Sunday, 22 November 2015

November 18 – Strange birds on Lesvos

(The pelican of Skala Loutron)

The refugees are not the only illegals on Lesvos. Many birds, unseen and without passports, cross the Aegean to land in Sappho's birthplace. On the other side of the sea, there are plenty of Turkish nature parks from which also birds take a short flight to nose about this beautiful and quiet island.

In spring a large, international army of birdwatchers, armed with cannon-sized cameras, wait for the migratory birds along the island's coastlines. While even in autumn there are plenty of illegal arrivals, November becomes less popular with both birds and their admirers.

The continuing warm and sunny weather might be to blame for still encountering those large brown and yellow European hornets (Vespa cabro), which slowly move through the air like old drunkards. I also met a fat, dark brown caterpillar, armed with a horn on his head, who was looking for an escape from of a gang of snails that were boozing away on the rich dew of these autumnal days.

These days the best wildlife can be seen around the Gulf of Kalloni, where the saltpans at Skala Kallonis and Skala Polichnitou attract many birds like black storks and lots of flamingos. I wonder if this year the flamingos received a travel warning for Lesvos: in the midst of September there were none to be seen and now there are just a few daredevils swinging on one leg. There is no reason why they should be afraid of refugees: these people do not land in the saltpans nor do they shoot birds out of the sky.

Because they are big and fat, pelicans appear far more sturdy than those fragile white and pink acrobats. They seem to have ignored whatever brought about the absence of so many flamingos and probably just think: “What luck not to have any competition for all those shrimps!” Last week there were as many as 44 Dalmatian pelicans and 4 White pelicans lounging on the Gulf of Kalloni.

There are plenty of Greek villages that cherish a pelican as an inhabitant. This was the case on Lesvos. In Skala Kallonis there used to live a couple of pelicans, spoiled by tourists and islanders, but one of them died in a car crash and a few years later the partner also disappeared. In Skala Loutron there used to live another one, I've no idea what happened to him. I say: grant all those pelicans a residence permit, give them a house and plenty of fish, because the island could use a new tourist attraction. It will be a pity to send them back to Turkey.

The presence of a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Lesvos will – I am afraid - only attract some entomologists. In America these Jugenstil-like winged insects are a common butterfly, but on Lesvos they are as rare as a refugee on the North Pole. Now that most of the migrants coming to the island are from The Middle East, this butterfly may even have come all the way from Africa. Two of them have been detected in the Mesa swamps.

I was highly surprised to hear that these fragile insects also could be illegal immigrants. Monarch butterflies are the champions of long-distance-butterfly-flying: they can go for thousands of kilometers. They undertake these travels in enormous flocks, for purely economic reasons: to be able to eat Milkweed
 (Asclepias). These lengthy flights often prove lethal: the elderly can tire and just drop down and it may occur that only a new generation reaches the final destination.

Friends who last week observed all those winged immigrants on the island came up with another strange bird: The Black Throated Diver (Gavia arctica). The second word in the Latin name gives away their natural home: in the northern cold areas. What is this exotic striped bird doing on Lesvos in such a warm month?

I am not one to gossip and I'm not suggesting that this duck is distributing flyers discouraging the refugees from coming to Sweden or Denmark; I have no respect for these flying activists. It is more likely that these swimming birds are also economic immigrants or, taking advantage of the low presence of flamingos, they all booked cheap holidays to Skala Kallonis.

It is fascinating to learn that more birds than tourists travel around the world. Just like all other animals they have the right to cross borders without restriction, unlike human beings who need a passport to cross any border. And even then, there is no guarantee they will be able to continue to their final destination. Sometimes it just might be better to be a bird.

(With thanks to Eva and Wulf Kappes and Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Monday, 9 November 2015

November 7 – The angels of Lesvos

(Ship wrecks on an beach in Eftalou)

Lesvos once used to be a haunt of Pirates. The famous and powerful Barbarossa actually came from the island. Now when you drive along the shores, you might easily think that the island has returned to the blooming days of piracy: the shorelines are scattered with the wrecks of ships that lie like useless playthings in the lapping waves.

Now with the weather tending towards winter, the Turkish smugglers are offering more luxury and real boats, that on first sight seem to be trustworthy, but in reality are just sinking tubs that when overloaded can barely reach the other side.

The destroyed rubber dinghies are regularly picked up from the beaches, but the once colourful tourist boats, saved from the Turkish dumps for an olive bag full of money, are more difficult to remove and remain sad witnesses of risky rescue operations.

On the sea the pirates have re-appeared. Cowards that they are, they do not hoist the skull and crossbones but, hiding behind masks on fast speed boats, they attack the floating refugees to take their money and cell phones and sometimes to destroy the motor – or worse – the inflatable dinghy.

On many beaches rescuers tumble over each other to welcome the boat people to safety and warmth. They swim to boats that are in trouble close to shore, or jump into the waves to assist boats arriving full of screaming women and children. Afterwards they are as drenched as the people thanking Allah on their wet knees for their safe arrival in Europe.

The village, which in the summer is a vision of scantily dressed people, is still offering that image with people dressed as for summer. Many of the rescuers come from cold countries so they are still embracing the beautiful autumnal weather as hot summer days. From under my woollen hat I sometimes have to peek if I see gooseflesh. But these people are so full of adrenaline that the autumnal wind with a cold winter pitch does not seem to get a hold on their bare arms and legs.

Spying from behind their curtains the elderly of the village must be wondering at the sight of this parade of young people. The age of the visitors has significantly gone down. I guess that the average age of these helping hands is around 30 years, just a little older than that of the refugees. Some villagers think that these young people are gold diggers, not understanding that for no or little money they have come to this island to rescue the near drowning people. In Greece they are used to solving their problems on their own.

The men look like sturdy pirates: nowadays having a beard is fashionable and thick sunglasses have replaced the eyepatch. The women parade with colourful hair or with a modest head kerchief. They come from all corners of the world, and as such all religions now are represented here.

It must be their young blood, which sometimes make them behave like road hogs  (in Holland we say: like road pirates). The rented cars – more used to the grandmothers pace of the usual 50-plus tourists - are stretched as never before, even on dirt and dusty roads. The vehicles on give the image of participants in the Dakar Rally.

Now the North and the East of Lesvos and the capital Mytilini have all become hot spots for rescuers. If you go to other parts of the island, then the unusual stir is not present, and there the old Lesvos-feeling still exists: the peace and quiet of the island that does not fear time carries on as undisturbed as it has always been. Now is the time to gather the olives; no refugees will ever change that.

This is an island with century old traditions and inhabitants (many who were so poor not long ago that they walked barefoot). Occasionally the olive nets may change colour and now more and more people, if they can afford it, buy little machines to shake the olives from the trees; but the hand-held long stick (d├Ębla) used for centuries to remove the olives from their branches, remains the most used tool.

The unstoppable and increasing stream of refugees however has taken part of the island out of its lethargy. Tourism nearly collapsed at the end of the high season, but then the auxiliaries arrived: many businesses beginning to close for the season would re-open their doors and flights to the island again became overcrowded.

Rescuers are no tourists: they work so hard that they barely know where they are. The largest number of refugees run ashore in the regions around the most touristic and praised villages of the island (Molyvos and Skala Sykaminia). The international troop of helpers is only left to guess what other treasures the island is hiding. They just get a tiny taste of the Greek hospitality and the sun.

You may call Lesvos a bit anarchic: no authority ever gets a hold on the life here. Some islanders quarrel eternally about the best way to help the refugees and reached as much solutions as Europe did with its endless gatherings. Other groups did what all those rescuers did by coming to the island: when politics fail, you do it yourself.

And so it is that Lesvos will face an historic winter. Molyvos and Skala Sykaminias can forget about their hibernation and Mytilini will have an extended season. These villages and the capital will fizz with activities and will be for once in the centre of world news, if only because they have become such tragic places. The refugee dramas  will keep on building, the graveyards are already full; the island however will be helped by these young and decisive helpers, who like angels from heaven have flocked in numbers to the island.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015