Monday, June 29, 2009


When I was younger, I used to hitchhike with some friends. We didn't have a car and public transportation was just unreliable. Of course, back then, it was a small town, no real crime, and people were pretty much friendly, or at least polite. The area was very much isolated, no big cities nearby. I was always grateful for rides from strangers, and when I got my first car, I didn't hesitate to offer a hitchhiker a ride if it was not out of my way.

I didn't mind picking up hitchhikers. I suppose it's because I know what a great feeling it is to finally catch a ride, especially on a hot summer day when everyone else just passes you by. It's such a big relief!

Seeing hitchhikers reminded me of my younger days when I was adventurous; the world seemed like such an exciting place, always something better and amazing on the horizon; I just needed to get there and see it for myself.

I remember my friends and I trying to catch a ride after school. We didn't have a school bus in high school. And the public buses weren't always on time, and very few drove by our school. It was long walk home, made miserable by the bright afternoon sun burning down on us. The black tar road radiated scorching heat, its surface looked like shimmering water on a hot clear day. But it was the horrible humidity that was the worst! Hot, heavy, sweltering air just sucking the energy out of you! Sweat soaking your clothes, dripping off your body, still not enough to cool you down.

Every time we heard a car behind us, we stuck our thumbs out, hoping some kind soul would take pity on us and drop us off at the main road just a few miles up ahead. And it was usually a pick up truck that stopped, much to our joy, and we would all thank our driver, jump in the back and enjoy the wind blowing in our faces, cooling us down for a few miles til we got to the main street. There, you had a better chance at catching the buses, as there were many more that went down that street. But usually, we'd take our bus fare money, buy soda or ice cream, sit under a shady tree and laugh and consumed our sweet, refreshing snacks before walking the rest of the way home.

I remember going to many out of town parties by hitchhiking. Sometimes, we'd head out to a far away beach. It was a lot of fun making new friends and hanging out with new people. Then after the party was over, we'd try to find a ride back into town; or we'd just wait til morning to try to hitch a ride back home. But sometimes on a clear, cool moonlit night, we'd start walking home, hoping to catch a ride from the rare car driving by so late. We talked, we joked, we laughed on the long walk on the lonely, deserted road.

I was so young and full of hope, so naive and trusting. It never occurred to me that something bad might happen. I believed that people were basically good and helpful. In some ways, I still believe that. But that innocence and carefree attitude came to an end when I first drove across state lines and into Texas. I was a few years out of high school, having had a full time job while thinking about what to do with my life. I decided to go to college and Texas was where I thought I ought to go.

After a few days of checking out the campus, meeting some new people, and enjoying the environment, I figured, this was it. This was where I was going to go to college. I was excited when I got in the car and started the two days drive back to the East Coast where I'd stay until school started. It was my first car; it was a very old car. It didn't have any A/C, so I had to drive with the window cracked open. The radio didn't always work, but the tape player did; so I bought a few cassettes to listen to on the long drive, singing along some of my favorite songs and dancing to some of the tunes.

I was on a high, feeling upbeat. Life was good, and I looked forward to the positive, exciting changes I was making in my life. Then as I got near a big city, I saw a sign. It was a strange sign! I didn't know it then, but this sign would change everything.

It was the first sign of that nature that I had ever seen in my life. It had never occurred to me that prisoners would escape and hitchhike!

An hour later, I was driving on a long stretch of interstate, very few cars as far as I could see. I was nearing an intersection, when I saw the familiar the silhouette of a hitchhiker, arm out with the thumb up, hoping for a ride. I automatically started to slow down, ready to pull over to give a fellow hitchhiker a ride. As I got closer to the hitchhiker, his features became clearer; he was an older fellow, scruffy beard, ill fitting clothes, and a dusty bag by his feet.

Suddenly, that sign flashed in my head. I was afraid, imagining the worst. What if this guy was an escaped prisoner? What if he was going to do something awful, like steal my car and go on a crime spree? I panicked, and picked up speed, confused by the sudden fear of hitchhikers that had gripped me. I drove on for a few minutes before I manged to calm myself down. What was wrong with me? I never had a problem picking up hitchhikers before. So why was I frightened now? Damn you, Texas and your road signs!

I started feeling terrible for abandoning the hitchhiker. I was a horrible person. How could I turn my back on someone in need? I was that person once, hoping for a ride to a better place, an escape from the harsh sun. I saw an exit for a nearby town and took it. I saw a gas station and a fast food place. The town was just a few miles further down the smaller road. I figured, I'll just go back to the intersection and pick up that hitchhiker. So, with my fear in check, I turned around and drove back to where I saw the hitchhiker.

He was still there when I returned to the intersection. Once again, I slowed down, ready to pull over and offer the man a ride. But suddenly, that stupid sign flashed in my head again! And once more, I had visions of escaped prisoners and my imagination ran wild with horrible things that could happen to me. I sped up again, for the second time abandoning the hitchhiker! If he wasn't pissed off before, he sure was mad now! I hoped he wasn't some crazy serial killer, and I worried he might've gotten my license plate number and maybe come after me for revenge!

Hours later, I was at a rest stop, thinking about what had happened to me. Why was I suddenly afraid of hitchhikers? Had I really been that naive? I wasn't sure what was going on. But from that day on, every time I saw a hitchhiker, I thought about that stupid sign.

Still, over the years since, I've stopped and picked up a few hitchhikers. A few I ignored. I tell myself that it's an instinct thing. If a hitchhiker gives me an uneasy feeling, then I don't stop. I still feel bad sometimes for passing them up, but I rationalize that it's better safe than sorry. Sometimes I wonder if that means that I'm older now, if I've grown more cynical and less trusting. Sometimes I wonder if it's a sign that I've gotten wiser.

I still get nostalgic for the old days when I was carefree, hanging out with friends, trying to catch a ride to the places we wanted to go. Back then, I used to think that once I got a car, things would be so much better, much more fun. Now I know better. It's the company I keep that makes life enjoyable. It was never about getting a ride; life is about having fun with friends on the journey, no matter what the destination.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jury Duty

This past month, I've become way too close to the law. I just can't escape its long reach! Today, I checked the mail and found a jury summons. That means, come Monday, I have to get up early and go to the courthouse, to see if they will use me as a juror or not.

Every year and a half or so, I get summoned. I get up early, put on my pressed, business attire, and try to find parking near the courthouse. Then I wait for hours, along with the other jurors, as we are divided and then taken to the courtrooms for jury selection. There, the lawyers and judge decide whether or not they can use you on the jury after a series of questions. If you're lucky, it's all done by noon. But the last time, we didn't finish til 3 pm. It could be worse. I've heard other jurors who were on call for about a week!

Now, I don't mind doing my duty as a citizen, but I've never been chosen to be on a jury--some of my answers make me undesirable to either the defense or the prosecution. So I feel like I've wasted a whole day. They do pay you ten dollars for that first day, but then they make you feel guilty and push you to donate that money to some charity or other--since the gov't officials have all ready wasted money originally slated for charity. And if you're there past noon, you'll definitely want to buy lunch.

What really sucks about this summons is that I'm supposed to be off on Monday! So instead of sleeping in, flipping thru the tv channels in my underwear, then heading out to the beach, I have to get up early and dress appropriately and spend my day off in a gov't building! I've been thinking about finding a good excuse to get out of jury duty. But I don't seem to meet any of the disqualification criteria. Although, for a short while, number (4) seemed promising.




How would the court certify that someone doesn't have a sound mind and good moral character? You don't need a court to figure out who's crazy! I'm pretty sure that I can spot the crazies and the insane without any help.

Monday, June 22, 2009

My Big Fat Greek Odyssey: Acropolis

(Click on the pics for bigger view)
I got to spend one more night in Athens before returning home. I was kind of sad that the whole Greek vacation was almost over. Greece is a wonderful country, full of history and life and such friendly people. I was definitely going to miss the incredible landscape, fantastic sites, and the scrumptious food. It's fascinating to see the juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern. Athens is an ancient city and a modern city, full of life. Since I had a day left, I figured it was probably time to buy a ticket to get up close to the Parthenon.

I could see the Parthenon from my hotel balcony. I had been all over the Acropolis and nearby sites the week before. But I had not gone into the area of the Parthenon. I was having more fun exploring all the other sites, including most of the Acropolis, for free. Plus, the Parthenon area always seemed full of tourists and those crowds were unappealing to me. But since I was here, I figured, eh, why not get up close to the Parthenon? I've come all this way to Athens, and it'd be such a shame not to go inside and see the Parthenon up close.

Now, there is an admission fee to get up close to the Parthenon, but that ticket gets you into all the other nearby historical sites in Athens. It's a pretty good deal if want to spend your whole day exploring the ancient ruins all over the Acropolis and nearby. Luckily, it was a cloudy day, and the tourist crowd was smaller than I had seen the week before.

There are tour guides at the entrance, and you can pay them if you want a guided tour. But I hate being stuck in a tour group. Besides the tourists, you'll also see a lot of dogs, just sleeping all over Athens, like it's the most normal thing in the world.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

Damn tourists!

I waited in between tour groups to get some really nice shots from the Parthenon area.

You can see Philopappou Hill in the background, a green oasis in the middle of the urban jungle.

On the other side, you can see the National Garden and the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, Panathinaikon Olympic Stadium in the back. It's incredible to see the ancient buildings among the green trees encircled by the roads and city structures.

And of course, I luved the Erechtheum Porch of the Maidens.

There are several parks by the Acropolis. They're a great place to escape the hustle and chaos of the city. It's nice to just sit and unwind or maybe make out--there were a bunch of couples making out in little secret spots. But it's a sweet spot for a picnic or just to enjoy nature.

The ticket into the Parthenon allowed me to explore other gated sites nearby, like the ancient Agora. There were a lot of ruins and temples and structures in the huge area of the Agora.

I thought I'd have some fun and play Samson, break down the columns! Arrghhh!!!

And after a great day exploring the sites, I stopped at the ancient gymnasium and sit by the statues of Heremes, patron god of travelers, and Eros, god of love. I thought it was the perfect place to sit for a bit and think about all the great things I had seen and experienced in Greece. I am amazed at the history and culture, so many ancient sites and ruins, so many modern structures. The Greeks are a friendly, wonderful people, and I have enjoyed eating their delicious cuisine. It has been a spectacular vacation, and I'm really glad that I took a lot of pictures to capture the experience. Which brings me to my last Greece Travel Tip:

Greece Travel Tip #17

Take lots of pictures everyday, and just have fun! Because sometimes, pictures really are worth a thousand words. And they could be the most precious thing you bring back from your trip. They are your memories of your good time, the great experiences you had, and you can laugh and smile and remember those good times whenever you look at those pictures.

Friday, June 19, 2009

My Big Fat Greek Odyssey: Thira

The Greeks call the island Thira, after the Spartan King who led a group of his people to settle the island and eventually set up colonies along the North African coast. The name Santorini came from the 17th century when the Venetians named the island after St Irene (hence, Santorini). As a volcanic island, Thira (Santorini) has many fascinating volcanic characteristics. And there are several ways to see these interesting features.

You can take a tour. Now, usually, I don't like going on tour groups, but in this case, I made an exception. I booked a tour to see the volcano and the surrounding islands. I found a great price at a place about ten minutes from the hotel.

Greece Travel Tip #16

If you want to go on a tour, shop around for the best deal. Some places charge less than others for the same tour! For example, I found a place that charged 30% less than the other agencies. Save your money for the shopping!

If you look around town, you can find really good shopping deals. Try the minimarkets, because they usually carry the same local merchandise for a lot less than what the tourist shops are charging. Take your time to look around. If you pay cash and buy a lot of items, you may be able to get a discount if you haggle with the stores. Remember, the farther the store from the main shopping and dining avenues, the less expensive the items and the more likely you'll find great deals on quality merchandise.

A tour bus picked us up from Kamari and picked up other tourists along the way to the port. At the port, we got on a ship that took us to the volcano, Nea Kameni. Remember, if you want to avoid the splash from the sea, try to seat on the inside or at the top of the ship. Keep in mind that the people who sit near the exit are usually the first ones off the ship.

The trip to the volcano was smooth. And we were the first ones off the ship. I didn't bother hanging around to wait for the tour guide. We just took off and started exploring the volcano.

It was a very rugged, jagged landscape, so wear comfortable shoes. Some areas were slippery with the rocks sliding when you stepped on them. There were hazardous areas blocked off. I saw some really unique and intriguing rock formations.

Of course, I couldn't resist going up some of those precariously perched rocks. I thought it'd be fun to pretend I was ready to go forth and conquer!

Here I am as Atlas holding up the world.

It's a small rock because it's a small world after all. Also because that was the biggest rock I could find to take up the climb with me.

After seeing the volcano, we went to the hot springs on the island of Palea Kameni. Now, here is where we had a miscommunication. When we booked the tour, we were told that we had "two hours to swim and spend in the hot springs."

What they meant was you had two hours to spend at the hot springs, but you had to swim to get there! That's right! You had to swim 50 meters to get to the hot springs! The ship could only safely anchor about 50 meters away from the hot springs, because the water was full of jagged rocks and shallow in some places near the shore. They even gave a warning that if you're not a swimmer or have a medical condition, then do not attempt to swim out to the hot springs. There were no little boats to ferry you over safely to the hot springs.

I swam out there. This being May, the water was cold and deep. And it didn't warm up til I got close to the hot springs. But here's what you should know. The hot springs aren't really hot! They were like warm. There was no steam rising up from the springs, and the water was rusty colored from the volcano and probably mountain goat droppings. That's right. There were mountain goats up the hills, and I bet they crapped in the hot springs! I saw some people pick up rusty mud and rub them on their faces. Ewww...And that stuff stains and smells funny!

Was it worth it? Well, I enjoyed swimming towards the hot (warm) springs and soaking for a little while. But it sure did suck swimming back towards the ship in the cold water! And there were some people who were injured by bumping into the sharp rocks, or their heart conditions were acting up with all that swimming. I swam quickly to the ship, because I was afraid the sharks might smell the blood and come out! Still, I'm glad I did it. I paid for the damn tour and I was going to get my money's worth. But if you go, just know your limits and don't hurt yourself.

After leaving Palea Kameni, we headed to the island of Thirassia. Check out the crocodile's head formation on the island.

Thirassia is really rural and less populated than Thira. It was very quiet but the harbor was beautiful.

The only people out were the restaurant people and the small shops people along the harbor. They also had steps going up to the town perched on the top of the caldera. Naturally, they had donkeys if you wanted to ride them up and down the steep, zigzagging stairs.

Of course, I walked. It was quite an intense hike climbing up those steps. I had to stop a few times to drink some water and catch my breath. And after exploring the quiet sleeping town, we took the ship to our last stop, the village of Ia (Oia). The ship dropped us off at the harbor and to get back up the caldera to the town, you either walked or rode the donkeys on the those steep winding steps. It's a real workout, quite the hike. So, take your time and drink some water. Make as many stops as you need. If you do decide on the donkey ride, just remember it'll be a bumpy ride and you'll smell like an ass, I mean, like your donkey!

Now I had been to Ia before. I had taken the bus there to explore the town of Ia, its shops, beaches, and steps. It wasn't as big as Fira, but it was still pretty busy and had some great features. I particularly enjoyed the underground homes and garden windows. I imagined Hobbits lived here.

But the best thing about Ia is the location. Just find a good spot along the caldera, be it a lookout point or a bar, and just enjoy the beautiful sunset.

And what a glorious sunset it is!

Even the lesbians loved it!

I saw a wedding party out there, enjoying the view. And I can totally understand now why Thira is considered such a romantic place. The sunset view is romantic and breathtaking.

And after the sun went down, I got on the tour bus to take me back to the hotel at Kamari.

Another great way to see Thira's captivating volcanic characteristics is to take the bus. The buses take you into Fira. You can explore the big town of Fira, or catch the buses to other towns like Ia, Perissa, or Akrotiri. Now I was determined to get to Akrotiri. I'm a big fan archaeological digs and I luv history and mythology.

So imagine my disappointment when I learned that the Akrotiri archaeological sites were closed! Still, I was determined to make an effort and get out there. At the very least I could say that I went there. Also, I had learned from the maps that there was a red beach there. That's right. A red sand beach! And it was a very fascinating sight seeing that red beach.

Now the red sand wasn't really fine sand, but it was still comfortable enough to walk on barefoot. It was a little crowded though, so we hiked on a little farther, hoping to make it to the white beach. I had seen on the map that there was a white beach further down. We never made it to white beach.

We took some pictures along the way.

After hiking for an hour, we stopped on a cliff and took some pictures of the view.

That's when I noticed what looked like the remains of a little house way down this hidden cove. There was no clear path down there, but I had a feeling that there had to be way down. So feeling adventurous, I started working my down the cliff, hoping to find some sort of path.

I could only find some fragments of what used to be steps--some rebars and broken off steps. It was all jagged rocks and loose piles of stones down the cliff. It took me half an hour to work my way down, kicking out piles of rocks and feeling for solid stones on the way down. I confess that I was a little scared, worried that I might slip and fall or go down in some landslide. It was quite steep!

But I made it! And I was happy!

And as soon as I made it down, four other brave souls followed the path that I had cleared and joined me in discovering the hidden cove. Just the five of us, enjoying the beach, the seclusion, and cool waters. We swam out to the small rock islands and jumped off them into the water. It was all smooth hard rocks on the beach, but the water had sand. We spent some time swimming, sunning, laughing, eating snacks, enjoying our little discovery. The others included three backpackers from France, a very nice and wonderful group.

A few boats made some quick stops, the tourists on board having paid a premium price just to swim in the water for about twenty minutes before they moved on. I waved at them, inviting them over. They waved back but couldn't stay long enough to swim over to the shore. It seemed unreal, having found this secret cove, and it made for quite an adventure.

We spent the whole afternoon on that beach. And when it was time to leave, we had to make the hazardous climb back up the cliff.

And it felt good when I reached the top.

That was quite a fun, adventurous day. We caught the bus back to Fira; then got on the bus to Kamari. I'm really glad that I took a lot of time exploring the island. There's a lot to see and experience in Thira, and if you take the time and the chance to venture off the beaten paths, you can find some really fantastic discoveries.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Big Fat Greek Odyssey: Santorini

I visited one other island while in Greece. I went to Santorini. Or as the Greeks call it, Thira. This island has been suggested as the location of the lost city of Atlantis. Santorini has a very different feel from Mykonos. In Mykonos, it was all about beaches and clubbing and partying. That reminds me, while hanging out at the beach, we often got tickets for free shots from club promoters, urging us to visit their clubs. It is a great way to get free drinks while checking out the clubs. Although, I was shocked at one club when a little boy about 11 was selling glow in the dark bracelets at one in the morning, on a school night! I was thinking, Um, little boy, is your mama the bartender or what? Shouldn't you be in bed sleeping?

Greece Travel Tip #14

When looking for good clubs, ask a local for all the best places to go clubbing. The hotel bartender gave me some great advice:
Eat dinner at little Italy (restaurants area in Mykonos Town), then walk around towards the clubs, listening to which music you like; find the club with a lot of people inside dancing and that's where you should go! It worked like a charm, every time.

Santorini, on the other hand, is a more romantic setting. It's a different kind of partying here. And to get there, we took the high speed ferry from Mykonos. It was a three hour trip that made stops at Paros and Ios. Once we got to Santorini, we found our ride and started the climb up the caldera. I could feel my ears popping as we drove higher and higher on the winding road.

I was amazed at the view of the caldera.

(Click on the pics for bigger view)

Now, just like Mykonos and Athens, Santorini had some really tiny roads!

I stayed in the southeast part of the island in an area called Kamari, right next to Ancient Thira. The hotel room was very purple. The hotel didn't have the incredible views of the other places I had stayed at, but I liked the courtyard and the large jacuzzi.

Also, the location was great, about a five minute walk to the famous black beaches. Kamari is amazing, a long row of restaurants and bars and shops along the black sand beaches. The food was fantastic! And really inexpensive!

Talk about fresh and succulent, like the Greek salad.

I luved the kalamari! It was so crispy and flavorful! Not chewy at all!

And the gyros were just scrumptious! The servings were huge! There was enough on one plate for two people.

And the local wines were wonderful. They tasted sweet and light and left a very nice warm, happy feeling.

The next day, I caught the bus to Fira, to see the amazing views of the caldera. It's pretty amazing to see all these villages perched precariously on top of cliffs! I'd be afraid of falling over! It's a long way down!

Speaking of getting down, Santorini is famous for its steps down the caldera. There are several in Fira. It's a whole lotta steps, so be prepared for a workout and take some water. The steps zigzag some ways down the caldera, and you can either walk or ride the donkeys.

I decided to walk down, and while the view was indeed breathtaking, no one warned me about the donkey doo!

Filthy asses!

Greece Travel Tips#15

Be aware if you do walk the steps. Avoid the ones that utilize a lot of donkeys. There will be a lot of donkey doo! There are other caldera steps that don't use donkeys.

Luckily, there were several rest areas along the steps that provided shade and a great vantage point to see the caldera and the nearby islands.

And when I reached the bottom, I was sweaty but exhilarated!

There are shops and restaurants down there at the bottom of the steps. They are a lot less expensive than the places back at the top.

And if you don't want to climb back up those donkey doo filled steps, there is a cable car that takes you back up from these particular steps!

After a long day of exploring Fira, I returned to Kamari, to sit by the beach and enjoy a Mai Tai and a Pina Colada.

There are other towns in Santorini with their own caldera steps. And I went to the very north of the island to Ia (Oia), to see some of these steps. Ia is smaller than Fira, but it boasts some incredible scenery!

The beaches were rocky in Ia, but the water was nice, clean, cool, and blue. The black sand beaches of Kamari were much smoother than Ia. But that black sand gets really hot under the sun!

Right next to Kamari is Ancient Thira on Profitis Ilias, the tallest mountain in Santorini. I decided to climb that mountain and check out the view.

And have a little fun along the way.

And when I finally got to the top, I could see the village of Perissa on the other side of the mountain!

And what better way to celebrate reaching the peak than by doing some more silly poses.

Vacations are so much more enjoyable when you let yourself go and have some fun!