(Or less melodramatically known as, “The Day I Swam Alone Around the Peninsula”)
There were three beaches in Alyki that we frequented, when we weren’t studiously working on our writing (ahem), called Beach 1, 2, and 3. Our workshop leader introduced us to the beaches in this way, but it took me nearly three weeks to realize this was not their real names. “You mean the locals don’t call them by number?”* The island is small, but it’s not that small.
*I asked Tassos of Thassos what the names were when I realized I being very “American Colonizer” by renaming them out of simplicity—sort of like calling Native Americans “Indians” despite knowing they weren’t in or from India—but after Tassos said the names, I promptly forgot them because they were harder to say than “one,” “two,” and “three.” Indians it is!
My first full day on Thasos, I bought a mask and snorkel, the latter of which did not work, and swam from Beach 2 to 1. The route was easy: swim straight out, turn a corner, and straight back into the next cove. I felt good. My first swim in three years, since being in Maui and swimming to Black Rock and back, except this time NO SNORKEL. I felt accomplished.
After two times of swimming from Beach 2 to 1, my inner exercising-psychopath decided this was not enough. I needed a challenge.
Beach 2 and Beach 3 were separated by a large peninsula and marble quarry, at least a mile’s swim from one beach to the other. The swim I used to do in Maui was about a mile, so this seemed reasonable. Swimming up AND back might even prove to be difficult. I loved the idea.
For some perspective: when I told the workshop leaders about “my plan,” they encouraged me to go with someone else, and when I argued (because swimming should remain a solitary sport, just like running), they looked at me like I might be the type of person who’d jump off a roof with a cape and call myself Superman. But they said I ought to at least tell someone what I was doing before I went.
For the record, I did do that.
I told my friends I’d meet them on Beach 3 for a milkshake…thinking I might actually just wave to them from shore before turning around and swimming right back BECAUSE I’M THAT HARDCORE.
I never made it to the shore.
I set out at 4:00 p.m. from Beach 2, feeling strong and steady. It’s amazing how calm a cove feels compared to the vast open sea. I made great time on my swim straight out from shore and thought, “This will be no problem. I’ll definitely forego the milkshake.”
When I hit the edge of the cove, I took a left to follow the rocks around to the marble quarry, which would then lead me to the opening of the cove of Beach 3. But as soon as I hit the “open ocean,” as it were, I could see nothing.
My eyes were open and my mask wasn’t filling with water (thank God), but the turbidity was such that I actively sought to remember the word “turbidity.”** It served me right, I supposed, since not even 24 hours earlier I had been bragging to my parents about how clear the water in Greece was. (They were trying to tell me it couldn’t compare to Maui and I got very defensive.) So the first battle I faced was not being able to see beyond the length of my arms.
**this is not true. Well, okay, it is true, I did think of the word “turbidity,” but it didn’t require effort. When I was in 7th grade, I overheard the 8th graders calling our teacher “Turbidity Man,” and I thought surely that can’t be right. Having just learned the definition of the word, I brought it to their attention that they were calling him The Number Of Particles Suspended In Water Man. They promptly ignored me. But I never forgot the word or its definition. (PS. Mr. T: your superhero powers were at work on this day in the Aegean, just so you know.)
It turns out when one cannot see in deep water, one starts to imagine the worst.
The most obvious fear, of course, were the creatures of the sea. They say there aren’t sharks in Greece, but I still got the feeling there was something huge swimming next to me. And, honestly, it didn’t have to be a shark to scare me. The idea of fish coming at me is enough to freak me out.
FISH ARE SCARY.
Mouths opening and closing, beady eyes that stay in fixed positions on their head, traveling in giant swarms like locust—I get heart palpitations just thinking about it. Even dolphins, which I love, are a scary thought in zero visibility.
Unknown depth + unknown sea animals + unhelpful imagination = hyperventilation
Meanwhile, my most practical fear was swimming headlong into a rock. I’ve managed to swim into the wall of a pool before while doing laps, so I knew swimming directly into a rock could be done. I was hugging the edge as tightly I could, knowing that rocks are like icebergs. The bulk of their mass is invisible from the surface and they’re covered with jagged protrusions of coral, which is great for sightseeing and all, but “seeing” is the operative word. I had to constantly pull my head out of the water and gauge my distance to the rocks, which is not key for swimming efficiently.
So, there I was in deep water, couldn’t see, swimming in zig-zags, trying not to hyperventilate, feeling cold (did I mention abyssal water is cold??), and then I realized I was no longer making forward progress.
The current had arrived.
It was like swimming on a treadmill, or going up the down escalator. If only I can make it to that rock out there, I thought, I can turn the corner and see Beach 3. That was my hope. So I kept going. And going. And going. Alongside the marble quarry, which provided a small level of comfort because it was an estuary of warm water, until finally–I did it.
I reached the rock!
I turned the corner and…there was still a lot more to go. But there was hope. I was 2/3 of the way finished. With a renewed sense of vigor, I moved past the marble quarry, and soon I saw them: the ships anchored in the cove of Beach 3. I’d made it to the home stretch. I put my head down and completed a stroke and then—
I felt something.
On the tips of my fingers. I had touched something. I paused. I warily put my head back in the water and took another stroke.
My right hand and left arm each collided with gooey, solid somethings, and I shot bolt right out of the water.
I had a flashback to my first day on Beach 3, when I’d stopped to put my toes in the water and noticed a translucent blob by my feet, cradled among the rocks. I bent over to inspect it, and just before I poked it with a stick, I noticed another…and another, and another, and I realized the entire beach was laden with jellyfish.
I nearly had an embolism. A panic-induced embolism, if such things exist. Imagine the feeling of something crawling on you in the middle of the night—that instinctual reaction to scream and fling your appendages with jet engine-like force in every direction. That’s what happened to me out in the middle of the sea. I screamed. I flailed. I swallowed water. And then I swam in the opposite direction of shore.**
**For the record, I think they were moon jellyfish, which supposedly don’t sting. But even if they were perfectly harmless—a debatable point—swimming in a sea of jellyfish is like sleeping on a bed of worms. It’s the type of torture reserved only for people in Saw movies.
Now, this is where things take a turn for the worst.
IN MY LINE OF THINKING:
- I had a long swim ahead of me.
- I hadn’t made good time as it was
- I didn’t want to miss Greek class at 6pm.
(Yes, in the face of imminent death, I was concerned about going to Greek class.)
So, the only logical solution in such situations is to take a shortcut, of course.
Now, let me explain to you something about the marble quarry. The water that surrounds the excavation area is very shallow. I’d hiked the marble quarry, and I knew this. I’d seen it. But…it seemed so easy to cut off a corner of the swim by swimming straight through, and given my sense of urgency, I thought I’d take a gamble.
I must also, perhaps, mention the sea urchins.
On our first day in Thasos, our workshop leader instilled within us a great fear of sea urchins, describing how some careless student in years past had stood on one, or put a hand down on one, or came into contact with one, and was gorged by a spine, contracted an infection, and overall, was severely wounded. So, we were all very careful to avoid sea urchins.
The marble quarry is sea urchin mecca. At first, it wasn’t so bad because I had at least two feet of water between me and the rocky crevices that housed the urchins below. Then two feet became one foot, and one foot became six inches, and the next thing I knew, I was unable to move any part of my body for fear of scraping my stomach on rocks and death-causing animals. I even held my breath as a means of “sucking it in.” The only way I could maneuver around was to move my arms back and forth on the surface of the water, like I was making snow angels. I couldn’t turn around. I couldn’t move forward. I thought I would either have to endure sea urchin wounds along the entire length of my torso, or be forever stuck in the quarry as a cautionary tale of why you shouldn’t take shortcuts. I could imagine seagulls floating in graceful circles above me and then swooping down to eat my flesh***.
***birds are evil
I wondered if my friends were on Beach 3 drinking a milkshake.
This quarry business lasted for what felt like a lifetime, but I think it was about 20 minutes. It was only by the grace of God that I escaped unscathed, and I’ll tell you what: I WELCOMED THAT COLD, DARK, ABYSSAL SEA like it was my mother’s warm embrace. The sea urchins were gone and I had won! Eleftheria!****
**** ελευθερια = “Freedom!”
The happiness lasted about fifty seconds, but overall, I was much better off. I could move again, although the fear of open water soon clouded my senses. I started reciting Psalm 23 as I swam, and then, when I looked up to see where I was going (the current kept angling me out to sea), I saw Archodissa, my city on a hill, a beacon of light and hope. As long as I swam toward Archodissa, I knew I would make it home.
And I did.
I even made it back in time for Greek class.