The Crisis Zone

During the planning of the trip, Greece had always been part of the plan.  Neither of us had been there, and I’ve always been a fan of beaches/islands/very-large-cocktails.  However as the euro-zone crisis unfolded we kept a close eye on developments.  Mass protests, multiple elections, and even the real risk of an uncontrolled exit from the Euro meant we were prepared that we may have to skip Greece altogether.

So I was unsure what to expect on the streets of Greece, Athens in particular.  What we found were, almost without exception, the funniest, friendliest, most lovely people we’ve yet met on this trip.  For the first time people were genuinely curious about where we were from and what we were doing.  Without even being asked we would be instructed on what we HAD to see and where we MUST go.

Despite it being clear that tourist numbers were down from previous years (half empty restaurants etc.) the locals carried a health sense of self-deprecation to “the crisis”.  It took us a day to appreciate the “Crisis Menus” that restaurants had up, with low prices to encourage business.  The euro had no fans in those businesses, with locals telling us that the value of the euro was what was keeping the tourists away.  There was evidence of the crisis beyond humorous menus however, and elderly women desperately selling 10 post cards for a euro in Athens was a grim reminder of the pain being felt in this country.

We arrived into Patras from Greece around midday Friday (yes I’ve just realised I was wrong in the previous post, it was a Thursday we left Italy.  We are struggling with our days at the moment, and it’s almost every day that one of us asks the other “what day is it today” and we puzzle away, eventually deferring to an iPhone for a definitive answer…).   Overnight on the ferry I’d put the spare battery starter pack on the charger in our cabin, and given it a good 14 hour charge, ready to try and get Magda started.  This time we were lucky, and after leaving it pushing power into Magda for a few minutes, she turned over veeeeeeeery slowly and started.  We knew what we had to do, and headed straight for Volkswagen.

“But what are you DOING here?!” the service desk girl asked incredulously for a third time.  “Is Australian Touareg?  How did you get here?!”   She told us she had never seen one with the wheel on that side.  She thought it was amazing, throwing her hands up and giggling when she went to get the kilometres from the clock and only finding the passenger seat.  After listening to me explain that I just needed a new battery, she nodded and said that they would need to do “the tests”.  I explained that everything else was ok, the car was charging the battery fine, it was just that the battery had had it.  “Mmmm, the mechanic does the tests and then we tell you what is wrong.”    Fine fine whatever, do the tests, and then replace the battery.

Replacing batteries in Patras, Greece on a 36 celsius day. And cursing the VW engineering who put the battery under the passenger seat

We waited for about 2 hours.  The time crept towards 4pm, Friday afternoon.  I went for a status update on “the tests”.  She announced that they agreed, the battery needed replacing.  Good work.   The bad news was that they didn’t have a spare in stock.  Maybe Monday or Tuesday, from Athens she said.   I asked whether I could go get one from another battery shop, and she said that VW would only install the official factory battery, not another battery.  In most cars, putting a new battery in is about a 3 minute job.  Pop the bonnet, pull out the old, in with the new, and it’s done.  Unfortunately with the Touareg, the main battery sits under the front passenger seat, and the entire seat has to be undone, lifted, and various floor plates removed to even find the battery, let alone replace it, hence why I was keen to have VW help.  It was clear they could not, and would not do anything further to assist.  It was getting closer to 5pm, and VW had wasted nearly our whole afternoon to tell us they couldn’t do anything.  We had a car that would not even turn over the moment it stopped, and a weekend ahead.  At least they didn’t try and charge me.   On the way out, the girl gave us a quick tip, telling us there was a battery shop around the corner who might be able to help us.

If only we’d gone here in the first place.  Old guy number 1 didn’t speak a word of English, and he and I communicated via iPhone’s translate, me typing out “I need a new battery”.  After a while old guy number 1 went and got young guy, who spoke english, but didn’t know much about VW batteries, or where they were.  I had the special tool bit for lifting the seats, but after a while, young guy phoned “boss guy” to come and help.  By the end there were four of us working on Magda’s passenger seat.  They told me they needed to do some tests.  I told them I knew it was the battery, couldn’t we just replace the battery?  No no, we do tests.    Sigh.    Tests done they confidently announced to me that the battery was “Kaput”.  I made a face of appropriate amazement and appreciation for their efforts.

After much sweating, poking and I suspect some Greek swearing, the battery was finally replaced, and the passenger seat back in place.  I was thrilled, and Andres and I gave them a 6 pack of beer before we left, for all getting stuck in to help us.  Old guy looked appreciative, but probably still thought we’d bought a car with the battery in the stupidest place ever devised.  At that particular moment I tended to agree with him.

Our swimming spot, on the Gulf of Patras.

We filled up with fuel, headed across the straight of Patras.  It was about 6pm, it was still 30+ degrees, and so we pulled over, and swam in the ocean by an ancient fort on the banks of the sea.  I love this more than anything.  Just like Croatia, the water is amazingly clear, warm, and the millions of empty bays mean you can stop anywhere and swim.  We drove along the Gulf of Corinth, before climbing into the hills to Delphi, home to the Ancient Greek Temple of Apollo.  The landscape was amazing.  Different to Croatia, but similar, with olive trees spanning the valleys.  The roads were empty, I don’t know where Greeks go on a Friday night, but they don’t go to Delphi.

Delphi hinterland

The next day we sweated our way around the Ancient Greek ruins in the heat, before heading to Athens.  It.  Was.  Hot.  I admit that doing Greece mid summer is not the smartest choice, but in planning the trip we were stuck – any earlier and we risked problems with the monsoon season, particular in Mongolia where tracks can turn to mud.  Any later, and we leave things too late for Mongolia, and the Tibetan plateau in China.  And I was way too stubbord to cut Greece from the schedule…

Another day of sweating around the Acropolis and other Greek sites with the tourists and I was ready to get to the islands.  Monday morning we drove onto a large car ferry bound for Mykonos.  The ship was stopping at a number of ports on the way, giving us a glimpse of the islands as we travelled.  But what left us more amazed than anything was the ship handling from the captain.  At the first port, Syros, the ship roared into the small port, horns blaring, at full speed, wheel hard across, and the ship was leaning heavily with the speed of the turn.  Let me emphasise, this is not a small ship, with multiple car and passenger decks.   We swept into port, about 20 metres from moored ferries, before the captain reversed hard, the rear of the ship spinning around to be pointing right at the dock.  Words don’t do it justice.  In Mykonos he had to fit into a narrow spot between two other similar sized vessels, in high winds.  I swear the ship was about 10 meters from the other as he reversed in.  And he didn’t even have parking sensors!   We were both amazed.  The pictures I tried to snap to give an idea of the turn doesn’t do it justice.

Hard to appreciate, but this is a 9 deck ship leaning hard as the Captain tears into port, horns blaring. It was awesome.

Since then we’ve been putting our feet up in the islands and relaxing for a few days before starting the next leg of the journey.  Tomorrow we head for Turkey through the islands, through Kos to Bodrum.  Some lazy days have been great, but looking forward to being on the move again.

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