Sunday, March 29, 2009

Construction Workers and Guard Dogs

Sadly, my sister Whitney had to head back to the States after her all too short trip, but luckily my girlfriend Megan was able to come visit near the same time, so that they overlapped by about a day. We all spent one great afternoon and night in Athens, though missed getting to see the Acropolis, sorry Whit! [Who knew it closed at 3?] Megan and I left the hustle and bustle of Athens to jump on a ferry resembling a cruise ship to head to the distant island of Santorini. Santorini is generally heralded as the premier tourist destination of all of the Greek islands, and rightly so I think, its one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. A series of three volcanoes erupted long ago, heaving up ash and soot and creating a caldera, or interior body of water surrounded by steep rocky cliffs. Since our trip was so early in the season though, a few things were different on the island. Mainly that we were the only people there that were not construction workers, Santorini natives, or dogs. It was an odd time to be there but ended up working out perfect for research, since we had a front row seat to investigate the construction techniques used in the re-crafting of the island. We seemed to trade the noise of loud obnoxious tourists for the soothing sounds of heavy jackhammers and grinding hammer-drills. Though not often seen by visitors to the island, the whole village of Oia [where we were staying], goes through a complete rebirth of buildings. The air is a buzz of workers re-painting houses, mixing concrete, and donkeys braying carrying heavy loads down to construction sites. There are only about four months where the entire island is not overrun with tourists and workers must jump on the opportunity to do all of the repairs and new building for the whole of the coming year. It calls to mind the image of the phoenix, when spent and turned to ashes bursting forth in a blaze of new fiery glory. Many of the buildings being refurbished looked like they hadn't been touched in years, but in truth it appears that island life is much harder on the upkeep than many would like to admit. A week or so after we were to leave, our Bulgarian bodyguard/handyman Vicilis promised that all of the buildings would be back to the blindingly bone white so notorious for Santorini pictures.

The small village of Oia is similar to the Greek island of Hydra in that its roads are so narrow and steep that only donkeys and a few other forms of manual transport are used to bring all of the materials necessary for construction down to the sites. This means a few things for the buildings of Santorini. First off, long pieces of material, such as timber or steel are not only hard to acquire on the barren volcanic island, but they are also incredibly difficult to carry down the winding paths. For these reasons, as well as others, most all of the buildings are made out of materials easy to break apart into smaller pieces. Instead of using large unwieldy sheet material, the buildings are crafted out of concrete, small stones, short lengths of steel, and plaster, all smaller and easier to be loaded into the large canvas bags carried by donkeys.

The construction and therefore the finished architecture becomes tied directly to the landscape and materials present at a site such as Oia. Some of the other methods of carrying include wheelbarrows, mechanized buggies, wooden chutes for dropping loads, and of course, the strong backs of many of the workers.

Another interesting part about the whole of the island is the prominence of the concrete half complete shells of houses dotting the coastline on the side not facing the caldera. They are everywhere seemingly, the flat-gray floors, roofs, and columns already in place and just waiting for the next step of infill it would seem. But I've been a lot of construction sites in my relatively limited years, and have never seen any that clean [unless its being run by George Medlin]. The hollow shells looked as if the often prophesied day of reckoning had already came, accidentally sweeping up workers with hard hats and leaving their tools to decay to dust with time and exposed steel to rust. I assumed the stalled construction was a bi-product of the economic downturn, but after talking with an extremely reliable source [the internet cafe guy who is a born and bred Santorini native] I believe it has to do more with property tax. He related to me that there is not the same idea of property tax on Santorini [and maybe all of Greece?] as we have in the States. Instead of paying a certain percentage of the value every year no matter what, you only pay a utility tax tied to if you are using water or not [to prove no one is living there]. There is also a different loan system, as many families don't take out the whole cost of the house to pay back, but rather wait till they have enough money for the next stage of construction, even if it is years down the road [and it often is]. Because of both of these different situations there is, I would dare to say, an overabundance of bleached concrete fossils now native to the island. Most all of them have poles of rebar still poking their gleaming metallic heads out of the concrete, impatiently awaiting the next pour. When the house is finally completed, they are still sometimes either left or capped, in case the family wants to expand another level or bedroom later. I believe part of Oia's organic flow of structures and paths is due directly to the prolonged pace of building, allowing workers to take their time as well as happen onto an old project years later.

Oia was an incredible experience, though I think most all of it was due to the company of Megan and arguably the best breakfast patio on the whole island. To aid us getting around the island, we unwittingly enlisted the help of a pack of wandering dogs. From the best of my understanding, the scenario went as follows: Our first day there Megan was nice to one of the aforementioned canines on the way down to drop off our bags. There are as far as I can tell, at least three distinctly different territories managed by separate packs of dogs in our small village. The ones that took it upon themselves to be our protectors occupied the middle ground, stretching all the way from the internet cafe and green church bells to near the windmills near the tip to the north. I think they took it as a chance for raiding into neighboring territories every time I went to go get a pastry in the morning. We would walk up from our apartment to the main street, where "Nomad" and "Count Adamar von Lichtenstein" would be seemingly napping by the side of one of the houses. Seconds after passing your ears could pick up the padding footsteps following closely behind. If there were any other people walking on the same side street [and there always were] the dogs would amble forth and commence barking at them non stop until they deemed we were a safe distance away from the threatening flower lady or malicious schoolkid with SpongeBob lunchbox. At one point they even went so far as to back a Greek construction worker talking on a cell phone into a corner so that he couldn't even complete his call. Of course, at first all of this strange red carpet treatment feels flattering, if not slightly laden with guilt. But after about 4 days of this non-stop it came to the point where I would actively seek alternative routes to the local internet spot, though magically our guardians would always manage to find which way I was taking, trotting alongside with heads held high and tongues wagging in reference to their good deeds.

Thoughts on Traveling #10 : Upon foreign strangers asking me the always-always-always first question "Where are you from?", there are several responses that can take place. If I say "United States" or "America" there is a 93% chance of "OhhBammahh!", while if I reply with "California" there is an moderately heightened probability of "Swcharzenegga", and every once in a while, every so often... "Terminator!!!". If I say "North Carolina" they just stare at me blankly. So I usually just create an obviously fictitious country name like "Iceland" as my comeback.

1 comment:

Bygningsentreprise said...

When I saw you working with your dogs. I thought that this scene is one of the Christmas scene in the movie. I like your blog very much and I felt happiness while I'm reading it. Thank you for posting your excellent article. Keep up the good work.