“If you can hear traffic or air traffic now, erase it. Turn off any television or radio, any devices that hum or beep. Replace them with rhythmic stroke of sea on pebbles, or with the cry of a goat or the hoot of an owl,” writes Jennifer Barclay at the start of her book “Wild Abandon: A Journey to the Deserted Places of the Dodecanese”.
It is a good preparation for the journey you are about to embark with her.
In these tough times where the slow road out of lockdown seems long weeks away to realising, Ms Barclay’s third book about her life on the Dodecanese islands is a gentle tonic and a reminder of the places of beauty and quiet we cannot as yet visit.
Ms Barclay, a well-travelled writer and editor, has lived on the Dodecanese island of Tilos for the past decade, so she knows a thing or two about the diversity of history and culture of the islands that were the last to join the modern Greek state when they were ceded from Italy in 1947. She spent four years exploring the islands mostly in the company of her loyal dog, Lisa, talking to the inhabitants and learning about the places she was visiting.
Close as the islands are to the Turkish mainland, they subjected to the currents of history, more than most places in the world. In the early 19th Century the islands enjoyed economic prominence through commerce and sponge diving but things changed with the introduction of new technologies, as well as the political and natural upheavals that contributed to a diaspora that has spread to the big cities of Greece for work or Australia, America and elsewhere in the world.
Islands in the group that had populations of several thousand people are now reduced to a few hundred. Dwellings and buildings from various eras have been abandoned and nature has come in to reclaim them. But she notes that the diasporans still maintain their links – such as the “Kazzies” of Kastellorizo who have returned from Australia regularly return “to claim their homes and rebuild”.
She notes at the end of the book that “Those who left have also kept the spirit of the Dodecanese alive … through dance, language and food, generations after they left.”
During the course of the book, she meets many diasporans who have returned to the islands from the outer world to reclaim their ancestry and history and eke out a living on the islands. There are many instances of benefactors from the diaspora who continue to support their islands from afar
What comes across in the book is the diversity of people and landscapes of the islands.
My favourite chapter is of her extended stay in Karpathos -an island that offers her escape from a “project from hell” – she is a publisher. She visits the mountain village of Olympos and stays at a hotel run by Minas who introduces her to the luxuries of her room: “If you want to turn on the air conditioning… just open the door… Oh and this is your television too,’ pointing at the view.”
She notes that most of the women in Olympos still wear each day the traditional village dress the “kavai” – a black dress worn over a white dress with an embroidered apron and “stivania”, leather boots and a black headscarf which comes into its own when the winds start blowing.
The men retain traditional skills including the making of musical instruments to sing the “mantinades” songs.
Throughout the islands she notes the work of the past to make a living from the resources on the island, buildings of the past often had cisterns to collect rain water to use in the dry summer months. Skills that helped the people make the most of their environment are slowly disappearing as those who stayed on age and cannot pass on the skills to their children far away But the beauty of the islands and the life that they offer draws expats like herself and not just the descendants of the islanders to make their contributions.
For all the beauty and diversity it is sad that she often notes the amount of plastic junk that seems to gather on pristine beaches from passing vessels.
The book provides a view of a beautiful world that is a wonderful tonic to lockdown and frustrated dreams of travel.
♦”Wild Abandon: A Journey to the Deserted Places of the Dodecanese” by Jennifer Barclay is published by Bradt Travel Guides Ltd.