A Greek Ferrytale

Things have become very quiet on the island. Our job here is to provide medical assistance to those arriving on the shore. I haven’t had much to do medically here. Since the agreement between the EU and Turkey, which amounted to Europe paying Turkey to keep the refugees, there have been less refugee boats arriving on the shores of Lesvos. Those that do make it into Greek waters are picked up by Greek coastguard and taken straight to a camp where they will be ‘held’. Having said that, last Sunday, while I was in the north of the island, two people died on the shore. It seems they may have suffocated as a result of being crammed onto the boat.


What we have been able to do, however, is go to the port and help those who are travelling onwards to Athens by giving out sandwiches and helping where we can. A few days ago, when they were asked to board the ferry taking them to Greece, the scene became slightly chaotic. There was no reason for this. Everyone who had the correct papers would get on, and there was no rush, but you could see a little bit of panic in the eyes of the worried mothers travelling with two or three children, all their possessions packed into a couple of bags. They clambered onto the ramp leading to the ferry, just about keeping their emotions in check. I imagine after such a long journey and the uncertainty they have faced, they never take anything for granted, always being vigilant and never relaxing.  


The ferry was big, with an escalator taking you to the middle deck. It seemed quite luxurious to me and I’m sure it must’ve seemed that way to most of those about to board. Many of the families had too many bags to carry themselves and so we tried to help the families with their bags. I too walked with ‘them’, up the ramp and to the entrance of the ferry. As I was standing there, I felt for a moment as if I was about to board the ferry. As if I were fleeing some disaster. I imagined my behaviour in such a situation. Would I stand there and help others, calm and gracious?  Or in my desperation would my eyes be filled with the fear and uncertainty that I saw in most of the people around me. I realised that even though I cared about these people, I had no real empathy for them. We are so used to seeing images of terrorised people that we easily disconnect. It’s natural and I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about this. How can any of us imagine such hardship unless we ourselves have experienced it? It’s important to remember though that the people displaced by the war in Syria are from all walks of life. People who have much have lost everything and those who didn’t have much, have lost the little they owned. War seems to have a way of levelling society out, the rich and the poor are affected in the same way.

I am new here compared to people who have been volunteering for months, and although this was not a shocking experience for anyone involved, on reflection it did affect me. I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but seeing how people from all walks of life, people like me, have been affected made me feel a little uncomfortable. There was no longer a distance between us. Going on to the boat and being asked for my papers certainly brought it home in a very tangible way.

The truth is, there is no way I can even come close to knowing how these families feel but this experience has certainly made a lasting impression on me.  

Lesvos - a shaky start

So I’ve finally decided to put some of my thoughts down on paper. This may sound silly to some of you but over the last couple of years I’ve learnt the importance of reflection; so as well as letting you guys know what is going on, this serves as a space for me to process my own thoughts.

Not sure what's going on here.. I think it has been parked like this.

Not sure what's going on here.. I think it has been parked like this.

Let's start at the beginning...

Day 1: I arrived in Mytilene on a cold windy night. The plan was to pick up a car that I had arranged to rent, drive an hour north to the hotel/guest house I had booked for the first 5 nights. I had bought a sim card in Athens and put some credit on it. Having data on my phone gives me a sense of reassurance. It really does help you get out of sticky situations and I knew if I had google maps I would be alright. I didn’t want to be getting lost at night on an island I’d never been to with only the vague directions from the hotel owner to direct me. ‘It is easy, there is only one road. You will know us by the palm trees outside’, she said. Umm, not that helpful in the middle of the night love.

As soon as I got off the plane, I put the sim card in. The instructions on the package were literally Greek to me. But the shop had printed out some instructions in English. They were about as vague as the hotel directions unfortunately though. So I put the card in and was waiting for it to magically sort itself out.

Whilst waiting I decided to walk out (maybe I can get the car sorted, and then deal with sim card). I found a guy holding a piece of card board with my name spelt correctly ('this must be a professional outfit', I thought). He took me outside to a scratched up Suzuki Jimny. The car was running which I thought was a bit odd. He then proceeded to tell me that I shouldn't stop the car as the previous people who rented it had run the battery down, so if I stopped it then I might not be able to restart it. He then showed me round the car and pointed out various scratches and repairs. 'Don't worry', he said. 'You only have to pay first 800 euros if it's your fault. If not your fault then write down number plate'. Oh, so that's what they meant by 'full insurance' on the website. To make it even more interesting he then told me that there was only an 1/8th of a tank in the car and I would probably need more to get to the north. Excellent, 'And I can't stop the car when I put petrol in?'. He assured me the petrol station would be fine with that. 

After explaining all of this to me, I probably should have refused to take the car and asked for one that actually works but I was tired and had been ravelling all day. I didn't have the energy to argue so I blindly just accepted their terms and decided to focus on getting to the north. It was 9:30 by now and I didn't want to be driving late. I turned my attention to the sim card. I followed the vague instructions and it worked. Waves of relief washed over me; I wouldn't be sleeping in my car tonight. Finally I could begin the journey.. 

Apparently they drive on the other side of the road in Greece, this was a complication I didn't need at 10 at night. Changing gear did take some getting used to but I was managing to stay on the right side of the road and look the left at roundabouts. Luckily by that time at night the roads were pretty quiet. I pulled into the first petrol station I could find and of course the man there looked at me as if I'd asked him to light my cigarette when I told him I needed to leave the engine on. Nonetheless he filled the tank and I began my journey through Mytilene. 

Mytilene is a small town with very narrow streets. Not the sort of place you want to take wrong turn. That didn't stop me though, and within 5 minutes of driving around the town I found myself on the narrowest of streets with a motorcycle waiting behind me. To make matters worse the street was on a steep incline. I was sure that if I kept going I would be able to turn off at some point, and besides I did not want to be the guy reversing out of the street causing all the cars behind me to back up. I kept going, I needed to take a left to get back on track but the left didn't come. Google maps couldn't help me now - I can't make a U turn here! I carefully managed to negotiate the car passed 3 other cars that were parked on the side of the road. I made it round the bend and then to my horror I came up to a dead end. I had no choice but to reverse back down the street. I looked behind me and thankfully there were no other cars. 'Please don't let any other cars come up the road', I prayed. I painstakingly reversed my car without getting a scratch on it. When I got near the bottom a couple of cars pulled into the road I was on. I got out of the car and apologized to them that they would have to reverse back. 

By the time I had got myself out of that little pickle it was close to 11 and I could finally be on my way to the north. Needless to say it wasn't 'just one road' to Molyvos (where I was staying) but luckily I had the lady's number and I was able to ring her with my Greek sim card. I found the place after a few phone calls and was glad to rest my head at the end of a long days travel.

Hopefully the rest of the trip would be a little smoother.