands. I thought of the small islands as being very primitive; no running water, no electricity; no tourist accommodation; no tavernas, no shops. How would those two manage? My image of the islands was coloured by what I had read in the few guidebooks to the Cyclades that were then available. Inevitably, even the best guidebook is out of date by the time it appears on bookshop shelves. It may be that those two did not have such a hard time as I imagined. Now in 1999 all those small islands are well on the tourist map.

There were few passengers on board Marianna. Most of my fellow travellers were sacks of oranges and potatoes (these grow on Naxos in abundance). When I reached Amorgos, I was to find few oranges, or indeed any fruit, on sale. A young Israeli couple caught the first boat away from Amorgos when they found that there were no tomatoes on sale. Before long, I would be craving for a Naxos orange, big, juicy and melting.

I soon felt that I had been on Amorgos for ages, as I recognised so many of the people that I met when I strolled around; the crew of the Marianna, the regulars at To Mouragio taverna; other tourists.

I planned to leave Amorgos on the first of April. There was a strong wind blowing as I walked round the bay to the harbour for the Marianna's 6 a.m. departure. The road round the large bay of Katapola has now been widened; in 1985 the road was fairly narrow, and I had to make a strong effort to plant my feet firmly on the ground to avoid being blown out to sea. I weighed less in those distant days, both body-wise and luggage-wise. In those early innocent days, I assumed that ferries always ran; I had never heard of a ferry being cancelled because of bad weather. The Marianna being such a small tub, she was far more likely to be cancelled than a larger ferry.

The crew of the Marianna, and a handful of passengers, were all in the taverna, To Mouragio, drinking cups of strong Nescafe and passing around the communal can of evap. milk. The Marianna was moored nearby. Everyone was laughing. Six o'clock came and went. We all carried on supping coffee. "Big wind, no Marianna," said one of the crew. We tourists laughed, for it was April 1st. Half an hour and several coffees later, I realised that there was no joke - the trip was cancelled because of the storms. The Mariannawas not leaving that day because of the storm. I went back round the bay to my room. I bumped into my landlady in the kitchen, and gestured to her that the sea was rough and the Mariannanot running. "Ochi Marianna," I said, almost exhausting my entire Greek vocabulary.

The next day the Mariannal eft, on another windy morning. I suspect that today even a large modern ferry would be unlikely to travel in such weather. The wide bay of Katapola was (relatively speaking) fairly calm. I was sitting on a lifebelt box on the top deck, near the front of the ship. Two German girls who had been staying at the same rooms were the only other passengers up there. As we pulled out of the bay the wind and spray lashed across my face. It was like being hit by the tail of a large fish. I learnt the hard way that in a storm, the bow is the most exposed part of the ship. The sea was rough, really rough, boiling and seething. It was too rough to stand upright. I lurched towards the centre of the deck. It was too windy to risk the stairs down below. The only seats up there were plastic seated metal leg jobs. Untethered, they flew around the deck. I lay down on the deck, with my back against a solid surface, probably the funnel. Not that I felt seasick. By lying flat, I felt that I was less likely to be blown overboard. I dug my fingernails into the gaps between the boards on the deck (if I had let go I would have been a woman overboard) and my feet fended off low flying chairs. More recently, on modern ferries, I have been surprised to the trend of replacing fixed seats with free-standing seats. Where do people sit during a storm? Not everyone likes to be cooped up inside a ship, even during a storm.

The journey was rough until we reached Aegiale. In those days my knowledge of the layout of the Cyclades was not as good as it is now. In 1985, I did not know that the sequence of the journey was Katapola, Aegiale, Donoussa, Koufonissi, Schinoussa, Iraklia, and Naxos. If there was a written timetable anywhere, I had not seen it. All I knew was that Naxos was my intended destination, and the last port of call. I did not know that the crossing was likely to be rough until Koufonissi, after which we would be more or less sheltered in the lee of Naxos.

I thought, should I get off at Aegiale? The only alternative I had to staying on the Marianna was to get off at Aegiale, and catch a larger ferry, the Naxos. The Naxos was due to leave Katapola on the next day or day after I forget which. I could not stay any longer, as I had to get back to Athens to catch my plane. Innocent that I was again, I never imagined that I would one day miss my flight home because of a storm! As the Naxos did not call in at Aegiale, I would have to get myself back to Katapola. In those days, the track from Chora to Aegiale was newly dug, and rough and stony. I had not seen any vehicle on it, so I would have to walk from Aegiale to Katapola. I had walked from Katapola to Aegiale, without luggage and did not fancy doing the journey in the reverse direction with luggage. I realised the problems faced by early travellers to Greece, who did not have the benefit of the internal combustion engine. I decided to stay on board the Marianna. The next hour or so was very rough, then the sea calmed down. I had brought a pot of Total yogurt with me, and ate a late breakfast. The Marianna had a kitchen for the crew, but no refreshment facilities of any sort for passengers.

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