Her hair smelled of olives and as she embraced me in front of the hotel, I breathed in deeply. The softly wrinkled olive-smelling woman then waved to us before turning to walk away into the darkness. Earlier that day we boarded a ferry and had spent the afternoon crossing the Mediterranean ocean with a group of elderly Greek musicians. Between the napping and the snacking our new friends happily tuned their instruments and played folk songs to accompany the endless blue of sea and sky that surrounded us.
In the morning we rented a-very-little car, bought a map and started out, ready to explore the unknown island. A fantastic element of island travel is the lack of anxiety over being lost. No matter what happens, you can only drive so far until you hit ocean. Our first target was Knossos; the ancient home of a king who defied the gods. Minos was a king that defied Poseidon’s request for sacrifice and consequently was forced to hide the Minotaur born to his cursed wife and a white bull which had appeared from the sea. In modern times, Knossos, like so many other historical sites, has fallen victim to new kinds of madness. Crazed archaeologists busied themselves repainting the ruins and the unfortunate results are somewhere between a tacky theme park and the prostitution of our human ancestry. After watching some of the workers retouch a fresco, I decided to take a nap and stretched out on the warm stone steps, watching the clouds for a few minutes before falling asleep. I dreamt of women dancing in circles at the bottom of the steps which were filled with people laughing and singing in the sunlight. When I woke up my friend was sitting next to me, the sun had started to go down and we were both hungry. Driving along the coast we found a delicious local restaurant on the water in one of the small fishing ports and watched the stars come out as we had dinner.
There was said to be a beautiful central plateau, hiding the cave in which Zeus was said to have been born. Our first attempt to navigate the more “local” route led us down a one lane, bolder-studded dirt road for 4 hours before arriving at the front doorstep of a small wooden house. There was an old woman sitting outside cleaning some vegetables and she stared at us suspiciously for a few minutes before smiling at our enthusiastic efforts to mime-out apologies and excuses for our rudeness at having scared her livestock. Miming requests for directions proved less humorous and after ten minutes we turned the car around and left her in peace. Another several hours down even smaller dirt roads, the car atmosphere in the car was getting tense. With every horrifying scraping noise, the long walk to find a tow truck became increasingly vivid. Our second attempt had brought us to a clearing in the olive trees which was filled with small wooden boxes, evenly spaced and unattended… beehives. What a nice place to be a bee, I thought as we turned the car around again made our way back out to the main highway. It was getting late and the sun was starting to go down on our second day in Crete when we finally crested a hill and saw the plateau below us.
A few donkeys walking with local farmers and some stray goats meandered along the road. An occasional windmill dotted the landscape and further ahead mountains framed by a warm glow. As we pulled up to the cave’s main entrance we discovered that the metal gates were shut and padlocked. A shepherd and his flock were grazing nearby and he confirmed that the gates had been locked at five – it was 5:20. I waited until the sound of his sheep slowly faded away and I jumped the fence. My friend followed suit and we started running up the trail towards the mouth of the cave. There were small piles of snow at the edge of the trail and the ground was soft enough that when we arrived at the inner gate our shoes were muddy – making the second fence slightly more difficult to scale than the first. At this point the sun had set completely and it was very dark. At the mouth of the cave we could hear a symphony of echoes as hundreds of tiny water droplets fell from the ceilings and walls of the cave. Everything was wet and covered with moss and our lack of light made moving down the wet metal stairs an intensely sensory experience. It was becoming obvious that it was going to either be very dangerous or ridiculously slow, when I remembered my digital camera. For a fraction of a second the path was illuminated by a flash and we were able to walk confidently for a few steps, and so we progressed through the entire cave system in this manner. Humbled by our underdeveloped senses and our lack of instinctual prowess it was easy to imagine why this place, before technology could light the way, was considered the origins of a god.