On Boats, Swimming the Mediterranean, and Finding Peace

I love being on boats. Big boats, little boats, kayaks. Taking the 20-minute ferry ride from Chora Sfakia to the tiny Crete village of Loutro wasn’t nearly long enough on a boat for me. Luckily, I was about to spend a week swimming in the crystal-clear waters on the south side of Crete and getting lots of speed boat rides, too.

This was the second week of my 16-day journey to Crete, and the start of SwimTrek, a company that takes people on swim tours all over the world, making nearly all my decisions for me. I gotta say, having a whole week when my most pressing question was what to eat for dinner was fantastic. Here is their website: https://www.swimtrek.com

And here is where you can see our group featured for their brochure: https://fb.watch/gxgNCAKxGp/

Yes, I plan to do more trips with them. I’m looking at the Red Sea one, and the Komodo Dragon one with my younger son, or maybe Scotland, swimming in the lochs off of Skye. Not doing one for a couple of years, but hey, this trip was three years in the planning.

Our SwimTrek hotel was called “Loutro on the Hill” for a reason. There were fifty steps to climb to get to my charming single room with a comfortable double bed, private bath and private balcony overlooking the ocean. If you’ve ever watched “Mama Mia,” it’s steps like those. Totally worth every bend of the knee, with only light cursing after a long day of swimming and exploring. I’d stay there again in a heartbeat. Here’s the view from my balcony:

This is the hotel from the E4 track that I explored. It’s the one furthest to the left… on the hill. There are shrines like this dotted all over the place. The goats range freely on the mountainsides. They wear little bells, so you get the auditory illusion you might be in Switzerland… but you’re looking at that blue, blue water, and sere landscape. The mash-up worked much better than you’d think, a surprising but ultimately delightful combo like pineapple on pizza, or the movie “Sharknado.”

The first night we had orientation and started to get to know each other. Eight of us were from Dallas, another woman from Poland, five from Britain, and a man from Germany. We had a lovely feast put on by the hotel after we did a quick swim.

Each morning the hotel would give us breakfast, then we’d meet down at the main boat. Our SwimTrek guides, John, and Mike, had our swim plan set out for us based on tides and wind. Then off we went in a speed boat, Captain Kostas at the helm, slowly at first in the harbor, and then full throttle, cutting a white swath through the ocean to our destination along the coastline.

Swimmers were divided into three swim speeds, and we had different color swim caps that matched the group. I was in the “fast” group, and we got pink swim caps. They’d drop the slower swimmers in first, the motor a bit further, drop the medium group in, and then motor a bit further and drop us in.

The swims would be about an hour and a half, going maybe 2 miles or so for us fast people, and then to lunch. A second, shorter swim followed a leisurely lunch at a taverna. Then motoring back to get a shower and dinner. Every single meal was delicious. After strolling back to the hotel, up the stairs and into the room. I was in bed every night by nine, the door cracked to look out at the stars, and to hear the sound of the ocean just below. I’d journal, read a bit, and drop off by ten, and SLEEP FOR A FULL EIGHT HOURS. Hands up those of you that would pay ANY AMOUNT to have that happen for a week.

Yeah, you could say it was perfect.

I’ll regale you with tales of our swims next week, including exploring sea caves both large and small, seeing fish, and exploring incredible ravines.  I also scrambled around an awesome ruin of a Venetian castle right behind our hotel. Here’s a preview of that.

I want to get to what I promised you last week. The two historical things that happened at the little port of Chora Sfakia. If the only thing that happened on the entire trip was that I discovered these two things, it would have been worth the trip to me. Ready?

I was up early in Chora Sfakia the day we were to take the ferry to Loutro, just as dawn broke. Lucky for me, one of the coffee shops was open, so I got my coffee and a bit of breakfast. The grey air of early morning bloomed into pink, and then gold, the sea turned from deep blue to turquoise with little curls of white sea foam. The sky rose from nearly white at the ocean’s horizon to become vivid blue in the upper dome, each layer a dissolving band of color.

Here is an excerpt from my journal as I watched the sun come up: “I marvel at the deep peace that sinks in from my extremities as I listen to the ocean after sleeping deeply. The peace filters in and reaches a core that doesn’t often experience it. It is a sense of completeness, of being enough. Perhaps this is what people seek when they go looking for themselves. The ability to sit alone at breakfast and know that in that moment, they are enough.”

After the wonderful early breakfast with only a few enterprising bees and my sleepy waiter for company, I went for a walk. There is the ruin of a castle overlooking the bay, so I headed that way. I found this plaque on the way. You can read it if you want.

It’s a testimony to the astonishing heroism of the people of Crete during WWII, when Hitler figured out that if he took over the airports at Chania, Reythmno, and Heraklion, he’d have a fantastic spot to attack both Africa and Europe from with his heavy bombers. This was called the Battle of Crete in May of 1941, and I am horrified I’d never heard of it. Massive battles with terrible casualties were fought to keep the Germans from getting those airfields. Greek, British, New Zealand, and Australian troops successfully drove the Germans back at two of them. Only Chania fell to the Germans, so the 16,000 troops there had to make an escape through the steep mountain pass (the very one our bus took), fighting the whole way. Villagers helped by ambushing the pursuing Germans, even though retribution was brutal. The troops made their way to this little shoreline. Over 4 successive nights at 3am, warships arrived and managed to evacuate 11,000 of the hungry, exhausted men, ferrying them to Alexandria. The rest were captured or killed, as were many of the villagers, and the Monks who’d hidden them by day.

Aside from the tenacity, heroism, and gutsiness of this action, I was hit by something else. If Hitler had succeeded, the possibility is real that I might never have been born. My mother lived through the Blitz, you see, and may not have if it had been more intense. And Hitler was right, Crete would have been a fantastic staging place from which to rain hell down on London…  those brave people in 1941 may have turned the tide of the war.

The second discovery about this little strip of land* came later, on my last day before leaving Crete. I went to a wonderful museum (will share it with you in a future post) about Crete history. And there on the wall was a photo of the oldest known footprints of man. 6.05 million years old. The man had been walking next to a pygmy elephant, whose footprints were also captured by the mud turned to stone. Obviously, there’s no way of knowing if this was at the same time, but of course my imagination goes there, that the mini elephant was his pet. And along what shore, you might ask, was this person and his mini elephant walking when their footsteps became immortalized?

At Chora Sfakia.

Mind. Blown.

*truly, both Chora Sfakia and Loutro are TINY. In the winters, only 5 people live in Loutro.

On Sleep

Ah, sleep. You elusive creature, you.

It wasn’t always this way, not that I remember. I was not a flashlight-under-the-covers reader when I was younger. My parents didn’t care if I read into the late hours of the night as long as I got up in time to walk to school (uphill! Both ways!) in the morning. I’d just wake up with a book propped up in front of me. But I had indeed, slept.

Then I became a competitive swimmer. Those were the days when I could fall asleep in the middle of a field in the middle of the day in the middle of a swim meet with people cheering, whistles blowing, and not only would I nap soundly, I wouldn’t sunburn either.

I may be making that last part up.

Even in college, I don’t remember any issues with sleeping. Drinking lots of booze (hey it was a work hard play hard kind of school, don’t look at me like that)* may have helped. They worked us to death as freshmen theatre majors too, so when you could sleep, you were down for the count.

Then came the working in Hollywood for multiple years, and waiting tables too. No problem sleeping. Wish we had counted steps then. I’d win.

Mom-dom. Well, here we go. You can get oh… five hours a night if you’re lucky when you have a baby or two. Usually four hours. Three for sure. Naps become the core reason for still drawing breath and being able to walk in a straight line. It’s all a blur, honestly. Bless those sweet babies. I loved being a mom of tots, but I think that’s when the why-can’t-I-go-to-sleep blues began.

When the hospital or the midwife hands you that baby, it’s clear they have the expectation that you’ll know what to do next. You’ll pretend that you know what to do as you take your precious bundle, but inside your head, the oh-my-gods will have started. I was an older mom who’d read every book published about babies before giving birth I could find, but that inner voice was very loud and very certain that despite doing all that research, I didn’t have a clue.

When you have a child, the very instant they hand you that precious gift, the worry begins. Or it did for me.

Worry = no sleeping. Or trouble falling asleep. Or staying that way.

And so it has remained, for the past quarter of a century, and shows no signs of abating. *sigh*

I’ve been trying different foods, food combinations, and intermittent fasting lately, hoping to discover my own Eureka!** cure for not sleeping. I’ll let you know how that goes. I will say that before I started my latest round of discovery that home-made cheese pizza is by far the best soporific for me. It’s as if when I eat pizza, my body just gives up and goes comatose. Not a long-term option, though.

I know there are pills and potions, but I don’t really like those. There are also utterly ridiculous “research” blogs about how ALL humans back in the day before industrialization got up in the middle of the night to do work, or go for visits to their neighbors.

Yeah, right. Back before industrialization, most folks were utterly exhausted from simply trying to stay warm, put food on the table daily, and not get eaten alive by bedbugs. Thank goodness we live in today’s world where (for a lot of places) central air and heat and electricity and clean running water are the available.

I’ve read up on what experts say will give us the best chance of a good sleep. How many do you practice? Make it Dark, Turn off electronics two hours before bed, Go to bed at the same time every night, Yoga/Meditation/Stretching/Warm Bath/ Essential Oils, Wear socks, weighted blanket, turn down thermostat. Change your mattress or sleep position. Read a book.

Here are my answers:

Exercise daily, check. Go to bed at the same time every night, mostly. Weighted blankets, hard no. I hate being confined. Blackout curtains, yes hallelujah we just got these, and it has helped, so check. Turn off the phone/tv/computer at least two hours before bed, eh, I could work on this one. Turn down thermostat, hell to the yes, I hate being hot. Yoga, et al.… eh. Essential oils, sometimes, but the lavender scent has associated memories I don’t care for, so at the end of the day (see what I did there) it’s a no. We have a great pillow top mattress, so that is a check. I’m a side-sleeper. The only time I wasn’t was during the third trimesters of growing babies and could only sleep on my back. It was awful. I don’t see changing this ever again. Read a book, yes, always and forever.

My suspicion is, that just like reading all those “What to Expect” books when I was preggers, the solution on the page is not going to work out *quite* like that in real life. Getting 7plus hours a night will continue to be an occasion for a soft whoohoo and a high five to the sleep gods. Let’s be glad when we get one and drink more coffee when we don’t.

How about you? Do you have any sleep secrets you can share?

*Northwestern University, I’m looking at you.

** what a great tv series.