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
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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 (dèbla) 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 dramaswill 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.