Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative and photographic blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. People say to me all the time, "You should write a book about your travels." Well, my friends, this is essentially it. And in this age, an online blog is easier, displays a bajillion more photos, needs no publisher, and reaches a wider audience than print. The down side: unlike a formal book or essay, I'm just writing casually off the top of my head, but I hope, dear readers, you will feel as if I'm having a conversation with you. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are the "letters to home" style accounts of what I did. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
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So this is mostly a photo tour. Do you like how my "narrative" travel blog has morphed over the years from mostly text-based to mostly photography-based? It's cuz I'm lazy. :-) Also, my interest in photography has grown like a baobab or a panda ... i.e. dramatically. And, truth be told, I've come to see the truth in the old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words ... or if not quite a thousand, a whole lot of them. It's more expedient for conveying things ... buildings, landscapes, animals, what people look like, etc. If something particularly interesting happened to us in these villages, I'd tell you about it. But mostly we just wandered around contentedly, got totally and genuinely lost, and had a very pleasant time -- one day by ourselves and another afternoon with two fellow volunteers with A Drop in the Ocean who were working with us at the Souda refugee camp in Chios Town.
But a wee bit of background for the two villages I'm going to share with you in this post, Pyrgi and Mesta. They are sometimes referred to as "mastic villages," being located in the southern part of Chios Island, where the mastic trees grow. I'd never heard of mastic until arriving on Chios, where I learned it is (a) grown only here on Chios and nowhere else in the world, (b) when made into mastiha liqueur, it's fabulously delicious. It's used in many other products, as well, both edible and non (like body care products). Plain mastiha candies taste kind of like cut grass or earth, but add a little mint flavor and they're far tastier (according to *my* taste buds). It's rather remarkable how delicious the liqueur is compared to the plain candy.
But, "What is the mastic?" you ask. "Does it grow on the mastic trees? Is it harvested like olives? Is it the root?" Nay. Mastic (pretty much interchangeable with "mastiha," as far as I can tell) is actually the sappy resin in the tree bark. Farmers bore holes into the bark, put a plastic tarp skirt around the base of the tree and let the resin run down the trunk, then collect it in the skirt. The trees are quite small, kind of like olive trees, and we could see terraced groves of them from the roads. So anyway, if you can get your hands on some mastiha liquor, go wrap your little fingers around a bottle of it. There are different alcohol contents, we found we preferred the middle-of-the-road 28%. Pretty much every night in our hotel room we had a nightcap (or two) of mastiha before bed.
Mesta is a classic medieval mastic village. Here and at all of the small villages on Chios, as a visitor you must park your car outside the old city walls, there are usually small parking lots. The streets were built to scale for donkeys, not cars! There are several entry points through the city walls into the maze. Mesta was built in the Byzantine era (approx. 14th century) and its high defensive walls and central tower were designed on account of the pirates and Turks who were always trying to raid them and their mastic stores.
The city walls:
The narrow streets ... a miniature tractor manages his way down the cobblestones.
The interior maze of streets (what I'd consider more aptly as alleyways) are lined with houses adjoined to one another in solid blocks, interspered with archways. Most doorways looked like they belonged to abanonded homes. But there is, in fact, a hotel in the middle of the village and several tourist souvenir shops and a large central courtyard of restaurants, so the place does not feel dead.
The biggest attraction for island locals is the church, Megalos Taksiarhis, aka "the big Archangels Church," the largest orthodox church on the island and one of the biggest in all of Greece. It was built in the mid-1800s where the original castle tower had been built in the Byzantine era.
And just in case you did not get enough kitties in the Kitties of Chios post, here is one I title, "The Dark Kitty" ... emerging from his dark alley lair!
And another shot of the blind kitty also pictured in the Tuesday Tale, "A Life Left to the Cats," about an abandoned home we explored in Mesta.
Now we move on to the uniquely picturesque southern Chios village of Pyrgi, the largest of the mastic villages, and often referred to as "the painted village." Pyrgi has been mentioned in old documents as far back as the 11th century. Apparently, it's widely believed that Christopher Columbus is descended from a family in Pyrgi and that he lived for a time in the village. Why is it called the painted village? Because of the unique black or gray and white geometrical decorative motifs on the facades of the buildings. It's called Xysta and is made by a plastering-sand being applied to the wall, carefully painted white, then scraped with the designs. So the designs are etched, not painted, in spite of the "painted village" moniker.
Of course there is the ubiquitous village clock tower rising above town, and the old man enjoying the afternoon sun. Er, well, he's in the shade, but the sun will get to him .....
A central feature of Pyrgi is the Church of Ayioi Apostoloi (Holy Apostles). A Byzantine-era church, it mimics, on a smaller scale, the architectural structure of the larger Nea Moni monastery (which I'm planning to show in a future blog post). There is an inscription that dates the erection to 1546, but historians consider the architectural features to be a more reliable date (Byzantine 14th century) and therefore conclude it was merely repaired or remodeled at that time. The interior walls and ceiling of the church are covered in frescoes, but we were not allowed to take photographs inside the church. I'm glad we got to visit it twice, to better cement in my own memory the interior, which is really quite small.
Its ancient Byzantine structure and plain stone facade stand out in a kind of simplicity in contrast to the elaborate Xysta facades of the rest of the village center.
Like Mesta, Pyrgi is a combination of abandonment and vibrance. Some of the abandonment:
Some of the vibrance:
I guess Erik's the main vibrance here.
It appears I just can't help myself from including one last kitty picture, I included a different shot of this sweeite in Kitties of Chios. Only one of the many kitties we accosted with my camera in the mastic villages.
It's easy to drive around Chios, there aren't that many roads and there isn't much traffic, or at least there wasn't in April. Most people think of the Mediterranean islands like Santorini when they think of Greek Islands. But a visit to the Aegean island of Chios would make a nice addition to any Greek itinerary.
In case you're not sure how to pronounce "Chios," it makes an alliteration with "kitties." Or at least the sort of English-ized version does, the Greek sound of the "Chios" is not a sound we have in English and is kind of a combination of "k" and "h." Anyway, just wanted to be sure you understand the cleverly alliterated title. (haha ... nobody else could ever have thought of something so intellectually complex and clever!)
Now, whatever could this post be about? You must be on the edge of your seat with raw curiosity. So, although we came to Chios Island in order to volunteer at the Souda refugee camp, we spent several days sightseeing on the island, which turned out to be a great tourist destination, many interesting villages to see. Souda camp no longer exists, by the way. Several months after we left, the municipality took up all the tents and everything, to restore their nice beach for the tourists landing in the ferries to remain blissfully unaware of the refugee crisis and the abysmal living conditions of those hoping for approval for asylum in Europe. Everyone in Souda was moved to other camps, most of them to Vial, which is the other one on Chios run by the Greek military and a far, far worse place to be than Souda ever was. It's a real shame.
So without forgetting the unfortunate reason we were there, I'd like to introduce you to the feline inhabitants of the villages of Chios. I take pictures of kitties everywhere we go, as I love them and always miss mine while traveling. Erik and I are the creepy people accosting cats across the globe with my camera and our fingers just itching to dish out some pets and scritches (as illustrated also in my Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, post). But Chios had a particular preponderance of friendly ones, most of them looking quite healthy, and so I decided to collect some of them together in a post for cat lovers. That's the rest of this post: cat pictures!
These cuties come from the village of Anavatos, which is mostly abandoned now but open to tourists to wander around the ruins. Referred to as a "Byzantine tower-village," the ancient city perches high up on a granite hillside, basically surrounded by cliffs.
So these kitties have very defensible space. And yet they could not escape ME!
Can you locate the little fella below? I could have cropped in on him, but I like how his small size makes the landscape seem particularly epic around him.
These next kitties come from the very beautiful and charming village of Pyrgi, also referred to as "the painted village," known for its unique black-and-white patterned facades on the houses in the medieval town center.
A very beautiful village, and a perfect residence for beautiful kitties!
Now to another hilltop village, Volissos, topped with an 11th century castle, whose narrow streets contained an integrated mix of abandoned ruins, utilized buildlings that look like ruins on the outside, and houses and businesses that people clearly still live in and use.
These kitties were fun to watch, as they were playmates. In the first pic below, what I like most about it is the cat sitting by himself in the background sticking his tongue out.
These cats, I have to confess, I'm not sure which village they're from, but not from any of the other villages I've included here. We did an awful lot of driving around and stopped in some places randomly for a short period of wandering time, and I just don't recall the name of them all. The other villages mentioned here are ones that we specifically drove to as a destination. Anyway, I thought these guys were picturesque in front of the old wooden door and stone doorframe.
We visited the medieval village of Mesta, another Byzantine-era walled village, a couple different times, and it was a particular mecca for cats. It's the perfect kind of village to wander its narrow maze of streets and get lost in.
The mealtime companionship of the cats was mostly fun, but there were the occasional impolite brats who muscled everyone else out and didn't care if their claws or teeth accidentally sunk into the skin of your fingers while you were setting down tidbits. This black fellow was actually really friendly, but he looks intimidating here: "None shall pass without dropping some steak!" You can see what a little fan club I had around me once they sensed what a sucker I was -- which is pretty much the same caliber of sucker as everyone eating in the cafe!
I'm guessing that behind that door lies a bunch of yummy food and a person who is scheduled to bring it all out shortly. The little one peeking out from behind the flower barrel isn't sure whether I am friend or foe.
I think this kitty is cute for the way it kept changing which paw it was holding up ... first her right one, then the left one, like she's a tripod and can only have three legs down at a time.
Every corner you turn, there's a kitty waiting for you!
I included a pic of this perfectly framed cat in the Tuesday Tale, "A Life Left to the Cats."
We did stop over for a couple days in Athens on our way home from Chios.
So ... here's an Athens cat, hanging out outside a little convenience store where we bought some bottled water. Oh, and bonus -- it's got its tongue sticking out! Also here but not pictured was a momma cat suckling her kittens right on the doorstep of the store.
Of course this post does not present the extent of my cat photos from Chios, but I didn't want to be unreasonable and post the whole lot ... I know you guys have other things you need to get done today. :) But these were some of my favorites.
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I saw her on the opposite bank of the river, her head drooping down and walking an unhealthy-looking gait. She sat down in the grass and vomited. I could see, even from across the river, that it was only stomach bile coming out, indicating that she had been vomiting for some time to have reached this point of only bile. She was sick and alone. It was that time of day when afternoon is late but evening is early, and the air was finally starting to cool down.
On my side of the river, her two sisters kept looking across. Busy nursing four children, they alternately laid down in the shade with them and stood up restlessly, eyeing their lone sister. They were clearly very keen to cross the river and be reunited with her; she was too sick to cross herself. There was one big problem that was preventing a happy reunion: crocodiles.
One of my favorite fiction authors is Daphne DuMaurier, and probably my favorite short story of hers is a short vignette describing a little family drama, a family who comes to the park and its pond every day. In your mind's eye as the reader, you conjure up images of all the characters. In the very last sentence, DuMaurier reveals that this whole story has been about a family of swans, not people. She so anthropomorphized the birds and their drama that the reader willingly presumed the story was about people. I always admired that skillful writing and have wished and tried to imitate that technique. But I've never been successful, and I tried it with this tale, but scrapped it, I just couldn't pull it off. The first tip-off that I'm not talking about people may have been two sisters nursing four kids, haha. Plus, I can't wait till the end to start inserting photographs, I want to include too many. So, no, this isn't a human tale, but a brief one about lions. Two lionesses and four cubs on my side of the river, and a lone sick lioness on the opposite bank. And between us, a whole mess of crocodiles.
This is the first safari I've been on where we really had time to settle in and weren't just trying to see as many animals as we could in a short amount of time. We were there long enough that we could spend some quality time with individual animals or families. So on this afternoon in the Khwai Concessions of the Okavango Delta region, when we ran across the small family unit, we spent the whole rest of the day until dark with them. Watching the cubs alternately play, suckle and rest. Of course play time was the best!
But sleepy and snuggle time was super sweet to witness, too. A little reversal of the usual ... the mom snuggles up to her cub who caresses her head. After awhile the cub started licking mom and cleaned her ears up real good.
And now it's time for a big yawn to wake up!
Hope you weren't too frightened by that last photo, it's pretty scary!
The two mothers occasionally nudged each other with affection and seemed to silently communicate their mutual desire to reach their sick sister. They would get up and move the family down the road a little ways and sit contemplating the river. Now, I know you may think I'm anthropomorphizing the lions here, and I don't know how to convey to you the tangibility of their desire, but I assure you it was there. They desperately wanted to cross the river to get to her.
They gathered the cubs up several different times and struck out through the marsh toward the water. Only to be thwarted each time by a crocodile. The cubs seemed to sense the danger even before they got there. The mothers would continue forward until they verified a crocodile was waiting for them, then the whole family would turn around and retreat. They would play and sleep some more, then move down the road to a different stretch of the river, gather together and try crossing again. Again to be turned back by crocodiles.
We kept following them bit by bit as they tried over and over to cross. We were rooting so hard for them. And the sister on the other side matched their movements, moving down the river whenever they did. (I don't have a picture of her, I felt so sad for her being sick, I didn't feel like capturing that on film.)
Just as night was falling to where we could barely even see the lions anymore, the family reached a particularly narrow spot in the river and gathered together to try another crossing. Surely, we thought, at this narrow stretch they can make it across. We ourselves couldn't see any crocodiles. There was a fallen log near the water that the lionesses climbed up on to survey the crossing, and suddenly one of them jumped up straight into the air and batted at a crocodile who'd been lurking on the other side of that log. She let out a bone-chilling roar and growled as she swiped viciously at the croc.
The family turned and began retreating yet again, but it was too dark now for us to track them. They disappeared into the night. The little family and their stranded sister. I don't know what happened to them. A drama with no conclusion. That's the way it is when you can only pass through. The next day we moved on to an adjacent park, but the lions still filled my head and heart ... I felt so wonderfully fulfilled while I watched them play and interact the day before, and now I feel a melancholy emptiness where the gate to their story remains open, and will always remain so.
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Female lions are commonly called a lioness. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard reference to a “leopardess,” but I’d like to submit it for your consideration as an addition to the common lexicon of African wildlife.
At the time I began my latest safari in Botswana, leopards had been the big cat I least appreciated and knew little about. I’d seen only one in the true wild, from a distance, mostly hidden by tall grass. I can’t tell you why they were the big cat of least interest to me, why in contrast to cheetahs, lions and tigers, I was somewhat apathetic about them. The animal I most wanted to see close up on this particular safari was a leopard simply because I had essentially not seen one before -- something to tick off "the list."
Early one morning in the Khwai Concessions in northern Botswana, our studious guide got us on the trail of a moving pack of wild African ("painted") dogs, which are one of the rarer animals to encounter in Africa. We found them taking a break, ten resting adults and eight manic puppies romping and playing with the exuberance possessed by all species of children. We watched them until the adults abruptly got up and, upon some seemingly telepathic cue, all took off into the thick weeds. Our guide valiantly attempted to keep up with them and to forecast where they were headed in order to keep ahead of them so we could see them (we were hoping they were going to make a kill). It was a thrilling chase as we drove frenetically through the maze of vehicle tracks, catching glimpses here and there of the dogs running, trying to parallel them as they ran through the bushes where we couldn’t drive, hoping to intercept them up ahead.
Suddenly the vehicle stopped and our guide said quietly with great satisfaction, for he knew the dogs might lead us to this prize, “Leopard.”
I was so beside myself with excitement, squealing, “leopard! leopard!” that I actually did not see where it was. “Where? Where?”
“Shhhhhhh,” our guide had to counsel me. “You need to be quiet! She’s right there. A female.”
I scanned the bushes frantically and then … there she was, peering through a portal in the bush, standing on a fallen log like serenity itself, as if the word had just been created right then around her – she was its embodiment, as if she exhaled the concept and it enveloped her, and as she stepped out of the bushes, it lifted gently from her and escaped into the world. But she was the genesis of serenity. Silently, she stepped down from the log, placing her large paws gingerly on the ground. She moved with the measured grace of royalty, regal in a splendor not ostentatious, rather, of composure and gravity.
I had been practically panting with the thrill of the chase going after the dogs, careening through the bush in pursuit. When she emerged and strode toward me, I’d like to say that I poetically held my breath, that the world stopped spinning. But I was mouthing the words, trying not to make a sound, “Oh my god! Oh my god!” A curious juxtaposition of my wild and gangly excitement over her calm elegance.
She walked a short distance through the weeds right toward me.
Then she turned away and stood in profile, sleek and feminine with a fluidity of form, her tail artistically curled with the white tip pointed up. She sat down with a detached dignity as if nothing was going on around her -- no wild dogs on the hunt, no humans ogling and clicking cameras. She stood up and walked some more, her gait so smooth, like a puck sliding across glassy ice. The majesty of her presence wasn’t that of a queen, a matriarch, but of a princess, young and desperately beautiful. A leopardess.
The dogs, historically antagonistic toward leopards, came in closer and she prudently retreated into a tree, adeptly navigating the organic fractal of tree branches as if they were but ripples on water she parted like a porpoise.
She was not a cornered animal, frightened and cowering. She simply removed herself from the reach of her adversaries until they moved off, and then she descended to disappear into the bush like a whisper from the mouth of a dream.
While we continued to have many more outstanding animal encounters, this one of the leopardess emerging from the woods remained singularly magical because it was so much more than just a visual encounter to touch this animal's nature as if it were as tangible as her fur ... a nature which is calm but not gentle, for it is predatory. Within this contradiction of a powerful predator making such delicate passage through the bush, lies a profound poise.
A couple days later, we saw another leopardess posed on a trail sign, completely self-possessed, like the first one.
She alighted to the ground and began stalking an impala in the distance. Leopards can direct register, placing the back paw in exactly the same place as the front paw, enhancing their predatory stealth. With intense focus on the impala she lowered her body and lifted each paw slowly and purposefully, placing it back down as if the earth was an eggshell that would crack under a more careless weight.
She sat down in the bushes and pondered the unsuspecting impala until a pair of kory bustards bumbled in and gave her away with a set of alarm calls.
The impala left. And before she left, the leopard princess turned her spotted head back toward me briefly.
The milky eyes of a leopardess belie a dispassionate peace. They are like no other I've ever seen in the animal kingdom ... rendering her an impassive observer of her world. I don't know how to explain it or describe it, but this indifferent countenance is ethereal.
She stepped into the bushes and disappeared into her secret world. But I learned then that a leopardess is never completely absent from the landscape. For in the rounded contours of her paw print, she leaves behind a soft longing in the pith of the souls who watched her. I think if she were not to emerge from the bush again, she would break the heart of Africa.