Position: 37°15’14″N 23°06’54″E
I am not by nature a superstitious person. As a teen I passed through the normal phase of thinking all life’s experiences are predetermined, but passed it off as an excuse. A couple of lessons on the power of coincidence, however, made me appreciate the benefits of situational awareness and the potential of the metaphysical.
My first experience in this regard occurred on the A9, the road leading from Perth to Inverness. It is one of Scotland’s great drives and I highly recommend it. Particularly if you’re a recent high school graduate hitchhiking around the UK. The day drizzled in the soggy way that teaches the Scots the value of a good cup of tea. Laden with my red nylon internally framed backpack I put my thumb out. Only a British Army surplus jacket and a pair of walking shoes kept the weather at bay. But this was July, so the temperatures were well into the 60s. In other words, downright pleasant.
Standing in the rain kicking a few stones around, I cursed the lack of local cars. Where was everyone? The roads were chock full of holidaymakers towing caravans. They waved encouragingly as they sped by loaded to the gills with children and luggage. Big dump trucks laden with gravel lumbered along on their way to the roadworks up ahead. No one expressed any interest in me. I needed a lorry out on delivery, or a salesman doing their quarterly rounds in the far reaches of their district. It was getting wetter, too. At some point during a long traffic break, I looked down and saw a pair of pliers. Picking them up, they were tarnished but quite functional. Square grabby jaws set ahead of a sharp edge for cutting wire with worn blue PVC-covered handles. These might be useful I thought and buttoned them into my breast pocket.
A Land Rover slowed down and invited me in. Garrulous and probably a fine drinking companion, my driver chatted non-stop. With a full head of greying hair and a slight paunch, I wasn’t too surprised when he pulled over at any large dustbin along the route and rummaged around looking for PET bottles. ‘’They’re perfect for making beer with,” he assured me in his lowland brogue. His sweater was navy blue and sported patches at the elbows and shoulders in a military style that was popular at the time. He was a man used to doing things. He was off to do something about halfway up the A9 and dropped me at a lay-by when he turned right towards the Cairngorms. I thanked him and pulled my hood up to ward off a light shower passing overhead.
Quid pro quo
The unspoken agreement with hitchhiking is that the driver offers you a lift and you offer them entertainment for as long as you’re in their vehicle. Sometimes that means sharing your life story. Sometimes it means listening to their life story. It is an enforced intimacy that is clearly not for everyone. As a young man it gave me a perspective on the natural generosity and good humour of that sliver of the population who appreciates and can tell a good yarn.
I needed a pee. There wasn’t much modesty on this section of road, so I made my way down the embankment and relieved myself. A couple of Dutch caravanners honked in support as they sailed by. I waved back with my free hand. Behind me I heard bleating. Zipping up I turned and saw a sheep with its foot caught in the wire fence. One long wire had somehow doubled over the other and trapped the poor thing’s hoof. It tugged and tugged in frustration, eyeing me with furtive blame. Like any good acolyte of St. Francis would, I reached into my jacket and pulled out my newly found pliers and in a snip set the creature free. It gratefully skipped off. Finding those pliers was a bit of luck for both of us.
The rain relented a bit, and a serviceably aging white Ford Cortina drew up and offered me a ride. The two bearded young men had the shaggy hair of the 1970s in-crowd. These were not the coiffed updos and trimmed lumberjacks of 2010s hipsters. These guys were groomed with the last vestiges of anti-establishment freedom. Funny to think now it took two generations to make beards cool again.
Eagerly stuffing my oversized backpack in the rear seat, I piled in. Theirs was a road trip and we passed the time talking about America, Britain, and Elvis Presley. Elvis was cool again. He died about six weeks after I got this ride.
The only problem with the car was its tape player. Frustrating for music aficionados, the chap riding shotgun would whack the dashboard each time the tape slowed or stopped, cursing loudly as he did so. Our driver muttered under his breath and passed another caravan, pulling up behind a gravel truck when the road made a bend. I mentally flipped a bird to each car we passed for not giving me a ride.
Whack! You ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog! Whack! Whack! Kapow! The view ahead disintegrated into milky glass fragments. To this day I’m not sure if beating on the tape player or a rock flying off the back of the truck ahead of us smashed the windscreen. But it was very dramatic. Our driver stuck his head out the window and we pulled over to figure things out. Before everyone had cell phones problem solving meant getting on with it. Punching out the windscreen and figuring out what to do next took a bit of thought. There was nothing for it but to head slowly up the road to the nearest pub. There they found a phone and I bid farewell knowing they’d handle the rest.
Thank you for bearing with that long preamble
Two days ago, karma came for a visit again. This time it was a little less practical and much more spiritual. Ladybugs have always been good luck charms and so has, apparently, bird poop.
At the far end of Sifnos is the Agios Georgiou monastery. It’s a simple, brilliant white and blue, one-bedroomed affair with a nice chapel and a bas-relief carving of St. George slaying a dragon. We parked our scooter and walked up the dusty road past the goats to visit it. It appeared locked, but a gentle shove opened the door. I took a couple of snaps and signed the visitor’s book. Back at the bike, a squadron of gulls glided on the breeze just above us. One pooped on my shorts. Another, taking inspiration, pooped on my other leg. I gently cursed them, just not enough I hoped to undo the good fortune that had, literally, fallen in my lap.
Later that day Carol called from her pillion seat something immediately lost in the headwinds: I couldn’t hear a word. I asked her over dinner what she had said. “Oh, it was just you had a Ladybug on your shoulder. It’s good luck you, know.” With that much fortune in the bank, I naturally wondered what the withdrawal would look like. We planned a long passage to the Argolic Gulf in high winds for the next day. Perhaps it was a good omen for the crossing. When that all went to plan, I was unconvinced we’d tapped into our lucky savings. We didn’t have to wait long for the accounting.
Carol calls this playground of the rich and famous Sepsis. We motored across the strait late morning for an early lunch and to update our woefully neglected transit log. The Greeks, you see, like to know where you’ve been and where you’re heading. At each port you’re expected to pay a call to the local authorities and get your log stamped. It makes sense in a 19th century kind of way.
Dropping anchor next to the ferry pier, we buried the hook in soft sand directly in front of the tony Italianate buildings fronting the harbour. The Port Police were happy to see us. They’d tried raising us on VHF to tell us we anchored in a forbidden spot. We monitor channel 16 out of habit. Greek port authorities transmit on channel 12, so we didn’t get the message. We have since revised our listening habits. The senior officer pointed us north of the ferry terminal and we felt obliged to move. On reflection, we should have eaten lunch first and visited the police afterwards.
In the 20 minutes it took to get stamped, the wind had picked up to 15 knots and an annoying chop filled the little harbour. By the time we moved Aleta, it was gusting to 20. Our anchoring routine is well documented and in high winds we take extra care to ensure we get a good set. Dropping enough chain for a 6:1 scope and backing down at 2,000 rpm in a 20 knots headwind gave us the confidence we’d dug in nicely. Besides, it was time for lunch, particularly as we’d missed breakfast. Lumpen waves kicked our dinghy Nell around but her 6HP Yamaha ploughed steadily forward. We tied up and walked along the front, back in Aleta’s direction. She wasn’t where we had left her. Nowhere near it. Carol couldn’t find her for a few seconds, I said look left – way left!
About a Boat Length
Dashing back to Aleta she bobbed enough to indicate she was still afloat. With the engine running and Carol at the wheel, I dived overboard to see what was going on. Our Delta anchor resets pretty well, but this time skipped through the seagrass until it finally fetched up on a laid mooring for small power boats. The only thing stopping Aleta crashing on the seawall fifty feet behind her was our ground tackle, now snagged on a line, a tuft of seagrass, and a modestly sized grapnel anchor. With a fair amount of adrenaline infused handwaving, several dives, and a bit of shouting we finally cleared the unholy mess. Our notions of a romantic lunch in town now fully abandoned, we instead found a cove on the other side of the island and broke out the tequila.
The adventure, they say, begins when things go wrong. Our goal is to make our travels as boring as possible. We plan, prepare, and practice whenever we can. When people ask, what’s the worst thing that’s happened, we tend to rack our brains a bit. There was the time Marlon fell overboard in Halifax, or the time we fought currents in the Bahamas and almost went aground, but both situations resolved happily.
This time, though, the set up was, dare I say it, metaphysical. The punchline much more existential. Made worse because we knew it was coming. The birds and the bugs had warned us it would be something that transcended our good habits and experience. Something that without their ministrations would drain our karmic luck account. I say I’m not superstitious, but days like this remind me to live my best life. To smell the flowers, be gentle with all animals, and be grateful for all the shit that comes our way.