The azure seas are as warm as bath water and lap up onto desolate shores. Twisted and knotted trees cover the wind-beaten landscape, and the scent of juniper clings to the air like a perfumed collar. With no rules and no law-makers, Gavdos is a place to survive by your own hand and hone your skills of self-reliance. In the height of the Greek summer, this tiny speck of land becomes an outpost of junkies, convicts, misfits, and gypsies. With only a handful of permanent year-round residents; the rest of the transient folk are either suburban exiles or paradise-seeking squatters. I was certainly curious and led by Spiros, a man who had once lived for years in a tree house he built on one of the island’s many stretches of idyllic beach.
Over the years, visitors have contributed to the building of driftwood ‘kavajas’ (home), adorned with seashells, beach glass, stone, and discarded objects. Amongst the remains of ancient Roman tombs and Orthodox churches, these ephemeral homes exhibit the resilience one requires to thrive in this otherworldly realm. This is a land where self-rule is preferred to subjugation, nudity to clothing. It is a place for the wild-hearted.
It is an island of survivors.
On his infamous journey to Ithaca, Odysseus stumbled upon an island called Ogygia and was welcomed by the nymph Calypso with plentiful food, drink and the share of her warm bed. With the promise of immortality, she pleaded with Odysseus to stay with her, though he tired of her embraces after seven long years and was finally released by Zeus and allowed to carry on his voyage. Atop an improvised raft of lashed tree trunks, the gentle breeze carried him away from the desperate clutches of Calypso and her twisted cavern; preferring life to heroic immortality. Not much has changed on mythical Ogygia since Homer wrote the Odyssey in the 8th century B.C, except the name of the island, which some claim to be Gavdos.
Spiros and I perched our tent on a ridge with a sea-view, we hung our fruits and vegetables in a tree, we hauled stones to erect a small temple where we placed fresh sprigs of wild rosemary each day, we built a stone fireplace and sat at its hearth each night. Under the fluorescent Milky Way and between gnarled trunks of Juniper, I felt like an apprentice of this wild kingdom in the midst of my own archetypal fable unfolding.
At the end of a naked month on Gavdos, sun-baked and bright-eyed, I simultaneously felt the pull for the delights of civilization while also regretting to leave behind the closest thing to paradise I had ever known. If Gavdos truly was Ithaca, would I ever make it back again?
As the tiny ferry sailed across the Libyan Sea on a warm wind, I recalled C.P. Cavafy’s poem ‘Ithaka’ which I had read some years earlier,
“Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich…”