I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

B.C., D.C., Arcadia and Ancient Red Bull

Walking the backstreets of a Greek town, I heard music with a special twang. It sounded like someone was strangling a yodeler. Greeks tap their feet to relatively exotic music that comes with a strong whiff of the Middle East. The 19th-century writer who noted that Greeks can’t dance to European music and vice versa was probably on to something.

In many ways, Greece marks the cultural divide between east and west. And Greece, the only country in the European Union not connected with the rest of the EU, is the only country in the EU with its own distinct script on Euro currency.

Driving into the heart of the Peloponnese peninsula, we passed into Arcadia. Our guide explained, “This was the ultimate boonies in the ancient mind: land of Pan, fauns dancing in glades, Virgil, Ovid and scenes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

History has been hard on Arcadia. One town spelled out 12.13.43 on its hillside — the day all its men were killed by Nazis. Nearby, in the remote town of Dimitsana, men were generally spared from the draft because of their prized ability to make gunpowder — a complex family recipe of ground-up goat droppings, charred twigs and lime.

It’s a rough land with simple wines. A local vintner said there’s no fine $50 bottle of Greek wine. I asked him, “What if you want to spend $30?” He said, “Fine, you can buy three $10 bottles.” You drink Greek wines quickly — whites within a year, reds within two or three. In Greece for wine, I go with the rotgut — retsina(it makes you want to sling a patch over one eye and say “arghh”). But I prefer the good local beer and the cloudy, anise-flavored ouzo.

If a tourist complains about the food, it’s “fish with heads and the same salads every day.” I like fish with heads — squeeze lemon luxuriously all over it and eat everything but the wispy little tail. And the same salad every day reminds me how every day I wish the USA valued taste over looks in its produce. An ethic that I find makes eating feel right is to eat things that are in season and grown locally.

Visiting ancient Olympia is a Peloponnesian pilgrimage for modern tourists. And it was a Mecca of ancient Greece as well. All wanted to come here once in their lifetime. The ancient Olympic Games were more than an athletic fest. They were a tool to develop a Panhellenic identity.

Every four years, leading citizens from all corners would assemble here. Athletes — aristocratic youth — would stay here to train for months, brainwashed without knowing it to be Greeks. There were no losers…except quitters and cheaters. (Drinking animal blood — the Red Bull of the day — was forbidden. There were actually official urine drinkers to test for this ancient equivalent of steroids.)

The modern games are still all about people coming together. The five rings emblem represents the five continents. (While the USA recognizes seven continents, the rest of the world — which considers the Americas one and Antarctica not one — counts only five.)

Ancient games were men only. Women weren’t allowed in our modern games either until only 1928. In 1936, Hitler’s Nazi Olympic committee designed the first ritual torch lighting — which we enjoy essentially unchanged to this day. In 1936, they ran the torch from Athens to Berlin. On March 24, 2008, the torch will be lit at ancient Olympia and begin its journey all the way to China.

There’s a lot of B.C. stuff here in Greece. Pretty soon B.C. can become D.C. On nameless hills, you’ll pass stony remnants of people from centuries…D.C. Just because something’s B.C. doesn’t mean it’s got to be seen. Be selective in your ancient sightseeing.

Cockcrow on Hydra

The island of Hydra (two hours south of Athens by hydrofoil) has one town and no real roads. There are no cars and not even any bikes. Zippy taxi boats charge from the brisk little port to isolated beaches and tavernas.

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Beasts of burden climb stepped lanes sure-footedly — laden with everything from sandbags and bathtubs to bottled water. Behind each mule-train works a human pooper-scooper. I imagine picking up after your beast is required. Locals like to tell of movie stars who make regular visits. Understandably, each evening ritzy yachts stern tie to concrete piers, off-loading their smartly dressed fun-seekers. The island is so quiet that, by midnight, they seem to be back on board watching movies. Sitting on a ferry cleat the size of a stool, I scan the harbor — with big flat screens flickering from every other yacht. The island once had plenty of spring water. Then, about 200 years ago, an earthquake hit and the wells went dry…a bad day for Hydra. Today Hydra’s very hard water is shipped in from wetter islands. No wonder showering (lathering and rinsing) was such an odd frustration. The island is a land of tiny cats, tired burros and roosters with big egos. While it’s generally quiet, dawn teaches visitors exactly the meaning of “cockcrow.” Cockcrow marks the end of night with more than a distant cock-a-doodle-doo. It’s a dissonant chorus of cat fights, burro honks and what sounds like roll call at an asylum for crazed roosters. With that out of the animal population’s system, the island slumbers a little longer. While tourists wash ashore with the many boats — private and public — that come and go, few venture beyond the harborfront. Leaving our hotel, I was heading downhill. Anne diverted me uphill and our small detour became a delightful little odyssey.

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While I had no intention of anything more than a lazy stroll, one inviting lane after another drew us up, up and up to the top of the town. Here, poor shabby homes enjoyed grand views, tethering tired burros seemed unnecessary, and island life trudged on, oblivious to tourism. Over the crest, we followed a paved riverbed, primed for the flash floods that fill village cisterns each winter, down to the remote harbor hamlet of Kamini — where 20 tough little fishing boats jostled within a breakwater. Children jumped fearlessly from rock to rock to the end of the jetty, ignoring an old man rhythmically casting his line. Two rickety woven straw chairs and a tipsy little table were positioned just right, overlooking the harbor. The heavy reddening sun commanded “sit.” We did, sipping an ouzo and observing a sea busy with taxi boats, charging “flying dolphin” hydrofoils connecting this oasis with Athens, freighters — castles of rust lumbering slowly along the horizon — and a cruise ship anchored like it hasn’t moved in weeks. Ouzo, my anise-flavored drink of choice on this trip, and my ziplock baggie of pistachios purchased back in town was a perfect compliment to the setting sun. Blue and white fishing boats jived with the chop. I’d swear the cats — small, numerous as the human residents of this island, and oh-so-feminine — were watching the setting sun with us. My second glass of ouzo comes with someone’s big fat Greek lipstick. Wiping it off before sipping seems to connect me with the scene even more. There’s a fun little tension between being “in the moment” and playing with my camera as the constantly changing scene calls for shot after shot. An old man flips his worry beads, backlit by golden glitter on the harbor. Three men walk by – each remind me of Spiro Agnew. As darkness settles, our waiter — who returned here to his family’s homeland after spending 20 years in New Jersey, where he “never took a nap” — brings us a candle. The soft Greek lounge music tumbling out of the kitchen mixes everything like an audio swizzle stick. I glance over my shoulder to the coastal lane home…thankfully, it’s lamp lit. Walking home under a ridge lined with derelict windmills, I try to envision Hydra before electricity, when springwater flowed and the community was powered by both wind and burros. At the edge of Hydra town, we pass the “Sunset Bar,” filled with noisy cruise-ship tourists and were thankful we took the uphill lane way back when. The next night, a brisk 15-minute walk rewarded us with the same Kamini harbor magic from the same woven straw seats — worry beads, romantic cats, Greeks good at naps and the busy sea…golden at sunset. Hydra — so close to Athens yet a world away — is a new favorite for me.

Steppenwolf and a Smaller Dollar

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Halfway through our Best of Greece tour, we finally had our break-a-plate-on-the-wall night. Actually, no plates were tossed. But after serving grapes for dessert, the waitresses suddenly became belly dancers and the cook became Mr. DJ — sitting at an impressive musical command center. We were pretty loosened up by the best red wine we’ve had yet. Then they threw napkins into the air and we all went crazy — enjoying a mix of “snap your fingers and shake your shoulders” Greek, disco, “Brick House,” and old rock. “Born to Be Wild” got all 24 of us up and dancing — including two of our ladies, who joined the belly dancers literally on the bar. Clearly, we are a Steppenwolf-vintage group — tight as ever on the air guitars. Real orange juice is rare for some reason in Greece…but oranges are not. Each night, I peel and section an orange — for a dry and crispy yet juicy treat upon waking. Our driver, George, is a hit with the group. On free nights, he joins the gang and even though he speaks only a little English, the group loves his company. With him at the restaurant, they are sure to order the best food.

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Colin, our guide, is so interesting that I’m not getting good writing time on the bus. Nice problem. Like a hunter finally spotting the illusive albino leopard, I found a grandmotherly woman in black with a cane stepping into the whitewashed church. I don’t like it when tourists photograph nuns in France “in their traditional costumes” in the same way I don’t feel right stalking the bent old women in mourning black dresses here in Greece. In Greece, the days of old women in black seem to be passing. While you still see them, they just don’t do miserable like they used to. And photographing them, you feel you’re catching an anomaly, rather than the village norm. Retsina — the local two buck chuck with pine tar — is another victim of the new Greek affluence. While boutique retsina is made with subtler flavors, Greeks just can’t get their head around paying $8 for a bottle of retsina. It is supposed to be $2 per bottle rotgut. When you drink it one night, you smell it in your sweat the next day. I miss it. Tonight I plan to find a bottle and give our entire group a swig at dinner. I was mourning the dearth of backgammon games too. I see the dusty old boxes in tavernas, but rarely anyone actually playing them. Then, in Gythio, Anne and I wandered to the far end of the harbor to a bar with the all-weather sofas overlooking the water and young people were enjoying a happy hour while playing backgammon. The happy chatter of tiny dice on wood brought back good memories of old-time Greece and Turkey as it still lives in my mind.

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Affluent and comfortable as the new Greece is, it still has its romantic/shabby patina. Peloponnese hotels can be a bit rough on the edges. Bathroom fans rattle noisily. The faucet on our sink has a tiny leak, so when I turn it on, a string of stray water arcs all the way to the shower. The spill is harmless, since bathrooms seem designed to flood. If shower curtains direct water at all, it’s often away from the actual shower stall. Each bathroom has a drain in the shower as well as a drain on the main floor. In general in the Peloponnese, we’re asked not to put toilet paper into the toilets, but into the garbage can instead. Imagining dirty TP from previous guests finding its way into the bin, I find fumbling with the little plastic steps to open the garbage lids annoying. A euro now costs over $1.40. Our smaller dollar has suffered a greater fall during this presidency than any other. I know what I think is the reason. I asked a Greek in a bar for his explanation. With a shrug that said “it’s elementary,” he answered, “The only people fighting President Bush’s war are the soldiers. You can’t pay for a war with tax cuts. With your growing deficit, nobody wants your dollar. So it is worth not so much these days.” He added that Greeks — like all Europeans — spend a tiny fraction of what Americans do for their military. Showing more attitude, he said that he believed that the wealthy Americans who profit from the war are those receiving the tax cuts and that this made no sense to him. He expected the dollar’s slide to continue. He finished declaring that the American consumer now has about the same buying power as a Greek one. Then he paid for my ouzo. Greeks love talking politics. All over Europe, I find people are reluctant to bring up politics with a visiting American–out of politeness. But if you choose to start the conversation, you’ll often get an earful. It can be offensive to find people as headstrong as we are–but whose opinions are shaped by different forces/perspectives/news/propaganda. These days, for an American, bar talk overseas can be particularly poignant.

Dimwits and Greek Flames

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In late August, gale force winds were stoking and hurling fires all over a parched Greece. Sensational TV coverage wrongly reported that the museum at Olympia was in flames. The government, in “heck-of-a job Brownie” mode and with an election approaching in just days, was in disarray. The water dropped from planes and helicopters vaporized long before it reached any flames. While environmentalists argued against huge, military land movers cutting firebreaks, others wondered angrily where was the military? Adding to local frustration was news that the European Union had granted Greece 24 million euros ($35 million) for fire prevention purposes that had never been claimed. Gale force winds, combined with a hot dry spell, caused the fires to dance crazily in unpredictable directions. Flames were literally blown off trees, leaving them looking like Vermont in the autumn, only to travel miles away in minutes and burn another area entirely to the ground. There are all sorts of explanations for the many fires. One of the biggest theories was that they were started accidentally by the stove of a woman with Alzheimer’s. Or that developers–in order to circumvent local building codes–became arsonists. They started fires and since they suddenly had no forests that needed protecting were free to build. A dimwitted teenager seeing video coverage of planes bombing flaming forests with water wanted a closer look so he set a fire of his own — only adding to the disaster. It was a challenging time for Greece. Back in Seattle, my key staff people and I huddled at my desk determining how we as a tour company would react to the horrible fires. We diverted two tours out of the southern end of the Peloponnese and hoped/assumed things would get under control for later departures.

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That “later departure” is the tour I’m on now. For lunch just the other day, our group sat on a chalet-like balcony deep in the mountains of the Peloponnese with a vast view of what should have been a green forest — all was brown, parched and burnt off. The family serving us clearly appreciated us putting up with the smell of wet ashes to enjoy their cooking and hospitality. Driving through the charred wasteland, our lunch at the family-run hotel (which we were told was saved only by its swimming pool), and wandering under hills of blackened trees as we explored the ruins of Olympia has been a poignant part of our tour. I can feel the depth of the local heartache as we ride through the fire zone only indirectly…by the wide-eyed look of concern and sadness on our bus driver, George. The Greeks are positive about their recovery, saying the only thing irreplaceable was the 63 lives lost. (The biggest loss of life came when 19 people from an engulfed village tried to flee by car and got stuck in a traffic jam. They died. Villagers who stayed survived.) Greeks recall that the island of Poros had a big fire five years ago. While pine trees take many years to grow back, today the olive trees are all green and making olives again. After a big post-fire shake-up, the new government promises fire fighting will be more effective. Airborne fire spotters are on a constant alert.

Bottom line: for travelers and the economy, the fires are old news and locals — so reliant on tourism — need the business. Other than a few bleak drives through burnt landscape, there is no real impact from the fires on anything a tourist might want to see or do. The only major tourist attraction directly impacted was the sight of the ancient Olympic Games. While the trees around its fine museum are blackened, the actual museum was saved. Flames came to the edge of the site’s tourist village and hills surrounding the ruins were thoroughly burned. We’ve traveled through the hardest hit areas, and everything is once again wide open.

Mani Barnacles and Swinging Gourds

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The Mani Peninsula, the southern tip of mainland Greece (in fact of the entire continent), feels like the end of the road in Europe. It’s stark and sparse — imagine Connemara in the bleak west of Ireland…after three centuries of drought. Also like Ireland, today’s Mani population is a tiny fraction of what it was as many of its former residents either fled the country for the promise of far away lands like America or were killed in the violent bickering that seems to be a local trait. Only goats thrive here. Salads come with a slab of feta cheese the size of a paperback. While mountains striped with abandoned terraces hint that the Mani once grew much more, for two centuries olives have been the only Mani export. According to a museum display, historically the economy was based on three things: immigration, piracy, and brigandage. People hid out tucked in the folds of the mountains far from the coast and marauding pirate ships of old. Ghostly barnacle-like hill towns serrating distant ridges are fortified for threats from both without and within. Cisterns which once sustained tough communities by catching pure rainwater are now mucky green puddles that would turn a goat’s stomach. The bleak history and rugged landscape provides an evocative backdrop — making hedonism on the Mani coast all the more hedonistic. Stepping out of my room and onto the shady veranda, I bonked my head on a lemon. Then, strolling to the taverna on the beach, I enjoyed images of a long ago Mani dinner — settling my chair into the sand under a bare and dangling lamp at sunset.

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While squeezing lemon on my octopus, I enjoyed a faint but refreshing spritzing. Wondering from where the mist came, I looked over to see a tough young man in a swim suit the size of a rat’s hammock tenderizing someone else’s dinner by slamming it over and over on a rock. Today, twenty years later, Anne and I settle in at Lela’s Taverna under a leafy canopy. Lights bulbs still swing in the breeze — but, no longer naked, they’re dressed in gourd lamp shades. Lela, bent and cloaked in black, scurries as a fleeting rain storm drives a few people inside. We sit under an eave enjoying the view. Anne asks Lela’s son the difference between white wine and rosé. He says, “It’s the same but for the color.” I go for the ouzo — if only to watch it cloud over as I trickle in the water. I love gazing into the misty Mediterranean, knowing the next land is Africa. Inky waves churn as a red sun sets. The light morphs as it does each evening from solar to incandescent. In a land where “everybody’s grandma is the best cook,” ancient Lela is appreciated for the way she gives her tzatsiki a fun kick and how she marinates her olives. I can’t get past “good morning” (kalimera) with this Greek language. You try it: ne, okh’i, parakalo, kalimera, poli kala (yes, no, please, good morning, very good). I attribute my problem to confusion caused by the three words I know in Hawaiian: King Kamehameha, Haleakala, and Mele Kalikimaka.

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A local guide explained that while the French keep their mouth shut when they talk, the Greeks keep it very open. While I’m tempted to keep my mouth shut while I don’t talk, I’m determined to get the basic Greek vocabulary down. Here, perhaps more than anywhere in Europe, saying just a couple of local words endears visitors to the people they meet. Mele Kalikimaka.