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A Rough Climb to Demeter’s Temple

Theresa Hunt in Greece

"Harrrrgh". It's that exasperated sigh that Steve gives when he's intensely frustrated - so frustrated that he can't even kick anything or throw something. It was windy, cold, something you wouldn't expect on a Greek Island, but this is Naxos, land of irony.

It was strange enough to pass by souvenir stands selling chipped candleholders with "Santorini" written on them in Sharpie marker. But to be prattling through a rocky, uninhabited, mars-like terrain now on a bargain scooter, which we couldn't get past, oh, 30 mph, was almost too much to take in. But then, how would I know we were only going 30 mph, when the speedometer was broken? It was all for the best, I supposed, considering the brakes were so soft.

Steve wasn't in the mood for seeing the glass half full that day, especially since the scooter had stalled out three? maybe four times since we'd left "Porto Naxos", our "five star" hotel, the one with the ants in the bathroom and the concierge who couldn't take his eyes of Steve's derriere. Oh, and lest I forget to mention it later: the melted chocolate candy and half empty water bottles in the "mini bar". I guess I wasn't quite in the mood, either, since I burned my leg by getting off on the wrong side of the scooter, precisely what he told me not to do.

We had been to Mikri Vigla and Kastraki beach the day before. The sand was soft, the sun, pink. The beach was nearly deserted, and the water clear enough to notice that the smooth, cold stones shifting under the water were multi-colored. We sat, thought, talked for hours. We smiled a lot. Natural smiles, coming from a place deep within - a place of comfort and beauty, of luscious peace and calm. It had been a while since those kinds of smiles had been for either one of us - we let the teacher smiles, business smiles, i want to buy this house smiles, and wedding smiles crumble and shatter in the afternoon sun, slipping into the Aegean.

Today, an adventure. Head out to Moutsouna, on the other side of the island. Another coastal city, but certainly no Hora. The map in the hotel room was not a topographical map. It was flat, and pink, the island itself blue. There were a few red veins running through the map that showed some roads, and mile markers noting the Goody's (like BK, but grosser) and car rental places along the way. Our guidebook’s map wasn't much better - it showed a far away, aerial view of the island, alongside the most eastern part of nearby Paros.

Despite being rather confused, we left early and headed west, in search of something. Cultural, historic, ancient - something besides the isolated beaches and contemplative relaxation we treasured but didn't want to exploit, silently each afraid we might overuse them somehow.

As such, we found ourselves pulled over on the side of the road, trying desperately to untangle Greek signs, cryptic to us despite their feeble attempts to use English and Greek alphabets. A German or Norwegian couple roared past us on the BMW of scooters - a shiny silver Peugeot with an elongated seat that comfortably fit two people, the back rider even raised up a bit for better viewing pleasure. I looked on in envy as the sunglassed pair waved and pointed behind them, perhaps hoping to help us find wherever it was they just came from. If they were there, after all, wouldn't we want to be?

They seemingly shrugged and roared away when we only looked up at them momentarily and then looked back at the hotel map. I shot a glance at our lawn mower of a scooter parked pathetically under what little shade there was, and suppressed a groan when I thought of getting back on. The seat was barely enough for Steve, let alone me. Oh, and in case I forgot to mention it before, there were also no shocks on the bike. Not bad shocks, no shocks.
"Well let's just keep driving that way", I said, pointing to what I thought might have said "Apiranthos", which was just south and west of "Moutsouna". Steve shrugged and off we went, at a rip-roaring 20 mph.

It wasn't so bad, actually, since at slower speeds you don't swallow as many bugs or get things in your eyes as quickly. I found myself moping and muttering a bit, cursing my idea to turn down the suggestion to return to Mikri Vigla with it's soft, cool sand and topless only swimming and seek out some adventure instead.

But then, we turned the corner. Great mountains and foothills rose up in front of us. There was nothing, save for a few practical, stone homes scattered along the roadside, some donkeys pulling carts with no driver in sight, and a lonely, lovely, blue and white stone church high up on the peak of the mountain. There was nothing but vast openness, low greens and the beautiful tans of dry Greek earth. I leaned forward with my hands around Steve, and I could feel him smiling again. A new kind of contemplative peacefulness, happiness, found in a new way. The higher we climbed, the windier it got, the sea breeze (or view of the sea) no longer obstructed by the cliffs below us.

We found a sign that offered up the Temple of Demeter, for our viewing pleasure, and wound our way in and out of villages to find it. We passed more donkeys, more old men wrapped in what could only be wool clothing, despite the heat. We passed clotheslines, dark skinned boys playing soccer barefoot on dirt roads. We had been thundering down one road for quite some time, so we pulled over and asked one of the boys "Pou ine Demitras?" - where is Demeter's temple? He looked shocked - shocked to see us, shocked to hear bad greek, shocked anything could interrupt their game. We tried again, and he pointed onward, in the direction we were headed. With an efharisto - a thank you - we drove on and eventually found it - the ruins of a temple perched on a hilltop high above the villages below.

Half an hour and 500 or so steps later, we found the ruins, not quite looking like ruins, and completely abandoned. There was a small rope which at one point might have been meant to keep people out, but laid on the ground now, unmaintained. Excavation sites being pursued by the University of Athens were covered in glass or filled in with stone, little plastic signs denoting what was found or hoping to be found. We ran at the temple when we saw there was no barrier - we jumped like children up and down the steps, darting behind columns and daring to step over the one rope standing to feel the cold marble entrance way under our feet.

The temple had been broken down to build a church, a sacred church high on this hill, dedicated to Christianity after several wars and centuries had gone by. The liberal university then saw to it, perhaps in the "light a fire under your patriotism" decades of the 20th century, to brake down the church and rebuild what was taken from the temple - the columns, the marble, the stone. The floor stood, never shifted, but the temple, rising up once again, provided us with shade, a chance to touch, and a reason to say "hey, at least it got us here" instead of resenting the scooter for the rest of the day.

Of course we continued back from our detour, the scooter finally turning over after the fourth try at starting it, passing by the same group of boys playing soccer, who decided to run after us for a bit and yell "YAY, DEMETRAS!" for reasons only known to them.

When we finally got back to the Island’s main drag we were as exhausted as we were pleased that we’d again found another out of the way spot for the day. "We’d better get to sleep early," Steve said over some take-away Gyros later on that evening. I nodded. We wanted to get out to a mountain that hid an old monastery – we’d been told not to go because the nearly impossible climb wasn’t worth the trouble. I looked at the scooter and winced, but I must admit my heart pounded in anticipation for our next wandering day out.

© Theresa Hunt - May 2004

Bio: Theresa is an avid traveler who teaches Literature, Writing, and Women's Studies at two universities in her home state of New Jersey. She has explored travel through volunteer work, education, and ecotourism projects, and most recently spent time in Greece and North Africa.

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