Monday, 28 July 2008

Where's the fire?

From the 1st of May until the 1st of October on Lesvos, and I guess in the whole of Greece, it's forbidden to start a fire. This means that you're not allowed to burn your garden weeds, you may not try to burn away the bushes on a piece of land to clear it and you may not make a fire in order to smoke away wasps.

This last thing was done by an army officer who had to control some pipes and found a wasps nest. I'm not sure if he managed to get rid of the wasps but certainly he smoked out the surrounding region: he caused a major fire in Dervenochora, in the district of Viotia. He will face severe punishment and probably serve some time in prison.

In Agias Isodoros on the island of Rhodes a 61 year old resident was getting rid of his weeds in the garden and caused with his garden fire a far greater fire: for 6 days the fire raged through the woods of the southern centre of the island. Smoke was so thick that some 2000 tourists had to be evacuated. Firemen from all over Greece were assisted by firemen from Cyprus, Italy and France. Today the fire is finally under control. That man not only burned his garden weed, he got 4 years in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros. About 5,000 hectares of woodland and agricultural ground were lost in the flames.

A fire on the Peloponnessus caused so much smoke that the highway number One of Greece, from Patras to Athens, had to be closed down and trains had to wait in stations.

Since the big wild fires at the end of last summer, where 270,000 hectares of land were burned, many houses were consumed in the flames and 77 people died, the Greeks this summer seem to be on the lookout for fires. Each day you can read in the papers long lists of where there are fires. The worst hit region is that of Athens, but islands like Crete, Corfu and this week Rhodes also got their fair share.

So now the government is under fire. Last year it was often said that the fires were caused by arsonists. However this year researchers pointed out three main causes that have nothing to do with arsonists: the electricity company (DEH) that has such old fashioned poles in the whole of the country, farmers that burn scrub land in order to make fresh pasture for their animals and finally the most complained about cause, and we cannot talk enough about this, the illegal dumps. Well, you could enter a fourth category: the stupid people that don't think, like the men named above.

Last year, farmers who burned scrubland were positive news. A flat land without scrubs is not such a great fire risk and it was said that this farming tradition should continue in order to prevent fires. Problem is that most farmers make these fires after the summer. From the first of October here on the island in the mountains it is a common sight to see little flames turning bushes into a black charred landscape. In those places in spring sheep will find juicy new green grass. So I'm afraid that I can't say for sure if this tradition, when done in the rainy months, prevents or causes wild fires.

Government as well is blamed for not having done enough in the past winter to prevent wild fires. There was no extra money to clean up woods or for more foresters. There are even victims of last years fires who did not see one euro for their lost houses.

The new 'who-to-blame' this year is the electricity company. They have these poles throughout the country that especially in the winter can turn into firework poles. In May such a pole was the cause of a minor fire along the road from Molyvos to Vafios. Some sheep escaped from the flames just in time and the fire was fought by two planes and lots of firemen on the ground.

We also have such a pole at the back of our garden. In the winter it sizzles and spews sparks, especially when it rains. In the winter you don't care, although I once saw such a pole set on fire and the fire brigade had to come and rescue it. However the pole behind our garden was spitting fire even in May. Then the electricity company came as fast as possible to repair it. But at night the pole still joins the cricket chorus with sizzling sounds.

Each night before I go to bed I check the pole is not spitting fire. I already told the meter reader of the phenomenon, as well as the hotel that is close by. But the pole still keeps on sizzling. That doesn't stop me from having a good sleep each night. Maybe I am as fatalistic as the Greeks are, they are no good at preventing whatsoever. My sister said that I should prepare a little emergency suitcase. I had to laugh at that idea. Before I run away I will of course first try to save the house from the flames.

Last week I wrote about water and hesitated to write about fires. Because often enough when I write about a drought, it will sometimes rain and when I write about high temperatures, they will drop the next day. So when I write that until now Lesvos has been so very lucky in not having any big wild fires, I touch wood (a Dutch tradition, say, to turn the evil eye away). And mind you, careless Greeks (and tourists of course) and thoughtless smokers: we must keep Lesvos out of the fires!

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Zero nero

Good water housekeeping is not the strongest side of Greece. First of all not all Greek rivers are clean, and then Greeks have no idea how to handle reservoirs or water supplies.

The polluted Asopo River in Aticca (Southern Greece) was in the news more than once last winter. The little town of Oinofyta, that depends on the water of the Asopo, only recently realised the link between the polluted water and its high number of residents with cancer. Ten years ago this Asopo River even ran purple water! (I must say I once saw the river in Melinda (close to Plomari) also letting its purple water flow into the sea). Last week the municipality of Oinofyta was fined by the Union for Quality and Greek Drinking Water (EKPOIZO), because they were unable to provide the little village of Dilesi (6000 inhabitants) with clean water. This means that the Asopo River is still polluted.

I've no idea if they monitor the rivers here on Lesvos, but I know for sure that the river running past Vatoussa stinks like hell and when walking along its beautiful banks, you're forced to hold your nose!

Lesvos has two reservoirs and neither works. The one at Molyvos (a little outside town, on the right of the road going to Vafios) has been working for a few years, but since it was leaking until emptiness, nobody knew how to repair it (or didn't want to). Last spring the municipality even decided that the collected rainwater in the basin had to go, so they opened some taps and for days some roads were flooded and nobody thought to close them for the dry season.

The reservoir in Plomari (high in the mountains when you go upstream of the Sedounda) never worked. The people of Plomari think they can do without it, they always did, and they refuse to spend more money on the basin that was nearly ready to function. Last summer however Plomari was the first municipality where watering flowers, cars, streets and balconies was forbidden.

I think the Plomarians and Molyvorians better take a good look at the tragedy that unfolds on Cyprus. Last winter Cyprus didn't get any substantial rain and even though they all prayed for rain, nothing came and the island faces a very serious drought. This spring they made plans to save Cyprus: 8 million cubic metres of water had to be transported by ship to Cyprus to fulfil all water requirements (cost: 43 million euros). Two weeks ago the first 40,000 cubic metres of water arrived by tanker in Cyprus. But then the pipeline from-ship-to-shore happened to be a few metres too short! Ooops! Today the tanker is still there with all its water. And the water? It stinks! The authorities say that the water can still be filtered, but the Cypriots, however in need of water they are, don't want it.

The Turkish part of Cyprus in the north is facing the same problem. The Turkish government has decided to build a pipeline for water from the mainland of Turkey to Cyprus next year. They even offered water to their neighbours (peace water), but until now they didn't respond to this offer.

The most curious water pollution happened last week in Anavysos (East- Aticca). Dead birds were found along the shore and after research the birds were found to have died of arsenic poisoning. Small amounts of arsenic in the seawater can kill seabirds, people risk cancer. How come there is arsenic in the water? It might be from an illegal dump or from a leaking rubbissh dump, which is so common in Greece. However, it maybe that in this case the Greeks are not to blame and the arsenic got into the water because of splitting rocks. The area near Anavysos is known for its silver mines and where you find silver, generally you'll also find chlorine, lead, sulphur and arsenic.

It is interesting to think about this. My opinion is that swimming in the sea is very healthy. And if you can prove that the seawater also contains a lot of special minerals, swimming in the sea will be even more attractive. Lesvos is rich with many hot springs that are full of chlorine, calcium, magnesium, boron and lithium and it is a little radioactive (so little that it is no danger to health). It is said that a bath in a hot spring on the island helps people with diseases like arthritis, rheumatism, skin diseases, bronchitis and gynaecologic infections. I presume that a little of those minerals will flow into the sea, which makes the sea around Lesvos very healthy. There is no silver found on the island, so no danger of arsenic (by the way, the prohibition to swim in the sea at Anavysos has been cancelled).

Most beaches on Lesvos are filled with pebbles, some of which have pretty bright colours, which means that they contain some minerals. So lying on these stones will also be good for your health. I start to understand why some people think that this island has magic powers...

Most Greeks think that swimming in a pool is quite unhealthy with all the chemicals and people in it. Lots of tourists just lounge the whole day round the swimming pool of their hotel, because they hate the pebble beaches and think that the sea is dangerous and cold. They don't know what they are missing. Seawater anyway is good for your skin and when the sea is as flat as a mill pond, it's one huge pool where you have all the space in the world to play around. When there is wind, you have a wave pool for free. And here on the Greek islands we certainly have no shortage of seawater...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Sunday, 13 July 2008

What do I see?

Some tourists think Lesvos is very very big. When you show them Turkey on the other side, some say: Well, I thought that was part of Lesvos. I must admit that it can be confusing because Turkey is a big presence in the view from Lesvos. You see Asia Minor from the east, north and south of the island. If you look at a map, you'll see that Turkey kind of embraces Lesvos.

When you get off the plane at the airport near Mytilini, you immediately see Turkey looming in the distance. Opposite to Mytilini is the busy region around Ayvalik and Dikili. It would be romantic to think that the horizon is white because of white chalk cliffs. But they are white chalked houses and other structures that are filling Turkey at a great speed. When you go north in the direction of Edremit, around the Gulf of Edremit, there are also many houses, resorts and hotels. Following this Gulf to the west, towards the north of Lesvos, you will see the little town of Assos, an old city that looks a lot like Molyvos. This region is not so popular with Turkish holidaymakers and it looks much less populous.

When Lesvos was part of the Ottoman Empire, there was a lot of trade between the Turkish mainland and Lesvos. Today they still trade fish. But nothing more than that. If you visit Ayvalik, you will be impressed walking round the market, seeing all the different fruits and vegetables piled high in colourful pyramids. However you are not allowed to bring any fresh food to Greece, due to European regulations to stop diseases. So the Lesvorians buy wedding dresses, furniture, tapestry and whatever is much cheaper than in Greece (and that is everything). When you return to Lesovs on the daily ferry that goes between Mytilini and Ayvalik, there won't be a single Greek with less than 10 packages.

I have to admit that I've never crossed the sea to visit Ayvalik. For about five years now I've look over at Turkey in the direction of Assos and I've always thought I saw an olive press with its chimney pointing at the sky, but if you visit the shore on the other side with Google Earth, you will see that it's a little whitewashed lighthouse.

Although it's not the same as travelling there yourself, Google Earth can give you a good first impression of the regions where you've never been. If you count the houses and umbrellas on the beach, you can make a good guess at how busy the region will be, in case you want to book a holiday there.

Geologically Lesvos belongs to Asia Minor. Once upon a time it was part of the mainland of present day Turkey. At that time there were sequoias on the island (you will find them now only petrified in the Petrified Forest near Sigri) and there were 'deinotheredes' wandering around, a kind of prehistoric elephant. A few years ago near Gavathas they found bones of these huge animals, with the beautiful name 'Prodeinotherium bavaricum'. For scientists this discovery proves that these mammoth-like animals also lived in Europe. Before, remains of these deinotheredes were only found in Africa. Some scientists even go so far as to say this is proof that once the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia were attached to each other.

Nowadays there is no big game left on Lesvos, no elephants to be seen (I won't count the wild boars that has been released around Agiasos for hunting). For the bigger game you have to go to Turkey, where they still have bears and wolves. When you Google Earth the Turkish region opposite Molyvos, you will see mountains covered with large forests (you don't even need Google Earth to see this). That is where they still live, where on a walk you can still run into one of those woolly brown bears. Last week in Australia they found a shark in a coastal swimming pool. The shark probably surfed a big wave into the pool. So everything is possible and who knows, one day there might be a brown bear standing on our front porch, knocking on the door, because bears know how to swim. But I'm sure that then I won't open my door!

From the west of the island, like Sigri, you don't see any land on the other side. You will only see big ships because there it is a shipping lane.

And it isn't only Turkey that you see from Lesvos. From the South, like from Plomari and Eressos, you can very clearly see the neighbouring island of Chios. To the right the island of Psara and at the left the small island Inousses, where two weeks ago the ferry Theofilos lost its job on the rocks (the ferry has been replaced now). To the left of Inousses you will see reappear the mountains of Turkey.

Molyvos has a smashing view over the northern coastline of the island towards the west, but over the sea it just looks towards Turkey. However when you climb higher, in the direction of Vafios and Lepetimnos, when the weather is clear you can se as far as 200 kilometres. Last week we went for dinner at Petrinos in Vafios and the sun was ready to plunge into the sea. Right under the orange ball was a pyramid-like mountain sticking out on the horizon: Mount Athos, a peninsula full of monasteries where only men are allowed. To the right of Mount Athos was Limnos, another neighbour of Lesvos, about halfway to Mount Athos. Because it doesn't have such high mountains you don't see it that often. It was so clear that to the left of Mount Athos you could even see the islet Agias Efstratios. I'm sure that if those mountains with bears on in Turkey were lower, we could even have seen Troy and Istanbul!

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Tourist, Wild, Home and Foreign Cats

I just feel like I'm on holiday once the summer starts. Not just because the weather is warm and each day I can swim in the sea. It's mainly because I no longer have to cook enormous pans of pasta and I no longer have to worry if I have enough food in the house.

The more than 20 cats that I feed in the winter goes down to some days just 3 cats. Instead of tens of feeding bowls only one long one is in use. Most cats in the summer take a very long holiday. The biggest group disappears into the nearby hotel as soon as the first tourists show (actually, they originally come from the hotel!), another group goes to some tourist apartments where there are people that take care there's a permanently full feeding bowl and a lot of attention.

I should organise Cat Holidays. Not for the cats, but for the tourists that feel that they have to take care of these animals during their holidays. It is very sweet, I'm not complaining that they're spoiling the cats, but does anybody realize that there can be consequences from their spoiling the cats? The cats (and some dogs as well) learn to beg for food during dinner, they learn to sit on your lap and they get used to the luxury of sleeping on a bed and being an indoor cat. Originally they are Wild Cats, that have to look after themselves. And this is how a Greek Wild Cat turns into a Tourist Cat.

Another nasty habit of some tourist is that they take cats from the street to their hotel. They probably cannot resist these furry animals and they think: in the hotel they're better off, they get food and attention. Do they ever stop to think what happens to these cats when the hotel closes at the end of the season?

Look, I don't run an animal shelter, but I do try and keep the cat population on an even level. This means that in the wintertime I take the cats to be sterilised and some male cats to be castrated. At the beginning of the summer all the cats are done. So how come that pretty quickly all those cute little kitties appear in the hotel? Please, the hotel is also not an animal shelter!

You don't want to know what happens in November and December when all the hotels are closed. Suddenly Tourists Cats are on their own on the street, no tourists left to give them food or to give them attention. I know that a Greek Cat Life is much harder than the life of a Dutch House Cat, but sometimes I wonder if a Tourist Cat might have a harder life than a Greek Wild Cat. In the summer a Tourist Cat gets accustomed to all the good food and loads of attention, in the winter he has to forget all this wealth and look to his old instincts to survive as a Wild Cat. Think this over whenever you spoil a cat during your holidays.

Luckily enough there is another type of tourists that during their holiday fall in love with a cat or dog and take the animal home. These cats become Foreign House Cats, with a life that many cats here dream of. Sometimes I think about starting an export business for cats. Besides olive oil and feta there are so many cats here on the island that I'm pretty sure you could get rich on them. But then I also think of the many animal shelters in Holland. I mean Dutch Home Cats also are not all happy and often look for a new home.

A book was recently published (in Dutch) called 'Foreign Four Legs'. They praise the import of animals from abroad because they say that the Dutch shelters are so much better than those abroad. Well, what can I say...

Anyhow, here on the island are two shelters that can easily be compared with those in Holland (except they're very poor). There is the Wildlife Hospital in Agia Paraskevi which is meant to be a hospital for injured wild animals like birds and turtles. Their intention is to heal the animals and get them back in the wild. The other shelter is EreSOS for animals in Eresos, a shelter for about 7 dogs (but they generally have about 20 dogs) and a house full of cats.

So the Wildlife Hospital is no shelter for wounded animals, although they look like it. They have amongst other thingd=s some impressive birds like owls and buzzards that cannot go back to the wild anymore and they share their house with a large number of cats and dogs. I mean, how can you let go of a cat that after an operation turns into a cat on three legs, or what is there to put back when you save some puppies from the rubbish bin? For more information about what animals they treat and for visiting hours you can go to:

Then in Eressos there's the growing and growing shelter that care for cats, dogs, donkeys and horses (yes, sometimes Greeks also let down donkeys or horses). Just as elsewhere on the island, the people from the shelter find new born kittens in the rubbish, or they are just deposited on the doorstep of the shelter, or they free chained dogs that are left in the middle of the blazing sun, just to keep the foxes from the sheep. Don't ask how the animals come to their shelter! In the shelter they are fed, taken care of and then they try to find a new home for them (often abroad). Just like the Wildlife Hospital they are an organisation with people working 200% and depending on gifts and volunteers. You can email EreSOS: or phone: (00 30) 22530 - 52148.

Copyright © Smitaki 2008