After 3 days of travel from Croatia (which involved bus rides through 4 countries, some frantic last minute shopping for camping gear, and a 3 hour ferry ride), Joe and I arrived on the Greek island of Samothraki, just a few kilometers from the Turkish border. We were here for an eco-farm job that had been described as rural and physically demanding, which sounded like a nice change of pace for both of us. But beyond that, we didn’t know much about what we were walking into- and when we got off the boat, we didn’t even know where we going.
Our host had been frustratingly vague with directions, telling us to hitchhike or walk to where he was waiting for us in a small village a couple of miles away. We would later learn that hitchhiking is very common and safe on the island, with local shepherds happy to let pedestrians hop in their truck beds for a lift to the next village, but on that first day we were wary of the idea. We ended up getting a taxi instead (my first time being in a car since leaving the US, which was a weird realization). On the ride up, Joe and I grumbled about our new host’s ineffective communications about what to bring and where to go, and speculated about what awaited us.
“They did specifically mention showers in the workaway listing,” I said. “So I’m sure they have some kind of bathroom situation, and somewhere that we can do laundry. And there must be a kitchen of some kind. I think it’s just the sleeping arrangements that are bare-bones.”
So we hoped.
When we got to the village and met our new host, everything that had happened so far made more sense. Instead of the young, energetic hippie type I had pictured, we met Daud: a long-haired, crinkly-faced, 50 year old English shepherd, caked in several months of farm grime (literally- he unabashedly admitted to showering twice per winter). He was sitting in a coffee shop smoking a cigarette and texting people on an old laptop, accompanied by a volunteer who was much younger, but shared a similar shepherd vibe with Daud. The younger guy was a New Zealander named Ewan, and we all introduced ourselves and chatted in the coffee shop for a while while we charged our devices (there was just a little solar power on the farm, so everyone trekked up to this coffee shop when they needed a charge).
Daud spoke freely about the island, answering our questions and then some. He told us about the shepherds who make up a large percentage of the island’s residents, and about how safe the island is, since it has no large predators and is home to a small, tight-knit community of people spread across a few villages. He asked one or two questions about us, but mostly he was content to tell us about the place we had come to. Ewen chimed in often, and seemed to be right at home after being on the island for only a month. Everything they talked about sounded great, and now that we were in the right place and had found the right people, we were excited to head down to the farm and see just what we had gotten ourselves into.
The farm was a 20 minute walk from the cafe, halfway on a paved road and halfway down a rocky footpath that led into a green valley. The walk down was beautiful- Samothraki is a dormant volcanic island, and the farm is surrounded by mountains and hills formed from old lava flows. This makes the rock very crumbly, and we slipped and tripped more than once in the dusky evening light. Sheep and goats grazed everywhere and scampered away when we approached, but none seemed especially afraid of us. Finally, we reached the farm.
“Ewan, can you take the guys down to the blue house? The basement is available, and there’s a fireplace in there if you want to use it,” said Daud, as we entered the property through a gate made from a metal twin-bed headboard. Piles of ancient scrap wood and bits of fencing and other odds and ends were piled up next to the entrance, but it was unclear if this was intended to be used or thrown out. We passed several dilapidated buildings as we walked down a rocky footpath to the blue house, which was at the far end of the fenced-in part of the property. It was in slightly better shape than some of the other buildings, and appeared to have been partly renovated- the roof was new, and the stone walls had been recently patched.
“Here you go, guys,” said Ewan. “The door is just down there. Come on back up to the kitchen when you’re ready for dinner.” And he left us to explore the new space.
There was no electricity on the farm, save for one light up in the kitchen that ran off of a solar panel, so we used our phone lights to inspect our sleeping quarters for the night. There was a large mattress on the dirt floor, covered with a few blankets and pillows. Everything was slightly damp and grimy and had clearly never been cleaned. We laid out our sleeping bags on the mattress and picked out the driest, cleanest pillows to use. The door and window were covered only by old blankets and bits of wood, and we could already feel that a cold draft would be blowing through all night. We got settled as best we could, then sat on the bed in a state of slight shock.
“There is a fireplace,” I pointed out. “Maybe we can get a fire going tonight.”
“Yeah, perhaps,” said Joe. Then, after a pause, “Should we head up and see what dinner is like?” I nodded, and we made our way back up to the top of the property by the light of our phones.
At the kitchen, we met the two other volunteers who were at the farm- they were a couple of cheerful and friendly German girls who were studying to be doctors and were at the farm for their spring break. They led us into the kitchen, which was the only room on the farm that had a door and proper-ish windows (only a few panes were missing). It was a tiny space, lit by a fire where a delicious-smelling pot of food was cooking. Daud and Ewan were already inside, along with a herd of cats, a dog, and a baby goat; it was quite crowded once all the people were inside as well. Some effort was made throughout the night to shoo out the cats, but there were always at least a few hanging around on various laps and trying to get into food. In one corner, there was a small counter for food prep, but there were no table or chairs- instead, everyone sat on low planks of wood along two walls by the fire and ate on their laps. Daud alone had a large camping chair. We had arrived when dinner was just getting going, and everyone was drinking merrily because it was the German' girls’ last night at the farm.
“Have you tried tsipouro yet?” asked Daud. “It’s very smooth.” He handed us a mug of the Greek liquor cut with water. It was indeed very smooth, but I still grimaced and handed the mug off to Joe, who sipped on it for the rest of the night. Everyone else seemed to be several mugs deep already, and we were happy to sit aside and watch the banter of the group while the food cooked. There was lots of laughter and many inappropriate jokes made, for which one the German girls apologized. “You’ll get used to it here,” she said with a grin, and we just smiled back and nodded.
Here, we also learned that all of the water on the farm (and indeed, the whole island) was fresh spring water, straight from the mountain. The farm was hooked directly into a stream somewhere, and all of the water on the property flowed from that source. There was no plumbing besides the maze of hoses delivering water around the property. As for a bathroom, there was a composting toilet around the back of the goat shed, which I was honestly relieved to learn at that point (I was fully prepared to hear that we would be pooping in holes). Neither of us asked about showers or laundry that night, but the answers to these questions seemed obvious- use the spring water, or go without. And by the looks of everyone present, it seemed most people opted to go without.
When the food was finally ready, it was the best part of day so far- Daud was an incredible cook, and never failed to make sure we had a delicious meal each night (although breakfast and lunch options were more spotty). He later told me that his philosophy about food is that “as long as there is a good hot meal at the end of the day, everything is alright”, which I think proved to be true here. We all sat enjoying that night’s lentil stew from a mismatched and vaguely clean assortment of dishes, while the animals swarmed around and begged for scraps. When each person was finished, they placed their bowl on the floor and allowed the cats and dog to lick it clean. Once all bellies were full and cats had begun to curl up on laps to sleep, the conversation lulled contentedly. Joe and I were invited to join everyone with feeding the animals at 7am the next morning, which we were happy to do, and we excused ourselves for the night.
Back in our sleeping bags, we looked at each other, processing our new circumstances.
“Are you doing okay?” asked Joe. “Still up for this?”
I nodded. “Of course!” I said firmly. Then, more cautiously, “Are you still up for this?”
Joe nodded back and we grinned at each other, happy to be in this together. We snuggled up for our first cold night in the blue house, feeling ready for whatever the rest of the month would bring.