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When I was around 10 years old, my mother and I travelled to the island Symi in Greece. The time we spent there must be one of my most visceral childhood memories of travel.
First of all, travelling to the Island itself was exciting. We took an early morning flight from Heathrow, London to Kos. From there we took a Ferry to the Island. I hope it is still true that you can only reach Symi by Ferry. There is something magical about visiting somewhere that cannot be reached with “normal” forms of transport. You get a sense of the “old skool,” slow kind of travel. How things used to be before the world sped up.
To set the scene, there is something magical about the atmosphere in rural Greece. The combination of the azure blue sea, the bright sunny days, the clear skies, the faded colours of sunburnt earth, the olive greens of spindly trees and the houses all painted white, with blue highlights here and there. I remember the smell of the sea. I remember the short, stocky little old ladies, dressed in black, a black handkerchief over their hair and a warm smile. Greece is warm, exotic and somewhat familiar. It seems to have one of its toes in central Europe and one of its toes in the Middle East.
The ferry that took us to the island dropped us at the harbour where there is a small town perched around, up and on the rising hillside. Anywhere you need to go requires walking up and down long flights of stone stairs.
My mother and I would spend most days walking around the island.
Remembering this moment in my young life, I think the experience taught me that the kindness of people you don't know is a testament to the fact that we are all, in the end, the same.UA
We had a walking guide book and a compass. I don’t think we had detailed maps. Certainly no GPS. Most days we would arrive back to the town in the afternoon and have to make our way down the long winding stone steps to the harbour, then up another flight of steps to where we were staying. One day I remember being given a free lift on a donkey by a old man on his way home. He sat me on top of the large scratchy bundle of wood the donkey was carrying and we “jogged” our way down the stairs. I remember on more than one occasion old women rushing out of their houses as they saw us passing to give me a large bag of cookies and sweets. I remember playing with a marching line of soldier ants who intercepted and marched off with the smarties I left for them along their route.
One day my mum had decided to walk to a secret bay that can only be reached by foot or boat. On this occasion, the walk took us longer than we thought. I don’t know if it was because of my trailing feet, the tortoise we met en-route or because the route was harder to find than my mum had anticipated. In any case, by the time we arrived at the beach it was already mid-afternoon. I remember feeling worried about the long walk back.
Then, shortly after we arrived, a local couple breezed up to the beach in a lovely little wooden motorboat. They waved at us, made a fire and went about their business. They were collecting different sea creatures such as mussels and sea urchins to take home for their dinner.
We couldn’t talk to each other so we communicated with gestures and smiles.
The lady came up to me and cracked open a sea urchin, gesturing to me to eat it. I remember feeling disgusted, but delighted she was being kind to me at the same time. I waited until she walked away before throwing it back to the sea. I didn’t want her to think I wasn’t happy to be offered what was to her a treat, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat it either.
The evening drew in and I remember then the couple insisting my mother and I accompany them in their boat back to the harbour town. Tired and relieved we didn’t have to make the long walk back in the dark we gratefully accepted.
Cocooned in the boat under a warm blanket, the sound of the waves, the boat engine, looking up at the billions of twinkling stars above my head. Sleepy. Feeling safe. I am not sure it is possible for a child to be more happy and content than I was in that moment.
Remembering this moment in my young life, I think the experience taught me that the kindness of people you don’t know is a testament to the fact that we are all, in the end, the same. Other people should not be feared. I learned we are different on the outside – we have different beliefs and different ways of life. However, when we live ordinary, simple lives and show kindness to strangers, we can find peace and a harmony that transcends language, beliefs and politics.