Athens Travel: My night in a Greek Jail

st-peters-square-athens.jpg

Tara and I sat perched on a mustard, moth-eaten couch. On the facing wall, a yellowish stain—vomit or urine, I couldn’t tell—congealed in drip-dry formation down the peeling white paint. It was almost midnight. Two dirty, sweaty men leered at us, thick forearms hanging through steel bars crisscrossed on a large wooden cell door. It reminded me of the dungeon scene from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, except this was a Greek jail.

A tattooed “police officer” sporting a black leather jacket sauntered around us. He was massive.  His greasy, bleach blond hair slicked back in a bun nearly brushed the caving ceiling. His thin lips expunged heavy breaths, agitating the smoldering cigarette wedged between the gap where a tooth should’ve been. He eyeballed us. My instincts flared, I didn’t trust him at all.

We were in jail because of a thief. We met at the Athens airport two hours before—Tara flew in from Madrid, I flew in from London. The promise of spring break, six days filled with gyros, beaches and the Parthenon, absorbed our attention. It happened in a second. The thief vanished into the March night, on the metro platform with my friend’s $600 camera—an elusive shadow.

Our immediate—and admittedly panicked—reaction was to find the police station. Surely Greece had police reports.

Wrong.

At the directions of a sympathetic stranger, we headed to the nearest police station a half-mile away. Outside, five men with M16 guns strapped across navy blue and white uniforms stood in a circle, smoking and spitting on the concrete.

We desperately explained the stolen camera situation and that we’d please like to file a police report. They laughed. Their amused dark eyes saw only three things. Young. American. Women.

Nonetheless, they took us into the station motioned us into an elevator. Were they serious? Their fingers on the trigger told me yes. My mind took off. I wrote my own disappearance headline as I stepped inside: Two American college girls missing in Athens, whereabouts unknown. The missing shaft wall exposed the pulley system. I watched the floors pass, counting as we jerked upward — one, two, three, four, five.

Thirty minutes later, Mr. Leather Jacket handed us a document—supposedly a police report, although I’m certain they later filed it in the garbage. Tara hastily filled it out. Mr. Leather Jacket lurked around, smoking his cigarette, cursing in Greek at the criminals behind bars. My instincts raged. The whole situation felt wrong. Very wrong.

Another officer looked at Tara’s police report, and tore it in half. He angrily told her to redo it, stating that she “lost” the camera.

But it was stolen! she declared, frustrated. STOLEN, NOT LOST.

Everything escalated at once. The officer Tara argued with turned an unusual purple color.  The criminals behind bars taunted filthy broken English, come here babies, good vacation? Mr. Leather Jacket strode around the corner to yell at the criminals. She snatched a blank report and scribbled that she lost the camera.

I grabbed her hand. She tossed the police report on his desk, and we lunged toward the elevator. I pushed the call button a hundred times. An eternity later, we tripped out on the ground floor pushing past a bloody, bruised man in handcuffs escorted by two machine guns.

The next day, in a Greek heritage parade, I saw that same betraying white and navy uniform. And I gripped my bag a little tighter.

Stung by a Jellyfish: Mykonos Beach, Greece

jellyfish.jpg

I didn’t know I had been stung–at first. And then it hit me. My legs burned, screaming for relief from the salty water. I vividly remember three things: the Mediterranean breeze drifting across my brown nose, the whoosh of escaping air from my lungs, and Emilio’s hand in the small of my back pushing me toward the shore.

***

I met Danny when he plopped down next to me on the bus at Mykonos port. He turned his big blue eyes to me and we talked about the solo-backpacking trip I was smack in the middle of. He traveled to Greece with a group of guys—three of his American cousins from Miami, and one Canadian. Within minutes, I tucked in as their sixth roommate. Less than an hour later, the six of us ran into the ocean.

Emilio and I were the only ones brave enough, daring enough, or maybe stupid enough, to swim across the 40-foot man-made shelf on Paradise Beach. It seemed like a brilliant idea to swim from the 15-foot shallow water to deeper 100-foot water in the Aegean Sea. The other five remained on shore in favor of cold beer over our deep-water escapade. But we went anyways.

greekislandsbeach.jpg

We floated in the open water, two specks lost in Greece’s turquoise ocean.  Layers of tropical fish darted around several feet below us in the crystal clear water. We dove deep enough to set our sinuses on fire, somersaulting through the cool salt water.

I didn’t even see the jellyfish behind me.

But after it brushed, ever so softly against my legs, I sure as hell felt it.

It itched at first. And the itch turned into a sharp, annoying pain. And then it felt like someone stabbed my leg with a knife and twisted it around and around. Something was wrong. I had to get out. I called to Emilio and swam toward the shelf. Within seconds he was there. He grabbed my hand. We  slipped our way across the shell shelf. I collapsed off the other side into shallower water and he pushed me toward shore. From afar, I’m sure we looked like two idiots goofing around, but as we got closer Danny knew something wasn’t right.

iosgreekislands.jpg

He waded in to help Emilio support me as I stumbled through the shallows. He took one look at the Frisbee-size white and red welts on my legs and said, “jellyfish.”

Oh Jesus, they’re going to pee on me, I thought…the infamous jellyfish cure. But in that moment, I could care less. Anything to take the pain away.

But, travel karma was on my side again. Since the boys were from Miami, they had their share of jellyfish experiences. And a few cure-all tricks, too. One hustled to buy two oversized cans of beer. The other packed wet sand around my legs. After several rounds of drizzling beer on my welts and compressing wet sand around my legs, the throbbing subdued.  A few hours later my legs were okay–albeit red.

I still have scars around my right knee that turn purple when I get cold. Travel isn’t always glamorous and I learned solo travel is much easier  when you make friends along the way. But it could’ve been worse, and that night we danced for hours at the disco.