(Image collection from my post on Vagabond Original)
As Jeff mentioned in his post a few weeks ago, my travels and experiences across Africa were some of the most important times in my life. As significant as they were, I still sometimes dread sharing my experiences. How do you casually share a story about something that changed the entire course of your life? How do you share about the tragedy, the suffering, the simple pleasures, and the overwhelming joy – and explain how all those things could possibly exist in the same moment? I was often in the midst of an internal battle to reconcile and balance the combination of polar opposite emotions that usually accompanied every situation.
Even now as I write, my eyes well up with tears as I remember a tragic, and yet very sacred moment. It was 2005, my first time in Zambia, and only a few days into our trip. My fellow volunteers and I traveled to a nearby teaching hospital to visit our friend, the head nurse of the NICU. After she and her staff showed us around the few sparsely equipped rooms, we were free to wander the ward, assisting where we could.
Toward the back in a dimly lit room, I found rows and rows of tiny, quiet cribs. There were so many babies whose mothers had either abandoned them on the hospital steps or had died in childbirth. Too many of the babies were close to dying themselves; some did while we were there. They were so tiny and weak that they didn’t cry, just lied and waited. They had to drink formula from a cup as they were too frail to nurse from a bottle.
While the other volunteers busied themselves changing diapers and talking with new mothers, I felt the need to be with those babies whose time on Earth was hours from ending. Surrounded by loneliness and tragedy, I felt my heart numb as I subconsciously tried to protect myself from the overwhelming sadness. I didn’t want the trauma of what I was witnessing to define my time with them, so I slowly began to shift my focus. Instead of being overcome and wanting to distance myself, I wanted to honor them and their short time of life. I knew cognitively that I could transform this heartache into a holy moment and I was determined to do so. I held them and sang to them and prayed for their quick return Home.
Since that time, I’ve had numerous experiences when life is too overwhelming and I find myself retreating into the numbness. Through my experience in Zambia, I know that not only are you not protected when you distance yourself, but you miss out on empowering, sacred moments. When we build fortresses around our hearts, we really only wall in sadness and hurt. It is through our vulnerability that we find healing and beauty in life’s most brutal moments.
And so it is through my vulnerability of sharing these most holy moments that I hope to chip away those walls and encourage you to do the same.
The morning of our boat tour around the island of Skiathos was cool and dreary – typically my favorite kind of weather – but only for when I’m smothered in blankets with a mug of hot chocolate in hand. Not as ideal for when I’m swimming in the chilly sea, scantily clad.
The brooding clouds made the normally bight turquoise waters dark and mysterious. Hints of sunshine would fight to make its way through the mist only to be swallowed up again a few minutes later.
Our boat seemed sturdy enough on the calmer sea waters, though the array of crosses, talisman, and saints displayed optimistically at the helm echoed the foreboding feel of the weather.
The northern part of the island juts out of the water forming huge, steep cliffs that on this day looked particularly dramatic above the stormy waters.
As we rounded the island, we caught sight of one of the most famous beaches in Greece, Lalaria.
Lalaria’s smooth, gray stones that line the beach and the hollow arch in the rock have made it so popular among tourists and photographers that it has solidified Skiathos’ reputation worldwide.
After being there for only a few minutes, the clouds mercifully dissipated. The aquamarine waters, the pale jagged cliffs, brilliant purple wildflowers, and gray-green pebbles made this one of our favorite spots of the entire trip.
With the sun finally out, we were tempted to just sit on this beautiful beach and enjoy the warmth of the sun and serenity of the crashing waves.
Sitting on the beach was nice. But all of the sudden, I realized how silly it seemed to have come all this way and not swim out there. It would be cold. And I’m still a little scared of the sea creatures.
“Let’s just do it,” I said. He grinned in response.
About a week after our arrival to Greece in early April, Jeff and I were invited to attend a dinner party with our host and her good friends. One of them was gracious enough to invite us to stay at her house on one of the islands up north, Skiathos. We excitedly accepted the offer, but decided to wait until our work schedule freed up a bit and when the weather would be warmer – and honestly, we had to make sure there was sufficient play-money to justify the cost of buses, ferries, taxis, etc.
Things lined up near the end of May. We traveled by bus from Athens to the port city of Volos, where we sat on the pier and ate a picnic lunch of hard boiled eggs and oranges before boarding a ferry to Skiathos. We were thrilled to see a small pod of dolphins swimming alongside our ferry, at one point, but they were too quick for the camera.
After about 45 minutes, the ferry slowed and we pulled into the main port of the island.
Skiathos is a tiny island, about 7 miles by 4 miles, but played some significant historical roles as a key defensive point in the naval battles with the Persians and is also the site where the first modern Greek flag was created and flown.
To us, it was a quiet, beautiful getaway.
Away from the noisy, dirty (dare I say complainy?) city of Athens, Skiathos was charming, inviting, and cultivated. The friendly locals seemed very proud of their island paradise, and it showed in the way they kept the town freshly painted, the streets clean, and the beaches mostly undisturbed.
Luckily for us, we had arrived still early in the season, so we missed out on the throngs of college kids that would arrive in the months ahead. Most of the other tourists were our senior by about 30 years. Unluckily though, our early arrival also meant that the waters were still frigid.
The main part of town is very quaint with cobbled, winding lanes that seem to transport you back in time as you wander past churches, shops, homes, and restaurants.
One of the first things we did was find a private stretch of beach, where we took turns nervously stripping down and changing into our swimwear behind a rock while the other was lookout. We sat in the cold sand with the waves lapping at our feet and bright sun keeping us warm. This is one of several moments during our travels that we chose not to capture on camera; that memory is just for us.
Once we were ready for more exploring, we hiked back up the beach and started strolling around the town.
At this point, we took a taxi up the steep hills to the home of our host where we would stay for the next four days. Our host lives and works in Athens, but her mother lives here on their Skiathos property, with a delightful housekeeper who cares for her (and everything else).
It was lovely. We had the bottom floor apartment all to ourselves, separate from the rest of the large property. Outside, the grounds were covered in morning glories, roses, and lemon trees. Chickens roamed freely, miraculously undisturbed by the many cats (I counted at least eight) that shared the yard with them.
This is Artemis. I love her. She is one of the friendliest cats I’ve ever known.
The housekeeper, Voula, had her own apartment on the property. She spoke no English. She was so sweet. She brought us freshly cut flowers, eggs (still warm from the chickens), tomatoes, feta cheese, milk, bread, and olive oil. Along with some pasta that we brought along, plus a lemon that we plucked from one of the trees outside, we now had everything we needed for one of our favorite pasta dishes.
The next morning, we skipped the expensive taxi ride and walked all the way down to the beach. The views coming down the hill were incredible.
Cold as the water was, I waded in.
Jeff put down the camera and followed me in. He was in about up to his neck, while I barely made it in waist-deep. It was then that I noticed something clear and plastic-looking floating near Jeff. I looked a little more closely. It was definitely a jellyfish.
The only thing I know about jellyfish is that they sting you and hurt really bad, and then you have to pee on yourself.
Now we could see them everywhere. We hurried out of the water, and made it out unscathed.
We decided it was time to find a nicer beach.
Skiathos boasts some of the best beaches in the world. One of the main beaches, Koukounaries (translated: pine cones), has a fresh water lake behind it, only yards away from the shoreline. But it’s most famous for the powder-soft sand.
After our earlier close-encounter with the jellyfish, I was nervous of both scary underwater sea creatures and the cold temperatures. This time Jeff scouted it out first. Then I braved the waters. We waded for a few minutes in the cold water before Jeff went back to retrieve the GoPro camera. He came back out in the water and handed it off to me. Wanting to impress him and make a cool video clip, I impulsively took the first plunge.
We played in the water a while, ate another picnic lunch of hard boiled eggs and oranges, laid around, and finally packed up to leave. I made sure to collect some of the amazingly fine sand in a sandwich bag as a souvenir.
We hiked for a while back to the road, then hiked a little more until we found a bus stop. We were pretty sun-toasted by the time we got on a bus back to the port. The AC was lovely.
Once we got back, we found a nice little lounge where we bought sodas and sat in the shade a while.
It was getting to be evening-time, and we were ready for some food. I needed a Nutella crepe.
Jeff went for the pork gyros (of course).
Once we were fed, we went exploring again. This time, we hiked up to the clock tower on the hill.
From the top you can see the old Medieval fort, built to protect the island from marauding pirates, and far out at sea you can start to make out the amassing gray cloud of seagulls as they swarm incoming fishing boats.
The views from atop the the hill overlooking the town are stunning and romantic. The misty, humid sea air gave the town a soft haze in the fading light.
Jeff set up his camera to capture some time-lapse, and we stayed up there relaxing until dark.
In my research about this place, I had learned that there were certain amazing beaches on this island that can only be reached by boat. The more we thought about it, the more we wanted to take a boat tour around the island to see them in person. So, on the way home that night, we walked along the pier and found one of the old, weathered boat tour operators that offered exactly the tour we were hoping for.
We bought our tickets for the next day, and smiled the rest of the way home.
It was a beautiful last few hours that we had in Florence before our return trip to Rome.
We took the long way to return the motorcycle so that we could have a last look at our favorite city. Jeff was thrilled to be riding again. He was in his element, maneuvering the motorbike between lanes of traffic, across the bridges that span the Arno river, down the narrow alleys. Lane splitting is the norm here, which Jeff loves. Although there was one too-close-for-comfort moment when we narrowly missed nailing a nice Mercedes with the hard baggage on the left side of our bike. Jeff is sure he had it all under control. I’m not convinced.
When we ride through towns, I usually navigate while Jeff focuses on keeping us upright. “Shiny-side up, rubber-side down,” is what motorcycle aficionados grimly remind each other. I wish I wouldn’t have been so worried about getting lost and could have taken my eyes away from the map more and out to the lovely sites of the city. At one point, I lost track of where we were exactly on my map. We were close enough to the parts of town where Jeff was oriented and could navigate “by ear” so he was still cruising along happily. I was still fixed on the challenge of matching up the street signs at intersections with where I thought we were on the map. I told him I wasn’t sure where we were. Over the sound of the engine, he enthusiastically yelled back to me, “Don’t worry it, look at where we are!”
A very effective metaphor for how differently we operate.
He took us back past Santa Maria Novella, and dropped me off with our bags at the train station. He left to drop off the motorbike at the rental shop nearby, and returned on foot.
We rode the high speed train back to Rome, and made it back to our favorite bed and breakfast (where we stayed before). They had graciously allowed us to leave our suitcases there when we left for Florence. When we walked in, our bags were waiting for us in our new room just off the kitchen.
Hello, cake and milk. Remember me?
We made arrangements for a car to take us to the airport later, as there were no public transport options available that early in the morning. We had to be ready to leave at 3:30 AM, so we decided that we would take a small nap before heading out to explore more of Rome, and just stay awake until our car came.
There was no question that we’d be eating dinner again at Gli Amici’s. It was even better than before, even if we hadn’t each gotten our own dessert. And it was much more enjoyable since we weren’t cold and soaking wet like we were the first time. It’s one of our favorite places ever.
After dinner, we walked the winding cobbled streets of Trastevere until we made our way to the Tiber (Tevere) river.
Walking along the banks of the river was one of my favorite memories. The flavors of pecorino and pavlova still fresh in my mind. The glistening lights on the water. Hand in hand with my love.
We walked until we came to Castel Sant’Angelo. It was as if all my Roman Holiday fantasies had come to life. Thankfully I found someone even more wonderful and dashing than Gregory Peck.
Somewhere along the way, we crossed an invisible line into Vatican City. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Guards? A gate?
We spent a long time gazing at St. Peter’s Basilica. It was lovely to see it at night in the glow from the streetlights. As I looked around I was reminded of the pictures I’d seen of the lines of people waiting for hours in this square, and part of me was relieved we’d missed out on that.
It made for a quite a romantic night with only a few other couples out for a late stroll. Still, we were a little sad that we didn’t have the chance to go in, but in retrospect, I’m glad we will have lots to do the next time we go. And I have little doubt that there will be a next time.
As we walked back home, we had mixed feelings at the end of this part of our trip. Sad to leave Italy, but very excited to go to Greece.
We showered and packed for the last few hours.
When it was time, we took bags and backpacks down the tiny elevator to the street where our airport transfer was already waiting. I was expecting something much less luxurious. A well-groomed man in a dark suit stood beside a shiny black Mercedes, greeting us and helping with our bags. I felt like a foreign dignitary as I slid into the huge back seat of the luxury sedan. I very easily could have fit a small ottoman back there to rest my feet on.
Knowing the claustrophobic atmosphere that awaited us on board our RyanAir flight, we stretched out and took advantage of all the space.
Driving through the dark, vacant streets of Rome at that time of night was somber and special.
Taking all precautions to avoid a typical RyanAir disaster like we did in London, we were the first in line for check-in. We were even there before they opened the doors. We had spent hours strategically planning and weighing our bags, fully prepared for bad service and hassle. We were surprised when the experience was normal – even pleasant – when the friendly man at the check-in counter offered to check our carry-on bags for free as well.
It was short lived, as RyanAir employees quickly reminded us that we were cattle by starting the boarding process and making everyone stand out on the tarmac in the cold for nearly 40 minutes.
But they couldn’t dampen our spirits, because we were just a few, short hours away from what would become our new home for the next few months, Athens.
Stay tuned for our next update: Welcome to Athens
To see more photos:
Wander the Wild on Facebook | Jeff’s Instagram | Allison’s Instagram
It’s been a year since I first posted my original design for a Priesthood Preview invitation. Since then, it’s become the biggest contributor to new views and likes on Facebook, Pinterest, and here on the blog.
For it’s one year anniversary, I decided to give it a bit of a face lift as well as converting the design to multiple editable formats. That means if you don’t have Photoshop, no worries. Just download the PDF version and edit the information for your ward in Adobe Reader.
Choose your download:
PDF file for Adobe Reader
PSD file for Photoshop
What do you think? Do you prefer the original design or this new version better?
This invite is free for personal use. If you do use this invitation for your ward, we’d love to hear how it worked for you. Leave us a comment below or on our Facebook page.
For more help with fliers, event invites, and other DIY resources, visit our online studio: www.VagabondOriginal.com