Amidst the breathtaking white-washed buildings and blue-domed churches of Santorini, tentatively tackling the cobbled, uneven labyrinth of streets with tanned and handsome beau in tow, one might expect to be beckoned by local business owners into their café / terrace / Swarovski-embellished jewellery shop. This is a given in established tourist destinations. And given that Santorini – an island spanning just seventy-six square kilometres (making it smaller than the English seaside town of Brighton) – welcomes some two million visitors each year, this vocal advertising, one would assume, must be part and parcel of how things work; how the Summertime economy keeps the island afloat all year round. The Greek restaurateurs and shopkeepers did, indeed, try to coax us into their establishments and to buy their wares, but they were, in fact, the most unimposing and polite touts I have ever come into contact with, across Europe and beyond.
Holidaying in Turkey, for instance, was for me a tricky game of ignore and/or eyelash-flutter; anything to avoid being all-but-physically manoeuvred into each and every open door. Tunisia was even worse. Travelling there aged eight I was told to stay with my father at all times for protection, while my mum and sister were constantly accosted by leather goods salesmen desperate to bag their next commission. Though intimidating as a child I have grown to become quite thick-skinned in relation to the hard holiday sell, and have perfected my ignore or eyelash flutter response over years of practice. In Santorini, however, this charade was surplus to requirements. A simple “no thank you” or even a non-committal smile was sufficient in communicating our wishes, or lack thereof to surrender our custom, and resulted in a warm expression in response, and a genuine desire for us to have a lovely day. Wow. I could get used to this.
There was, however, one memorable exception to this rule. It was the fourth day of our week-long holiday and we were making our way down to the port to commence a full-day boat trip. Life was good. The five-hundred-and-eighty-seven steps down to the port made life somewhat sweaty, but still enjoyable none the less. On our descent our senses were treated to a kaleidoscope of information: the sublime views; the dizzying heights; the jaunty stairway; the inescapable sun. Avoiding the deposits of horse poo scattered haphazardly along the path required precision of foot and strength of character; on meeting the stationary horses themselves my heart strings were pulled with an overriding sense that whatever they were there for felt wrong.
We had decided to take the route down on foot. Many a holidaymaker instead pays just €6 to mount a donkey and let him or her do the hard work for them. No wonder they shat all over the bloody path. As we passed the two dozen or so horses on the steps they stood motionless, almost frozen, with their heads bowed down and their eyes fixed on the cobbles. They were not tied or restrained in any way physically, but adorned with brightly coloured beads and ropes to appear more cheerful to weary passers by. I stopped to take a photograph of them, feeling more like a National Geographic reporter documenting animal cruelty than an avid holidaymaker, and feeling guilty while positioning the lens in case doing so was in some way aiding and abetting the practice. I took the picture even though. At the time, and when I look back, the animals reminded me of the battered wives I had learnt about in A Level psychology: their coping mechanism to deal with the suffering to simply stand and bear it. But I digress.
As we reached the last step, caps now stuck to our heads and leg muscles twitching sporadically in recovery, we entered the port. Not before, of course (?), passing a security guard who scanned our bodies with a pogo stick from a three-metre distance, and waved us through the archway without the will to search our backpack. I couldn’t understand why there was a security guard positioned here (and only here) on the island, and clearly nor could he, if his proficiency was anything to go by. Hey ho. I doubt many terrorists would bother with the trek down to sea level… They’d surely make much more of a killing up on the caldera edge.
Once through passport control we walked out onto the port and I felt the luscious sea breeze calm, ever so slightly, my rapidly rosaceous face. And relax. Just as I was returning to a skin tone and perspiration level of semi-normality (well, what’s to be expected as a pale-skinned Brit abroad), I was called out to by the most insulting, and bewildering, pet name. Literally. “Hello, Donkey.”
Now, I may have felt some kind of connection to, or at least concern for, the four-legged creatures en route, but I certainly hadn’t morphed into one of them. My boyfriend and I exchanged nervous glances. Who was this cry coming from, and what on earth made him deem it acceptable to address one, or both, of us in this manner? Before we had time to come to any solid conclusions he bellowed once more, in a very Greek-sounding voice, “Hello, Donkey.” And then he repeated it again, and again, and again. We stopped in our tracks, determined to discover the man behind the mantra.
Perched upon a tiny – really impractically small – wooden stool, safe in the shade of a large ceiling overhang, was a slightly rotund and grubby looking old man, at a guess approximately eighty-two years of age. In his right hand he wafted a double-size ping-pong bat, plastered with an image of the horses we had encountered moments before and the word DONKEY, written all in caps. Ah. He was not, after all, passing judgement on our equine features or lack of appropriate toilet training. He was seller of the donkey ride, poised and ready to exchange a handful of shrapnel for an equestrian chair lift. But us realising this didn’t shut him up. With him a polite “no thank you” was barely acknowledged; a non-committal smile most definitely beyond his short sight. He was like a broken record, in the figurative sense, and almost the cause of a very broken chair.
His catcall echoed in our ears until we were on board the boat and at least twenty metres away from the port. Six hours of volcanic exploration and Aegean Sea swimming later we disembarked back where we had begun. Donkey Man was nowhere to be seen, nor his chair or ping-pong paddle. I felt an unanticipated sense of loss, and the glorious sensation of quiet. As we waited for the cable car to take us back up to the centre – we certainly weren’t going to exploit the lovely little donkeys, donkey caller or no donkey caller – a slightly rotund old man staggered towards us and joined us in our cable car. It was the Donkey Man, sans signage, now without a voice (or the inclination) to make small talk. Perhaps he felt exactly the same as me about the donkeys; perhaps he was only doing the job to make a living during the summer months, his ethics pushed aside for want of a better life. Or perhaps his bottom was so darn sore from six hours on a pinhead stool that he needed some proper seating for his ascent home. Who knows? All I do know is that I now have a lovely new greeting for when my partner gets home from work. Hello, Donkey.
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