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Agias Prokopios Beach, Naxos, Greece

3 May-21 June 2022. Fear at the beginning. Unusual for me. Perhaps prescient. I don’t know. Something could go wrong!

After one of the flights we’d booked was cancelled and as we continued trying to book flights Don suddenly thought of a reading from the I Ching: Difficulty at the Beginning.

At the beginning.

It was still difficult in the middle, and all the way to the end.

We persevered and got our flights and accommodation and transportation all planned and booked. All was in place.

Don had forgotten how enlivening travelling is. To some extent I had too. We get stuck in our safe comfortable easy routines. Travelling is always about getting out of your comfort zone, even if it’s easy travel – on a tour, or to a familiar place. It’s always about leaving home, leaving the safe space, taking a risk.

The entire flight to London the man in the seat immediately behind us continually coughs and sneezes and loudly clears his throat. I wear ear plugs and noise-cancelling head phones and I can still hear him. Is he wearing a mask? Only sporadically. Thousands of flights and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

At our hotel near Gatwick I stagger jet-lagged around the internet putting one brain cell in front of the other until it’s time to go to sleep before our very early flight to Dubrovnik.

Don spends ages trying without success to get the British Airways app to accept our online check-in. The BA app wraps the trip like parentheses; the same frustrating problem at the beginning and again at the end.

Sunset from the balcony of our Airbnb in Dubrovnik.

Not much sleep; some calming meditation. This lack of sleep, lack of routine, jet lag, is the less glamorous side of travel and there’s not much to be done about it. Then while packing to leave the hotel I have a strong feeling of how familiar it is, and that it’s all fine. We know how to do this. We know how to do this travelling thing. Then later on in the trip it occurs to us more than once that it’s been so long since we travelled that we’ve forgotten how.

Afternoon of the first day in Dubrovnik. I try to sleep. Don spends a couple of hours talking to a tech person because he’s suddenly having problems with his computer.

Day four in Dubrovnik: a pleasant excursion by ferry to Cavtat.

But by this time I’m feeling a bit crabby, feeling the need to have the freedom to go off exploring at my own pace, which feels to me to be faster, more curious, and more adventurous than everyone else. S would, but an unresolved medical issue slows her down. Same with Don. L is slower and has a different travel style. Maybe I just have to accept that this trip will be different than my usual style.

Day five: an excursion to Ston

and the Peljesac Peninsula.

You can see the oyster beds in the distance

Apart from the fact that we all eat fresh (as it turns out not-so-fresh) oysters and get food poisoning, it’s a long day seeing not much more than some very twisty back roads, and a lot of construction for the Peljesac-Korcula bridge. One of those travel days where not much goes right.

An excursion to Lokrum Island. Lovely.

The peacocks have me enchanted

But by the end of the day those oysters are making their presence felt. It’s norovirus. Ugh! As Don wrote in his notes: Travel is so full of unanticipated surprises. No kidding. And this: Travelling with three other people is more challenging than travelling with just one (Alison).

Also from Don’s notes: What makes no sense to me, is why or what I’m doing travelling around Europe at this time in my life. I turn 80 in five months, but I don’t feel like an 80-year-old. I’m travelling because it is both stimulating and enlivening, and is helping to keep me physically and mentally active. My “natural” inclination has always been to try to avoid any potentially challenging experiences, and for that reason I have missed out on a lot of adventures. To come on this trip to Europe I had to keep on challenging my fears, and keep saying yes to going, instead of looking for excuses to avoid going.

Next day, sick or not, we pack for the ferry from Dubrovnik to Split – 4.5 hours on a bus on the water. And the day after, a walk around Split with L and Don: some lovely “flaneuring” in the sun. Feeling mellow and relaxed.

Friday the 13th. Exactly ten days into a seven-week trip Don admits that his inguinal hernia is bulging more than ever. It’s the kind of thing that’s relatively benign if you take care of it – i.e. not lifting or carrying anything. Anything! Certainly not carrying a backpack and dragging a case up and down stairs, on and off busses and ferries and planes. If the tear in the muscle gets big enough what’s inside starts to come out; then it’s a medical emergency requiring hospitalization and surgery. We find a pharmacy and buy some stretchy bandaids to tape him up but also of course have the discussion about whether or not to abandon the whole trip. Is it worth the risk to continue? From Don’s notes: I decided to say yes to this holiday because I was finally tired of saying no to more travelling, despite my concerns about the potential hernia problem. I wasn’t going to let fear stop me this time, so I still need to have that attitude to continue enjoying myself while I’m here in Europe. So here I am, challenged to keep facing my fears, and telling the truth about what is happening to me. I’ve had a lifetime of getting sick or injured in order to avoid feeling afraid or happy or excited, of staying quiet and small in order to feel safe – this is no way to live life to the fullest. Can I overcome that habit now that I have more insight and awareness? I sure hope so. Despite the setbacks of the food poisoning and the hernia I feel generally well and willing to continue our travels through Croatia and Greece.

Yay! But it also engenders ongoing discomforts and challenges for both of us.

A day later Don writes: I feel like I’m learning a lot about appreciating the moments this trip: just sitting in the sunshine looking out over the waters of the Adriatic, and enjoying an ice cream. No complaints and nothing more wanted. I was sick, now I have recovered, I have significant physical challenges, but they are manageable, and life goes on. Travelling always has its unexpected challenges, the difference for me so far, is that I have not let myself be defeated or discouraged by them. And this: I realized that healthy aging needs to be about acceptance and adaptation, not just about loss. We get what we get, and then we deal with it as best we can, my inguinal hernia being a prime example.

We have a day, perfect in so many ways, renting a car and driving around Hvar Island.

On the ferry to Hvar

Stari Grad

Hvar Town

My sister S drove. Okay I’ll just say it out loud: Don and I are both pretty much terrified of her driving. More than once I thought we were going to topple off the edge of the cliff. Stressful.

A long and full day: ferry to Supetar on Brac Island, bus to Bol,

mini-train to Zlatni Rat Beach, then reverse.

An afternoon bus ride to Plitvice Lakes National Park. We have the upstairs front seats on a double decker bus! Two full days in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. The photo is a teaser.

Back in Split

for one night. Staying in lovely rooms on the third floor of a building without an elevator.

Perhaps now is a good time to explain about the luggage. I’m on my own with this. For various reasons S and L can’t help. Don needs to learn a new role – not the role where he takes care of his own things. Not the role where he helps me. But a whole new role – the guard. I climb three flights of stairs with my camera bag and both our backpacks while he guards our cases. Then I come back down for one case, and again for the next. By the end of this trip I have serious biceps. When we’re moving from place to place and no steps are involved it looks like this:

We shed more and more things the longer we travel – clothing, a hand towel, Don’s slippers, anything we think is not absolutely necessary.

From Split we take the ferry to the island of Vis for two peaceful days.

From my notes: Stressed about getting to the ferry on time. At a cafe for breakfast arguing with S about whether or not to tip the waiter, then lost it and yelled at everyone. Felt like I was carrying the load for getting everyone to the ferry. L slow, S hip issue, Don with hernia, couldn’t get through to book the taxi. Thought I’d have to go get a taxi (a twenty-minute walk – in Split you can’t hail a taxi in the street, you have to go to one of the ranks) then get back and get all the luggage downstairs with no one able to help. Stressed so lost it. Spilled my coffee everywhere. Don mad at me. Back at hotel I apologized to S and L and we all hugged, and it cleared the air. Phew. Finally got through to book a taxi.

Sibling stuff. Childhood personalities. You think you’re over it, but every now and then they poke their heads up and say: Remember us? We’re still here.

On Vis we have an Airbnb with a balcony overlooking the harbour. And yes, there are stairs involved.

From Vis we return to Split. The next day we take the ferry to Dubrovnik. The day after Don and I fly to Athens. Yes there’s a direct ferry from Vis to Dubrovnik but it was not listed back in April when we made our plans. Sometimes it’s a good idea to do things on the fly, but we couldn’t know how busy it would be. Would there be a post-Covid travel boom? Or would people be turned off going to somewhere like Croatia because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? We had no way to know so we booked what we could.

From Don’s notes: I started feeling like cancelling our plans for Greece and heading back to Vancouver as soon as our Croatian travels were over. By this afternoon I had a very different perspective: we will travel around Greece as if we are rich, including taxis whenever possible, help with carrying our luggage onto ferries and into our accommodation, and wheelchair assistance at airports for me.

We arrive at the hotel in Athens before our room is ready. We’re waiting in the lobby when I discover that I’ve left my computer on the plane. It is a visceral moment. A cold wave washes over me. I can feel both a scream and tears wanting to emerge but hold them in check. Soon we’re in a taxi back to the airport. After jumping through some airport security hoops I’m allowed back into the air-side of the arrivals area. A fairly quick conversation at the Aegean Air lost luggage desk establishes that they have it, and soon it is in my hands. We are not yet used to our new roles. Don is always the one to get our backpacks from the overhead bins, but because he can’t I’m too focused on doing that to see that I’m walking off the plane with my computer still sitting on the seat. It costs “only” 90 Euros in taxis to and from the airport to retrieve it. Ninety Euros is nothing compared to the extra we are spending on taxis generally when we would normally take public transport. We don’t stress about the money. It’s one of the messages from years of travel that seems to have stuck.

Athenians’ Athens

I have quinoa salad for dinner. It tastes great but makes me nauseous.

Two days in Athens and we cram in climbing Filopappas Hill, the Central Market, the neighbourhoods of Plaka and Anafiotika, and of course the Acropolis.

We get an overnight ferry from Athens to Crete. A porter on the ferry helps us with our luggage and Don, instead of tipping him five Euros, accidentally tips him 20! Oops. Didn’t I mention something about how we’ve forgotten how to travel?

What a sweet little gem of a town Chania is.

A day trip to Balos and Gramvousa,

and another to Elafonisi.

The day after Elafonisi Beach Don notices an angry red rash all around his ankles. What now?! Pretty soon we discover it’s Exercise Induced Vasculitis. Elevating his legs pretty much takes care of it.

In the spirit of continuing to pack in as much as possible on this trip without actually dying from exhaustion we also do a day trip to Rethymno,

then take a bus to Heraklion.

An evening consciously pushing through exhaustion to be sure we have all the information we need to get to Knossos the next day. Worth it. Pure magic!

From Don’s notes: Two more weeks here in Greece. I feel that I’m finally finding my travel legs, and am doing almost no inner complaining about our circumstances. We rest when we feel tired, and don’t keep pushing to try to see everything there is to see. Coping with a bulging hernia presents its challenges, but so far having it bound up with big bandaids seems to be working well. The worst thing is removing the old bandaids. TMI?

Santorini is next. Also magic.

We hike the ten kilometres from Fira to Oia, and take a sunset cruise in the caldera.

As we’re leaving the hotel I pick up my (new) case to carry it up the stairs to the street and the handle comes off in my hand. I lift the case by wrapping my arms around it and carry on.

And so we continue. A ferry to Naxos

where we do day trips to Agios Prokopios Beach (one of the best days!) and the inland towns of Filoti

and Halki.

In Naxos we find a small hardware store and buy a roll of (fake) duct tape and I wrap the entire role of tape all the way around the case to re-attach the handle.

After Naxos a ferry to Milos.

The ramp onto the ferry is so steep that there is no way I can carry the backpacks and drag both cases up all in one go. A sweet woman we’d been talking to while waiting to board takes one of the cases for me. After I stow the cases we head to comfortable seats in an almost empty lounge. Later we find out we’re in the first class lounge. No one makes us move.

On Milos we get the bus to Plaka

and hike down to Klima.

The next afternoon we go to Sarakiniko

And the day after take an all-day cruise around the island.

Finally it is time to get the ferry back to Athens. We have come full circle. In Athens our Airbnb is on the third floor. By now I have biceps the size of tennis balls.

We somehow find the energy to go to the changing of the guard,

the Acropolis Museum, and the Agora of Athens.

We learned when we travelled full-time that three weeks was long enough to be moving from place to place and then it was time to just stop, for at least two weeks. Apparently we forgot that.

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming Wow! What a Ride!
Hunter S. Thompson – The Proud Highway

From my notes: I remember Thompson’s words and realize that this is largely how I live my life. So if this is how I live my life I don’t get to complain when things get uncomfortable or challenging or difficult! I also can see how very stressed I’ve been throughout this whole journey through Croatia and Greece, especially with Don’s hernia and having to deal with all the bags. And lots of internal complaint – about how I can’t get my tea and coffee the way I like it, about the food in various places, and also being stressed about my diet – too much sugar and stodge and not enough greens and fruit and vegetables. And I just wanna go home where it’s comfortable and safe and I can take care of all these things! Chuckle.

There is a whole story about trying to check in online through BA’s app, getting to the airport, getting through the complete zoo that is Heathrow even though (especially because?) Don had booked wheelchair assistance so I wouldn’t have to carry all the bags down those long airport corridors, and our flight being delayed for four hours. Airlines are desperately understaffed.

But this is enough for now.

We arrived back in Vancouver late on June 21.

I keep trying to get here, as in here at home in Vancouver. It’s as if I’m trying to put on old familiar comfortable clothes and I’m not sure if they fit anymore. Or if I want them to. I’ve never felt so depleted after a trip, but bit by bit the tension drains away, and my feet find a landing on safe ground.

I look back over the seven weeks completely dumfounded. What was that! I’m still trying to figure it out.

Next several posts: the stories and photos of all the wonderful and fabulous and extraordinary and beautiful places we went to, and experiences we had on this trip. Worth it!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.