INTERNATIONAL PARTY TURTLES
by Andreas Economakis
September 3rd, 2005. A small mosquito bite hotel near Kalamaki Beach, Zakynthos.
I am awakened by beer-soaked karaoke screams and the sound of flip-flops flip-flopping somewhere outside my room. The lyrics “I want to know, houh-hah, won’t you be my girl?” bounce off-key around my Navajo-white walls and explode in my tired brain. One of the singing Brits burps loudly and then crash-slams into my door with a hysterical laugh. I sit bolt upright in my bed, disoriented. Where am I? I turn on the light. Oh yeah. I look at my cell phone clock. 5:15 AM. The mini van will be here in 45 minutes to pick me up. I wonder if I should try to sleep for another 10 minutes. Nah. What’s another few minutes of restless mock-sleep anyway?
I slide across the beady polyester sheets and fish the toilet paper ear plugs out of my ears. Not that they worked any. Groggy-eyed, I crack open the brown aluminum and plastic shutters to the balcony and peak outside. The repetitive subwoofer beat of house music that drove me nuts all night becomes even louder. Over and across the dark green cow pasture that fronts my small cement hotel, a noisy electric orgy of laser and neon and Tungsten light dominates the skyline. It’s coming from the throbbing strip mall road that is the village of Kalamaki. Well, I guess you can call it a village. One must certainly not confuse this place with any kind of typical, dozy-cat white Greek village. In fact, there’s nothing Greek about Kalamaki at all, except maybe the name, which means “little straw.” And that’s not the hay straw, but the kind you put in a cocktail drink. It’s a weirdly appropriate name, considering how booze is what Kalamaki is all about.
Though the first mango-orange signs of sunrise can be seen on the deep blue horizon, the party in Kalamaki is still in full swing. I guess the nightly festivities only end when the sun screams “it’s high noon people, go to bed now so the delivery people can get through.” I recall how the night before, as I walked down the strip mall road in search of a simple gyro, I had a psychedelic flash that I was in Las Vegas. I had to fight for elbow space on sidewalks teaming with red-faced teenagers prowling the three-block village for the next bar to hop. Many of these kids seemed to have their heads cocked upwards, almost as if an enormous Absolut Vodka bottle had suddenly arisen in front of their dialated eyes like a neon-lit Tower of Babel. Were the teenagers taking in the Babylonian explosion of flashing light or were they simply too drunk to balance their heads while walking? I wonder. I never ended up finding a gyro or even a simple Greek taverna. However, I did find plenty of Tequila Slammer bars, 10-euro booze-bonanza discos, Red Bull liquor stores, English fish and pubs, Singh Beer Indian restaurants and drink-until-you-scream karaoke joints. I ended up buying a pre-made ham and cheese sandwich and an Amstel beer (well, if you can’t fight them…) from a liquor store run by a young Polish couple who don’t speak a word of Greek. They don’t need to. I was probably the first Greek they’d seen all week. Was I in Greece or Vegas’ new International Liquorland Junkfood Amusement Park?
As I shiver in the ice-cold shower (it’s solar heated and so brutally cold at night) I have a revelation. How different the world would be if there were nice beaches and sun in Birmingham or Tokyo or Duluth. Perhaps only then would pristine areas like Zakynthos be spared from the homogenized amusement park sprawl that seems to have taken over most of the beautiful, sunny areas in the world. I don’t know if it’s funny or sad that it’s easier to find a gin-fizz in Kalamaki than an ouzo. I wonder why tourists even come to Greece? To eat the same food and swill the same booze as back home? I guess so. In the end, if you cut through all the neon and noise and booze and fast food grease in Kalamaki you will soon realize what this place really is: an international mass tourist destination that could be anywhere on planet earth but just happens to be in one of Greece’s most beautiful and verdant islands.
Zakynthos. The birthplace of Dionysios Solomos. He’s Greece’s poet-laureate and the writer of our national anthem, a true fighting ode to freedom. Zakynthos. The home of the Caretta caretta sea turtle. These last few years these tranquil Loggerhead turtles have been fighting an uneven battle of their own. Unlike Dionysios Solomos, the turtles aren’t battling Attila but rather a far more versatile enemy that has many faces and is custom designed to devour first and explain later. This enemy loves the coastline and quickly blankets everything in cement and noise and lights and garbage and smoke and plastic. A true propaganda beast of the modern age, this enemy calls itself “development” in order to stave off its critics. The engine that drives this beast, at least in most of Greece, is consumerism through mass tourism. It fights tooth and nail to import the mass tourism economic model by first attacking the local population, decimating it’s traditional economy and culture and replacing it with what it has to offer, which is basically multinational corporation junk food in a shinny wrapper. When it has done its almost irreparable damage to the local environment, culture and economy, its cement and booze and fast-food trucks move on to the next tranquil spot to carry on the sprawl, quickly creating the infrastructure needed to meet the insatiable demand of the invading mass tourists for cheap lodging, ample booze, loud music, easy beach entertainment and fast food. It’s a wonder a single sea turtle has managed to survive this new, take-no-prisoners-styled invasion of their ancient nesting grounds. That’s why I’m in Zakynthos. To help the sea turtles in this highly uneven, one-sided battle.
I was recently commissioned by ARCHELON, the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece to make a promotional film about the volunteers who come to the Society’s program from all over the world to help conserve the beleaguered Loggerheads and their dwindling environment. My first destination is Zakynthos, where the Society’s volunteer program is particularly important and big, thus so in order to handle the large Caretta caretta population that returns each year to nest on this lush, emerald-green Ionian island.
A car honks in the hotel driveway and I gather my video equipment. As I exit my sparsely decorated hotel room, I notice that the room next door is wide open and the lights are on. Inside the room an extremely fat fellow with a beet-red face snores up a storm in his baggy cartoon orange boxers. Wrinkled yet enormous white ants march about on his boxers ominously but fat fellow is too busy sawing wood to care. Next to him, an incredibly thin chap in loose Calvin Klein briefs is splayed across the bed the wrong way, wheezing and gurgling as if in a belly-dance dream. A lone flip-flop dangles from one of his big toes. A dozen or so radiant green Heineken tall-boy cans are strewn about their hotel room floor, fighting for space on the faux Italian tile floor next to greasy McDonald’s wrappers, salt crusted Billabong surfer-dude trunks and damp Summer in Hawaii beach towels. I wonder if this oddly contemporary Laurel and Hardy duo are the burp and sing karaoke twins I heard earlier.
The van doors slide open. Right away, long-haired Yonni, ARCHELON’s designated volunteer driver for the day, calls out “Shalom! Kalimera!” with a heavy Israeli accent and a sunny smile. I squeeze myself into the van next to Angela, who is an ARCHELON supervisor and the only other Greek in the van (well, she’s half Rumanian too), Aude, a long-haired French woman with a nice smile, another Yonni from Israel (luckily this one has a shaved head) and finally tiny Joe, whose real name is John. John opted for Joe when he heard that there were 2 other volunteers named John at the Zakynthos program. In fact there are three Yonni’s at the program too, but none of them opted for another name. “Was’up, mate” Joe-John says to me in a sing-song New Zealand accent once I’ve settled in. “Hi everyone,” I say, a bit overwhelmed by all this early morning talk before I’ve even had a single sip of java. “Did you sleep well?” Angela asks me in Greek. “I didn’t sleep at all,” I reply in English. “Way too much party noise all night,” I add. “English,” skinhead-Yonni says, smiling. “Karaoke and beer!” Joe-John yells out with a smile. “Welcome to Kalamaki,” Aude adds with an ironic French accent.
We start speeding to Kalamaki Beach for morning patrol. A warm moist wind gently caresses my red-eyed face, helping me wake up. I stare out the smudged front window at the almost tropical explosion of jungle greens and browns and blues and oranges developing in the road up ahead. We drive by a field overflowing with plum trees, all dripping wet with glistening dark purple fruit. We turn left and head down a wet pot-hole road that leads directly to the beach. The sun is just coming up. A mandarin-colored sky with intense dark gray-white clouds caps a frothy blue and menacing sea, which is particularly agitated today. Curly-haired Yonni pulls up to the beach entrance and everyone piles out. “See ya Scorcese!’ he shouts out with a smile and a wink, flooring the mini-van and disappearing up the pot-hole road. When I turn around, Angela, Joe-John, skinhead-Yonni and Aude are already on the beach, looking at their clip-boards. I pull out my camera, slide on my headphones and hustle down to film them.
Every summer hundreds of Loggerhead sea turtles return to Zakynthos from all over the Mediterranean to lay their eggs on the exact same beach where they were born. Other Caretta caretta do this at a handful of other beaches in Greece as well: in Kyparissia, Koroni, a few beaches in the Lakonikos Bay in the Peloponesse and finally on Crete. No knows why this is, why the turtles are hard-wired to return year after year to the land of their birth in order to lay their eggs. Perhaps this system worked well for them over the millennia. Unfortunately, this internal compass system is now proving to be the very Achilles Heel that is decimating their numbers. Returning to the beaches where they were born, most of the Caretta caretta are finding them overrun by humans and all their egg-destroying detritus: beach chairs, umbrellas, bright lights, cement, pollution, garbage, noise and sometimes, outright human destruction and predation. The number of sea turtles that actually manage to lay their eggs on these hard-hit beaches has been in a steady freefall for years. This of course is in direct contrast to the steady increase of regulated and unregulated “development” in these areas. Were it not for the efforts of ARCHELON, the WWF and a small handful of other conservation groups, the Caretta caretta wouldn’t have a fighting chance against the all-consuming human invasion of these ancient turtle nesting grounds.
Photograph courtesy of ARCHELON, the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece.
As soon as I step on Kalamaki Beach I realize that the wind and surf are so loud that I can barely hear Angela scream-explain to Joe-John, Yonni and Aude what the tasks of the morning are. Through the whistling wind and crashing waves I am however able make out some of her instructions in English, the default language of ARCHELON’s volunteers. Angela explains that because of the previous night’s rainfall, the hatchlings’ traces to the sea are probably not going to be visible and thus cannot be counted. Instead, Joe-John, Yonni and Aude are to look for signs that the baby turtles have hatched in the marked (and sometimes unmarked) nests by the indentations and bulging in the sand. They are also to count the number of tourists on the beach and inform them to move closer to the waterfront if they’ve laid their towels or beach chairs too close to the hatching nests. These tasks, in a nutshell, comprise what is known as “Morning Patrol,” one of ARCHELON’s most effective tools in its coterie of efforts to help conserve the sea turtles and their environment.
Aside from the all-important public awareness aspect of the Society’s efforts in Zakynthos (and elsewhere in Greece), a large percentage of the volunteers’ time goes into cataloguing and classifying the numbers of returning Loggerheads, the nests they create, the number of eggs they lay and finally the actual hatchlings born on the known nesting beaches. By doing this over the last few years, ARCHELON has been able to provide statistical evidence of the effects of human encroachment on the Loggerheads in Greece and thus help change both the government’s and general public’s attitudes regarding the conservation of their environment. But it is ARCHELON’s consistent mano-a-mano effort to increase public awareness on the actual beaches that has provided the most tangible results with regards to Loggerhead conservation. Because of the work of the volunteers and ARCHELON’s consistent approach, the steady decline in Loggerhead numbers has been somewhat reduced recently, at least compared to a few years back, when ignorance of the problem reigned supreme and nest encroachment and destruction was rampant.
Armed with their clip-boards, National Marine Water Park tags and ARCHELON volunteer t-shirts, Angela, Joe-John, Yonni and Aude start walking down the beach, their eyes scanning the light brown sand. Not yet desensitized to the immense amount of garbage on most Greek beaches, Joe-John starts picking up countless beer-cans, plastic bottles and assorted garbage that has washed up on the beach, stuffing it all in his backpack as there are no waste bins anywhere to be seen. He seems shocked at the amount of waste laying about. Aude tells him that she too collected the garbage at first but soon gave up as it got too heavy to carry around every day. The group’s first stop is a nest that started hatching a few days back and whose protective bamboo cage has been knocked askew by the wind. After Angela shows the group how to restore the cage to it’s original position, I ask Joe-John how he learned of the program and ended up here. He tells me that he heard about ARCHELON from a previous volunteer while he was traveling in Borneo. Before I can ask another question, Joe-John strokes his thin goatee and adds “Yeah, turtles fascinate me too. I had this favorite turtle pet when I was young, but it ran away, thank god! So yeah, turtles interest me and the whole helping out, conserving their habitat and letting them live, I guess.”
Further down the beach, Yonni and Aude spot a ghostly-white couple who are sitting too far up on the beach, near a couple of nests. Yonni gently pushes Aude forward and she hurries over to inform them that they need to move closer to the waterfront and away from the nests. “Eastern Europeans for sure, or Russian” Yonni tells me as Aude approaches the couple. “You can tell by their flip-flops,” he adds, smiling. At first the ghost-white couple seem annoyed by the early-morning French invasion. They appear to not speak a word of English or French and Aude resorts to asking the couple to read a paragraph on her clipboard that explains what she needs them to do in a variety of languages. After some hesitation, the couple get the message and they start to move closer to the water.
“Sometimes they don’t speak English, and they don’t speak French and they only speak very little German and even when they read the thing they don’t understand and so I have to find a way to explain that they need to move. Some times it’s very hard because of the tongues,” Aude tells me with her heavy French accent when she returns. “Where were they from?” Yonni asks. “The Czech Republic,” Aude says, rolling her R’s. Yonni smiles at me. We continue down the beach and round some rocks. An immense beach appears before us, with big hotels and lots of commercial action all along it. “This is Laganas Beach, the main nesting beach on Zakynthos,” Angela tells me. “And also the most abused,” Yonni says. We continue walking and soon link up with Irini, the only other Greek ARCHELON volunteer in Zakynthos. A happy-go-lucky college student from Athens. Irini started her morning patrol on the other side of Laganas. She is wearing a bright pink ARCHELON volunteer shirt with baby turtles crawling on it. As we all walk on together, Yonni spots a pretty blonde sunbather lying near a nest. He quickly hustles off to give her the drill. Aude looks at me with a frowning smile. “You’ll soon learn that he only talks to pretty young ladies,” she tells me. “He’ll be a while,” she adds and we continue on.
Further up the beach, the group spots a good-looking young couple skewering a large umbrella into the sand right next to a nest. They seem to have brought an intense amount of beach junk with them and have spread it over a sizeable radius, partially covering another hatching nest. The coup de grace is when the guy stamps his cigarette out on the sand next to the nest and covers it up with sand. “Jeez!” Joe-John says. “Should I go tell them?” he asks Angela. “They look Greek, better let Irini talk to them,” Angela replies. Irini lights up. “I’ll set them straight, the thoughtless cretins,” Irini calls out in Greek and heads over to the beach-junk couple.
Just as Irini enters a long conversation with the couple, Yonni walks up with a smile and phone number. Aude rolls her eyes. Looking towards Irini, Angela tells me that there is a shortage of Greek volunteers at ARCHELON, something which is felt on morning patrols, particularly when the volunteers have to approach Greek sunbathers. “Sometimes the Greeks don’t want to listen to foreigners because they feel like they’re local and who is this foreigner who is coming to tell them what to do in their land. But generally, they are compliant,” she says. A nodding Yonni adds that he doesn’t seem to have too many problems, even though he doesn’t speak Greek. He attributes his luck with Greeks to the fact that he’s Israeli and thus more in tune with the Mediterranean mentality. For Yonni it isn’t so much the language barrier that he sees as the main problem with the locals, but rather the economic issues. “Most Greeks speak English anyway. The tourists are usually very concerned and very cooperative. Yeah, and they really like the efforts that we’re doing. But with the locals it’s a different story, because they feel like we’re taking their income away and it makes them pretty upset. What they don’t know is that in the long run it might increase their income.” I lower my camera for a second. “It’s the age old battle between mass tourism and ecological tourism,” I say.
The sky starts thundering ominously and we all look up at the suddenly dark, steel-grey sky. Irini, who appears to be having problems with the argumentative beach-junk couple, seems relieved that at least the weather will clear the beach of all ill-behaving people. The first fat drops of rain start to fall and the couple hastily starts to collect their gear to leave. Irini rushes over to join us. “Well?” Angela asks her. “Italians,” Irini says and rolls her eyes. “They barely speak any English and could not understand me.” The sky thunders again and a Biblical deluge begins. Everyone on the beach, volunteers included, starts running for cover. I quickly shield my camera and follow suit. I catch up with the volunteers and we all take cover under the roof of a small open-air tourist kiosk by the beach, near a road with lots of bars on it. “That’s it for morning patrol,” Angela says. “What now?” I ask. “Well, it’s kind of a standby situation now until the afternoon. If the sun comes back out, we’ll continue with the beach patrol, and in the afternoon we’ll do some nest excavations to count eggs.” The sky thunders again. “I know a bar up the street,” Yonni says. Before anyone can answer, he slides the hood of his poncho over his shaved head and bolts up the road. Before I can say a thing, the rest of the volunteers take off after Yonni. “Why not go to this bar?” I ask Angela and Irini, pointing to a bar that’s right next to the beach. “We would never go there. See that laser light? They represent everything we’re against,” Irini answers through the rain.
A few hundred meters up the road, Yonni cuts into a shanty-styled bar called The Captain’s Hook. Fishnets and swords and black pirate hats and empty rum bottles decorate the wood-paneled walls. I’m not sure if the sawdust on the floor is damp with rain water or beer. I catch a whiff. Definitely beer. A bored looking English bartender perks up when she see us. Dripping wet, we all sit at the bar and before long a variety of beers appear before us. “This is the best part of volunteering,” Yonni says, smiling. We all clink glasses and drink. Aude goes to the jukebox and punches up a few songs. Surprisingly, the “I want to know, oouh-hah, won’t you be my girl?’ song comes on. “Ya mas! Cheers!” Joe-John toasts and we all clink glasses again. A couple of stumbling Brits enter the bar, dripping wet and with wide grins on their faces. On the first refrain, everyone in the bar sings out at top volume, the volunteers included. A cacophonous, multinational karaoke version of the song starts up spontaneously. “I want to know, oouh-hah, won’t you be my girl?!!” Infected with the good energy, I join in.
When the song ends, one of the Brits, who has been hitting on Irini and seems fascinated with her crawling baby turtle t-shirt, yells out “International Party Turtles! Yeah!” We all toast again. Buena Vista Social Club’s ‘La Bayamesa” comes on the jukebox. I imagine a bunch of baby turtles samba-ing their way down to the water. I am awakened from my reverie by the loud karaoke voices of my friends. They bounce around the wood-paneled walls and explode off-key in my brain. “Tristes recuerdos de tradiciones, cuando contempla sus verdes llanos lagrimas vierte spor sur pasiones, ay! Ella es sencilla le brinda qal hombre birtudes todas y el corazon.” “Sad memories of the past, memories of green pastures make her passionate tears overflow. She is so true, she brings only goodness and love to mankind.” As if to highlight the last verse, the sun breaks through the clouds and a beam of bright light enters The Captain’s Hook. “Lets get back to work!” Angela calls out and all the volunteers get up and exit the bar, all dripping wet and with smiles on their faces.
This piece first appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Johnny Seagull.
Copyright © 2010, Andreas Economakis. All rights reserved.
For more stories by Andreas Economakis click on the author’s name below.