(Published in The Malaysian Insider, 15 January 2012)
I realise with great consternation that travel is not about being a gawking tourist at historical destinations of the world.
I have since accepted that travel is less about ticking off the checkbox in my list of destinations than it is about collecting images of sun-kissed faces and pallid lips of locals at the foot of a mountain.
Travel, to me, is always about striking up odd conversations with equally odd strangers.
I have so far learned to accept certain acute situations: for instance, that half an inch is a perfectly comfortable margin between life and a horrific car accident in Istanbul’s traffic.
But reality, of course, is a slap in the face: you certainly are no Marco Polo when you insist on a decent toilet, a GPS device supported by cut-throat international roaming rates, and a hotel room equipped with a UNIFI-speed internet connection. Duh!
I awoke the sleeping traveller in me during one random train ride from Aberystwyth to Birmingham circa 1995. A boy had just broken my tender heart of 20. I couldn’t decide which was colder at the time: the menacing gales from the nearby Irish Sea, or my frozen heart.
The hüzün in my soul matched that of the grey, overcast Welsh sky — I was no longer the Skylar of his heart.
Disillusioned by the injustice of romance, I made a vow to never fall in love again (that has no bearing of truth whatsoever). I also swore off boys till the dawn of Apocalypse (this too is fiction), but I kept travelling whenever time and money were kind to me.
Fast forward to 16 years later: armed with a much healthier state of the heart and overrated guide books, here I was, half away to the top of the Acropolis, cursing the travel bug in me like a mad sailor.
Late autumn sun refuses to simmer the heat, the temperature lingers at 35 degree Celcius. And tackling the limestone steps of the Acropolis in hostile temperature is an affirmative way to premature cardiac arrest — especially to those who avoid exercising.
Still, no possibility of cardiac arrest could deter millions of visitors from ascending the Acropolis in search of, the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the virgin patron of Athens, the goddess Athena.
More than 2,400 years after its construction, the Parthenon still dominates the azure skyline of Athens above all other historical attractions.
This is Herod Atticus Odeon at the foot of the Acropolis. It was built by Herodes in memory of his wife, Regilla, who died in 160 AD.
The structure, originally painted in myriads of red, green and blue had survived until 1687, but it was reduced to ruins when the Venetians who were hiding from the Turkish invasion sparked an explosion.
Until today, the Parthenon is still undergoing massive restoration effort.
Next to the Parthenon, the Erechtheion stands proud with six draped female columns — Caryatid Porch (the porch of the maidens) — but there are only five left.
Lord Elgin of England had stolen the last column to decorate his Scottish mansion and later sold it the British Museum. Legend has it that at night, the five remaining caryatids could still be heard wailing for their lost sister.
And at this very same spot goddess Athena and Poseidon had fought for control of Athens. Poseidon struck his trident into the rock of Acropolis and salt water gushed out from the city of stone, whilst Athena offered olive tree. The Olympian gods had decided that Athena was the winner of the battle.
But no legendary anecdote could rival the view of the Parthenon from Lycabettus Hill at night or the electrifying ambience of Plaka Street.
Packed to the brim with tourists and locals selling all kinds of souvenirs imaginable — from brass Sparta helmets to hand woven fabrics — Plaka serves as the heartbeat of Athens where friendly Athenians can be seen smiling towards the boisterous tour groups. They don’t do the same at city center, Syntagma.
In a lifestyle that parallels to ancient democracy tradition, Athenians often gather at Syntagma Square to protest over austerity measures and the quality of life in Greece.
A quick chat with the book-cart owner down at Piraeus reveals that things are ‘generally hard’ around Athens: money is scarce, the number of tourists has dwindled in the wake of economic downturn and the euro currency crisis threatens to break Athenians asunder.
Apart from the five wailing sisters next to Parthenon and the gleaming edifice of the New Acropolis Museum (estimated to cost 130 million euro), my battered Moleskine has recorded plenty of hastily scribbled notes.
I get to squat at the spot where Socrates addressed his public and where democracy was subsequently born at the Agora. I could sense the palpable desperation of Plaka shop owners urging the visitors to buy something, anything at all.
I recall conversing in sign language with an elderly gypsy selling gorgeous white tablecloth — suffice to say the transaction did not go through due to a communication breakdown.
I remember sitting next to one Christian orthodox priest in Athens Metro only to snoop at what he was reading — he wasn’t very amused with me.
I laugh reading the scribble on page 45 of my notebook: “husband mad cos the sound of my shutter button awoken the sleeping homeless at National Garden.”
Until today, I still cannot comprehend the barrenness of The Temple of Olympian Zeus, too sterile and forgotten.
Not forgetting the hours I had wasted trying to decipher the graffiti on the walls of Syngtagma buildings.
The impossible fights I had had to endure with the husband trying to translate signboards written either in Greek or Latin to English.
That moment when I had to stifle my laugh looking at the pompom-decorated shoes of the guards in front of the Parliament, or to just stare lustfully at the gorgeous Greek god in an Armani suit, on a Vespa, along the cobblestone path of our hotel.
But above all, it was the street tango dance in Monastiraki Square that stole my heart in Athens. A few nights a week, in between the old mosque and the water fountain, Academia Del Tango held free tango lessons for all and sundry.
The sultry rhythm coupled with sexually inspired movements suffused the air throughout the night. Ah, tango is still the most vocal expression of chemistry between the bodies, espoused in language known only to the dancers.
The next day, I left Athina airport with that tango scene wildly playing in my mind. Till we meet again on my next note, hopefully from Istanbul.
* Elviza Michele Kamal loves the traditional maps but cannot resist the GPS.