Crete and Olive Adventures

Updated: Aug 30

Athens and Crete

Youth hostels were quite inexpensive in Athens so I spent a week deciding how to proceed for the last two months of '82 and beyond. I targeted the Acropolis, Zappeion Hall, Lycabettus, and the old Olympic stadium as key sites to see while in Athens.

While in Athens, I met a German man and we clicked immediately. He was named Igor (pronounced: egore) who was originally from Slovenia but later became a German citizen. Igor and I would hang out at a local pub in Athens and drink Retsina and smoke our rolled cigarettes talking philosophy, travel, sports, politics, and life. Once we tired of talking, we took a boat to Rethymnon, Crete, to look for some work and a possible break from vagabonding. I had been traveling for 6 months and needed a break from the constant movement. I was physically tired at this point but more importantly, I was emotionally exhausted.

Let me briefly outline: during the last month or so, I'd tour churches, historical sites, and old architecture, and all these historical sights would no longer resonate with me. I’d be a bad American tourist by popping into a church and snapping a few and abruptly leave. The major threshold came in Athens as I stood near the Acropolis and simply yawned (briefly looked around to see if anyone noticed my boredom). Something had to change with too much movement. Perhaps the smell and feel of olives were forthcoming?

Igor and I camped in Rethymnon and on that same day, we met the owner, an American woman of Greek ancestry who asked us if we wanted to do odd jobs at her campground. The work was not too physically demanding or challenging although one could not call it glamorous or a long time profession. Our camping fee was comped and made some Greek drachmas for our future travels.

Once the tourists stopped coming, and a forthcoming rainy season, we had no more work. Our American-Greek contact appeared to be quite conscientious of our plight and asked us our plans. We had none. She mentioned that some olive farmers were looking for help harvesting olives which piqued our interest. She stated the only caveat was that we had to stay until mid-January to ensure we collected the majority of the olives. We both committed to this so the following day, I used the limited bus service and my legs to make my way to my destination for the next 2 months, Messi, Crete. Igor stated he wanted to spend about one week in Ierapetra to meet up with his girlfriend. His other goal after traveling to the south of Crete was to catch some remaining sun of autumn. Once finished, he committed to coming back for plenty of manual labor.

The adjustment to this small Greek village was both challenging and enjoyable. I had a free room and board and was to be paid about $10 per day (for 8 - 9 hours of work) after I completed my two-month commitment. Not a wealthy sum for physical work but I was after a challenge and a place to stay put for a month or two.

I stayed in a white brick home near the center of town. I was hired by an older Greek man Challenbus who was married to Orania. They spoke no German or English so we made a lot of hand gestures and silly facial expressions to provide only limited real communication. For work, I worked the fields and my strength came in handy as I worked with Orania, as her husband felt he was no longer fit to work the fields. His main occupation was drinking Turkish cafe and talking village gossip at the town's kafeneia (coffee house). I worked six days a week and had Sunday off. I spent the first 10 days hardly saying a word to anyone but would occasionally try to converse with the mule. At this point, I had some doubts my friend would ever make it back to our village.

On the next day, while sitting in my local kafeneia drinking Turkish coffee, a young, excitable Greek boy tugged on my shirt and asked me to follow him up the hill to the only other kafeneia in this small village. Once I opened the door, I looked around and didn't understand what was happening but then I began to fixate on the one patron who had buried himself in a non-Greek newspaper, and seconds later, he put the paper down and there was Igor. I was ecstatic that he finally showed up as I had a companion I could work and talk with for the remainder of our time.


Our Greek farmers didn't have indoor plumbing which was an adjustment but when you're young and adventurous, one is more adaptable to foreign circumstances. The outhouse was outside the living quarter so as the days got colder and rainier in November, efficiency came into play. I wasn't expecting soft toilet tissue but quickly realized they had small stacks of old newspapers to finish your business. It was a language I couldn't speak or write so it was all Greek to me. To bathe, you'd scavenge small twigs and logs and create a fire in the fireplace and then hang a kettle filled with cold water over the fire and wait for the right temperature before washing yourself. Needless to say, we didn't shower or have a legitimate bath for about 2 months. The rainy season began late in the fall so sometimes, we were completely drenched at the end of work which provided an easy option to build a fire and wash. I never once saw our hosts bathe so it appeared hygiene was not a priority to them.

Besides the large living area, the only other area was a bedroom that could sleep at least four. All of us slept in twin beds. Igor and I were on opposite ends of the bedroom from our hosts. Sometimes, we'd hear Orania get up in the middle of the night and use her bedpan to reliever herself. This was a sight not too seen so I focused on getting back to sleep. After a few nights of this, it was a ritual that I became accustomed to. Without any communication, after work, Igor and I would drink Turkish coffee at the local kafeneia and play cards or backgammon. We'd sometimes write postcards or make entries in our journals.

Back to why we're there in the first place. When I mention picking olives, I don't mean we picked them off the trees. I should refer to our work as collecting olives. There were nets underneath the olive trees that would collect the ripe green olives that had fallen. Rocks had been put in place on the outside of the nets to keep them in place. We'd remove the rocks outside the nets and then roll the nets to consolidate the fruit before collection. We used old rusty metal containers to scoop up as many olives as possible and put them in large burlap bags that exceeded 100 pounds. Typically, we brought along two mules and their responsibility was to graze until they were commanded to carry two burlap bags filled with olives on each side of the animal to a processing area to be made into olive oil. Besides the rocky and hilly terrain, the other challenge was getting the mules to cooperate. Often, the most physically demanding aspect of the work was pulling the mules up or down the rocky terrain without incident.

On Christmas Eve, a villager gave us local moonshine to help us celebrate. We hiked around the area and drank the moonshine as we went. If I said we were blitzed by the alcohol, that may be an understatement. We were fortunate to get back to the village stumbling but unscathed in such rocky topography. The only thing I remember is having a conversation with some goats on the day before Christmas and watching golden eagles soar above the rocky canyon looking for their Christmas meal.

As I mentioned earlier, we had committed to working through the first half of January but realized cabin fever had set in and became anxious to get going. The weather in Crete in late December became damp and cold. Besides, we wanted to see the sun again. Not having been paid, we were worried if we left a day or two before the end of the year, our takeaway would have been an incredible experience without compensation. As luck would have it, about a week before we wanted to leave, a Greek man stopped in our regular kafeneia who spoke perfect German. Fantastic, we now had a translator who could cut us a deal. Our hosts accepted the offer so we caught a ferry to Haifa, Israel, on New Year's eve. It was an international celebration on a low-budget ship to the Holy Land. There were no cabins to speak of for the two-day journey to Israel; we camped in a large open room. It reminded me of a youth hostel with the constant rocking of the ship. I learned quickly that this holiday is celebrated by many internationals with joy and gusto. It appeared that the only guests on this trip were young travelers looking for adventure in Israel. Some were going to work on a kibbutz, others wanted to scope out Jerusalem and the West Bank.


To be continued...

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