“Sponging” away the surface of Kalymnos

It is an amazing sensation when you realise that something basic can hide a wealth of history, tradition and romance.  I would not have ever believed that a sponge could hold such an emotive story.  It just sits there unashamed and unaware of having caused so many deaths and so much heartache.

I visited the island  of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese, as an antidote to lying on the beach.  As you approach the typically Greek harbour with its whitewashed houses and arid landscape you are pulled further into that law which says that the British must fall in love with the Greek way of life. The sugar cube houses reflect the sunlight and stand out against the cerulean blue of the sea, and the stories begin.  During the Second World War, Kalymnos was occupied by the Italians who asked why the inhabitants painted their houses white.

“It reflects the sunlight and keeps the inside cool,” was the reply.

 “And why are your roofs blue?”

 “They reflect the colour of our beautiful sea.”

The Italians accepted this with equanimity, not realising that they lived out the remainder of their time on Kalymnos in the shadow of the Greek flag.

The real stories are to be found in the back streets where toothless old men smile in a different language.  It’s the language that scorns tourists for their superficial treatment of this incredible product which contains as much history as it holds water.

In our high tech age, we think of vast machines spewing out multicoloured sponges of all shapes and sizes. In Kalymnos these machines were and are men who risked life and limb to earn enough to feed their family.  Having to walk only 30 metres along the Strand to work does not sound like a great distance, but try going 30 metres vertically down with no protection and no breathing apparatus.  It makes a 20 minute tube ride sound positively relaxing!

In the past, before diving could get underway there was the send off.  The men left their families at Easter and were gone until the autumn.  They had to bring back enough sponges to support their families or to propose to the girl of their dreams.  This was not easy for a skin diver who relied on how long he could hold his breath.  One man on the boat would pour some olive oil on the surface of the water and watch to see his friend got into trouble.  The diver sank to the sea bed with a stone around his ankle, to help him sink faster, and his sponge bag.

Sponges do not have a habit of growing in easy to reach places, and the physical limitations were apparent.  An incredible device was invented that contained breathing apparatus in  a protective suit.  Divers could now descend for at least an hour at a time, thereby earning more money – fantastic!  How pleased were they?  However, all technological advances have set backs.  The suit meant more diving, and more diving meant more risk.

We all know that feeling of our ears popping, but these men ran the risk of ruptured ear drums and possibly the worst ailment: ‘bends’, named after the difficulty the sufferer had in straightening their joints, all due to resurfacing too quickly after a dive.

The divers weren’t to know about the ‘divers disease’ though.  The symptoms were par for the course – it was a risky business.  They were earning more money.  The divers
suffered numbness, paralysis, uncontrollable spasms and death.  In her book ‘Bitter
Sea’, Faith Warn tells us that “between 1886 and 1910, there were a staggering 10, 000 deaths and 20, 000  cases of paralysis among sponge divers in the Aegean – and the majority of victims were Kalymnians.”

And so the wonder-suit was banned and, with its banning, came a fall in pay and a rebellion against the ban.  It remained in use until the middle of the twentieth century.

Suddenly the smiling toothless men develop a poignancy.  Maybe these two arthritic people ran that risk for their families; maybe they are sitting down because it is too painful for them to stand; maybe they dove down and picked this sponge off the sea bed years ago to exchange it for three square meals.

The things they were looking for were not golden and lovely as they are on our bathroom shelves, but black and rock solid and in need of special treatment at sea as well as on land.  It was a process involving purifying, beating, washing, drying and pressing on board, and repeating the same process on land, to be left with a black sponge.  But who wants a black sponge?  They are then dipped in potassium permanganate and sulphuric acid to reveal a beautiful golden colour and soft feel.

So the natural sponge that you buy on Kalymnos has been tainted by chemicals, but the tradition is still there. The boats still go out and the toothless men are still there working on their sponges.  Surely the sponges will run out sooner or later?  Sponges do not live if they are untouched – the harvest actually replenishes the numbers.  But please leave these people to it…why would anyone want to mess with the tradition of the sponge and these people’s history?

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Perfumes, pyramids and palm trees

Day and date uncertain, but I think it’s a few days after New Year.  My address is: Second palm tree from the left, Red Sea, Egypt

 I have decided that I love palm trees and I shall have to have one!  Lying underneath one you get a fabulous perspective whether in sunshine or a night sky: grace, strength, tough and itchy surface with an airy-fairy head – I do love them!

We’ve had a lot of first experiences on this trip: first time in Egypt, first view of the Pyramids and the Sphinx (or of many sphinxes, because there are an awful lot scattered around), first impression of the desert.  I say first experiences, because I am sure to return.  This is a fascinating and spicy place.  Standing on the edge of the Nile  is inspiring.  The desert is awe-inspiring in its vastness and its ever-changing facade, and at your back is a mass of palm trees surrounding a fertile farming community which thrives and depends on the Nile.  I looked at the desert and wondered what secrets it was keeping from me – it has let us share a few pyramids (around 160) but how many more is it keeping for itself?  It’s like it’s teasing us with its changes: “I’ll let you have that, but I’m keeping all this for myself!”

The first pyramid – the step pyramid at Saqqara– is so much more impressive than number 5 at Giza.  Less people, less confusion, less knowledge.  Giza and the Sphinz is a tourist trap, but an impressive one nonetheless.  I liked Saqqara because you are on the cusp of the desert and the green Nile rather than on the edge of Cairo.

Now there’s a city!  It’s huge!  It’s polluted, it’s crowded, but it’s fantastic in all those things.  The greatest thing that I will remember is the smell of the bazaar which should be bottled as a marketing ploy.  We plunged down dark alleyways where people try and wrap you in belly dancing outfits, and wave perfume bottles at you, to find ourselves in sultry back alley that looked like an opium den or an Aladdin’s cave full of battered genie lamps.  The smell is unique.  Each city has its’ own smell and this is Cairo’s – tobacco and other products from the smoking pipes that everyone from tourists to dark eyed old Egyptian men seem to smoke; tandoori, paprika, onions, grilled meat from
the food stalls; perfume and oils and several other things that it is impossible to identify.  Weaving in and out of these smells are men carrying mountains of filled pitta breads for the shopkeepers’ lunch, and the sound of prayer time starting.  It all adds up to a sense invasion that will be Cairo for me. 

And now the Red Sea smells of salt and sand and suntan lotion, but I’m expecting new smells when we venture out into the desert a bit.  Now my palm tree is calling me to rest in its intermittent shade and to stare through its spiky leaves.

A pirate tale from Greece

On a small volcanic island, separated from Kos by a forty fathom chasm, lies the most beautiful story of an awakening of faith.  It was recounted to us as we sat surrounded by icons, tourists and sun-burnt bodies.

It so happened that in the eighteenth century when these waters were being marauded by Turkish pirates, one such pirate decided to plunder the monastery on the island of
Nissiros.  As all good pirates knew, monasteries were treasure chests of gold, silver and all sorts of profitable goods.  He was a wise man and left a detachment of men on the ship with instructions to sail away should their captain not have returned by sunset.  Only capture or death would keep him from his ship.

He and his men climbed up to the monastery set on top of a sheer cliff face and set about taking what they could.  As the captain’s hand reached out for the main icon the doors of the chapel slammed shut and no amount of pounding, pushing and pulling could open them.  No amount of screaming, banging or waving could attract their shipmates’ attention.

As sunset drew closer, the captain in desperation threw himself at the foot of the icon and begged forgiveness for having raided this church.  If the icon would accept his apology he would never set foot in these waters again and would make a gift to the chapel.  As he made his vow a bird flew up and touched the doors with her beak
and they flew open.  The men were safe.

To this day, there remain gifts in the form of birds or pirate ships as a sign of faith and as one of the miracles of this island.

A whirlwind bus tour of the Golden Triangle

An eagle soaring above the crowded masses. Masses milling about barging.  The Taj’s ethereal aloofness.  Spicy smell.  Drain smells.  Choking dust.  Factory town.  Beautiful sites.  Terrible poverty.  Contorted beggars.  Pushy “salesmen”.  Starving animals.  Starving humans.  Welcoming smiles.  Beautiful girls.  Men holding hands.  Cows in the road.  Traffic chaos.  People lying sleeping in the streets.  Richer people in a tent.  Richer still, in a shack.  We are kings and queens.   We pass above the insanity not daring to touch it, breathe it.  There’s a fence up that we won’t cross for fear of being touched.  We want to keep it that way.  How many people actually give money?  How do these people survive?  They seem happy – some of them. Wings uplifted – soaring beauty.  Graceful lines over rounded domes.  Breathless splendour.  Peaceful in the crowds.  New Year’s Day brings saris drying in the sun.  Neatly stacked piles of cow dung.  Washing day.  Beds stacked outside.  Work doesn’t stop.  Relatively well off country villages with neat houses.  Fields of mustard flowers and the odd speck of sari working.  Men playing cards.  Faces smiling or frowning.  Hands reaching out as if for a blessing (more likely for money).  Village markets.  Piles of spices.  Every useful thing known to man sold or made.  Rows of cut-throat barbers.  Tree shrines.  Pairs of peacocks wandering.  Pigs foraging.  Wash day at the fountain.  Camel carts and oxen pulling.  Over-loaded trucks, tuk tuks and bicycles.  Unbelievable roads.  “Horn please.”  Bright colours everywhere – saris and turquoise houses.  Train crossing stopping everything.  What was Grandad’s life like as a child?  What would it have been had he stayed?  What would my life be if I was like them?  Smiling?  Begging? Happy working in the fields? Tired of life? Back to civilisation and not feeling so good.  Shut myself away from the crowds to establish normality again.  A night of Pringles and Friends and no curry. Jaipur and pink – all building painted the same dodgy pink.  Poorly treated elephants lumbering up to the Amber fort laden with tourists.  Back to the crowds.  Always wanting, needing, begging, touching.  Time for shopping and more hassle even in a “hassle free” fixed price place.  A modern town designed for shopping.  Back to Delhi to a strange place in the middle of a suburb.  Children here are more pushy.  Music, dancing, full on spectacular spectacular…